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.

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.

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 2 –Continued

In the Legislative Assembly

The nominated members were often derided as mere kaipokkikal –aye-sayers. But during my term in the Assembly (from ME 1106 – 1108) [1930-32], I made a conscious effort to prove myself to be much more than just an aye-sayer.  Let me give you an example. According to the eleventh section of the Travancore Municipal Regulation (the Fifth Regulation of 1095), women, along with people with mental instability, people who cannot see and hear, and leprosy patients, were excluded from membership in Municipal Councils.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 2 –Continued”

For Dalit Women’s Representation: Women of Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha

[Below is the retrieved part of a petition that was submitted to the Protector of Depressed Classes in Travancore by the women of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha, which represented not just the spiritual but also (indivisibly from it) the material rebirth of the dalit people in parts of Travancore]

[From V V Swami, E V Anil, Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha: Orma, Paattu, Charithrarekhakal, Adiyardeepam Publications,p. 259] Continue reading “For Dalit Women’s Representation: Women of Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha”

Appointment of Women in Public Service: Elizabeth Kuruvila

[Speech made in support of the Resolution moved in the House by A G Menon in support of the appointment of women in public service, Proceedings of the Travancore State Legislative Council XIV, no. 7, 1st Session, 25 April 1929, pp. 537-38.] Continue reading “Appointment of Women in Public Service: Elizabeth Kuruvila”

Encouraging Industrial Habits Among Women: K Bhagirathy Amma

[Proceedings of the Shri Mulam Popular Assembly, 11 March, 1932, pp. 45-46.]

27. Suggestions for encouraging industrial habits among women

SRIMATI K BHAGIRATHY AMMA (Nominated):    thanked the Government for nominating her as a member of the Assembly and prayed for a long and prosperous reign for His Highness the Maha Raja. She said that the future of the women of the country depended on their industry. The system of education obtaining in the country was fit only to produce persons for Government service. Continue reading “Encouraging Industrial Habits Among Women: K Bhagirathy Amma”

Defending Women of One’s Community and Outside: Mrs Walsalam Rose

[A noteworthy aspect of the interventions of the representatives of Women in the Travancore and Cochin legislative bodies was that these women were representatives of the women of both their communities as well as of Women in the general sense. There was no contradiction perceived between these two roles them — which came to be perceived much later. Mrs Walsalam Rose’s intervention in 1932 in the Shree Mulam Praja Assembly is an excellent illustration. The imagination of the ideal life for women as essentially that of “good mothers, efficient housewives, and responsible citizens,”  bolstered with equal property rights and compulsory education was a dominant strain in early feminist articulations of women’s rights, and this was already being critiqued by other feminists as early as the 1930s] Continue reading “Defending Women of One’s Community and Outside: Mrs Walsalam Rose”