Anna (1909-1969)

The Paradigm-shifter

by Sachi Sri Kantha, September 12, 2013

Anna biography (2010) coverBook in Review

Anna: The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai, by R.Kannan, Penguin Books India Pvt.Ltd., New Delhi, 2010, 423 pp.

September 15th marks the 104th birth anniversary of Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai, who was popularly known to all Tamils by the dimunitive prefix ‘Anna’. When he died in 1969, before his 60th birthday, the unsigned 173-word obituary note which appeared in the New York Times (February 4, 1969) touched only tangentially about Anna’s contributions to Tamil language and culture. Here is the entire text:

“C.N. Annadurai, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, formerly Madras state, died in Madras Saturday of cancer. He was 60 years old. Mr. Annadurai had been a journalist, a script writer for Tamil-language movies and an actor among other things, but he was best known for his skill as an orator. His popularity was held largely responsible for the success of his party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in the 1967 elections. His party dislodged the long-entrenched Congress party there.

Mr. Annadurai graduated from Madras University, where he studied economics and political science. He earned a reputation as debater and emerged as a leader of a movement that concerned itself with lower-caste domination by Brahmins and South Indian fears of northern control through the Hindi language.

In 1949 Mr. Annadurai founded his Dravidian party, which at first was separatist, but later began winning seats in the State Assembly and Parliament and gave up this goal.

The party successfully opposed, however, a move to make Hindi the sole official language of India.

Mr. Annadurai leaves his wife.”

New York  Times obituary of Anna Feb 4 1969It had taken 40 years after Anna’s death for an excellent biography to appear in English. I can adduce more than one reason for this time lapse. First, most of the Anna biographies published in Tamil were hagiographies penned by his admirers who treated Anna as their God; and most of these fans of Anna lacked fluency in English. Secondly, there have been a couple of American academics (like University of Texas at Austin professor Robert L. Hardgrave Jr. who had specifically studied the Nadar caste in Tamil Nadu, and University of Chicago’s anthropologist Milton Singer) who had researched on the pre- and post-independent Tamil Nadu political scene and contributed to academic journals. But, I gather that though these non-Indian academics were able to comprehend spoken Tamil due to their lengthy field trips, they were rather inept in written Tamil literature. As such, they couldn’t fathom Anna’s literary contributions. Thirdly, there have also been a few non-Indian academics who were fluent in Tamil language (like linguist Kamil Zvelebil, linguist Robert E. Asher and anthropologist Margaret Trawick), but their focus of specific interest was not on Anna and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party he established. Fourthly, in a short life span, Anna turned out to be a polymath (prose writer, playwright, stage actor, script writer for Tamil movies, polemicist, orator, journalist, politician cum party-founder and last but not the least, paradigm shifter). Other than music and poetry, Anna touched so many bases and it was almost astounding that such a guy did live amongst us. Even  carping critics of Anna couldn’t match Anna in all the range of disciplines touched by Anna and receive appreciation and success. As such, scholarship on Anna had languished. Thus, we had to wait for a scholar who is fluent in both Tamil and English, to bring out a good biography on Anna, and it was R. Kannan who picked up the challenge.

The biographer R. Kannan (born in 1962) has a doctorate in law from Tufts University and is currently employed with the United Nations. He writes in his preface, “This is not a hagiography. But then, it is difficult not to succumb to C.N.Annadurai’s extraordinary human facets, genius and vision…In writing this book, my sources have principally been Anna’s own writings as well as various memoirs in Tamil.”

To make sure that this biography is not a hagiography, Kannan had spiced it with warranted and unwarranted criticism from well-known Tamilians who made their mark either in politics (K. Kamarajar. E.V.K. Sampath and P. Ramamoorthy) or in literature (poet Kannadasan and writer D. Jayakanthan). Among these critics, Sampath and Kannadasan were Anna’s associates for a decade in the newly formed DMK party. P. Ramamoorthy and D. Jayakanthan were dedicated Communists. In my view, name calling is one tactic which Communists (whether they were in Russia or China or India or Ceylon) had elevated to an art form, and Jayakanthan’s criticism on Anna belonged to this type and do not stand to intensive scrutiny. As the old adage notes, ‘Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.’ Anna proved by his deeds that he was a carpenter, but Jayakanthan could only mimic a jackass.

