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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Memories of MGR's Madurai Thamil Thiruvizah (1981)

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Memories of MGR's Madurai Thamil Thiruvizah (1981)

17 January 2001

[see also Fifth International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, 1981]

January 17, marks the 84th birthday of M.G.Ramachandran (MGR). Here is an apocryphal story. The news was delivered that God was willing to offer any three wishes solicited by every Indian politician. When it came to Jayalalitha's turn, she presented her three wishes.

1. I wish to become the chief minister of the state again.
2. I wish to become the prime minister of India.
3. I wish you to produce a clone of MGR.

This was submitted to the God by his secretary-general with a formatted answer slip, which stated the word 'possible' at the three spots for the God to scribble his command. Jayalalitha was delivered a fax from Himalayas, pertaining to her wishes.

1. Possible, depending on the current incumbent's health.
2. Possible, depending on the current incumbent's health.
3. Possible, may take a century!

MGR - Ah! a man in a century! That's how millions of Tamils (including me) will sum up his influence on the psyche of 20th century Tamils. 20 years have passed since he staged his 'Thamil Thiruvizah' (officially tagged as, 5th International Conference-Seminar of Tamil Studies) in Madurai, between Jan 5th and 10th in 1981. I was a delegate from Eelam and was lucky to be an eye-witness for that event. Then I was a research assistant in biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya. I provide below my unpublished diary-notes of my trip to Madurai.

To the best of my knowledge, there exists one account by Norman Cutler (University of Chicago) entitled, "The Fish-eyed Goddess meets the Movie Star: An Eyewitness account of the Fifth International Tamil Conference" [Pacific Affairs, summer 1983, vol.56, no.2, pp.270-287]. But here is my eyewitness account.

Diary Notes of Madurai Journey (January 3-11, 1981)


Today, I'm leaving for India, to participate in the 5th International Conference on Tamil Studies, which is scheduled to commence in Madurai tomorrow. This is my first foreign trip; and I'm flying in an aeroplane after a lapse of 20 yeas. Went to Saraswathi Hall [Colombo 4] by 1.00pm. Started off from there by 1.20pm and reached Katunayake. Boarded Air Lanka flight from Colombo to Trivandrum, and it started by 3.45 and we landed at Trivandrum by 4.15pm. There we had to spend nearly three and a half hours.

James Rutnam introduced me to Prof.K.Indrapala. Mrs.Ambika Thamotheram was inquiring about the contents of my research paper.

Around 7.30pm, I passed through the airport customs and I changed the 12 US dollars into Indian rupees. Our delegation was taken in two tourist buses and we had dinner at Kerala M.L.A. hostel. A typical South Indian diet of chappathi and thosai. Only around 11pm, we started off from Trivandrum; reached Nagerkoil by 12.30am, and proceeded towards Madurai.


Our Sri Lankan delegation reached Madurai city, early morning by 6.00am. We were taken to Madurai Kamaraj University Men's Hostel. Today is the opening day of the 5th International Conference Seminar on Tamil Studies. I managed to get a room at the 2nd floor of the Men's Hostel. After having a quick wash, we got into a vehicle, and landed at the Mu.Va.[Mu.Varatharasan] Arangam.

During the breakfast, I was able to meet a lot of foreign delegates. First, I introduced myself to Saalai Ilanthiraiyan and Saalini Ilanthiraiyan from Delhi. Then Eelaventhan introduced me to Krishna Vaikunthavasan. We joined the queue at the registration counter to receive our delegates' batches and bags. I cashed the traveller's cheque for Rs. 1,000 at the counter. Fr. Joseph Mary introduced me to Dr.Xavier. 

Around 1.30pm, MGR came to Mu.Va.Arangam to open the lunch for delegates. We had to squeeze in and greet MGR with a handshake, and moved on to pick a plate, to serve ourselves. I just introduced myself to MGR as "Sri Kantha; Ilankai-Kandy-le irunthu vanthirukiren" [Sri Kantha: I've come from Sri Lanka, Kandy]. He just greeted me "Vanakkanga". That was my only exchange with the legendary man!

