More on Elite Women’s ‘Social Work’ and the History of Caste in Kerala

[This is a continuation from the post on the autobiography of Jooba Ramakrishna Pillai which gives us a glimpse into how educated neo-savarna women usurped all the opportunities for social intervention by or for women in the state. It gives us food for critical thought on why social conservatism came to be so deep-rooted in Kerala despite high levels of women’s education won through struggle. Interestingly, many leading first-generation feminists enjoyed the most amicable relations with educated neo-savarna women even when their own visions of empowerment were different — for example, the friendship between Anna Chandy and Mrs Ponnamma Thanu Pillai.

Below is an excerpt from a discussion on the Social Welfare Advisory Board constituted in Tiru-Kochi, during an assembly session of the Tiru-Kochi State Assembly, from the Proceedings of the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly (vol.XIII, no. 2 ), 15 March 1955, Starred Question No. 30, pp. 93-6.

I am struck by how the discussion completely bypasses the question of dalit representation that Mr K Kunjan tried to raise in it. Indeed, he initiates this discussion but is completely ignored in the actual exchange that follows. Most of the women in the Board are neo-savarna; they have been chosen for ‘reasons that are not clear’. Yet no one really questions this appalling exclusion of avarna women! Smt K R Gouri intervenes not for Mr Kunjan or for dalit women, but for Mahila Sangham, the communist movement’s women’s wing, which she seems to think, can balance the neosavarna women’s overwhelming presence. Then the discussion deteriorates into frivolous questions. Also striking is the carelessness with which the Chief Minister answers questions in the debate, mixing up positions, even.

Once again, the absence of avarna women is ignored in so casual a way, it takes your breath away!

I do believe that this incident, and many like it, must be retrieved to build a history of casteist women’s empowerment in twentieth century Kerala.]

Social Welfare Advisory Board

Starred question 30 [15] Shri P Kunjan: Will be Chief Minister be pleased to state

(a) How many members are there in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board?

(b) who constituted this Board, this Government or the Central Government, and,

(c) is there any representation for scheduled castes?

Chief Minister (Shri Panampalli Govinda Menon): There are nine members in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board in Travancore-Cochin;

(b) the Board was constituted by the State Government with the concurrence of the Central Social Welfare Board.

(c) the representatives do not appear to have been selected on consideration of their caste.

Shri P Kunjan: May I know the names of the Members of the Board?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon: The names of the Members are these —

  1. Sry. P Thankamma, Secretary, Mahilamandiram, Trivandrum (Chairman)
  2. Miss Sosa Mathew, Secretary, Y. W. C. A, Kerala Branch, Thiruvalla.
  3. Mrs Leela Damodara Menon, Ottappalam.
  4. Mrs. Pattom Thanu Pillai.
  5. Shri Cherian Thomas, District Organiser, Bhoodan Committee, Kottayam
  6. Mrs. Pavizham Madhavan Nair, Ernakulam.
  7. Sry P Janaki Amma, Chairman, Municipal Council, Ernakulam.
  8. Mrs K A Mathew, Thiruvalla
  9. Secretary to the Government, Education Department.

Smt K R Gouri [in Malayalam]: On what basis were these persons made representatives?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon :[answers in Malayalam] The basis is not clear from the file. Four of them have been nominated at the recommendation of the Central Board. These are Miss Sosamma Mathew, Leela Damodara Menon, Mrs Pattom Thanu Pillai and Shri Cherian Thomas. It appears that the others have been appointed on the recommendation of this government.

Smt K R Gouri: Is Leela Damodara Menon a native of Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Shri Damodara Menon is of this State.

Smt K R Gouri: Will it be believed if I said that he is an elected MP from Malabar?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The address given is of Ottappalam.

Smt K R Gouri: Was someone from Malabar selected because there are no women in Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I too have no idea about that.

Smt K R Gouri: Has any attention been paid to granting representation to a Mahila Sangham that is now active in Tiru-Kochi now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The Chairman of that organisation is the Secretary of this committee. [PGM has inverted the positions here]

Smt K R Gouri: That is the Mahilamandiram. It is a mere institution.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : That must be an institution. Whether it is a mere institution, I do not know.

