‘Headstrong, Mannish, Perfervid’: The First-Generation Malayali Feminist and Her Times

(This introductory essay first appeared in the book Her-Self (Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005), a collection of  (translated) essays by Malayali women written between the 1890s and 1940, compiled and translated by J Devika. This was written soon after the first flush of discovery; I have grown more critical of this legacy now! )


Writing to C.W.E. Cotton, Agent to the Governor of Madras in response to his inquiries regarding a certain Lakshmikutty Amma from Tiruvitamkoor, M. E. Watts, the Dewan of Tiruvitamkoor remarked:  “This clever young Nair lady has got on by her own efforts. She is headstrong, mannish and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes”. The young lady in question was the daughter of a retired senior official in the Tiruvitamkoor Education Department, and had taught at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, before she proceeded on leave to London for studies in 1926. There she is said to have completed studies in a year and then set off all by herself on a tour of Europe, with the help of friends, she claimed. Watts observed that Lakshmikutty had made friends with K. M. Panikkar and the “Strickland crowd”, and her antecedents made her rather suspect. Watts had been informed that early in the 1920s, as a schoolteacher in Thiruvananthapuram, she was deeply interested in Gandhi and non-cooperation, and even tried to popularise these subjects among her pupils. He, however, remarked that now she      was on her way back to Thiruvananthapuram, the best place to cool her ardour. 1

The picture of Lakshmikutty Amma, which emerges from this official correspondence, matches almost exactly with the caricature of the ‘speech-making woman’ etched by the well-known Malayalee humourist Sanjayan in the 1930s2. This figure, too, is stridently assertive, eager to take the stage against male dominance at the slightest provocation, ‘mannish’ to say the least and in the last reckoning, pretty harmless. For all her tumult, she evokes but a few tremors, which turn out to be not as dreadful as may have seemed.

This was how the first generation of Malayalee feminists was represented in their heyday, by writers located in very different fields of Malayalee society in the late 1920s and 1930s, only to be wiped out of collective memory a few decades hence. Though not all of them were authors, many engaged with the emergent public sphere in early 20th century Kerala on behalf of a collectivity of ‘Women’ assuming that all women had in common certain interests, inclinations etc., which made them important to society, and certain rights, which society had to concede. Of course, some were remembered, with a curious sifting powerfully in place. Anna Chandy, for instance, continued to be remembered, not as a powerful feminist intellectual, which she indeed was, but as a ‘woman-achiever’; Lalitambika Antarjanam continues to be much lauded not for her powerful critique of individualising modern gender, and her feminist reconstruction of it, but as the epitome of a very non-disruptive Motherliness. Some, of course, were almost entirely erased: B. Bhageeraty Amma, who had edited for twenty years what may arguably be called one of the leading magazines for women in early 20th century Kerala, and was an acclaimed public speaker of those times, is little remembered. The articles collected here were all published between the 1890s, when these women began to air their views in the emergent Malayalee public sphere, and the late 1930s, after which they go into an odd decline, yet to be fully explained.

However, I would not like to present these authors as a brave generation that lost out against modern patriarchy. The fact that they stayed well-within the framework of modern gender as it was presented in late 19th– early 20th century Malayalee society, committed to the goal of sexual complementarity it promised, can hardly be overlooked. By ‘modern gender’, one would mean (a) the presupposition of the division of the world into ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains, appropriate for men and women respectively, who are seen to possess distinctly sexed ‘dispositions’ that direct them to the spaces deemed right for them (b) compulsory heterosexism (c) a strong claim to represent the ‘natural’ foundations of human social order, with the cautionary rider that for this ‘natural’ aspect of humanity to manifest in society, a great deal of social activity, ranging from legal interventions to training through modern education, is necessary. The established Jati-based social ordering in Keralam, which valued Janma-bhedam, or difference in birth, came to be repeatedly denounced in the late 19th century, from a range of sites, including the missionaries, and the newly-educated elite. In these denunciations, an alternative was posed, often implicitly. This is what I would like to call ‘the order of gender’, an ideal form of social ordering projected into the future (and re-discovered in the ‘past’ as well, in the imaginings of ‘Golden Ages’ of, for example, Indian/Hindu society), in which the only unsurpassable social division would be of gender. The division between men and women also implied two distinct social domains deemed ‘naturally-ordained’ for them, the public and the domestic. The ‘order of gender’ was to be sustained through the complementary exchange of gendered capacities, men as industrious producers in the political, economic and intellectual fields, and women as efficient and active overseers of the domestic domain. While material sorts of authority was largely assigned as male, a certain sentimental and moral authority, that was to work not through force and violence but by the gentle power of persuasion – of words—was designated Womanly. Modern education, then, was set the task of ‘developing’ the ‘natural’ (gendered) capacities inherent in specific bodies to shape internalities that would help the modern Individual, the product of such training, to conform to idealised modern gendered subjectivities. The Individual, thus believed to be culled out of the traditional order and shaped through modern institutions, or in another language, ‘freed from bondage to tradition’, was always and already implicated in a modern collectivity. Modern gender was to mediate this implication crucially.

