Muthuvel: You started with writing poems and short stories, and now you have delved into writing film songs. This could well mean an intimate relationship with music. Has this changed your creative sense or your emotions towards art? If so, how have they changed?
Kutti Revathi: I would like to share some background on this. The first song I penned was 'Nenje Yezhu' for Mariyan. It was really not my wish to become a lyricist. Rather I wanted to become a director. After I wrote that song I gifted Rahman (A.R. Rahman) a book. I am not sure whether you are aware of the book. It is Abraham Pandit’s Karunamirtha Saagaram, a 1360-page book, on the 2500-year-old history of Tamil music. Very well written. When Rahman Sir saw it, he wanted to do a documentary based on the book. So we started to work on it. I knew literally nothing about music when I started out in the field, only now have I recognized the depth of musical tradition of Tamils, and its great importance in our culture. In every era it has taken new forms and now we have another form in cinematic music. At the same time, it is also sustained in various forms like folk music, tribal music etc… The oppressed have found great solace in music. I became aware of these things only when I read that book. Abraham Pandit wrote Karunamritha Sagaram in 1917; so it has been 100 years. Though the lyricist role came my way quite unexpectedly—only recently I have come to know of the importance and purpose that lie behind it. Now I feel that songs are created when there is union between music and poetry, you have to find harmony between the two. They echo in people’s minds for a long time. So it is not a piece of cake, being a lyricist. There is a lot of societal importance and responsibility attached to it, and my opinions about it have changed as a result. I would say that an earlier generation of lyricists like Pattukottai and Maruthakaasi have conveyed very intense emotions, and more importantly, social ideas through their songs. Since I have also been involved in social issues, I believe I can contribute something good in that manner.
M.: Do you think there is space in our society to do that?
K.R.: This is an important question to be addressed. But in any field if we want to expand its boundaries we would have to struggle with people. We would initially be at odds with them. Then we have to convince them of the differing opinions we hold. That too is a responsibility we have to take up, rather than just remain in outright opposition to them. We have to find a mutual space where we may work together. We should strive towards that and also drive them there. I had no such difficulties with A.R. Rahman Sir. I recently penned lyrics for a song in the movie named Mom. While working for other movies I have always felt a little put off because people would constantly make me aware of the demands of mainstream cinema. But in this movie, I felt that I could use the words that I wanted, and bring to fore the ideas matching my emotions with complete freedom. When the song was recorded and released I felt really happy. No one intruded in it. That was really important. This happens very rarely, but there would be circumstances where this would not be possible. So, if we have a certain understanding of the industry, we can contribute wherever possible.
M.: Could we consider songs to be a mainstream form of poetry?
K.R.: You had mentioned my starting with writing poems, then short stories and now lyrics. I do not consider it to be a kind of progress; rather, they all supplement each other. One thing we do is try to express ourselves in different forms. And, one form strengthens the other. If I have a good sense of music I could write better songs. And with a grasp of poetry I could refine the songs even more. Since I also have knowledge of cinema, I know how important a song can be for a movie and how deep it reaches in society. Sorry, would you repeat your question?
M.: Do you think songs are a mainstream form of poetry?
K.R.: Even poems are a mainstream form nowadays. But it definitely wasn’t like that when I started writing poems. If you consider the controversies and the resistance to women's writing, they weren’t a mainstream form at all. But today, they are definitely in the mainstream! You wouldn’t find a magazine without poetry written by women. For example, occasionally women read poetry on TV channels. Their poetry is also present in cinema. So, I think, depending on the period one is looking at, you find this churning when something predominant in mainstream is pushed to the fringes and vice versa.
M.: How do you think this became possible: you mentioned that poems were not considered mainstream while you started to write and that now there is widespread reading of women's poetry. How did that change happen?
K.R.: Because of continual struggle and basically not giving up. There was no submission from any women writer when they were up against controversies and insults. That was really important, and also an awareness of things. If we had submitted to the resistance (we faced), the journey of women writing would have been cut short. At that time, magazines such as Aananda Vikatan and Kumudam were actually in fierce opposition. I hope you remember that incident with S. Ramakrishnan. In the movie Sandaikozhi, when he used a name in the wrong sense, Aananda Vikatan defended him. He was at that time writing a series for them. So, for almost 10 years magazines like Aananda Vikatan were against us. But now, in the same magazine, Kavin Malar’s writing about body politics and Hindu religion was published. So this can be considered to be a victory for the entire women writers’ community.
