Supreme court ruling

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

‘Tamil Thaai Vaazhthu’, an invocation song, often takes precedence over 'Jana Gana Mana'.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered cinema halls across India to compulsorily play the national anthem before the start of each show. The audience will have to stand in respect, it said, and the doors of the halls will be shut to ensure there is no disturbance.

The court’s argument that the measure will “instil... a sense committed patriotism and nationalism” was greeted enthusiastically by members of the government, including by 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 is not played as commonly as in North India. Instead the southern state is more used to playing its own invocation song, Tamil Thaai Vaazhthu (Salutation to Mother Tamil), at public events, given the strong sense of regional identity and the spirit of sub-nationalism the song invokes.

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Tamil Thaai Vaazhthu, the official invocation song of the Tamil Nadu government.

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 – which has been the dominant political movement 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 commitment to steadfastly remain within the Indian fold. This did not mean, though, that the state 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 Tamil Thaai Vaazhthu, written by Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai and set to tune by MS 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. Tamil Thaai Vaazhthu, on the other hand, is sung voluntarily, despite some criticisms 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 Tamil 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 which painted the north Indian language as a tool of cultural hegemony.

Devasagayam said 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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