Kerala turns VIP funerals into road shows

By B.R.P. Bhaskar, IANS,

When Malayalam stage and screen artist Rajan P. Dev died in a Kochi hospital last week, the family announced he would be buried the next day at Karukutti, near Ankamali, 33 km north of the city. The body had to travel more than 120 km to reach the designated resting place.

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From the hospital, the body was taken to his birthplace, Cherthala, 42 km south of Kochi, to enable residents of the town to pay their respects. It was then carried back to Kochi to lie in state at the Ernakulam Town Hall. From there, it was transported to his home at Karukutti for night halt. The last lap from there to the St Xavier’s Church cemetery was the shortest.

The thespian’s last journey was typical of the newly evolved Kerala practice of turning its famous sons’ funerals into veritable road shows. At every halt, members of the public had the opportunity to file past the body.

Kerala’s political establishment and media leadership recognised the immense potential of a VIP funeral when former chief minister and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader E.K. Nayanar died in New Delhi May 19, 2004. His body was kept at the A.K.G. Bhavan, the party’s headquarters, and at the Kerala House before it was flown to Thiruvananthapuram in an air force plane.

At Thiruvananthapuram, Nayanar’s body was displayed at the A.K.G. Centre, the state party office, and at the secretariat, the seat of the government. It was later taken by road to Payyambalam, near Kannur, for cremation. Such was the rush of people who turned up for a last glimpse of the leader all along the route that the 500-km-long journey took five and a half hours more than the scheduled time.

Overwhelmed by the tumultuous scenes witnessed en route, a correspondent of the party journal People’s Democracy exclaimed: “The great mass leader had become even greater after his death.”

Nayanar’s was the first VIP funeral since the dawn of the age of satellite television. The first private Malayalam channel, Asianet, was in operation when Kerala’s – and the country’s first – Communist chief minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad died in 1998. As mourners poured into his Thiruvananthapuram residence, the channel set up a camera there and started relaying the proceedings. However, in the absence of facilities for uplinking from Indian soil, the live transmission over the cable system could be seen only by viewers in the city.

By the time of Nayanar’s death, the government of India had permitted uplinking of programmes directly from India. Also, there were now several competing channels. The extensive coverage they provided helped Keralites everywhere to follow the leader’s last journey closely. The live telecasts played a big part in generating the unprecedented popular interest witnessed along the entire route of the funeral procession.

Since then the families of distinguished Keralites who have lived and died outside the state have come under official and public pressure to allow the bodies to be brought home for adulation and a funeral with state honours.

Writer and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan, who had settled down in Secunderabad after his working days in New Delhi, and musician and composer G. Devarajan, who was a long time resident of Chennai, were among those who were thus brought home to receive celebratory funerals in places they had left early in life.

Writer Kamala Surayya, who died in Pune May 31 this year, was undoubtedly the one who received the most adulation. She had lived in Kolkata and Mumbai and earned fame, writing in English under her marital name of Kamala Das and in Malayalam under the pen name of Madhavikutty, before returning to Kerala and courting controversies through words and deeds. She took the name of Kamala Surayya after embracing Islam in 1999.

Kamala had moved to Pune, where her youngest son lives, in 2007. Respecting her wish to be buried in Kerala, her sons accepted the arrangements the state government made, in consultation with the Jamaat-e-Islami, to take the body to Thiruvananthapuram for burial. The family and Jamaat officials took the body to Mumbai, where a state minister joined the accompanying party.

After giving the public an opportunity to pay their last respects to Kamala at the Kerala House in Navi Mumbai, the body was flown to Kochi. From there it was taken to Thrissur to lie in state at the office of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. The 300-km-long journey from Thrissur to Thiruvananthapuram gave hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to pay homage. The television cameras were on all through.

Before moving to Pune, Kamala Surayya had bitterly complained that Keralites had not honoured her the way others in India and abroad had done. If only she could see the adulation showered on her posthumously she would probably acknowledge that she had misread people’s feelings.

Maybe she would also have touched off another controversy by asking whether it wouldn’t be more appropriate for bereaved people to make the journey to pay their last respects rather than for the dead to travel long distances to receive the honour.

(B.R.P.Bhaskar can be contacted at [email protected])