The two things that are important in this regard are an understanding of our actions and a consciousness of the society we live in. Then there should be a continual struggle towards a goal. The opposition too arose when women from the oppressed sections of the society began to write. There wasn’t such an opposition to the writings of women belonging to Brahmin and other dominant castes. They also didn’t have a need to bring to the fore body politics because it was comfortable for them to be a part of the traditional societal setup. They didn’t have a problem with the institutions of caste, religion, marriage or family. But we have a lot of difficulties with them. A lot of atrocities happen within them. Nowadays, in every poetry gathering we go to in India, people say that the height that Tamil poetry has attained is very modern and contemporary. In my view, following the Manipur struggle (the protests against the killing of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004), Tamil poetry became vital. The struggle in Manipur and its politics have diffused into our writings, after which Tamil poetry and writings have become significant.
M.: Do you think that the political situation of Tamil Nadu could have been the reason for this? Could the large number of youngsters who came onto the scene after 2009 been a reason or did it happen naturally?
K.R.: I think it is also one of the reasons. But there are two other reasons which are more important. In the previous century we had Periyar (Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, 1879–1973). The changes he effected and the reforms he brought to the society were immense. We can’t do justice to them in this conversation. Secondly, the centenary of Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s birth was celebrated by the oppressed and underprivileged communities across the country. During that time, his ideas were reborn. If you observe closely, when we rekindle ideas that have been dormant for a period of time, one becomes captivated, and is drawn towards them. This happened for us with Ambedkar’s thoughts. Naturally, the generation of that period, youngsters and women, especially the first-generation learners, found great strength in his ideas. And it was not limited to just the underprivileged, because anyone who came to engage with society found Ambedkar to be their own. These two things were really important. Both Ambedkar and Periyar stood with us consciously and unconsciously. To realize the fact that it is due to Periyar that we can lead a good life with self-respect in society is important. Compared to the past when our life was a tale of servitude and of bondage, our advance has been immense.
M.: Let us talk about your involvement with body politics. Your writings are in a sense driven by that. How did you come to take that up?
K.R.: Only when you bring my attention towards it do I myself start to think about it. Actually, on this matter, a lot of people become sceptical about me. Especially after Mulaigal ('Breasts') became controversial, they would ask me whether I wrote it just to get attention. But I wasn’t aware that the word could evoke such sentiments, because I had studied Siddha medicine and we had a syllabus in Tamil medium. There was no English in it at all. One of their first requirements was that the students should have studied Tamil at least as a second language, because it is a basic necessity to acquire the subject. So in that case, when studying about body parts, medicine and anatomy, words such as mulaigal, yoni, karu pai, muttai etc. were part of our daily usage. Thus, mentally I had no inhibition about those words. Even if I wanted the attention I should have done it in my first book which was, Poonaiyai polai Alayum Velicham. I actually see it just as a phase in my evolution. But everyone brings attention to that. I think that is when I became aware of the problem and began to emphasize body politics. When the second book came out I was a little aware of the revolts in Kanyakumari district which was called the ’upper cloth mutiny’ (Maru Marakkal Samaram or the Channar revolt in 1839–53). A woman called Nangeli, unable to pay the breast taxes imposed by the authorities, cut off her breasts in protest. I also knew of the other struggles related to it. Other than that, I think there were a lot of distressing incidents in my personal life during that time. My father had passed away. Then, during the teenage years of our life we come into direct conflict with society, especially women face a lot of challenges related to their body. So I considered that book to be about those confusions. I think it was a very personal work for me.
M.: I find what you say really interesting because to my knowledge I thought that Siddhar songs were to an extent androcentric. So, yours is a new perspective. Siddhar songs are mostly known to be abusive towards women. So could you say more about how studying Siddha medicine was helpful in knowing more about the body and also in your artistic endeavors?
K.R.: Most people identify Siddhar (men) songs with their abusive nature towards women. I don’t have conclusive thoughts regarding this because there is an opinion that the songs have been tampered with, adding a lot of Vaishnavite ideas. Because, Siddhars at their core are atheists. They believe only in the physical form. Their philosophy basically is that if a human takes good care of his body he could do things that are possible with it in an efficient manner. So, it is considered that there might have been tampering with their works after the 17th century. For example you could in the future change certain things in my writings and show that this is what Kutti Revathi is. People in power generally do that to those who oppose them. So I think that there must have been a lot of tampering with their works, though it’s just my opinion. We can’t yet prove that this is the case because historians have not conducted wide-ranging research regarding Siddhars. Further, Siddhars’ command over their language is unparalleled. My entire vocabulary can be traced back to them. I owe a lot to their works.
M.: The imagery of your poetry is filled with references to nature. There is an appeal to nature in it and I think you represent nature as freedom and euphoria. Is it an inspiration from the Sangam literature? I thought that your metaphors and imagery relate to that.
