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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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

The Labour of the Matrilineal Woman: From the Memoirs of P Kesavadev

[The well-known progressive writer of the early 20th century, P Kesavadev (1904-83) wrote his memoir titled Ethirppu in the late 1950s, when he was at the height of his fame. Born in a declining matrilineal Nair joint family from Kedamangalam in North Paravur, his memoir contains interesting recollections of women’s labour in his family, especially in the challenging circumstances which included those from internal dissensions in the family as well as external pressures such as those from the First World War. Below are translations of some relevant passages, about his mother Karthyayani Amma, who labored very hard to support her large joint family and steer it through excruciatingly difficult times – battling the senior men of the matrilineal families who no longer cared much for their sisters and their children, and the near-poverty of war times.

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Elizabeth Kuruvila: from the biography of K K Kuruvila

[Elizabeth Kuruvila was a vocal champion of women’s rights in the Travancore Legislative Council in the late 1920s as a nominated member representing Women. The part that these women members played in extending women’s rights in Travancore is enormous, but they are among the most forgotten of those who strove to advance democracy in early twentieth century Malayali society. A few, like Anna Chandy or Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma (in Kochi) may be remembered, but no biographies, not even simple biographical notes, are available of these women. Elizabeth Kuruvila is not an exception.

When I first began to seek out women writers in early 20th century who seemed to have disappeared except for the sparse writings they left behind, I often discovered that they were wives or sisters or mothers of very famous men. The same applies, it seems, for Elizabeth Kuruvila. The little information I was able to find out about her was from a biography of her husband, Mr K K Kuruvila who was a noted Syrian Christian educationist, legislator, social reformer, theologian, freedom fighter, and leader of the Mar Thoma Church (T Chandy, K K Kuruvila, Manushyasnehiyaaya Oru Karmayogi, Thiruvalla: Kraistava Sahitya Samiti, 2010, pp. 60-3). Below is the translation of the short section.

Not surprisingly, very little is devoted to her own work; she is projected as an exemplary wife who worked to further her husband’s ideals. There are but fleeting references to her intellectual prowess and causes – for example the admission that she even helped him write his speeches. ]

He [K K Kuruvila] chose as his life-partner Ms Elizabeth Zachariah M A who was the daughter of the famous Maaruthottathil Rao Bahadur George Zachariah of Vennikkulam, and the sister of the famous educationist Kuruvila Zachariah. The wedding took place when our hero [K K Kuruvila] was the headmaster of the M T High School — on 1924 May 15.

They were married at the Thiruvalla C S Seminary Church. … Elizabeth Kuruvila was a noble lady who adhered to our hero’s ideals of life perfectly. Her education began in Kozhikode where Rao Bahadur Zacharia was posted. She showed extraordinary talent for learning, attaining such a command over English literature that left even westerners dazzled. She passed the Literature Hons exam from the Presidency College, Madras, in flying colours and later, joined the YWCA as Students’ Secretary. She travelled in many parts of India to study the problems faced by students and also took part in the Students Conference that was held in China around that time. After working five years as the Students’ Secretary of the YWCA, she moved to Calcutta in 1922 to join the national council of the YWCA. She got married to K K Kuruvila in 1924.

Mrs Kuruvila was a highly educated, idealistic woman, endowed with unusual efficiency. She strove tirelessly to lead a fruitful family life and cooperate actively with our hero in his many fields of service.

There were many who readily exploited his tender heart. He was unable to bear the tears of others, and so some undeserving people took advantage of this ‘weakness’ and approached him, and he was made a fool of many a time. But once Mrs Kuruvila began to take over family affairs, this lack came to be remedied and unnecessary expenditure was curtailed. The management of income and expenditure became better organized. .. she stayed in the backstage of many of his public activities offering very useful support. Even in the drafting of his speeches, this noble woman helped her husband amply.

… On the strength of her higher education, considerable talent, the experience accrued from her work and travel associated with the YWCA, and sensible disposition, Mrs Kuruvila was able to do much along with her husband in public forums.

In 1928, this noble lady was nominated to the Travancore Legislative Assembly as a nominated member. This was public recognition of her ability and leadership qualities. The role she played in managing the kindergarten at M T School and the boarding were praiseworthy indeed. She was the president of a great women’s conference that was organized in Thiruvalla by the Kraistava Seva Samiti. Thus this great lady was able to gain a position of considerable dignity in society.

But how unfortunate! This couple could not spend the dusk of their lives together. In the high-noon of her life, she bid goodbye to her beloved husband and darling daughter. She developed a reaction when a medicine was injected to treat her rheumatoid arthritis and passed away quite unexpectedly.

T A Sarasvati Amma : Hidden Star – Janaky Sreedharan

They were three sisters and two brothers — brilliant, studious and intellectually alert. The daughters were Padmalaya K.Nair, T.A Sarasvati Amma and T.A Rajalakshmi. As daughters of T.A. Kuttimalu Amma and Marath Achyutha Menon, growing up in in the early half of the twentieth century, both Sarasvati Amma and Rajalakshmi showed a flair for literature and science alike and entered into the field of higher education in Kerala as teachers in the mid-decades of the twentieth century with great confidence and hope.

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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.

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Religion and Politics, Taboo for Women? The Life of Muthukulam Parvathy Amma

[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.

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My Mother: M Leelavathi

[M Leelavathi (1927– ) is one of Malayalam’s most brilliant literary scholars of the earlier generation, whose life reads like a series of struggles against misogynies, old, new, and admixed — and of triumph over all these obstacles. She is perhaps the most awarded woman scholar in Malayalam, having won almost every noteworthy prize for criticism in Malayalam and a Padmasri, almost the only one to have scaled such heights of success. Most importantly, she is perhaps the most striking representative we have of the second generation of Swatantryavaadinis in Kerala. Below are translated excerpts from an essay she wrote about her astoundingly-talented mother, Nangayyamaandal, who was denied higher education but who struggled to provide her accomplished daughter with one. In the present when one hears of how the lack of access alone will drive lakhs of young girls outside education in India, and how no one seems to really care about this, one feels all the more obliged to excavate such stories — in a region where women did secure education, it was not as if they were simply driven into it, like sheep. It was rather an outcome of countless struggles, cutting across caste, religion, and class. Like it may be clear from the account below, or from Ratnamayi Devi’s remembrance of the struggles of three generations of women in her family for education ... Continue reading “My Mother: M Leelavathi”