Public speech as media infrastructure for democracy


back to issue

IT is perhaps only now, when reflecting upon the centenary of the founding of political Dravidianism and the quinquagenary of this ideology’s ascent to hegemony, that we can appreciate the degree to which the media of this political movement have been at least as important as the message, to twist Marshal McLuhan’s famous axiom. The non-Brahmin and, more broadly, the anti-caste politics of Dravidianism were intertwined with the articulation of a regional nationalism that was itself enabled by media technologies such as print. This story about the role of print capitalism in the formation of national imaginaries is now well known. But the Dravidianist leaders of the DMK, especially, brought to the movement a new practice of mass mediation that acted as a very substantial means of achieving the democratization they were advocating at the level of explicit political ideology.

As we inaugurate the dawn of a new order, or disorder, in Dravidianism’s trajectory with the demise of J. Jayalalithaa, the political withdrawal of M. Karunanidhi, and the proliferation of new media-enabled protests, it might well be a good time to look back critically at the media forms that enabled a massification of the movement in the first place. I do so, here, through the lens crafted by Bernard Bate (1960-2016), an extraordinary historical anthropologist of Tamil language and politics who left us all too soon.

Official Dravidianism announced itself politically in the early-20th century in the relatively elite register of the wealthy, upper caste non-Brahmin leaders of what was to become the Justice Party, even while finding subaltern roots in the erudite and unusual intellectual work of Iyothee Thass, a pioneering figure of Dalit visions of the Tamil nation. It was, however, only later under Periyar’s leadership that the movement would place itself firmly in the realm of the social, as calls for self-respect were more thoroughly enfolded into the textures of everyday life and ritual. But ultimately it was the scholar-politician, C.N. Annadurai (Anna, or ‘older brother’) and his followers (his thampis, or ‘younger brothers’) who majorly embraced modes of mediatized mobilization, leading to the hegemonic rise of a new political aesthetic.


The media infrastructure developed in the mid-20th century under this brand of Dravidianism consisted of a thriving, even exploding, local print culture of party pamphlets and journals, a politically charged popular cinema and, most importantly for our purposes here, a revolutionary new style of public speech, brilliantly analyzed by Bate. These three media forms must be understood as feeding off each other in a thoroughly intertextual fashion, though in each case the project of democratization was riddled with paradoxes and even contradiction. But it was basically through an unembarrassed embrace of media and aestheticized politics that the movement led by Annadurai was able to outflank the Gandhian ascetic ethos of both the Congress party and of Periyar himself, even as it recruited the latter’s image for its own purposes.

Bate’s book,1 tracks the historical emergence and contemporary power of a literary register of political speech, medai peccu or ‘platform oratory’, that strikes speakers and listeners alike as the embodiment of an ancient culture. Using elaborate poetic forms of centamil, or ‘refined Tamil’, and harkening to a time that was conceived of as a classical utopia, the speakers like Annadurai who developed this form of political address were, in fact, creating a wholly new speech genre. Political speech in Tamil was, itself, a relatively recent innovation that Bate would date back to the Swadeshi movement (1905-1908) in his later work.


Following this early period, Periyar was a masterful speaker who addressed his followers in a witty and almost folksy, idiomatic Tamil. But the widespread use of such refined and stylized language to address the masses was something that only emerged later, in the mid-20th century, with the rise of the Dravidian aesthetic. This phenomenon, what Bate would term ‘the newness of old things’, had largely escaped previous historical analyses of the rise of the DMK and its style of mobilization. He was not happy to stop at a simple ‘invention of tradition’ type of argument, however. The book enables readers to understand that the oratorical revolution inaugurated by Annadurai and his generation of speakers was energized by the sort of concrete representations of a ‘past charged with the time of the now… blasted out of the continuum of history’ that Walter Benjamin had imagined when radicalizing Marx’s insight into the weight of history on political modernity.2

It is in his ethnography of speeches he witnessed at political rallies in the early 1990s that Bate’s linguistic, literary and cultural erudition outweighed even his historical insight. True to his training in the University of Chicago school of South Asianist anthropology of the time, he sought deep engagement with the hermeneutic traditions of the cultural world he was studying. Seeing beyond some of the more exoticizing aspects of this school of anthropology, however, Bate worked closely with his colleagues, friends, and teachers in Tamil Nadu – notably Tho. Paramasivam and A.R. Vekatachalapathy – to develop his analyses of what he was seeing and hearing before his eyes in the political rallies he attended and recorded. We learn about akupeyar, or ‘transformed words’, for example, in a particularly original chapter of the book, demonstrating his engagement with Tamil grammatical theory. These are tropes of contiguity that easily escape the lenses of received literary and semiotic typologies.


