The New Savarna Woman and Aachaaram: Re-thinking the Feminist Legacy

[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming paper which I wrote in the wake of the sudra disturbances in Kerala in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 2018 judgement on the entry of women of menstruating ages into the forest-shrine of Sabarimala. I argue that we need to seriously critique the legacy of first-generation feminism specifically by examining carefully their internal differences]

In order to make sense of the mobilization of savarna women for the defence of ‘custom’, it may be vital to remember that the ‘refinement’ of aachaaram through liberal-Victorian lenses made space for the educated savarna women, now recognized as the custodians of this ‘recovered’ inner-domain of savarna cultural purity. The writings of Chattambi Swamikal were key in establishing women’s worthiness of this role and defending it against conservative objections : it was no coincidence, then, that he referred to the sudra and to women as groups unfairly denied access to Hindu knowledge, even as he affirmed the Victorian notions of women’s ‘natural’ inclination for, and location within the domestic, as part of Hindu tradition (Sreekumar 2019).  Much writing by educated savarna women of the early twentieth century is, then, very often, the defence of this new domain and the affirmation of women’s capability for its custodianship, often directed against male intellectuals who rue the end of the older aachaaram in which women had little space or agency. Such women clearly distanced themselves from what they perceived to be forms of mobility and freedom common among white women.  In a sharp riposte to the well-known conservative intellectual Puthezhathu Raman Menon who lamented the decline of the traditional aachaaram-centric feminine routine among women, C P Kalyani Amma observed :

No matter what the Keralamahatmyam or any other sacred text says about the women of Kerala being brought from heaven by Parashurama to satisfy the needs of the Bhudevas, (Brahmins); about them being exempt from the rules of chastity; about the injunction forbidding them to cover their bodies, there are very few women today who gulp down all this unthinkingly… In most Malayalee families, women wake up early, and do not usually eat anything without bathing, praying and reading the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. … If there are among us some who do not go to the temple, pray or read the Ramayana or the Bharata, then that is the fault of men. How many are the men who roam around with cropped hair, puffing at the cigar or beedi, caring naught for anything, and sporting supercilious postures, ridiculing everyone else, simply because they have happened to pass by a school…

In the olden days, the Tali-tying ceremony and feast had to be celebrated splendidly, even if all our assets had to be sold. Today many of us feel that such a ceremony is in itself unnecessary. Besides, many mothers conduct the tali tying in temples along with the infant’s rice-giving ceremony. But whatever happens, there seems to be no end to the rebuke that we are squanderers of money.

…     Mr. Menon seems to be quite disturbed that everyone has forgotten simple songs and melodies like Odum Mrigangale… and Kalyani Kalavani… Yes, many of us have begun to sing the compositions of Thyagaraja and Dikshitar. Mr. Menon is perhaps uncomfortable with this. Though many have given up games and amusements special to Onam and Tiruvatira, none of us has developed fascination for white folk; none of us has begun to imitate their dancing.

(Amma 1914/2005: 37-9 )

In this fascinating passage, Kalyani Amma sets herself up simultaneously as a sudra opponent of aachaaram that meant material and symbolic subservience to brahmins, and as a re-formed savarna woman who adhered not to a completely transformed aachaaram, but to a refined version, in which the demeaning aspects were removed, and the more ‘cultured’ aspects, such as bathing before dawn (it is doubtful, though, whether these ostensibly  and so on have been reinstated as the true savarna cultural core. The latter is also clearly opposed to the freedoms and mobility that white women are said to enjoy. The writings of other savarna women are also exercises in selection and rejection of specific aspects of aachaaram so as to find the ‘true essence’. The early Nair reformer K Chinnamma (1912/2005: 33), for example pointed out in a speech about women’s role in children’s education that the mother should strictly follow brahmanical principles in preparing and serving food to children; but she also opposes as ‘superstition’ the practice of making children starve the whole day at school and serving them when they return only after a bath. In other instances, sudra women are directed to imitate their ‘brahmin sisters’ – as Konniyur Meenakshi Amma does, when she berates Nair women for appointing cooks and servants (1924/2005: 90). Also, imparting moral values and religious faith was now viewed as mainly a domestic matter, and thereby a maternal responsibility in the emergent social ordering in which binary heterosexual gender that rested on notions of sexual complementarity (Devika 2007).

Recent research on educated middle-class Malayali women from ex-matrilineal families shows the persistence of the aspiration for an ideal mix of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ among them, which limits their presence in the labour market. Using a Bourdieusian framework, Shoba Arun (2018) argues that these women seek a balance between ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ capitals. By ‘female capital’ she indicates all the gains that women have made here through biological-foundationalist (as different from biological determinist) social reform which gave them access to education, better health-care, lowered births etc. ‘Feminine capital’ seems to refer to the norms and practices that communities expect women to adhere to in order to be granted full social membership in them. That is, the latter is the refined aachaaram that neo-savarna women are treated as responsible for.

While this assignment of gendered responsibility for the production of believers has remained more or less intact, the decades between 1950 and the present have witnessed a massive transformation in aachaaram in public space, which also involved the expansion of the neo-savarna. Part of the reason for this was the fact that the communist left harboured the idea that upper caste practices and ideologies were doomed to a natural demise with the upswing of capitalism and the modern nation-state. But neither did they find it necessary to completely dismantle and refashion the cultural foundations of post-colonial Malayali society – intellectuals who proposed it insistently like Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai were treated with disdain. Despite the communist effort to place development at the heart of the new imagination of Kerala, they were never really able to shake off neo-savarna cultural values. The legendary communist Vishnu Bharateeyan, for example, abandoned his caste name, but as Jeffrey (2003: 134) notes, he continued to work in a temple, chant mantras and sacred texts in order to win support among the peasants. Confident in the belief that the communists were about to unleash a renaissance in arts and culture after the legalization of the communist party, EMS Namboodiripad advised proximity, not distance, with upper-caste tradition and culture (1944: 176-77) and claiming that the alternate lifestyles and choices of communists may make them appear “like strange creatures” to others.. In his much-read work from 1948, Keralam Malayalikalute Mathrubhumi, he proposed that upper caste culture and art were ‘fundamental’ to United Kerala (Devika 2010a: 808-9), even as he attacked the Maharajah of Cochin’s projection of Aikya Keralam as the retrieval of a golden age of unity under the medieval Hindu savarna Perumal rule (Namboodiripad 1968: 185-6). And this was despite the caustic criticism of prominent leftist intellectuals like Kuttippuzha Krishna Pillai against the evocation of the legend of Parashurama at the Aikya Kerala conference at Thrissur as redolent of anachronistic hierarchies (1990: 85-88). In the representations of gender throughout the post-independence decades – in literature and cinema – neo-savarna femininity continued to be heavily endorsed (Pillai 2013; Devika 2013). The communists also failed to take seriously the critiques of their tolerance of social conservatism by feminists who gained a public voice by late-1980s – in fact, feminists were condemned by the left on nearly the same terms as the right – as ostensible ‘outsiders’ and with ‘loose morals’ (Devika 2016).



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