In politics, Anna’s record of founding a new party and leading it to electoral success to become a chief minister of Tamil Nadu state in 18 years had not been topped by any of Anna’s critics (including Kamarajar, Ramamoorthy, Sampath, Kannadasan and Jayakanthan), who derisively tagged his party name’s in Tamil alphabet letters Thi. Mu. Ka (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) as Thirutha Muddiyatha Kazhuthai (An Unrefined donkey!).  Even in English, the literal translation of DMK in the New York Times varied from ‘Society for Dravidian Uplift’ in 1962 to ‘Dravidian Progressive Federation’ and ‘Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam’ in 1967. Though Jayakanthan dallied in script writing of Tamil movies to match his skill with Anna, his efforts were less successful popularly than that of Anna’s paradigm-shifting works such as Oar Iravu (One night), Velaikkari (Servant Girl) and Sorga Vaasal (The gate to Heaven).

Kannan had divided 24 chapters (358 pages of text) into three major categories. Chapters 1 to10 are anointed as ‘Spring: Mentor and Protégé’, describing Anna’s apprenticeship under E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (adoringly called ‘Periyar’- the Big Man). Chapters 11 to19 are grouped under ‘Summer: The Rise of the DMK’, describing Anna’s leadership skills of guiding his newly formed party from 1949 to 1964.  Chapters 20 to 24 form the final grouping under ‘Fall: The Years in Power’, which covers the years from 1965 to early 1969. Among the 24 chapters, I found that the details offered in the first and the last chapters are somewhat wanting. Anna’s first 25 years of life, up to 1935 were covered in chapter 1, in only 15 pages. This may partially reflect the lack of family documents and persons who lived during the early decades of the last century. Similarly, I found that the last chapter ‘The Glorious End’ does end abruptly without providing an appropriate denouement. Among the 36 photos presented in the book, two present Anna’s mother Bangaru Ammal – the last one showing her seated next to Anna’s corpse, while MGR paid his visit. Was she visually handicapped then, deprived to see her son’s corpse? Assuming a 20 year age gap between son and mother, Bangaru Ammal would have been around 79 at the time of Anna’s death. She outlived Anna and some details about her life might have added a denouement to the glorious life of Anna. I would have preferred a final chapter titled with Anna’s popular tag line ‘Kadamai-Kanniyam-Kadduppadu’ (Duty-Dignity- Discipline). Though Kannan makes a passing mention of this tag line in page 167, some additional details about when and where Anna introduced this alliterative alluring mantra might have elicited interest.

Though there is no doubt that Kannan had labored to write this biography from original sources, quite a lot seems missing. Especially, the personal letters Anna penned to his kin,  friends and acquaintances have not been collected and studied. I provide one such published gem of Anna’s letter. To popular cinema playback singer S.C. Krishnan of 1950s and 1960s, Anna wrote the following undated letter (probably around 1949). In translation it reads:

“Younger brother,

Whatever trials you had, I was sad that you had left the company without informing me. A bit angry too. K.R.R. [referring to actor K.R.Ramasamy] and I pleaded to cinema company folks. Immediately, they couldn’t make an offer. But, will they refuse for long? Why, you suddenly made this decision? OK, even now, I do care for your opportunities. In proper time, I’ll do my best for you. Do not be disheartened. It is not easy to win at global scale. It cannot happen suddenly too. Have hopes. Success will come.



Anna's undated letter to singer S.C.Krishnan (circa   1949)

I provide a scan of this Tamil letter above. The background to this letter was provided in a chapter on S.C. Krishnan, by compiler Vamanan. Krishnan was then a teenage member of actor K.R.Ramasamy’s ‘Krishnan Drama Sabha’ drama troupe. The name of the troupe derived from popular comedian N.S. Krishnan. This S.C. Krishnan even acted in the Velaikkari drama scripted by Anna. But, when reaching 20, he was disappointed that he didn’t receive adequate opportunities for acting in movies. As such, he had suddenly quit this drama troupe and joined Modern Theatres studio as a paid actor.