K.R.: I truly feel happy you think that I look to nature to represent freedom and happiness. But it’s not just me, when you have to delve deep into something you would also end up there. Because that is how our culture is built. We fulfill our needs through our relationship with nature. The five landscapes (tinais) form our fundamental perception of things. Maybe our people in the contemporary world won’t have a very great understanding about it, but kurunji (hills), mullai (forests), marutham (farmlands), neithal (sea), paalai (barren lands) are our foundations. All struggles in our society today are to save them. Koodankulam, Neduvaasal, or the farmer struggles are all about them. In a very basic sense our bodies are meshed with those landscapes. Then, in Sangam literature, in the stories of Kannagi and Madhavi, the most fundamental landscapes and characteristics constantly flow into us. There is often this urge to go to those texts and drink them in. So there is always this consistent relationship with them. Secondly, I was a voracious reader of books in my childhood. I knew Tirukkural like the back of my hand. There would be competitions held in schools where I would recite all the 1330 kurals in reverse order. Only until a certain period you would have to keep it memorized. Then you assimilate them, understand what they mean, and let them gestate inside you, and continue to be expressed in some form. So Tirukkural was vital to me. Then, as I said, my education in Siddha literature was a reason. Thirdly, I am filled with wanderlust. I have never confined myself within the walls. My partner and I frequently travel, and I feel therein lies our compatibility. Our journey together in life takes us to rivers, forests and mountains. So I think this naturally brings nature’s imagery to my writing. Even today, nature is magnetic, filled with secrets and is boundless.
M.: Let us talk more about your relationship with nature. If you consider my generation we had minimal contact with nature. In that respect, that aspect in your works is refreshing. But, cities present a kind of freedom to the oppressed classes and women from the rigid caste and patriarchal structure of villages. This rigidity is, to an extent, diluted in cities where we can hide from it and find escape routes. What is your opinion about this contradiction? And also what is your opinion about cities because I don’t see much about them in your writings?
K.R.: I am perplexed by this question actually, because this city is so close to my heart. Firstly, women like me owe the transformation of our intellect to this place. I came here for the first time in 1999 to work as a doctor. That was my humble ambition. Today, the things that I have done and the roles I have taken up are really varied. So in around 20 years I have changed immensely. In fact this city feels like a surreal place—the tsunami, the recent floods, Jayalalitha’s passing away, or the struggles that have happened here. Especially the protests against the death sentences in the Rajiv Gandhi case, and those due to Sengodi’s self-immolation, the death of Muthukumar, so many different things like that, then now we have the jallikattu protests.
The city keeps transforming itself incessantly. People move in and out and there are always new faces to the city. In the mornings it becomes a very different place. I have often travelled with my friend at night around Chennai and we have marveled at the way it lies dormant. In the morning it would be a really challenging place with a lot of crises to deal with. And when you are looking to fulfill your basic necessities there would be different challenges. We could consider this city to be a place which respects our talent. If you are a person who is refined in your field, this city would without any doubt cherish you a lot. So, for a woman like me, who has come from a faraway and separate village, this city feels like a magical place. I could push my skills to the extreme and develop them. I could in fact push myself to a great extent which I have done. If I had not come here, my life would have been limited to my family. But today I can involve myself in social concerns and also have the vision to be conscious about them. Also, when I came here, I was one of the first people to choose a live-in relationship. It was not a walk in the park to do that during then. Whereas, today’s generation easily begins such a life. Only my parents knew about that decision. It was of course out of the question in the villages but in Chennai it is a real possibility. To live away from the boundaries of caste and gender can be a realistic option here. So this place is a very valuable treasure. I have visited other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi etc… but this is one place that keeps changing its form continuously. I feel it is a really important place for women. And I won’t consider this to be a contradiction. The landscapes of nature are really important and at the same time, men and women should come to the city. They can express themselves artistically for the society here, which is a great thing to have. Time always marches forward, so I tend to think that when we humans can harmoniously travel with time itself, what more could we ask for in life! From that perspective, Chennai is a very important place especially for women and youngsters. Only very recently transgenders have found a space for themselves. Go back 10 years and their situation was really bad. They had to struggle to gain their rights and Chennai has given them that opportunity. You could fight for any cause in this city, achieve and sustain it. Within the boundaries of human rights, we can do anything here. What more could one ask for!
M.: So before your life in the city, what was your childhood in your village like? When did you find your voice in writing?
K.R.: I was really passionate about books during my childhood. It was possible to sustain it because of my father. He would retail with much regret stories of how he could not go to school or read books. That showed me how lucky I was. He couldn’t buy me books because of our financial condition. But whenever he went to town, knowing my interest in reading, he would buy secondhand books.
