Mangayarkarasi Amirthalingam was born in Moolai, Vaddukoddai, Jaffna in 1933. At twelve years old, she enrolled in Ramanathan College – founded by early Tamil political leader Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan – to study music. It fostered an appreciation of, and proficiency in, Carnatic music and Indian drama in the young Mangayarkarasi. She married burgeoning Tamil political leader Appapillai Amirthalingam, then with the Federal Party, in 1954. She became one of the leading Tamil political figures of the time, renowned for her oratory skills and protest activities. In her reminiscences, she also reflects on her experiences during the Sinhala shri campaign, Galle Face Green sittings, the ’58 riots and the ’61 satyagraha. By the time her husband was confirmed as leader of the opposition in government in 1977, she had become an international diplomat of sorts, forging relationships with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – before his assassination in 1991 – both successive prime ministers of India. As turmoil grew through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, her two sons sought refuge in London, while she and her husband remained in Sri Lanka, continuing to seek a political solution to the war. She left Sri Lanka for London after the assassination of her husband at the hands of LTTE operatives in July 1989. After settling with her youngest son, she has now become an active member in the Tamil community in Kingston, joining other Tamil elders in activities and performances at the Centre for Community Development in Norbiton.


Mangayarkarasi Amirthalingam, 79, recalls how her singing often served as the soundtrack to Federal Party meetings, before she became one of the most prominent women in Tamil, and Sri Lankan, politics.

In her interview, she also reflects on her marriage to rising political firebrand Appapillai Amirthalingam in 1954…

‘When the proposal came, he [Mr Amirthalingam] heard that I sang that song and he said he knew me. And part of it was, he liked me, he loved me. So my father refused the marriage because he said, ‘I don’t want any politicians’…But my mother and her brother – her brother was from KKS, Kankesanthurai, and he was working with Chelva [S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, Federal Party leader]. He was also a businessman but he worked with Chelva. So he said, ‘He’s a very nice boy.’ That is what he said, ‘very nice boy.’ ‘He has no bad character qualities or anything. So if my niece is married to him, he will look after her very carefully and she will be happy.’ So then my mother was insisting. And he came to our village for a meeting so my father and mother went there to see him.She came and told me, my mother, ‘He’s all right. He looks handsome. He’s a good man. That is what people are saying. He’s a good boy.’ So my father also then agreed…When I married him, the first day, you know, when we were registered – he used to come and go but – he said, ‘D. S. Senanayake [first Prime Minister of Ceylon] is coming and we are protesting it.’ And he went and showed black flags with the younger – that is Thanthai Chelva [Father Chelva] was the leader and he [Mr Amirthalingam] was the leader for the young group, youth leader. So he gathered all the youngsters and protested. And he was beaten or something, at that time, by the police.’

…and her active role in Federal Party protests…

‘…My son was six months or eight months at that time. This happened in ’56, no.
So I took him in the car. I was feeding my son. So my sister would keep him in
the car. So I used to be on the street. We did that campaign on the streets.
We stopped all the cars and changed the Sinhala shri [to Tamil language license
plates]. So I used to feed him in the car, go and feed him in the car and come
out, and along with the other ladies, I used to join in the campaign. So like that
we did that. We had ready-made number plates and we stopped the cars and
changed it. One or two people, they didn’t want because the opposition,
they go with the Government. They didn’t allow it. So the boys who were there,
the volunteers, they were so upset and they said…There were dogs also in the
car. So there were dogs going and so on and they were shouting. You know,
some volunteers were very much, they would shout and they made the people
angry. Like that also sometimes the leaders suffer. They would go and plead
and they would say sorry and all these things. So that thing ended. After that,
they removed it and then the Government stopped it. And also Thanthai Chelva
was in Batticaloa prison…The Sinhala buses were coming and going.’