Labour Day – Chennai’s Connection

    01-May-2022
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S Balakrishnan
I thought Chennai’s Statute of Liberty, sorry, Statue of Labour on the sands of Marina Beach was the city’s only connection with Labour Day. But the internet, the whirlpool that it is, sucked me in to reveal one more historical connection - that of Singaravelar. While the Statue of Labour is a symbolic one, the role of Singa- ravelar is an impactful one.
Let us first look at the iconic Labour Statue, also called ‘Triumph of Labour’ that basks in the first rays of the rising sun from the Bay of Bengal. It was the first statue to be installed on the sands of Chennai’s famous landmark beach ‘Marina’, as part of its beautification plan by the Madras Governemnt (now Tamil Nadu Government). Shri Bishnu Ram Medhi, Governor of Madras, unveiled the statue in the presence of Shri K. Kamaraj, Chief Minister of Madras, on 25th January 1959, on the eve of our ninth Republic Day. The bronze sculpture features four men intensely engaged in the difficult task of moving aside a boulder. The realistic sculpture salutes the countless faceless workers who, day in and day out, put in strenous physical effort and hard work in shaping India. The intense focus of these four men and their rippling muscles leave the viewers awestruck.
The Labour Statue was sculpted by the noted sculptor Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury who was the then Principal of Madras School of Arts (later, Government College of Fine Arts). Incidentally, he was the first Indian Principal of that institution. Rated as one of India’s major modern artists, Roy Choudhury was born on 15th June 1899 in what is now Bangladesh. In 1928 he moved to Chennai to join the Government College of Fire Arts as a student. He worked there as HoD, Vice-Principal and then Principal till 1958. He was appointed the founder chairperson of Lalit Kala Akademi when it was formed in 1954.  He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1958 for his immense contribution to fine arts. He was not only a sculptor but also a painter.  He died on 15th  Oct. 1975, aged 76 years.
Artist Ramu recently gave an insight into the sculpting of this Labour Statue. Ramu was then a student of the Institution. One day as Ramu was chatting with his friends under the shade of a tree, he was wanted by the Princi. When Ramu entered into the Principal’s room nervously he was surprised when he was asked to pose. As Ramu was of a lean physique he wondered what he was modeling for. He did not know it was for this iconic statue !
Here is the second connection, a more important one: Exactly 99 years ago, M Singaravelar organized India’s first Labour Day (May Day) on 1st May 1923 in Madras ! He also launched the Labour Kisan Party with an aim to protect the rights & interests of the working class people. He is also credited with forming (along with others) India’s first trade union, the Madras Labour Union, on 27th April 1918, just within six months of the Russian Revolution. This Union led a six-month-long strike against the British exploitation of the Buckingham & Carnatic Mill (B&C Mill) workers. Along with his other associates, many other trade unions were formed in Madras. Born on 18th February 1860, Malayapuram Singaravelu was a path breaker in many fields. He was a strong freedom fighter during our independence struggle, initially fighting under the leadership of Gandhi and then in the Communist movement, as he was a left-of-centre Congressman by heart. In 1925, he was one of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of India and even chaired its inaugural convention in Kanpur. It was then that he dissolved his Labour Kisan Party, formed in 1923.  He embraced Buddhism to fight against the ill of untouchability. Madras Presidency was then leading the self-respect movement, fighting for equal rights of the backward classes.  Singaraavelar was in the forefront of this movement also.  A multi-linguist, Singaravelar knew many European languages like German, Russian and French. He had translated into Tamil the works of Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, etc.
Thus, it was on May 1, 1923 that the prominent Communist leader of Madras, Singaravelar, raised the red flag in Madras which was the first historic hoisting of red flag in India as well! He presided over two meetings on that day in Madras to explain about the significance of labour movement in general and about his newly-formed Labour Kisan Party.  Singaravelar gave the clarion call for May 1 to be declared a holiday honouring labour movement. One meeting was held at the beach opposite Madras High Court and the other at Triplicane beach where now stands the Triumph of Labour statue ! What a coincidence !
Singaravelar set the trend for May Day celebration in India. In December of that year (1923), Singarvelar started ‘The Labour Kisan Gazette’, a fortnightly journal, and also a Tamil weekly ‘Thozhilalar’ (Worker). Besides being a leading lawyer, he was the first member of Madras Corporation. He passed away on 11th February 1946, at the ripe age of 86, holding his lofty ideals close to his heart. To honour Singaravelar’s path-breaking work in various fields, the Chennai Collectorate building is named after him. The Nation honoured him by issuing a five rupee postal stamp on 2nd May 2006.
1st of May was chosen as the date for celebrating International Workers’ Day in 1886 to mark the Haymarket Affair in Chicago; it was a labour demonstration in reaction to police brutality on several workers. Over the years, the date held huge significance to communism in several countries, not to speak of communist Nations.  
A Red Salute to Chennai’s Singaravelar and the Statue of (no, not Liberty, but) Labour, Triumph of Labour, on this and every May Day!