To my mind, the political significance of the writers of these essays collected here lies in two important claims they persistently made. First, it was asserted that women, by Nature, deserved to have a thoroughly active supervisory role within the home not as passive domestic labourers but as active agents overseeing not only the materials but also the souls within the home. Woman as the guardian of the home and hearth was to exist in a relation of complementarity with Man, whose proper domain was to deemed to be the public, within the spheres of political power, wealth-creation and intellectual production. By the late 1920s, this argument had gained significant diffusion in the Malayalee public sphere, enthusiastically taken up by almost all the community reform movements in Tiruvitamkoor, Kochi and Malabar. Many of the first-generation feminists were active propagators of this new active domestic ideal for women (for instance, Ayesha Mayan and K.Chinnammma, both in this volume). By the 1920s and 30s the new domestic ideal was also refurbished by the inclusion of moneymaking activities, such as cottage industry, minor farming, animal husbandry etc. (see the articles by Pennammabhayi and Konniyur Meenakshi Amma in this volume). Secondly, by the late 1920s, many of these women-intellectuals claimed that the boundaries that separated the modern home from the world outside were becoming increasingly blurred (V. K. Chinnammalu Amma’s article in this volume is certainly an interesting sample of this argument). Earlier, the modern home was envisaged as a site that worked best with the power of ‘gentle words, emotions, prayers, devotion and tears’; it appeared most obviously to be the space of Woman, who seemed naturally equipped to exercise such power. Now, however, with an increasing number of institutions seeking to rely upon such power, rather than upon the use of physical violence – such as schools, hospitals, philanthropic institutions, local bodies etc., it was argued that women’s ‘special capacities’ had a relevance outside the home. Thus it could be argued that the Womanly might no longer be identified with a certain space, but with a certain form of power. Many first generation feminists based their arguments in favour of paid employment for women outside the home, on this claim. Thus they were hardly asking for unconditional freedom of life-choices for women; with rare exceptions, they were demanding an expansion of women’s space without challenging the claims regarding the ‘quintessential qualities of Womanliness’. Moreover, this second claim was not necessarily made against the first. K. Chinnamma’s article in this volume perhaps illustrates well how a woman who had herself entered much larger social concerns ardently espoused the ideal of a taxing modern domesticity which demanded eternal vigilance over children from women and women alone. These were determined efforts to carve a specifically-‘Woman’s domain’ that straddled the domestic and (ever-expanding) parts of the public, in various fields ranging from politics to literature, without jeopardising a certain hallowed Womanliness. Two articles in this volume, one by K.M.Kunhilakshmi Kettilamma and the other by B. Bhageeraty Amma, illustrate well how the case for women’s active presence in the literary field was built upon a claim regarding their ‘intrinsic nature’ (the latter article mobilises not only Nature but also History). Forceful arguments in favour of recognising women as a group with distinct political interests were also made in the late 1920s (the editorial of the Vanitakusumam in this collection is a good example of such strong appeals), very often, coupled with their ‘special’ significance.

The flip side was of course the idea that women needed to be more self-disciplined, industrious and responsible than men. This followed on the heels of the idea that women were natural disciplinarians, and hence were the custodians of social order and morality. Throughout the late-19th and early 20th century, reflections on building a new ‘modern’ self had insisted upon a distinction between swatantryam (‘self-means for survival’) and tantonnittam (doing-as-one-pleased). The former was valued, the latter condemned, and these were linked in a binary relation. Swatantryam meant also the capacity to conform to ideal modern gendered subjectivities, to ‘attain’ Womanhood or Manhood, and did not mean the simple absence of all forms of coercion. It would not be off the mark to claim that through all these decades, educated Malayalees have got used to identifying ‘freedom’ with a active agency which is economically productive and congenial to the interests of, mainly, the family. This has been especially so for women, for whatever attempts to challenge this and redefine freedom have hardly been attentive to the gender divide. One has to merely refer to the representations of ‘women’s progress’ in the ‘Kerala Model’ literature to see how this idea has remained unchallenged within academics: indeed it remains one of the most powerful props to the ‘Kerala Model’ itself. It is certainly true that these women intellectuals had to engage in prolonged and charged debate with modern men in the public sphere and were often marginalised as unrealistic rabble-rousers. However, the extent of their differences with male reformers should not be exaggerated. In fact, many of these authors assiduously pointed out that their intention was not to abandon Womanliness (by, for instance, taking jobs in the police or excise), and were at pains to establish that no revolution was to be feared. Further, some were quite willing to condemn and put down a revolution, if it did break out as an unintended consequence.

