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How Periyar followers celebrated Ravanlila in Madras

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.

How Periyar followers celebrated Ravanlila in Madras
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Pictures from Ravanlila celebration in Madras.

Chennai

THE annual Ramlila  celebration at Delhi is a manifestation of the climax of the most popular
 tale in India — the conflict between Rama and Ravana.

The Dussehra  celebrations were started in the 1800s when Hindu soldiers serving in the Mughal army introduced it on the Yamuna floodplains. During the celebration, the effigies of Ravana and his kinsmen were burnt and Bahadur Shah Zafar watched it from the fort Red Fort balcony. Other fervent onlookers watched the burning asuras tumble believing the direction in which Ravana fell would be a prediction of things to come.

The famed Ramlila Maidan was created in the early 1930s between the old and new cities of Delhi by closing a lake to host the annual enactment. Post-independence, this eyeball catching event had the prime minister firing the ceremonial fire arrow that set the effigies alight. However, one group was persistently unhappy for they considered Ravana, a Tamil and a Dravidian.

Tamil epics have seldom been harsh on Ravana — they have portrayed him as a just king and a war hero. (Meeting someone by the name Ravana in Tamil Nadu doesn’t raise eyebrows).

From the 1930s, the anti-Brahmin Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) had challenged the Hindu gods and took cudgels on behalf of the ten-headed asura king. The celestial battle of the Devas and Asuras were interpreted as the ancient Aryan-Dravidian war and Ravana was made an icon of anti-Aryanism (and anti Brahminism).

The early 1930s saw the scripting of “politically correct” versions of Ramayana and Periyar himself contributed two.

However, heritage experts pointed out that as per mythology, Ravana was a Brahmin and Rama, a kshatriya who even had to do a Bramha Hathi Dosham penance post-Lanka war to absolve the sin of killing a Brahmin.

The DK got it quite wrong but maintained its stand nevertheless. In 1973, the patriarch of Tamil politics EV Ramasamy (Periyar) died and there was a talk that his movement would waste away soon. Maniammai, the young wife of Periyar, who was also his political heir, had intense pressure to perform.

Maniammai took a cue from the last diary noting of Periyar, that a Ravanalila should be celebrated in Madras in stark contrast to the Ramlila of Delhi.

Maniammai sent a telegram to Indira Gandhi saying that her participation in the Delhi Ramlila was against all canons of secularism and that she should desist from the dastardly act. She finished off the missive with “Otherwise, we Dravidians would be burning the effigies of Rama and you”.

The telegraph department refused to send it to the PM unless the sender removed the mention of “you “. Surprisingly, Indira replied: “There is no racial connotation in the Ramlila celebrations in India” and pointed out that “even your distinguished leader Periyar was named after Rama”.

The protest of the Dravidians did not stop the prime minister from letting go of a flying fire arrow at the asura effigies at the Dussehra celebration.

Maniammai decided to go ahead with the Ravanalila. She chose the day (December 25) after the first anniversary of Periyar and extorted the cadre from a hospital bed where she was convalescing “Black shirt warriors, be ready to pay any price for your principles. Let us focus on Madras this year. But the next will be Delhi.”

Periyar Thidal in Vepery was chosen to be the venue. But the police refused to give permission though the government was led by M Karunanidhi, a former disciple of Periyar. Anxious citizens fearing caste tensions sent many petitions to the governor.

The issue was raised in the winter session of the parliament and the Chief Minister requested a postponement. But the DK did not falter. When important leaders other than Maniammai were arrested, the DK knew the effigies would also be confiscated.

On the day of the event (December 25), they had placed nominal effigies of Ram, Lakshman and Sita on the stage and hid the 17-feet tall actual ones behind the Periyar statue. The police as expected confiscated the dummy effigies and left.

Maniammai set the effigies of Rama, Lakshman and Sita on fire to the sound of applause all around. Three cadres dressed in royal finery as Ravana, Kumbakarna and Meganadha stood on the stage and clapped as the bonfire was lit. As many as 14 people including Maniammai were arrested and released on bail after overnight incarceration and convicted when the case was taken up 2 years later.

Ravanalila was one reason the emergency was very tough on the Dravidian movement, one of the few non-political organisations targeted by Indira’s police.

Many members were arrested under the MISA Act. An appeal later overturned the judgment mainly pointing to the unusual delay taken to pursue the case. Ravanalila though adding colour to the political landscape did not resurrect the Dravidian movement to its 1940’s glory but in a way, it was the act that reinforced that the Dravidian movement could sustain on the teachings of Periyar even after his demise.
 
— The writer is a historian and author 

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