Performative Film Practices In Tamil Politics, Part 1 (Giulia Battaglia)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

Author’s note: This piece has been written as part of a bibliographic research about documentary filmmaking in South India conducted in London in 2006. This was the first year of my PhD in social anthropology – that is, it was the moment before leaving for fieldwork research. Throughout my fieldwork (2007-2009) I moved away from Tamil Nadu and eventually wrote a PhD first and a monograph later about an anthropological history, at a national level, of documentary film in India (Battaglia 2018). As it stands, this article is an account of the Dravidian Movements of Tamil Nadu and the performative strategies of power that they played over time through what I call, ‘cultural performances’ (Singer 1972). While pleased to have this short piece published in an online open-access journal, I’d like to tell my reader that today I see this paper as an example on how anthropologists think before being transformed by fieldwork. This pre-fieldwork ‘thinking’ moment is often forgotten and left behind in academic careers. I believe it is important to re-activate this moment, as an incipit to re-discover our ‘own archival knowledge’ and continue producing new forms of knowledge.

Many scholars have written on the early Dravidian history (e.g., Hardgrave; Nambi Arooran; Fadia; Subramanian, among others) as much as on the strategies of power of Dravidian Parties after 1944 and on the connections to Tamil cinema culture (Hardgrave; Baskaran; Das Gupta; Dickey; Forrester; Pandian; Vasudevan; Vaasanthi, among others).

In line with this existing literature, this essay focuses on the way in which from the early time Dravidians have articulated the multiple aspects of their ‘identity’ (linguistic, ethnic, religious, factional/racial, cultural, political) through urban ‘cultural performances’ (poetry, music, theatre, or films). It explores how traditional popular culture has transformed itself into modern ‘cultural performances’ and in particular into a genuine cinema culture. This analysis is crucial for investigating the possible connection between marginal practices of filmmaking – that is, documentary filmmaking, with local politics and cinema culture in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

By ‘identity,’ I mean a relational process defined in term of differences, as Mouffe states; a point of temporary attachment to the subject position – that is, the result of a successful articulation of the subject into the flow of the discourses, as Hall states; or better, a ‘construction’ always in ‘process’ produced in specific historical and institutional context and through the relation to ‘what is not’ –that is, to the others, as Derrida states. This way of thinking ‘identity’ leaves open space for theorizing multiple identities and therefore the processes of their continuous re-articulation and performativity in whatever context we want to refer to.

According to Nambi Arooran, the term ‘Dravidian’ was originally used by the linguist Robert Caldwell with reference to the four principal languages of South India: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. These languages are credited with being a distinct linguistic family and therefore independent of Sanskrit where the north Indian languages were from. Hardgrave and Fadia acknowledge that the origin of the Dravidian people ‘lies in questions,’ and it has been largely accepted that primitive Dravidians dominated the South before the Aryan (or Brahmans) expanded to the South (although Brahmin and Non-Brahmin scholars had different opinions about the origin). Thus, since the early time, linguistic, ethnic and factional/racial Dravidian identities began to be articulated together.

According to Nambi Arooran, during the second decade of the 20th century, the use of ‘Dravidian’ was easily transformed in ‘castes other than Brahmin’ gaining “a racial as well as a linguistic meaning” (54). And this transformation has consequentially brought a political account into the term. Dravidian languages were identified with mainly Tamil people and with Non-Brahmin castes, while Sanskrit languages were identified with Aryan population, Hindi speakers and with Brahmans.

This way of articulating Tamil identity was easily transformed into political activism with the 1937-1940 anti-Hindi agitation – that is when Tamil people became more conscious of the heritage of their language and culture, and when the idea of a separate state to protect them gained ground (250). In 1944 indeed, there was the first Dravidian party, Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), whose demand was the separation of Dravidanad.

According to Subramanian, the term “non-Brahminism,” instead, was coined to signify the politicization of non-Brahmin identity and became mainly feature of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra although also elsewhere in India there were anti-Brahmin movements. However, as both Subramanian and Pandian have highlighted, even though Brahmins are credited with being somewhat culturally distinctive throughout India, it was colonialism that constituted Brahmin and Non-Brahmin identities, “by enabling new forms of ‘speakability’ about caste in a modern ‘secularized’ public sphere” (7). Thus, a constructed identity has unleashed the construction of other identities in opposition to it, articulated in different historical and institutional contexts.