This however, is not to belittle the political significance of this writing. One would have to be blind not to see the political significance of Anna Chandy’s hard-hitting attack (in this volume) on T.K.Velu Pillai. Here was a 24 year-old Syrian Christian woman, barely out of Law School, literally barging into a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, presided over by a revered (male) judge and scholar, demanding that they hear her ‘defense’ of employment for married women, and unleashing a formidable attack on a Nair intellectual, a Professor of Law, twice her age, and a political and intellectual heavyweight in Tiruvitamkoor. Much of this writing effectively blocks efforts to whine over the contamination of a constructed ‘inner-space’. This was imagined as a pristine core of culture, which women seemed to embody, as distinct from an ‘outer’ or ‘public’ space contaminated by things foreign — often by noted male intellectuals of those times. Many of the articles in this collection are rejoinders or polemical responses to often-highly placed or distinguished male intellectuals, for instance, those by N. A Amma, B. Paachi Amma, Mrs. K. Kannan Menon, and C.P. Kalyani Amma and others. Or they were directed against prevailing ideas, entrenched prejudices in the public sphere. Thus E. Narayanikutty Amma’s article in this collection tries to circumvent the restriction imposed by the editor of the journal she was writing in, that women should not get tangled in political issues; Parvati Ayyappan’s note criticises the adulation of Mussolini’s passive and home-bound wife as model for wifehood; Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma writes against a flippant misrepresentation of her conduct as legislator in the Cochin Legislative Council. Nor do I wish to obscure the ‘internal fractures’ in the adulation of active domesticity. Mrs.I.C. Chacko’s speech in this volume, though staying well within the advocacy of active domesticity, I am certain, would have given the jitters not only to the orthodox, but even to the champions of modern domesticity for women. Such is its insistence on the home as not just the space of Woman’s labours, but also of her comfort, and unabashed support of pleasure, which look dangerously close to ‘excessive self-indulgence’!

As someone who grew up seeing political/intellectual docility as a necessary requirement for coming under the sign of Woman in Kerala, I was awe-struck by the marvelous deployment of reason, humour and rhetoric in these writings (many of which were actually speeches) to dismantle older forms of patriarchy, even to ferret out what appeared to be the vestiges of it in emergent institutions (for instance, Parvati Nenminimangalam, in this volume). Nor were they blind to emergent advantages to men, shaped often within reformism that claimed to liberate women—K. Padmavaty Amma’s criticism of the spread of dowry (in this volume) among the Nairs reveals this well. The quickness and the dexterity with which the intellectual tools available to the modern-educated were seized and pressed into the service of the imagined collectivity of Women (i.e. something that came into being at the sites of its strategic political invocation) is something I hope this collection will convey. Anna Chandy’s brilliant use of legal discourse is one excellent instance. The strategies deployed in this disarming really deserve detailed treatment. Along with efforts to de-mystify the place of women in the traditional home by pointing out its limitedness and the distressing restraints it imposed (Paachi Amma, for example) and even to reject it outright (see Anna Chandy’s polemic against domestic labour), there were attempts to reclaim the kitchen, to make it a space of social emancipation and transformation (Devaki Narikkattiri, in this volume). A common strategy is to plumb a given text for its internal contradictions and omissions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, and to lay bare the interests underlying it as those of patently non-modern male dominance. The article titled ‘Womanliness’, signed by ‘Sarojini’, which is a formidable denunciation of the instability of the notion of Womanliness in the pedagogic efforts of educated men to improve women, provides as excellent instance of such precise and merciless dissection (also see K.Lakshmi Amma, in this volume). Another familiar strategy is to point to developments in the Western world, especially those in the women’s movements there, to argue for active social agency for women here, for example, in K. Mary Thomas’s short article in the present collection. There is also an interesting attempt to draw indirectly upon theories from anthropology and psychology to explain male dominance as a universal phenomenon, an effort that had woefully few successors in Kerala (Kochattil Kalyanikutty Amma, in this collection). If I have any cause for regret about this work, it is surely about my inability to include in it some of Lalitambika Antarjanam’s short stories, for example Prateekshakal (1936-37) . Antarjanam’s uniqueness was certainly her skilled use of modern literary genres to intervene in the discourse of modern gendering, her remarkable critique of the individualisation effected by modern gendering and of the non-reversible relations of power between the Reformer-Male and the woman he reformed, found necessary in many versions of social reformism. Prateekshakal is perhaps, the most damning statement I have found about Reformer-Man’s shaping of the woman’s mind and life, a theme familiar to Malayalees ever since O. Chandu Menon’s acclaimed novel, Indulekha (1889), and repeated endlessly within Malayala Brahmin reformism of the 1930s.

