The southern route to Ammarica

How maternal myth-making has transfixed Tamil Nadu politics for decades now

April 01, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated 07:56 pm IST

Amma towers in this cutout on Mount Road in 1992.

Amma towers in this cutout on Mount Road in 1992.

Mothers birth the world. But Tamil Nadu births mothers.

Real ones, fake ones, alternate ones. Pacific ones and revolutionary ones. Big ones and little ones. Ancient ones and modern ones. Mothers who nurture and those who devastate. Injured mothers and injurious mothers. Some who create a spectacle and some who are a spectacle in themselves. It’s a fecund nursery for mothers, some organic, some virtual or augmented or surrogate, and some designer/ custom-built for instant reasons of history. And, just once in a way, motherhood here is made to look like an act of shame.

Tamil society, steeped as it is in fearsome, if regenerative, cults of the Ammans and rousing ballads of Adi Parashakthi, with a myriad arcane, visceral rituals to propitiate the mother-goddess, does not easily lend itself to political formulations around mother-power. It is a firmly patriarchal space in which mothers are revered as symbols of fertility and renewal and as the traditional upholders of the sanctity of culture through strict codes of chastity. This is a revered position afforded them in the sacral space as well as within the inner courtyard. However, the public space has been largely kept out of bounds for them.

Excessive mother-love, as has been well documented in psychiatric pathologies, is a sign of woman-hatred. Societies that valorise ‘matrushkas’ are usually misogynist at core. In Tamil Nadu, there are any number of mother-centred fictional narratives, with high emotive content, which are lapped up as unending serials in popular weeklies and which have made celebrities of the authors. Even more colourfully, the space of popular cinema is crowded with grown-up heroes going maudlin and ballistic on their screen mothers. The screen mothers here are subjected to some of the most frightening volleys of alliterative and hyperbolic veneration, with iconic actors like Sivaji Ganesan or Rajinikanth getting frenzied accolades for just the way they utter the word ‘Amma’ with a glutinous mixture of labials and gutturals, delivered through a fricative glissant on the upper palate, making it ricochet in space with a reverb-effect. All the ‘Ammas’ on the Tamil screen are social totem-poles.

There are goddesses that are counter-motherhood too. For example, we have the powerful female deity, ‘Apitakuchambal’, or ‘the goddess with the undrunk breast’. It is a celebration of womanhood without any need to be apologetic about not having succumbed to the reproductive cycle. But this goddess is a bit tucked away and not paraded too often in the streets. The dominant discourse is about fiery mother-goddesses with their hair open, eyes splayed and tongue protruding who need to be propitiated with extreme self-mortification and self-flagellation.

Excessive mother-love, as has been well documented in psychiatric pathologies, is a sign of woman-hatred

Yet, it was hard for a woman to emerge at the head of Tamil politics till, some 28 years ago, when the popular actor J. Jayalalithaa struggled and fought her way to the top of the heap in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after the demise of supremo M.G. Ramachandran (MGR). From the time she became Chief Minister in 1991, a swift exercise in contemporary myth-making was launched. Jayalalithaa, who till then was hailed with the sobriquet ‘puratchi selvi’ (revolutionary maiden), was overnight transformed, first into ‘puratchi thalaivi’ (revolutionary leader) and then into ‘puratchi amma’—a truly revolutionary transformation from maidenhood to motherhood.

From that day, the Amma cult has jumped out of the sacral alcoves to infest the secular arenas. What the State has witnessed in the almost 15 years of Jayalaithaa’s reign as chief minister is the incremental amplification of her ‘mother’ persona overwhelming every other aspect of her governance. Ironically, this mother cult spawned one of the most feudal and regressive paternalisms (not maternalism, mind you) witnessed in post-Independence Indian politics. The cultural inveigled and cannibalised the political. The cadre and leaders of AIADMK displayed some extreme versions of mother fixation that would have made Alfred Hitchcock jealous. For example, on her 44th birthday, 44 party cadre rolled bare-bodied on the road for 4.4 km to reach the party office, while 44,444 devotees broke 4,44,444 coconuts in various temples far and near. All these dedications, determined through rampant numerological practices in the party, began scaling vertiginous proportions as she reached 50, 60, and 65.

By the time she was into her second stint in the CM’s office from 2001 to 2006, she herself had come to believe in her part-divine and part-Madonna profile. This was helped not a little by the emergence of an entire generation of AIADMK leaders defying the vertebrate evolution while asserting gravity, as they were to be forever found supine on the floor in abject obeisance at her feet.

But it was only in her third stint as CM from 2011 to 2014 that this took on the form of cascading maternal largesse on her wards. As Vaasanthi narrates in her biography Amma (2016), thanks to her array of populist welfare schemes, “the man in the street gets everything he needs in the name of Amma”. Amma canteens, Amma mini-bus, Amma water, Amma baby kit, Amma cement, Amma pharmacies, Amma seeds—not to speak of fans, laptops, cycles and grinders. A veritable ‘Ammarica’.

But the latest fascinating offshoot of this Amma cult has been the spawning of the subterranean cult of the classically feudal ‘Chinna Amma’ (Little Mother), with no precedents in democratic polity. After Jayalalithaa’s passing away last December, her confidante and factotum, V.K. Sasikala, has dramatically emerged from the shadows to reveal herself as the real mandarin wielding power in the old regime and who will now be queen bee in the new one. In yet another mammarian coup, the religio-cultural icon of the mother has been requisitioned for political dividends. In fact, the semantic sophistry invested in the term itself was strategic. It was repeatedly explained that she was not ‘Chinnamma’ (mother’s younger sister) but ‘Chinna Amma’, a fully formed and autonomous ‘Amma’, but deferring to the haloed primacy of her predecessor.

Of course, it helps that she comes from the highly patriarchal Thevar community, notorious for its ‘katta’ (khap) panchayats. The Little Mother, then, comes to subvert womanhood. It signals an insurgence, an insurrection from dominant caste groups who have felt suppressed by Constitutional injunctions against meting out private justice, even as they see their own exclusive and notionally sanctioned social superiority curbed and levelled by the rule of law. This has now led, quite hilariously, to the formation of two brand new Amma-AIADMKs for the impending by-election in the late Jayalalithaa’s constituency, which hope to institutionalise mother-power and its implicit idea of nurture as a subterfuge to deny people their political rights.

Is there a problem with all this? Should we worry? Not really. Except that it is a call for the comprehensive infantalising of the entire citizenry.

The author writes at the intersection between culture and politics. He is open about celebrating Mother’s Day.

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