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An icon in her time

Writer, publisher, singer, composer, social activist... Vai Mu. Kothainayaki Ammal was all rolled into one. A profile of a dynamic lady, who has contributed richly to women empowerment.

An orthodox madisar clad Iyengar woman was married at the age of five. She never went to school and yet wrote an incredible 115 books, including a detective novel in Tamil. Single-handedly she edited and published a monthly Tamil magazine, Jaganmohini for 35 years.

An ardent patriot and Gandhian she even went to prison in 1932 during the Indian Freedom Movement. A pioneer feminist, she was also a Carnatic music composer and performer.

Such was the stature of Vai. Mu. Kothainayaki Ammal (1901-1960) familiarly known as Vai. Mu. Ko.

A native of Triplicane, she took part and played a notable role in almost every sphere of social activity of those turbulent times and dynamic decades.

Triplicane with its famous Parthasarathy Swamy temple, was originally a shrotrium village close to the Bay of Bengal (shrotrium is a gift-assignment to the Brahmin by the ruler for his services to the king and society). The earliest recorded reference to Triplicane is in 1654 A. D. when Timmanna gave benefactions to the temple. The bayside village went through various vicissitudes and was occupied at various times by Muslim Nawabs, the French, the Dutch, and the British. .

In such a historic area Vai. Mu. Ko created history. Vaithamanithi Mudumbai Kothainayaki Ammal was born on December 1, 1901, in Triplicane. In 1907, she was married to the nine-year old Vai. Mu. Parthasarathy. The rigidly orthodox Vai. Mu. family had many noted scholars of Tamil and Sanskrit, and intellectuals. Her father-in-law, Vai. Mu. Srinivasa Iyengar, was a well-known exponent of the Harikatha kalakshepham. Married into such ambience not surprisingly the young Vai. Mu. Ko was inspired to learn to read and write Tamil.

With support from her uncle, her husband and in- laws, she learnt fast and began to read voraciously.

Her husband took her to watch plays not only in Tamil but also the Kannada plays of the legendary Gubbi Veeranna then camping in the city. Vai. Mu. Ko often sat with a group of women whose family was in the book-publishing business.

The play-watching activity stirred the inherent creative talent in her and she worked on a play and also a novel.

As she could not yet write the Tamil script she dictated the two works to a neighbour and friend, T. C. Pattammal. Thus, Vai. Mu. Ko began her writing career.

She showed her first novel to one of most famous writers of detective fiction in Tamil, Vaduvoor Duraiswamy Iyengar, who was then living in Triplicane.

He noticed in the manuscript the making of a writer of detective fiction and encouraged her to write in that genre. That was how she came to write detective novels. Her astonishing output of 115 books consisted of novels, plays and collections of short stories. With the help of her husband, she took over a struggling magazine, Jaganmohini and built it up into a successful venture. She wrote her novels as serials in the magazine.

She also ran a school in Triplicane exclusively for women where she taught among other subjects, music, tailoring, handicrafts, embroidery, English and Hindi. In her 115 novels, she dealt with socially relevant issues of the day like the dowry menace, ill-treatment of women, women's education, ills of the Devadasi system, untouchability and many more.

She also wrote articles on many subjects of interest to women, including women's education. In one article she strongly advocated the teaching of classical dance (Bharathanatyam) as part of the school curriculum. That was the period when the dance was treated as `pagan and vulgar'. Not surprisingly it stirred a hornet's nest!

Three of her novels were filmed. `` Raj Mohan", ``Anathai Penn'' and ``Dayanithi". The most famous is ``Anathai Penn". It was produced by Jupiter Pictures, and directed by R. Prakash. M. K. Radha, P. U. Chinnappa (in a supporting role), T. S. Krishnaveni, T. A. Sardambal, and the noted Tamil folk poet, writer, filmmaker and actor, Kothamangalam Subbu were in the cast.

What is most interesting is that Vai. Mu. Ko. insisted that she would sell the story only if they undertook to cast M. K. Radha in the male lead role.

That was not all. She also insisted that the film in progress should be shown to her from time to time and her green signal obtained to go ahead! The producers agreed. Such privilege being extended to a writer is unknown even today!

Indeed the writer is the most expendable entity in the movie world of India! "Dayanithi'' was filmed with much success as ``Chitthi''(1966, after her demise).

Produced and directed by the successful filmmaker, K. S. Gopalakrishnan it had Padmini and M. R. Radha in lead roles. Ironically in the film credits the storywriter's name appears as ``V.M.K"!

Vai. Mu. Ko imbibed the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi whom she met at Madras and was a steadfast disciple of one of the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress party during the Indian Freedom Movement, S. Satyamurthi. She took part in the Movement and addressed meetings with her mentor. She exhorted women to come out of their kitchens and fight for the freedom of the Motherland and also the emancipation of women.

She went to prison for her role in the fight against the British Rule. Even though the expression was not yet in vogue, she was one of the earliest feminists of India.

She was well versed in Tamil, Sanskrit, English and also Hindi which was unheard of for a mere woman in that era. Vai. Mu. Ko sang well and cut gramophone discs.

She composed music too and created new ragas like Hamsapramari and Dharadhari. Not many are aware that she was instrumental in the living legend, D. K. Pattammal, taking her bow as concert musician. Pattammal's conservative father was against his daughter singing in public. Vai. Mu. Ko travelled to Kanchipuram many times only to meet him.

Against heavy odds, she succeeded in persuading him to let his daughter sing in public.

And Pattammal took her bow at Madras thanks to Vai. Mu. Ko. The fast-rising star was only eleven! Vai. Mu. Ko was one of the outstanding Indian women of the 20th Century.

It is a matter of regret that she and her varied contribution have not been properly recognised or honoured by her home state or country.


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