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.

Continue reading “The Brainy New Woman: Madhavikkutty on Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma”

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.

Continue reading “Religion and Politics, Taboo for Women? The Life of Muthukulam Parvathy Amma”

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”

Women Preachers of the PRDS: Kulakutti Maria

Translated by J Devika

[I prefer to use the term the Great Churning — van-kadayal in Malayalam — to represent social change during the period of the early twentieth century of Malayali society in general, and mahaaturavi — the Great Opening — instead of the term Navoddhanam — Renaissance — to characterize the great upsurge of the oppressed communities towards liberation — of the same time, treating them as analytically distinct.

Continue reading “Women Preachers of the PRDS: Kulakutti Maria”

Seeking Haleema Beevi : Noorjahan and Noora

Translated by J Devika

[These are excerpts from a forthcoming biography of M Haleema Beevi, by Noorjahan and Noora, M Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitam, Bookafe Publications]

Diary notes


Realising that retrieving those erased from history is extremely strenuous. We are finding that in our journey in search of Haleema Beevi, paths close frequently, or they simply disappear. Today’s trip to Thiruvalla showed us that a person who was once very prominent and relevant to a place may be completely erased from the  history of a place. Haleema Beevi lived there between 1935 and 1946. She was a Municipal Councillor there between 1938 and 1945. We went to the Municipality with a lot of hope thinking that we would obtain information for sure about the first woman Municipal Councillor. We were left deeply disappointed. They had never heard of anyone like that. The Muncipal Secretary looked astonished. Two people who weren’t academics, seeking after a woman long dead. The Secretary tried to help but there was nothing about her in their records, and nothing from those times, either. We tried at the Municipal Library, the presses, prominent locals, older people —  they all replied that they knew nothing of such a woman. That is, Haleema Beevi was not present in the history of Thiruvalla!

That was a journey which brought disappointment and disappointing realizations. One that made us think of how an individual could be wiped off the memory of a place. About social death. People live on in social memory after their bodies die. In places that they worked, lived, intervened, through people and practices as a silent presence, as stories, inspirations, feelings, they live for some more. That life is a real one… the death happens very gradually ….Amal describes this book as a reviving. That is appropriate. To revive a dead person back to history, to people. To make her relevant again. This task of immense responsibility is at once joyful and worrisome …” (pp. 4-5)

“Usually, it is when someone refuses to be confined to life’s straight lines and instead moves above and across them that they become social activists. A woman willing to sweat for society outside her family and close circles comes holding a lamp for all. Her path is lined with stones and thorns and sharp arrows. Haleema Beevi’s life, too, was not different. She who tried to bring light to the society, the community, and women had to tread on a carpet of challenges in life. She fell often. But her life in which she always tried to pick herself up and soldier on is a text-book illustration for anyone who is socially committed.

The answer to the question who Haleema Beevi was would be publisher, journalist. But both these were merely powerful instruments in the hands of the social activist in her. The social worker in her used the paths of the publisher and the journalist. Instruments in the hands of a woman who strength came from women’s public meetings, talks, political activism, and field work.

Both her natural inclinations and the social circumstances worked alike in shaping her as a social activist. One may see a Haleema Beevi who challenged the establishment from her youngest age.

There is an incident that Haleema Beevi mentions in an article of hers. A religious scholar once organized a series of discourses in this area [Travancore]. Thousands of people gathered to listen. That was also the time when many Ezhavas in the area were considering conversion. The discourse was tolerable on the first day. Then it went towards Bismi and superstitious tales. On the fourth day, the Musaliar began to make the most misogynist pronouncements… Haleema Beevi and her friends did not keep quiet. She says that many of them rained questions on the preacher. She says that she reminded the preacher that this was an audience full of highly-educated women and men who were keen to know the beauty of Islam and hoped to convert. Before walking out of that discourse with a group of women, she issued a challenge. That she would find better scholars who could speak authoritatively on Islam to speak on the same platform the next day.  She met it by bringing there such scholars as K M Muhammed Maulavi, Aslam Maulavi, and M Abdussalam.