Thus even as I maintained a conscious wariness against setting up intellectual fore-mothers, I could not help listening enraptured to the “fantasy-echo” so aptly named by the historian Joan W. Scott in her attempt to understand how feminists of different generations, with often diametrically-opposed concerns, are able to ‘connect’. As translator, I found myself grappling with several new ideas: many of these writers had indeed ‘named’ forms of gender oppression rampant in the Malayalee society I grew up in, for which I had no name. The most telling instance was Anna Chandy’s coinage Adukkalavadam, which translates as ‘Kitchenism’, which refers to the belief that women’s legitimate space, all said and done, is indeed the space of domestic labour.

Yet it is crucially important to see what is excluded from the Womanhood that is imagined in these writings. The elitism inherent in much of this writing is something I would not like to conceal at all: racism and even a pathological concern over blue blood, is often present, even if in an oblique way. Indeed, even as the Womanly domain was being opened up and widened at tremendous effort, it immediately created other spaces that were ‘non-Womanly’. For instance, the nominated representative of women in the Cochin Legislative Council was vociferously arguing in 1929 that women should be prohibited from the production and sale of liquor . Women who were far removed from modern education, women of the labouring classes and less-privileged groups are present in these writings only as junior members at best, as aspirants for full membership in Womanhood, who had to be guided into it under the tutelage of women with adequate cultural capital. A recent study of the constitution of the female workforce in the cashew industry in Keralam (Anna Lindberg’s) reveals the extent to which the women of the poorer classes with little access to modern education were separated from the first- generation feminists. For them, modern gender began to shape everyday life not so much through their heightened exposure to new ideals and aspirations, as through governmental interventions in wage-fixing etc. However, one of the pieces in this volume is an appeal to the ‘Hindu Women of Keralam’, actually, to the savarna women, asking them to join the Vaikam Satyagraha against the restrictions of movement imposed on the lower castes in the roads around the Vaikam temple, to help alleviate the disabilities of their lower-caste sisters (Vatakkecharuvil P. K. Kalyani). In her attack on T. K. Velu Pillai, Anna Chandy questions his reduction of all Malayalee women to those of the matrilineal castes, and presents an alternate construction, of a Malayalee Womanhood separated by caste differences, but united by the common experience of oppressive traditional restrictions and mistreatment. That, perhaps, indicates the limits of the inclusiveness of Womanhood as conceived by the first generation feminists, remaining as it was within the ambit of modern gender that presupposed the public- private divide as expressing a gendered delineation of social space.

One of the most interesting pieces in the present set of writings is a brief note signed by Ittichiriamma, on the issue of married women taking on their husbands’ names. It is evident that this certainly does not sit comfortably among texts that express passionate convictions in favour of monogamous (monoandrous?) marriage; indeed, many articles collected here are of that persuasion. The (rather unsuccessful) effort made to amalgamate the female agency within matriliny and the ideal of the modern homemaker is also interesting in that the distance between the two is rendered all the more conspicuous. But the most heart-warming of all the writings presented here is the short account given by Mantaraveetil Lakshmi Amma, of her “life and home-making”, written in 1906-7. I only hope my ungraceful words manage to convey at least some part of the charmingly un-self-conscious liveliness with which this happy young woman spoke to me about her Taravad, Karanavan, husband and daily routine, from across nearly a century! Besides being a lovely text, it is a historian’s delight, exhibiting in every sentence the complexity of the transition to modernity. None of the stereotypes of the late 19th century Malayalam ‘Nair’ novels appears here – the restrictive Taravad, the villainous Karanavan and so on. Lakshmi Amma adores her Taravad, her Karanavan and her husband who does not have much modern education, precisely because they seem to embody the modern ideals of self-discipline, frugality, dignity of the individual and labour. She gently scoffs at established and emergent ways in which fairly well-to-do Nairs sought social mobility, and locates her ‘advancement’ solely in that made possible by a life of labour, prudence and self-discipline and above all, the ability to choose those elements from whatever was being paraded as ‘modern’. And for me, the most inspiring image evoked by these writings is that of eighteen-year-old M. Haleema Beevi addressing an audience of about two hundred women at a conference she had organised in 1938. She spoke of the “laregheartedness” inherent in education, reminding her audience that this has made it possible for severely-restricted women to come together to assert their self-respect (M. Haleema Beevi, this collection). For a Malayalee woman like me who lives and works in today’s Keralam where education for women is nothing but a means for upward mobility of the family, this could be but inspiring.

