Women and Literature: B Bhageerathy Amma

Translated by J Devika

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

Bhageeraty Amma (1890- 1938) was one of the most vocal advocates of an active, informed and disciplined domestic role for women in early 20th century Kerala. She was well-known as the editor of The Mahila, one of the longest-lived Women’s magazines of the period. She was known to be a powerful public speaker, and was one of the women considered for membership in the Shree Mulam Praja Sabha in 1927 (Malayala Manorama, 23 June 1927). Her major work, Stree (1925) described in detail her vision of ‘active’ domesticity as opposed to the traditional passive wifely devotion and was dedicated to “the womenfolk of Keralam”. Vijnanaprakasham was another work. The following article was a speech she made at the fifth annual meeting of the literary assembly, the Kerala Sahitya Parishat. Her presence at the Parishat meetings did make a difference: in the meeting at Ernakulam, she argued against the practice of holding a separate women’s meeting, pointing out that it was tantamount to segregating women, and that the decision that women should not be made speakers in men’s literary meetings was misguided (The Mahila 12 (4,5) 1932: 58). Her essays on modern Womanhood, which appeared in The Mahila were collected in a book, Sahityaramam.

(‘Streekalum Sahityavum’, The Mahila 11 (1) 1931:16-26)


Those who seek to examine in detail the state of the social, material and spiritual culture of a people should train their gaze upon their literature. The greater the heights occupied by vernacular literature, the higher will be the regard for the people to whom it belongs. We must remember that the respect for India in other lands came largely on accord of its literature. Once foreigners were enabled to enter the treasury of Indian literature, they began to praise India’s ancient civilisation. Not satisfied with the knowledge of ancient past gleaned from books, the students of history have begun to excavate repositories of knowledge from beneath the ground, lost to us in Nature’s boisterous play. The stone inscriptions and other such remnants thus excavated have become invaluable treasures. These monuments reveal with pride the greatness of ancient India.

Humanity is forever in turbulence. Change and progress come naturally to it. Society never stays the same; nor does it turn back. Like the Arabian steed, it is imbued with the enthusiasm to charge forward, and struggles to surge in that direction. The human race, intent upon progress, cannot help expressing its life-ideals and thoughts in words. These expressions are the stuff of literature. What stage is society in? What are its life-ideals? Literary inquiry provides the answers to these questions. Human beings produce literature, which thus marks the condition of society. The writer circulates moral messages in pleasing language. The evil-minded are counseled about goodness, and the excitable, about calmness. Wealth-creation is recommended to the impoverished, and the wealthy are advised charity. The sorrowful are soothed with consolation, and the ignorant are given knowledge. The idle are made active, and the cowardly are turned courageous. Needless to say more, history offers evidence to prove that the truly talented author is capable of controlling and leading the society and the Nation. The literature of a country, and its history are bound together in this manner. This hardly needs any debate.

In speaking of literature, one is reminded of the verse that says:

Lord, you yourself load the beggar’s bundle upon the shoulder of kings/Lord, you yourself raise a fellow to heights in but a few days’

Here a poet paints two distinct pictures and attributes them to God. In the same way we may claim here that both the progress and the regress of society are equally attributable to literature. Great ideals and thoughts help to uplift a society, and these enter human hearts through literature to purify thoughts and emotions. It is indisputable that the lack of fresh air will slow down blood circulation in human bodies. In the same way, a society without literary wealth will lose its vitality. Any society that thrives in this world in beauty and happiness is blessed with a wonderful literature. Now, I seek to unveil another picture beside this beautiful image.

What purpose lies behind the creation of Woman? Such a question is bound to come up, doubtless. However, just as the life-ideals of Eastern and Western peoples differ, so do their ideals of Womanhood.

The Westerners grant primary significance to the external form—the shape, the radiance, the gesture. There is little contemplation of abstract qualities without attention to form. The material manifestations and external properties are crucial for them. They do not see the divine element that is merged in the material. The dignified place of women, their spiritual superiority never figured in their ideals. The easterners, however, imagined the Prana or the Divine Essence to inhere in the physical body. Feminine power is exalted thus:

You are the Will

              That brings forth the Universe

               You are the Energy

             That preserves the Universe

               You are the Force

              That destroys the Universe

               Emerge in triumph,

              Oh, Embodiments of Power!


Such narration of spiritual energy seems rare in Western literature. Indeed, Woman, the very embodiment of spiritual energy, does possess the natural ability to recognise the frailties of the masculine character.

