The recent announcement of the ONV Literary Award to Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu has kicked up a row, with several actors, writers and women’s rights activists criticising the jury’s decision to confer the award on a person facing multiple #MeToo allegations.
The ONV Cultural Academy told The Hindu that the trust would re-examine the decision. In 2018, after the global #MeToo movement began, singer Chinmayi had come out with allegations of sexual harassment against Vairamuthu, following which 16 other women also levelled allegations against him.
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The ONV award, instituted in memory of poet O.N.V. Kurup, who passed away in 2016, is awarded to poets from Malayalam and other Indian languages. A jury comprising Malayalam University Vice Chancellor Anil Vallathol and poets Alankode Leelakrishnan and Prabha Varma chose Vairamuthu for the award this year.
One of the first reactions came from actor Parvathy, who said that decision disrespected ONV’s memory. “ONV sir is our pride. His contribution as a poet and lyricist is incomparable. How it has nourished our culture. Our hearts and minds have benefited through his body of work. This is exactly why it is of immense disrespect to give such an honour in his name to the one accused of sexual assault crimes. Seventeen women have come out with their stories. We don’t know how many more have been wronged,” she wrote on her Instagram page.
The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a forum of women working in the Malayalam film industry, condemned the decision to honour Vairamuthu with the award, which was in the past awarded to eminent individuals like M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Sugathakumari , Mahakavi Akkitham and M. Leelavathy.
“The #MeToo movement has brought sweeping changes across the world with so many powerful perpetrators shown the door. It led to the widespread implementation of strict laws against workplace harassment including the PoSH Act 2013 in India. In this context, we urge the jury members of ONV Literary Awards to make choices that uphold the values and dignity associated with O.N.V. Kurup, rather than honour alleged perpetrators. Is art created through harassment and cruelty to co-workers worth being celebrated? Art should not be an excuse for abuse,” said a statement from the WCC.
Writer N.S. Madhavan also criticised the move and tweeted: “Adoor is so wrong when he said that the ONV award was given to Vairamuthu for his writing and not character. Remember 2018 Nobel for Literature was cancelled because there were #MeToo charges against the husband of a jury member. Be sensitive when you deal with arts, please”.
Writer K.R. Meera wrote that O.N.V. Kurup was a poet for whom quality of character was also of paramount consideration. “He considered the poet’s life also to be part of poetry. He always made sure that his poems would not have even a word that goes against human dignity. Not even his detractors would claim that he has uttered a wrong word against any women. He has also kept away from those facing such allegations.”
Filmmaker Geetu Mohandas stated that an award in the name of one of Malayalam’s greatest literary figure shouldn’t go to a man accused by 17 women of sexual harassment. Filmmaker Anjali Menon tweeted that she was very disturbed to know that an alleged perpetrator has been chosen for the ONV Award.
Speaking to The Hindu , filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, chairman of the ONV Cultural Academy, said the jury might have been unaware of the allegations against Vairamuthu.
“In normal course, the trust does not intervene in any jury decision. It does not seem that the jury was aware of these allegations. They might have considered only his writings while coming to a decision. Vairamuthu has already been informed about the award. The trust management committee will meet and arrive at a decision on this,” said Mr. Gopalakrishnan.