There’s a founding paradox at the heart of the Dravidian movement, in its very name. Like the word ‘Hindi’ is Persian in origin, the word ‘Dravidian’ is actually Sanskrit. For a concept that’s taken to mean a lot of things—but at its core a strong sense of linguistic separateness—this marks out a canvas bristling with ironies. Yes, there is a Dravidian family of languages, but a whole movement was carried out in its name that never much referred to the rest of them, except by holding up Tamil as a sort of master code—the fount of everything else. Yes, it did impact the social landscape and imagination profoundly: but at some level that was iffy too, marked by a capture of power by middle castes, with even hard-core Tamil-speaking Dalits on its periphery. Did all the passion get used for a mere transfer of power? Does it live on as a powerful idea with potential? Or, a century on, has a liberation ideology been flattened to shallow, two-dimensional pop-kitsch cutouts?
The vibrant force it had in pop culture contains clues to this double life, with ideas gradually turned to spectacle and finally hollow tokenism. In 1947 came the Tamil film Kanjan (Miser) directed by Kovai A. Ayyamuthu, a Congressman and idealist, who also penned a song for the film. The lyric, in praise of the Tamil language, became very popular on radio and on gramophone records which sold well. Of course, the prodigious output from the film industry in Madras up until the early forties, before war-time censorship slowed production down temporarily, had dwelt on an assortment of themes—mythology, the freedom struggle, strong reformist takes on untouchability and temple entry, widow remarriage and temperance, to name a few.