The Dravidian parties which opposed most of what prevailed in Tamil society embraced Pongal festival as a symbol of Tamil culture and deftly blended its ideas of secularism, equality, glorification of labour and Tamil identity besides utilising the festival of the masses as a connect between the rising movement and common man.
Besides propagating it as the cultural festival of Tamils, it also made efforts to declare it as the Tamil new year day. The movement from the days of Periyar to MGR had carried out the propaganda through films, novels and poems.
Even before the days when DMK headed by M Karunanidhi tried to brand MGR as an outsider, the actor who often used to describe himself as ‘Ungal veettu pillai’ had celebrated Pongal in a grand manner.
AIADMK spokesperson and former minister Vaigai Selvan said, “Pongal is the only festival MGR celebrated and extended greetings to partymen. He used to meet the functionaries and cadre on Pongal Day and present them with gifts on that day.” He said the Dravidian movement had always treated Pongal as a cultural festival of Tamils cutting across religion and caste.
However, Pongal became a major issue of confrontation between the off shoots of the DK after Karunanidhi declared Pongal as the Tamil New Year day in 2006. Defending Karunanidhi’s move, DK deputy president Kali Poongundran said the day before Pongal is celebrated as Bhogi when people burn old articles and get ready to welcome a new beginning. He said eminent Tamil scholars who convened a conference in 1921 under Maraimalai Adigal and Navalar Somasundara Bharathiar had passed a resolution stating that Pongal was originally, the New Year Day of Tamil calendar which starts around the birth of saint Thiruvalluvar.
However, former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa restored Tamil New Year to the month of Chithirai saying it is the customary practice of the people.
An official notification in 2011 said the DMK government’s act declaring the first day of Tamil month Thai had met with practical difficulties and resistance from the people.
But even now, the state government has the Thiruvalluvar year (which begins on Pongal day) written on top of any government document, but the official new year day is celebrated in April.
Interestingly, the AIADMK government under MGR had issued diaries and calendars for various government departments with the Thiruvalluvar era which treats Pongal festival as the first day of Tamil calendar. Thiruvalluvar era was used in all the government documents and communications during MGR’s regime.
Leader of Opposition MK Stalin had joined the issue on Pongal eve and asserted that it would be declared as Tamil new year again when the DMK returned to power again. Although, the question of Pongal keeps on altering when the regimes change, its status as the only cultural festival of Tamils remains unchallenged.