Literature is the ambrosia of thought, that is, the more it is enjoyed, the sweeter it tastes. Literature seduces Man by constant companionship. Woman is endowed with the inner energy to influence Man and the Affairs of the World, by her gentle conversation, which is passionate and persuasive. Woman covers Man’s mind with sweetness, slowly and delightfully, as if to test it. Men of evil ways are reformed by the strength of untainted Womanly character. The gentle and sweet power of a chaste wife can revive a man’s vim and vigour, when he is tired and sick at heart. In moments of peril that render a man inert, the knowledge of his wife’s sustaining presence will rouse him to victory over all dangers. The invisible power of the Woman can alter the very destinies of Nations. The responsibility of guarding the purity and the morality of a society, and the shaping of its character lies with the Woman. The social progress of countries rests more or less upon the virtue of its women and the respect they enjoy. The survival of a society, its pride, the mutual trust between men, the sense of justice – we must remember that all these are dependent upon the position granted to women in that society. A society that constantly insults Woman, looks upon her with lascivious eyes, reduces her to but an instrument of bodily pleasure and play, will soon deteriorate. The Woman must be looked upon as a Divine Power that maintains and protects social order. When this status fades, the society will be reduced to degeneration. Any society that is on the ascendant may be seen to be offering women proper regard and respect. It is foolish to think that one-half of humanity was created to belittle the contribution of the other half, and remain in enmity with it. The truth is that the male and female races were created to remedy each other’s deficiencies and enrich society through the blending of virtues. We will readily admit that Woman, who holds within herself the ambrosia of love, is capable of delighting the whole of society. The above arguments are sufficient to highlight that both literature and women are indispensable to any society that is on the path of progress. Next we may examine how these fit together. Literature build images from words about the manifestations of nature and the principles of life. It is comprised of poetry in prose and verse. Both Woman and Poetry are naturally endowed with certain inherent powers. Illustrious devotees of Nature transform these powers into forms useful for the prosperity of society. First, Kavita (Poetry) and Vanita (Woman) resemble each other in significant ways. Language itself is imagined as a woman. Both have the quality of sweetness; Kavita and Vanita both cannot be forced; both are enriched by alankaram (meaning both ‘literary device’ and ‘ornamentation’); both are capable of enlivening leisure hours. Richness of meaning and sweetness of recitation are essential to both. We find Kakali (indicating both the name of a meter as well as ‘fine,, musical tone’), Kalakanji (again, the name of a metre, and also ‘waist-chain’), Annanada (meaning both ‘the use of light and gentle verse’ and a ‘graceful gait’) in both Poetry and Woman. Lalitapadavinyasam (means both ‘simple and graceful arrangement of words’ and also ‘light footsteps’) endows both literature and Woman with beauty. Sadvrttata (meaning both ‘well-versified’ and ‘goodness of character’), gentleness, mutual agreement of ideas – all these are needed by both Poetry and Woman. But noise, disorder, bad character/ verse, lack of skill and so on , are ill advised. Thus we see that there is considerable resemblance, in form and function, between literature and Woman. These, which give wonderful form to the exquisite music that flows forth from the Veena of Goddess Saraswati, are they not the two beloved daughters of Goddess Nature? These two creations make the world chaste and splendid. If this truth is adequately grasped, the importance granted to literature and women in society will certainly increase. Women are generally of a passionate nature. Woman’s talent for language, genius and powers of close observation gives a peerless loveliness to the image of Nature mirrored in her heart, in the form of the literary creation. Women have natural talent for literature and therefore they are more dexterous at mixing the melody of Nature in literature. Women’s literary efforts are more capable of making an impact upon the human heart. The stories of women authors who thus serve humanity will be doubtless edifying. Historians of literature who turn their eyes towards the ancient past will certainly remember Indian Womanhood with pride. They were unrivalled in the world; no female race anywhere matched up to them. Behold! The Navamandala of the Rig Veda has been recorded as the philosophical vision of the Vagdevi. Scholars agree that the Upanishadic Sutras are found in their nascent form in these songs. When we reach the epoch of the Buddha, we find that he has a female following, with scholars like Vassita, Padachara and Tunga among them, who however, wrote in Pali, which we have not been able to read. Near the 16th century after Christ, we hear of wonderful personages like Mukta Bai of Pandharpur, MiraBai of Chitor and Leela Devi of Kashmir. Mukta Bai and Mira Bai were devotees of Krishna and Leela Devi, a devotee of Shiva. We also know that there were scholars not only among Hindu women but also among Muslim women, and that they wrote poetry in Persian.  In the South, Ambai, Ramabhadramba and others were prominent among Dravidian poets. Honnamma, the Kannadiga poet, is worth remembering. She was an ardent champion of gender equality – a suffragist of sort. She was known to have written polemical poetry, unable to tolerate the scorn of men.

