Abstract:The paper analyses the Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala as movements that gave bold expressions to the social aspirations of ‘subordinate castes’. While looking at these confrontations through the lens of caste and gender, one can see the presence of two male protagonists in the historical accounts available on these incidents and this makes one wonder why women are a conspicuous absence. The attempts for upward mobility cannot be fully described by the term ‘sanskritisation’ since it does not take into account the nuances of protest and resistance implicit in the acts of imitation or replication of ‘dominant caste’ life styles by subordinate castes. Discarding one’s own caste markers is a powerful expression of dissent as it is a rejection of the overt symbols of inferiority and subservience. In this discourse mookkuthi (nose stud) and kalla and mala (the stone necklaces) are not mere articles for adorning the female body. Though these adornments can be given all the conventional functional attributes of aestheticising the female body and enhancing its desirability, there is more to them than meets the eye. When adornments act as caste markers, they signify a hierarchy, the superior-inferior relations in society. Wearing an adornment which was a unique privilege of a dominant caste and discarding another that was a caste marker for a subordinate caste show new possibilities and viabilities of breaking up caste barriers and breaking into forbidden realms. Such uprisings are unfortunately obliterated, or their significance is unacknowledged. A re-reading and reconstruction of the history of Kerala is required in order to salvage these incidents from oblivion, deliberate or otherwise.
Keywords: Mookkuthi Samaram, Kerala women caste system, Nair women, Kalla Mala discarding, social/political reforms, caste practices, female body, adornment, women’s caste hierarchy through adornment , empowerment through education
In Kerala, the demarcating mechanisms of the erstwhile caste system were intricate and they manifested in myriad ways. Control, coercion, and prohibition used to be the main strategies that perpetuated the caste system. Strictly assigned social and ritual roles reinforced the divisive practices and status quo. All human activities in the domestic sphere and to a greater extent, in the public sphere were regulated and restricted by caste norms. Transgressions were seldom left with impunity. In the nineteenth century Kerala, caste hierarchies thus became well pronounced and rigid. Attire and adornments served the purpose of acting as caste indicators so that pollution through sight, touch and proximity could be ruled out.
This paper analyses the adornments of women as objects making their bodies ‘recognizable’ and ‘distinguishable’ in terms of caste identities, so that purity and social position of each caste could be ascertained. Norms came into place by sanctioning or insisting on the wearing of certain kinds of ornaments and prohibiting the use of some other kinds. The social differences articulated through dress and ornaments were loud and resonating in the public sphere. Robin Jeffrey observes that ‘distance pollution1 gave a concrete form to abstract ritual status; the separateness of various groups was reinforced in the minds of Travancoreans. For such a system to work, the caste of an individual had to be identified from a distance’2. Jeffrey further substantiates his view by quoting from a letter, probably written in 1884 by Mary Baker, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Anyone after living a little while in the country can at first glance tell to what caste a stranger belongs by the way he or she wears the hair or their garments.3
The Royal Proclamation of 1818, issued by Rani Parvathibhayi, abolishing the adiyara (a kind of tax to be remitted in the royal treasury for procuring the sanction to wear gold and expensive ornaments) stated in unequivocal terms that in Travancore, men and women of Sudra (Nair), Ezhava, Channar and Mukkuva castes were permitted to use ornaments of gold and silver according to their jatimaryada or the norms pertaining to respective castes without having to pay the adiyara from then on4. Though the proclamation claims that the sovereign abolished the adiyara
for the happiness of people and the subjects were allowed to wear ornaments, the notion of jatimaryada, subtly woven into it nullified the right to make and use the ornaments of one’s choice or liking. There was also an understated warning against emulating the style of ornaments unique to other castes. People of the castes listed in the proclamation could use only such types of adornments that befitted their jatimaryada. Moreover, the proclamation did not grant this right to Paraya, Pulaya, and many other castes that were at the bottom rungs of this caste ridden society.
The deliberate violation of dress norms imposed by caste practices, appropriation of ‘dominant caste’ attires or adornments, or rejection of the adornments imposed on particular castes effected remarkable social change in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries. The strategies of opposition implied in breaking into the forbidden realm of privileges unique to the ‘dominant castes’ or breaking away from the caste norms imposed on one’s own caste is subjected to analysis in this study as attempts to break up the existing caste boundaries and challenge inequalities. Two incidents that happened in Travancore, namely the nose stud agitation or Mookkuthi Samaram and the rejection of kalla and mala which are only casually mentioned and have not yet been studied as significant movements for social change in historical accounts are selected for examination. In the former incident, women of subordinate castes wore the nose stud, upsetting the caste norms prohibiting its use. In the latter, women of Pulaya caste discarded the kalla and mala, a caste marker which they were expected to wear, thus inviting the ire of dominant castes.
The female body as an object of desire and a source of both aesthetic and sexual pleasure is reconstructed in the discourse on adornments. The politics of adornments and notions of sexual desirability and attractiveness associated with the use of ornaments have also been investigated in the paper, glimpsing into the ideas of chastity and modesty that were complexly entrenched in caste practices. The period selected in this study is late nineteenth and early twentieth century Kerala.
Scarcity of historical accounts available on this incident speaks volumes about a range of strategies of inclusion and exclusion in
historiography. The relative silence about uprisings of subordinate castes in Kerala history screams. Mookkuthi Samaram is discussed in connection with Aarattupuzha Velayudha Panicker (1825-1874) whom some historians describe as an unsung hero. Introductions to two biographical works on Sarasakavi Muloor5 briefly discuss the Mookkuthi Samaram and in the autobiographical account of A. P. Udayabhanu, titled Ente Kathayillaymakal, there is mention of it6. In the work of Vasava Panicker, Sarasakavi Muloor: Oru Anukalikaavalokanam, the incident is narrated in this manner:
Velayudha Panicker came to know that near Pantalam, an Ezhava lady was humiliated for wearing the nose-stud and her nose-stud was ripped off by the savarnas7. Immediately, Panicker got many nose-studs made and his attendants took them to Pandalam in baskets meant for carrying seeds. Panicker and his companions accompanied on horseback. The noses of all avarna8 women who had come to the market were pierced and they were made to wear the gold nose-stud. After that, no savarna of Central Travancore dared to humiliate women who used the nose-stud or any other forms of ornaments. 9(Emphasis added).
S.N Sadasivan’s version10 of the incident is similar. Without many rhetorical flourishes and explicit attempts at glorification, he gives an account of the happenings. He does not state whether the women wore the nose-stud willingly, or they were made to wear it:
Almost 24 kilometers east of Kayamkulam, in Pantalam, caste Hindus plucked forcefully out of the nose of an Ezhava woman, the golden stud she was wearing which left her nose bleeding. On learning the outrage, Panicker, with a volunteer force reached Pantalam and distributed to every woman belonging to non- caste Hindus a gold nose stud to adorn her nose. For meeting any threat or to avert any untoward development, Panicker and his followers camped at Pantalam till peace was completely established.
Prof. M. Satya Prakasham narrates this incident with some modifications. In his version, the Ezhava lady who used the nose-stud was molested. Panicker took revenge on the perpetrators. Then he got one thousand nose-studs made and distributed them among the poor women in the market. No one dared to trouble the avarna women11.
Here the issue becomes more serious with elements of molestation and revenge in the narrative and the women do not appear to be hesitant and afraid to wear the nose-stud. Even the number of nose-studs made by Panicker has been mentioned. Though these narratives seem to contain traces of exaggeration and the ‘agenda’ to glorify Velayudha Panicker is evident, one cannot dismiss the incident, Mookkuthi Samaram as insignificant. Fillippo and Caroline Oscella also discuss Kallasseril Velayudha Panicker as ‘a cult figure’ in the locality, and according to them most Ezhavas in Valiyagramam had heard of him. They do not mention the Mookkuthi Samaram as a significant incident. We read that agitation for avarna women’s right to cover the breast was supported by Panicker and he distributed upper clothes to all women of subordinate castes at Kayamkulam market12.
