The Dalit erasure of Ilaiyaraaja

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 07, 2018 15:44 hrs

Now that the dust has settled on the controversy created after the newspaper headline on Ilaiyaraaja receiving the second highest prestigious civilian award in the country, it is important to analyse the real implications of that moment.

Born as Gnanathisekan, he was later popularly known as Ilaiyaraaja in the Tamil film industry. He had unwavering success from the 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century. Unparalleled till them, his market gradually declined with developments in technology and another maestro A R Rahman stealing the limelight and setting the trend.

Nevertheless, Ilaiyaraaja is known for this legacy and his supremacy in the field is unparalleled. Ilaiyaraaja went on to defy his caste origins and declared himself a non- dalit. His accessibility in the world of music grew to higher levels, as though people of Dalit origin are unfit to classical musical transitions and it had to be a Brahmin alone.

History in Tamil Nadu records justifications of caste time and again, under different guises. Ilaiyaraaja also claimed to be a divine avatar himself. This is so common in this country, probably why Ambedkar said, "Mahatmas come and go," at the death of Gandhi, who also claimed to be one.

 The history of music in the Tamil film industry systematically plotted and juxtaposed Ilaiyaraaja with other Brahminical artists. From then on he became friends with the same culprits who hated him for his origin, he was welcomed into the fold of the Carnatic militants. 

Last year, the entire Tamil crowd led by the students of the state screamed and shouted their guts out saying that the Modi government is anti- Tamil and Tamil culture. Ilaiyaraaja's acknowledgment of Modi as a friend of the Tamils defies and ruthlessly judges the protesting voices of the Tamil state.  Is Ilaiyaraaja a new BJP propagandist in the state? Along with his brother who recently joined the BJP, will the state be coloured saffron soon? Are we to witness the decline of the Dravidian movement, which itself is a brutal force that denied the Tamil legacy and worsened the caste situation in the state?

A newspaper called Ilaiyaraaja Dalit in its headline pointing out that Dalit outreach seemed to be the point of the award and the Tamil twitterati are outraged. While the headline was absurd given that Ilaiyaraaja has never claimed his Dalit status, the outrage only shows Tamil middle class casteism.

If it was a question of his achievements in the field of music then why was he not given the Bharat Ratna? His achievements in the field of music surely deserve it. Ilaiyaraaja’s name was suggested for the awards in the year 2010 and it took eight years for him to get it. Why? Is it some kind of political tactic that the jury succumbs to every time to fit the political agenda of the current dispensation? Isn’t it obvious that the BJP seeks to make inroads into a fractured polity in Tamil Nadu since Jayalalithaa’s death and this is another step in that direction?

The Tamil denial of caste which comes from all quarters, from the Dravidian movement to Tamil cinema to Dalit figures like Ilaiyaraaja himself but this denial comes at a terrible price. It papers over all structural inequalities. Meanwhile, Tamilians are busy asserting Ilaiyaraja’s Tamilness as they ignore his possible BJPness just as they focus on Rajnikanth’s spirituality as they ignore his BJPness. Tamilness is always a smokescreen behind which something else happens. Tamilness was Tamilians wearing black shirts and posing for the camera as other Tamils were massacred in neighbouring Sri Lanka and diasporic Tamils in different places, near and far, suffered, and continue to suffer, threats and violence.

Recently Pa. Ranjith’s radicalism of a casteless musical collective in response to the cry and agitation of Carnatic artists who claimed complete ownership of the stage and denied the stage to the Tamil gaana, rap and other folk-based music patterns, came in for flak. The denial of gaana and kuthu pattu as genres in themselves is an insult to thousands of Dalits and their future with their art forms. Ranjith’s musical performance was in response to the outrage of Dalit music on the haloed kacheri stage. His simple question in response to people accusing him of marking his music as Dalit and not just music was to ask why then was there a hue and cry when it made the classical stage?

In criticising Pa. Ranjith for his Dalit assertion and celebrating Ilaiyaraaja for his Dalit erasure, Tamil Nadu only shows how dangerously open to fascism it is. In the current dispensation, that might prove fatal.

Read more at:

The case of Dr M Mariraj: Caste is all around us

Dalits, Tamil cinema and Tamil society

Rev. Immanuel Nehemiah is a pastor at two churches in Zuzuwadi, Hosur and Electronic City, Bangalore.

Note: The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not of