Smt K R Gouri: Do you know that it is run in Poojappura?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Yes, I do.

Smt K R Gouri: Since the women’s organisation has not been given representation, will you make an effort to secure it representation at least now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I do not know if it is possible to add new members. This is run according to the Central Government’s plan. I cannot say now if new members may be added.

Smt. K R Gouri: Should not a member of an organisation that does social work among women be coopted?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The numbers of positions fixed for the Board have been filled. But that does not mean that no other deserving people exist.

Smt K R Gouri: In that case, can speedy measures be undertaken to coopt such people?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : A reply is possible only after finding out if it is possible to add more members.

Smt K R Gouri: If it is possible to do so after due inquiry, will it be done?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : If so, will see.

Sri N G Chacko: Can the sole woman Member of this Assembly be coopted too?

Mr Speaker [in English]: That is a very pertinent question.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon [in English]: And it is a good suggestion too.

(Laughter)

Shri T K Divakaran: Is there anything that says that only women should do social work?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : There is a male Member on the Board. Shri Cherian Thomas is a man. He does welfare work too.

Shri T K Divakaran: Is social work to be done only among women?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : It is mainly to be done among women and children.

Shri T K Divakaran: What social work does Mr Cherian Thomas do?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : He is a Bhoodan organiser.

Trailblazers – The First Women Engineers in Kerala : Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil

Education was not something women in Kerala could aspire to, at the turn of the 20th century. Even educated and progressive parents thought it fit and right to marry off  their girls, once they completed their school education. Despite the odds, two girls, one in Thiruvithamkoor and another in Kochi State, were determined to go to College, that too to obtain a professional degree in Engineering. Fortunately their parents were able and willing to help the girls attain their near impossible dream.

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To Work! Tozhilkendrathilekku!

[Of the many groups who were subjected to the torture of the Janma-bhedam order (the order of difference-by- birth – caste) in pre-modern Kerala, the women of the Malayala brahmin community figured quite high. If people condemned to live outside the varna order were structurally and physically coerced to produce the material means to reproduce the order of caste on an everyday basis, women of the Malayala brahmin community were structurally and physically coerced to reproduce the community and its core culture on a generational basis. For this reason, I think that the the struggle of the Malayala brahmin women to escape the ‘great hells’ – the mahanarakams – have to be reexamined carefully when we rethink the history of women as an intersectional one in which the historical shaping of caste and gender are closely intertwined. Too often, this struggle has been reduced to or recounted in, terms set up the Reformist-Man, as an alibi for the power of the new modernised masculinity.

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Bhagavathi Kinattinkara, Elsa, and Educated Kulasthreekal : From the Memoirs of ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai

[Perhaps the only source readily available about working class and dalit struggles in Thiruvananthapuram of the 20th century is the memoir of the freedom fighter, fashion-maker, and avid trade union organizer, ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai (1910- 2005), titled Ente Ormakkurippukal (Mitraniketan Press, 1989). Always a narration from the ground, his memoirs are those of street-struggles. ‘Jooba’ was the suffix he earned in the 1930s for having popularised the north Indian long shirt, the jubba — in Thiruvananthapuram. It was initially identified as the mark of the subversive and the nationalist but soon became popular with government officials and soo even the Maharajah of Travancore embraced the ‘jubba’ (but with a touch of the sherwani, notes Pillai).

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‘Biographies of Marriage’ : G Arunima on the Autobiography of Rosy Thomas

[Below is an excerpt from the translator’s introduction by G Arunima to the autobiography of Rosy Thomas, known as a writer in her own right, but also in connection with two patriarchs of Malayalam literature — her father was the well-known literary critic M P Paul and husband, the redoubtable playwright, literary critic, public intellectual and all-round rebel, C J Thomas. In Malayalam, the work Ivan Ente Priya CJ (translated by G Arunima as He, My Beloved CJ (Women Unlimited, 2018)). I remember being dumbstruck by the original Malayalam title when I first heard it — its Biblical connotations were of course unmissable. The Gospel of Mathew – this is the disembodied voice of the divine that sounds from above after Jesus is baptised. A woman, pronouncing these words of her late husband, celebrating him thus? So what sort of relations of power does that imply?