I was born and brought up in a village near Trichy. People would reprimand me for reading storybooks. Even my mom! She would scold my father for getting me storybooks since I was a girl. But I think my father didn’t want to restrict me in that way. I realized this only later in my life. When society reminds me of my gender I realize how my father didn’t let gender discrimination affect me when I was growing up. I think this was what pushed me towards literature and poetry, and encouraged my love for books. I would think of the historical and societal importance of books, their place in today’s world. These things would fascinate me. That led me to writing. Then I went to study Siddha medicine in Tirunelveli. It was a vibrant period there, with daily literary gatherings, debates, conversations, book criticism, movie screenings at night etc. After a screening, people wouldn’t just go back to their homes as we tend to do here; instead, they would sit back and discuss the movie. These discussions impacted me heavily and I also began to write a bit during that time. But I didn’t have an ambition of becoming a writer. I wanted to be a director. My friend Srinivasan was the one who actually suggested that I publish my writings. I met with Vasanthakumar who was with the publisher Thamizhini and he immediately agreed. So, that was how Poonayai polai Alayum Velicham happened. It was received well. So, if my writings had been limited to being about nature and not in contradiction with others’ ideas, they would have euphorically celebrated me, I guess. But since it was contradictory to their ideas, I think there were a lot of insults.
M.: How did you feel during that situation? There was intense opposition and there would have been a growth for you ideologically as well…
K.R.: It was an unrealistic time period. The insults and scandals made me depressed for around four years and I wasn’t normal at all. That was when e-mails had become widespread. A lot of letters with vulgar pictures, and then anonymous letters would be sent to me. The so-called famous writers were the ones who did the belittling and hurt my self-respect. There is this tendency to think that someone’s writing is good and the person who wrote it doesn’t matter. I would never accept that. I remember Vaikom Muhammed Basheer here. He is one person in India whose writings were in line with his life. The compassion and love he had for the country, the land and himself would distill into his words and art with such beauty. This can of course be possible. But, for me, it was a very dark phase during that time. I wouldn’t be giving such an interview back then. I didn’t trust anyone because people would approach me with wrong and vulgar prejudices. So many such incidents were happening personally. I isolated myself from everything trying to figure out why literature created such a torrent of scandals and insults. Why were women's writings resisted with such malice? There have been women in literature before, so why does this happen at this particular time? And why does a particular section of women writers face this opposition? When I thought deeper about these questions I realized that this has been the response to writers throughout history. If Mulaigal had been written by someone else it would not have met with the same response. If a man had written it, his caste status, whether he is from a dominant or an oppressive caste would have been scrutinized. If he was from a dominant caste there would not have been opposition in society, because every man until then had portrayed women vulgarly in their works. That was when I became aware of the caste and gender discrimination prevalent here. Even if Kutti Revathi disowns her caste it does not matter. Even if I portray myself as a woman without identities, everyone would judge me on the basis of where I hail from. The phase where I became aware of these things was a really important one for me and then I started to write intensely. So only after Mulaigal I began to write a lot. Also at that particular time, I read all of the contemporary writers, as much of the literature in English as possible, and world literature. I assimilated as much as I could and in a way strengthened myself. After that I did not have any inhibitions or doubts regarding my writing or whether I was right or wrong in what I do.
M.: I too have been troubled by the contradiction arising from the thought that the writer and his/her work are both different things. The hypocrisy and duality in saying that an artist and his/her expression are different never felt right to me. Your thoughts on it are really enlightening. You also mentioned that even though you depict yourselves as a woman without identities people try to fit you into those. So could you share your thoughts about the importance of identity politics and when it took root here? Because on the one hand there is a deprecatory view of it and on the other it is said to be sufficient. M.y opinion is that both views are wrong. What is your perspective on that and what does an identity basically mean here?
K.R.: Identity and non-identity politics is a very complex challenge and more so in today’s world when we take into consideration our socio-political realities and the happenings here. Even yesterday I saw a nice post by a woman named Abinaya, 'I go in search of that which is denied to me.' Everything is very subtle nowadays. But the important thing is to see whether it falls within the sphere of human rights. For example, if you consider transwomen, they wantonly accept gender politics. We feminists strongly oppose all that is considered to be characteristic of a woman, wearing thaali, dressing up etc… but they accept those things. And that is important for them. We deny all that because we feel women's identities are imposed upon us. So when we consider such things, I think that we have come to the era of the individual. I feel that the politics and demands of the individual and her/his personal idea of freedom should be prioritized. But it is different when you fall into a group or a race. You would have very well known that in the last 10 years, the idea of a leader has been taken apart. The leader does not exist. That too after the social networks have become prevalent, everyone has become their own leaders. In the past there was a need for role models and a leader was expected in a group. This idea has been shattered. I think the ideology of human rights is the best form of a leadership. Globalisation has also effected this change. So, this should be turned in our favour and dialogue about identities can be only in terms of recognizing identities (in specific situations), which would result in total freedom and the realization of a humane life.