- P. Udayabhanu narrates a similar instance about the hostility of Muslims of the Kayamkulam market against Ezhava women who pierced their ears to wear earrings13. Even in this matter, Velayudha Panicker intervened and Ezhava women coming to Kayamkulam and Karthikappilly markets started using the earring14. In these accounts, the positions of avarna women who were made to wear nose studs to protest against the savarnas or Ezhava women who started using the earring despite the Muslim resentment are both ambiguous and ambivalent. We do not see these women getting into a protest mode themselves and the hesitation on their part to participate and carry forward these movements to overcome social disabilities implicit in these accounts is a clear indication of the coercive mechanisms of caste control prevalent in those days. Fear tactics and cultural coercion were used to make the subordinate castes follow the norms of the caste system and these techniques had a powerful impact on women. Any violation of the existing norm was severely punished and that could be the reason why many a time women seemed to play a passive role in movements against their social disabilities. Women had to regulate their lives according to restrictions prescribed by caste practices for their own safety and survival. This de- visualisation of women in struggles and movements could be a consequence of the deliberate attempts to portray them in conformity to the non-assertive, non-aggressive stereotype: women who would never get into the aggressive mode unless they are prompted and supported by men.
In Ente Kathayillaymakal, A.P. Udayabhanu observes the consequences of the struggles and revolts for social rights. One can understand from his description the attitude of savarnas and orthodox savarna administration towards social change. He vividly portrays how the tactics of physical punishment, coercion and violence used for suppressing these uprisings created an ambivalent environment of fear and daring:
Savarna Hindus and the conservative Hindu government tried to drown in blood the rightful demands of the avarnas, who constituted the majority of population. Orthodox savarnas and the savarna administration unleashed brutal violence. The avarnas too did not hesitate and retaliated. All these avarna agitations and revolts for procuring basic human rights and overcoming social disabilities that claimed a space on the pages of Kerala history namely the Nadar Revolt, the Pulaya Revolt, Melmundu Kalapam (the Upper-cloth Revolt), the Mookkuthi Samaram (The nose-stud agitation) were met with cruel violence15. (Translation mine)
In the light of Mookkuthi Samaram, it would be worthwhile to analyze the strategies of protest used by Velayudha Panicker. The schema of Velayudha Panicker in subverting the existing caste norms and challenging the prevalent practices is evident in many other protests16 initiated by him. He flouted caste restrictions and prohibitions, prompting Ezhavas in his area to follow suit. His stance in Mookkuthi Samaram and Achipudava Samaram17 was to make women overcome fear and subservience in order to assert their rights. In the latter incident, Panicker prompted the people of depressed castes to boycott agricultural labour related to the cultivation of paddy and coconut till the Nair men apologised for humiliating an Ezhava woman who draped the achippudava breaking the caste prohibition.
Panicker started wearing the Kuduma (tuft of hair) in the Nambuthiri style, constructed temples and learned to perform rituals, established a Kathakali troupe and founded a school and a library in Aarattupuzha18. In all these activities, one can see a conscious attempt to break up caste barriers by doing what was prohibited, venturing into a realm that was forbidden. Emulating the dominant caste dress code and
life style was an act of subversion. The controversial idea used by M.N Srinivas, ‘Sanskritisation’, will not be adequate to explain the actions of Panicker which inspired many Ezhavas and other subordinate castes19. The term fails to include the techniques of protest embedded in the emulation of dominant caste customs, dress code and life styles and does not leave any scope for examining innovation and invention of novelty in customs and practices.
These acts of imitation are not merely indirect indication of jealousy or reverence, as one finds in many of the historical accounts that have uncritically used the idea of M.N. Srinivas. Such acts posed a powerful challenge to the ideas of caste superiority and privilege by breaking up and breaking into the centuries old boundaries erected by the caste system. There is resistance and mockery of the superiority in the act of replicating the practices of a dominant caste. This imitation was meant not only for moving up in the social hierarchy. These deeds of replication implied the production of newness rather than sameness in many ways and jettisoned caste prohibitions. It was a moment of entry into the category of human from the level of being subhuman. The move implies transgression, violation of caste norms and a refusal to remain docile. Social aspirations thus bolstered social mobilisation of the people of subordinate castes who gradually overcame fear and oppression.
Kalla and Mala
Upward mobility of subordinate castes could be achieved not only through education and breaking into the realms cordoned off by the hierarchical operations of caste system. A planned disruption of boundaries is made possible through a conscious mimesis of dominant caste life styles and thus appropriating those very privileges unique to them. At the same time, discarding certain customs, traditions, and ways of dressing and adornments that symbolise the servitude and inferiority of a caste is another strong possibility of resistance and protest. In Mookkuthi Samaram, subordinate castes tried to fulfill their social aspirations by using an adornment sanctioned only for the use of dominant caste women. But discarding the Kalla and Mala, which is also known as Kallumala Samaram 20 shows the viability of a different strategy for articulating dissent and social aspiration.
Pulayar, Parayar, Kuravar, Malayar, Vedar, and many such ayithajatis21 or polluting castes were in the habit of wearing kalla and mala. There could be many reasons why they started using kallumala. The use of kallumala may have ritual reasons and it perhaps substituted the function of an upper garment.
People of these subordinate castes were treated as slaves and the masters could buy and sell them. Slavery was abolished in theory after a Royal Proclamation22 prohibiting the purchase and sale of persons was issued in 1811 by Rani Lakshmibhayi. But in practice, Pulayas, Parayas and such downtrodden castes were treated like cattle. They were not allowed to use new or clean clothes. Before putting on, new clothes had to be smeared with soot to make them look dirty23. As evident from the Royal Proclamation of 1818, they could not use ornaments made of expensive metals such as gold and silver. Smooth stones and glass pieces were pierced and strung together to make the kalla and mala. Sometimes, this stone necklace even served the purpose of covering the breasts, since women of subordinate castes were not allowed to use any upper garments24. Pulaya women used to wear earrings shaped out of thin iron rods and iron bracelets and rings were their other adornments.
The accounts about the discarding of kalla and mala are found in many biographical works on Ayyankali. Ayyankali, a social reformer and leader of Pulaya community found these ornaments to be explicit signs of slavery and subservience. He instructed the Pulaya women to stop wearing kalla and mala and to start putting on a blouse. Women in Neyyatinkara and nearby places removed these ornaments from their body and started using blouses. The discarding of kalla and mala provoked the dominant castes and triggered many atrocities against the Pulaya women. Kollam and Neyyattinkara became storm centres of the conflict between Pulayas and the dominant castes, especially Nairs and it led to a violent agitation in Perinadu25.
The Reports about the Perinadu incident in Newspapers like Mithavadi26 blamed Pulayas for these violent incidents. It became the need of the hour to bring about a change in the chaotic situation and pacify the conflicting caste groups in the region. Moreover, Pulayas, under the leadership of Ayyankali, wanted to get rid of the negative image of the community as perpetrators of violence which was an aftermath of the
agitation in Perinadu. A Sarvasamudaya Sammelanam (a meeting of representatives from all communities) was suggested as a panacea for the crises in the region. At the same time, this meeting also was intended to be a clarion call for overcoming caste disabilities. The sammelanam was meant to provide a platform for voicing the concerns and asserting the social rights of the downtrodden masses. It was during this meeting that Kalla and Mala was formally and somewhat ceremoniously discarded by the Pulaya women. The historical accounts of this meeting unravel various facets, strategies, aspects and nuances of protest and social aspiration.