Arunima’s translation and her introductory note brings out beautifully and carefully the nuances and complexities of an utterly modern conjugal partnership, in which the tensions of modern gender as it unfolded in those times are evident. Her reflections on Rosy Thomas’ deployment of the form of autobiography are actually relevant for women’s autobiography of those times, from B Kalyani Amma’s Vyazhavatta Smaranakal to Anna Chandy’ autobiography serialised here. Though it is beyond doubt that Rosy’s account — the way it acknowledges desire – is perhaps unique for the times.]

“…The impediments between Rosy and CJ Thomas were immense and seemed never to end. Her family was very unhappy about their relationship and did not actively support their marriage. This was in part induced by denominational differences (she was a Catholic, and he, a Jacobite), as much as their sense of loss of family honour and prestige. In 1940s Kerala, a publicly conducted love affair of this kind was as scandalous as it was uncommon. Her intricate narrative weaves in complex emotions, where respect turned slowly to love, and love blended with desire. That this love was as erotic as it was emotional does not appear to have created much conflict in her; indeed her candour in speaking of her unfulfilled fantasies and deep desire for CJ is as open as it is astonishing. For Rosy, especially, their love seems to have become, at once, a moment of defiance, and of self-definition. To marry the man she loved despite parental opposition strengthened Rosy’s faith in herself; he, on the contrary, complied with all her family’s demands so that they could overcome all objections and get married. One such was that he convert to Catholicism. In CJ’s case, this was particularly harsh, as it was well-known that he had distanced himself from the Church because of his political beliefs. The description of the conversion ritual, though narrated with great humour, reveals in harrowing detail the humiliation they had to suffer in the cause of love. It also revealed the stranglehold of tradition that communities, in the name of family honour, religious beliefs and kinship norms, keep alive. The “recanting” demanded of CJ Thomas hinted on the public disavowal of his political, religious, and literary views. Yet for marriage to be acceptable, family and community sanction were a must, even if they entailed self-erasure and a loss of personhood, especially of the kind that was demanded of CJ Thomas.

In many ways, Ivan Ente Priya CJ is a love story, but one that resolutely refuses to either romanticise or sentimentalise love. In fact in her brief Preface to the book, Rosy Thomas says that she could write this book only nine years after her husband’s death, as she did not want her text to be needlessly “sentimental”. One way in which she succeeds in doing this is through the use of humour and irony, which act not only as devices that permit a distancing from the subject under discussion, but also keep the tenderness light and playful. Throughout the book Rosy Thomas moves back and forth between their early days, and their subsequent life together. As CJ was involved in a variety of different literary and cultural ventures (theatre, illustrations, writing, even some cinema) they moved to different parts of Kerala, and for short stints to Madras. Their home was the hub of cultural and political life and we are given glimpses of the range of people and ideas that made up the everyday life of families that emerged in the wake of the Left and Progressive Writers’ Movements in Kerala. Though she was deeply supportive and appreciative of CJ’s writing and creative life, she was also distraught at his inability to hold down a job, resulting in constant dislocation, and at their financial difficulties, thanks to a family that grew quite rapidly. This ‘unsentimental love story’ , therefore, is also a record of their many quarrels, big and small. What is evident is that even though CJ was quite opinionated and headstrong, she was no wilting wallflower, was often assertive and forthright. At other times, in order to avoid needless conflict, she could be circumspect and judicious. Her story, that interlaces intimacy with domestic discord, the public political with quotidian domesticity, is in fact a complex social biography of a marriage, and of a particular time. Marriages like theirs were a product of changes in ideas and attitudes about love, life, and families. Yet these were not the result of either the activities, or the ideology of the Communist Party, or of the other ongoing progressive movements of that period. In fact the Party never really articulated a radical critique of marriage and family, and would often try and interfere in people’s private lives.

Additionally, this biography is as much about CJ Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving subject’, and as a writer and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating, their life as a text…”

(G Arunima , ‘Introduction: On Translating Ivan Ente Priya CJ‘, from her translation of the same, He, My Beloved CJ, Women’s Unlimited, New Delhi, 2018, pp. 7-10)

[G Arunima is a pioneering historian of women and gender in Kerala. She works at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently with the Kerala Council for Historical Research.]