When I look back from the perspective of my political stand, I find the female personality to be very important to me. And then the writings of Periyar and Ambedkar. Each individual’s life history, be it this videographer or yours, are all important to this society. No life is dispensable. I don’t believe in the sacrifice of an individual for the development of a society. Each individual’s rights, growth and creative impulse can make a difference to the society. This forms the essence of Ambedkar’s writings. When India had stepped into modernity and had such abundant natural resources and copious other things, the question of why India was so backward was articulated from a bird’s-eye view by Ambedkar, even though he was from an oppressed caste. He understood the inherent problems and suggested certain ideas. This is why we uphold his thoughts. I don’t consider him just as a social reformer. He was a great writer too. He wrote a book called Buddha and his Dhamma about how Buddha’s life and teachings would be helpful to India. I read that book and completely surrendered myself to Buddhism, because it is wholly scientific and strongly denies the existence of a God. If you consider the book from the various ideas it puts forward such as the undeniable importance of the mind as a tool and the need to respect the rights of others, it is a literary work of great importance. It is a wonderful piece of work written with great emotional thrust. It is impossible to shake it off once you start reading the book. Thus we need some good philosophy and ideology to understand identity politics. Then, we have a lot of paths and fissures in front of us, such as Tamil nationalism, Dalitism, Periyarism, Dravidianism, Communism, Buddhism. Then we have Hindutva which is the identity that crushes human rights.
When we take all this into account, I think we can only understand all this in a collective manner. There is nothing which is isolated, at the same time there should be space for individuality. Even though this feels as if it’s a very complex and problematic dilemma it is easy to understand and today we even have the maturity it demands. In the past we had inequality based on age differences, but that is not the case today. For example we can stand in equal measure with comrade Nallakannu and converse with him. We can consider Periyar as our comrade, which shows how we have pushed the oppression and inequalities away and brought them to a certain point. So to move towards the future I think we have to come out of the contradiction of identity–non-identity politics. When an identity serves to achieve freedom, people have to uphold it but when it becomes a hindrance they have to let it go. There are a lot of places where I have to function without my female identity. In the cinema industry I don’t have to represent myself as a woman and I will accept challenges which test my skills to the utmost. But when it is about the rights of a woman I have to uphold the female identity to achieve those rights. So, it is an age where we have to transform between identities. Metaphorically it is something like an oil painting on water which tends to change form.
M.: That is, bring to the fore certain identities at necessary places…
K.R.: When identities make it possible to achieve freedom they have to be brought to the fore. But when they deny you freedom they have to be let go. I stress the same for men. There are a lot of places where you have to disown your male identity. Because I feel that, nowadays men are in more of a psychological quandary than women. Since it is a society which has venerated manhood, they don’t even have the opportunity to understand these things.
M.: Related to this, I also want to talk about the man‒woman relationships which you write about in your short stories. In the globalised world, how have man‒woman, man‒man and woman‒woman relationships changed? There is a general opinion that things have become complex, but I don’t accept that since I feel the structures of relationships have been relaxed. What do you think about this?
K.R.: When you compare with the situation of 20 years ago, the man‒woman, man‒man and woman‒woman relationships have achieved great freedom in terms of love, marriage etc. There is also freedom in economic, ideological and physical terms. We have come to a very fluid state, where man‒man and woman‒woman relationships are possible. It is really oppressive for a woman if she is not inclined for marital life, to forcefully get her married and confine her in the family set-up and make her function like a robot. It should be vigorously opposed. Then, even when I cannot actualize said things, the possibilities liberate me immensely in emotional and ideological spaces. It is a very liberating state of mind to acknowledge the choices due to these possibilities. Thus, it is not really necessary to marry. You could live together with friends or one could make a commitment based on a physical relationship or so many such things. But I would like to highlight one important thing here. The dignity of the body should never be compromised.
Whatever dimension relationships take, the most important thing is the dignity of the body. The most essential need of the human race is to have mutual respect for each other’s bodies. All the other variables tend to change. Western culture has taken things as far as incest. Boundaries have been broken and a lot of things have been explored. I don’t think we can’t take a moral stand on these matters. But I realized that morality, care and respect towards our body and the respect for other’s bodies doesn’t change at any time, which is really a beautiful thing. Maybe since I have worked as a doctor and was continuously involved in body politics I might have stumbled upon this realization. Also, in a country like India where caste oppression is widespread, everyone should have self-respect towards their body and shouldn’t subject it to abuse. This requires a lot of practice and doesn’t happen in a day. We could see a lot of instances of abusive language referring to bodies being used on Facebook. Those things pain me a lot. I couldn’t imagine being a part of that. No one is going to live on this planet forever, so in the little time that we are here no one has any right to inflict violence, oppression or abuse on anyone else. No one should be allowed to do that.
M.: What you have expressed is very powerful. When manual labour is the most prevalent form of work in the country it is ironic to see the body being so disrespected here.
K.R.: That is absolutely true!
