Women and Khadar: E Narayanikkutty Amma

Translated by J Devika

[an earlier version of this appeared in my book Her-Self, from Sree/Samya, Kolkata 2005


  Elamkuttil Narayanikutty Amma (– 1980) was born in the first decade of the 20th century at Kozhikode in north Kerala. Her father Edavalli Narayanan Nair, was a lawyer. She graduated from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and worked as a teacher in Kozhikode. She attained fame as a brilliant teacher and was deeply involved in the opening of a ‘Baby Centre’ at Kozhikode, which offered health care for poor children. She was also active in the All-India Women’s Conference, along with others like T. M. Narayanikutty Kovilamma and G. Kamalamma. Later she rose to prominence in the national movement as a propagator of Khadar and Hindi, and closely associated with well-known nationalists like A.V.Kuttimalu Amma and Verkot Ammakutty Amma. She was also keenly interested in the stage, and appeared onstage in the dramatic production of O. Chandu Menon’s pioneering novel, Indulekha (1889). She was known to be an excellent organiser, and much of the credit for the ‘Swadeshi Exhibitions’ conducted at Kozhikode in the 1930s went to her. She withdrew from public life after independence.


[ ‘Streekalum Khadarum’, Malayala Masika 1(1) M.E 1105 Medam (April-May 1929-30):15-20]

Welcome to the eagerly awaited Malayala Masika 1!  I hereby express my heartfelt gratitude to the organisers for reckoning me among the conductors of its birth-ceremony. Let the merciful Lord Balakrishna bless the magazine so that it becomes a model for other publications in fortune, virtue, health and longevity, and sheds light on the whole of Keralam like an everlasting lamp. I am very happy to be given a chance to send this infant periodical a message. Nevertheless, I had been asked to write about any topic with the exception of politics2. Today, in India, surely, there seems to be no topic that is not related to the Nation, or to politics. However, since ordinary women like clothes and ornaments best, I intend to say a few words about the former.


Everyone knows that these are times in which we are all are obliged to persevere for the advancement of Mother India, irrespective of our sex. The times in which we were required to speak of women’s education or independence are almost gone. What is the duty of educated women today? By education one means not just English education, but instruction that prepares them well for their particular duty. They have a duty to the Nation, which is as, or more, important than their duty towards their home. Even if they may not be able to do much in politics or community-life under present circumstances, they are probably in a better position to serve the Motherland economically. Merely that they need to pay some keen attention to understand the sheer poverty, exigencies and losses that have been our lot. We must think why poverty has made its appearance in India today. Was India always in this plight? Never. Once upon a time, Indian muslin and silk fabrics were famous all around the world.


English merchants entered India for trade. The foundations of their prosperity were established in that burning-ghat in which they had reduced the spinning wheel to ashes. English merchants uprooted the cottage industries of the Indians and usurped their peace and prosperity. Some of us may ask why we must all hasten to revive this extinct industry, as we have all been divided into separate Jatis, pursuing distinct sorts of occupation: would it not be enough to limit the protest to those who have been trained as weavers for generations? The answer to this question would be that this move intends not only to replace all the foreign cloth with swadeshi fabrics (in a short time), but also to provide an antidote to the sheer laxity displayed by a whole people towards this excellent industry. The foreigner’s formidable capacity for violence can be fought and quelled only through the pacific power of the spinning wheel. From ancient times, the hands that spun have earned India’s food and freedom. Our salvation, truly, lies in the spinning wheel.


We must also remember that the revival of the spinning wheel will provide work and a livelihood for thousands of our brothers and sisters, besides aiding the overall improvement of India’s economic status. Our poverty will not cease if we merely wear khadar. Many of us may be wearing it. However, the present-day duty of Indian women lies in providing the thread to weave khadar. Are you stern enough to remain passive, even on hearing Mother India’s sorrowful lament, which asks: do you wish to serve the millionaire-foreigner, or make a livelihood for your indigent sister? If not, then console the Mother, wipe her tears with the khadar you have made yourself!


Looking at the figures for some eight years before, the total length of clothing bought in India was 404 crore yards. The clothing that serves as dress materials comes to an average of 12 yards per person. If all 32 crores of the population is divided up into families of five members each, how easy will it be for each family to produce the clothing it requires! According to the above figures each family will need 60 yards of clothing a year. Even if thread is spun only 25 days a month, the time necessary for producing good thread, and cleaning the cotton will take only two and a half-hours. Therefore, is it not certain that if a small portion of the time we idle away were spent in this, there will be much to gain?


Another difficulty would be about obtaining the cotton. Thinking of it, we need only 60% of the cotton grown in our country to meet our needs. Some may say that cotton is not cultivated in Keralam. This could be easily made up with some effort. Already, jute cultivation has picked up in some parts of the land. Likewise, each family will be able to raise the cotton for their immediate need for clothing. Figures say that half an acre of land will yield 20 pounds of cotton. All this is certainly not difficult for us, who are used to cottage industries since long ago. It is quite easy in Keralam. Besides, it can be shown that this will bring much profit.


The 16 crore tons of cotton harvested in 1922 from 180 lakh acres of land was worth 91 crores of rupees. The cost of 50 yards being Rs. 23, annas 8, each family makes a net profit of Rs. 12, annas 8, subtracting Rs. 11 for weaving charges and agricultural expenses. Some may feel that this is a trivial sum. Nevertheless, in Keralam, with a population of 80 lakhs, subdivided into five, on an average, if each family makes a profit of Rs. 12, the total profit would be 200 lakh (2 crore) rupees. Do we have no reservations about throwing away this huge sum, to be picked up by outsiders? Are we so rich? Even if we are indeed rich and busy, how many of us carry on in dire difficulty, wandering about as good-for-nothings? Is it not our duty not to dissipate this human existence, to make it beneficial for our brethren and ourselves?


These days, we find nothing but fancy clothes all around. But do my honourable sisters realise that not one yard of this belongs to us? Are we not ashamed that Mother India, who gave away clothing to the whole world two centuries ago, is seeking the help of others to cover her nakedness today? The foreigners have done great injustice to the Mother. Let the spinning wheel, which is none other than the Srichakram of the Preserver of the Universe3 come to her rescue.


  1. The Malayala Masika was published by a Women’s Association called the Kottakkal Manorama Stree Samajam, and began around 1930. It was one of the first journals in Malabar, it was claimed, to be “run by women for women”. See, ‘Swantam Karyam’, Malayala Masika 1 (1) 1931: 2.

2. The practice of excluding politics from the topics discussed in Malayalam women’s magazines is as old as Malayalam women’s magazines themselves. The first women’s magazine in Malayalam, the Keraleeya Suguna Bodhini (1894), stated this plainly (quoted in Raghavan 1985:141). The Malayala Masika, too, was uncompromising. Its preliminary statement said: “This infant should not be allowed anywhere near the political conflagration of the present” (ibid. p.4). However, women did partake in militant ways in the nationalist movement and the workers’ movements. See, Menon 1971; Velayudhan 1999.

3. Refers to the weapon wielded by Vishnu, the spiked wheel, known as the Sudarshanam, supposedly forged by the master-builder Visvakarma from the excess energy of the Sun God. This in fact was a common way of representing the charkha in nationalist speech and writing in Malayalam, which became highly popular through the poetry of Vallathol Narayana Menon (1879-1958), in which it appears as the Tantric Srichakra and the See Chaitanya 1971: 238.