The Sarvasamudaya Sammelanam27 is a significant incident to be analyzed with great sensitivity. The meeting which had a reconciliatory air about it was scheduled on December 10, 1915. Ayyankali suffered many hardships to make the meeting a reality. The Police Circle Inspector of Kollam, Gopalaswami Pillai28 helped Ayyankali for obtaining the Dewan’s sanction. Finding a place for conducting this meeting was not an easy task. People refused to provide a venue for a meeting to be attended by untouchable Pulayas. Earlier, Ayyankali had to convene a meeting at Ernakulam in 1912 on a platform made by boats tied together in the backwaters29. But at Kollam, he was luckier. Tarabai30 who owned a circus company, allowed him to use the tent situated in the big carnival ground at Kollam. More than five thousand people belonging to subordinate castes crowded the tent, neatly dressed and apparently fearless. Many people of dominant castes had also come to participate in the grand event. The meeting was presided over by Changanassery Parameswara Pillai, one of the founder members of Nair Service Society and Mr. Raman Thambi gave an inaugural speech on the theme of unity and fraternity between communities and the necessity of maintaining fellow-feeling and mutual empathy. The strong savarna presence among the audience and on the dais was noteworthy and indicative of the inclusive strategy of Ayyankali as far as avarna reforms were considered. He could elicit support from enlightened people belonging to dominant castes that had upheld a hostile stand against the Pulaya community from very early times.
Ayyankali’s speech31 on the occasion is a significant manifesto of his reformative agenda. After mentioning the disabilities suffered by the
subordinate castes, he appealed to them to fight atrocities, but not to use violence against the perpetrators of these atrocities. Civilised ways of dressing, discipline and education, according to him were the stepping stones to progress. Avarnas were requested to be ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’. He asked them to be patient even if some intolerant people confronted them. Ayyankali’s plea to savarnas was to encourage and not to obstruct ayithajatis when they try to be modern and civilised in terms of customs and dressing. He then emphasised the need to discard kalla and mala which in his view were signs of subservience. Ayyankali could understand the significance of changing the attire and adornments in order to construct new identities and self images.
The reasons given by Ayyankali for discarding kalla and mala are indicative of a new social consciousness about ‘being civilised and modern’. He alluded to the activities of Sadhujana Paripalana Samkham32 in Southern Travancore and praised the daring of women who discarded aparishkrita (not civilised or modern) ornaments and attire. He made an observation that incidents like the Perinadu Revolt happened because the Jenmis or dominant caste landlords of the region could not accept such changes. After contextualising the protest in its socio-cultural scenario, Ayyankali put forth a request in the sammelanam to the savarnas to cooperate in the move for discarding the kalla and mala, which would be done in the presence of people of all castes present there33 (Emphasis added).
This demand presented in the form of a request reveals the discreet policy of Ayyankali. Perinadu Revolt proved that bloody protests and agitations would only tarnish the social image of Pulaya community and support and sympathies of people of all castes could be gained only through reconciliatory and non-violent strategies. In this aspect, Ayyankali differs from Velayudha Panicker who took an aggressive stance against social oppression and disabilities.
As soon as Ayyankali’s speech ended, Changanassery Parameswara Pillai sanctioned the discarding of kalla and mala on behalf of all those who were present there. Amidst applauses, two Pulaya girls were called onto the stage. They were clad in rowka (a kind of blouse). Ayyankali told them to remove their kalla and mala since all the dignitaries on the dais and among the audience have permitted them to do so. The girls then took out the sickle34 that was tucked into their waist cloth and
cut off the kalla and mala. The sickle asserted indirectly that Pulaya community is essential in the sustenance of society. To sever a symbol of slavery and inferiority worn on the body, an assertive symbol of their indispensability in agricultural labour was used in this incident.
The kalla and mala thus removed was then kept on one side of the stage. The government Chief Secretary Mr. Viara and the president of the meeting, Parameswara Pillai took these same kalla and mala home35. It is interesting to note how these objects signifying the shameful condition of Pulaya women, which were so discarded, become curious souvenirs for two affluent men.
Though many Pulaya women had already discarded the kalla and mala as a result of their interaction with Sadhujana Paripalana Yogam, they all wore it again for the meeting for a ceremonial discarding. After the two girls discarded it on the stage, all Pulaya women among the audience followed suit36. In no time, there was a heap of kalla and mala on the stage37. The mock ceremonial air of this incident is noteworthy. The whole incident is described in my paper in great detail because, as one can see, each step of the act of discarding is replete with powerful connotations.
The attacks on Pulaya women did not stop after this reconciliatory meeting. Perinadu witnessed another unpleasant incident following the Sarvasamudaya Sammelanam. A Pulaya woman was stopped on the road and a savarna questioned her where the caste adornment was. On receiving a reply that kalla and mala had been discarded during the meeting at Kollam, the infuriated savarna cut off the woman’s ear. Mithavadi, reporting this incident, expressed sorrow and shock because it took place in a princely state or the stronghold of a local king (natturajavu)38 during the British Imperial control. The faith expressed by the reporter in the abilities of the British Administrative system in maintaining law and order situation may sound ironic. This report in Mithavadi definitely indicates the changing attitude of people towards the oppression of and resistance by the subordinate castes.
Like Velayudha Panicker, replicating the dominant caste life style was also a mode of protest Ayyankali adopted. Using a turban, travelling along the roads of Venganoor in an ornate bullock cart (villuvecha vandi)
and starting a school for the children belonging to subordinate castes at Venganoor were significant among his acts of dissent. It is evident that through certain forms of protest, both Velayudha Panicker and Ayyankali could make the dominant castes realise the significance of the downtrodden masses in society and the dependency of dominant castes on them for sheer survival. Boycotting agricultural labour was a powerful statement that proclaimed in loud and unambiguous terms the vital roles played by the subordinate castes in feeding even the highest of castes in the hierarchy. Ayyankali called for the boycott of agricultural work and raised certain demands39. Initially the Nairs and other dominant caste Hindus did not pay any heed, but were forced to concede and yield to the demands of Ayyankali thanks to the indispensability of Pulaya labourers in cultivation, harvesting and all other aspects of food production. Unveiling the statue of Ayyankali at Kawdiar Square in Thiruvananthapuram on November10, 1980, the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi said:
It was in Kerala that untouchability was most acute. At the same time it was Kerala that gained fame by its Temple Entry Proclamation. Equality and Freedom are indivisible. Without equality there cannot be genuine freedom….The struggle for freedom must start from within the society. That was what Ayyankali did40.
Freedom through equality was a strategy used in many of the reform movements in Kerala. Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala were attempts to assert equality in a caste ridden society with several levels and types of inequality. Identifying the adornments as symbolic of caste inequalities and disabilities in these incidents, one can see that their use or rejection have many repercussions in the process of social change and struggles for demanding equal opportunities. In Kallumala Samaram we can see all castes coming together as a community against the inequalities prevalent in society. This cohesive power of local movements gave momentum to the national movement, which also was in a way a struggle against injustice, inequality and social disabilities.
Adornments as Objects that Mean and Do
When it comes to women’s adornments, the economic and social determinants of taste and use are very complexly intertwined with the
process of subject formation. We see adornments as objects embodying social distinctions in terms of caste. In this study, the nose stud or kallumala no more remain innocuous ornaments, but become semantic objects that erstwhile signified the social status determined in terms of caste. Hierarchies and classification are embodied in objects. Social distinctions are thus brought into a tangible sphere of perception through them. The conscious or inadvertent implementation of overt or subtle strategies of perception is a pointer to an altogether different logic, using which one ventures beyond the primary strata of signification and enters a realm of multiplicity of significations. The act of cognition or decoding depends on the observers’ understanding(s) of culture. An object is polysemic since it is surrounded by a plethora of extrinsic referents and its definition in terms of functions or use is subordinated to a variety of cultural significations.
Objects cannot escape their socially attributed meanings. These meanings are seldom restricted to the signification attributed by their physical features and function. Adornments, primarily objects that serve the purpose of beautifying the body thus acted as vehicles of a new kind of meaning in the society under discussion. In subtle and blatant ways, the social and ritual status of each caste was determined and affirmed and ornaments overtly proclaimed the caste identity of an individual.