M.: It also seems more important to me that you talk about this as an artist. Generally, there is a tendency among artists to romanticize the destruction of body. There have been plenty of such cases too. I think it’s critical to have an awareness of the importance of the body with regard to our Tamil tradition. Also, in the introduction to one of your books I observed that you had described writing short stories as being a fulfilling sexual expression in the introduction of one of your books. Could you describe a bit about that?
K.R.: About the first thing, it is really important to consider human labour when talking about the dignity of the body. We exert labour according to our necessities or according to our income or quality of life. Some people exert a great amount of labour to sustain a humble life. When we are conscious of this happening in our harsh climate we become fiercely indignant of the class and caste differences in our society. There are men and women who work beyond the limits of their body. On the other hand, when there were intense dialogues initiated by women writers about body politics, Sivakami (P. Sivakami), a Dalit writer, wrote a book about it. She was the first Indian woman writer to write a Dalit novel. It is called Anandhayi. She was a social activist who influenced me a lot. I once travelled with her all over Tamil Nadu to build a women’s organization. She, as a thinker, helped develop many dimensions of my intellect. She was heavily critical of the matter of sexual expression when talking about body politics and said, 'You give too much importance to the sexual expression of women. Think of the amount of physical labour that has been contributed by women to the society. Also, among the oppressed women, sexual expression is non-existent and they wouldn’t even have a possibility for that. They wouldn’t have the opportunity to have that pleasure, be it for something productive or to claim the right for that. Because everything in their being is constantly being transformed into labour for family, country and in public spaces.' So she concluded that the sexual expression dialogues don’t have much value in here. I found great honesty in that. At the same time, it also pointed out the authority that has been accumulated by the non-Dalits. That was a revealing point of view. Her book that I mentioned is a classic piece of work in Tamil literature. I don’t think it is in print today. We introduced it in Panikkudam but it is not available now.
So in the Indian context, I think we have to consider labour when we are talking about the dignity of the body, because in no other country would people be working longer and harder than here on India. And that is the norm and the law as per their governments and the human rights organizations. But that is not the case here, some people idle around lazily and others work more than they have to. Now, coming to the sexual expression reference. I had written it from the perspective of the male‒female relationships and to transform their boundaries. That was the time when transwomen recaptured their rights and LGBT movements grew in strength. Relationships started to come out of a monotonous spectrum and I had written that story highlighting this. That kind of sexual expression is important, because I think the concept of monogamy practised in a husband‒wife relationship is very narrowed down. We view sexual expression as just pleasure. But it is not just that. Our health or brightness today, the fluidity of our thoughts and how we get along with society are fundamentally based on our sexuality. When sexual organs function well and when the hormones related to them stay harmonious with our body only then can we understand society without mental impediments. That is a very important thing, which I have expressed in a very simple way. It is a deep and complex thing. I feel that today people are going to very dangerous domains in sexual relationships. I make that statement from my knowledge as a doctor. So, like the possibility that an animal has in finding union with another animal, so should it be for humans. But such a harmonious life is not being possible for many among us. When I see the mentally disturbed people on the streets I feel they have been pushed to that due to the non-existence of a partner. That is a state of mental chaos. So, sexual expression is either improper or is being wasted or it is not being purposeful. It is a really important social issue. But we don’t talk about it all. Yesterday, I met a male director who said he had a script and wanted me to right the female characters in it. But how could women come to know how men view women? And in that case why should I rewrite the script? You should have a perspective of women and that is very important. But that perspective shouldn’t contain any violence and oppression in it. And that requires some sort of understanding. Without that understanding how could I know about your compassion towards women! That could happen only through the art you create. I would rather write my own script than correct his. So, the vagaries of sexual expression can only be wholly known by being men and women, having relationships and conversations, and sharing our thoughts. Thus, men and women cannot be seen in separation from each other, and I think that one is not superior to the other.
M.: We will turn our attention to language now. The casteist patriarchal set-up of society also affects language and one could say it’s a male-centric language. So, could you talk about the need for a female-centric language and from where it could arise? Then, since you are plying your trade in a visual medium now, how do writing and the visual medium differ or intersect when portraying the world of a woman?
K.R.: About male and female-centric languages, I cannot imagine such stringent boundaries as you say. With respect to language it lies in the processing of things, like developing them each and every day, rejuvenating words, creating new words, and ones that add more meaning etc. In recent years people have begun to speak Tamil in a better way than in the past. At one time even the word of greeting—vanakkam—was fashionable. But today we can converse with youngsters in Tamil in a fluid manner. The book-reading habit has expanded: people approach me and talk to me about certain books. So a culture based on language has evolved, so instead of viewing it as male-centric and female-centric languages we could look at it in terms of oppressing and liberating languages. That should be the right way. Like I said before, there isn’t freedom available even for men in this society. They are the ones who commit violence and murder others and have not felt freedom. So in that case, men are the ones in immediate need of freedom through education and language. Thus, instead of the duality of male-centric and female-centric languages we should turn our attention to oppressing and liberating languages. But I feel that the society could have allowed women to write more or the women themselves could have struggled more, because there isn’t much writing being done by the subsequent generations of women. They have become hesitant about writing in large part due to fear of the hurdles and the abuses and threats against women. Even those who came later to write would write in a censored manner. And it does not stop at censoring things related to sexuality but also in any matters where there is a possibility of criticism or ridicule in society. So when there are so many difficulties and we have to find freedom and not hurt others in the process, there should be understanding and some kind of a practice. I don’t think there is a systematic grammar or definition to do that. I could understand someone’s difficulty only by consistently writing, conversing with them and then doing something about it.
