January 23, 2017 7:00 pm JST

When tattoo culture meets politics

Usually a matter of choice, political tattoos leave a lasting impression in Indian state

TOM VATER and LAURE SIEGEL, Contributing writers

Political activist D. Pandiamall and Jayalalithaa devotees Panneer Selram, Radha Krishnan, and M.A. Pandi in Madurai (Photo by Tom Vater)

MADURAI, India -- On a sweltering summer morning in 2016, D. Pandiamall, a 52-year-old money lender and political activist, was sitting in the entrance hall of her huge family home in a suburb of Madurai, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The room was bare but for images of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a former movie actress who led the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (All India Anna Dravidian Progress Federation), India's third largest political party, who had just been declared chief minister of Tamil Nadu for the sixth time. The state is home to about 78 million people, equal to about 60% of the population of Japan.

Surrounded by her daughter and nieces, and juggling two smartphones, D. Pandiamall was calling the party faithful. "I am the 13th ward counsellor of the AIADMK in Madurai," she said. "Our members will show you just how dedicated we are to the cause."

D. Pandiamall 's idol Jayalalithaa led the AIADMK from 1989 until her death in December 2016. In India's best political tradition, Jayalalithaa was a hugely divisive figure. With more than 140 movies under her belt, the wily politician knew how to work a crowd.

Also known as Amma (Mother) and Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader), she managed to galvanize huge numbers of voters and became extremely popular with women. For four decades, her party contested Tamil Nadu's state government with its sole effective rival, the DMK.

Between phone calls and glasses of lemon juice, D. Pandiamall recalled that "Amma introduced a 30% quota for women in all levels of the state police force, and opened the first police stations operated by women. She also set up centers for abandoned female babies and successfully fought female infanticide. She did a lot for women."

Adoration and infamy

But the strong woman who broke the state's glass ceiling also spent years in court fighting allegations of corruption. As recently as 2014, Jayalalithaa was convicted in a disproportionate assets case. The court established that she owned 30kg of gold, 10,500 saris and 750 pairs of shoes, along with vast tracts of land and shares in several companies.

She was briefly suspended from her post as chief minister, but the case was quickly overturned. Despite scandals like these, Jayalalithaa continued to receive unconditional support from her followers, some of whom have been known to walk across burning coals -- literally -- for their party boss, often drawing her portrait with their blood and having her face tattooed on their arms.

Soon D. Pandiamall was joined by three card-carrying party members. Panneer Selram, 62, Radha Krishnan, 49, and M.A. Pandi, 47, spoke as one, claiming they were ready to lay down their lives for Jayalalithaa. All three men have their leader's portrait and the party's emblem tattooed on their arms. Selram, the eldest, also sports a tattoo of the face of M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR, another Tamil movie star-turned-chief-minister who was Jayalalithaa's predecessor and mentor.

Proudly showing off his faded tattoos, Selram remembered getting inked in 1977. "MGR wanted to test our loyalty. He wanted to show our rivals just how determined and numerous his followers were. I had his portrait applied during the party's first mass tattoo ceremony, just after he got elected."

MGR spent a decade in power and encouraged many more of his followers to get tattooed. Soon after his death in 1987 Jayalalithaa took over both the party and MGR's tattoo tradition. On her 68th birthday on Feb. 24 2016, 1,000 volunteers simultaneously had her face tattooed on their forearms during week-long ostentatious celebrations.

Selram added, "We are ready to face anything for her," as he flashed two large rings bearing the image of the chief minister while his friends held up their party membership cards, which also carry her photograph. Selram's statement was anything but glib. Following news of her death on Dec. 5, with the state's political future in limbo, some of her most devoted followers committed suicide.

Matter of choice

Tattoos of leaders and icons are not a new phenomenon but they are generally a matter of personal choice. During the November 2015 elections in Myanmar, many followers of the National League for Democracy could be seen with tattoos of the late Aung San, one of the principal architects of the country's independence, and his daughter, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now Myanmar's de facto leader.

After the death in late 2016 of Thailand's revered king Bhumibol Adulyadej hundreds of people have had his portrait or the Thai numeral nine (referring to his position as the ninth king of his dynasty) tattooed on their skin.

But only in Tamil Nadu have tattoos been officially integrated into the political discourse to promote individual politicians. In India, this kind of phenomenon is not altogether unusual because politics are often driven by adoration of a single leader.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India's first law minister and the main author of its constitution, declared in 1949, "In India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship."

Ambedkar, who worried about the adoration reserved for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, refused to call India's best known nationalist Mahatma (great soul), the reverential title by which he is still known today. Ambedkar's warnings, though, were largely ignored. Many citizens continue to hero-worship their leaders, including the country's current prime minister, Narendra Modi.

With Jayalalithaa's passing, Jeyaraman, a retired general manager of a textile company and astute observer of local politics in Madurai, sees the end of an era. "The problem is there is no popular, charismatic leader anymore. Jayalalithaa's followers were leading their lives under the umbrella of her glory and will disperse like a pack of oranges now the bag has opened. Tattooing has not spread in the wake of Amma's demise, and it will slowly die off."

But political messages and iconography are likely to continue as popular tattoo motifs on the streets of Tamil Nadu. On the traffic-free lanes surrounding Madurai's most important Hindu temple, the Meenakshi Amman, a family of itinerant street tattooists has spread crudely carved stamps on the pavement -- religious images, tribal patterns, the faces of actors and politicians, and a stamp for each of the state's political party emblems.

Cinemaguru, the head of the family, is busy inking a lover's name on a man's chest with a needle powered by a car battery. "I have been tattooing political tattoos for a decade, right here in front of the temple, for every party," he said. "My tattoos are popular as I charge only 20 rupees (29 cents). For the small people this is a way to show what they believe in."

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