Tribute: People’s Poet Inquilab

The noted Tamil poet, dramatist and rationalist Inquilab passed away on December 1, 2016. He was 72. He was born Shahul Hameed at Keezhakarai in Ramanathapuram district. He had been a Tamil Professor at New College in Chennai till his retirement. A rationalist, his body was donated according to his wishes to the Chengalpattu Government Medical College. He was popularly known as ‘Makkal Kavignar’ – People’s Poet.

He began activism with the Dravidian movement, and had, like many others of his generation, participated in and been jailed during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. The massacre of 44 Dalit agricultural labourers at Kilvenmani in 1968 drew him towards Marxism – initially the CPI(M) and then the Marxist-Leninist movement. The angry lines of his song ‘Manusangada, naanga manusangada’ (Humans, we’re humans) on the Kilvenmani massacre is an anthem of sorts for the ML and Dalit movements.

He was a trailblazer of the Vaanampadi movement of modern Tamil poetry. His plays brought Sangam poetry to the modern Tamil stage. His play Avvai challenged patriarchal stereotypes by imagining the legendary poet Avvaiyar, not as a wizened and wise old woman as she is usually portrayed but as a young, sensuous and free woman. His modern rendering of the celebrated epic Manimegalai lent itself to feminist theatre in Tamil Nadu. In 2006 he returned the Kalaimamani award given to him by Tamil Nadu government in protest at the government’s failure to protect Sri Lankan Tamils, whose Tamil nationalist cause he passionately advocated and supported.

His poem ‘Kanmani Rajam’, criticizing the moral bankruptcy of politicians, was prescribed in school textbooks till an irate DMK Government removed it from the curriculum after Inquilab spoke out against the Government’s decision to celebrate the 1,000th birth anniversary of Raja Raja Chola – a king whom Inquilab considered an imperial oppressor who exploited labourers to build the grand Thanjavur temple.