The imposition of a meaning or multiplicity of meaning to objects is an intricate cultural phenomenon. The historical process of how meanings are assigned, changed and reframed is interesting. In Kerala, each caste had its own specific array of attire and adornments. Ornaments for the neck, the arm, the nose, and the ankle varied from caste to caste. The adornments of people belonging to different subdivisions of the same castes also varied41. Bell metal and thin brass bangles were worn usually by antharjanams (Nambuthiri or Malayala Brahmin Women) and these bangles covered the forearm. There were certain ornaments that had restricted use, indicating the ‘privilege’ of some dominant castes. Fawcett has done a study of Nambuthiris and Nairs in which he briefly mentions their ornaments:
The ornaments worn by Nambuthiri women are chiefly, if not altogether of a pattern or a kind which can be worn by women of no
other caste…. The nose is never pierced and no ornament is ever worn in the nose42. (emphasis added)
About the Nair ornaments, Fawcett gives this description, ‘Properly speaking the thoda is an ornament worn exclusively by Nair women. Several necklaces are worn at the same time’. He adds that ‘Nairs use only gold Venetian sequins strung together to make a very effective ornament for the neck’43. The oldest ornament of the Nair women was the necklace called Nagapatam, the pendants of which resembled a cobra’s head. They used to wear mookkuthi on the left nostril and a gold wire known as gnattu was suspended from it44. The Nambuthiris do not bore their noses or wear nose rings, and in this respect present a striking contrast to the Nair women45. Mateer’s observations about the Shanar and Ezhava women indicate how caste and status quo were complexly interlinked:
They were not allowed to carry umbrellas, to wear shoes or golden ornaments, to carry pots of water on the hip, to build houses above one story in height, to milk cows, or to use the ordinary language of the country.46
Accounts of Fawcett, Thurston and Mateer indubitably show how the use of adornments and access to many other privileges were caste specific. From these accounts, it is evident that the use of nose stud was a special privilege of Nairs. The primary function of the mookkuthi or kallumala as articles for adorning the female body with all the implicit notions about the enhancement of beauty and attractiveness of who uses it, and the social function of adornments as caste markers that help in distinguishing women of different castes throw light on the nuances of meanings an object takes. Objects claim more than one level of significations in terms of appearance, use, and more importantly the culture wherein it is used. These significations are suggested by a society and they, in turn are suggestive of certain traits of that society. Mookkuthi thus was synonymous with high social status. At a later stage, kallumala became a matter of ‘shame’, a sign of being aparishkrita (not civilised or modern), and thus signified social inferiority.
The sign-signifier-signified associations of adornments as objects are precariously unstable and subject to the vagaries of time and social
contexts. The symbolic meanings of adornments are even more ambiguous in terms of meanings they assign to the user. Thoughts, images, tastes, emotions, and cultural values that crystallise into an adornment as object attribute to it the function of social stratification in explicit and identifiable terms. It was not just a question of taste and affordability that validated the use of adornments. The meaning attributed to adornments has both cultural and regional nuances. Adornments exuded meanings associated with social status operative in Kerala society during a period of social changes.
The meanings that adornments as objects have in terms of their use are not stagnant. The use of ornaments to substitute a covering for the upper part of the body can be seen in the cases of both Nair and Pulaya women. Forbes’s observation that if not with drapery, the Nair women covered their bosom with adornments47 indicate a different purpose in the use of ornaments. In the photographs of traditional Nair ornaments given in the work of Fawcett show their layered and broad make and indicate their possible use as a means to cover the breast48. In the case of Pulaya women rejection of kallumala and the starting of using the blouse happened simultaneously.
The region becomes a signifying system for these objects that are imbued with certain meanings and there had been a deciding, dominant group that was involved in careful surveillance or vigil against transgression. As time passed, one can see this surveillance becoming less acute. After many struggles and protests against oppression, the coercive power of caste system could not remain rigorous and absolute. Thurston’s remarks about the Ezhava women in 1909 indicate this significant change. He observes that ‘in dress and ornament, the Ezhavas closely resemble the Nairs’ and also adds:
The nose ornaments, mukkuthi and gnattu have only recently begun to be worn and are not very popular in central and north Travancore. This is a point in which Ezhavas may be said to differ from the South Travancore Matrons…. Of late all ornaments of Nair women are being worn by fashionable Ezhava females.49 (Emphasis Added)
In his study of the ornaments of the subordinate caste Tiyan women, Thurston remarks about the breaking of boundaries. Thoda, a unique ear ornament used by the Nair women as Fawcett clearly remarked was being worn by the Tiyan women of Malabar, though it according to Thurston ‘is not a Tiyan ornament’. ‘The earrings, kathila and ananthod are the Tiyan ornaments…. Venetian sequins, real or imitation are largely used for neck ornaments’50.
These accounts prove that the barriers had slowly become surmountable and the territory of upper class privileges was not any more an inaccessible realm. The use of ornaments was gradually not too rigidly caste specific. Mookkuthi Samaram and discarding kalla and mala can be read as movements towards changing the self image by constructing new identities through the appropriation or rejection of adornments. Here it is clear that adornments as objects have symbolic potential and they signify certain concepts. These concepts are not fixed; they are susceptible to change according to the vicissitudes of time. These adornments did at one point of time articulate a visual language and had a major role in social differentiation. They acted as tangible symbols denoting intangible and abstract concepts of distinction. But these distinctions blurred. Sophistication in dress and adornments eventually became a measure of social status. The function of adornments as caste markers slowly changed into that of a status marker and ideas of modesty and even being fashionable came into picture.
The Dynamics of Gender
While looking at Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala through the lens of caste and gender, one can observe the presence of two male protagonists in the historical accounts available on these incidents and this makes one wonder why women are a conspicuous absence. Women in such movements are viewed as subjects of reform and seldom considered to be active agents facilitating social change. The representation of women in struggles and assessing the significance of their participation are often found to be partial and inadequate. One of the most widely accepted myths is that women are less assertive and aggressive and so they need the help of men to react against the injustice done to them. This stereotype may be the reason why women are
represented as passive participants or as totally indifferent to the process of social change in the historical account of struggles. It is more convenient to deal with the image of woman who hardly ever gets into an aggressive or assertive mode, whether it is offensive or defensive.
An analysis of the undercurrents of gender and caste is important as far as such protests are concerned. Gender is a distinguishable category that has played a major role in reformulating traditional historiography and it has to be foregrounded in any historical analysis of caste. Woman’s body, with its sexual and reproductive potential, often figures as a site where discourses are inscribed and contested.
Clothing and ornaments acted as a sign system in such a way that the bodies of men and women expressed themselves through caste markers while venturing into the public sphere. This was primarily to make possible the easy recognition of people belonging to savarna and avarna jatis and to avoid physical contact. But the selves and lives of men and women expressed themselves rather differently as they moved about in the society and so while examining incidents like the Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala, one cannot take the body as a gender- neutral or a unisex object.
The body of the subordinate caste woman was considered impure in principle. Thodeel (untouchability) and theendal (inapproachability) were practiced in order to ensure the purity of the dominant caste, both at physical and ritual levels. The paradoxical aspect regarding this meticulously kept purity of the body was that there were no restraints on the dominant castes’ sexual access to the otherwise untouchable women belonging to subordinate castes51.
We cannot underestimate the significance of the gendered body in historical discourses. Historical perceptions on Mookkuthi Samaram and the rejection of kallumala will yield more possibilities if a socio-political awareness on the female body in that particular cultural context is arrived at. Politics of pleasure and domination operated in complex ways in the society of the nineteenth century Kerala. Chastity as a virtue was prescribed only for antharjanams or Nambuthiri women and while stepping outside the domestic sphere, their bodies were fully clothed and less adorned. Samuel Mateer makes this significant observation about
Nambuthiri women: ‘Their women are carefully concealed from the public gaze; and when venturing out of the house, are enveloped in clothes, or are covered by an immense umbrella’52.
Fred Fawcett also observes that for Nambuthiri women, silk and coloured clothing were prohibited and they commonly used white coarse clothes53. Ward and Connor who conducted the survey in Travancore observe that ‘nothing can exceed the precaution taken by the Nambuthiris to seclude their women from the gaze of profane eyes, guarded with more than Muslim jealousy’.54
Nair women of affluence used plenty of ornaments and carefully adorned their body. Attire and adornments are also understood as objects that aestheticise the body, enhancing its appeal. We can see the overcoding of the Nair woman’s body with ornaments and fine clothing and undercoding of Nambuthiri woman’s (antharjanam’s) body through restricted use of adornments and coarse clothing. If Elamkulam’s statement has to be taken seriously, Nambuthiris declared all castes that refused to provide them concubines as ayithajatis55. Through the custom of Sambandham, Nair women entered into temporary alliances with Nambuthiri men and there were no prohibitions against the use of ornaments and adorning the body in the case of Nair women. Sambandham was in a way a socially sanctioned concubinage. Women of ayithajaties had initially no rights to adorn their body.