Any translation is also an act of appropriation; my rendering of these writings into a different language is certainly mediated by the theoretical-political lenses that make them intelligible to me. Yet, I was also constantly alert to those moments in which these writings moved away from the familiar, or when the familiar itself seemed redone, turned unfamiliar. As for the criterion of selection, the idea was to bring in as wide a discussion as possible, to convey the sheer sweep and intensity of the debate about modern gender and its implications for women. I also searched hard for voices from all social groups. However, this was a demand hard to satisfy and the reader will notice that a large number of these voices do represent the newly-educated elite that emerged dominant in and through the upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th century in Malayalee society.

Lastly, though a certain hypochondria regarding authors has largely spared me, there is some reason to raise the vexed question of authorship in this context. My search for biographical details of these writers is a story in itself. Many of these writers proved –quite expectedly – to be mothers, wives and sisters of very famous men of the period. I do believe that these women never attained their moment in the sun purely and simply because they conformed to the gendered division that has always characterised the Malayalee public sphere: women write of ‘Womanly’ matters; men discuss ‘general’ issues. However, I have been unable to trace out the biographical details of all, and there is a further possibility.  The despicable habit of writing under female names, passing off radical opinions under that mask, was common enough even among much adored reformers in early 20th century Kerala (a malady that seems to be resurfacing lately). Many who saw this material were so impressed by it that they immediately concluded that it must have been some men writing under women’s names. Though I do protest against their attitude, Iam willing to concede that it is quite possible that some of the authors were not women at all. Nevertheless, I remain undeterred. For instance, I am quite prepared to accept that ‘Mantaraveetil Lakshmi Amma’, the writer of one of my favourite pieces, who I was unable to trace out, could well have been just a fabricated name! In fact, one could argue that this realisation serves as a salutary corrective to some of the excesses that feminist history is now outgrowing. The idea that historical rootedness is necessary for the stability of the subject of feminism is not as convincing now as it used to be. What makes these texts interesting ultimately is not so much the femaleness of their authors, as the fact that they all make appeals to, speak on behalf, espouse a politics allegedly of ‘Women’ as a distinct group, with recognisable commonness of inclination, interests, and rights. To highlight this, I have included in the set an article signed rather ambiguously as ‘KPM’. Nor will I heed the sensible counsel to ‘stay on the safe side’ by sticking to slightly-better known authors like B. Kalyani Amma, Ambady Karthyayani Amma, Taravath Ammalu Amma and so on.   In any case, my purpose is certainly not to discover matchless and indefatigable Joan of Arcs, infallible do-gooders in the past, as has been amply indicated in the previous pages. As a beleaguered woman researcher in early 21st century Malayalee society, I do catch the strains of a distant ‘fantasy-echo’, but I will not let that lull me into a depoliticised and irresponsible somnolence.


  1. E. Watts to C.W.E. Cotton, 13 January 1928, 317/ 877,Bundle No. 18, Confidential Files, Tiruvitamkoor, Kerala State Archives. The young lady in question did not cool her heels, really. She became well known later as Lakshmi N. Menon, Parliament Secretary to the Prime Minister of India from 1952-57, and Minister in the Foreign Affairs Department from 1957-66.

2 Sanjayan ( M. R. Nair), ‘Sreemati Taravath Ammalu Amma – Oru Anusmaranam’

(Taravath Ammalu Amma – A Remembrance) in Sanjayan 1970: 163-4.

3 K. Saradamoni 1999, pp.116-45. Another work that has made extensive use of these writings is Raveendran 1992.

4 From Antarjanam 1952.

5 Joan W. Scott 2001: 284-306.

6 Malayala Manorama, 4 August 1928.

7 Anna Lindberg 2001.

8 The notorious setting up of a ‘Vanneri Savitri Antarjanam’ with radical opinions by two prominent Malayala Brahmin reformers in the 1930s, and the harm it did to the credibility of women’s self-expression in the Nambutiri reform movement is quite well known. But much before, representing oneself as female or under female pseudonyms was known. In the Mitavadi, for instance, names like ‘Oru Vishishta Stree’ (A Genteel Woman) and ‘Oru Purushan’ (A Man) were adopted by opponents in debates aboculture and religion, and which invariably touched upon questions of gender. See G. Priyadarshan 1982: 121-22.

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