In this respect, Non-Brahmin movements in Tamil Nadu had been identified with the Dravidian Movements which articulated well the multiple aspects of their Dravidian identity (linguistic, racial, cultural, political, etc) into various historical contexts (colonial and post-colonial time). In other words, Subramanian states that “non-Brahminism endured in Tamil Nadu alone because it was linked to Tamil nationalism from the 1930s onwards in a populist discourse” (83). From this regard, one question emerges: how could Dravidian movements raise a Tamil nationalist sentiment in a populist discourse?

To answer this question, I will take into this argument Singers’ idea of fusion of Little and Great Tradition in Madras city, but I will follow Baskaran’s analysis of the relationship between politics and cultural revivalism in South India.

If it is true that Indians perceive modernization “as a cultural process of traditionalization in which the new is turned in something old, and not as a cultural process that makes something new out of that which is old,” as Singer states (399), then these socio-cultural-political movements – as Pandian states, are not conceptually separated from each other – have perfectly made used of this perception through performative socio-cultural-political power strategies. These movements wanted to restore the Dravidian Great Tradition, not yet recognized as such, through modern cultural performances. According to Nambi Arooran, the rediscovery of old Tamil classics began during the second half of the 19th century – with C. W. Tamotharam Pillai (1832-1901) and U.V. Swaminatha Aiyar (1855-1942) – and can be considered as the beginning of the Tamil Renaissance (see also Baskaran 1981).

Accordingly, for understanding the Dravidian performative strategy, I am going to focus on both the important role that cultural performances have had since the time of the early movements, and the ability of Dravidians to make use of modern techniques of propaganda to promulgate a cultural ideology and model of a Dravidian Great Tradition.

Politics, mass communication, and traditional popular culture

The first non-Brahmin organizations were the Madras Dravidian Association (1912), the Justice Party (1916) and the Self-respect movement (1929). Subramanian states that “the first two were mainly élite organizations of anglicized landlords and professionals who were important supporters of the colonial regime, and their demands and strategy were framed by colonial legality” (98). The latter was the only one which gained some mass appeal.

E.V. Naicker was the most important figure of the movements. He started as a leader of the Self-respect Movement, he took part of the Justice Party, and, in 1944, he created the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). At first, Naicker’s political activism attacked “superstitious belief and customs.” In a second stage, it condemned “caste and its associated institutions” such as religion, rituals and tradition. Thirdly, it had a revolutionary turn influenced by the Russian experience.

Hardgrave and Nambi Arooran claim that, eventually, Naicker’s political activism was transformed into a more suitable programme for the Justice Party where in November 1935 it was accepted. However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, history and language became so central in Tamil Nadu that one of the important consequences of political activities was the use of Tamil for mass communication through poems, songs, plays and later on through films, claims Baskaran.

Subramania Bharathi is credited with being the poet of resurgent Tamil nationalism who at the beginning of the 20th century introduced innovations into Tamil prose and poetry using in his writing everyday language. According to Baker in Baskaran, “he managed to convey everyday thoughts, political messages, children’s rhymes and romantic sentiments in language that was accessible to the man of ordinary education, yet also pleased the literati” (15).

This new literary and linguistic trend opened a new era which involved not only poetry but also popular songs, performances and in a second time also films. Although Bharathi did not support any political movement, he composed both nationalistic poems and songs combining old tradition of devotion to god with songs of the nationalist movements. For the first time in Tamil poetry, he turned traditional media into mass political education, states Nambi Arooran.

The use of poems or traditional texts for mass communication became one of the first performative techniques used by the Dravidian movements. Since the Hindu religion was considered as an opiate by which the Brahmin dulled the masses, “atheism became virtually a cult among Kazhagam members” and The Ramayana, as well as other Sanskrit epics, were distorted into political ends of the Dravidar Kazhagam, according to Hardgrave (29). Subramanian states:

Tales of inversion rituals involving the reversal of textually approved forms of worship occupy an important place in the genealogies of emergent groups in Tamil Nadu. […] Specifically, alternative version of the Ramayana which praised Ravana’s heroic qualities, portrayed Rama as an uncouth invader, and did not validate varnashrama dharma and Brahmin supremacy were written by Jain poets and similar tales were transmitted through the oral traditions of the lower and intermediate castes in some regions (118).

The Ramayana and other plays were reinterpreted by DK in order to attract popular support, to create a sort of ‘cultural offensive’ to the traditional Sanskritization, and to bring Tamil people to an awareness of themselves as a community, by reviving a Tamil purity in language, writing, tradition, religion and culture. Nevertheless, if poems and epics had an important role for mass communication it is because they started to be taken on stage. They became theatrical performances reaching a larger audience for also non-literate people.

