[A much-respected poet, scholar, teacher, translator, and social reformer of her time, Muthukulam Parvathy Amma’s (1904- 1977) work has not received the attention it richly deserves. Her life is perhaps the best illustration of what it meant to be an educated woman empowered by the access to the world outside the home and a role to play in the shaping of the modernised caste-communities of the twentieth century — both the strengths and the limitations. Born in an Ezhava family in Travancore, she grew up in the radiance of the Great Opening of society made possible by Sree Narayana Guru. She aspired to spiritual excellence, but was not able to take such a life; she apparently made up for this by leading a single life devoted to society. Also, the ways in which women who entered social life through social reform initiatives tried to enter modern politics but were rebuffed have not yet been traced much: instead, we are simply told that few women aspired to politics. Indeed, the earliest women’s magazine in Malayalam, the Keraleeya Suguna Bodhini, had already delineated what women needed to know: it announced that it would carry nothing on ‘religion and politics’. The consequences of these run deep in Malayali public life today.
The excerpts below are from her biography by V Dethan (Fabian Books, Nooranad, 2005). Translated by J Devika]
…. The Chathaya-day celebration [Sree Narayana Guru’s birthday celebrations] of the year 1099 Kollam Era was unforgettable for Parvathy. She had come, as usual, for the Guru’s birthday celebration. She, just twenty years old then, had prepared a felicitation in verse which she hoped to dedicate to him. It was written in the Kilippaattu style. She read it aloud, dedicating it to the Guru.
As she read, Parvathy noticed that the Guru’s face had brightened: “We have rarely heard Kilippattu that flows so effortlessly after Ezhuthachan” [one of the father-figures of Malayalam literature, the writer of the finest kilippatthu kavyas], he said after she had finished.
Parvathy Amma’s joy was boundless. To the great surprise of that young poetess who stood rapt, her eyes moist with emotion, the Guru presented her with an expensive pattu [silk]. She treasured it till the end of her life.
Her spiritual connection and devotion to the Guru grew steadily day by day. She had a desire that she wanted to raise before the Guru when she met him — to establish a sangha of women followers of the Guru to spread his word and serve society.
But whenever she met him, she inevitably faltered. Once, when there were not many people around, she gathered all of her courage and entreated the Guru thus: “Your Highness, please order that an ascetic order be created of women followers as well.”
The Guru responsed: “Of sannyasinis? That is good! Yes, act!”
Though she received the Guru’s permission and blessings, Parvathy Amma could not set up a Mahila ashram. She told her close friends that it was a refuge like that which existed for the Buddhist nuns that she had in mind. She regretted much that she could not establish it, but she practiced the Guru’s ideals in her life by remaining celibate, quite like a sannyasini, all her life. … (p.39)
…There are many great poets and artists who sit inside their ivory towers and write poetry while remaining indifferent to the heartrending state of affairs around them … Muthukulam Parvathy Amma was quite different from them. She intervened in social matters and wrote poetry…
[She tried to]set up Mahilasamajams and teach illiterate women. Also, encouraged them to learn crafts and find financial self-sufficiency.
In those days, the state of the Muthukulam Public Health Centre was quite pathetic. The improvements that were made to it owe in no small measure to Parvathy Amma’s efforts. The women of Muthukulam desired for a long time that a maternity ward be added to it. They approached different governments repeatedly for this, but with no avail.
A committee of women was finally formed to attain this end. Parvathy Amma was the Secretary. Mevila Bhageerathy Amma was the president. This committee managed to collect a good amount of money and managed to buy land for the maternity ward. This is remembered by Smt Malathy (the wife of the freedom fighter Sreekuttan Vaidyan) and Smt K N Nalini who were members of that committee.
They remember that they were awed by Parvathy Amma’s diligence in keeping accounts. They say that her determination to be prudent and parsimonious with public funds were worthy of emulation.
A delegation of eight women led by Parvathy Amma went to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the Minister to get the ward sanctioned. This was 1960. “Lunch cost just 8 annas. She bought all of us lunch. Parvathy Amma sir was content with a glass of lemon juice,” remembers Smt K N Nalini.
The Health Minister was Sri. Velappan. He was resting at home recovering from a heart-attack; visitors were strictly forbidden. The personal staff were unwilling to let them in though they told him that they had come all the way from Muthukulam. In the end they relented to take in a written note. Parvathy Amma wrote it and signed her name.
The peon who took it returned at once. The whole delegation from Muthukulam was let in.
They explained the purpose of their visit briefly. He promised them that the first place he would visit after the doctor allowed him to travel would be Muthukulam, and that he would sanction the ward after the visit.
The Minister kept his word. After a few days, he came to Muthukulam, visited the Primary Health Centre and returned. He spoke with Parvathy Amma too. That was indeed his first travel after recovery. He sanctioned the ward after returning to Thiruvananthapuram. Without much delay, the maternity ward was inaugurated in the Primary Health Centre in Muthukulam.
The social welfare centre at Varanappally was also opened through Parvathy Amma’s efforts…. (pp. 59-61_
….. [Muthukulam Parvathy Amma was also a supporter of the freedom movement, and was inclined towards Gandhism and the Indian National Congress, and took interest in Hindi, especially as a translator. She continued to be so till her demise.]
In the general elections of 1960, she campaigned for the Congress party. For this she travelled all over Kerala and spoke in several meetings.
The play ‘Save India’ was written by her for this campaign. It was performed in many places in Kerala. It was important in securing the Congress victory….
[However] Due to some minor differences of opinion, the Congress workers themselves fell out with Parvathy Amma who had so steadfastly stood with them. At that moment, it was the Communists, who she had firmly opposed, who came to her aid. Through all this, Parvathy Amma continued her social activism,
She took part actively in the anti-liquor activism so valued by Gandhiji and devoted her writing and speech towards convincing people of the evils of alcoholism. This angered the drunkards and their supporters. They began to conspire against her publicly and in private. The worst was the slander they propagated against her. There was a concerted effort to defame her character. [But]Her admirers and authorities came to her aid. The authorities were ready to confront those who sought to defame her. But Parvathy Amma who was averse to hurting any other was against reprisal towards even her foes. She met all opposition and threats dispassionately … (pp. 62-3)