Southern secret: Why the national anthem is rarely played at public functions in Tamil Nadu

All rise.
All rise.
Image: EPA/Jagadeesh NV
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The Indian supreme court on Nov. 30 made it compulsory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before each show. The audience will have to stand in respect and the halls’ doors will be shut.

The court’s argument that the measure will “instill… a sense committed patriotism and nationalism” was greeted enthusiastically by members of the government, including by minister Venkaiah Naidu, who responded cheerfully, “I am very happy about it.”

It is uncertain so far how the court will enforce the order. How people in some states will react to it is also an unknown.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the national anthem Jana Gana Mana is not played as commonly as in north India. Instead, the southern state is more used to playing its own Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu (Salutation to Mother Tamil), at public events, given the strong sense of regional identity and spirit of sub-nationalism the song invokes.

To understand the importance of the song to the state, it is necessary to look back at Tamil Nadu’s political history.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the Dravidian movement, dominant in the state for 100 years, harboured ambitions of a separate Dravida Nadu or Dravidian country.

The aspiration was dropped only after the 1962 Indo-China War, when Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader CN Annadurai declared his party’s steadfast commitment to remain within the Indian fold. This did not mean, though, that the state would let go of its sub-nationalist identity.

It was former chief minister M Karunanidhi who decided to have an official song for the Tamil Nadu government, and the pick was Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu, written by Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai and set to tune by M S Viswanathan. This was done mainly to find an alternative to religious invocations at public events that jarred with the atheistic roots of the Dravidian movement. However, this feature was soon forgotten and the song now exemplifies Tamil pride and the virtues of the Tamil land placed uniquely in the larger Indian territory.

Resistance to north Indian culture

Writer and Dalit intellectual Stalin Rajangam noted that the national anthem is rarely played at public functions in Tamil Nadu, except at events involving constitutional authorities. Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu, on the other hand, is sung voluntarily, despite some criticism of its “Dravidian roots.”

There would be few in Tamil Nadu’s towns and villages who understand the national anthem fully or can sing it without mistakes, Rajangam said. The reverence it receives in Tamil Nadu is mainly due to its official celebration as a national symbol rather than any conscious attachment.

Indeed, the national anthem began making inroads into popular Tamil culture, according to Rajangam, with the cinema of the 1990s, especially with strong patriotic films such as Roja (1992). In recent decades, more schools have made the national anthem a part of morning assemblies.

Still, while government notifications prescribe singing Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu at the beginning of an event and the national anthem at the end, the latter is mostly skipped.

Former Indian administrative service officer MG Devasagayam said the special place for the Tamil song was due to the subconscious sense of resistance that Tamils have to north Indian culture.

“Though the anthem is in Sanskritised Bengali, most Tamils looked at it as Hindi anthem,” he added. The state has had a vibrant anti-Hindi movement that painted the north Indian language as a tool of cultural hegemony.

Devasagayam said that given the variation in the way the national anthem was treated in different parts of India, it was absurd to make the anthem compulsory, that too in a cinema hall. “Any display of patriotism should be voluntary,” he said.

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