Nafeesath Beevi (1924-2015)

[In the 2021 elections, the disappointingly few women candidates fielded by the leading political parties became a hot topic. The candidature of the IUML’s Noorbina Rasheed, a first in that party in twenty-five years, has also been of much interest.

Noorbina’s candidature, however, must be placed in a longer history of Malayali Muslim women’s struggles to enter politics, which actually dates back to the late 1950s. It is here that Nafeesath Beevi’s name should be remembered. Along with K O Aysha Bai, she was prominent as an educated Muslim woman who entered politics. Nafeesath Beevi was born in Alappuzha, the daughter of a textile-dealer, Abdul Kareem, and Hawwa Umma. Her father died when she twelve but she overcame many obstacles, being a good student, to join the Government Women’s College for a graduate degree and subsequently, training as a lawyer. The following excerpts and discussion are from a short biography of hers by Anilkumar PY, titled Aankaalathe Penthaarakam [The Female Star in Male Times], Trivandrum: The New Media Space Books, 2017]

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A Conversion at the Deathbed: From the Memoirs of Miss Augusta Blandford

[Ever since I read this account in the 1990s, I have often thought of this young woman and her tragedy. Married to a prince of the Travancore royal family who was the oldest – and so the heir – yet unfit to occupy the throne because of mental challenges, the emotional agony she bore must have been terrible. Even as she was surely expected to bow to the restrictions imposed by traditional respectability and too isolated from her peers and others for human comfort, it is quite possible that she was almost a non-entity. The matrilineal succession that the Travancore royal family followed meant that she was just that: even having a child would not secure her a place in the community of royals without her husband. Her family would have secured honours and resources, sacrificing her.

I contemplated often of what Miss Blandford would have meant to this unhappy young woman who saw no future ahead of her, and of the agency that she tried to grasp on her deathbed. It must have not just been the teachings of Christ, but also the strength that friendships give. Clearly, this woman was at the edge of a modern self, and in her death, embraced an interiority through her independent profession of faith. The tragedy seems to just grow bigger each time I think of it.]

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From Princesses to Lace-Makers: Women in Travancore through Mrs Murray Mitchell’s Eyes

[Mrs Murray Mitchell, a missionary, visited the south Indian Christian missions in the 1880s and published a memoir of this journey in 1885 called In Southern India: A Visit to Some of the Chief Mission Stations in the Madras Presidency in which she made observations on women she met in Travancore, from princesses to the skilled lace makers of south Travancore who are probably among the first groups of skilled wage worker women in this region. Much of it, sadly, is less of observation and more of condescending approbation; however, there are some valuable passages. For example, her incomprehension of matrilineal marital and family norms which seemed to pose disadvantages to the husband is coupled with her observations about the extent to which caste practices were rampant among the apparently-cultured and well-off sudras (Nairs). She makes the former observation as a pure outsider, but the latter observation comes also from her own direct experience of being treated as a possible source of pollution by the upper caste people she met here! Some of her account is slightly mistaken too — for example, the princesses of Travancore did not marry men simply chosen for them. They were asked to chose from three young men who were found suitable for them (which actually put them somewhat close to marriage practices in 19th century Britain!)

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The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued

I was given charge of the Criminal Bench in recognition of my experience of conducting criminal cases as a lawyer and a Sessions Judge. In that area, my principle was of justice tempered with mercy. If a mother’s heart did make itself present in the judgments of the woman judge that is neither surprising nor a cause of complaint. Modern thinking about punishment and the aims of punishment stress the need to convince the wrongdoer of the seriousness of his crime. And that also means, offering a chance to live a life without repeating the crime, of course.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued”

Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi: Kerala’s First Female Playwright and Carnatic Music Composer

In the nineteenth century, there was a generation of privileged women contributing to the traditional genres of Malayalam literature. Among them, Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi leads the list as the first dramatist and first-known female music composer from Kerala. While early historians may have tried to undermine her contributions as a capable homemaker and virtuous woman who managed to write poetry tolerable well, there is no denying her astonishing range of compositions in Carnatic music.

Read more at: https://www.sahapedia.org/kuttykkunhu-thangkachi-keralas-first-female-playwright-and-carnatic-musics-composer