Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nina Simone, Bob Dylan And Protest Songs: Music, Civil Rights Struggle And Politics.

India is a land of music, song and dance. It has a very ancient tradition in fine arts and a uniquely continuous civilization over the centuries. India's dance forms and music heritage is a widely admired one. Yet it is in the same India that such art forms are mostly relegated to the ivory tower with no relation to the ups and downs of a great country. What is worse is that for almost 99% of the country the finer forms of the arts and India's true heritage in music has no meaning. What most Indians consume by way of music is a bastardized version of the country's richest music with haphazard borrowing of western music (classical and otherwise) served up as what is called 'cinema music'. India's greatest achievement was its most unique freedom struggle. Yet the struggle did not produce any outpouring of music. Musicians did not compose music, on any notable scale barring random efforts of setting some poems by revolutionary poets to music, to provide an artistic expression of the greatest emancipation in human history. Indian musicians did not think of using their music as an art form to protest against the colonizer. On that count cinema musicians at least attempted something when they provided music for some movies that depicted the struggle.

Jeyakanthan in his novel 'Paarisukku Po' sets up an argument between two characters, an orthodox father who is a Carnatic musician and the son, a western classical musician and a recluse from Paris. Father and son battle through intermediaries on what each of their music means to them and to the world in general. One of the chief complaints of the son is that Carnatic music is mostly other worldly and lacks the varieties found in Western classical which has both secular and religious music. I spoke of how Shostakovich and Beethoven were political in their compositions. Music as an art form and art as a function of protest reaches greater heights, to my knowledge, in America.

Jazz music is inseparably braided with the Civil Rights struggle in America. One cannot write the history of civil rights struggle without mention the Jazz musicians or Afro-American gospel song tradition. Songs and music are a wonderful part of the Afro-American tradition. Jazz, the blues, R&B and soul music form a wonderful repertoire of art that blacks used to give voice to their oppression.

Jazz musician Nina Simone is a good example. Simone, in an interview, defiantly states "I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty...we will shape and mould this country. I will not shaped and moulded at all anymore....How can you be an artist and not reflect the times"

Peruse the words carefully. She uses words like "I choose", an assertive "that is my duty", a defiant "I will shape and mould this country". Ilayaraja once retorted that politics is a sewer and he will have nothing to do with it. Just recently Tamil Nadu saw an outbreak of protests by college students demanding that the genocidal state of Sri Lanka be punished by the world community. Where was their Nina Simone? Did the students have a 9th symphony to blast from loudspeakers? Where was their Bob Dylan? Who was their poet? Did they an Allen Ginsberg? No. In a state and country addicted to entertainment that is by definition mindless (else its not considered 'entertainment') any such hopes are meaningless. Asking such questions, as I do, or seeking to live by such a code is often considered 'abnormal' and 'at war with world'.

I first came across Nina Simone in a book review in NYT. Then I sought out her songs and then I learned more about her. Mississippi in the 50's and 60's was considered a hotbed of violent racism in America. When a black church in Alabama was bombed and 4 little girls died Simone exploded into "Mississippi Goddam" in a live concert. The lyric, written by her, and her singing bristled with defiance. She went on to compile her 'protest songs' that included 'four women' which talked about the stereotypes of black women, 'strangefruit' talked about lynching and so on.

From the other end of the spectrum, racially speaking that is, comes Bob Dylan. When black teenager, 14 year old, Emmett Till was gruesomely murdered in 1955 Dylan burst forth in 'The ballad of Emmett Till". Emmet Till murder was a crystallizing moment that launched the civil rights struggle in the south. Dylan later performed in the historic 'March on Washington' where MLK Jr spoke of his dream. Dylan went on to compose his protest songs "The times, they are a changing" etc. He became the voice of protest for a long time.

Sometimes musicians like Ray Charles and Louis Armstron used their prestige as musicians to fight for civil rights. Ray Charles who was initially lukewarm towards fighting segregated performances at a pivotal moment refuses to play at a Georgia performance because the audience was segregated. Louis Armstrong was trotted out by the American government to tour the world and be an exhibit for American freedom all the while racism raged back home. Armstrong attracted flak for that. Armstrong lambasted Eisenhower  over what he perceived as Ike's waffle over school integration in Arkansas. Two days after Armstrong's outburst Ike sent Federal troops to Arkansas to ensure that black girls can enter the school.

Ravi Shankar brought Indian music to the west. Shankar has played to packed audiences of westerners across the globe and specifically in America. Ravi Shankar, famously, played along with the Beatles at Woodstock. I've not read of any incident where Ravi Shankar composed any protest music or used his prestige as world renowned musician to fight for any justice. The same can be said of almost every musician, film and non-film alike. When Lalgudi passed away there were obituary writers fell over each other to write glowing tributes. I cannot remember any Carnatic musician lifting a single finger to bring diversity into caste ridden Music Academy. If anything Carnatic music is zealously guarded from ensuring there is no diversity.

Since this series is occasioned by my comments on Ilayaraja I'll come to him. Ilayaraja, my friends keep reminding me, comes from a very oppressed community. Has Raja done anything to highlight their plight with his art form? If a Dalit writer or painter or politician or singer is expected to use his art form to speak of his or her people then should we excuse Raja for his intentional and singular failure to do so? A.R.Rahman runs a conservatory where he is trying to educate children from slums. Raja was only keen on making money through movies and had absolutely no social consciousness.

Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Armstrong are all just a sliver in a glorious tradition of musicians using their music for 'shaping and moulding this country'. I respect and adore them. Never can I insult their memory by even mentioning Raja as an 'artist'.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bach, Beethoven And Berlin Wall

Tamil film music icon Ilayaraaja performed to packed houses in Canada and US in February of this year. Auditoriums that seated thousands filled up with tickets priced at $75-$500+. I did not even notice that he was coming until my cousin told me. Many of my friends who attended the events posted running commentaries on Facebook and twitter. Arguments ensued. Questions about what is music, when does music become art and even why not consider Ilayaraja on par with Mozart (yes, please trust me) and more were asked. Confession, just yesterday I bought 10 of Raja's songs on iTunes to add to my existing collection of several hundreds that I listen often while I drive or read. I love music, in my own way. So why did I choose not to go and enjoy Raja? Do I not love music enough to seek an evening of film songs that I grew upon in the 80's and 90's? Can somebody love Beethoven and Ravi Shankar and ignore a Raja event? Would that be proof of 'feigning' interest in music for a snobbery value? I've gathered ideas for several blogs which I shall write in the days to come. 

A further confession. Though I learned to play violin for nearly 5 years (carnatic) I'd not call myself a musician. I cannot and will not speak of music in technical terms like raaga or notes or scales. There are many ways to talk of music. 

Defining what can be called 'classical music' is a contentious task by itself. Julian Johnson, author of 'Who needs classical music, offers some ideas. A music is not called 'classical' owing to its antiquity. When music transcends the immediate across ages and is capable of transmuting itself to various meanings it acquires an eternal relevance earning the label 'classical'. This is easier for instrumental music since there are no words to tie it down to a context. Does that mean a symphony has no meaning? Does music have a meaning?

Legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein posed that questions to kids of New York City in his 'Young People's Concerts' that he conducted to familiarize a generation of children, that he felt, did not take a fascination for classical music, the cornerstone of Western civilization. Bernstein would play a piece and ask the children to imagine what theme would fit that music. He offers 'Superman' flying to address a crisis as a suitable theme. The music was originally written to portray Don Quixote. Did Bach compose his immortal cello suites imagining that one day his music will be played when history's worst symbol of oppression, the Berlin wall, would fall? Did Beethoven envisage that his 9th symphony will be played to commemorate the first anniversary of Berlin wall being brought down? 

Bach was not a very political person. When I visited his home in Leipzig I saw the contract that he had to comply with at his employer's place, a church. He was contracted to write music almost every week for the students. In essence one could say he was no different from any film musician who produces music for money. Yet for over 300 years his music has attained an eternity for the genius that was poured forth in them. The fugues were composed in response to a challenge by Frederick the Great and we will come to them later. Bach's cello suites were actually lost and discovered accidentally by legendary cellist Pablo Casals. The cello suites were an architectural beauty with six movements per cello. It is here we must pause and teach Tamils who don't know Western classical what that feat means.

Unlike Carnatic music Western classical is written for specific instruments. Carnatic, written without notes, is purely vocal in its original form. The instrumental accompaniments we hear in Carnatic are all improvisations, a technique that is the soul of Carnatic music. A six movement suite is where a composer strains his compositional talent to write music that would tease out every musical capability of an instrument over 15-30 minutes for each suite. Bach was a genius in writing music for an instrument to showcase the instrument's musical capabilities. The Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 & 2 is almost two hours of music written exclusively the plumb the depths and scale the heights on one instrument, the keyboard in 24 major and minor keys. This is compositional genius of a different scale from composing music for a Tamil film song for 5 minutes of which the overture/prelude for less than a minute is really musical setting the stage for a 'melody' that the stanzas adhere to. Then come equally short interludes and postludes. 

Mstislav Rostropovich was a Russian cellist exiled from Soviet Russia for his support of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Rostropovich was highly respected for the genius virtuoso that he was. One day while he was in Paris Rostropovich heard that the most notorious symbol of Soviet tyranny, the Berlin Wall, was being demolished. Rostropovich rushed to Berlin, pulled up a chair and started playing Bach's cello suite No.2 (watch here

Crowds milled around Rostropovich. If Rostropovich had been a film musician or if what he played was from music score the moment would have been silly. Rostropovich's personal stature as a genius, his exile, his fight for liberty all compounded with Bach's stately cello suite to create a moment that speaks volumes about a society which respects such an artist and such art. Two years later while Gorbachev was under house arrest and the Soviet empire was poised to strike back at Yeltsin Rostropovich smuggled himself into Moscow. Rostropovich's arrival into Moscow to support Yeltsin and a nascent democratic movement electrified Russians unlike anything else could have done. Can one imagine Michael Jackson or even the Beatles at such a moment? Again the man and the kind of the music are an inseparable whole. Bach's music that speaks to the most sublime within every human being and a society that loved Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, the ballet and more revered art so highly that Russian tanks paused. It is not exaggeration to say Rostropovich saved Russia that day.

Celebrating the fall of Berlin Wall an internal orchestra with musicians drawn from Russia, France, Germany, America etc was commissioned to perform under the baton of conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, educated at Harvard, would imbibe a multi-disciplinary approach to music. His lectures were a tour-de-force across disciplines. Bernstein chose to play Beethoven's 9th symphony, considered possibly the greatest composition in all of western classical music.

Beethoven, unlike Bach, was a deeply political person. He starting writing his 3rd symphony dedicated to Napoleon. When he heard that Napoleon had declared himself 'emperor' Beethoven tore the dedication away and composed a pessimistic symphony that he called 'Eroica'. Beethoven broke traditions when he composed the 9th. The 9th is also referred to as 'choral symphony' because it is the only symphony by a major composer to have a choral piece.
The 9th was grand architecture in 4 movements with the 4th movement being a mini symphony itself with smaller 4 movements and the electrifying choral section all amounting to nearly an hour (74 minutes) of music that would engulf and elevate a soul. The symphony was scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes,   2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, cymbals, soprano, alto, baritone and more. 

Carnatic music is 'melodic' in structure. The notes succeed one and another successively. The word 'symphony' means a harmonious sound when more than one instrument is played 'together'. The latter taxes compositional talent because one has to imagine how 2 instruments would sound together. Now extrapolate that to all those listed instruments played alone and together in places. Add the complexity of a song like Schiller's 'Ode to joy'. Finally consider composing such music for an uninterrupted hour. 

