One of the few mass political leaders in the country, J Jayalalitha, the beloved Amma of Tamil Nadu, had been an enigma in both life and death. Her meteoric rise from the silver screen to the political circus was not easy - battling animosity shown by male colleagues and corruption charges, she became the first female leader of the Opposition in Tamil Nadu in 1989, and the first female Chief Minister in 1991. Equally revered and feared by her colleagues and the public, Amma’s death in 2016 is as shrouded in mystery as was her private life.
Journalist, writer and theatre personality NK Mohanram attempts to remove the veil from certain aspects of Jayalalitha’s life in his biography Amma aada Ammu (Ammu who became Amma). Written in Kannada, the idea of the book is inspired by the columns which he wrote in the Kannada monthly magazine Bhanuvara.
A self proclaimed cynic, Mohanram starts the book with a disclaimer of sorts, that if he didn’t write it would be no loss to society, setting the tone for rest of the narrative. That was reason enough for me to actually read the book, and I’m glad I did. It’s breezy, witty, easy to read, and seems thoroughly researched as it’s packed with little known facets of Jayalalitha’s life.
When I met Mohanram for a chat over coffee, he was busy checking the numerous congratulatory messages that kept pinging on his cell and responding to the same. Congratulating him myself, I settled down for and informal tete-a-tete regarding Amma Aada Ammu. A few thoughts he shared with me on that occasion:
Looks like the book has been received well.
Oh yes. Very well. Far more than what I expected. People have been texting and calling up from all corners of Karnataka.
Did you have a launch for the book?
Has the Kumbh Mela ever been publicised? Yet millions have been congregating for the event over the several years on their own. If something is good enough the publicity will happen by itself. I feel that interpersonal communication with mutual exchange of opinion is far more effective than impersonal advertising.
But why write about Jayalalitha? Why now?
Why now - because it would’ve been more or less impossible to write about her when she was alive. She was a very powerful but fiercely private personality, and highly intolerant as well, as I have revealed in the book. Why her? Because I was already writing so much about her for Bhanuvara during her illness. And as I researched more and more about her, I felt intrigued by her life story. For an utterly middle class, educated young girl with Brahminical roots from Karnataka, to rule the film industry and political scene of a neighbouring state for about half a decade- I thought the story was worth telling.
Did you have occasion to interact with Jayalalitha?
I was a Programme executive for Doordarshan in Madras (now Chennai) when MGR passed away (in December 1987). I was part of the crew that covered the funeral at Rajaji Hall. Jayalalitha was not in the good books of MGR or AIADMK, and she had to overcome obstructions from the police, MGR’s family and the party to even enter the hall. She took a prominent place at the front and stood for 13 hours continually. I was impressed by her determination and resilience. After the recording, she sent word for a copy of the funeral video; I referred the request to my seniors who refused it. At another time, she met me in the studio and spoke to me in chaste Kannada, and discussed Karnataka politics.
I notice that in the book you have dwelt quite extensively on her childhood and family background.
Yes. Much is known about her filmy and political life but little about her childhood. Also I felt it was necessary to clear the air about the numerous misconceptions that were floating around regarding that. For instance, it was said that she was born in Mandya, Melkote etc But I have quite unequivocally traced it to Mysuru. I had the good fortune of getting numerous leads on her family members through various sources, and her step brother Vasudevan, who lives near Mandya, was very forthcoming with his memories. Interestingly, Vasudevan religiously conducts the annual shraaddha of his step sister, even though she never acknowledged his presence as long as she was alive. What surprises me is that there are about 40 families of Lakshmipuram Srinivasa Iyengar – Jayalalitha's great grandfather- living here but of none of them were willing to talk about Jayalalitha and her parents.
Jayalalitha & MGR in a still from Adimaippenn. Image Source
Why do you think that’s the case? I think it’s because they still attach a stigma to Jayalalitha and her mother Sandhya, and are ashamed to talk about them. That’s another reason I wanted to write about Amma- I wanted to capture the struggle of middle class Iyengar Brahmin women who went against the tide, broke accepted norms and carved a path of their own, unfazed by opposition, contempt and ridicule. I think for the 1950s it was quite a radical step on behalf of Sandhya, nee Vedavalli, to move bag and baggage with her little children to Madras after her husband’s Jayaram’s death to take a shot at films and fortune. Imagine how difficult it would’ve been for her. It had a lot of bearing on the shaping of Jayalalitha's personality- to be always surrounded by strange men from her mother’s film sets, travelling to school and back in a different car sent by the producers every day, overhearing lewd comments, seeing her mother being exploited and she herself undergoing exploitation later in life. Jayalalitha was a lonely woman, and her community too has contributed to this by disowning her family at the early stages of her life.
Yes, I see the emphasis is on her Iyengar background in the book. You have written quite extensively on the community! Being born into an Iyengar family helped. I start the narrative with her great grandfather Lakshmipuram Srinivasa Iyengar and trace the accomplishments of his family members. They were a very powerful, prominent and educated lot. They influenced the social scenario of Mysore and Bangalore from the 1930s through the 70s. Infact I have traced a few famous personalities like KT Bhashyam, a towering advocate and activist of the 1930s and cricketer Shanta Rangaswamy to the same family.
Looks like extensive research. So can we say your book is the most exhaustive and authentic biography on Jayalalitha? Most certainly it is.
Any other biographies in the making? As I said I am fascinated with the Iyengar community and it’s founder Ramanujacharya. I want to do a comparative study of the philosophies and methods of the two social reformers Ramanujacharya and Basavanna. The former was a very practical man, the latter was an idealist. The former gave dignity to the socially and economically backward sections of society. He was also highly resourceful and innovative. So I can see how the Iyengars have got that attitude of adventure and inclusiveness in them.
Well, all the best for your next book. Look forward to it. Thanks.
Text by Purnima Coontoor
Author NK Mohanram
Ammu aadu Amma Published by: IBH Prakashana, Bengaluru Price: Rs. 200