The Brainy New Woman: Madhavikkutty on Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma

[From early on, the late 19th century, the brainy new woman well-versed in English, interested in public life and an intellectual life, was viewed by Malayali compatriots with mixed emotions. She aroused fear, resentment, and suspicion, but also a grudging admiration. Perhaps that is why she happens to be the most-caricatured of all female types imagined in the discourse of gender in early twentieth century — from the Parangodikkutty of Kizhakkeppattu Ramankutty Menon’s novel Parangodi Parinayam (1892), a parody of Indulekha, or the pen-caricatures by Sanjayan, E V Krishna Pillai, and A R Rajaraja Varma, in the 1930s and 40s. Parangodikutty, one might say, is ‘fully-English-type’ — she must read the London Times, lie on an English-style couch, and indeed converse mainly in English, besides of course, nurse a certain contempt for the ways of less-educated, non-anglicised Malayali women. There can be little doubt that this mode of dismissing the intellectual woman is alive and well in present-day Kerala, as the lives of thousands of young women who aspire to a life of the mind testify.

Below are some excerpts from Madhavikkutty’s [also known as Kamala Das, and later, as Kamala Suraiyya] autobiographical Neermaathalam Pootha Kaalam. In it she recollects two women, the daughters of the eminent figure of early modern Malayalam literature, Vengayil Kesari Nayanar, Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma, ( in a comment below, KT Rammohan clarifies that they were granddaughters, not daughters) who were extremely intelligent, articulate women who could hold their own with male intellectuals of their time. Madhavikkutty’s brilliant reconstruction of the different sorts of unease that they aroused among others unlike them is worth a careful read. ]

[Chapter 41, Neermathalam Pootha Kaalam, in Madhavikkuttiyude Krithikal Sampooranam Vol 2, DC Books: Kottayam, 2009, pp.1108- 1111]

Many thanks to K T Rammohan for sharing these photos and allowing me to add them to this archive!

In those days, Indians who had completely accepted western culture were a-plenty. The members of the Araikkal Kandoth family of Thalashery stayed at a house which was named Kappiratti House. Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma, daughters of Vengayil Kesari Nayanar, were close friends of my parents. Once when we were back home for the holidays, my father and mother visited their tasteful home at Thalasery. We children heard out father describe the beauties of that house later. They make idlis in wide-mouthed bowls, he said. Mrs Nayanar served it for breakfast cut into pieces, like cake …

In all my memories of her, Devaki Amma drapes a sari and wears a sleeveless blouse. She wore lighter colours — the pastels that westerners are so fond of. Devaki Amma was extraordinarily intelligent and articulate. When she came to our home, Nalappat, to meet my ammaman [ her granduncle — Nalappat Narayana Menon, a leading intellectual of those times], our loving Ammayi [aunt, Menon’s wife] was uneasy. Devaki Amma discussed literature and psychology with him endlessly. In those days, many scholars used to visit Nalappat and stay there for such discussions with him. But it was the first time that someone was entering that sanctum bearing a beautiful female body. Devaki Amma was not conscious of her beauty. That woman scholar did not seem to even possess a sense of her being female. When she spoke with my ammaman in her perfect English, Ammayi would keep going to the veranda to make sure that the wicks of the oil-lamps were bright; or she would open the betel-box there and count the betel leaves in it.

“This Devaki Amma won’t talk with women. She’s fond of talking only to men,” Ammayi once told my grandmother [Narayana Menon’s sister].

” Only Ettan [older brother] can understand what she says. That’s why she talks with him,” Ammamma replied.

“We’d understand if it was said in Malayalam,” Ammayi said.

“Is there any rule that everything should be made intelligible to us?” Ammamma asked Ammayi.

On the days Devaki Amma stayed there, Ammayi used more perfume than usual. She wore jasmine garlands in her hair.

Devaki Amma did not use any perfume; she did not use any beauty-aid at all. Except for the small dot of sindoor on her forehead, which she wore every day. Even then, the radiance of her face made other women really uneasy.

Once, Ammayi ordered me to go find out what Devaki Amma was discussing with ammaman. They were discussing the scandal in Madras over Leadbeater’s homosexuality [C W Leadbeater was a prominent Theosophist in Madras who was facing charges of homosexuality. “It is said that he is homosexual,” said Devaki Amma in English.

“Those must be rumours made up by enemies,” said ammaman.

I told Ammayi that they were talking about a man called Leadbeater. But I did not understand the word ‘homosexual’.

“Why does she talk always in English? Doesn’t the woman know how to talk properly in Malayalam?” Ammayi asked me.

When Devaki Amma’s younger sister Janaki Amma came to Calcutta for a job, her brightness drew everyone to her. She wore dark colours. Used colour to brighten up her face and lips. Her smile was exquistely charming too.

She would speak sometimes about an uncle who was a diplomat in Germany. She used to refer to him as Uncle Nanu. Janaki Amma told us stories from the life of this Malayali who was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru. Through her words, she opened up a world that we did not know. Our father did not like children listening to adults talk. So I would sit in a nearby room and listen to her stories attentively…

… I thought that Janaki Amma was adorable, someone worth imitating. I told my friends in school about her uncle Nanu, and all my friends laughed. In time, I realised — and was surprised — that they were really not interested in knowing more about him.

My parents thought highly of Janaki Amma, her father, and their family. She’s inherited her father’s sense of humour, I heard my father remark once. She was a guest at our house during the weekends. The house would be filled with loud laughter and happy sounds whenever she came. Whenever the sound of her laughter rang in the house, Kunhanhu [a servant] would smile meaningfully, with a shake of his head.