Bernstein, in a typical gesture, altered the choral piece replacing the word 'joy' with 'freedom' to signal liberty. The complete performance has been uploaded here. We have to appreciate that this is an orchestra drawn from across the globe and the conductor is a 70 year old who would die 10 months after the performance. Bernstein's 1979 performance of the 9th, which I am watching as I type, shows a conductor who pours forth phenomenal physicality into the act of conducting and at places he appears rapturous close to tears. The Berlin performance was 20 years later.

Beethoven never dreamt that his symphony would be played to celebrate the demise of an evil empire. Even before that Berlin performance and even before the fall of the wall Chinese students protesting in Tianenmen square in July 1989 played the 9th from loudspeakers to drown out government propaganda and to lift their spirits. Women taking out a rally in Chile protesting the murderous Pinochet regime would alter the 9th and play it. That's why the 9th is considered classical music. In an immortal music Beethoven had provided channels to express human aspirations from China to Berlin to Chile across centuries. 

I remember an article that I read nearly 30 years ago in Readers Digest. The author was asked to list historical events that he wished he had witnessed alive. Alongside a desire to see how Moses led his people from Egypt, the Exodus, the author had listed the first performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich's violin concerto No.1 Op99 is another tale to be told when music becomes the vehicle for a tortured soul that suffers under totalitarianism. Art is not for the ivory tower. It speaks to and embodies everyday travails and triumphs. About that later.

Monday, May 13, 2013

"திராவிட இயக்கம் என்ன செய்து கிழித்தது!": Tamil Nadu's Debt To Kamaraj And M.G.R On Education.

I am an Engineering graduate and I thank M.G.R for that as much as I need to blame him too. Thousands of Engineering graduates in Tamil Nadu owe thanks to M.G.R. who, as Karunanidhi and Veeramani endlessly reminded us, was a Malayalee and not a 'Tamil'. 

After my last blog a friend forwarded me a video of a speech by Prof.Suba.Veerapandian (a.k.a Suba.Vee). Suba.Vee narrates how he was addressing a DMK youth wing and asked provocatively "திராவிட இயக்கம் என்ன செய்து கிழித்தது?" He then proceeds to asks the audience a show of hands to count how many in the audience had parents who were graduates. Just one or two raised hands. Suba.Vee exalts 'today you are all graduates and THIS is the achievement of Dravidian movement".  Is it?

Tamil Nadu, thanks to the British and missionaries from the west, had a long history of educating the masses. The first school to teach English to any non-English natives was established in rural Thanjavur. The Madras University, The Madras Medical College, Presidency College, Asia's first private university at Chidambaram, St Joseph's College in Trichy, Pachaiyappas College (from where Annathurai graduated) and more institutions served the cultivation of a learned populace way before the word 'Dravidian movement' was born.

Medical colleges in Thanjavur, Madurai, Thirunelveli, Coimbatore and Madras (3) were all established prior to 1967. Most were during Congress rule. NITT-Trichy (formerly REC Trichy), IIT Madras, Adyar cancer institute, PSG college of Technology etc were also formed before 1967. In essence the notable educational institutions of Tamil Nadu were established prior to the Dravidian movement virus, as Rajagopalachari called it, infected Tamils.

Rajagopalachari as Chief minister of Tamil Nadu sought to close schools and in an ill advised move also sought to cut the hours of schooling. And in a monumental blunder advised students to use the extra hours to learn their hereditary craft. EVR and the DK party went to town that Brahmin Rajagopalachari wants to institute 'hereditary learning' as a way to curtail education to the lower castes.

Noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan provides context to Rajagopalachari's misadventure. India was then reeling under a severe deficit. Famine raged in large swathes of the country. Seeing Tamil families being destroyed by the males who became addicted to liquor Rajagopalachari closed all arrack shops and that worsened the deficit. But for Rajaji and Kamaraj Tamil Nadu would not have retained Madras when states were re-organized along linguistic lines. That would have been a body blow to Tamil Nadu.

Kamaraj who came to power after Rajagopalachari was unseated took upon educating the masses as his raison-de-etre. Kamaraj laid down the plans for ensuring accessible primary education and higher levels in school education. He decreed that no school should be beyond walking distance of school children at that respective age. In a country where most parents could not afford to feed themselves let alone their children it was Kamaraj who decreed free lunch for school going kids. It was a scheme that M.G.R would expand to great acclaim.

It should be remembered that Tamils overwhelmingly voted for DMK in 1967 simply because of Annathurai's promise of a Kg of rice for Re 1. DMK also milked the attempt to kill made on its mascot M.G.R. DMK which had made cinema charisma its center piece rode to power on the back of M.G.R.

Tamil Nadu had a long history of quota based reservation system. Later Indian constitution too enshrined it. It is undeniable that Justice party and its progenies the DK/DMK etc played a signal role in clamoring for quotas. It also served to uplift two generations. That's a natural consequence. Promoting quotas as a panacea had its ill effects too. Little attention was paid by rulers to alleviate the real causes of inequalities like lack of schools and access to quality education. What is worse it perpetuated the caste system and unleashed a frankenstein of casteism.

Tamil Nadu never imbibed anything that the Dravidian movement claimed as its core other than anti-Brahminism and support for reservation. Tamils loved being educated in English and celebrating religious festivals. Within 10 years of DMK coming to power Tamils voted more overwhelmingly in 1977 for M.G.R to become CM. In a stunning political development M.G.R swept away Dravidian movement's poster child M.Karunanidhi. In a way Karunanidhi had only himself to blame for cultivating cinema charisma. Annathurai was the last graduate to have ruled Tamil Nadu. For the past 40 years Tamil Nadu has been ruled by uneducated cinema artistes. THAT is truly the signal contribution of Dravidian movement.

Veeramani often takes credit for M.G.R raising the reserved quota from 30% to 50% for BC's out of which was carved 20% for MBC's (Most Backward class) and for stopping MGR from implementing 'economic criterion' for reservation. Veeramani incorrectly attributes MGR's humiliating loss in 1980 Lok Sabha election to his proposed elimination of 'creamy layer'.

In 1977, when Indira Gandhi rescinded Emergency and called for elections, MGR in alliance with Indira in Tamil Nadu netted 19 seats while the DMK aligned with Janata netted just 1. This was in total variance with the national mood when Indira herself lost in Rae Bareilly while her party was booted out in the Hindi Belt in a Janata euphoria. Karunanidhi, whose son was arrested and beaten by cops during Emergency, in a shameless twist aligned with Indira when the Janata government flamed out within 3 years. Now MGR, supposedly blackmailed by Janata government over taxes, aligned with them and lost badly. Tamil Nadu has always loved to vote for Congress in parliamentary elections. MGR of course read this result wrong. Nevertheless he then struck an alliance with Indira later.

In those tumultuous years Ramadoss, who, according to rumor enrolled in MBBS course under forged certificate, organized the most violent agitations clamoring for a specific quota for his caste. The agitations paralyzed the state. Many castes were sympathetic to the agitation and claimed that an umbrella quota for backward classes has suppressed the educational opportunities amongst some castes that now sought the label 'most backward classes'. The Sattanathan commission in 1971 had precisely for this reason called for elimination of 'creamy layer'. Karunanidhi and Veeramani piggybacked on Ramadoss and stirred more trouble. MGR in a typical move sought to defuse the growing storm by hiking the quota for BC's to 50% thus taking the total quantum of reservation to 69%, the highest in the country. He also abandoned any proposal to eliminate the creamy layer.

The saving grace was MGR allowed private Engineering and Medical colleges. In 1990 when I finished +2 there were only 7 government run engineering colleges in a state of 4 crore people and nearly 20 private engineering colleges. The private colleges were a boon to thousands. The colleges were more local hence parents were spared spending for hostels. With computer science seats at Rs 40,000 many middle class parents could buy a seat for their children who could not find a seat in the pathetically far less government colleges. Note, this benefited lot of backward class students whose parents, though not doctor or engineer, were shop owners, clerks etc. MGR had also regulated that 50% of the seats in private colleges should be surrendered to the government and be subject to the 69% reservation. It was an idea that has resulted in millions becoming graduates.

The lack of economic criterion is now biting every reserved class. Admissions for MBBS and 'Guindy College of Engineering' have cut off that are practically 100% and there is almost no difference between OC/BC/MBC. Though this is cited as success of quotas it is the baneful result of quotas too.

As much as I am miserly in giving Dravidian movement any credit for successes in education in Tamil Nadu I'll be unreservedly generous in blaming them for the pathetic quality of education and most importantly the outright corruption of the academia.

The first sign of a virus entering the body politic of Tamil Nadu's academia was the Honoris Causa PhD given to Karunanidhi by Annamalai university. The students at the university protested at such a travesty taking place at the then storied university. One student died in the melee but his parents were coerced to disown their own son. Today deemed universities hand out honorary PhD to all and sundry including tinsel town actors. Current Vice Chancellor of Madras University had researched in arcane earth shattering topics like "MGR and Tamil Nadu politics", "ADMK". When I read Harvard dean Drew Gilpin Faust or Dean of Yale Medical school I shed tears thinking of the morons who become VC's in Tamil Nadu. In Karuninidhi's last regime 2006-11 vice chancellorships were on sale for the highest bidder. A VC shocked the state by openly saying "I became a VC by giving a bribe".

The mushrooming of private schools in Tamil Nadu was good and bad. Karunanidhi choked the aspirations of poor parents by regulating that only meager amount of English medium classes, literally just one, per school could be opened in government run institutions. Today Jayalalitha, a Brahmin and therefore not Dravidian according to Suba.Vee, has decreed that government run schools too will offer English medium instruction. Karunanidhi has condemned that move. Of course his sons and grandsons all studied in premium English convents in Chennai. Amongst the few good ideas of EVR was to propagate English medium education abandoning Tamil chauvinism. Yet, his protege forsook that.

Tamil Nadu students are the worst prepared for exams like IIT, AIIMS, AFMC Poona, JIPMER, etc. Tamil Nadu students, particularly those from erstwhile state board stream, were inferior to CBSE educated students from other states. I studied in the now defunct Matriculation system and can vouch the superiority of that syllabi.

The uniform syllabus scheme brought in with much fanfare by Karunanidhi is now spoiling another generation of students. Poems by Karunanidhi and his daughter were part of the curriculum until Jayalalitha removed them. A history text book teaches students about 'achievements of Hitler'. Most textbooks were shamelessly plagiarized, that too poorly, from western textbooks. Academician Muthukrishnan, whose committee report was the basis for 'uniform syllabus', said "we gave many recommendations to strengthen school education and one of which was uniform syllabus but the government chose to implement only that ignoring the rest like over hauling teacher training". Uniform syllabus is a laudable goal but instead of upgrading state board schools to matriculation standards the easier approach of lowering the bar for all was adopted.

It is not without reason that cut off marks are 198/200. Muthukrishnan himself conceded that grade inflation was rampant. In the name of making question papers easy for students from villages they were actually dumbed down. In a shocking report 2nd year students in 'Guindy College of Engineering', most of whom had scored 100% in +2 math, had failed in math exam. Indian government study shocked further by saying that only 17% of Tamil Nadu engineering college students were competent to face an interview. Veeramani's own university, Periyar Maniammai University, was identified by the Supreme Court amongst a list of universities which were universities in name only.