There are two instances in Keralolpatti56 in which chastity is described as a unique virtue to be observed only by Nambuthiri women. According to the instructions said to be given by Parasuraman, antharjanams, in order to safeguard their pathivrata dharmam, should cover their body with a cloth and limit the use of ornaments57. The mythological Parasuraman also commands that women of all other jatis, starting from the Kshatriyas need not observe the virtue of chastity58. Women of all other castes were not allowed to cover the upper part of their body in the presence of Nambuthiris. Keralolpatti is an example of manipulation of knowledge by the powerful Nambuthiris and how this manipulated knowledge had been used in order to perpetuate their superiority and ultimate authority. The influence of the myth of Keralolpatti had lasting impact on the culture of Kerala. Nagam Aiya’s statement, ‘Hinduism, the religion of the state is coeval with the colonisation of the
country by the Brahmin sage and warrior, Parasurama, and has long remained untainted by foreign influences,’ reveals the enduring authority of the myth of Keralolpatti and its role in validating Brahmin supremacy and the subordinate status of other castes59. The norms of chastity imposed by Keralolpatti and Sankara Smriti built a wall around the Nambuthiri women; at the same time they justified the use of women of other castes for the amusement of Nambuthiris.
The body of the antharjanam was always hidden from the public eye. Being strictly ghosha (ritual seclusion), they covered their body with a puthappu (a blanketing cloth) and were sheltered behind a huge cadjan umbrella. Padmanabha Menon makes the interesting observation that ‘the Nambuthiris insist on their women folk wearing about their persons as much clothing as they would persistently deny the Nair women’60. The prescription against the use of valuable ornaments was very strict in the case of Nambuthiri women. Sankara Smriti ordained that an antharjanam could wear on both arms only bangles made of brass or bell metal. Silver was permitted, but gold was not allowed. She should also not use a nose stud61.The virtue of chastity is deemed high by Sankara Smriti also. The body of the Nair women of affluent families who considered it a matter of honour to have temporary alliances or sambandham with Nambuthiri men was beautified with clothes and adornments. James Forbes observed with astonishment that the Nair women ‘are adorned with a profusion of gold and silver chains for necklaces mixed with strings of Venetian and other gold coins.’62 Edgar Thurston has also made a detailed study of the Nair attire and adornments. According to him, a variety of ornaments for the neck, ear, waist, hands, and fingers distinguished wealthy Nair women, unlike their Nambuthiri counterparts or antharjanams63. Canter Visscher was also struck by the expenditure of Nair women on their dress and he wrote ‘there is not one of any fortune who does not own as many as twenty or thirty chests full of robes made of silver and other valuable materials, for it would be a disgrace in their case to wear the same dress two or three days in succession’64. Travellers like Barbosa, Nieuhoff, Hamilton and Della Wella have commented on the plentifully adorned Nair women65. These accounts may sound like overstatements; but consensus among these travellers and historians regarding the abundance of costly ornaments and attires used by wealthy Nair women suggest a social privilege unique to them.
We can see that the costume and norms of chastity are associated in very complex ways. The body of the antharjanam, even if she was affluent, was kept hidden by a coarse white cloth and made less attractive by prohibiting the use of many types of ornaments. They did not have the right to use clothes of smooth texture like silk and any colour other than white. The Nair women were not allowed to use the upper cloth in the presence of Nambuthiris and they, especially those who were prosperous always preferred to have sambandham with Nambuthiri men. Perhaps, for this reason, there were no restrictions on them regarding the use of silk clothes, ornaments and other adornments for their body. This absence of regulations may seem to be a special privilege. But in effect, the half- naked body of the Nair woman became an object of visual, aesthetic and erotic pleasure for the Nambuthiris.
Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai’s observation that Nambuthiris considered Devadasis and Nair women alike may sound exaggerated and far-fetched. He traces the similarities between the initiation ritual of devadasis (the women dedicated to the temple deity whose responsibility was also to amuse Brahmins and Kings through dance, music and erotic acts) and the thalikettu kalyanam (the puberty ritual) of Nair women66. But one cannot fully ignore the fact that after the initiation ceremony of devadasis and the kettu kalyanam of Nair girls, both became potential objects of pleasure and access to them was a privilege restricted to Nambuthiris, Kings, naduvazhis (ruler of a small territory) and men of dominant castes.
The caste system acted as a metaphoric compartment or enclosure confining the woman’s body, keeping it under surveillance; a system wherein the body was to be controlled and subjected to various nuances of ‘gaze’ and use. The use of adornments was sanctioned to those bodies that can be made use of for visual and sexual pleasure. This was exploitation masked as a privilege. The bodies of women thus used remained docile and even complacent due to the ‘privileged status’ given to them. The uncurbed right to use ornaments was one of these privileges. In this light, the intricate body dynamics in Mookkuthi Samaram and discarding the kalla and mala reveal the possibilities for a rigorous re- reading and careful re-constructing. These incidents can be read as a struggle against docility – the refusal of the women of subordinate castes to be subjected, used and transformed.
There is a politics behind how history represents a people’s way of recollecting itself in a socio-cultural context. Gender/caste politics and historiography are entangled in complex ways. The reciprocity of power and gender is a significant aspect one should subject to careful analysis while reading and writing history. ‘Gender’ is an aspect that cannot and should not be ignored or excluded in all approaches of historiography. At the same time, one needs to be aware that this is not the only possible basis of historical enquiry.
A commonly accepted and deliberately circulated myth is that the negative image of the caste ridden, oppressive Indian society wherein women were subjugated and atrocities against them were perpetrated is a colonial construct. Many sociologists and historians dismiss caste inequalities and repressive mechanisms as exaggerated versions or even inventions of highly critical and imaginative colonisers’ minds which were not sensitive to Indian values and traditions. Through this kind of an outlook, they diminish the significance of movements against caste inequalities and disabilities in their accounts.
In colonial historical accounts, women’s question and the atrocities against women did indeed occupy a key position. John Mill’s claimed in his History of British India that ‘a civilisation should be judged by its treatment of women’; and for this reason Indian tradition and Hinduism were condemned67. The British administrators and scholars tried to understand the lives and lived experiences of the colonised. Definitely, for the colonial masters, it also became necessary to find out more about the beliefs, customs, practices pertaining to the ‘caste system’ and the treatment of women in order to critique the Indian tradition and justify the colonial dominance as a civilising mission. What the British travellers and scholars conceptualised as the Indian tradition was often depicted as barbaric and backward. The motive behind this knowledge seeking was the belief that it would help them to govern the colonised in a more effective way. The caste and gender question gained importance since according to the European colonisers, the civilising mission was after all meant for liberating the natives who were confined in outdated customs and tradition. Orientalists and missionaries did highlight the plight of women in their accounts in order to justify the exercise of colonial power in India. Partha Chatterjee’s analysis about the centrality of
women’s question in colonial accounts explains this agenda of representation:
By assuming a position of sympathy with the unfree and oppressed womanhood of India, the colonial mind was able to transform the figure of the Indian woman into a sign of the inherently oppressive and unfree nature of the entire cultural tradition of a country68.
But still there is no denying of the fact that women were oppressed and used in myriad ways. The evil impacts of caste system, with its exercise of tyranny and unleashing of cruelty on subordinate castes, and atrocities against women were key aspects that colonial histories highlighted. But brutality, subjugation and oppression implied in the caste system was not their ‘invention’ or something that was ‘concocted’ with an insidious intent.
