Memoir and the Erotic: A Reading of Atmakathaikku oru Aamugham (Preface to an Autobiography)and Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman

Abstract: The articulation of sexuality within the malayala brahmana community is interspersed with the narrative representation of it in memoirs. Memories of everyday inconspicuousness of the Antherjanam considered “asuryampashyakal”, their semantics of appearance, elaborate ritualistic seclusion (ghosha) within the confines of the “illam”define gender identities within the community. The paper considers these imaging techniques as cryptography of his /her moral values imposed by the community of “theocratic feudalists”. The paper interprets clothing and nudity as a visual text type reinforcing values of specific social identities and becomes an operator of social control. In the caste – Sub Caste society of Kerala, sexuality was patrolled and channelised for the “reproduction of caste bodies”, to perpetuate the uncontaminated continuity of caste, purity of the body and of rituals that define their everyday. Through its “unstatedness” and dismissal, female sexuality gets inscribed forcefully into narratives within the region. The study chooses to consider two popularly known memoirs within the community, Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Atmakathaikku Oru Aamugham (Preface to an Autobiography) and Antharjanam: Memoirs of A Namboodiri Woman, to understand coercive control mechanisms that define femininity and evolving gender identities within the community.

Keywords: sexuality, femininity, clothes, memoirs, namboodiri women, society of kerala, light of modernity, ritualistic seclusion, gender identities, antharjanam narrative, caste/class

The literary interpretations of the erotic, in personal and social histories of the “Antherjanam”, (the “Namboodiri” woman) are images or description of the human body, suggestive of sexual attributes in particular, in isolation or as part of larger stories within the memoirs considered. Atmakathaikku Oru Aamugham (Preface to an Autobiography) by the creative writer and community specific reformer, Lalithambika Antherjanam shook the Kerala polity to its roots with startling narratives on sexual transgression in the 1940’s. Devaki Nilayamgode’s memoir published in 2011 Antharjanam: Memoirs of A Namboodiri Woman offers “memory sites” of a community that had receded considerably in the “alluring light of modernity. As Umberto Eco states, it is the ideological competence of the reader that would allow the actualisation, (Lucie Guallemette and Joslane Cossette) of the erotic in chosen memoirs, “Nashtabodhangalillate” (without traces of loss) in the “loveless, dim environs” of a Namboodiri household in central Kerala. The idea then is to interpret images of sensual pleasure through a “textually established set of felicity conditions” of women’s sexuality that is deemed non- existent within the community. The memoir becomes a “cloth woven from signs and gaps”, (Ibid) the interpretation of which is confronted with the “fabula” of cultural conventions. The study draws on textual interpretation that is “polyvocal”, “the signifying chain that produces texts which carries with them the recollection of the intertexts of “clothes”, “kaikottikkali” (a distinctively feminine folk performance within the”impregnable” illum).

Clothing, as Images are part of the way a society sets up and polices norms; Judith Butler explains that they do have a performative and constitutive function. The awe –inspiring exclusivity of the Antherjanam enforced through injunctions like, the antherjanams required to only wear white clothing, to not cover the upper part of their body, are indices of caste status .”Clothes …vain trifles as they may seem…have more important offices” (Woolf 103) “They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us”. As Woolf states in Orlando clothing differences, affect ways in which men and women engage with the world, men directly, women indirectly. The cloak, the”moodupadam”or the “pudava” that the “antherjanam” covered themselves with when in movement defined their identity, inscribing on the body notions of “otherness” consecutively, assigning on it exclusivity & purity. Clothing within the community was considered something external that could defile the body and had to be exclusively retained in terms of prescribed norms, which in turn constituted sexual identity and social position viz- a-viz the outside world in comparison to the “velutheduth” and “Nair” community within the region. The emancipatory goals of the Antherjanam, their strategies for defining conditions of freedom, focused on revised notions of nudity, clothing and movement, as bestowing modernity upon the body. These images repeatedly and often brashly represented an “ambivalent cultural space in which the body consistently triumphed as a source of difference rather than sameness” (Barcan 12 ).The estrangement of the body, through a ritualised mode of their domesticity becomes a site of historical tensions within the community and consequent reform strategies, as Mannathu Padmanaban loudly proclaims “what you see here now is not an illusion. All these Antherjanams are women who have shed their stigma. Close your eyes, those of you who are afraid that you will go blind if you look at antherjanams!”