Free public schools are considered the backbone of America, the land of capitalism. Yet in Tamil Nadu the government had completely ceded the area of education to not just private interest but to profiteering and commercialization. Regulations exist only on rule books. Come admission time parents run from pillar to post with little or no information about courses and colleges. In Tamil Nadu a sick patient needs to verify if his/her doctor had got his degree in a 'package deal'.

An American medical school aspirant sits for a 7 hour entrance exam called MCAT. The Tamil Nadu student shivers to sit for any entrance exam. The abolition of entrance tests is touted as achievement. What is worse is that Veeramani and Suba.Vee campaigned that entrance exams, another relic of MGR era, are an upper caste conspiracy. MBBS students took out rallies to retain an old system by which they can easily be declared 'pass' in exams compared to new rules that the university wanted to enforce.

Teacher training college admissions are totally corrupt and turn out pathetic teachers. In a recent qualifying exam for teachers most had failed.

In an ultimate irony it was Malayalee MGR who opened a university exclusively for Tamil. The Tamil university had good courses and an acclaimed library. Yet Karunanidhi, the keeper of the Dravidian movement flame, intentionally allowed it to become dilapidated by starving the university of funds.

Tamil University in June 2010 when Rs 500 Crore was spent on Semmozhi Maanadu
Kamaraj lovers will point out that it was Kamaraj who did more substantial things for Tamil than tokenism like giving the state its name 'Tamil Nadu'.

A cinema obsessed Dravidian culture prompted Karunanidhi to waive taxes for movies that had titles in Tamil. The resulting loss to the exchequer was in hundreds of crores each year for the 5 years he was in power. Think of the schools that could have constructed. In a nutshell has any institute of learning or of research come up in Tamil Nadu in the past 40 years, particularly during the periods ruled by Karunanidhi, the supposed flame keeper of Dravidian movement?

Incidentally Suba.Vee did not pick the correct demographic to ask that question. I've a very dim view of a guy sitting in a DMK Youth class waiting to be lectured by Suba.Vee. Such guys would come from families that had paid scant attention to education and failed to inculcate common sense not to waste time at such lectures. That audience is NOT representative of an average Tamil family. Nor should it be.

But then it was Karunanidhi who wrote a diatribe masquerading as poetry, "படித்து கிழித்ததுதான் என்ன? கிழித்து தைத்தது தான் என்ன என்ன என்ன?"  (Written as retort to those who complained that his ill-advised fraud plagued 5 mark scheme was one more assault on merit). 
Thanks to MGR's 69% quota I was adversely affected and thanks to his idea of private colleges I could still get an education. 

The legacy of Dravidian politics in broader culture, women's issues, public morality etc is a blog for another day. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

E.V.R. To 'Kaduvetti' Guru : A Saga Of Hatred, Selective Outrage and Hypocrisies

"Why did clothing prices increase?", "because Dalit women have started wearing blouses". "Why did unemployment rise?", "because Dalits are applying for jobs". "Why is rice costing more?", "those arrack drinking guys have started eating rice". If anyone thought it was Kaduvetti Guru who spoke those despicable words, think again. It is Tamil Nadu's patron saint E.V.Ramasamy Naicker, referred honorifically as 'Periyaar'. I've actually toned down his crude language. Karunanidhi's Murasoli ran a set of cartoons in their 1962 Pongal issue (see below) that has the colorful language verbatim. Please enlarge and read it, holding your noses:

E.V.Ramasamy Naicker's despicable rhetoric about Dalits.
In a fiery speech laden with blatant caste baiting Guru and his party have thrown Tamil Nadu into a cauldron of hatred. Guru, the speech shows, is E.V.R's intellectual heir.

EVR is seen as one who challenged Brahmin hegemony and brought about social justice with his crusade against religion over many decades. EVR's rhetoric was designed to shock and chill. 'If a Brahmin and a snake come together, hit the Brahmin first' said EVR. The non-Brahmin majority reveled in seeing such a challenge being flung at a powerful minority group. It is unarguable that Brahmins did control the corridors of power and were seen as originators of an unspeakable horror, 'untouchability'. The very sight of a lower caste was seen as polluting to the upper caste. There was a time when knowledge of Sanskrit was considered essential to enroll in Medical college in Tamil Nadu, where almost no one spoke Sanskrit. While all that is true that is not all there is to truth.

EVR saw the Brahmin lurking behind anything that he thought was the cause for non-Brahmins to be dominated over. Not given to nuances or graces EVR saw nothing but evil in every Brahmin. How much of what EVR said and did was justifiable 'counter-reaction'. Was EVR, like ABC News called Malcolm-X in USA, the 'hate that hate produced'? Did Brahmins create the Frankenstein that EVR became? Castes and the interplay of hegemony was more complex than what an illiterate EVR understood. Untouchability and racial discrimination existed in many corners of the world where the Brahmin had never set foot or where Manu Shasthra never existed. Even in India the much maligned Manu smriti was not as pervasive as was propagated by EVR. Most of India was ruled by the Mughals for over 6 centuries where the Brahman was seen as an infidel along with others.

It is not an accident that India's freedom struggle, the greatest the world had ever seen, was dominated by upper caste Brahmins, Patels and of course the most famous Bania, Gandhi. The upper caste having arrogated to themselves the privilege of education were, naturally, the first to rebel against foreign rule. It is from within Brahmins that reformers arose to rid Hinduism of its shameful Sati and Child marriage practices. It is within the paradigm of freedom movement that centuries old prejudices against women and lower caste were shaken.

Abdul Kalam, former President and a Muslim, recounts an interesting anecdote in his auto-biography. One of Kalam's teacher was a Brahmin. The teacher asked Kalam to come to his house for lunch. The Brahmin teacher's wife would refuse to serve food for a Muslim. The teacher would take it upon himself to serve the food. The teacher would insist that Kalam visit every week for lunch. Kalam, naturally, was not thrilled. Seeing his hesitation the teacher told him "don't worry about my wife. She has to learn".

