MYLAI Ponnuswamy Sivagnanam, popularly known as MaPoSi (June 26, 1906-October 3, 1995), was a politician, freedom fighter, and the founder of the political party Tamil Arasu Kazhagam. Born in Madras, MaPoSi had dropped out of primary school due to poverty and worked as a weaver, and then as a composer in a printing press. Through diligence and his love for the land, he became an accomplished scholar and statesman. His visage of him with the trademark walrus mustache would make him easily identifiable. However, he never scaled the peak of State politics for multiple reasons.
He is most remembered for his participation in the demarcation of Tamil Nadu and for his efforts through which Tamil Nadu could retain Madras as the State capital, at a time when Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were involved in a struggle for it.
Madras had just turned 300 years old and was facing its second greatest challenge after the French invasion. The Capital of the Presidency became a bone of contention between two ethnolinguistic groups who had stayed united for several centuries, but had now become neighboring states in a newly independent India.
The Madras Manathe agitation of the Telugu population had historical support. Madras had been leased from a Telugu king of neighboring Chandragiri. The demographic of the region, according to some, had altered significantly after the introduction of railways spurred the Tamil population to migrate in thousands to the Capital of the Presidency. It is undeniable that Madras would have had a completely different identity had it become a part of Andhra Pradesh. That Madras should come to define Tamil Nadu and lead it into a Dravidian future was decided in the Parliament and the streets where the two factions agitated.
For several reasons, there were no large-scale movements to wrest support for a Madras for the Tamils. Some like EVR (Periyar) had other agitations to manage. The DMK was still a fledgling party. The Congress with its heightened sense of nationalism did not stick its neck out for the Tamil cause. Meanwhile, galvanized by freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu’s hunger strike for the formation of a separate state for Andhra Pradesh, and Andhra Kesari Tanguturi Prakasam’s leadership, the aggressive Madras Manathe (Madras is ours) campaign was gathering steam on the Telugu side of the Presidency.
It was MaPoSi who kept the issue alive long enough so that Tamil support could be mobilized. Subsequently, other Tamil politicians felt the need to join. Potti Sreeramulu had started his fast unto death demanding states differentiated on linguistic lines. Despite being a hardliner on the issue of the Capital and the convention of the north border protection group, Maposi prisoners would visit Potti Sreeramulu for a tearful reunion as the duo were fellow in Vellore.
But the meeting embarrassed his friends at all parties. MaPoSi would nevertheless take a rigid stance on the takeover of Madras. He raised a point of order in the legislature to have a fasting Potti Sreeramulu be arrested and force fed to protect the relationship between Telugu and Tamil peoples. He even opposed a mention in the council expressing sorrow on the untimely death of Sreeramulu in December 1952 from fasting, saying it would be like inviting violence upon Tamils.
Subsequently, on October 1, 1953, 11 districts in the Telugu-speaking section of Madras State became the new Andhra State with Kurnool as the capital. Post the State Reorganization in 1956, the remaining Madras State was rechristened as Tamil Nadu on January 14, 1969.
Before the demarcation of Tamil Nadu, MaPoSi had spent two decades in the freedom struggle and was jailed six times, almost succumbing to at one point in time. In jail, he lost 31 kilos and had become so unrecognizable that even Rajaji could not recall him in a public meeting. But the moment Rajaji did, he had MaPoSi admitted to a hospital and treated.
MaPoSi can also be credited with reviving and keeping alive for posterity the tales of two prominent freedom fighters of different eras – Veerapandiya Kattabomman and VO Chidambaram. Madras was always assumed to be a pet Presidency of the British, where divided loyalties kept the freedom movement suppressed.
MaPoSi was moved by the sacrifices of VOC and wanted to install a statue for him. With Swaraj still out of reach, it was not possible for the statue of an archenemy of the British Raj to be installed in a public space. When MaPoSi floated the idea of the VOC statue in the office of the Congress, he was discouraged and even rebuked (VOC in his final years had expressed a leaning towards Periyar’s self-respect movement).
Finally the party agreed to erect a statue within its office, but it would not fund the same. MaPoSi would seek funds even from firewood merchants along the Buckingham Canal and scale down a lifesize statue to a bust, but he finally managed to bring the project to fruition.
MaPoSi habitually took it upon himself to publicize the sacrifices of the Tamil freedom fighters. In fact, it was only his newspaper which on Independence Day in 1947, listed out the forgotten freedom fighters including Europeans like Annie Besant.
In a similar fashion, when MaPoSi was involved in supporting the filming of the story of Veerapandiya Kattabomman, many groups began targeting him. They accused him of glorifying a non-Tamil ruler. While Kannadasan poet would try to project Maruthu Pandiyar as greater patriots, Tamilvanan would denigrate Kattabomman as a dacoit. But MaPoSi’s efforts paid off. His biographies on the two heroes rekindled interest in the often ignored independence movement in the South. Both the stories inspired movies and became household legends.
MaPoSi is also associated with elements of Madras’s history that we have taken for granted. I have changed the British symbol of the Madras Corporation to have the signs of the Tamil kings – the tiger, the bow and the fish. He also proposed a change in the State’s name from Madras to Tamil Nadu a decade before others raised it.
The literary career of MaPoSi was equally stunning. In 1966, he was presented the Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamil for his biography of Vallalar. Once out of jail after an independence agitation, he searched for a job but his lack of education was a stumbling block. Though people had heard him speak on the stage, he was thought to be underqualified for the job of a proofreader. Instead he was offered the profile of a composer which involved setting letters on the print type. But his reading of him and an inquisitive mind led him to become a popular writer and editor.
He has written 10 books on Bharathiyar and a dozen on Silapathikaram. His extensive research on him on the latter earned him the special title Silambu Chelvar. His love from him for this epic even prompted him to name his daughters from him Kannagi and Madhavi, the two heroines of the book. In 2006, the literary works of MaPoSi were nationalized by the Tamil Nadu Government. Interestingly, he was elected to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly from Thiyagarayanagar constituency, contesting as a DMK contestant in 1967. And today, his statue of him adorns the main road in T Nagar.