For the feminist historian, wanting to understand the changing nature of women’s lives in Tamil Nadu, in the modern period, the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) is an indispensable source.

Housing periodicals, newspapers , tracts and broadsheets, by both men and women, a vast and diverse visual archive, comprising early photos, drama notices, popular prints, cinema posters, and unusual social ephemera, including wedding invitations, the library has changed not just the way one does historical research on the modern period in the city of Chennai, but also the sort of questions one may ask of the past. These sources allow us to trace the contours of popular consciousness at any given point in history, over the last 150 years. As far as gender studies is concerned, mapping popular consciousness has been extremely important – if only to comprehend how crucial moments of change and crisis are translated into commonsense. By examining public debates as they figure in newspapers and weeklies, and looking at social ephemera of roughly the same period, it is possible to determine the limits and expanses of radical thought and to mark the fascinating shades of grey that separate the radical reformist from the conservative purveyor of change. The library’s vast and diverse holdings in fact call for such a comparative perspective – I shall return to this theme later in this article.

I have had the opportunity to use the library several times this past decade and more. I remember one happy though hot summer I spent at the library when it was still at Mogappair – leafing through Tamil periodicals from the early nineteenth century. Earlier, I had undertaken a similar exercise at the Maraimalaiadigal Noolagam in the Mint area of Chennai but was frustrated by the condition of the material I needed to read. In spite of an extremely helpful librarian it was not possible for me to continue working there. Armed with a list of periodicals I wished to read I shifted my work desk to Mogappair. It was a bewildering list:

Penn Madi Bodhini, Kalaimagal (published from Pondicheri), Panchamritam, Chakravarthini, Penn Kalvi, Ananda Bodhini, Viveka Bodhini, Gnanabanu, Sentamizhselvi, Adi-dravidan.

So, armed with this list I came to RMRL. I discovered many more periodicals that were germane to my purpose: Tamizh Pozhil, Dravida Nadu, Sentamizh, Dar-ul-Islam…The library was not only well stocked, but the librarians extremely helpful. Even at that time, the library had a computerized search apparatus which was sophisticated and user-friendly. In the event, my summer turned out to be very productive, and the notes I made during that time have served me in any number of instances.

I had just finished research on the Tamil self-respect movement and was looking to understand what women were writing and saying about politics and society during roughly the same period (the early decades of the 20th century) – hence my interest in women’s periodicals as well as some of the popular press of that time. I have written at least two major articles, based on what I read that summer. More important, my readings fed into the play that I eventually wrote for A. Mangai and the group Marappachi – titled Kalakkanavu, it featured moments from modern Tamil history, which women found enabling in their search for an existence beyond domesticity and conjugality.

There are others working on the women’s question who have found the library as useful – Mytheli Sreenivas, K. Srilatha, S. Anandhi and several others working on gender concerns in colonial Tamil Nadu have profited from the library’s holdings. Several doctoral students from the University of Madras have scoured the library to come up with book lists – books written by women for well over a century. 

Using the Library: Comparative Research

RMRL’s holdings allow the historian a wide latitudanal vision: for example, if she is interested in say, the trope of the ‘new woman’, she has the chance to not merely note down Subramania Bharathi’s views, but actually situate them in a discursive context he shared with his contemporaries. Comparative readings, from V V S Iyer, Rajam Iyer and Madavaiah, allow the scholar to notate those historical moments and points where Bharathi and compatriots meet, as also those which saw him part company with them, both in a political and linguistic sense. To be able to move swiftly across various textual domains that are chronologically related is a luxury for the Tamil scholar who often has to negotiate missing books, missing pages in books and indifferent library practices.

Comparative research over time is another possibility for a historian of this period (1890-1945) For instance, one of the most interesting questions for the social historian looking at the evolution of the self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu is this: how and through what political and discursive means was the radicalism of the self-respect movement accommodated into the world of Tamil cultural nationalism? Usually this question is answered in political terms, but to address it in social terms, in terms of the changes effected in a language and consciousness may allow us a perspective on this important historical development that is otherwise not to be had.

RMRL’s rich collection of periodicals from this period, especially the late 1940s and early 1950s, which period saw a veritable flowering of popular Tamil journalism, and the emergence of a style of political communication that we have since come to associate with the Dravidian movement, more particularly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), allows one to do this easily and effectively. Dailies and weeklies run by various leaders and publicists of the DMK; those run by nationalists which countered their arguments, visual imagery developed by those associated with the DMK and which was featured prominently on the covers of DMK periodicals and which circulated as visual commonsense, in the form of post cards, greeting cards, chapbooks and so on; film news which provides an interesting counter to the acute political voices we hear in Dravida Nadu – all these are bound to be of interest to the social historian. It is thus possible to account for this phenomena both in a diachronic as well as synchronic sense: in terms of the movement away from social radicalism to cultural practice; as well as in terms of a new and emergent culture of subaltern assertion, which was largely masculine in the main. In fact both these map on to each other, such that it is possible to posit the emergence of a distinctive and modern Tamil masculine culture in the 1950s even as the Dravidian movement displaced social questions onto the cultural realm.

