Literature and Womankind: K M Kunhulakshmi Kettilamma

Translated by J Devika


[this is an earlier version of a translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, from Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]


K. M. Kunhulakshmy Kettilamma (1877- 1947) was born in Kottayam, in Malabar, was a scholar in Sanskrit and Malayalam. Her major work in Sanskrit was Prarthananjali and Savitrivrttam, Puranachandrika and Kausalyadevi figure among her Malayalam works. She edited  the women’s magazine Mahilaratnam.

[K. M. Kunhulakshmi Kettilamma, ‘Streekalum Sahityavum’, Mahilaratnam 1(3),M.E. 1091 Tulam (October- November 1915- 16): 50-2]


“Literature means vigour”: a learned scholar from the West is said to have declared so. It must be admitted that this idea is both interesting and lucid. A precondition for the utilisation of any energy is that we must take into consideration its inclination and configuration. In the case of literary expression too, we need to show deference to certain important features. Literary work that is meaningless, that is, devoid of righteous intentions and sagacity, must not be allowed to blaze for long – in the same way that baneful energy must not be allowed to persist for long. It is this that puts literature and energy on common ground.

Therefore, the watchful eyes of aspiring writers should always be focused upon the core elements of their activity, and the obligations involved, so that it does not deteriorate into futile exercises.

It is readily perceptible that menfolk take precedence in almost all varieties of ordered human activity in the cultured world. This tremendous expansion has been made possible by the multi-faceted power of freedom available to men and the refinement of the mind that it makes possible. There may not be many who theorise male and female temperaments to be fundamentally different. The respective temperaments of men and women become distanced from each other through the distinct sorts of worldly affairs with which they come to, or are likely to come to, contact, as they attain maturity. If the growth in the intelligence of women and men engaged in the study of the same topics, in the same school are compared, women may not excel men in performance. However, most people would agree that women attain the same levels as men. Thus it is the absence of like conditions that direct women and men into their distinctly different paths.

In a particular society, the epoch in which both women and men devote themselves to the pursuit of success in a spirit of equality may be counted as heralding the pinnacle of its civilisation. It is then that life becomes pleasurable and plentiful for society as a whole, since the several worldly difficulties that plague the present-day scheme of living will vanish altogether. We must work together persistently and intelligently to accomplish this ultimate state of well-being.

Great men of different epochs have opined that “the civilisation of a society ought to be measured by the refinement of education attained by its womenfolk”. It is not news that the status of women in modern Western nations is exceptionally high. Likewise, the distressingly vast difference between India and the Western nations in this regard is also not unknown to us. If the women of Kerala were to strive purposefully to further their social efforts, then the land of Kerala would step into the threshold of a remarkably fortunate era. Literature is foremost among the fields in which our sisters should toil with renewed vitality.

Women need to focus upon many factors in their efforts to claim for themselves a permanent niche in the literary field. Ill-thought-out projects are bound to be rejected by society in the long run, however talented their proponents might be. Among these, the exertions of women, who lack sufficient worldly experience, are easily dissipated.

If the women of Kerala are to make their mark in the literary field, then, first, they must demand social freedom, and win it through persistent struggle. It may be stated at the outset that to demand the same sort of freedom enjoyed by men for women does not suit our national ambience. This merely means that women should not be allowed unbounded freedom under all circumstances. If men invite women’s co-operation and help in efforts to improve the condition of society, they will achieve success early. There are many instances that illustrate the mind’s refinement through freedom. Literary efforts, especially, are fully dependent on genuine, self-acquired experience. This sort of experience is not available to women today. The freedom enjoyed by men endows all their endeavours with strength. The restrictions on women’s freedom are responsible for the infrequency of their efforts. They must possess at least the social freedom that will permit them to reshape, classify and refine experience. How can any effort that relies upon indirect experience, that has not the strength derived from delving into the labyrinthine complexities, the twists and turns of the ways of the world, prove fecund? Mental faculties develop only when there is freedom of action. Is it not said that “action influences the intelligence, but the intelligence does not influence action”? If women are granted some more social freedom, they may enter the world of literature without much difficulty.

Along with social freedom, women will need help from men, and gradually, this must be replaced by their co-operation. Men have to help women in many ways until the experiences of women gain ‘height and weight’. Without this, they may lose their bearing, or self-control in the tangles of a complex world—once they have gained enough experience, they will be able to survive without much dependence on others—here, the responsibility of men would be to strive along with them on an equal plane.

Women possess many natural qualities that can embolden them to embark upon literary endeavours successfully. They may readily acquire unsullied intention, which is the primary requirement for enduring literature—Womanliness and innocence are not very distant. They are mutually entwined. Women’s ideas incline naturally towards innocence.

Besides, the Womanly Heart is vested with far more tenderness than the Mind of Man. It is this single quality that is the exquisite seed of Compassion, or Love of one’s Fellow Beings, which has inspired much captivating and mastery work. The works of Western poets have illustrated well how inspiring Compassion can be in literary expression.

Impartial lovers of literature are saddened by the fact that despite all its intrinsic greatness, the Womanly Heart has not been appropriately moulded. A few Great Women, here and there, have given us reason for relief that the women of Kerala are indeed capable of efforts to enrich the language. Once that relief is transformed into courage, and gradually forged into experience, we may indisputably rejoice that the inauspicious days of Malayalam (Kerala Bhasha) are indeed in the past. Honoured Sisters! Let us all strive together so that such happy times may soon arrive.





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