This incident reveals her inherent internal inspiration to question wrongs and her courage. It is that basic skill that enabled her to cut through obstructions and walk right through them.


A Strike in the Indian Nut Company: Theyi

[This is an account given by a cashew worker who worked in the Indian Nut Company, Kollam, about a strike they organized in the 1930. Theyi was born in the Kurava community in 1922. She was an eight-year-old at the time of this strike and remembers with great clarity, a strike led by women workers. As retold to Anna Lindberg in Experience and Identity, Lund: Lund University Press, 2001, This strike was probably in 1937.]

Continue reading “A Strike in the Indian Nut Company: Theyi”

Remembering Arya Pallom: Devaki Nilayangode

[This snippet of memory is from Devaki Nilayangode’s essay ‘Moonnu Talamurakal’ in which she remembers the woman pioneer of reformism among the Malayala brahmins, Arya Pallom (Yathra — Kaattilum Naattilum, Mathrubhumi Books, Kozhikode. 2006). Nilayangode was active in the Nambutiri Yogakshema Sabha in the 1940s at a time when many of its prominent activists were leaning more and more towards the left in politics.] Continue reading “Remembering Arya Pallom: Devaki Nilayangode”

Remembering Mother’s Path: Komarakam Chinnamma in her Daughter’s Memories

The most important dalit spiritual movement of the early 20th century was initiated by Poykayil Yohannan (widely called Poykayil Appachan by his followers), one of the most remarkable minds in the great social churning in Kerala of the early 20th century.  Born in the Pathanamthitta district and converting to Christianity, Appachan rose to great heights as a masterful speaker and preacher, but he soon was disillusioned by the persistence of caste discrimination in the Church. He left to form his own faith, the Pratyaksha Raksh Daiva Sabha which attracted very many dalit followers as an empowering community. Appachan was a brilliant poet, thinker, legislator, and speaker but he was constantly threatened by the casteist elites everywhere he went. It was the women followers of Appachan who protected him in such moments of danger. Komarakam Chinnamma was one such hero, a fearless, strong, spiritually elevated dalit woman of those time. Her daughter, from these words, is a masterly story-teller. Continue reading “Remembering Mother’s Path: Komarakam Chinnamma in her Daughter’s Memories”

Female Friendships and Marriage: Lakshmi N Menon

Translated by J Devika

[Lakshmi N Menon (1899-1994) was one of the most successful Malayali women in Indian politics  despite the fact that she never really entered formal politics, though attracted to nationalism and international politics as a student abroad in the 1920s. Her father was the well-known reformer, educationist, and rationalist Ramavarma Thampan, (her mother was Madhavikkutty Amma) and her husband the educationist and scholar V K Nandana Menon — but she was one of the rare women who were better known than their male relatives. Lakshmi N Menon was educated in Thiruvananthapuram and she worked for a time as a teacher and later as a lawyer, growing closer to social activism in the 1920s and 30s especially associated with the All-India Women’s Conference. She was a member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s; she represented as the head of the India delegation at the UN in the 1950s and was a Minister of State in the 1960s.  She was nominated to the Committee on the Status of Women at the UN. Continue reading “Female Friendships and Marriage: Lakshmi N Menon”

Singer, Actor, Story-teller, Cine-artiste: M K Kamalam

Translated by J Devika

[M K Kamalam was born in Kumarakom, Kottayam as the second daughter of Kochupilla Panikkar and Karthyayani in 1928. She rose to fame as a stage actor and was one of the first lead female actors in Malayalam cinema, who appeared in the third Malayalam movie Balan (1938).  Despite gaining much fame as an artiste, Kamalam drew back into domesticity and was soon forgotten, until she was rediscovered towards the end of the twentieth century. Sajitha Madathil’s short biography of Kamalam from which this excerpt is drawn (S Madathil, M K Kamalam, Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala State Chalachitra Akademi, 2010) reveals the immense talent and tenacity that a woman needed in order to enter theatre and cinema in the early 20th century. ] Continue reading “Singer, Actor, Story-teller, Cine-artiste: M K Kamalam”