Then again, for those who wish to write a history of mentalities, of changing mental landscapes would find the library useful: an entire history of sexuality in the early modern period may be written looking at the variety of responses that emerged around the devadasi debate: not just newspaper articles and essays and speeches, but even plays and fiction from that time (1910s to 1930s); the trope of the dasi, as it was employed in public addresses; the manner in which conjugal respectability was established through an insistent and overdrawn picture of what devadasis stood for, play scripts, such as one might find here, for example, Sankara Das Swamigal’s Kovalan Kathai, changing marriage practices, which counterposed the companionate couple to the philandering husband-passive wife model…Looking beyond the 1930s and at the ambiguous figure of the dasi in the writings of DMK publicists, as evident in the pages of Dravida Nadu for example, the culturalisation the devadasi phenomena, the visibility granted to ‘Madhavi’s lineage’ so to speak tells an interesting story of the manner in which performers and performance in the Tamil context had come to occupy public, including political spaces beyond the stage and the dance hall.

Not just the content of these periodicals, but the advertisements they featured, the manner in which they arranged their content, that is, the balancing of popular, political and literary elements that they sought and sometimes achieved, the interestingly mutated genres that we find in the periodicals, for instance, the dramatized dialogue – there are very many interesting details that could be looked at and studied profitably, for one interested in working with culture and history. In fact a history of the Tamil press devoted to matters of culture and politics may be written using these sources.


Working with the Visual Archive

I have used the library’s picture archive on at least two occasions. At Tara Books, where I work, we were to publish a book on popular educational charts. We needed to include in our section on the history of popular visual imagery a print from Raja Ravi Varma’s print workshop. The library very kindly allowed us to take a transparency of the print for our book. At another time, we were looking for film posters and stills and once again the library’s posters and stills collection allowed us to map for ourselves the changes that had taken place in visual framing and composition over the decades, especially from the 1960s to the 1970s, which is also the time when Tamil cinema shifted from black and white films to the colour eta.

More generally, the visual archive at the library is a treasure house, waiting to be discovered. Their ephemera collection could be well utilized to suggest several things:

-      The library’s collection of wedding cards could be well used to draw out an interesting unusual perspective on marriage practices, notions of conjugality and so on, at least in certain Tamil communities.

-      Drama notices provide a novel angle on theatre history and Professors Arasu and Mangai have used them as illustrative instances in their writings on the history and practice of modern Tamil theatre.

-      Popular prints from Ravi Varma and other print houses tell a story – of the evolution of calendar art and the manner in which print technology intersected with art to produce a new cultural artifact

-      A close look at Tamil books and magazines from the early 20th century from the point of view of printing should uncover an entire aesthetics of the print form – the creative use of fonts, printers’ ornaments, the play with the first alphabet of any sentence, the manner in which wood cut and linocut illustrations were used…

Films and More

RMRL’s collection of film posters and stills is yet to be fully used. And if one adds to that, their collection of film periodicals, we are in possession of a treasure trove that could yield a very different history of Tamil cinema than we have now. Much of what passes as Tamil film history is anecdotal, haunted by the glamour of the ‘stars’ era and too closely bound with the fortunes of particular studios, actors, producers and directors. Only a handful of books actually look at the complex network of practices that constitute the film experience in Tamil Nadu: the use of sound in cinema, the evolution of plot and storyline over time, the publicity worlds to do with cinema… But more could be done with the library’s collection.

A Cultural Space

RMRL has been more than a library space. It has sustained a culture of discussion and debate on things to do with modern Tamil history and society through its Thursday lectures – one Thursday a month is devoted to a lecture, followed by discussions, which has proved to be quite a treat for those wanting to bridge the worlds of Tamil and English scholarship on Tamil society and history. The library has also curated several interesting exhibitions based on its holdings – this kind of exhibition culture is fairly new to our city. The idea of curating has seldom been taken seriously and the awe with which we behold our past seldom translates into reflective and intelligent analyses and representations of that past, especially in a manner that communicates to the intelligent lay citizen. RMRL has attempted to do just this: present thoughtful and reflective exhibits that allow us to view a slice of what has been. The exhibition the evolution of printing in Tamil Nadu and Bartholomew Ziegenbalg is a case in point. Likewise, the one on the contribution of the Nagarathars to a prolific print culture has been a visual treat.

A recent addition to the library has been the Indus Research Centre – with Iravatham Mahadevan generously contributing his collection of books and articles and other related phenomena to do with the Indus script and culture to the library. Given Mahadevan’s own recent writings on the Indus script and its possible relationship to the ancient Tamil Brahmi markings, the centre’s work should be of great interest to Tamil antiquarians.

In a wider sense, the library has been attempting to acquire private collections, in order to both preserve them as well as make them available to the community. This is a very important part of the work that RMRL has undertaken, and hopefully one may expect future collaborations. 

In Conclusion

Historians of the Tamil country have often envied their Bangla counterparts for the sheer wealth of sources they appear to access in their work on Bangla culture and society in colonial times. RMRL has set that anxiety and envy to rest – and it is really upto the community and the state to make sure that its effort at preserving and communicating vital aspects of the modern Tamil past to sustain itself.

 (V. Geetha is is a full time researcher.and has authored several books and articles on Gender and Self Respect Movement. She has co-authored several books with SV Rajadurai. Geetha is a bilingual scholar who can elegantly switch between Tamil and English and a brilliant translator.)

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