Except for a few factual errors and some omissions, I consider this book a first class scholarly accomplishment. The factual slips include the following: (1) As I had previously indicated in one of my columns, the Anna derisive movie lyric appeared in the movie Nalla Thangai (1955), and not in Yen Thangai (1952) as stated, which was an MGR movie (p. 198). (2) Prof. K. Sivathambi was a Tamil scholar, and not an economist! (p. 181) (3) Indira Gandhi became the prime minister for the first time on Jan.19, 1966, and not in 1965 (p.298)..

Omissions include the following: (1) We yearn to know something about Anna’s family background. Nothing of note is described about his father Natarajan. Details about Natarajan is limited to only one sentence: “…Natarajan, of whom we know very little, was reportedly a self-styled village scribe who wrote out property documents for a living.” Didn’t Anna describe anything more about his father in his copious writings or speeches? Even, we hardly learn about wife Rani’s family background, or her influence on the Anna’s life, though they lived together for 38 years. (2) lack of mention of few Tamil movies [Sivaji Ganesan starrer Rangoon Radha, the main plot adapted from ‘Gaslight (1944)’ movie, and two of MGR’s movies Thai Magalukku Kattiya Thaali and Nallavan Vazhvaan] in which Anna’s role as story source and script writer received credit. (3) If the statistics of electoral results for the Madras (later Tamil Nadu) state assembly in 1956, 1962 and 1967 were provided as tables, it would have made better indication on the rise of DMK party under Anna’s leadership and how the Communist Party failed to attract the Tamil Nadu voters, despite the carping of their prominent cadres like Jayakanthan. (4) Having been a leader of DMK party for 20 years, Anna would have been at the receiving end of many cartoonists. I consider that inclusion of some such cartoons could have added merit to the text. Particularly, Karunanidhi mentions  in his autobiography (Nenjukku Neethi, vol.1), one cartoon that appeared in the Ananda Vikatan weekly during the 1967 election campaign poking fun at the anti-Congress Party camp which had formed a united front (of which Anna was the leader and the other prominent leader being C. Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji) in which the leaders were heading to capture the ‘Court’ in a donkey. DMK supporters found that particular cartoon as rather offensive. (5) The plight of founding members E.V.K. Sampath and poet Kannadasan who parted company from Anna and DMK in 1961 had been omitted. Sampath is last mentioned in p. 254. For the next 100 pages, readers are left clueless what happened to him. In reality, the performance of his Tamil Nationalist Party at the 1962 election was dismal. As a result, Sampath and his associates like Kannadasan and Sivaji Ganesan submerged their party’s identity into Congress Party within the next two years. (6) In his autobiography (Nenjukku Neethi, vol.1, p. 649), Karunanidhi also mentions an assassination attempt on Anna by Congress Party ruffians in November 1966, while he was campaigning in Kovamputtur district. This had been omitted by Kannan.

I wish that these corrections/suggestions can be added when a second edition of the book appears in the future.

Cited Sources

Anonymous. Secession urged for India’s South – Parliament hears demand by Dravidian leader. New York Times, May 6, 1962.

Anonymous. Name of State of Madras in India is now Tamizhgam. New York Times, April 16, 1967.

Anonymous. C.N.Annadurai, 60, headed Indian state. New York Times, February 4, 1969.

Lelyveld, J. Front battles Congress Party rule in Madras. New York Times, Feb. 8, 1967.

Vamanan: Thirai Isai Alaigal, part 2, Manivasakar Pathipakam, Chennai, 2001, pp. 272-286.

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  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Post-script by Sachi:
    After submitting this book review to the sangam site, I wanted to cross-check my inference on Tamil literacy with Prof. Emeritus Robert Hardgrave Jr. Thus, in a mail to him on Sept.13rd, I asked him, “I’m just curious to know whether you can read Tamil. Having focused on Tamil Nadu for a long and working with Nadar community, I gather that you should be able to speak and comprehend Tamil. But reading and writing the language is another issue.” To my query, Prof. Hardgrave replied on the same day by email. I quote his answer verbatim.
    “I studied Tamil at the Univ.of Chicago in my graduate studies, and used Tamil, both written and spoken. on my dissertation on the Nadars and in my work on the Tamil film. The film project was 1969-70, however, and I have no research since then that required use of Tamil. Even though I returned to Tamil Nadu periodically, I was not using Tamil – and it is now completely gone. Alas, but it takes a considerable investment of time to keep up a language, and as I was not using it in research, I let it go.”

    I thank Prof. Hardgrave for his answer.