In the evening, around 5pm, we were picked up in delegates' buses and taken to Race Course. The Opening Session began around 6.00pm, and we were seated at the Delegates' section. I was surprised to see Uma [Maheswaran] - my former TULF Youth Council pal. By the time MGR began his speech, it was around 10.30pm. We didn't have proper dinner and reached our residence hostel by 12.00 midnight.


Got up around 6.00am and I was given the conference program. Hurriedly went through it to note my time of presentation. Many of my colleagues were disappointed not to see their names. Mine -It's there! -it's today afternoon 3.00-3.30pm.

Morning Plenary Session was presided by Justice S.Maharajan. Two professors, from Japan (Dr.Susumu Ohno) and Czechoslovakia (Dr.Vacek) presented their papers. In the afternoon I presented my research paper on 'Arunagirinathar - The Adiguru of Karnatic Music?'. It was chaired by Dr.S.Ramanathan. This is my first international presentation to a learned audience. There were about 15 people in the room. Amongst these were, Salem Jeyalakshmi [noted Karnatic vocalist] and Dr.S.Premalatha.

In the evening, went to Tamil Isai Sangam Hall to witness Vyjantimala Bali's dance performance. We were a bit late. So, I was able to watch only 15 minutes. While returning, I was chatting with Sabah Jeyarasah, in the bus.


Third day at Madurai. I joined with Fr.Joseph Mary. It was around 9.30am, when the Plenary Sessions began. Saalai Ilanthirayan's address on behalf of foreign delegates was an outspoken one. The research presentations scheduled for morning didn't interest me much. So, I was hanging around the verandah of the Seminar auditorium, glancing through the exhibited books at the stalls. Bought 9 books for Rs. 67.55.

We were really exhausted after lunch; so, Fr.Mary and Bro. Anthony John and I didn't bother to present ourselves at the Afternoon sessions. 

In the evening, went to Tamil Isai Sangam Hall. Witnessed Padma Subrahmanyam's dance performance - mainly demonstrations of many bhavas, from Kambaramayanam. A versatile performance. Kovai Mahesan, seated besides me, asked me to write a travelogue on the Madurai Conference for 'Sutantiran', which I agreed.

[Note: This travelogue of mine appeared subsequently in three parts in the Sutantiran weekly of Feb.15, Feb.22, and Mar.4, 1981. Unfortunately, now I don't have a published version or even a copy of the prepared manuscript with me now! When I left Sri Lanka, I did not bother to take with my my writings of the pre-1982 period and after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo, these were sent to our house in native Point Pedro by my parents for safe-keeping and I have lost access to them forever! God only knows what happened to them. Some many be lying in the cupboards, but some must have been bombed, damaged and irretrievably lost. I had a complete collection of 'Sutantiran' issues from 1970 to 1981. And all my writings published in 'Sutantiran' from 1974 to 1981, as well as my meticulously-kept diaries from 1970 to 1980 had got lost. The 1981 diary escaped this fate since I took it with me to Illinois, when I left Sri Lanka in August 1981.]


Morning Plenary Session was on Dance, Music and Drama. Dr.Sudharani Raghupathi read a paper on bharata natya, accompanied by demonstrations from three of her students. After this presentation, there developed a heated discussion on the origin of bharata natya. Padma Subrahmanyam, who was also present, was asked to contribute her views, which she did for almost more than half-an-hour, in an impromptu style.

Amirthalingam released a book in memory of Fr.Thani Nayagam. Dr.S.Ramanathan presented a paper on music, with demonstrations. This was also superb. But the paper by Putthaneri Subramanian on drama, was not that impressive. Presented a copy of my research paper to Padma Subrahmanyam.

