Religious groups' latest target - Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 22, 2018 11:29 hrs

A number of people from different sub sects of Hindu religion staged a demonstration in Coimbatore against legendary and National Award winning Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu. The reason for the protest against him is because of alleged remarks he made against a goddess Andal; they have demanded an apology from him.

A report from the local Coimbatore newspaper Covai Post stated that the people who protested belonged to Vaishnava, devotees of Perumal, and a group from Brahmin Association. They gathered near the South Taluk office and raised slogans as well as seeking an unconditional apology.

A petition was submitted to the Madras High Court. Later, the court observed that they saw nothing wrong in Vairamuthu citing an article as he did not express his own opinion.

Writers and politicians came to his defense. Former finance minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said what Vairamuthu stated was not offensive and was actually a tribute. Last week, a case was registered against the lyricist based on a complaint from a Hindu Munnani functionary.

Tamil writer and playwright Indira Parthasarathy said that the controversy is completely unnecessary. A report in the Tamil news site Puthiyathalaimurai quotes him as saying, “While we can argue that Vairamuthu was wrong in his facts about Aandal, one cannot say that he was being offensive”.

The whole furor is that Vairamuthu gave a speech at the Srivalliputhur Andal Temple during a discussion on Andal. Andal is the only woman among the 12 revered Vaishnavite saints hailed as 'Alwars' in Tamil. The speech was reproduced in the Tamil Daily Dinamani, which has since taken it down after people demanded an apology.

In his speech, he quoted a line from a book titled In ‘Indian movement: some aspects of dissent, protest and reform written by an American Indian scholar Subhash Chandra Malik from Indiana University. The line that has caused controversy is him quoting -

Andal herself is a Devadasi who lived and died in the Sri Rangam Temple. While devotees will not accept this, but those who oppose patriarchy, and those who are against an unequal society, will ponder this”.

Some background on Andal - she is known as a goddess and a gifted poet whose work titled “Thiruppavai” is in praise of Lord Krishna. This work is celebrated in spiritual Tamil literature and is part of a collection of verses that are regarded as sacred and in praise of Lord Narayana. She is known in Tamil, commonly as Alvar (one who is immersed in the depths in the enjoyment of God).

Today, the garden in which she was found as a baby by a devout Brahmin named Vishnucitta, is preserved in Srivilliputtur, a small town in the Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu. The house of Vishnucitta which is adjacent to Lord Vishnu's temple has been converted into a temple in honor of Andal.

In the speech, he mentions Andal as someone who bucks the patriarchic trend when women were not leaving the house and challenged tradition by singing in praise of Perumal in the temple.

In an interview to the Times of India, he clarified his comments saying in part, “I not only celebrate her Tamil, but also her being the first voice for women’s empowerment”. He states that devotees have misinterpreted his usage of the word “dasi” meaning devotee with “vesi” meaning prostitute.

As Gita Aravamudan in a column for Firstpost points out, the term Devadasis referred to the women attached to the temples, i.e. servants of god. She states that the term has acquired a different meaning over time and the music and artistic skill associated with these women artistes have been forgotten.

In a larger context, the concept of freedom of speech and expression is getting muddied with each passing controversy, the row over the film Padmavati being the latest example. Devout religious groups and their patrons never miss an opportunity to malign those who do not follow a strict ode. In this instance, it seems even quoting a line from another source is a bridge too far.

More columns by Varun Sukumar

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