Muthuvel Karunanidhi, popularly known as Kalaignar, was born on June 3, 1924 in Thirukkuvalai, near Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu. His original name was Dakshinamurthy. Karunanidhi came from a humble and poor family. It was indeed a long journey that took him to the top of Tamil Nadu politics.
Karunanidhi entered politics at the age of 14 after being inspired by a speech made by Alagiriswami of the Justice Party in 1932. Beginning with public protests against the use of the Hindi language in the region, he formed organisations for the local youth and students and started a newspaper that eventually became the Murasoli, the DMK’s official newspaper. He became a close associate of DMK founder C.N. Annadurai and first received broader notice in Tamil politics when he led a 1953 protest in a town where its Tamil name had been replaced with one honouring an industrialist from northern India with a Hindi name.
At the age of 33, Karunanidhi first entered the Tamil Nadu assembly winning the Kulithalai seat in the 1957 election, running as an independent candidate. Beginning with the 1962 assembly polls, he was continually re -elected to that body. He became the party’s treasurer in 1961 and Deputy Leader of Opposition when the party entered the state assembly the following year. After the DMK win in 1967, the party formed the government, and Annadurai became chief minister. Karunanidhi was named the minister for public works. Annadurai died in early 1969, and Karunanidhi succeeded him as the head of DMK and as chief minister. His first tenure lasted only until January 1971, but another DMK victory in assembly elections later that year returned him to the chief minister’s office.
In 1972, however, a new party, the All India Dravidian Progressive Federation (All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, AIADMK), split from the DMK. Thereafter, the two parties became bitter rivals and traded terms heading the state government. Both the DMK and the AIADMK used those tenures in power to settle scores with one another. In 1996 a Karunanidhi-led DMK government filed several charges of corruption against Jayalalithaa, leader of the AIADMK, who then spent a short time in jail. On June 30, 2001 after the AIADMK had returned to power following assembly elections that year, Karunanidhi was arrested and briefly detained on corruption charges related to highway-construction projects. A TV grab released by Sun TV then showed Karunanidhi being dragged away by police officers from his home. The arrest and its manner led to wide criticism and agitation around the nation, especially in Tamil Nadu. After the arrest, Karunanidhi again managed to gather the support of the people and the demand of his immediate release prevailed which consequently led to the dismissal of the Jayalalithaa government. The case was later dismissed.
Later, in 2006, at the age of 82, Karunanidhi became chief minister of Tamil Nadu for the fifth time, after a DMK-Congress alliance had secured a majority of seats in assembly elections. The party had won on the promise that it would provide cheap rice to the citizenrs and a free television for every household in the state. By 2011, however, such incentives were not enough to overcome allegations of corruption, and the party was trounced by the AIADMK in assembly elections. Although Karunanidhi easily retained his seat, only 22 other DMK candidates could win in the polling. He was by then in poor health, but he remained the DMK’s supreme leader and continued to command immense popularity in Tamil Nadu politics.
Karunanidhi was the first Dravidian politician to realise the potential of the films in disseminating political ideologies. Henceforth, his political career intertwined with screenwriting in the Tamil film industry. There he honed skills for promoting the Dravidian movement that later contributed to his rise as a popular politician. He wrote his first film ‘Rajakumari’ in 1947 at the age of 20. But his propaganda efforts started with ‘Parasakthi’ in 1952. ‘Parasakthi’ was a turning point in Tamil cinema. The film was initially banned. When it was finally released in 1952, it emerged as a huge box office hit. Like that of his political mentor Annadurai, Karunanidhi’s movies carried elements of Dravidian political ideologies such as anti-Brahminism and anti-Congress party messages. Two of the movies that contained such messages were ‘Panam’ and ‘Thangarathnam’. The overall themes of the movies were remarriage of widows, untouchability, self-respect marriages, abolition of zamindari and abolition of religious hypocrisy. Between 1947 to 2016 he wrote several films with strong social messages including Manohara (1954), Amaiyappan (1954), Thayilla Pillai (1961), Iruvar Ullam (writer for the 1963 film), Mani Makudam (story for the 1966 film) , Pen Singam (2010), Illangyan (writer for the 2010 film), Romapuri Pandian (TV Series written by him in 2014), Ramanujar (TV Series written by him in 2015) , Thenpandi Singam (TV Series written by him in 2016).
As his movies and plays with strong social messages became popular, they suffered from increased censorship; two of his plays in the 1950s were banned. He also wrote the script and dialogues for many early MGR starrers like Abimanyu, Manthiri Kumari, Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi, Naam and Pudhumai Pithan which catapulted both the writer and the actor to stardom.
After becoming the chief minister, his involvement with films lessened. But in the eighties, Karunanidhi returned with a bang and his rule in cinema started again with the successful film Neethikku Thandanai. He also penned the song ” Semmozhiyaana Tamizh Mozhiyaam”, the official theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference 2010.
Karunanidhi rode like colossus in Tamilian politics. The DMK chief contested 12 assembly elections and won all in his political career spanning over 60 years. He led the UPA in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry to win all 40 Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Despite all charges, controversies and setbacks, Karunanidhi continued to remain one of Tamil Nadu’s tallest leaders. To put things in perspective, when he won his first election in 1957, it was just 10 years after India became a free country and Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister. He saw many generations of politicians sparkle and fade. M Karunanidhi was also considered one of the greatest intellectuals of this era – an orator, novel writer, lyric writer, script and dialogue writer, and politician. Kalaignar also had the distinction to have served as a party chief for 50 years. He shared political space with veterans such as Periyar EV Ramasamy, CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa and this shaped him as an intellectual and politician.
According to experts, one of the reasons why DMK still remains rooted in Dravidian ideologies was Kalaignar, who had worked in close association with Periyar and Annadurai, and who in turn had deep allegiance to Dravidian ideologies. After the charismatic M.G. Ramachandran, no one within the Dravidian movement has stood as unrivalled, as unsurpassed as Karunanidhi. Muthuvel Karunanidhi was Tamil Nadu’s unquestioned leader for years. He dominated the state’s political stage since 1969 when he became Chief Minister at 45, reaching that office four more times, in 1971 at 47, in 1989 at 65, in 1996 at 72 and then in 2006 at the ripe age of 82.
He was a player and a viewer, a participant and an observer, an actor and an analyst of events both small and big, setbacks both minor and severe.
The political veteran was married three times and leaves behind six children. He has a son Muthu from his first wife Padmavati. MK Azhagiri and MK Stalin are his sons from his second marriage with Dayalu Ammal. Kanimozhi is his daughter from the third marriage with Rajathiammal.
Karunanidhi was away from active politics since 2016 post his tracheotomy surgery. A stalwart and a fighter till the last breath, he succeeded in leaving his lasting footprints on the Indian political spectrum.