Sunday, June 7, 2015

Beneath the flowery oratory, a lack of democratic values | Article published in the Times of India

My article "Beneath the flowery oratory, a lack of democratic values' was published in the Chennai edition of the Times of India on June 3, 2015.  The same can be read either at 

Or at

The academic version can be read below:

The sound and fury of Dravidian oratory

         Bernard Bate’s  “Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic practice in South India” (Columbia University Press, New York, 2009) is a tour de force in unveiling the rhetorical pedigrees of Tamil politicians’ stage speech, and in providing the cultural raison dêtre for the excessive devotion displayed by the cadres of the Dravidian parties towards their leaders in Tamilnadu. One would be surprised to learn that the emotionally charged flowery stage speeches of Dravidian political leaders have their antecedents in the literary genres of recent past, in late nineteenth century, and not before.
         Public political oratory should be seen as a form of democratic ethic, which defines the relationship between the leaders and people, constructs the discourse of ideas in the public sphere, and gives shape to the social imaginaries of the historical times. In the Western history of intellectual practices public political oratory dates back to the time of ancient Greeks whereas in Tamilnadu the history of which is as ancient as that of the Greeks nothing like a Ciceronian style political oratory was ever depicted in Tamil letters until very late in the nineteenth century. Bate asks, “Why? This is a land with grammar and poetics, and a land with well developed martial tradition. Why had no rhetoric been written? Aren’t the arts of persuasion and public speaking integral to political action? Ancient and medieval Tamil scholars were among the world’s most sophisticated linguists, unrivalled, in fact, until the rise of Western linguistics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
         In pursuit of his questions Bate does discover that the praise of the kings by the Sangam age poets is a form of political speech but it is Professor Tho.Paramasivam’s insight that makes Bate draw stylistic parallels between a stage speech of Vaiko, the then expelled DMK leader and the speech of Jeevagan in Manonmaniyam a nineteenth century play written by Sundaram Pillai.  
Although Bate is able to demonstrate that the unlikely candidates Sundaram Pillai and Thiru.Vi.ka were the real precursors of Dravidian oratory, his real breakthrough emerges when he is able to see the formation of Dravidian political oratory in pure literary Tamil in the speeches of C.N.Annadurai and Kalaignar Karunanidhi in 1940s.
         In a complete departure from the political speech styles uttered in colloquial Tamil by the then congress leaders who spoke to the listening public as if they were the landlords addressing a gathering of farmhands, C.N.Annadurai inaugurated the Dravidian oratory of speaking in pure literary Tamil (Cen Thamiz). Even Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker, the political mentor of C.N.Annadurai did not speak in the high literary Tamil, and like other congress leaders of his time Periyar continued to speak in colloquial Tamil.  This was the historical time when the rediscovery of exquisite Sangam age Tamil poetry (100 -300 CE) was making waves and the Tamil renaissance was in full swing. With the adaptation of the literary high Tamil for his political oratory C.N.Annadurai brought about a revolution in political speech that enabled him and the other Dravidian politicians to pose as the heirs to an ancient, non-Aryan literary heritage. While the adaptation of formally addressing the audiences as respectful citizens (Periyorkaley, Thaimrakaley Oh Elders, Mothers etc.,.) brought masses on an equal conversation, the frequent references in the speeches of Annadurai and Karunanidhi to the bravery of Tamil kings and women alluded to in Sangam poetry helped them to create an aura of glorious Tamil past. Annadurai further displayed rare scholarship in Kampan’s Ramayana, which he used effectively to ridicule religious beliefs and to advance his rationalist atheist stands. Annadurai’s oratory borrowed heavily from the rhetorical techniques of Western political speeches of leaders and thinkers like Emerson, Lincoln, and Ingersoll. Karunanidhi perfected the art of references to classical Tamil texts such as Thirukkural, Silappathikaram, and Purananooru. Both Annadurai and Karunanidhi acknowledged their indebtedness to Bharathidasan, the unparalleled Dravidian poet for their utopian vision that permeated their oratory.
         Bate completely misses out on Bharathidasan and partially on Annadurai and Karunanidhi since he bases his research mainly on the field data collected from 1992- 1995 in Madurai.  The gain is that Bate is able to situate the expressions of Dravidian oratory in a series of real political rallies he attended in Madurai in 1994-1995 and these rallies are not different from what we witness today. Bate writes; “Over a two and a half month period, Madurai was transformed several times from one utopian vision to another. The transformations affected by these events followed a general pattern; these large procession by virtue of   their filmic representations of remote locales and civilizational formations, as well as images of a powerful Dravidian past, a past of kings and heroes, instantiated a far wider set of space times than the temple festival ordinarily does. And the visions of all of the political parties -DMK, MDMK (Vaiko), AIADMK (Jayalalitha) and Congress- were similarly architecture and utopianized; only the characters that peopled and ruled those utopias changed.”
         In the first hand documentation of the political pageantries that consist of paper castles, huge cut outs, praise posters, serial bulb installations, series of flag poles, and paper photo flag decorations Bate recognizes the visual and spatial resonances and counter parts of Dravidian oratory. In those pageantries what Bate calls the ‘Dravidian aesthetic’, the bitter ironies of Dravidian oratory’s democratic ethic emerge clearly and loudly.  The classical literary Tamil the Dravidian leaders used to strike a high civilizational conversation with the masses actually functions to hierarchize the leaders and party cadres.  If the decorative epithets used for the DMK leaders such as Kazhaghattin Porvaal Vaiko ( Viako, the war sword of the party, Eettimunai Ilamaran (Spear point Elamaran), Theepori Arumugam (Roman Candle Arumugam) indicate as if there has been a war, the superlatives used for Jayalalitha of AIADMK like the ‘Revolutionary Goddess’ suggest as if there has been a revolution, and a post revolution trance ceremony. Indeed Bate likens the atheist political rallies of DMK to the village religious festivals. The Dravidian political orators gesticulate, thump the air, stamp their feet, warn their enemies, adjust their long shawls, roll their eyes, and drink a lot of soda in between to make their leaders demi gods who walk on earth. The party cadres who respond to this oratory and the village festival culture of the pageantries display themselves as self-sacrificing foot soldiers, and masochist ritual devotees. Bate records the excessive devotion of AIADMK party workers through a study of posters, cut outs, and praise verbiage.    
         Another remarkable achievement of Bernard Bate’s book is that he worked with an eloquent female orator, M.Kavitha, who was willing to divulge her rhetorical strategies and career frustrations. In an appendix, Bate produces a 1995 speech by Kavitha as thirty-five page oratorical specimen of stage Tamil in Tamil with English translation. It would be a valuable document to know the participation of women as Dravidian political orators. Bate discerns that the modern “Dravidianist political paradigm… took the form of an invented tradition, a neoclassicism, the framing of which as a nation and as a people was entirely new, though the content was quite old”.

          The sound and fury of Dravidian oratory may be nothing but political hyperbole and hubris signifying nothing but they do reveal a fascinating phenomenon of Tamil politics, culture, and history. The excessive devotion the Dravidian oratory helped to perpetuate may tell us that it is time to reclaim ordinary speech for Tamil political stage so that its democratic ethic is restored. 

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