Social information is imprinted on the body,….the body is a symbol of society and is categorised by itand especially the female body is a means of preserving cultural symbols (Gasouka 1). The Antherjanam past puberty had to observe elaborate seclusion (ghosha), rarely moved out but with a cloak (putappu), and a large cadjanumbrella a “kuta”, (“marakudaneekum”), to be derided of the paraphernalia, signalled transgression of the “Athol”. Clothing affects and reflects perceptions of the self ….because of its relatedness with the body, act as a filter between the individual and the surrounding world (Ibid). Nudity within the community is a form of apparel dialectically related to the body, like language with clear thinking signifying their separation or deviation in the caste, sub-caste society of Kerala. Clothing, bedecking the body within the community, is a visual text type, with a distinct vocabulary that represented the subjugation of the “theocratic feudalist”to institutionalised religion. It works as an operator of social control/or freedom from cultural factors.

The memories of ritualistic seclusion within the “illum”, “ articulates an identity, believes in it, counts on it as emerging from the reality of experience, and releases the personal account of this into the public domain as a means of resisting social and political marginalisation”(Linda Martin Alcoff 108). Feminine identity within the community can be constructed around the “contradictions that arises from the strange potential of nakedness within the community to be both normal and abnormal” viz-a-viz their interaction with the outside world (Barcan 4).

When I was nine, my uduthuthudangal was performed. I had to discard leaf-made loin clothes and wear a cotton undergarment. Wearing a cloth meant that it could get defiled; so a girl had to take bath every time she touched an outsider or a person from another caste… The kind of gold-borderd mundu called kottarumkasavu seen today was forbidden to the Antherjanam…antherjanams had to be satisfied with the gold colour of the plasu flower…the clothes were considered purified if these women veluthedathullaval handled them. (Nilayamgode 28)

Clothes and the aesthetics of clothing within the community signify the foreshadowing of unprecedented assertions of freedom bestowing on the body anthropological, social and religious identities. “Uduthuthudangal” signals initiation intopractises within the “illum” synonymous with unquestioned religious obeisance. Fasting and general denial were raised to the level of veneration. These were ascetic retreats into ritualistic dictates to transcend the vulnerability of sexuality. The repressed concludes mistakenly that desire is a bottomless pit, celibacy an attempt to deal with perceived insatiability. “….gradually my life was confined to the inner rooms and to the company of my elder sisters…I could look at the boys ….walk in the portico….or the courtyard-only until puberty” (Nilayamgode 32).The memoirs narrate how the Antherjanam as “asuryampasyakal”, adhered to injunctions, prescribed by a hetero- patriarchal order, took refuge in near fanatic espousals of religion. In the “unstatedness” of sexuality, denial of the body, through arduous domestic labour, intimacy-in-distance the community speaks verbosely of its silence.

Perceptions of the body determine the identity of the world, the reality external to the self. Given the timeline and milieu in which these memories are contextualised, there are no sinister meanings to nakedness within the community. These were practices that signified an ascetic religious tradition in which women strove to attain exalted meanings of masculine spirituality simultaneously neutralising the limitations of femininity and vulnerability, ensured through confinement. Taittiriya Upanishads regards the human body and its faculties: the eyes, the ears, the mind, the speech and the touch to the spiritual group of reality.These faculties, windows to worldly, temporal, transient being,transcendence could be achieved only through ritualistic restraint. To ensure this ultimate goal “untouchability”, “unseeability” and “unapproachability” was practiced in lieu with ritualistic obeisance. The community’s distrust of worldliness and appearance is symptomatic of disdain for interests and values often deemed feminine and worldly. The nude body or “partial bareness”, that defined community identity and the trajectory towards robing it through reform movements in the alluring light of modernity, was disquieting to ritualistic seclusion.

Self-consciousness as an epistemological advance is connected with an awareness of and interest in ones appearance as inherently retrograde considering humanness at its borders with the non-human as recalled in the memoirs.

Widowhood brought about changes in dress as well. They were not to smear chandanam, on their forehead. Instead, they could apply only moistened bhasmam or the holy ash. As for clothes, the antherjanam’s did not wear any festive clothes”. V. T. Bhttathiripad voiced disgust at the lack of aesthetic dressing among the antherjanams. “…many of us who are married are fed up of your ugly, disgusted dress and ornamentation, and are able to do no more than curse ourselves”. (Nilayangode xxiii)

Spirituality within the community was embraced as a sole solution to the complexity of human existence; ignoring the dynamic and productive “life-world”. Culturally and epistemologically focused on concepts like moksha, nirvrithi, and anubhooti (spiritual liberation, fulfilment, and sensual ecstasy) the dominant literary tradition of the period, “Manipravalam”, “Vadakkanpattu” the story of Unniarcha, Ramanan’stale ,as against the travails of Sheelavati signifies the shift focusing on sexuality and self-indulgence.

