Madhaviah, A.

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MĀDHAVIAH, A. (1872–1925), Tamil writer and proponent of women's rights. A. Mādhaviah was a modern Tamil humanist who championed women's rights through literature; he defined as well the contours of modern Tamil fiction. Mādhaviah used his literary talents to help change attitudes toward misogynistic customs, enhancing the humanism of Tamil society in colonial Madras (Chennai). In his short life of fifty-three years, he wrote over sixty Tamil and English novels, plays, biographies, essays, nonsectarian hymns, and translations. His brilliant critiques of the hypocrises of Hindus and Christians, Indians and Westerners won him a wide circle of admiring middle-class readers. Mādhaviah's writing helped to crystallize the intersecting identities of Tamil ethnicity and pan-Indian nationalism. He contributed patriotic English essays to the Hindu journal, and Tamil articles for the Swadēsamitran (Friend of independence). He edited two journals, Tamil Nēsan (Friend of the Tamils) and Panchāmritam (Nectar).

Born on 16 August 1872 to upper caste parents in the brāhmana village of Perunkulam near Tirunelvēli, he hated parochial caste exclusions, which he described in his later writings. He attended a local Tamil school, then studied English at a government high school in Pālayamkōttai, a Protestant missionary center. He contributed English poems to the Madras Christian College journal under the guidance of Reverend William Miller. Mādhaviah, a sharp critic of certain Hindu social and religious inequities, also attacked Christian proselytizing. Some chapters of his "Savitri Charitram" (Savitri's story) on upper caste women were first published in the journal Viveka Chintamani, and later rewritten as the novella Muthumeenakshi in 1903. It promoted widow remarriage, and criticized child marriage and marital rape. In 1898, his Tamil novel Padmāvati Charitram (Padmavati's story) was published, and it has been acclaimed as his greatest work. Its revelations of female illiteracy, male lust, and mercenary marriage customs startled its many readers. For thirty years, Mādhaviah worked as a Salt and Excise Department official, touring remote areas by day, returning to write late into the night by candlelight.

His Tamil writings include a semihistorical novel, Vijaya Mārtāndan (1903); the plays Tirumalai Sētupati (1910) and Udayalan (1918); Siddhārthan (1918) on the Buddha; Rajamārthandam (1919), a dramatization of his English novel Lieutenant Panju (1915–1916); the nonsectarian hymnal, Podu Dharma Sangeeta Mañjari (Collection of new hymnals for all) in 1914; and marriage songs, Pudu Māthiri Kalyāna Pāttu (1925). His English works include Thillai Gōvindan: A Posthumous Autobiography (1903); Satyānanda (1909) about an illegitimate Christian hero; Clarinda (1915) about a Brahman widow Christian convert; and Thillai Govindan: A Miscellany (1907). He retold Indian myths like Mārkandēya (1922), The Story of the Rāmāyana (1914), and Nandā: The Pariah Who Overcame Caste (1923), which became school texts. His humorous Kusikar Kutti Kathai (Kusikar's short stories) was published in 1924.

Inspired by Vēdanāyakam Pillai's use of Tamil fiction to promote change, Mādhaviah's literary realism made him the more effective reformer who skillfully cited Indian humanistic texts to promote Western social liberalism. He believed that one remained a slave by remaining silent in the teeth of injustice. As he never feared to speak out, he was often ostracized. He died of a heart attack while addressing the Madras University Senate, urging them to make Tamil a compulsory subject for the bachelor of arts degree. That resolution was finally passed sixty years later.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoMadras ; Women's Education


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Raman, Sita Anantha, and Vasantha Surya, trans. A. Madhaviah: A Life and a Story. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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