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The Tamil Mind

N Kalyan Raman

Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture by AR Venkatachalapthy, Pan Macmillan India, 2018

We have existed as a Union of states for 70 years, but our knowledge of people and communities other than our own or outside our state of domicile is quite meagre. Even TV news anchors in Delhi get it reliably wrong about “far-flung” regions like the North-East or the southern parts of the country. As the neo-liberal juggernaut rolls on, access is far ahead of understanding and even the uber-hegemonic pan-Indian intellectual discourse on these regions remains shallow and wanting. Nor do we have culture of encouraging scholarship across states. It is easier to find scholars from Gottingen or Berkeley to study, say, the Pallava architecture than it is to encounter an Assamese or Kashmiri scholar in the same field of study. Therefore, in this reflexively provincial milieu, Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics and Culture by historian AR Venkatachalapathy, which aims to fill an important gap in our public discourse, is a welcome first step.

Tamil Characters is a collection of the Prof Chalapathy’s essays over a period, including a few written especially for this volume and a few others that began life as op-ed pieces for newspapers. As the title strap indicates, the book is divided into three sections: Political Personalities; Cultural & Literary Figures and Cultural Questions. The first section includes short essays describing the life and achievements of Periyar, the founder of the Dravidian movement; four chief ministers of the Dravidian movement who ruled Tamil Nadu between 1967-2016; and two other relatively minor figures, ’Cho’ Ramaswamy and C Subramaniam. It is not clear why K Kamaraj, the architect of Tamilnadu’s social and economic development during 1954-64 and the only Tamil politician to have scaled the summit of power in Delhi, failed to qualify as a Tamil character worth writing about.

The writers covered in the middle section range from Subramania Bharati and Pudumaipithan, giants of the pre-Independence era, to the triumvirate of Sundara Ramaswamy, Jeyakanthan and Ashokamitran, along with chroniclers of the subaltern life from a younger generation, Perumal Murugan and Cho. Dharman. Articles on a host of social and cultural issues pertaining to Tamilnadu over the last decade are compiled in the third and final section.

The essays on major writers, rich in biographical information as well as an overview of the oeuvre, deliver splendid value in illuminating the exciting journey of modernist literature that Tamils have been on since the early decades of the last century. The reader gets a vivid idea of the men—yes, it’s an exclusive parade of men—who have ‘educated our hearts and minds’ through their works of imagination, the contexts in which they functioned, their themes and concerns. It is not a coherent story, however, given the gaps and omissions in the narrative. It is best to read these essays as discrete profiles emerging from a collective history. Strangely, the essay on Iotheedas Pantithar, a Dalit icon who pioneered the political mobilisation of Dalits in Tamilnadu in the last decades of the 19th century, does not cover the nuances of his politics as extensively as his tryst with Buddhism.

Generally, the essays make an effort to collate a lot of available information and present it through a skein of narrative frisson, but the results are often mixed. It’s a skill that comes far more felicitously to Ram Guha, to whom the book is dedicated, than to the author. The breezy narration also leads to conclusions that are not rigorously drawn, or often downright tendentious at times. For instance, the author’s claim that the Congress not getting a majority in the State Assembly elections in 1952 was “in some measure due to the DMK’s undermining of the Congress’ legitimacy” is unrelated to known facts. Similar is the statement that Periyar’s support to the Congress Ministry led by K Kamaraj (which, incidentally, the latter never sought), ensured “that the Tamilnadu unit of the party was debrahminized.” About Ashokamitran writing well into his 80s, the author writes: “Consistency was the hallmark of Ashokamitran. That recognition was late in coming might explain his longevity.” It’s the kind of faux insight that Chalapathy might have spared himself and the reader.

That said, this collection can be read for what it presents in an unprecedented format and style, but there is a definite need for more properly contextualised and rigorously argued accounts of Tamilnadu’s politics, culture and personalities. After all, like translation, discourse too is permanently improvable.

This review was published in OPEN Magazine on March 13, 2019


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