Developing the insights of his teacher, A.K. Ramanujan, who sought to develop a theory of metonymy as the foundational trope of Tamil poetics, Bate argued for a more fine-grained analysis based on the medieval grammar known as the Nannul. Using the semiotic typology of this text, which remains the primary basis for grammar taught in schools today, he examined the tropes of political speech (e.g. ‘O, budding moonlight!’), and the manner in which one phrase makes co-present a densely networked set of associations. ‘Akupeyar works such that’, as Bate says, ‘the desire to enact contiguous, pleasurable, relationships between servant and leader, between devotee and god, is contained in the very tropic figures of the devotee’s utterances.’ Here, poetics, idioms of devotion, and populist politics meet in an explosive combination.

Bate was not only able to develop a compelling means of representing the sonority of linguistic power in his writing, he attended equally to the synesthetic production of mythical spacetime at political meetings in the very streets of Madurai. The production of the Dravidianist aesthetic was multi-media at its core. Through a deeply informed analysis of political rally architecture, poster art, and murals, all praising political leaders who might appear to their followers as gods on earth, Bate was attuned to how political oratory was in conversation with the other media of Tamil modernity. As noted earlier, the development of a new political speech did not emerge in a vacuum, but in intermedial conjunction with emergent forms of political filmmaking, and writing, often scripted by the very orators who pioneered the Dravidian speech aesthetic.


Beginning in early films such as Velaikkari (1947), penned by Annadurai, and the blockbuster hit Parasakti (1952), penned by Karunanidhi and played beautifully by Sivaji Ganesan, film became another means by which the movement’s secular-rationalist ideology politicized a whole generation of youngers, especially men. In fact, as M.S.S. Pandian states, ‘memorizing dialogues of the film [Parashakti] became a must for aspirant political orators.’3 From this point on, public meetings would refract celluloid dreams and vice versa. A fusion of political speech and cinema ensured that the magic of commodity fetishism would be the medium through which the sovereignty of the Tamil people could be imagined on a mass scale.

But what does it mean to claim for political speech a role in the infrastructure of democracy? I borrow the concept of infrastructure from Bate’s later writing and from recent anthropological attention to media as infrastructure to emphasize an important point at the centre of his work: the form of the public political meeting is more important, in some respects, than what was said at level of denotation, i.e. the literal meaning of speeches. Here, poetics trump reference, and it is the form itself which would instantiate a claim to representing the Tamil people.

But there are problems that are raised for the theory of democracy as popular sovereignty that arise from this modality of representation. I have earlier mentioned the contradictions of democratization in new mass media forms. If film, and especially M.G. Ramachandran’s style of cinematic populism, worked to build bonds of aesthetic solidarity with the subaltern classes while at the same time advancing the interests of a capitalist state premised on the exploitation of their labour, as M.S.S. Pandian argued, the paradoxes of the oratorical revolution Bate wrote about are just as profound and perhaps more fundamental.


Bate notes that the very language, centamil, that marked its speakers as learned scholars and artists representing a hoary civilization, was a register of speech that was largely unavailable to the majority, the very people these leaders claimed to represent. The forms of ‘hierarchical intimacy’4 that structured political life, were just that: profoundly hierarchical for all of the devotion that people have shown their leaders, and thus at odds with the otherwise democratizing thrust of the Dravidian movement’s message and forms of mass mediation. The means of massification were also means of excluding the subaltern from participating in the representative function. In Marx’s apposite wording: ‘They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.’5 This is an insight into a paradox of representation that Bate could have perhaps pushed further in his book, concerned as he was with democracy as a practice and not just an abstract political goal.


The paradox of representation is also closely connected to another insight Bate had into the workings of a Dravidianist power based on speech in centamil: this genre of language is deeply gendered as feminine, even when men tend to dominate the stage. Not only is Tamil often represented as a goddess, the very capacity to speak in the most highly refined style requires the adoption of a feminine persona, according to Bate. In his book, a speaker named Kavitha, who he often claimed inspired his whole research project, was a virtuosic exception to the general rule of male domination on the Tamil stage. Another more well known speaker named Theepori Aramugam proved the rule about feminization of refined speech by breaking it through a hyper-masculine vulgarity.

