Vaclav Havel and Karunanidhi: How the artist politicians shaped their world around them

Both leaders' unparalleled love for their mother tongue reflected in their politics and art.

 |  5-minute read |   10-08-2018
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On the recent demise of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the poet, politician and the patriarch of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of Tamil Nadu, Magsaysay award winner Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna tweeted, “M Karunanidhi was probably the only politician in the world who was referred to as an artist (kalaignar), a novelist, playwright and screenplay writer”. When one journalist corrected him to say that there had been other artist-poet-politicians in the world, like Vaclav Havel from the Czech Republic, Krishna stressed that it was only Karunanidhi whose identity as Kalaignar among the people preceded his life as a politician.

While the claim can be doubted or challenged, one thing is certain — both the Tamil and Czech leaders have many things in common and this deserves a comparative study to understand their lasting impact in their respective countries. Both are in a way contemporaries and became famous through their plays and films in the 50s and 60s. Reading and knowing about their lives make us rethink how art and literature are inherently political in nature and an artiste can actually don the robe of politician with great confidence and charisma.

Vaclav Havel, the leader of the bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989 that led to the fall of the erstwhile communist regime in Czechoslovakia and also of the USSR, became its President till its peaceful dissolution on January 1, 1993 into two sovereign countries — the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But not only just as a statesman who was sought after by every leader in the West as a guiding light on the east side of the Iron Curtain, he was also famous and respected as an absurdist playwright who received the nomination for the Noble Prize in Literature.

His art was essentially rooted in the politics of his time. At the height of the Cold War, he wrote an essay titled “The Power of the Powerlessness” and declared “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent’”.

karuna-_081018021503.jpgMuthuvel Karunanidhi. (Photo: PTI)

This essay, which essentially argued that even the most oppressive regimes depend on a certain amount of compliance by the people it governs, became the manifesto of every dissident to fight communism in Eastern Europe. According to Professor Timothy Gordon Ash at Oxford University, Havel “was not just the dissent; he was the epitome of the dissent, as we come to understand that novel term”. He further says it was Havel who “with the eloquence of a professional playwright and the authority of a former political prisoner, reminded us of the historical and moral dimensions of the European project”.

Karunanidhi, on the other hand, had become the unquestionable leader of the non-Hindi citizens in India and, had he been successful in his dream of a truly federal Indian Union, we would be mourning a global leader today instead of bracketing him as a regional stalwart. Karunanidhi is the name of another dissent to the Indian project which wanted to impose Hindi nation-wide and usurp all regional identities. In 1965, it was his leadership that stopped the-then Congress government in Delhi to make Hindi the sole official language of the country. When the chants of “Hindi Ozhiga, Tamil Vaazhga (Down with Hindi and long live Tamil)” filled the air everywhere, he was at the forefront with Tamil people. Even two years ago, when the Modi government planned to introduce Sanskrit in schools, he expressed his dissent again and warned, “We will not allow domination of Sanskrit not only in Tamil Nadu, but in any state. We will chase it away.” He spoke for all non-Hindi-speaking citizens of the country when he demanded official status at par with Hindi for all languages placed in the Eighth Schedule.

Their love for their mother tongue was unparalleled, and it reflected in their politics and art as well. Both Havel and Karunanidhi always made it a point to give media interviews in their first language. Their plays and cinemas spoke truth to power. If Karunanidhi scripted the most famous film Parashakti (1952) to encourage a new form of political imagination and the growth of the Dravidian movement in India by speaking against caste hegemonies, Havel wrote a play called Memorandum (1965), in which he invented "Ptidepe", a new government language whose least used words are the longest. It was the most successful demonstration of his talent for the absurd and offered a strong critique against the totalitarian bureaucracy in power at that time.

valcav_081018021150.jpgVaclav Havel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jiří Jiroutek)

But Karunanidhi is also different from Havel in many ways — their views on religion are exactly the opposite of each other.

In a country like India where religion runs deep, he never lost an election in the last 60 years and led a region bigger than the Czech Republic, despite openly declaring himself as an atheist and rational person. On the other hand, Havel condemned the present as “the first atheist civilisation” which “lost its connection with the infinite and with eternity”. He famously invited the Pope to the Czech Republic after becoming President, much to the criticism of many.

So, who is greater amongst the both? Can we call Havel the “Kalaignar of the Czech Republic” or name Karunanidhi as “Havel of India”? There is no satisfactory answer to these questions. These nomenclatures exist because of the ways through which power, wealth and information are used to create imbalances among various regions and establish hegemonies. Karunanidhi’s lifelong politics on Tamil self-assertion was to fight against these regional imbalances and hegemonic processes. This ran through his politics and his art, till the very last.  

Also read: Why Tamil cinema will never forget 'Kalaignar' Karunanidhi


Adil Hossain Adil Hossain @adilhossain

The writer is DPhil researcher at University of Oxford, founder and editor-in-chief of Khurpi.

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