Let us now move on to Keralam. It will not be inappropriate to briefly examine the history of Kairali (Malayalam), and its present status. It will not be far-fetched to infer that both Kairali and the womenfolk of Keralam have come up through the same stages of life. The condition of Malayalee women may be the same as the condition of the Malayalam language. The transformation of the lives of Malayalee women parallels the upheavals undergone by the Malayalam language. In the present, the institution of University examinations has raised the importance of both the Malayalam language, and Malayalee women. The olden times, both enjoyed considerable eminence. Then, as the wheel of time turned, both lost their prominence. We also see them emerging now from the fall. To make this clear, we may briefly examine the history of both.

Before Malayalam separated from its root language into a distinct entity, our language was known as Malayam Tamizh *. There are many great works in this language, for example, Patittuppattu, which relates the exploits of the rulers of Keralam. Chilappatikaram, which describes the performing arts of this age, is also a Keralan work. Its author, Illango Adikal , was a ruler in the line of the Cheras and the younger brother of the hero of Patittupattu, King Chenguttuvan. There is also evidence to prove that these potentates and their subjects were matrilineal. The Cheraman Prince of Ennaikkadu Cherumandalam published the collection Ainkarunnuru, which contains songs by five poets. The grammar Vembamala by Aiyyanilattanar, which was distinct from Pandy Tamizh, was already prevalent then. All these are the rightful legacy of Kairali. Is it not an injustice that all these have been usurped by the Tamils and integrated into their literary history? It is painful to watch our wealth being stolen by others. The Sahitya Parishat, which includes scholars of law and literature should decide whether our claims still hold, even though they have been advanced rather late. These works are excellent testimony to the robustness of Kairali in those times. Though the ballads of Taccholi are not very old, their content appears quite ancient. They narrate many stories of courageous mothers and heroic warriors in the times of the Perumals, and earlier. There is plenty of proof to show that women of those days were truly educated. We are informed that there exist documents, which show that women were trained as fighters, and lent a hand in overthrowing the alien regime of the Perumals and earning independence for Keralam. How virtuous and refined their mind must have been! And how pathetic the present condition, a result of a great fall from these heights!

After the period of the Perumals, the contact with Tamils weakened. The nobles of Keralam who had initiated self-rule could not rule united, and were divided into small loci of power, within tiny principalities. Malayam Tamizh too cast off from Pandy Tamizh. The mutual strife of rulers destroyed the peace of the land. At this juncture, the language of Keralam, too, was orphaned. It was compelled to rely upon Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. The very same calamity befell the women of Keralam. The internal strife of the rulers and the Mughal inroads destroyed the peace and prosperity of the country. Women too, became dependent. The Brahmins bound the society of Keralam in the chains of religion. The women of Keralam were subjected to evil customs, and degraded to the condition of domestic animals. The Supreme Court verdict of Na Stree Swatantryamarhati was also pronounced. Even when Malayalam began to emerge as a distinct language, and gain in strength, the evil days of the Malayalees did not abate. Recently, however, this misfortune has begun to recede.

In this way, once the language of Keralam transformed itself into Malayalam, it was shaped into a separate language by the Great Poet Tunjan and further nourished by the poets Cherussery and Kunjan. With the benevolence of the Education Committee and the political awakening, Malayalam can now match up to other local languages, and she now produces an abundance of offspring.

In these times, the status of Malayalee women paralleled that of the language. Once the infighting between nobles ceased and unrest ended in the land, the women of Keralam were more able to express their natural talents. The condition of women in those times may well be inferred from the fact that the first Guru of Aroor Bhattatiri, the author of the Uttaranaishadhakavyam, was a woman, Manorama Tampuratti. She was followed by several scholars like Umadevi Tampuratti of the Changanashery Palace, Kuttikkunhu Tangachi9 Tottaikkattu Ikkavamma and the Nagercoil Ammachi. Many are presently engaged in literary pursuits. We may also remember here our sisters from British India who are engaged in literary work in their mother-tongues and other languages – Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Swarnakumari Devi, Seeta, Shanta Chatterjee and others. Under the influence of modern education and revival in the political field, the women of Keralam have begun to reclaim their freedom, and the children of modern enlightenment are growing in numbers. Thus, examining the transformation of the language of Keralam and its women, we find that their histories have moved along almost the same path. Let the culmination of the agreement between literature and women turn out auspiciously, with the blessings of Goddess Kairali.