“When women walk, the nelam [ground] shouldn’t know, ” he said once. Janaki Amma’s guffaw was ringing in the drawing-room at that moment.

“Let those who laugh, laugh,” said Narayanan Nair to him. “What’s your sooked [ailment]?”

“Balamaniyamma [Madhavikkutty’s mother, genteel hostess, and great poet] is pennorthi [a woman], eh, isn’t she? Have you heard ayinte [her] laugh ever? No, right? That’s what am coming to … if women start laughing and playing, the kudummam [family] will be without varkkathu –dull and devastated.” Kunhanhu pronounced seriously.

Aayamma‘s kudummam is in Thalasery. What’s your problem if it has no varkkathu?” Narayanan Nair asked him.

…Kunhanhu was expressed irritation at Janaki Amma’s raucous loud laugh, however, held another family friend, Professor Madhavi Amma, in the greatest esteem. When he came to know that she had once tutored the princes in the royal family of Tiruvitaamkoor [Travancore], he had goose-bumps. Everyone must learn from her self-control and modesty, he said.

“Does she have even a trace of the bhaavam that she was the tutor to the royal children? That’s what I say — the full pot does not spill — nerakudam tulumbilya.”

The old man told me that it was not Janaki Amma, but Madhavi Amma, who was worthy of imitation. Not once, many times.

“Doesn’t aayamma know English? Yes! But she doesn’t talk in English. If she has something to say, she puts it in Malayalam, directly. And if she has nothing to say, she sits quietly in a corner! No one has any trouble from aayamma, right? That’s what I say — she’s well-born, in a kudummam! Who? Our Madhiyemma, of course. If you imitate her, kutti, you will come to good.”

Madhavi Amma taught in the Gokhale College. She always spoke in the low voice. Commoners who went to the palace always spoke in a low voice, Narayanan Nair said.

“What if they speak loudly?” I asked.

“If you speak loudly, your head will roll,” he replied.

Our house was a refuge for any lonely Malayali woman in Calcutta. And my mother, an older sister …

11 thoughts on “The Brainy New Woman: Madhavikkutty on Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma”

  1. Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma were grand-daughters of Kesari Nayanar (NOT daughters as mentioned by Madhavikkutty in the opening paragraph).


  2. Your post prompted me to look for more. Seems Janaki Amma studied History and Economics in Queen Mary’s College, Madras and passed in first class in 1928 — a rare achievement indeed in those days. I owe this information to my long-standing friend Savithri Preetha Nair who has finished writing an intellectual biography of EK Janaki Ammal, another illustrious woman of Tellicherry. Perhaps more information on Janaki Amma and Devaki Amma may be had from KT Prahladan, a surving grandson of Kesari Nayanar. He lives in Tellicherry.


    1. If you can help me contact him, it will be great. And if I remember right, I remember reading a news report of the talashery pauravali feting her success. E K J was awarded a gold medal.


  3. Thank you, Devika, for sketching a slice from
    history, and bringing a scintillating account of D Amma and J Amma alive to us! I am not a Malayalee, but having lived in Kerala for 30+ years, with a growing daughter, I relate to this. After living in ignorant bliss for the first 10 years, and being completely oblivious to many cultural cues around us, on appropriate behaviours for me as a mother and for my daughter, the penny dropped one fine day…
    There was a tension between being ‘indulgent’ towards us, as ‘outsiders’ to Kerala, and what was seen as serious transgressions in the eyes of neighbours, in a conservative housing colony. The steady stream of young students, mostly men, at all odd hours, to our home, including late nights, did not help.
    I learned a new word – Acch-adakam. It is one of the idiomatic expression I was fascinated with, for its neatness of conveying so much of what ‘women should be’ in two rhythmic sounds!
    Your account of D and J Amma, though from a different era, brought back some memories of Kerala.

    Love your translations and keep writing.
    But do rest your eyes. And
    Listen to them, when they protest!


  4. Thank you for this, Devika ma’am. Comparing Madhavi amma and Janaki amma by people like kunhanhu was really noteworthy. I think, may be they are doing this purposely to subjugate women and show their place in the patriachal system or may be they are well intended but ignorant and submersed in patriachal oppressor -feudal construct .Whatever be the case, such conversations arouse confusions especially in childhood and youth when we are grappling with identity crisis..We are bombarded with such opinions and that plants the seeds for categorising, labelling and being judgemental about intelligent , educated , independent women. Statements such as ” nerakudam thulumbilla” is really catchy and nudges the ‘confused ‘ to scoff or look down at bright ,fiery women like Janaki amma. Such subtle social forces confines us, and would limit womens empowerment models worth emulating at the maximum to Madhavi amma, who is educated, yet accepted by others. It is distressing that we fail to realize the beauty of not caring about acceptance and just to “enjoy delight with liberty” .
    Also, as you said, the story really is a question to women who wish to live free intellectual life. To those, for whom freedom in its fullest sense is still an enigma. Thanks again for this attempt which helps us to know about diverse women in our history with different bright colours.


    1. Yes indeed. When I was young, I used to think that this was a problem that our generation alone faced, and I have felt distressed by the fact our daughters face the same…and clearly our grandmothers too! All the more reason to resist it. These ladies led fulfilling lives despite, perhaps because of their choices, so do some of my generation, including me, and it should be the same for our daughters, I hope! Though more difficult times are perhaps in evidence ahead.


  5. Madam
    Thank you very much for this excellent article. I am reading it out to my mother Sumangala ( children’s writer). Just to rekindle her failing memory.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.