Mothers felt that these tales were a bad influence on young minds….Initiation into learning, studying the alphabet and reading the Ramayana this completed a girl’s education….the only available books were ancient epics ….girls were not allowed to read,…touching books was taboo….achan did not have the courage to teach his daughters Sanskrit….puberty set in an antharjanam was not permitted to see strangers… (Nilayamgode 32)

“Kaikottikali”is the only sub-cultural performatory art form, known to the Antherjanam. The art form offers one of the most startling and revelatory challenges to the culture’s perceptions of the body. These were occasions when the “Akathullol” transcended the oppressive constrain, to display their amatory powers as depicted in the following lines…

An interlined bordered undercloth,

A gold cloth strutting along,

In blouses,

Ensnaring bangles,

And rings on all figures Necklaces too and chains,

Everyone stands amazed….hold the men in thrall (Nilayamgode, 50)

The community discredited rhythmic expression of the body, the wide spread suspicion being that any aesthetic or pleasurable preoccupation of the body was considered irrational. Kaikottikali, the unconscious source of life, rhythm which penetrates being, was performed for four days succeeding the Thiruvonam day. The participants being antherjanams, who could neither see nor be seen by other men other than a family member, the main door to the hall was closed. The emphasis was on songs demonstrating Yashoda’s beauty, Damayathi’s lament in Nala’s story set to music foregrounding the religious and amatory nature of the performance, with gestures and erotic “abhinaya” of Mohiniyattam. “….leisurely at first, with the tune spun out to slow-paced movements, changed mid-way to high speed energy, responding with passion to the acceleration of the lilt” (Nilayangode 52). An outpouring of bodily performance that attempted to resolve the contention between biology and history, an expression of the self, hitherto denied articulation. The antherjanams who danced behind the doors had no men in their audience to cheer them; performed apart from the others, defiled by physical contact they were not allowed even a drink of water. Dance being the superior abstraction of the body, Kaikottikalinot having risen to the stature of “Kathakali” or “Mohiniyattam”was dealt with disdain.

The Antherjanam and her being are defined distinctly with their “partial nudity” before reformism “The doe-eyed girls, Dance their Onakkali, unseen”, within the community .The feeling of being clothed within the community establishes a familiar boundary between the body and the world. The sense of inadequacy and struggle of the woman as she treads that trajectory from ritualistic confinement to modernity becomes evident through episodes that unfold in community specific memoirs. In the public space clothing is an extended surface of contact and defining identities, the “moodupadam” (silhouette) when exposed, the bodily comportment (a repertoire of coded practices of self-formation and self- presentation) and sense of self get redefined.


Alcoff, Linda Martin, and Laura Gray –Rosendale. “Survivor discourse”. In Getting a Life: Everyday uses of Autobiography, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 1996. 198-225

Antherjanam, Lalithambika. Cast Me Out If You Will: Stories and Memoirs Trans. Krishnankutty, Gita. Stree. 2000.

Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette, “Textual Cooperation”, Signo, Rimouski (Quebec)., 2006. Web. textual-cooperation.asp.

Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. Calcutta: Seagull. 2006. Print.

Gasouka, Maria. Fashion, Gender and Social Identity. Dept. of Sciences of Preschool Education and Educational Design. University of Aegean, Rhodes. Greece.

Jain, Jasbir. Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture , Subjectivity and Agency. India: Sage. 2011. Print.

Nilayamgode, Devaki. Antherjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman. Trans.

Indira P. Menon and Radhika. OUP. 2011. Print.

Lavender Catherine. From Virgina Woolf, Orlando:(1928).The Department of History, The college of Staten Island of The City University of New York.1997.


Anchampura : A building outside the main living quarters, where the accused in a Smarthavicharam was kept in isolation

Antahpuram : The inner rooms to which women were confined

Antherjanam : She who lives inside: a synonym for a Namboothiri woman

Ashtapadi : The songs of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda

Guruvayurappan :The deity of the Guruvayur temple(Krishna)

Illam : A Namboodiri landlord’s abode, commonly built as a rectangle enclosing an inner courtyard

Kaikottikali : A type of dance in which women in typical Kerala costume stand in a circle round the traditional lamb and move to a set pattern of steps and clapping of hands.


SREEDEVI SANTOSH. Is Assistant Professor, Jain University, Bangalore.

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Is Assistant Professor, Jain University, Bangalore.

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