A question to ponder is why Ambedkar, a Dalit, who had suffered more at the hands of upper caste never adopted EVR's poisonous rhetoric? Not even Malcolm X advocated violence against whites who were lynching his fellow blacks. One could point to an insult that EVR had suffered like not being fed at a Brahmin run mutt in Kasi. Nursing a grudge to ask for violence against every caste member of that community is why EVR remains a rabid rabble rouser and would never join the ranks of Gandhi and MLK Jr. Gandhi stitched a pair of slippers for General Smuts who had imprisoned him. Gandhi was thrown out of a train in a cold night in a foreign country by a white man and yet he never said "if a white man and a snake came together hit the white man first".

It is not a matter of just alleging that EVR was anti-Dalit by quoting him. No. EVR taught a people to hate a community. Having taught hatred it is difficult to keep it focused on just the initial target. Class hatred entered the body politic of the Tamil and is now an inseparable feature of most Tamils. Hating Brahmins was a universal sport in Tamil Nadu. This fanning of anti-Brahmin hatred yielded a more sinister corollary.

While EVR was busy teaching everyone to hate Brahmins little note was taken of the fact that practically every caste was guilty of casteism towards every other caste they deemed beneath them. Several years ago Dalit students in Chennai's Adi-Dravida hostel organized a road blockade to draw attention to the pathetic state of their hostel. Adi-Dravida hostels are government run to house Dalit students. The hostels were not fit even for animals to stay and the food was something no human being would eat. Yet, none other than Brahmin owned Frontline magazine ran stories about the hostel. EVR's party organ, now run by Veeramani, behaved as if no such thing happened.

If one takes a cursory reading of EVR's party organ, Viduthalai, one would think that but for Brahmins the world would be a paradise of equality and justice. Just two weeks back Viduthalai proudly reported a remark by 3rd rate lyric writer Arivumathi "கவிஞர் அறிவுமதி தன்னுடைய கவிதை ஒன்றைச் சொல்லி எல்லோருக்கும் விபத்து மயிரி ழையில் நடக்கும்தமிழனுக்கும் மட்டும் நூலிழையில் நடக்கும் என்று பலத்த கைதட்டலுடன் தொடங்கினார்". Celebrating the disputed 100th year of founding of Dravidian party M.Karunanidhi, 5 times elected as CM, wrote 'this occasion reminds of our undertaking to make Brahmins shiver in their boots'.  It is ironical for THAT Karunanidhi to advise Ramadoss to speak decently. Or did indecent speech become defined as to  exclude hatred against Brahmins. At least Kaduvetti Guru only 'hinted' at a caste derisively. 

Even today when one talks of caste hatred and untouchability the image that comes to most Tamil minds is that of the Brahmin. Forced to negotiate on the same table with Dalit leader Immanuel the Thevar community patriarch Muthuramalingam fumed and engineered a fatal attack on Immanuel. Even today when Madurai celebrates Guru Pooja, in honor of Muthuramalingam, the entire district would be seething ready to burst into an orgy of violence.

In the 90's Karunanidhi named a bus fleet after a lower caste warrior. Madurai burned for several days. Vaasanthi, editor of Tamil magazine 'India Today', later wrote quoting a 10 year old boy who cursed "do they think we will step inside a bus named after a lower caste". Madurai is still home to the grotesque system called 'two-tumbler system'. Even today Dalits cannot ride a cycle or wear a towel on the shoulder in some streets. Breaking that taboo will invite riots. Many Dalit colonies were walled off. It is not an accident that the Dravidian parties, owing fealty to EVR, dominated by so called Backward Castes did not bother to remove such iniquities. Recently Madras Law college saw brutal attack of a Thevar student by Dalit students who had felt insulted in an earlier fracas. I am sure no one would call that as 'you reap as you sow' as one would justify EVR's actions against Brahmins.

Dalit commentator Ravikumar, later an MLA too, in an op-ed titled 'Periyar's Hindutva', wryly observed, "it would not be an exaggeration to say that the bases of the electoral alliances of today's Dravidian parties can be found in Periyar. The spread of an anti-dalit mentality and the reasons for the backwardness of dalits in the last three decades can be traced back to Periyar". EVR, stung by how minority Brahmin's wielded power, saw evil in any minority section of the population. It did not matter if the minority was an oppressed community. Given his blatantly indefensible quotes I'd allege he did suffer from anti-Dalit bias. 

A.Marx, EVR's hagiographer, in a book about EVR exults how EVR saw a conspiracy in society's ideas of 'morals'. Marx, unsurprisingly, often cites Nietzsche when he talks of EVR. EVR saw that morals were a conspiracy by Brahmins to keep the rest of the society pinned now. What Nietzsche saw as the conspiracy of the weak EVR saw as conspiracy of the Brahmin. His loathing of Brahmins was so complete that he rejected Tamil literature, including Kural and even the much admired texts of Tamil grammar, as a stooge of Brahmins that encourages casteism. 

To all the above add, what has now become the most pernicious system of social justice, the quota based 'reservation system'. 'Reservation' as practiced by India is not the same as its milder cousin affirmative action practiced in USA. They differ by a key metric. The Indian system is aptly called 'reservation' because it is quota based. As with the separate electorate system the reservation system too started with just a 10 year period of implementation and is now in its 60th year.

EVR's followers often exult that Tamil Nadu was the front runner in reservation system since the early 20th century, essentially conceding that the system is in place for a 100 years. I don't want to go into the claims of whether a 100 years is enough etc. Excluding all together any economic criterion and pegging a key benefit, education and jobs, to caste ensures the perpetuation of caste. As economic prospects improved and those benefiting under the quota regime became doctors and engineers and moved to urban centers they did escape the yoke of casteism. Not acknowledging that or even making room for that, a system, based on caste only, has made it every one's interest never to forget their caste. 

