On Monday evening an ambulance from the Madras Medical College arrived at a house where a crowd of young women and men were gathered. As Gnani Sankaran’s body was put in the van to be driven to the anatomy department of the Medical College, the crowd surrounded it, singing “we shall overcome” in Tamil. As willed by him, no ceremonies were performed after his death. His eyes were donated to the famous Sankara Nethralaya and his body, to the medical college. The young women and men singing outside his house all belonged to Pareeksha, the theatre group started by Gnani over three decades ago.

Gnani was my junior in the Madras Christian College. His father was a veteran journalist, a Nehru follower who worked with The Indian Express. Gnani was a rebel and non-conformist from early on. He used to take the passenger train from his residential town to the college 30 km away, the only affordable mode of transport for thousands of passengers travelling from the suburban town to the city. Any small delay would draw the ire of the establishments that they worked or studied at, leading Gnani to become a part of the first Rail Passengers Association, which conducted many agitations for maintaining punctuality in the train timings. Finally, a special passenger train was also organised due to the efforts of the association.

From court reporter to investigative journalist

After obtaining a degree in English Literature (he was equally proficient in Tamil), he joined the The Indian Express as well. With his father already retired, the job was essential for Gnani’s family. His early beat was reporting from the Madras High Court. In those early days, conventional reporting from the courts consisted of newsmen faithfully reproducing court orders, but all that changed when Gnani started reporting. Besides court orders, he concentrated on minute details in and around the court premises.

The first thing he noticed was that the colonial liveried “daffedars” were never allowed to wear their shoes. When he reported this, court circles grew angry, commenting that the press was going too far. Another time he photographed and wrote about a minibus purchased by the court for the transport of district judges that rarely moved from its parking shed. The furious Chief Justice threatened to throw out of the press corps from the court premises on seeing the report. The trend of reporting court news had changed from merely focusing on their “lordships” alone.

But Gnani was not one to be stuck in a place for long. He had a falling out with The Indian Express for no fault on his part and the paper sacked him. Though he would have loved to quit English journalism, he didn’t want to give up without a fight. He took The Indian Express to court and won in both the labour court and in the High Court. After his victory, he rejoined for a few months but soon left, writing freelance for a few English journals before joining the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan. He often said that English writing was only meant for the middle class. His target audience was the working class, students, teachers and small-time traders. He took to investigative reporting, quickly establishing a reputation as a leading journalist.

But the institutional constraints of media group suffocated him and he left several jobs and started running his own magazines. When he published a cover story on the Madras Atomic Power Project storing an atomic bomb in his magazine Dheemtharikida, the sleuths of the CBI swooped on his house, looking for the source of his story.

A socially-conscious playwright

For Gnani, being a reporter was just one aspect of his personality. Influenced by a short stint learning Badal Sarkar’s plays, he started the theatre group Pareeksha. He strongly believed that any art form should serve public causes and many progressive plays from around the world were translated into Tamil and staged in public places by the theatre group. When there was a hike in bus fares, he arranged a procession of volunteers carrying balloons, indicating that was it was the only affordable mode of transport left for commuters.

Since Gnani’s street plays tackled social themes, the police started preventing their staging. He became a strong votary of human rights and found common cause with several civil liberty groups. Gnani also developed a liking for making films and television serials, teaching himself along the way without the assistance of peers.

His personal life reflected his politics. In the middle of one of his plays, he dramatically announced his marriage to social activist Padma and the ceremony took place during the intermission. The wedding feast consisted of a cup of tea served to every guest.

When his son was old enough for school, he enrolled him in a Chennai Tamil medium corporation school, even though there was a good English medium two blocks away from his little apartment. An additional advantage of the school was that it had photography as a subject at the higher secondary level. It is no coincidence that his son, Manush Nandan, picked up photography and after a diploma from the Film Institute is now a leading cinematographer in Bollywood.

A brief foray into politics

When VP Singh was expelled from the Congress Party, Gnani accompanied him on a tour of Tamil Nadu, appearing on the same stage and translated his speeches into Tamil for the audience. In a video of a meeting held two weeks before the death of Rajiv Gandhi, his assassins could be seen observing the meeting addressed by VP Singh. It was considered to be a dry run to take note of the security arrangements for a former Prime Minister.

Long after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, when this video was found, Gnani did not hesitate to hand it over to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the death. Though Gnani was an ardent supporter of the cause of Tamils of Sri Lanka and had strongly opposed the Indo-Sri Lankan pact and the IPKF operations, he was cited as a witness before the special court and gave evidence. To Gnani, adherence to the truth and constitutional principles was more important.

Gnani avoided being part of any political outfit despite several invitations for a long time since his writing consisted of political and psephological analysis. But inspired by the anti-corruption movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and later by the Anna Hazare movement, he eventually joined the Aam Aadmi Party and contested an assembly election, unsuccessfully. He quit soon after.

Gnani was also a crusader for electoral reforms, including the provision for being able to vote for the NOTA option. He also spearheaded movements defending the Mandal Commission report and true autonomy for states. Tamil Nadu had a special law to censor stage plays by the police known as the Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performance Act 1954. Gnani felt that the law was an obstacle for a true theatre movement and challenged the legislation before the Madras High Court, succeeding in having it struck down as unconstitutional in 2013.

In the last few years of his life, his kidneys were impaired and he was waiting for a transplant. Despite such health hazards, he remained active. He was disappointed by the fact that children in India were deprived of literature, despite the existence of vast amounts of it and began concentrating on developing publications for children. Till his last days he was actively associated with a school at Trichy, where he worked on children’s education and skill-development. His love for theatre even saw him stage a play in Madurai, 500-km away, just a few weeks before his death.

His death has left a glaring hole and the crowd that thronged to get a last glimpse of Gnani Sankaran demonstrate how the man became a movement. His keen interest to bridge the generation gap and reach the youth was proven fruitful by the young people who came to bid him farewell.

Justice K Chandru is a retired judge of the Madras High Court and a lifelong associate of Gnani Sankaran’s.