A personal tribute to the ‘firebrand’ writer, journalist, literary critic and theatre personality who passed away in Chennai recently.
Gnani Sankaran, 64, began his career as N.V. Sankaran in Indian Express, Chennai. He edited various Tamil magazines and was known for his sharp analysis of politics, theatre, cinema, literature and human rights in his popular column, ‘O Pakkangal’, in a Tamil weekly, which was recently converted into a YouTube channel. A practitioner of experimental theatre, trained under eminent theatre personality Badal Sircar, Gnani produced over 50 plays in Tamil from various languages, such as Bengali, Marathi and German. In 2014, Gnani contested and lost the by-poll to Alandur on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket. He quit AAP later that year.
I am a 28-year-old journalist and have known Gnani for the last two years. In the two years that I have known him, I have shared the same bond that I have shared with my biological parents for 28 years. The bond was made possible by Gnani’s deep belief in what his idol Bharathiyar had said: Anbendru Kottu Murase (Hail, love, Murasu – Murasu is a sort of drum).
Gnani was capable of offering unconditional love to those who came to him. It was the time when I had lost my job in television and my mother was away for treatment. I was searching for a place to stay and Padma (A.S. Padmavathi – Gnani’s wife and companion) offered her place for me. Padma – a feminist – was often a guest at a show on women I had produced for the television channel I was working with and we had forged a good friendship. Gnani was not yet a friend.
My friendship with Gnani started only after I began living at Padma’s place. To begin with, my conversations with Gnani were very limited. But as days passed, Gnani made it possible to converse with him about anything under the sky. Soon my way of addressing Padma transitioned from ‘madam’ to ‘amma‘. From being Padma’s foster daughter, Gnani soon started to introduce me to his friends as ‘their’ foster daughter. My relationship with Gnani and Padma made me realise it was a myth that you need to be related by blood to have that kind of bond.
To Gnani, everyone was the same. He held everyone around him in the same esteem. He was open about his criticism with people around him. He nurtured no grouse against anyone who had been critical of him. In private, in the workplace, in public – Gnani was just the same. He was that rare person who wouldn’t change his roles to suit the stage.
In the two years that I knew him well, Gnani introduced me to at least 500 people. I have become good friends with at least 100 of these people. Gnani was instrumental in widening my circle. He broadened my horizon. He expanded my outlook on many things. He changed the way I think and I live.
Gnani was a walking encyclopaedia on the Tamil, national and global politics of the last four decades. To anyone seeking information, Gnani was more than willing to offer them his insights. Do we need someone to die to know their value? He was a well-known journalist, political commentator, writer and a theatre personality. But beyond all that, he was someone who loved fellow human beings unconditionally. In the two years that I have spent with him, I have seen him undergo severe health-related problems. But his dream and his social responsibility made him work tirelessly. Even when he was admitted to hospital and undergoing treatment, he was keen to write. I remember him dictating to me under great stress the column that he had to send on that day.
Gnani never sought any concession owing to his celebrity status. Nine hours before he had passed away, he had met Tamil Nadu governor. In less than five minutes that he spent with the governor, Gnani requested him to do an alternative arrangement for the people living in slums. Not once has Gnani met any bureaucrat or official for his own personal gain.
From Pareeksha, his theatre group, to Pattam (a student supplement of Dinamalar he was involved with), this was evident. You needn’t be anyone to be Gnani’s friend. But if you become his friend, you would inevitably be drawn towards his work. Even today, there are several people influenced by Gnani silently working towards change somewhere. His friends were young. He believed change was possible through students. All the forums created by him were guided by that idea.
Seetha Janani is a journalist from Tamil Nadu and Gnani considered her his foster daughter.
Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan.