67-year-old Sivaraman who retired from The Indian Express as a photographer lists three unforgettable events from his career.
One was covering MGR’s death in 1987, another was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
In between these tumultuous years, he took an iconic photograph that may well have been a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics: a dishevelled Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree.
On 25 March 1989, Jayalalithaa, the Leader of the Opposition and the first woman in the state to occupy that post, was assaulted in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. There are differing accounts of what happened that day.
Her close aide Natarajan’s (Sasikala’s husband) house had been raided after a case of cheating was filed against him.
An ‘unidentified messenger’ submitted Jayalalithaa’s letter of resignation to the Speaker M Tamilkudimagan, who accepted it against the rules. Further, the letter was leaked to the press.
A week later, three-time Chief Minister Karunanidhi was about to present the budget (he also held the Finance portfolio) when the Opposition protested the way in which Jayalalithaa had been treated. There are differing reports of what happened next.
The ruckus that followed the accusations in the Assembly went out of control.
Though Jayalalithaa was making her way out of the House surrounded by members of the Opposition who’d formed a human shield around her, DMK Minister Durai Murugan rushed towards her to hit her. Did he pull her saree deliberately or was it accidental? Whatever be the truth, Jayalalithaa’s saree was torn.
Incensed and humiliated, she left the Assembly, vowing that she would come back as the Chief Minister.
The incident acquired the reverence of myth in the public imagination. And Sivaraman’s dramatic photograph was an image that branded it in the memory of the people.
The Indian Express has the copyright of the picture and it is not available online.
I was quite young then. I went to her house in Poes Garden quite late, after all the photographers had already left. – Sivaraman
Sivaraman was told to wait when he said that he’d come from The Indian Express. A little while later, Jayalalithaa emerged, still dressed in the torn saree.
“Her hair was in disarray,” Sivaraman remembers. “She told me, ‘see what atrocity these people have done!’”
She was not that powerful or imposing then. It was a black and white photo. I framed her looking through the hole in the saree. Then I went back to office.
The next day, the picture would come in the first page of The Indian Express, winning Jayalalithaa sympathy from the people of Tamil Nadu, especially the women voters who identified with her struggle in a male dominated, patriarchal society.
The incident redefined Jayalalithaa: to herself and the public. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Sivaraman’s photograph was one such.
(This article was published in an arrangement with The News Minute on 6 December 2016. It is being reposted to mark J Jayalalithaa’s birth anniversary.)