I do agree that the status of women cannot be fully understood through colonial accounts alone. The conclusive colonial view about caste and the oppression of women in India as an antithesis to modernity overlooked an important fact that inequalities and social disabilities arising out of hierarchical caste practices and injustice against women could trigger many reform movements among the colonised subjects without the coloniser’s intervention. Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala took place without any direct interventions or prompting from missionaries. The conflict was resolved internally. In these reform movements, we can see men and women of different castes coming together as a community. European historians and travellers tried to underplay these struggles against social disabilities. Abbe Dubois’s casual observation reveals the colonial attitude to disputes among castes such as Mookkuthi Samaram and Kallumala Samaram arising over matters concerning local privileges:
The rights and privileges for which the Hindus are ready to fight such sanguinary battles appear highly ridiculous, especially to a European. Perhaps the sole cause of the contest is the right to wear slippers or to ride through the streets in a palanquin or on horseback during marriage festivals69.
Not only European historians, but many of the Indian historians also show a tendency to underestimate the significance of movements against social disabilities and inequality. Unless the impact of caste system in Indian society and the mechanisms through which it subtly moulds consciousness and selves are understood, the politics of representation of caste in historiography cannot be fully comprehended and a gendered perspective of caste would not be possible. Caste has several avatars. The knowledge on caste and the ways in which it is depicted in and across disciplines such as history, sociology and anthropological studies have never been free of vested interests, clever manipulations and distortions. The gendered perceptions on caste practices were also subjected to manipulations and were distorted by the Indian and colonial historians. The colonial historians who used the women’s question as a battering tool against the so called ‘Indian tradition’ failed to see the unifying potential of movements against women’s subjugation. Oppression and exploitation of their women made the subordinate communities come together and in cases like the Kallumala Samaram dominant castes also joined the movement. The potential of these movements, in which caste and gender issues are complexly interwoven, for cultural transformation is time and again underestimated by both colonial and native historians. Their intentions might have been different, but they pushed to oblivion many people and incidents. But new attempts in writing and reading history have succeeded in unearthing several such buried histories.
Caste and Technologies of the Self
Contextualisation of caste is important, because caste, with its myriad manifestations keep changing in tune with the ever varying sociopolitical scenario. Purity and pollution acted as governing principles and the nuances of ritual hierarchy was determined on these bases. Samuel Mateer’s observation in his work on Travancore is significant:
The term ‘caste’, be it remembered is not always synonymous with employment, profession or trade; nor does ‘high caste’ imply the possession of wealth, nor ‘low caste’ always indicate extreme poverty70.
The attempts to portray the caste system as a benign order that implies only a practical division of labour were done by many
sociologists. G.S. Ghurye’s conceptualisation71 of caste as a system which is essential for sustaining social values and healthy cooperation turned a blind eye to the oppression and exploitation of subordinate castes. The evil impacts of the caste system were concealed under the theories of karma. Caste was never an inoffensive practice for facilitating mutual responsibility, interdependence and spiritual authority of the learned. Caste gave rise to and perpetuated other forms of inequalities. Control over material, land and even man power was determined by caste in many regions. The clandestine nature of the power of caste made people internalise the positions attributed to them unquestioningly for several centuries. The caste norms were punctuated by validating pronouncements from mythology, puranas, epics and shastras. This kind of ‘divine sanction’ attributed to caste made it all the more formidable. Oppressions, exploitation and inequalities were seen as unavoidable and justifiable aspects of the caste system.
Differentiated and differentiating conditioning was a major feature of the caste system in Kerala. This conditioning cannot be separated from the lived experiences of people and circumstances. In order to perpetuate caste distinctions, mythical, puranic and scriptural validation was sought. The idea of janmabhedam or being born into different castes or financial backgrounds is closely related to karma. Besides Dharmashastras, Nambuthiris or the Brahmins of Kerala had indigenous legends and myths to authenticate their supremacy and authority. Keralolpatti and Kerala Mahatmyam, two mythological accounts on the origin of Kerala, in which the pivotal figure, Parasuraman bestows many privileges to Nambuthiris, were used to justify the hierarchical caste system and supremacy of Brahmins. Social ordering and classification are conserved through such reaffirmations and conformity.
Divisions, exclusion and inclusion mark social structures and underpin the caste system. Social distinctions are inscribed on people’s minds and their selves and actions are determined, shaped and controlled through cultural coercion. Pierre Bourdieu’s remark about this process of internalisation is valid in the context of caste divisions as well. He observes how a person internalises ‘a sense of one’s place which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded’72.
Foucauldian ideas on power can give certain insights into the caste practices of erstwhile Kerala. Power should be understood here in its tangible and local effects and through everyday exercises. In Power/ Knowledge, Foucault clearly analyzes this dimension of power that has a capillary form of existence. Power thus ‘reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives’73.
It was not merely through specific attires, adornments and other external markers that the power dynamics of caste was articulated and percolated. We can see here how caste identity inscribes itself on the body, making the body docile and capable of maximum utility. Caste implies the presence of a disciplinary power and there are systems of surveillance hidden in caste practices. Discipline is interiorised to the point that each person is his or her overseer. Several notions of identity with well defined possibilities and limitations were internalised and perpetuated. The ‘internalisation’ of caste resulted from the coercive mechanisms prevalent in those days and caste identity was perpetuated through rituals and practices. In Kerala, a strict code of conduct and mannerisms indicating respect and subservience were enforced on the ‘subordinate castes’. Malayalam language then spoken was full of terms74 that acted as metaphors of inferiority and servitude to Nambuthiris and royalty. People lived in distinct groups and their movement and visibility were controlled. In order to facilitate and perpetuate this system, definite caste identification markers for men and women such as dress code, ornaments and hair styles were deemed essential. These markers were not merely worn on the body, but their symbolic significance was internalised as a ‘sense of one’s place’ in society along with a clear awareness of possibilities and restrictions imposed on the self.
Caste divisions had such a strong impact on social psyche that overcoming the boundaries and surmounting restrictions took a torturously long time and this itself would show the power of internalisation that leads to the formation of docile, self-regulating subjects. The norms of division and distinction burn into the self that even individual taste and dispositions in aspects like dressing and ornaments were regulated by a person’s understanding of one’s own position in the highly stratified and hierarchical social arrangement. In
short, knowledge of the social world and its mechanisms of regulations presuppose the kind of behaviour suiting the classificatory schemes. These forms of classification may get absorbed in the psyche as a mental structure, wherein an individual defines oneself and maps out one’s position with reference to caste.
There may sometimes be a desire to move up because hierarchies imply notions of superiority and inferiority and more importantly superior positions indicate access to resources. F.G. Bailey in his account, Politics and Social Change in Orissa, looks into the interrelated nature of hierarchical divisions and aspirations thus, ‘Segmentation implies competition and competition implies aspirations toward equality, and equality denies stratification’75. There is no society in which all are equal; some are always more equal than others. So as long as there are inequalities, competition and aspiration would be part of the mental make up of individuals. Aspirations remain under control due to lack of opportunities, fear and oppression of many types. Only during struggles and such instances of audacious challenges, the internalised limits start appearing as boundaries or barriers that have to be removed in order to fulfill certain ambitions and to assert self-respect.
The tacit and subtle mechanisms of beliefs and practices created a rigid social structure, which had to undergo a total reconstruction due to the overhauling powers of struggles and protests. When one looks at social changes through the lens of caste and understands them in terms of asserting/aggressive identities and conflicting hierarchies, Mookkuthi Samaram and discarding kalla and mala are of great significance.
The body dynamics of caste practices can also be seen in a different light. How the caste system in Kerala created an environment of hostility, wherein a Hindu’s attitude to another Hindu was regulated by the superior-inferior positions traditionally assigned to each in the caste hierarchy opens a complex debate. Untouchability resulted in the division of the Hindu society into mutually exclusive and antagonistic groups. Touch, proximity and even sight of certain castes was believed to cause pollution to the higher castes. Thodeel or untouchability and theendal or inapproachability resulted in a condition of extreme inequality as the lower orders were prevented from the enjoyment of facilities and denied opportunities for social interaction.
It is interesting to note how the metaphors of impurity and defilement of body proliferated the discourse of caste system and there were taboos regarding ritual sanctity and touchability. The repulsion between people of different castes was expressed through commensal restrictions, but there was inevitable interdependence due to the division of labour. The practice of vannathimattu76 or using the cloth washed by women of the subordinate vannan caste in order to come out of the impure state the female body was believed to enter during menstruation and child bearing, exemplifies another facet of this purity politics. Even the antharjanams and Nair women had to depend on ‘lower caste’ ‘untouchable’ Vannathi women to be reinstated to the state of ritual purity. Partha Chatterjee makes a significant observation about the purity politics of body in caste practices:
Caste attaches to the body, not to the soul. It is the biological reproduction of the human species through procreation within endogamous caste groups that ensures the permanence of ascribed marks of caste purity or pollution. It is also the physical contact of the body with defiling substances or defiled bodies that mark it with the temporary conditions of pollution, which can be removed by observing the prescribed procedures of physical cleansing77.
The bodies of dominant castes also entered into states of temporary pollution, but they could exit from these states and regain purity, paradoxically with the help of a woman from a subordinate caste. But the bodies of people belonging to subordinate castes were in a state of permanent pollution that cannot be ritually removed or literally washed clean. So, spatial segregation from the untouchable polluting castes was recommended to the dominant castes in order to safeguard the purity of their bodies. For the bodies of the dominant castes, purity was a birthright and an asset to be treasured with utmost care. The observance of theendal and thodeel is thus a complex purity politics pertaining to body and a blatant form of subjugation. People of the subordinate castes or ayithajatis were not allowed to use the public roads, wells and ponds. They were supposed to make warning sounds so that the Nambuthiris, Ambalavasis and Nairs would not be polluted by their proximity. A clothed and adorned body thus had to act as a sign system, exuding a plethora of significations. The caste system attributes a distinctive exteriority in terms
of identity by means of restrictions and specificities as far as the appearance of people are concerned.
Mookkuthi Samaram and discarding kalla and mala indeed gave a free rein to the social aspirations of a downtrodden community. The dominant socio-political systems and discourses had to address and take into account the hitherto insignificant social groups. The social aspirations of the downtrodden castes thus became part of the momentum and struggles towards liberation and empowerment which are said to be ingrained in the project of colonial modernity.
Many ideas of Foucault have been used in this paper in order to explicate the micro-physics of power implicit in caste practices. The ideas of Foucault have emerged from his experiences in a western socio-cultural context. While using them to analyze Indian cultural phenomena, many limitations did confront me. The politics of power, especially in its micro- level exercises elucidated in Foucault’s works definitely opened many possibilities of understanding the caste system and the politics of attire and adornments. But while looking at the macro-level aspects of institutional control that the caste system exercised, the need was felt to go beyond the conceptual notions of Foucault.
The restrictions on body and attire exemplify what Foucault terms as a political anatomy, which is a subtle and clandestine mechanism of power. This is a policy ‘of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviours’78. But one has to be wary while using Foucauldian ideas for explicating the power and body dynamics of caste system and struggles against disabilities. Resistance and retribution are concepts which I feel Foucault has not worked out sufficiently. Foucault’s notion of power is always under the threat of turning into an overarching principle in the analysis of history. Subjects often tend to look like pawns in the game of power. Resistance and retribution get appropriated into the network of power and so while analysing certain instances of historical conflicts and violence which can be interpreted as resistance or revolution, Foucauldian ideas fail to see resistance as both intrinsic and extrinsic to the network of power.
Foucault does not take into consideration the difference of gender in the formation and manifestation of subjectivities. A serious limitation
of Foucault’s conceptualisation based on un-gendered subjectivities and un-gendered body was experienced while examining the Mookkuthi Samaram and Kallumala Samaram. While reading the nuances of coercion on body in Mookkuthi Samaram and Kallumala Samaram, gendered perspectives are needed.
The ideas of constant surveillance and the resultant self- regulation of the behaviour of people in a carceral society are of great significance in understanding the caste ridden society of Kerala. The formulation of the female body as something used for pleasure and reproduction, something that is subjected to constant vigil in order to avoid indulgence in forbidden acts is relevant while looking at the gender dynamics of caste. The process of commodification and mechanisation of bodies and subjugating them to a state of docility can be seen in caste practices. With this emphasis on the body, the colossal construct of power is replaced by the concept of pervasive and intricate dominations that operate clandestinely in the society. The complex mechanisms and strategies of power and their various effects on the individual life and consciousness can be seen in the caste system of Kerala. Caste system exemplifies a surreptitious exercise of power that comes in the guise of beneficial and benevolent practices or a mere, even harmless division of labour.
Caste often becomes a central symbol of India and defines the core of Indian tradition. People like Edmund Burke conceptualised caste as a defining term of social order. In a speech, he remarked:
In that country, the laws of religion, the laws of the land and the laws of honour, are all united and consolidated in one, and bind a man eternally to the rules of what is called his caste79.
The omnipresence of caste in Indian history across regions and centuries gives it a dominant position in the discourse that is history. A British officer involved in a statistical analysis of the population saw caste as ‘a prison, far stronger than any which the civil tyrannies of the world have erected; a prison which immures many innocent beings’80. Robin Jeffrey’s description of caste ridden old Kerala as ‘a place of boundaries and constraints-boundaries on where particular people might go; constraints on what they might do’81 gives insight into the nature of
society. People lived in discrete groups and their association with others was regulated and often symbolic. Caste system here acts as a restrictive grid wherein a human body is subjected to constant watch against transgressions and cruelly punished on violating the prescribed norm. Body is thus an object and target of power, and of various levels of domination.
The politics of attire implicates the intensification of subjection. Both Mookkuthi Samaram and the act of discarding kalla and mala are united in their defiance of the notions of caste-based superiority and attempt to seek solutions to social disability and inequality. Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala tell the story of marginalised women daringly seeking a different self image. Epistemological and methodological transformations in history and the new directions that historical enquiry have taken call for a re-conceptualisation of the struggles and movements against caste practices. Shortcomings of the empirical method in historical enquiry and economic determinism affirm the need to look for more fluid and non-restrictive means of historical investigation. Collapse of the grand narratives and teleological theories open up the possibilities of history extending its scope of enquiry into cultural aspects in terms of identity, attitudes, human relations, micro- physics of power and the body politics of social practices. All these new fields of investigation give history a broader epistemological range and thus history captures the rich and varied nuances of human experiences and perception.
While trying to understand an age in its presentness, one has to be wary of the attempts of glorification or the tendency to project a negative image. The politics of inclusion and exclusion, overstatement and under- estimation, highlighting and obliteration operates in myriad guises in historiography. The available accounts of Kerala history are full of disturbing silences, instances of de-significations and omissions. The strategies of ‘deliberate’ forgetting have to be comprehended before any attempt is made to reconstitute the perceptions of the past.
History being both knowledge and discursive practice, the possibility of the deliberate manipulation of facts, highlighting or obliterating certain aspects in history purposefully and interpretations based on different points of view cannot be overlooked. History of caste
and struggles against disabilities exemplify a ‘subjugated knowledge’ which is insufficiently elaborated. Foucault’s remark on the history of struggles that ‘there lay the memory of hostile encounters which even up to this day have been confined to the margins of knowledge’82 is true about the Mookkuthi Samaram and the discarding of kalla and mala.
History is an unending process and so a knowledge that does not insist on conclusions because there are no limits and ends to the nuances of experiences in different socio-cultural contexts that lead to newer discourses. Several significant concerns can be raised on the hitherto used documents and methods for analysing and comprehending the history of Kerala. New paradigms are needed to capture the variegated shades of the lived experiences of subordinate castes. In the newly written scripts of the past, the women’s question also should be voiced with great audacity and sensitivity. More over, one has to keep in mind that struggles are always under the peril of being ossified into certain favourite stereotypes, while being historicised.
1 People of all castes had to maintain a ritual distance from those who were considered higher in the caste hierarchy. From a Nambuthiri or Malayali Brahmin, a Nair has to keep a distance of 16 feet, an Ezhava 32 feet, a Pulaya or Paraya 64 feet; and the sight of a Nayadi at a distance would force the Nambuthiri to undergo ritual purification. Besides, these social groups had to keep a specified distance from each other.
