History, the Marxist cliché goes, repeats itself twice — usually as a tragedy and then as a farce. But sometimes it repeats itself as a bigger tragedy. As the implications of the Karnataka High Court’s blanket acquittal of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa are thrashed threadbare, some crucial cultural questions remain to be explored.
The months following the Special Court’s verdict in Parappana Agrahara in September 2014 and leading up to the denouement in the Karnataka High Court on May 11 were marked by unprecedented public displays of prayer and devotion. Ardent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party cadres sought divine intervention in favour of Amma. Sceptics termed these as sycophancy orchestrated by motivated party leaders. But the wide popular support and sympathy among the plebeian classes, especially among the women, was hard to miss. ‘My leader, right or wrong’ seemed to be the guiding principle. Corruption, disproportionate assets, the mother of all weddings — all seemed to count for little in the popular mind.
Three decades ago, in late 1984, history had unfolded with the same melodramatic overtones. Citizens will not forget the devout zeitgeist when Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), Ms. Jayalalithaa’s mentor, lay ailing in Brooklyn Hospital, New York. Across temples and churches and other places of worship, prayers were conducted. A tearful Sowcar Janaki lip-syncing to ‘ Andavane un pathangalai naan kanneeril neerattuvaen …’ (O lord, let me bathe your feet in tears) from the MGR-starrer Oli Vilakku prefaced film screenings across cinema halls in the State. Despite the mocking by an avowedly rationalistic opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the spontaneity and fervour marking these prayers cannot be discounted.
Great and little traditions Cultural historians will wonder if this time around it has been played out as a bigger tragedy. As expected in Tamil political culture — one could dispute the numbers — there have been suicides committed in grief. But the most striking aspect of the prayers and rituals conducted over the last several months is not only the humongous scale but also its variety.
In a somewhat dated formulation, cultural anthropologists have discussed religion and culture in terms of a ‘great’ tradition and ‘little’ tradition. If, in the Indian context, the Sanskrit-centred Vedic temple culture could be termed the ‘great’ tradition, popular religiosity with its plethora of vernacular rituals and local practices is the ‘little’ tradition.
“ The marriage of high religion and popular religiosity in the cause of politics has serious implications for democratic politics. ”
Major re-consecration rituals were performed during her first term in office, a practice continued in subsequent terms. If Amma’s pictures can be espied through translucent shirt pockets, vibuthi (ash) and kumkumam (vermilion) are conspicuous on the foreheads of many AIADMK ministers and party men. Prayers for Ms. Jayalalithaa’s acquittal have, not surprisingly, dominated many State-administered temples over the last six months. Various ‘great’ tradition rituals including annadaanam (free feeding of the poor), vilakku pujai (lamp ritual) and yagnas have been organised with great gusto by local party leaders. There was also a ritual involving temple elephants. Scale apart, there might be little to comment on these demonstrations of piety and prayer.
What is striking is the parallel performance of popular religious rituals. Mulaippari (the fertility rite of offering of germinated seeds), paal kudam (offering milk in pots), the full range of kavadi , man choru (the votive ritual of eating food off the earthen floor), the self-mortification rites of alagu kuthuthal (piercing the body with hooks) and chedal (hook-swinging), walking on fire, and carrying the fire pot have been performed extensively — as the Jaya group of TV channels have not tired of showing. Many years ago, a former AIADMK lady minister donned a neem-leaf skirt. But it was exceptional. A DMK minister once walked on fire — he lost office!
Nature of political culture Is there now a shift in the role of religion in public and political life in Tamil Nadu that social scientists have not noted? The sheer scale of demonstrative religiosity harnessed to political demands is noteworthy. Read in conjunction with the religious fervour conspicuous in politically charged guru pujas such as those of U. Muthuramalingam Thevar, are these pointers to the changing nature of contemporary political culture in Tamil Nadu?
The marriage of high religion and popular religiosity in the cause of politics has serious implications for democratic politics. That this convergence is rooted in the intermediate castes dominant in various regions of Tamil Nadu is not without sociological significance. These intermediate castes, having tasted political power, harbour ever-rising political aspirations. But unfortunately, these aspirations are devoid of any commitment to democratic politics and culture as evidenced, for example, by the intermediate castes’ attitude to Dalit aspirations and the question of ‘honour’ killings.
Tamil Nadu has for long prided itself on its history of emancipatory politics, radical social reform and a secularisation of its culture. The bedrock of this political culture, the non-Brahmin political movement, was inaugurated a century ago, in 1916. Dethroning the nationalist Congress party, it attained political power half-a-century ago, in 1967. Will 2015 mark another watershed, albeit a regressive one, in the coming century?
(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. Email: email@example.com)