THE NATIONALISM OF THE CONGRESS and the vision of Indian civilisation that sustained it—the fantasy of a Sanskritic, Aryan heritage that united the subcontinent’s countless peoples—have long been supplanted in Tamil Nadu by a politics of Tamil difference and autonomy. Similarly, the imagined institution of Indian literature has long ceased to animate Tamil writing. The first Tamil modernists of the twentieth century, though, drew heavily on the imaginary of Indian nationalism and its associated reform movements—the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj. Foremost among these writers was the poet Subramanya Bharathiyar. He wrote both Tamil and Indian nationalist songs, was deeply read in Sanskrit, and believed the Tamils were Aryan.
Bharathiyar wrote the earliest poems in Tamil without metre. His poems demonstrate how, for him, the human, the divine and the nation are connected. In the poem “Shakti” he writes:
This is all one.
The stupid, the intelligent.
They’re all one substance.
Vedas, seafish, cold wind, jasmine—
are one substance’s many appearances
but inside is only one substance, one.
This one’s name is “Self.”
“Self” is god.
Self’s ambrosia is everlasting.
The Tamil word Bharathiyar uses for self is thaan; the Sanskrit word is aatma—absolute spirit, universal self, god. His theology and nationalism have the same basis. The many are, in reality, one, and the one has many names: the self, Parasakthi, Bharat Matha. In Bharathiyar’s nationalist songs he uses the same language. Indians have many different appearances in the form of languages and geographies.
In the 1930s, Tamil politics began to turn away from the Congress-led movement for national independence. EV Ramasamy (called Periyar by most), disillusioned with a Congress party he thought irredeemably Brahminical, left to start the Self-Respect Movement, which later became the Dravidian Movement, dedicated to Tamil autonomy, socialism, atheism and the annihilation of caste. This new politics saw the Vedic Brahmins—the Aryans—as invaders who imposed caste, patriarchy, Sanskrit and superstition on the indigenous people of India. They were opposed to Indian independence, which, to Periyar, meant Brahmin rule. Bharathiyar’s nationalism had been left behind.
Since Independence, Tamil Nadu has been ruled (except for a few terms of the Congress) by one of two splinter parties from Periyar’s Dravidian Movement: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Federation for Dravidian Advancement), or DMK, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK. Several of its ministers were artists. MG Ramachandran and Jayalalitha were actors, Karunanidhi wrote scripts and poems, Annadurai wrote plays. Art, especially cinema, has been the vehicle of popular politics in Tamil Nadu: in fact, cinema may be the most important space for the production of Dravidian nationalism. In the 1966 film Naan Annaiyattal—“If I Swear”—starring MGR, a song goes: