A forgotten author and patriot

A virtually forgotten anniversary was the birth centenary of Vai. Mu. Kothainayaki and I must confess I too was taken aback when someone asked me, "Why haven't you remembered VaiMuKo in your column?'' "VaiMuKo? Who's that?" I almost blurted out before deciding it would be more prudent to find out more about someone who obviously was a figure of importance in her time. That two small local publications were the only English language journals in the city to remember her December birthday I soon discovered, but it was a staunch old school Congressman who pointed out there was more to VaiMuKo than what the two journals had focussed on.

Sruti had looked at VaiMuKo as a signer and composer of Carnatic music, someone who had sung patriotic songs with Bharathiyar, a Triplicane neighbour, and had a persuaded D. K. Pattammal's father to let his daughter sing on a wider stage. Madras Musings spoke of her as an author, and of her roles on stage, screen and on the air. She might have worn a nine-yard sari and observed all the religious rituals, but she also wrote 115 books, including the first detective story by a woman in Tamil. She also edited Jaganmohini for five years at a time when women did not run magazines or printing presses, leave alone encourage other women to write, act or sing in public.

No wonder, many orthodox men and women made bonfires of her magazine! But that did not deter her from once introducing 100 new women writers in her magazine over a four-year period. At the other end of the scale, the British tried to ban her novel Tyagakodi, based on the Freedom Movement.

It was the old Congressman who introduced me to this facet of VaiMuKo — the author and singer as a frontline patriot. Whenever Gandhiji, Rajaji, Satyamurti and other Congress leaders addressed meetings in Madras, she would sing the invocation and often, the songs of Bharati as well as Vande Mataram. It was on the first occasion that she met Gandhiji that his words changed her life.

It was during a visit to Madras in 1925 that she was introduced to Gandhi on the stage where she had come to sing.

Looking at her, bejewelled and dressed in silks, Gandhi gently but tellingly murmured, "Our Mother India is shackled in chains. But so are you, in gold." From that moment on, Kothainayaki took the steps that were to make her better known as VaiMuKo till the late 1960s when the memory of old Congress freedom fighters was slowly erased from the minds of people in the wake of a new populism. She took to wearing khadi, used the minimum of jewellery and began to play a greater role in the Freedom movement both as an eloquent speaker and impassioned singer. For being part of a Congress protest procession, she was arrested and jailed for some months in 1932. But her most significant contribution was made shortly after Gandhiji's death as a memorial to all he had stood for. She organised the Mahatmaji Seva Sangam in March 1948.

The Sangam, its activities a bit more constricted today, still functions from the place where in 1953 it established its permanent home, 26, Vadakku Kolatukarai Street, Triplicane, to help women and the needy improve the quality of their lives.

To raise funds for the Sangam, VaiMuKo would frequently stage plays she had written. One of them, Dayanidhi, with an all-women cast, was staged for an all-woman audience. It was later made into an award-winning film, Chitthi, long predating the recent success of the same name.VaiMuKo's way with words had Rajaji inviting her to name his grandson, the son of Devadas Gandhi. Prompt came the response, `Rajmohan', both grandfathers remembered. Such stories about VaiMuKo are legion, the old Congressman says, but sadly wonders who today recalls their central figure or the stories she wrote.


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