In a premium private school in Chennai Brahmin and non-Brahmin students taunt each other. The non-Brahmin says "thanks to quota I shall sail into MBBS". To which the Brahmin student retorts "shudra" (actually they say a cruder form 'soothies'). When MBBS list comes out with 9 out top 10 students being BC's Veeramani exults that the happiest day for him shall be the day there is no Brahmin in any medical college. Hitler could not have been clearer. I've heard friends support Karunanidhi's policy of not recommending Brahmin authors for Sahitya Akademi. And then there is the Brahmin guy who tells a non-Brahmin friend "your daughter will not be as good in math as my Brahmin boy". It was said, nonchalantly without malice as a matter of fact statement. 

The quota system also provides an incentive to castes maintaining their 'purity' and 'numbers'. Thanks to proliferating private media we get to hear caste leaders say they will punish their girl children if they fall in love. Is Ramadoss a fool to talk about love marriages? No. He is trying to preserve his flock. To be sure, there are other sociological reasons like considering women folk as 'property' that fuels such talk. Tamil film director Bhagyaraj could easily make a movie about a Brahmin girl marrying a boy from the barber caste. If he had made the girl to be from any other caste his movie would have been burned and probably he too would have been harmed. The Brahmins should thank Ramadoss's men for having the courage to ask Dravidian party leaders "would any of you consent for your children to marry a Dalit?" 

PMK, formerly Vanniar Sangam, came to limelight for their tree-felling agitation clamoring for an exclusive quota. The BC's who had enjoyed the fruits of quotas for nearly 4 decades had come to form a 'creamy layer' where well educated and convent going kids continued to hog the quota seats. Naturally the benefits of quota did not percolate below the 'creamy layer' to other backward castes who now called themselves 'Most Backward Class'. Vanniyars trace their lineage, like every other caste, to an ancient ruling community. They called themselves the sons of Pallavas, of course with no proof. Barring the Brahmin it appears every community, when talking of how great they were, likes  to call themselves 'erstwhile rulers of the land'. At this rate its the poor Brahmin who looks like the powerless.

It is laughable that those who write "Ramadoss's quota agitation yielded fruits for Vanniyars" and then feign indignation at the blatant caste oriented rhetoric. If Vanniyars enjoyed the fruit of a violent agitation that was launched with a singular aim of garnering caste based benefits then its kind of facetious to now say "Ramadoss is overtly communal".  

Losing elections successively, seeing his domination eroding, desirous of achieving absolute political power Ramadoss has begun to show his fangs in plain sight. The only concession I'd give him is that its unfair for most Tamils to scold him. A blogger, who now disavows PMK, writes soothingly that Guru was wrong to divide Tamils into Telugu's, Naickers, etc and speak of the latter groups as 'immigrants' forgetting how they were part of Tamil Nadu for many centuries. Guru learned that from EVR and the Dravidian political ilk. The blogger, intentionally and maliciously, did not include Brahmins in the list of people who should be considered Tamil by virtue of being in Tamil Nadu for centuries. So much for his pose of humanism. That blogger, an avowed admirer of Prabakaran, blamed the Brahmin-Bania press for claiming that Prabakaran was dead. Never mind that the entire world press was claiming that. These are not tit-bits. These are windows into a soul.

Politically incorrect rhetoric and derogatory remarks about other ethnic groups are par for the course in Tamil Nadu. There are proverbs about Malayalees, Vanniyars, Brahmins, Mudaliars, all in unflattering manner, of course. While Ghandhi strove to exhibit acceptance of diversity as virtue EVR reveled in being offensive. EVR called for physically assaulting Brahmins and to cut their sacred thread. I personally know of such an incident in Tanjore. EVR, propagating atheism, took a procession of slipper garlanded picture of Rama. To show that Ganesha is nothing but an idol EVR broke Ganesh statues in the streets. At one level I marvel at how Tamils have accommodated such rhetoric. Of course all that was possible only because EVR chose to offend Hindus, a very accepting lot. The Hindu's rightly judged that EVR's come and go faith in gods will remain. EVR's divisive rhetoric about non-Brahmins being Dravidian and Brahmins being 'invaders' took root in Dravidian party rhetoric. Repeatedly denied office Karunanidhi would bemoan that only Tamils would allow a Malayalee to rule over them. It is, that, Karunanidhi, a blogger wrote about as 'the last refuge of Dravidian ideals' and today bemoans divisiveness. 

EVR had his redemptive sides too. He was mostly a nihilist and anarchist who believed any collective identity was a contrived 'artificial' one in as much as we are not born with any identity except our gender. A. Marx says EVR considered linguistic and nationalist identities too as artificial as they were 'learned'. In a marked departure from this key aspect Karunanidhi and Annathurai, claiming to be EVR's proteges, cultivated militant linguistic and ethnic chauvinism as a tool to gain elected office. My favorite Tamil blogger admonishing divisions amongst Tamils along caste lines exhorts all Tamils to unite under the banner of 'Tamil race' and he helpfully has, as banner on FB, a picture of an LTTE regiment walking by with guns slung on their shoulders. Greedy for elected office the first principle that Annathurai jettisoned was his separatism. Tamils have repeatedly rejected such rhetoric at the ballot box.

In the Tamil Nadu I grew up I've rarely heard anyone speak openly of their caste or of going to caste meetings. Today its common to hear, of all people, Tamils abroad in US say "I went to XYZ caste meetings". Those meetings are replete with caste pride laced talks of course. Children are even taught blatant lies as history with a view to making them feel proud of their caste lineage. Despite living in a pluralistic society that prides itself in being open a Brahmin music teacher feels its ok to drop innuendos about a non-Brahmin child's abilities to pick up Carnatic music because her parents have no familiarity with music. The same child studies Western Classical with an American teacher who calls the child a 'prodigy'. A Chetttiar American gleefully says that he would rather go to a Chettiar Sangam than to Tamil Sangam. He also added, for good measure, how he frowns on inter-caste marriage. A chauvinistic strain runs through everything that a Tamil does whether it is a Tamil Sangam or Caste Association. The impulses are the same. One might point to American being proud of, well, being an American. When pride is tied to a larger heterogenous groups its more diffuse. When pride gets tied to a narrow slice it often becomes militant and racist. 

