I am happy to note that Jane Frankish has had her essay, Chennai, a place in between, published in the Liberal Studies Journal,Simon Fraser University hosted within the Ormsby Review. This short piece tells the story of our family’s migration from Malaysia to Canada through the lens of a visit to Tamil Nadu we made on route.
In the sixteenth State legislative assembly elections of Tamil Nadu held on the 6th April 2021, the DMK won the majority of seats and its president M K Stalin, son of previous Chief Minister and DMK patriarch M. Karunanithi, will reportedly be sworn-in as the Chief Minister on May 7.
When Superstar Rajinikanth dropped out of of Tamil Nadu politics in December 2020 on the basis of ill health, he was in effect, acknowledging the impossibility of religious politics in Tamil Nadu. It seems that neither his spiritual politics nor the BJP’s Hindutva, for which he was allegedly a proxy, had a chance of victory in the political milieu of the South.
In the meme pictured above, Rajinikanth’s visage in a still form the Mani Ratnam film Thalapathy has been replaced by that of MK Stalin. This meme also presents Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in the place of Mammooty, who plays Rajinikanth’s friend in the 1991 film.
Both the Dravidian MK Stalin and the Communist Pinarayi Vijayan are avowed atheists.
Indians should be proud to be called Pariah! The fact that the term is offensive to Indians, both in India and in the diaspora, is really a symptom of our own horrendous internal racism or catseism. Pariah is the name of one of the oppressed Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and, according to devendrakulam.org, the English language the use of the word ‘pariah’, meaning ‘social outcast’ was first recorded in 1613. Devendrakulam.org also notes that Paraiyan is mentioned in the Classical Tamil Sangam literature in the Puram text – “Without the following four – Thudian, Panan, Parayan, Kadamban the citizens’ Categorization is not complete” . These are all categories of music workers – Thudian is a player of the Thudi drum, Panan is a singer Singer, Parayan is a player of the Parai drum, and Kadamban is a player of the instrument named Kadambu which I think might be a katam (கடம்), the clay water pot vessel that is used as a drum (I stand to be corrected).
Devendrakulam.org offers a speculative narrative of the descent of the community as Bhramanism rose in South India through the centuries. Among the intriguing possibilities offered here are the idea that the Paraiyar were Buddhists who held out against the ascendant Bhramanism and that some of the Shudra casts of the contemporary South like my own Jaffna Vellala caste emerged from the Paraiyar in a process of assimilation. The Paraiyar community has, despite millennia of oppression within the entrenched Brahmanical order, produced significant figures in Indian social, political and cultural life including, M. C. Rajah, R. Srinivasan, Thol. Thirumavalavan, Illayaraja and Pa. Ranjith. I repeat, Indians (I include Jaffna Tamils) should be proud to be called Pariah!
After decades of anticipation in the Tamil Nadu polity, SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics on December 31st 2017. Despite much toing and froing since then, he never did launch his party and then, on December 29th 2020, he announced with finality not to enter politics. For those of us who admire his charisma and spirituality but disdain the Hindutva politics he seemed set to bring into Tamil Nadu by virtue of his patent alignment with the BJP, this is a happy outcome! Thailava Valha! (Salutations to the Leader!)
The above image from the series was shot at the Singapore Art Museum. It was shot during a performance at the site of my photographic installation which was part of the Singapore Biennale 2016. It is one of 12 images that make up the upcoming Kiasu Cowboys Series of the Koboi Project.
The Election Commission of Tamil Nadu has allotted the “Auto-rickshaw” symbol to a newly registered party called ‘Makkal Sevai Katchi,’ (MSK) which is, according to Outlook, believed to be the party floated by Tamil SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth to contest in the 2021 Tamil Nadu State Assembly elections. The article cites the lyrics Autokkaaran, autokkaaran, naalum therijna rootukkaaran (I am an auto-driver who knows all the ways) from the introductory song from his blockbuster film “Baasha” (1995).
Superstar Rajinikanth is one of the highest paid actors in Asia. He is a renowned philanthropist and an influential figure in Tamil Nadu public life who is respectfully referred to as Thalaiva or ‘leader’. The SUPERSTAR, who recently spoke up in the context of the Karuppar Koottam affair, was himself the first dark-skinned (Karuppu) leading man in the context of Tamil cinema.
Upon meeting Rajinikanth in the early 1970s, director K Balachander is supposed to have been struck by “the fellow’s fragile health and powerful eyes and his chiselled face… [a]nd of course, his skin colour, you know. The dark skin I thought was an advantage because again it is different from others. All the people who are very fair and all that, they have an easy entry into films. Why shouldn’t I take this boy, give him a good role, and see what can be drawn out of him?” While he seems today to be veering away from his promised Tamil Nadu political entry, this dark Dravidian cinema icon has thus far been showing signs of a decidedly ‘saffron’ or Hindutva leaning.
In my 2016 exhibit for the Singapore biennale I performed a ritual offering to both lord Murugan and to Rajinikanth, thereby attempting to articulate the relationship of Traditional Hindu iconolatry and contemporary Kollywood idolatry.
