Sunday, December 24, 2017


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The Empress: The Dramatic Life of A Powerful and Enigmatic Leader by  Kalyani Shankar ; Published by Bloomsbury, Pages 135 ; Price Rs.399/-
The bye-election in R K Puram brings into sharp focus the person who represented it—Jayalalithaa. Any work on her is worth serious consideration.
The author of the book under review Kalyani Shankar is a political commentator and columnist who was Political Editor of Hindustan Times as also its Washington correspondent. She earned a name as  a  television journalist. She was a Nuffield press fellow at Cambridge University and senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. She has a number of books to her credit--- Nixon, Indira and India: Politics and Beyond, India and the United States: Politics of the Sixties and Gods of Power: Personality Cult and Indian Democracy. 
Apart from a highly impressive  interview with Simi Garewal on television, a  serialised autobiography of sorts, sundry rumours circulated slyly  one could not assess this mysterious personality. To some extent  the book “The Empress” fills this gap.
 Kalyani portrays  the colourful life and times of ' Puratchi Thalaivi' Jayalalithaa who  became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991 by dint of willpower and dedicated work. Under her leadership the AIADMK came to power four times: 1991,2001,2011 and 2016. Her death on December 5, 2016 was sudden and wholly unexpected.

Jaya who was Enigma personified attained Cult status. Her charisma attracted votes and she was a great crowd puller—an ability springing from her earlier celluloid career. Like Margaret Thatcher she acquired the sobriquet  “Iron Lady” of Tamil Nadu. She was quite authoritarian and her loyal following fell at her feet and displayed obedience akin to behaviour of slaves in ancient times. Jaya is widely seen as the toughest, most muscular politician in the State.

“Just like a Tamil Movie” would perhaps describe  accurately  Jaya’s life and achievements.  Jaya's life story reads like a screenplay by Annadurai. She strode like a Colossus in the twin worlds of film and politics. He mother led her into the celluloid world and her mentor M,G.Ramachandran  brought her into the world of films . MGR was a phenomenally successful film star and he founded the AIDMK. The journey from the world of tinsel to the world of films undoubtedly is a subject of paramount interest.
Jaya acted in more than 150 films in Tamil, Telugu, ,Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, even in an English movie” The Epistle”.She won seven Filmfare Awards and six Tamil Nadu Cinema Awards for Best Actress.She became the highest paid actress in the Tamil film industry in the year 1966 after eleven consecutive hits that year. Besides a career in films as an actress, as well as a film producer, Jaya was also a columnist, a short story writer and a novelist.
Christened as “Amma” she was wielding influence all-round irrespective of caste, creed or language.She was instrumental in inaugurating welfare schemes and believed that she is the ultimate protector of the downtrodden and deprived masses of Tamilnadu. She did provide cheap food, medicines, cement and even mineral water.
Jaya’s speeches in the Rajya Sabha  were noted for their incisiveness and deep understanding of the subject under discussion.
 Kalyani successfully portrays the several up and down movements in Jaya’s life, her numerous legal and political battles and the stunning dominance she achieved in Tamil Nadu  The legend of Jaya continues undimmed and possibly more strongly after her demise.
Jaya declared, “Though MGR introduced me to politics, he certainly didn’t smoothen the way for me. He didn’t make anything easy for me. I had to fight and struggle my way up –every inch of the way.”
What sustained Jaya—the woman was her iron will—her unflagging spirit, the unrelenting perseverance and the courage to hit back despite all odds. This helped her politically.
There is no contest with the basic premise of the book — Jayalalithaa was a cult figure, commandeering extreme loyalty, invoking great fear, a larger-than-life persona who defied definition.
Kalyani Shankar has faced and traced many politicians in her career . Jayalalithaa  proved a tough nut to crack and remained eminently  inscrutable for all who have studied her over the years. Almost everyone adverted to the commonplace items—she is, a woman, a Brahmin, chartering her own territory in a patriarchal Dravidian political set-up of Tamil Nadu, her incredible charisma, her arrogance, her battery of slaves falling at her feet, burgeoning  corruption, her questionable link with Sasikala and the Mannargudi clan.
The “Hindu” summed her up nicely— "Adversity brought out the best in Jayalalithaa. As the Chief Minister fighting for the rights of her state, as a politician trying to spring back from electoral defeats, as a woman standing up to sexist taunts in what is still  very much a man’s world, she was courageous to the point of being adventurist. In her passing, India has lost a leader who played a vital role in the shaping of Tamil Nadu during a crucial phase of the country’s economic development and social progress”.
 It is common knowledge that Jaya consulted astrologers and she added an extra ‘a’ to her name Jayalalitha—after a yagna to Goddess Kali.
The real Jayalalithaa does not appear  in this volume. With the demise of the Empress, her associates completely demoralized and the distasteful behavior of Sasikala there is a crying need of a critical account of this Leader of the masses.
“The wedding of her foster son was extravagance personified. The groom was Sasikala’s nephew, Sudhakaran. The bride was the granddaughter of matinee idol, Sivaji Ganesan.   Atleast 12,000 guests sat for a lavish dinner prepared by 3000 cooks. Shrines were erected with icons like images of Jaya in place of Hindu gods. This marred her image as a well-meaning person who was eager to do good for the people. There was public outcry when her arrest in 1996 was followed by the seizure of 28 tolas of gold and diamond studded jewellery, more than 10,000 sarees and 750 pairs of shoes from her Poes Garden residence.”…. Page 57.

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