The iconic image of Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree, photographer remembers

Sivaraman worked for The Indian Express and met Jayalalithaa after she was assaulted at the Legislative Assembly.
The iconic image of Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree, photographer remembers
The iconic image of Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree, photographer remembers
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67-year-old Sivaraman who retired from The Indian Express as a photographer lists three unforgettable events from his career. One was covering MGR's death in 1987, another was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. In between these tumultuous years, he took an iconic photograph that may well have been a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics: a dishevelled Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree.

On March 25, 1989, Jayalalithaa, the Leader of the Opposition and the first woman in the state to occupy that post, was assaulted in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. 

Her close aide Natarajan's (Sasikala's husband) house had been raided after a case of cheating was filed on him. An 'unidentified messenger' submitted Jayalalithaa's letter of resignation to the Speaker M Tamilkudimagan who accepted it against the rules. Further, the letter was leaked to the press.

A week later, three-time Chief Minister Karunanidhi, was about to present the budget (he also held the Finance portfolio) when the Opposition protested the way in which Jayalalithaa had been treated. There are differing accounts of what happened next. The ruckus that followed the accusations in the Assembly went out of control. 

Though Jayalalithaa was making her way out of the House surrounded by members of the Opposition who'd formed a human shield around her, DMK Minister Durai Murugan rushed towards her to hit her. Did he pull her saree deliberately or was it accidental? Whatever be the truth, Jayalalithaa's saree was torn.

Incensed and humiliated, she left the Assembly, vowing that she would come back as the Chief Minister. The incident acquired the reverence of myth in the public imagination. And Sivaraman's dramatic photograph was an image that branded it in the memory of the people. The Indian Express has the copyright of the picture and it is not available online. 

"I was quite young then," Sivaraman recalls. "I went to her house in Poes Garden quite late, after all the photographers had already left."

Sivaraman was told to wait when he said that he'd come from The Indian Express. A little while later, Jayalalithaa emerged, still dressed in the torn saree. "Her hair was in disarray," Sivaraman remembers. "She told me, see what atrocity these people have done!"

In the spring of 1989, Sivaraman, the young photographer did not know that Jayalalithaa would grow to be a giant slayer in Tamil Nadu politics. "She was not that powerful or imposing then," he says. "It was a black and white photo. I framed her looking through the hole in the saree. Then I went back to office."

The next day, the picture would come in the first page of The Indian Express, winning Jayalalithaa sympathy from the people of Tamil Nadu, especially the women voters who identified with her struggle in a male dominant, patriarchal society. The incident redefined Jayalalithaa: to herself and the public. 
Years later, in 2016, when Jayalalithaa was a powerful politician and the CM of Tamil Nadu many times over, she reached out to another female politician who had come face to face with the ugly patriarchy that pervades Indian politics. BJP leader Dayashankar Singh called the BSP chief Mayawati "worse than a prostitute". Mayawati became emotional in Parliament over the words but she received support from unexpected quarters. Jayalalithaa. 

The TN CM issued a statement that spoke her mind: 

“Mayawati is respected as the peerless leader of the oppressed community and no one can accept criticising a leader in a derogatory manner for having difference of opinion. My heart melts for Mayawati who has been assaulted by whipping words. Everyone should be firm that attacks on women politicians should be brought to an end. I too have had such experiences."

In her famous interview given to Simi Garewal, Jayalalithaa said that the incident at the Legislative Assembly shaped her as a person and politician. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Sivaraman's photograph was one such.

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