In his analysis of the gender of political language, then, Bate laid bare another way in which the democratizing claims of DMK style Dravidianism hit certain limits. I would add to Bate’s argument by noting that Jayalalithaa’s political task of inhabiting the feminized role of representing Tamilness while, at the same time, questioning the field of masculine dominance and general misogyny, was made all the more complicated because of her own Brahmin background in a world formed by non-Brahmin politics. The complex gender of Dravidianism remains as a vexing question for its claims to democratization.

The media of political modernity in the Tamil world and elsewhere were not only material infrastructures allowing for new forms of communication; they acted also as technologies in the wider sense of a metaphysical ‘enframing’ of the world described by Heidegger. The Tamil people as a subject of politics were not simply found, they were built through practices of representation that were material and conceptual, in equal measure. This a theme that Bate would take up in earnest in his later work on the origins of political speech.


Nineteenth century Protestant missionary textual practices of addressing a non-caste based public for the first time provoked the neo-Saivite response to such sermonizing from the legendary Ceylonese scholar and speaker Arumuga Navalar, leading to what Bate would term the ‘epistemization’ of language, religion, and people.6 That is to say, these categories took on new meaning as forms of identity and, eventually, politics with the rise of modern social imaginaries. Along with a practical shift to what Bate would call ‘generalized interpellation’ in politics that first emerged in Tamil around the Swadeshi movement, another change in how people knew themselves to be collective political actors happened around this time, and largely as a result of these earlier religious interventions.

The forging of a political agency through language was also the occasion for wordsmiths to come to embody Tamil modernity. It was the fiery poetry of Subramania Bharati, and the explosive public oratory of swadeshi activists, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Subramaniya Siva that enabled the rise of popular politics in the Tamil country, providing both a media infrastructure for democracy and a way of knowing ‘the people’ as a political actor. Bate saw this turn to politics culminate in the mass protests of the labour and home rule movements of 1919, described by the ‘journalist, Tamil scholar, pioneer in public oratory, labour organizer, and politician of profound impact, Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram (known as ‘Thiru.Vi.Ka.’) …as "great army, like a surging ocean" moving toward the beach’ on the Marina in Madras.7 Here it was poets and orators that had as much, if not more to do with the formation of a national imaginary than the more abstract forces of print capitalism, as Benedict Anderson might have it. This is the story of the origins of Tamil modernity that Bate was writing when he passed away in the prime of his scholarly endeavours.


Dravidian politics and its turn to mass media in the mid-20th century thus drew on a media infrastructure for democracy – intellectual, affective, and material – that had been laid generations earlier. What made Dravidianism distinctive was its capacity to reformat this infrastructure to invoke an ancient heritage, and in the process, lay claim to a distinctive aesthetic where the formal poetic elements of speech embodied democratic power. Opening the question of media infrastructure and its role in democracy from the perspective of language, as Bate did, has perhaps raised more questions than it has answered. What is certain, however, is that as we see the political field change in response to new challenges to regional representation in India and new media environments opened by digitalization, Bate’s work on this history of shifting media forms has provided a model of intellectual engagement for anyone following in his wake.



1. Bernard Bate, Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India. Columbia University Press, New York, 2009; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011.

2. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (edited by Hannah Arendt). Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968, pp. 253-264.

3. M.S.S. Pandian, ‘Parasakthi: Life and Times of a DMK Film’, Economic and Political Weekly 26(11-12),1991, pp. 759-70.

4. The concept of ‘hierarchical intimacy’ was in common use in South Asianist anthropology and also appears in the work of other scholars of bhakti such as Lawrence Babb and Arjun Appadurai.

5. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (vol. I). Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1950, p. 303.

6. Bernard Bate, ‘The Ethics of Textuality: The Protestant Sermon and the Tamil Public Sphere’, in Anand Pandian and Daud Ali (eds.), Ethical Life in South Asia. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010, pp. 101-115; Bernard Bate, ‘Arumugam Navalar, Saivite Sermons, and the Delimitation of Religion, circa 1850’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 42(4), 2005, pp. 469-484.

7. Bernard Bate, ‘To Persuade Them into Speech and Action: Oratory and the Tamil Political, Madras 1905-1919’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 55(1), 2013, pp. 142-166.