M.: But a literature of the oppressed, Dalit literature is being written. The anger in it becomes justified, so how does hurting others come into this?
K.R.: That is retort to the pain caused, which is of course justified. That is anger, not even that but moral indignation. They couldn’t retaliate against the violence they are subjected to. When there is a possibility of retaliation it moves to another phase of violence and power. But they couldn’t express such anger. So that cannot to be considered anger, it is a documentation of their lives with indignation.
M.: I feel that the literature itself has become more refined with Dalit literature, feminist literature etc.
K.R.: To a really great extent. And that is part of the process. I would like to say about a practice in the industry today which you wouldn’t just believe. They do something called lyrics scanning when working with Rahman Sir. Before finalizing the lyrics, they scan each and every word; whether there is an opposite to it, is it abusive, or does it evoke any indirect feelings in the society. If they find any word that falls under the abovementioned things they change it and only then it reaches the recording stage. That practice has changed me a great extent. In my recent collections like Idanthakarai, Agavan Magal, Kaalavega Madhayaanai, I have done a lot of experimenting with language. I created new words (coinages), new imagery, and tried destructing certain imagery. Poetry provides a great space for this. It is a pleasurable thing to do. It gives great happiness to me. I am also trying to bring that practice to my lyric writing where one should work hand in hand with music. It requires the command of a skill. So, it is a bit different. Now, ever since I read Karunamritha Sagaram I have become conscious of the harmony and composition in music. I don’t concentrate just on the lyrics. Because from the early times of Tamil literature, we have been great masters of edhugai, moonai and tunes (sandham). Literary people have been masters of those things. They could create forceful ideas in writings. For example, if you take Silappathikaram there are three versions of the full text. Those are the natural, musical and the dramatic forms. The natural form which is completely filled with verses and wholly grammatical, is what is taught to us. There are so many levels, and in addition there is a purpose to each of them. The grammar and the structure of the language are conveyed in the natural form. The musical form is not taught anywhere. In Karunamirtha Sagaram, Abraham Pandithar describes the musical aspect of Silappathikaaram. But, unfortunately, we all know only of the dramatic form, that is, how the story is unfolded. Thus, we all harvest from the landscape of language and there is no doubt about that.
M.: Let us deviate from this a bit. In your short story, 'Maya Isakki', you write of myths and minor deities. How do these inspire you?
K.R.: A lot of women writers all over India take up characters in their works such as Draupadi, Sita who are the Vaishnavite, oppressed, melancholic, submissive ones. When thinking of placing identities in juxtaposition we ourselves have a wealth of characters amidst us. There was a period when this was actively done. We explored a lot of our folklore. But due to the political interventions and a lot of socio-political needs we have left those things hanging. So there are a lot of myths and imagery in our Tamil tradition that we need to strengthen and remind ourselves of. We don’t talk give much attention to them now. That’s why the Ramayana and the Mahabharatam are being forced down our throats and described as incomparable epics. To explain further, this was why during the Dravidian movement Kannagi was upheld as an icon. But they forgot about Madhavi. I would like to talk about the musical form of Silappathikaaram here. That music is our tradition. But it has fallen into the hands of Brahmins and has taken form as Carnatic music. Now we lie alienated from the form and stand outside of it, but it was our own music. So, in the unfolding of history, we have a need to understand how power and oppression transform everything. That is the backdrop to that story. There is another story called 'Kattuvariyan' which depicts the lifestyle of the Irulas. Theirs is a life of poverty and they live as the marginalized of the society. But being with nature their traditional knowledge is based on earth, weather, snakes and lifeforms. They are masters of these things which are not found in any books and we can’t just teach that to someone. We could grasp that only by being a part of that way of life. There is a herpetologist called Romulus Whitaker, from America who has been with the Irulas for 30 years. He even married a woman from the Irula tribe. He says that even though he has been with them for so long he is unable to identify snakes like the Irulas do. So, the traditional knowledge is wholly scientific and based on their lifestyle. So when we are told to cut ourelves off from our cultural roots there doesn’t seem to be a way for that. In that cutting off when considering our language we tend also to lose vital things along with our caste, religious and Vaishnavite identities.
