Jayalalithaa’s tryst with Rajaji Hall: Homage at the spot of her political turnaround

At the public vigil for MGR at Rajaji Hall, Jayalalithaa declared her political intent by placing herself at his head
Jayalalithaa’s tryst with Rajaji Hall: Homage at the spot of her political turnaround
Jayalalithaa’s tryst with Rajaji Hall: Homage at the spot of her political turnaround
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Preceded as it was by a long period of illness, the death of J Jayalalithaa has come as a heavy blow for millions in Tamil Nadu. As the state’s foremost woman leader and one of its longest serving Chief Ministers makes her final journey, the homage to her at Rajaji Hall and her funeral at Marina Beach later are fitting reflections of the key place she occupied in the history of the state’s Dravidian politics. 

Rajaji Hall, built originally as the Banquet Hall to celebrate British military victories at Plassey in 1757 and against Tipu Sultan in 1799, has been the site of many key events in Chennai’s history. From legislative sessions to the 1961 celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday to the ceremonial farewells to former Chief Ministers CN Annadurai (in 1969) and K Kamaraj (in 1975), Rajaji Hall has been the preferred site. 

But for Jayalalithaa, Rajaji Hall also bore a deep personal significance on the occasion when it served as site where her mentor MG Ramachandran’s body lay in state. Leading up to his death, Jayalalithaa had been embattled within the AIADMK against a section that resented her rapid rise under MGR’s sheltering hand, and rivalled by his wife Janaki. The Puratchi Thalaivar’s funeral was a major declaration of intent, where she announced without words that she would claim his legacy and the mantle of the party. 

As writer Vaasanthi describes in “Amma: Jayalalithaa's Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen”, being prevented from seeing MGR’s body at his residence, Jayalalithaa determinedly took her place at the head of MGR’s body. She stood vigil there for two days, facing down insults and provocations in the form of pinches, stamps on her foot and more. She was pushed away from the key spot at the vigil.

From Rajaji Hall, Jayalalithaa’s body will be taken to Marina Beach, where her funeral will be conducted at the Dr MGR Memorial Site on Kamarajar Salai. The MGR Memorial site itself stands adjacent to the Annadurai Memorial Site. In the journey from Annadurai to MGR to Jayalalithaa is marked a journey of political inheritance that changed the face of Dravidian politics. 

Annadurai drew MGR out of cinema and into politics, aiding him in turning his star power into a mass political appeal. MGR took to heart Annadurai’s philosophy that the voice of the people is the voice of God, and translated into his political life the on-screen man-of-the-people persona into a political platform. 

In turn, MGR helped Jayalalithaa carry out the same transition. And Jayalalithaa, for her part, maintained the populist and pro-poor orientation of the AIADMK’s policies to the end of her days. 

Yet, this political legacy also marks the paradoxical journey of Dravidian politics, which originated in the strident anti-caste politics of the non-Brahmin movement, and ended in the helming of one of the two key Dravidian parties by a Brahmin woman. That Jayalalithaa managed this extraordinary transition, growing from an outsider into the beloved Amma of millions in Tamil Nadu, is a testament not just to the political genius with which she carried forward her legacy, but also the singular path she forged to political greatness. 

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