Arresting portrait


The autobiography, remarks Ramachandra Guha, is a pre-emptive attack by the subject on the future biographer. But the biographer’s toughest challenge is an earlier biography, whether good or bad.

In the case of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy (1879-1973), the challenge is posed by Tamilar Thalaivar (the leader of the Tamils), Sami Chidambaranar’s biography. Published in 1939, it covers his life until his 60th year. The subsequent 34 years of Periyar’s life were even more eventful, but this biography continues to provide the dominant image in the public mind.

Born in 1900, Chidambaranar was a Tamil scholar and schoolteacher. Inspired by Periyar, he joined the Self-Respect Movement as a young man, and wrote copiously in various Dravidian movement journals. He was, for many years, assistant editor of Periyar’s weekly Kudi Arasu and the daily Viduthalai, and edited Kudi Arasu during Periyar’s year-long tour of Europe in 1931-32.

The biography is an arresting portrait that consciously paints Periyar as a rebel and iconoclast, and provides an introduction to his radical and controversial views on caste, religion, god, and marriage. Chidambaranar’s style exhibits a journalist’s flair untainted by scholarly pedantry and offers a lively account of Periyar’s early life, his juvenile pranks and philandering ways. Apart from drawing extensively on Kudi Arasu , and Navasakthi, run by Periyar’s lifelong friend and associate Thiru.Vi. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar (Thiru.Vi.Ka.), Chidambaranar also drew on conversations with E.V. Krishnaswamy, Periyar’s devoted older brother; Thiru.Vi.Ka.; Kaivalya Samiyar, who provided Periyar’s intellectual arsenal; ‘Kuthoosi’ S. Gurusami, his protégé and long-term editor of Viduthalai , and others.

Chidambaranar gathered the family details from Periyar’s wife Nagammai’s conversations with S.C. Sivakamu, the young widow whom Chidambaranar had married in 1930. The book also quotes extensively from contemporary assessments by celebrated Tamil Brahmin writers V. Ramaswamy Iyengar (Va.Ra.) and ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy.

For such a classic work, the book itself was written in a matter of weeks. S. Gurusami and his wife Kunchitham had recently launched a publishing house, Tamil Nool Nilayam, and were savouring the runaway success of Bharathidasan Kavithaigal , the great poet Bharathidasan’s first collection of poems, a paradigmatic collection that spawned many imitators.

When Periyar launched the anti-Hindi agitation against the first Congress ministry’s move to introduce compulsory Hindi in schools, the fortunes of the Congress were at a low and Periyar was riding the crest of a popularity wave consequent to his arrest in November 1938. Gurusami sensed the opportunity and evidently sought to capitalise on it.

Gurusami’s first choice to write Periyar’s biography was Bharathidasan, and it was originally to be written in verse! However, for all his poetic genius, reverence for Periyar, and friendship with Gurusami, Bharatidasan was no easy author to handle. Gurusami badgered him with letters reminding him of the Tamil saying, arina kanji palam kanji (cold gruel is old gruel). “Send it in a week; don’t sleep at night,” the publisher urged the poet. But the manuscript did not materialise.

In desperation, Gurusami turned to Chidambaranar. Simultaneously, Gurusami was also compiling Periyar’s speeches for publication. “Whichever gets done first can be sent for printing,” he declared in a letter. As late as February 1939, Chidambaranar was still saying, “Haven’t yet started. I may end up sending some hodgepodge.”

Meanwhile, Gurusami was getting desperate as rumours were rife that the well-established publishing house Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam was planning a quickie. “It doesn’t matter even if the EVR biography is brief. But it rather be pungent with the fire of green chillies, and a sprinkling of a few kurals and Ramalingam’s sayings. It should appear as soon as possible. …It is best that you send it in two to three weeks. Please write day and night, and finish in 10 days. I’ll turn it into a printed book in a week. Work with a vengeance as though you have made a wager.” He added helpfully, “It’s enough if you sleep for four hours every night!”

In 10 days, Chidambaranar had finished a few chapters and promised to deliver the whole manuscript within a week. By March 3, he reported: “Have finished writing the biography. As there are too many corrections and insertions, the compositor may not be able to compose the copy. I am therefore making a fair copy on small sheets of paper suitable for the compositor.”

The book was published only in September 1939, months after Periyar’s early release from prison in late May due to his failing health. Gurusami — who famously described The Hindu as ‘the Mahavishnu of Mount Road’ — was known by the sobriquet kuthoosi , the needling pin, after his popular column. Gurusami’s kuthoosi is evident in the text. The last chapter, titled ‘Periyar’ — a brilliant pen portrait that sketches Periyar’s personality in a staccato style — is most certainly his handiwork.

The delay helped enhance the book’s value, as it benefited from Periyar’s oversight. As Chidambaranar observed in his preface, “This biography was written when Periyar was in prison. …It was held back so that it could be corrected by Periyar himself. …The publishers read out the manuscript to Periyar and made revisions. New material over and above what I had written was incorporated. Faulty information was rectified.” We can assume that Periyar, rather than whittle it down, added spice and pep to the narrative. In any case, the 240-page book in crown octavo, appeared with the imprimatur, athikaram pettra varalaru (the authorised biography).

A second edition appeared in 1941 — the copyright having been taken over by Periyar’s own Kudi Arasu Pathippagam, and a third in 1958. In 1960, at the initiative of K. Veeramani, the biography was reissued with many appendices and photographs. The book has been continuously in print since. Some years ago, with all the works of Sami Chidambaranar falling into the public domain, other publishers too have reissued the book.

Ironically, the author of this durable and inspiring biography left Periyar and his movement, and joined the communist party as a fellow traveller. Two years before his death, Chidambaranar remarked: “All that I wrote before 1948, I believe, is worthless. If I have no recollection of what I wrote, can I expect others to remember?”

Authors, one must conclude, are not the best judges of their own work!

The author is working on a biography of Periyar to be published by Penguin.

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Printable version | Apr 26, 2022 11:08:28 pm |