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From BoJack in veshti to black queen’s triumph, Chess Olympiad’s ‘Tamil identity politics’

Assertions of Tamil Nadu's autonomy & identity are at play in ongoing 44th Chess Olympiad, with DMK-led state govt continuing its discourse on federalism, say political observers.

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Chennai:  As chess players focus on their opponents’ next moves at the ongoing 44th Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram, the event has given the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) government an opportunity to continue its conversation on federalism and state autonomy, and the state an opportunity to assert its own identity, according to political observers.

From the horse-faced and veshti-clad ‘Thambi’ (which in Tamil means ‘younger brother’), to the now-viral ‘Check Mate’ dance where a black queen beats her white opponent, the event also incorporates symbolism about the battle between dark and light skin tones and the assertion of the Tamil identity, say political observers.  

“The Chess Olympiad has provided an opportunity to showcase the political concept of federalism and state autonomy, while willingly and pleasantly collaborating with the Union government,” Professor S. Anandhi, who specialises in identity politics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, told ThePrint.

It was a “steady and conscious” working of democracy where the bureaucracy worked efficiently with several talented artistes in Tamil Nadu that helped make the event a success, she said.

“Some of us can relate to this event without much dissonance since the cultural programme merged well with the state’s articulation of its ideals,” Anandhi said. 

“By mobilising democratic spaces well, a range of people who have nothing to do with the sport can connect to the event,” she added. 

Last Thursday, the inaugural function of the Chess Olympiad, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended, emphasised Tamil Nadu’s history and culture.

“It had an implied message that Tamils are unique and Tamil history is different from the rest of the country,” said Chennai-based writer Maalan Narayanan. “They probably wanted to send a message to the so-called national forces that we relish our identity as Tamils.” 

Addressing the event, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said that chess was the modern version of the traditional board game ‘saturanga vilayattu’ and that several pieces of evidence of such a game were discovered at Keeladi, an important archaeological site in the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi meanwhile referred to the Chathuranga Vallabhanathar temple in Tiruvarur district and said that “even God played a game of chess with a princess”.

Opponents in the state, however, accuse Stalin and his government of deliberately excluding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s images from posters for the Olympiad. 

“He wants to use the international event to showcase himself on a national platform,” All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) spokesperson Kovai Sathyan told ThePrint.

Also Read: Afghan chess players hold Taliban flag in Chennai, shows ‘good relations’ with India says Kabul  

Dark versus fair

The battle of dark versus fair is an age-old one that Tamil politicians and filmmakers often take up. Such as the 2018 movie Kaala, starring Rajinikanth.

Kaala means black in many languages in north India, including Hindi. “Black is the colour of labour,” Rajini says in the film.

In politics, Vijayakanth, the chief of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazagham (DMDK) and a popular actor with the moniker Karuppu MGR (‘the Black MGR’), was projected as an alternative to J. Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi  in the 2006 assembly election. 

More recently, the now-viral ‘’Check Mate’ dance video — which was released last week — also continues the conversation around colour. 

The dance, choreographed by Pudukottai district collector Kavitha Ramu and released by  Stalin, shows a black queen winning over her white opponent. 

Ramu said that the video was not “political”.  

“In chess, the white pawn is said to be more powerful. I wanted that notion to be taken down. Here, the symbolism is that a person who has an advantageous position can also be overpowered too. The dance is about gender, power, and colour itself,” she added.

The dance brings together classical, martial, and folk artistes from across the state. 

Ramu said that through the video, she also wanted to show that a woman could be as powerful as a man, and “he bows down to her”. 

“I wanted the first line of defence to be martial artists,” Ramu said, adding that all districts were asked to pitch in with their ideas.  

Chess, Thambi, and Tamil identity

D. Ravikumar, the MP for Villupuram and a leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) — a Dalit party allied to the DMK — told ThePrint that assertions about the history and origins of chess play into the larger Aryan-Tamil debate. Additionally, he said, to add to the discourse of Tamil pride, there’s also some buzz around a a young chess grandmaster of Tamil origin — 16-year-old prodigy R.Praggnanandhaaa.

“For many years Viswanathan Anand was the grandmaster, then Magnus Carlsen took over the title. Now everyone expects to see Tamil domination again with Praggnanandhaa. It will give a big boost to Tamil pride,” he said.

As for Thambi, the veshti-wearing horse-faced mascot has taken over the city, whether it’s the airport, the Marina beach, or even the sides of government buildings. News reports describe him as both friendly and tough. And in a world of black-and-white chess pieces, Thambi is brown.

While inaugurating the Chess Olympiad Thursday, Stalin said they had chosen to name the mascot ‘Thambi’ to honour C.N. Annadurai, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and founder of the DMK.

“We designed the mascot in traditional Tamil attire saying vanakkam. We named him ‘Thambi’. The name is a symbol of brotherhood, and it indicates we all belong to one fraternity,” Stalin had said. “C.N. Annadurai used to fondly call everyone ‘Thambi’. The mascot’s name is in honour of that endearing gesture,” he said.

Narayanan said, “The word Thambi depicts Tamil stock. Except that the horse could have been more like a horse.” 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Stalin’s archaeology push in Tamil Nadu is the stuff of culture wars. Experts have a warning


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