EVR's biggest failure was in propagating atheism. In 1950 Karunanidhi mocked on screen that a Hindu goddess was nothing but stone. Guru, in 2013, declares unabashedly that Vishnu, Siva, Murugan etc are the beloved deities of Vanniyars. Not even Brahmins had dared to do this. For this I congratulate Guru. Unlike Gandhi and MLK Jr EVR lacked the intellectual finesses to see value in religion. Not seeing value in religion EVR was only interested in tearing it down. Where Gandhi tried to foster dialogue amongst various religions EVR found himself like a bull in a china shop. This robbed Tamils of any paradigm of political correctness. Innuendos about Muslims, particularly, abound amongst Hindus and Christians. The converse was true too. Karunanidhi took vicarious pleasure in mocking Hindus (when he was not mocking Brahmins). Seeing a party man with a vermillion mark on the forehead Karunanidhi quipped 'is that blood on your forehead'. Today thanks to social media people give back as good as they get it. When Karuninidhi's wife, a devout Hindu, applied Vermillion on her son's forehead a FB guy quipped "நாங்க பூசினா நெத்தில ரத்தம் ஆனா நீங்க பூசினா டிராஃபிக் சிக்னலா".

I am not sure about Manu smriti oppressing people but I am very certain that Dravidian politics is hypocritical and deprives people of opportunities. The Hindu carried an article( about how Dalit students struggle in college because most come from Tamil medium schools. In a very ironical combination Dalit leader Thirumavalavan joined hands with PMK's Ramadoss to promote Tamil. Thiruma never understood that EVR wanted to promote English as a language of learning simply because it creates opportunities. That is also why EVR was against Tamil linguistic chauvinism. Annathurai and particularly Karunanidhi made a fetish out of educating large sections of people in Tamil while sending their children to top English convents in Chennai. My PMK sympathizing blogger has an aversion for Guru and remarks "Guru was after all a guy selling illegal liquor and was not educated like Anbumani who studied in Montfort at Yercaud". The blogger did not pause for a minute to reflect on the hypocrisy of Ramadoss. After all Montfort educated Anbumani was still asking Vanniyars to vote for him because he was Vanniyar. Montfort educated and even doctor Anbumani was the one encouraging Guru to be what he can be, a fiery speaker stoking caste feelings. In fact I view Guru, as a lesser danger compared to Anbumani. Guru does not know better. Anbumani knows better and indulges in caste bashing. Education is of no use.

In an earlier blog I had written how Thiruma adopted stances like prohibiting Navodaya schools which were inimical to Dalit progress. By falling prey to Tamil chauvinism and not demanding convent style education for his brethren Thiruma is the first enemy of Dalits. I'd tell every Dalit to run away from any Dravidian leader who even utters the word "Manu Smriti". While Karunanidhi prattles about 'அவாள்' to Dalits he is busy educating his children in convents while prohibiting, using government orders, opening more English medium sections in Government run schools. While Dalits are taught about Brahminical conspiracies the real conspiracy is a third rate politician who bribes voters with free color TV program costing Rs 7,000 crores instead of spending it on schools. While Rs 500 crores was spent of Tamil Semmozhi conference Dalit hostels were left to become dilapidated and unfit for even animals to stay ("Hellhole hostels"   See picture at end of blog). 

There is a certain romance for violence, worldwide and Tamils are no exception. Bhagat Singh and Malcolm X are fancied more than Gandhi and MLK Jr. Asking people to abrogate their caste self styled 'Tamil enthusiasts' exhort people to call themselves Tamils and the associated picture (see below at the end of the blog) is a troop of gun toting LTTE soldiers. What's the message here? "I am Tamil, let all other Indians beware of me since I've a gun". Vanniars on FB use very derogatory and militant images on FB. One such post had Thiruma apologising and begging for his life. 

What can we make out of all this? To be blunt Tamils (and in general Indians) are very racist. Every caste harbors chauvinistic pride and unmitigated contempt towards others they see, even, as peers and worse towards those seen as below. In the place of Brahmin hegemony a non-Brahmin hegemony exists today. The incessant focus on Brahmins has allowed everybody else to practice racism, even its violent forms, with impunity. For the number of times that Veeramani and Karunanidhi speak of Rajaji's 'குல கல்வி திட்டம்' it is not an accident that they do not speak of Keezhvenmani massacre. Reservation policy, as it is structured today, is the prime culprit in preserving casteism. The caste based policy badly needs reforms. I do not envisage abrogation of caste as a criteria overnight. In fact that may not be desirable too. But a reform to include economic criterion and excluding creamy layer is urgent. A culture of respecting religion by constitutional functionaries is essential. It is unpardonable when a state's CM ridicules a faith. A climate of respecting diverse ethnicities, an abrogation of chauvinism, a refusal to classify those living amongst Tamils for centuries as immigrants and a culture of political correctness is all a crying need. I'll add a caveat to political correctness, it does not mean stifling free speech. Let us not forget that hatred takes root more easily than sensible ideas. Tamil Nadu eagerly learned hatred from EVR forgetting or ignoring some valuable ideas he had. 

To all the above I'll add lets bury the culture of selective outrage.

Do I harbor hopes? Nay. Not a bit. The poison has run too deep. 
"I am Tamil" poster found on FB.

"நாங்க பூசினா நெத்தில ரத்தம் ஆனா நீங்க பூசினா டிராஃபிக் சிக்னலா".
Dalit Hostel Dining Hall - Courtesy Frontline Issue Jan 15th - 28th 2011