Met 'Mukunthan'[alias, Uma Maheswaran] after a lapse of two and a half years at the book stall and had a chat with him about the activities. I was having a high temperature; didn't take lunch; so, went to hostel to rest. Couldn't attend the afternoon research sessions. 

In the evening, went to Tamil Isai Sangam Hall. Witnessed Swarnamugi's dance performance. A thrilling performance indeed and one will get hair-raising experience when he sees the 'karanas' demonstrated by Swarnamugi. And the snake-dance and peacock-dance were real delights. 


5th day at Madurai. As today's Plenary Sessions are scheduled on Tamil literature by Ma.Po.Si.[Sivagnana Gramaniaar] and Justice Maharajan, Fr.Joseph Mary and I thought to shift our attention to town. While we were moving out only, we learnt that MGR had come to the seminar auditorium. 

For the first time, I was in Madurai city during day time. We had lunch at St.Mary's Church, being guests of Fr.James Rodriguez. Returned to the university around 2.30pm. Obtained a copy of Ma Naatu Vizha Malar [Conference Souvenir Issue], priced at Rs.35, issued free to us. 

In the evening, we strolled along the roads around 6pm, and witnessed that large number of masses gathered around the posters of 'January 1974 incident'.


6th day at Madurai. We felt that yesterday, we should have been present at yesterday's Plenary Sessions, when MGR addressed it. We were unfortunately not physically present to witness what C.Rajadurai spoke, and what was commented by one Kumaradasan, said to be a Sri Lankan delegate, and what MGR retorted.

Today's Plenary Session was presided by V.R.Nedunchezhiyan and by the time he addressed us, it was around 1.00pm. I was laughing all the time, when he delivered his address, sprinkled with humorous quips on everything under the sun. He was fantastic - a pro's pro in oratory indeed. I presented a copy of my research paper to him. 

In the evening, at Madurai Tamil Isai Sangam Hall, we witnessed Jayalalitha's dance drama, 'Mathura Nayaki' [Then, Jayalalitha was only a movie star, and not even a member of Anna DMK]. The hall was filled to capacity. After the program, it took our bus nearly 3 hours to pass through the traffic jam. We were unable to have a good dinner. Reached the Kamaraj University hostel by 12.30am in the night. 


7th day at Madurai. Today is the scheduled last day of the Conference-Seminar. Plenary Sessions closed by 11.30am. After having lunch, we started off to Madurai city by 1.30pm in Delegates' buses; our bus was directed through a by-route to reach the city. But we got stuck in the traffic jam.

Indira Gandhi had just arrived and she was passing along the route. We couldn't see the exhibition of floats. All we could see, ahead of us, in the sides and behind us, were just heads! - mass of humanity - surging this way, that way, crushing, pushing and jostling. Finally we landed at the Race Course for valedictory function by 5.30pm. MGR and Indira Gandhi addressed the function. It was over by 7.00pm.

Then we moved over to Tamil Nadu Hotel, to attend the dinner hosted by the Chief Minister [MGR]. I couldn't enjoy the dinner whole-heartedly. MGR was there, having dinner, and our Rajadurai, Thondaman were also seen. After the dinner, MGR delivered a farewell speech; all the delegates were offered a Thanjavur Golden Plate and we managed to collect ours. 

We left the tour party at the Madurai railway station around 11.00pm, and returned to the hostel by 12.00 midnight. We were told that tomorrow morning we have to pack up and leave the premises.


8th day at Madurai. We packed our baggages and left the hostel by 6.30am; but left the Madurai University premises only by 10.30am. One by one left, and we (Fr.Joseph Mary, Bro. A.J.Alagarasan, V.S.Thurairajah and myself) went to Melur and returned to Madurai. Garlanded the statues of Arumuga Navalar and Fr.Thani Nayagam.

Thurairajah family and James Rutnam left for Tiruchi to take the plane for return trip to Colombo. By 2.30pm, Fr.Joseph Mary, Bro.Anton John Alagarasan went into residence at St.Mary's Church, Madurai. We were received by Fr.James Rodriguez.

