Wailing women, distraught crowds and a state in mourning.
Tamil Nadu lost its lioness on Monday night at 11.30 pm. Admitted in Apollo Hospital in Chennai, J Jayalalithaa's condition became critical following a cardiac arrest the previous night. Amma, as she was fondly known, has left behind a legion of wailing supporters, distraught crowds and a state in mourning.
Over the years, the film star-turned-politician became a leader to reckon with, a woman who inspired other women, and a maternal figure revered like a goddess by her party and supporters.
Anuja, a 37-year-old member of the AIADMK women's wing, says, “She was an iron lady, born to fight. A revolutionary leader addressed as Amma by the whole nation, she definitely had the quality of a loving mother. It really took courage to raise Tamil Nadu to this stage, and we owe it to this angel mother, whose life has definitely impacted the people, especially women.”
From child artist to leading lady, she lit up the silver screen with her talent, charisma and presence. A top-notch student, she wanted to study law, but Fate had other plans. She was forced by her mother to continue her career in films, and there was no looking back.
From the many on-screen avatars she donned to taking up the mantle of chief minister, what followed was a journey that was as eventful and dramatic as any movie. Tamil Nadu has seen a trend of stars who took on the roles of gods and goddesses in movies going on to political careers where they enjoyed a deity-like status. That rule applied to Amma as well.
Kalki Subramaniam, an artist and transgender activist, says, “Her will power, conviction and the boldness to face struggles was a rarity. She was every woman's role model in leadership skills. A true feminist, beautiful, bold and brainy, she was single and found her purpose in life to serve people through politics. For most self-made women like me, she has been a true role model. She is irreplaceable. I don't know if we will ever have a woman leader like her in a century. This is a deep loss for me personally. The last time I felt this way was when Mother Teresa and Lady Diana died.”
Jayalalithaa proved time and again that she was made of sterner stuff. Her most striking feature was her trademark boldness. As a child of a single parent-run household, this girl would continue to read a book nonchalantly while all others stood to attention when the veteran actor MGR walked into the room.
She carried forward this boldness into her adulthood and political career. Be it her affair with MGR or being pushed around and sidelined at his funeral by the supporters of MGR’s wife, Janaki - Jayalalithaa always showed that she was tough, refusing to budge an inch.
The same fortitude held her in good stead when she opposed Karunanidhi’s budget presentation in 1989. She was met with abuse, and her clothes and hair were pulled at. She held on, episodes like these only serving to make her stronger.
Entrepreneur and founder of Kriyative Educations J. Jeyapria says, “She had captured the minds of the people by first being in movies. Then by being with the late MGR. Later, she established herself as a superior force through her policy decisions. Her politics always tended towards the masses. For women, she depicted someone who could do the unthinkable.”
Over the years, she built her own brand, Amma, through initiatives such as Amma canteens, food items, salt, electronic items and party halls. Amma was omnipresent.
Author, entrepreneur and former State General Secretary of the Lokparitran Party L. Hemachandran says, “She impacted women with her leadership skill and practice. Without any political background like Indira or Sonia Gandhi, she evolved as a woman leader by surpassing all the struggles and opposition she faced from the men in her party with her charisma. So, TN women always look at her as a strong single woman, and they follow her in their own personal lives when they face problems.”
The brand that she built around her and the lives that she impacted will carry her legacy forward. Only time will tell how Amma is ultimately immortalised, remembered and revered.
At the moment, the grief and loss are palpable. She was an inspiration to and role model for many women.
A leading educationist in Chennai, Maalathi Kumar, says “Every girl or woman in this state has been directly or indirectly influenced by her. She has made us feel confident about ourselves and has proved that a woman can survive alone in this male-dominated world," she says.
And, long after the sunset, the women of Tamil Nadu will continue to feel empowered.
(With inputs from Induja Raghunathan)