About the Book
In 1937, a 26-year-old Indian aboard a ship sailing from New York to Dublin, decided to make a documentary on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Over the next few years he travelled some 100,000 miles collecting 50,000 feet of film footage, with the expectation and then the outbreak of the Second feet documentary. It was released with Tamil commentary, and shortly after, with a Telugu voice-over. Fearing government repression, the film then went into hiding. On 14 August 1947, the film was screened in New Delhi as celebrations rent the air. A few years later, in 1953, he re-edited the film with English commentary in Hollywood and screened it in the USA. In the Tracks of the Mahatma is the story of the making of this documentary in the words of the man who achieved this stupendous task: A.K. Chettiar.
About the Author
A.K. Chettiar (1911-1983) was a pioneering documentary film-maker and the founder-editor of the Tamil journal Kumari Malar (1943-1983). The journal specialised in documenting the social and cultural history of Tamilnadu. An acclaimed travel writer, he studied photography in Tokyo and New York.
A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a social historian. A Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, he is the author of In Those Days there was no Coffee: Writings in Cultural History and the translator of Sundara Ramaswamy's J.J.: Some Jottings.
S. Thillainayagam is Professor of English at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. The author of Feminist Uterary Essays, he is currently translating Mylai. Seeni. Venkatasamy's Buddhism in the Tamil Country.
October 2, 1937. Aboard the Samaria, travelling from New York to Dublin, a 26-year-old man dreamed of making a documentary on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Over the next two and a half years he travelled across the world - some 100,000 miles - with the Second World War looming large, and its outbreak jeopardising his search. He collected 50,000 feet of footage, shot by a hundred different cameramen over three decades and across four continents. He edited this into a 12,000-foot documentary and released it in August 1940 with Tamil commentary, and a few months later, with Telugu commentary. Fearing government repression and possible confiscation, the film then went into hiding. On 14 August 1947, the film was screened in New Delhi as celebrations rent the air. In 1948 he made this film in Hindi as well. A few years later, in 1952-53, he re-edited the film with English commentary in Hollywood (at the height of the McCarthy era) and screened it in the United States of America. In the Tracks of the Mahatma is the story of the making of this documentary in the words of the man who achieved this stupendous task: A.K. Chettiar (1911-1983). A.K. Chettiar was a modest and self-effacing man. And therefore, it is difficult to reconstruct his life.' He left behind no account of his life. Even among his friends, who number quite a few, he seems to have been reticent about the details of an eventful and productive life. We do not even know the names of his parents or his wife. This life-sketch is thus pieced together from bits of information gleaned from his various writings, obituary notices and tributes, and conversations with, and reminiscences of, his friends.
Annamalai Karuppan Chertiar was born in the Nattukkottai Chettiar community, known for its business enterprise and shrewd commercial acumen. As South and Southeast Asia were opened up for colonial exploitation in the nineteenth century, Nattukkottai Chettiars entered its financial markets - in Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Indo-China, Sumatra, Thailand, etc. - and gained windfall profits. The massive mansions that litter the Chettinadu landscape offer the most striking testimony to their wealth. A significant presence in the economic and social life of Tamilnadu, they won great fame with their philanthropic activities, endowments to temples, and patronage of arts and literature.
On 4 November 1911, A.K. Chettiar was born in the small village of Kottaiyur in the Chettinadu region in central Tamilnadu. Even this date comes to us as American immigration officials interrogate him when he enters the United States of America in 1952 for remaking his film on Gandhi in Hollywood.
The officer dictated the particulars to the typist. In my application, I had indicated my date of birth as 4-11-1911. He read it out as 11 April 1911. I intervened and said that I was born on 4 November 1911.
The officer was taken aback at my objecting to my date of birth. "Isn't that what you have written?" he asked. "What I've written is correct. But you have read it wrongly."
I explained the difference between the Indian and American ways of marking dates. "We write the day first; you write the month first. I was not born on 11 April, but on 4 November.” As mentioned earlier, we do not even know the names of his parents. In an essay on the famed temple town of Thiruvannamalai, he remarks that he spent eight years in school and twenty-four days in prison while in that town. It is characteristic that we do not know why exactly he went to prison, except for the fact that it was in the cause of the nation. He briefly mentions his imprisonment, in what is to us a tantalising reference, while he is interrogated by the American immigration officials.
Q Have you ever been to jail? A: Yes.
A:. I did not wish to. But the then British government put me in jail.
A:. For political reasons.
After schooling, he returned to his hometown at the age of sixteen. Even as a young man he was interested in reading periodicals. Since his uncle, his father's elder brother, subscribed to the nationalist daily Swadesamitran, he read it regularly. Apart from the Tamil journals that he borrowed from his friends, we also know that he subscribed to two English journals: To-day, edited by M.S. Karnath, and the Doodle. It was during this period that he met and spent a few days with Boothur Vaidyanatha Iyer, the founder of Ananda Vikatan, who had come on a subscription-raising tour of Chettinadu for his newly founded Ananda Vijaya Vikatan. This was not surprising, considering that Chettinadu was known for supporting cultural and social activities; in fact, by the turn of the 1930s, it was a major centre of Tamil publishing-of both books and journals. The epicentre of much frenetic social activity, no major social movement was without its fervent supporters among the Chettiars.
In late 1930, and not yet twenty years old, A.K. Chettiar began to edit a monthly journal Dhanavanigan (another name of his community) from his hometown Kottaiyur. His name appears as the managing editor with an editorial board of five young persons some of whom, especially V.R.M. Chettiar, went on to become prominent in later days. Eight issues, one of them a double number, were published until 1931. A special number was published in November 1932 and we have no further information on it-surely it must have died. Prominent among Dhanavanigan's contributors were the Tamil scholar, Pandithamani M. Kathiresan Chettiar, and the women's activist Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi. The contents of the journal were broad, though we find some notes on the abolition of untouchability and an essay (probably translated) on Mahatma Gandhi. In an interesting article, A.K. Cheniar himself talks about the growing schisms within the Chettiar community caused by the growth of various social and political movements- events that left their mark on him. I found a reference to his having attended the first Self-Respect marriage' - that of Neelavathi, a Naidu and Rama- subramanian, a Chettiar in the Chettinadu region, organised personally by Periyar EV Ramasamy. Considering that this event was highly controversial and a cause celebre of the time, his attendance at the marriage may be seen as making a political point. However, it must be noted that A.K. Chettiar maintained a distance from, as well as a near silence on, the Dravidian movement. His life-long interest in Gandhi probably dates from this time, though there is no record of his initiation in any of his own writings. It is likely that A.K. Chettiar was still in Thiruvannamalai when Gandhi visited Chettinadu in 1927; during Gandhi's subsequent visit to Chettinadu in 1934, he was in Burma. Probably, he absorbed Gandhism from his wide reading and the zeitgeist of the time.
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