Mothers who do not rejoice in an abundance of children and mothers who do not wish to see virtuousness in their children are rare. In the community’s perspective, the strength of numbers is desirable, but in the race of life, it causes frustration. The present is a moment in which Malayalam is giving birth to large numbers at a rapid rate. Political visionaries and popular representatives are issuing warnings to people that birth control is necessary even today, and that without birth control, scientific or non-scientific, the future holds terrible dangers. In the world of language too, birth control is being publicly announced. It is a declaration that brings both joy and sorrow to the mother. As the saying goes, ‘the lack of strength in children is better than the perverted strength of children’. Scholars who find this entirely compatible with worldly wisdom have instituted scientific literary criticism as the means of birth control in literature. Insubstantial and ignoble works should not be permitted to enter the temple of literature. Doing so will hamper the growth of literature, the virtuous life of society and moral domestic existence. Some English scholars claim that criticism rears its head only when literature is in decline. But greatness cannot be attained without criticism. It is hoped that the attention of the lovers of the language will turn in this direction.

While expressing one’s satisfaction at the advancement of Malayalam, one is also disappointed at the huge gap between the number of women who have acquired higher education, and the number of women who have turned to literary pursuits. It is regrettable that those who have gained distinction in their study of foreign literature do not bother to achieve excellence in their own literature. The poverty of articles we now experience, in a situation in which the number of graduates is growing, is indescribable—the grief I express, having engaged for the past years in journalistic work, quite possibly, is a product of self-interest. Some time back, a few persons wrote to me that they were finding it difficult to write articles in their mother tongue. I had not the least doubt that they were telling the truth. I am happy to say that upon accepting my suggestion to read certain books at once, and give some special attention to the use of words, they have now become quite proficient in writing prose. Most authors are reluctant to try hard enough. That attitude is inimical to our own betterment. Women who desire political equality should not display lack of will in literary endeavours. That is a breach of duty. I do regret having to state that the sisters who have gained higher education are no less guilty in this matter, and that this is certainly a shame. A change in this sorry state would be welcome, so that a bright future may be expected.

Before I end this speech, I would like to make one more point. The literature of Keralam must be urgently protected from contamination. It must grow without abandoning its national character. Like a particular society, a particular literature too has its unique features. It is said that a person’s wealth of ideas lies in his veins. Human beings are scrupulous in protecting the purity of blood, and taking on an aristocratic bearing. Womankind is marked by a certain intensity: the fundamental principle of marriage is the preservation of the purity of blood, and the vitality of society. Marriage must effectively enhance the essential qualities of society, its radiance and energy. Marriage with aliens leads to the admixture of blood and the destruction of the ideas and lifestyle unique to a society. What will be the consequence of marriage between two completely different individuals whose social ideals are vastly apart? Bound together by love, they stay united for some time under its spell. As the blood cools, so does the attachment. Nearing old age, the memory of ancestors and the race reappears. Then, in this, second childhood, with increasing detachment to food and company, both parties recognise their errors, become hostile, and regret their decision. The last phase is swathed in gloom. There is reason to fear that in our eagerness to multiply the wealth of our language, we may make illegitimate liaisons with foreign ideas that do not suit our uniqueness, and in which the latter take the upper hand. In this case, the fate of the ill-matched couple mentioned above will befall the language. This is not to say that changes appropriate to moving times must be banned: change is the law of Nature. But we must remember even as we imitate the foreigners that they zealously preserve their traditional identity. Reform should not surpass necessity. Take in the better elements; why absorb the unnecessary? Reform is not meant to disrupt smooth and peaceful social life. Reform must be tailored to suit the unique circumstances of the Nation and the community. I would only plead that the deluge of reform should not sweep our identity down into the sea where it would sink without a trace. I would like to close my words by expressing the hope that the patriotic fervour and the enlightenment of women will prove useful in this matter.

* This part is summarised from an article by Sri. K. Sankara Pillai B. A ( B. B. Amma)

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