According to Baskaran, since the beginning of the 20th century the stage was used as an instrument of propaganda by the nationalists. Consequentially, once that nationalism had acquired a mass base, popular theatre became the major mass entertainment form and began to get involved in political action (21-24). It was mainly articulated in three forms: the use of songs, the depiction of social reforms, and the use of allegorical political themes. ‘Social’ plays appeared during the last decades of the 19th century, when one of the first social plays, written and staged, was Kasi Viswanatha Mudaliyar’s Dumbachari in the 1880s. Additionally, political comments and symbols started to be introduced into drama during the second decade of the 20th century (33-34).

However, in Tamil Nadu popular theatre had never been an ‘isolate’ mass medium, according to Barnouw and Krishnaswamy and Baskaran, due to the fact that “folk songs, therukoothu (street drama) performances, the repertoire of itinerant minstrels and musicians at festivals all [my emphasis] functioned as mass media” (45). Amongst all these entertainment forms, songs were the main vehicle for communicating ideas whether they be tales from the epics, or traditional dramas or funeral laments. Simple in style, they were easy not only to perform but also to memorize, endorsing interpretations in form and content and unleashing never-ending reproductions.

As I have already highlighted, while believing that literary forms should have been understandable for everyone, C. Subramania Bharathi was one of the first poet who started writing in a very simplistic style “suitable for singing” (47). Thus, his songs set the ground for patriotic songs in the southern regions. Baskaran states:

At their simplest, songs could be transmitted aurally, without any intervening medium, and thus were difficult for the government to control. Singers and song-writers helped to keep up the spirit and the momentum of the movement, and to mobilise men for action, when other forms of publicity were hounded off the streets (52).

Since songs were a potential tool for disseminating ideas, political leaders – such as E.V. Naicker – began to print and distribute their texts all over Tamil Nadu in order to spread their political ideas. The use of popular songs took on a new dimension: many artistes took part in direct political actions and gave “a certain authenticity to the messages they were already communicating through songs” (55).

Nevertheless, the real shift happened with the mechanical reproduction – that is, when in the 1920s, the gramophone was able to reproduce recorded sounds, according to Hughes. Baskaran states that songs commenced to be heard “on drama stages, in trains, in street corners and in school assemblies, while musical luminaries of the day recorded them for the gramophone” (54). Folk songs that were never reproduced even in writing now could be recorded on discs commonly known as ‘plate songs.’ As a result, nationalist tunes and patriotic songs along with comments on political development, eulogies of leaders, protests against specific actions of the government, and so forth, highly increased.

Stephen Hughes argues that, with the gramophone advent, live performances and drama songs had been mechanically reproduced and condensed into short standardized versions. In other words, “the recording process abstracted, reified, and isolated the voice of the singers and the supportive music as pure musicality and produced it as a saleable commodity for an emerging mass culture of Tamil music” (8). Thus, the performative aspect that traditionally linked drama, song, dance and music came apart. The gramophone ‘commercialized’ popular and classic music transforming, drama music “into a commodity for mass circulation” (4-5).

Up to this point then, we can see that on the one hand, early Tamil nationalist movements arose while traditional popular culture – constituted of dramas, songs and dances – became vehicle of political mass communication by using a simple language comprehensible for everyone. On the other hand, with the mechanical reproduction of sound, the traditional performativity of the popular culture had been disappearing.

However, the itinerary of the performative popular and classic songs in Tamil Nadu did not end with the mechanical reproduction of sound, argues Baskaran, but kept travelling toward “another avenue of expression in the new-fangled medium of the ‘talkie’” (61), bringing with itself both the popular and the political features. Tamil sound cinema encompassed traditional popular songs and performances becoming itself a new powerful means of mass communication.

Giulia Battaglia is a researcher in anthropology of visual/art/media practices specialised in documentary film in India. Her work is interdisciplinary and draws from a range of academic fields, including visual/media anthropology, documentary studies, visual and material cultures, art and anthropology, Indian cinema, cultural studies and film history. She wrote Documentary Film in India: an Anthropological History, published with Routledge in 2018. At present, she lives and works in Paris in the field of anthropology, arts and media. She is  part of the laboratoire de recherche IRMECCEN, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3) and the laboratoire de recherche IIAC, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). For the latter, she is also responsible for a funded international project between art and social science, called ‘L’invention des formes de représentation à l’ère de la mondialisation.’

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