There ends my recorded diary impressions of 1981 Madurai International Tamil Research Conference. Other than the noted political leaders, some of my mentors and friends who enriched Tamil culture and literature, such as James Rutnam, Prof. Saalai Ilanthirayan, Dr.S.Ramanathan and Kovai Mahesan have died since I wrote these diary notes.

MGR's switch from an Eelam opponent to Eelam supporter

When the 5th International Tamil Conference was held, MGR was an opponent to the idea of Eelam. His actions during the Conference caused irritation to the Eelam activists. Regarding this, I subsequently commented in a letter, published in the Lanka Guardian (March 1, 1981), under the caption, "Observations on the Madurai Tamil Conference", as follows:

"....Though the exhibition stall organised by the Eelam supporters who travelled from UK and USA, was demolished on the instructions of Tamil Nadu government, the administration could not stop the activists pasting the posters depicting the 'Jan.10 incidents of 1974 Conference' all over the Maduri city, again on 7th night. As a matter of fact, large crowds converging to Madurai city, gathered around the places where the posters were pasted; the posters themselves were different in colour, content and appeal. In fact most of the commoners were blaming the MGR administration, for not allowing them to know what had really happened in the 1974 Tamil Conference...."

If MGR took a mis-step in 1981, he turned out to be a quick study and eventually became an Eelam sympathizer, to the extent that the then ruling UNP politicians came to tag him as the god-father of Prabhakaran and LTTE. In hindsight, one can well agree with MGR's response in 1981 to the TULF-led Eelam campaign as an apt one.

I wonder whether he would have sensed that the TULF-leadership of Amirthalingam was only paying lip service to Eelam without any heart-felt conviction to its aims. But in 1981, MGR received lot of flak from Sri Lankan Tamils for his anti-Eelam comments at the Madurai Tamil Conference, while the Sinhalese media trumpeted his sentiments with glee in the Sri Lankan 'kept' media. It may not be an exaggeration to note that the emergence of Prabhakaran among the Eelam activists was a critical factor for MGR to switch his stance from an Eelam opponent to Eelam supporter.

I reiterate that Prabhakaran was one critical factor for MGR to become an Eelam supporter. There are other factors also which deserve mention. One could propose that the suffering of Eelam and estate Tamils during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots and the resulting influx of refugees into Tamil Nadu could have had a seminal influence on MGR.

 Cynics may counter this by noting that MGR didn't have such an altruistic sympathy to Eelam Tamils. He was just trying to protect his political base in Tamil Nadu, by aligning with the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who courageously took the first step in training the young Tamil militants to check the aggression of J.R.Jayewardene.

Additionally, analysts may also present an opinion that MGR linked with LTTE, to spite Karunanidhi, after watching the DMK leader's camaraderie with Amirthalingam. Like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon movie theme, truth may lie in each of these compartmentalized, simultaneous developments of that period (between 1983 and 1985).

My opinion, expressed in 1995, was as follows:

"Eelam issue also provided a psychological tonic to MGR in his last years of the legendary career. It gave him an opportunity to contribute to the history of his land of birth. It is well known that displaced individuals keep an affectionate spot to the land of their birth, and this affection reaches a climax, when they near the end of their lives. MGR was a displaced individual and fate had it that he was moved to Tamil Nadu as a toddler from Kandy, the place of his birth. Though he earned fame in Tamil Nadu, MGR was treated as an outsider in the political arena. Thus an active role in the Eelam issue would have given MGR a psychological uplift to influence the history of his land of birth. It can be asserted that other ranking Indian politicians would not bother to engage themselves with the Eelam issue as MGR was, since they do not possess the 'birth identity' MGR had with Sri Lanka." (source: MGR Movies Revisited, and Other Essays, by Sachi Sri Kantha, 1995, p.10)



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