M.: On the topic of our culture and tradition, in the contemporary social and political context, several traditions are being oppressed. So, what do you think would be the contribution of an artist in such a situation, and what should it be ideally?
K.R.: This is a really difficult question and I don’t know how honestly I could address it. But, I think of my role as an artist is to constantly update myself on contemporary politics and peoples’ politics for freedom. That shouldn’t end. When I talked about politics some 20 years back, there was great criticism and ridicule. But you would have been very aware of how works that that have been created without such understanding have been ditched by the society. India is only a third-world country. There are people without electricity in their homes and without basic literacy and consciousness in this country. They are marginalized and they too are ones who are struggling for environmental and other rights. So, only when we understand these contradictions and complexities we could make a movie, write a song, click a photo or write poetry. Without assimilating the contemporary politics and without understanding the problems of the country or a region in this globalised world, I feel there is no purpose in writing poetry or stories. I have learnt this only after wide reading. There is no equal to the fiction that Vaikom Mohammed Basheer created. His stories spoke for the ones marginalized in the society. There are no excesses or linguistic tricks in his writings. They are like palliatives to the diseases afflicting people. He travelled all over India and lived with all kinds of people. After he became conscious of the world he chose writing. This was after he really understood the purpose of why he had to write for the society. You couldn’t classify his writings as politics or literature. All go together in a beautiful way. And that is the way it should be. I feel that depth in politics lends beauty to writing which is the greatest challenge to an artist. A few days ago Charu Nivedhita wrote a post about whether women are aware of a certain music and follows it up by saying that they wouldn’t be since they have chosen to go in the direction of cooking or social activism. Criticisms like these follow a monotonous pattern. But then, they should concentrate on knowing how far society has accepted their own works; the opinion of today’s generation of their works and how purposeful they are. I think we could say that an artist’s role is to keep in constant touch with the times and the people. And there should be great mental and physical energy to do that. Also, an artist should learn to see with his heart.
M.: You have talked about literacy. There are a lot of people who are illiterate and do not have the opportunity to read literature that watch cinema. Especially in India this is prevalent. So what is your opinion about cinema, which being a visual medium reaches a wide variety of people. What can it be from the perspective of women, the oppressed or for the cause of social upliftment?
K.R.: That is a great challenge because we are at the polar opposite to where we would want to be. Like you said, when a lot of them, who are illiterate and without a social consciousness, are presented the kind of wretched cinema we make, it amounts to giving them poison. We don’t show compassion or respect towards them when we make such movies. I think you articulated that well: we are not presenting people with good and responsible cinema at all. I feel that we artists don’t even have that basic sense. We don’t have a sense of the reach of cinema and the emotions that could be felt through the medium. Also we don’t know how to make use of our artists. We ask a great musician to tune a kutthu song! But I am of the opinion that the so-called illiterate and innocent section of people does have resilience within them because of their inherent artistic tendencies. They have a lot of their own musical forms, mythologies and stories which aren’t yet corrupted. So they manage to survive in a way, I guess. But the movie we discussed off-record, Ozhivudivasathe Kali ('An Off-day Game') which was made on a very short budget with a strong screenplay makes a lasting impact on our hearts. This happens in Malayalam cinema. But here it is about star casts and big budgets. So there is no understanding of the role of art in society. But in Kerala they concentrate on the story and do that perfectly. I became really anxious after seeing it, because I was part of such a game and came out of it shocked. The movie is about how a lot of people are being made to play such a game. There is great harmony between the cinematography and screenplay which somehow seduces you slowly. At the same time, they get across their point emotionally. There is not much effort in its making but it is a streamlined one. So I feel that Tamil cinema should think of re-orienting itself. Also, I don’t think it is possible to get into dialogue with the establishment or the senior artists of cinema about all this and make them understand us. So there must be new artists who change the purpose of the medium. It requires a great effort for the nature of its usage to change from what it is now. A superhuman effort in fact, and we shouldn’t get weary doing it due to crises and challenges, because we should understand that our purposes don’t coincide with theirs. As I said before, political and aesthetic frames should be brought to the screen in an uncompromising way. I don’t know whether we can be completely honest to the understanding we have of our society, but we should make sure there are no falsehoods, wrongs, vengeance or moral violations within that understanding. If we could do that, it could be considered a beginning. Then we could go further and surmount the other challenges.
M.: I think we could end here. Would you like to add something else?
K.R.: This was a very delightful and insightful interview. Usually it tends to be very formulaic but this was different. We talked a lot about the role of literature in society. The state of affairs in the world today set the tone of these conversations. Maybe in the future we would have to subject ourselves to self-criticism, and I hope we would have time to do another interview like this. It is a great pleasure to have done this with you. I feel this too is a form of artistic expression and not just a video interview.
Translated from Tamil by Muthuvel