According to an article in India Today, when Superstar Rajinikanth, who has shown strong BJP affinities in the runup to his anticipated entry into Tamil Nadu politics, finally went against the BJP for their failure to control communal riots and violence in New Delhi in which 38 have been killed, his friend, colleague and fellow political aspirant, Kamal Haasan tweeted, “Shabash, my friend Rajini. That’s the way. This is a good path. It’s not a path for just one person, but a royal path for an entire community. Welcome, and congratulations.” The article explains how this ‘path’ statement is a reference to one of the SUPERSTAR’s greatest punchlines: “En vazhi thani vazhi,” from the hit movie Padayappa. It means, “My path is a unique path.”
One scene from the Pa Ranjith/ Rajinikanth film Kaala (2018) that resonates deeply is that in which the villainous Hari Dada’s (Nana Patekar) granddaughter asks him “Who is Kaala dada?” and he answers pensively, “Ravan … Ravan.”(second 0.37 in trailer) In this moment the films palpable Dravidian ethos is emblazoned upon the screen narrative, eliminating all possibility of a misreading. For those who are unfamiliar with the political history of Tamil Nadu, the central tenet of the Dravidian self-respect movement that informs the political parties that have governed the state since 1967 is that of the a North/ South (or Aryan/ Dravidian or Brahmin/Non-brahmin) divide. In symbolic terms, this dichotomy has been articulated in a deconstruction of the Hindu religion, particularly in the desecration one of its sacred narratives, that of the Ramayana. Those who subscribe to the Dravidian ethos, identify with Rama’s nemesis Ravana or as Nana Patekar refers to him, ‘Ravan’.
This identification of Ravana with the hero Kaala, and with the SUPERSTAR, clearly advances director Pa Ranjith’s well known brand of Dalit activistivism. This film is a vehicle for his message about the ancient dispossession of Dravidian peoples in an Aryan conquest and the consequent oppression of casteism in contemporary India. If the film can be said to echo its director’s politics what can be said of its resonance with that of his star, his SUPERSTAR, Rajinikanth, who is in the runup to an entry into Tamil Nadu politics? Rajinikanth is himself a signifier of the Dravidian ethos in that he was the first dark skinned (the North/ South dichotomy presents as the light skin/ dark skin complex of the Tamil people) leading man in Tamil cinema. It has long been known that Rajinikanth is not a stalwart of Dravidianism as the movement is atheistic whereas he is invested in Hindu spirituality. Further he has explicitly announced a platform of spiritual politics and has regularly aligned himself with the policies of the federal BJP, while at the same time working hard to eschew over-identification with the Hindutva branding of the BJP.
Indeed, Rajinikanth seems to have tried to keep his potential alignments open for the coming assembly polls in Tamil Nadu in 2021. In a recent statement however he seems to have burned all bridges with the hard-core Dravidian parties by raising the spectre of an anti-superstition rally from 1971 in which the founder and light of the Dravidian social reform movement, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, is said to have desecrated icons of Rama and Sita. In the ensuing decades, the Dravidian movement has regressed to an accomodation with Hindu theism, and paradoxically Periyar has himself come to be venerated as an icon of sorts. In this light, Rajinikanth’s indexing of this controversial event, compounded by his refusal to apologise in the aftermath, has resulted in what, I suggest, is an unbridgeable chasm between his spiritual politics and secular Dravidianism. Most significantly, it might have soured the potential alignment with his friend and staunchly secular political co-aspirant Kamal Haasan who seems to have reached out to him recently.
It has even been suggested that Rajinikanth’s speech was ‘scripted’ by the BJP. Frontline magazine has reported that former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras , V. Arasu, has said: “Why should Rajinikanth broach an incident that was half a century old and long forgotten? The D.K., too, over a period of time has toned down its anti-god rhetoric significantly. Hence, the actor’s casual remark on a revered social reformer needs strong convincing. Periyar stands for rationalism and social justice. The anti-god doctrine was just one among many themes of his social reform campaign. Besides, recalling an event that was mired in legal and political controversies at that time has no relevance now. By raking up this issue, Rajini has willingly fallen into the hands of those who are out to exploit the name and fame he has earned as an actor.” This brings us back to the question of what can be said of Kaala’s resonance with the politics Rajinikanth. It is with regret that I must note that if the question to be answered here is, “Who is Rajinikanth dada?”, given the accumulation of the SUPERSTAR’s statements to date, I find myself having to say, no less pensively than Hari Dada, “Hanuman Ji … Hanuman Ji”
The 12th series in the Koboi Project, ‘Dari Pusat Tasek”, consists of a pair of photographs titled Naan Anaiyttal and Rockin Cowboy taken in Kampung Indian Settlement, Batu Caves and on West Broadway, Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, respectively. Naan Anaiyttal presents the Koboi standing before a hoarding of 12 meter cutout of formerly jailed Deputy Prime Minister and Parti Keadilan leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The Koboi stands gesturing forwards and upwards with a green skinned mango in his right hand. The cutout was initially erected around the 2008 election but taken down in the context of political controversy and fears that the structure would be vulnerable to weather conditions. It was put up again for the 14th general election which took place in May 2018. The Koboi photograph was taken in 2018. Naan Anaiyttal is title of a song from M G Rmachandran’s hit film Enga Veettu Pillai (1965). MGR was of course to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the song has populist and egalitarian theme. Anwar Ibrahim, in turn is, however tenuously, in line to be the next Prime Minister of Malaysia.