2 Jeffrey, Robin. The Decline of Nayar Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore 1847-1908. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1976, 10.
3 Ibid. Mary Barker was the daughter of the Rev. Henry Baker. Jr. The source is given by Jeffrey as Church Missionary Archives, Number 38, of 1884.
4 See in Thiranjedutha Rajakeeya Vilambarangal(Selected Proclamations of the Sovereign). Trivandrum: Kerala Archives Department, 2005, Prolamation Number 56 issued in 1818, 82-83.
5 Vasava Panicker, Kumbalam Chirayil. Sarasakavi Muloor S. Padmanabha Panicker: Oru Anukalikaavalokanam (A Contemporary Reading). Published by the author, 1976, Sathyaprakasham M. Sarasakavi Muloor S. Padmanabha
Panicker. Trivandrum:Kerala Government Cultural Publications Department, 1988.
6 Udayabhanu, A.P. Ente Kathayillaymakal. Kottayam: D.C. Books, 1991, 208.
7 Savarna, the term used by the author to indicate the dominant castes is retained in translation. Translation mine. Throughout the paper, wherever the words savarna or avarna are used in Malayalam works cited, I have not changed them.
8 Avarna, the term used by the author to indicate the subordinate castes is retained in translation. Translation mine.
9 Vasava Panicker, 159.
10 Sadasivan, S.N. A Social History of India. Delhi: APH Publishing, 2000, 479. Preview available at <http://books.google.co.in/>.
11 Satyaprakasham, M., 30.
12 Osella, Fillippo and Caroline Osella. Social Mobility in Kerala: Modernity and Identity in Conflict. London: Pluto Press, 2000, 157.
13 Udayabhanu, A.P., 179.
14 Ibid, 173.
15 Ibid, 208.
16 See the Chapter, ‘Kathayil oru Sooran’ (A Valiant Man in the Story) in
A.P. Udayabhanu’s Ente Kathayillaymakal, 167-173, Fillippo Osella and Caroline Osella, 156 – 158 and N.R. Krishanan, Ezhavar Annum Innum, Thrissur: Seena Publications, 1967, 121 for detailed accounts of the deeds of Velayudha Panicker. According to these accounts, Velayudha Panicker started wearing the tuft in the Nambuthiri style. He learned Kathakali, considered to be a Nambuthiri art and entertainment and started a Kathakali troupe. Ezhava Kathakali artists started performing the vesham (role) of gods, and even wore crowns during performance. On another occasion, disguised as a Nambuthiri, he is said to have gone to Guruvayoor temple (where ayithajatis or untouchables were not allowed
to enter) and spent ten days there for learning the method of worship and installation of idols, a knowledge which was considered a special privilege of Nambuthiris. When his identity was discovered by a
Nambuthiri, Panicker threw a bag of gold on the table and escaped. Asserting economic affluence by throwing a bag full of gold to a Nambuthiri shows how class also comes into picture gradually. In 1854, he founded a temple in Mangalathu village which was open to all castes. Velayudha Panicker built another temple in Cheruvaranam in 1855.
17 See Vasavapanicker, 158. Ezhava women were experts in weaving a special variety of cloth usually worn by Nair women, but the weavers did not have the right to use it. At Pathiyoor, near Kayamkulam an affluent Ezhava woman who was walking along the ridge of a paddy field wearing the achipudava was humiliated by the Nairs. Panicker initiated a protest move by making the subordinate caste agricultural labourers boycott their work.
18 See Fillippo Osella and Caroline Osella, 156 – 158 and N.R. Krishanan,
Ezhavar Annum Innum. Thrissur: Seena Publications, 1967, 121.
19 According to Srinivas: ‘The caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. A caste was able, in a generation or two, to rise to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, and by Sanskritising its ritual and pantheon. In short, it took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins, and adoption of the Brahminic way of life by a low caste seems to have been frequent, though theoretically forbidden.’ The term is used to denote the process by which certain castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals, life styles and practices of the upper or dominant castes. It has become an accepted notion that subordinate castes have tried to imitate dominant caste practices and follow their norms and ways of life as an attempt to fulfill their social aspirations. For more details, see Srinivas, M.N. Religion and Society amongst the Coorgs of South India. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, 32, and Srinivas, M.N . Caste in Modern India: And other essays. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962, 48. Using the ideas of M.N. Srinivas uncritically in the analyses of caste and movements against social disabilities has done more harm than good.
20 For detailed accounts, see Abhimanyu, C. Ayyankali. Trivandrum. Department of Cultural Publications, Kerala Government, 1990, 133-34, and Chentharassery, T.H.P. Ayyankali. Trivandrum: Prabhat Book House, 1972, 117.
21 Untouchables were referred to as ayithajati in Malayalam.
22 See the Royal Proclamation No: 1 issued in 1811 in Thiranjedutha Rajakeeya Vilambarangal (Selected Proclamations of the Sovereign). Trivandrum: Kerala Archives Department, 2005.
23 Chentharassery, T.H.P. Kerala Charithrathinte Gathi Mattiya Ayyankali. (Ayyankali who changed the course of Kerala history). Ernakulam: CICC Book House, 2000, 64.
24 See Chentharassery, T.H.P. Ayyankali. Trivandrum: Prabhat Book House, 1972, 117.
25 C. Abhimanyu gives a detailed account of the agitation in his work Ayyankali (See 135-138). According to him, under the leadership of Ayyankali, many acts of protests took place in the early decades of the twentieth century. Pulayas started resisting the coercive mechanisms of the janmi- slave system. In places like Kollam, Mavelikkara and Chennithala, the protest movement against the landlords and dominant caste Hindus spread. Gopaladasan, a Pulaya youth was at the helm of affairs in this region and on 24 October, 1915, a huge meeting was convened at Perinadu in Kollam. Hidden under the stage, weapons were kept for protection against possible attacks from savarnas. Some savarnas conspired against this movement and decided to disrupt the meeting and kill Gopaladasan. About 3000 people assembled for the meeting presided by Gopaladasan. As Visakhan Thevan, an activist of Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham (an organisation founded by Ayyankali for the protection and upliftment of the downtrodden) got up to sing a prayer song, he was attacked by some savarnas who managed to creep into the crowd. This led to bloody confrontations. Savarnas destroyed Pulaya huts and the latter retaliated violently. Government, Police and even newspapers like Mithavadi and Nasrani Deepika supported the dominant and affluent savarnas.
26 See Mithavadi October 30, 1915.
27 For detailed accounts see Chentharassery, T.H.P, Abhimanyu. C and the publication titled Ayyankali Smaraka Grantham (Ayyankali Memorial Souvenir).
28 In that tense scenario, in order to conduct the Sarvasamudaya Sammelanam, Ayyankali had to seek permission from the Dewan and it was denied. The Dewan expressed his concern that there would be serious consequences if such a meeting takes place. To convince him, Ayyankali gave him an assuring letter written by the Police Circle Inspector, Gopalaswami Pillai who was sympathetic to the social reform movement spearheaded by Ayyankali. It was after receiving this written assurance that the Dewan issued an order, granting permission for conducting the Sammelanam.
29 Ayyankali Smaraka Grantham, 16.
30 See C. Abhimanyu, 140. Tarabai was from Talasseri. She belonged to a subordinate caste in Malabar and readily agreed to provide her circus tent as the venue for sarvasamudaya sammelanam.
31 See Chentharassery, T.H. P, 132-133.
32 Ayyankali formed an organisation called ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS)’ which took radical direct action to achieve justice for the oppressed and subjugated community. Thus he was able to get the Government pass laws (1907) for the right of entry of subordinate caste children to the schools. He organised the agricultural workers and had heralded the first agrarian strike in the history of Travancore for better working conditions, which included (1) stop victimisation on whims (2) end trapping workers in contrived cases (3) stop whipping of workers
(4) freedom of movement, and (5) admission of children in schools. See
33 C. Abhimanyu, 142.
34 The sickle, a harvesting tool is symbolic of the occupation of Pulayas as agricultural labourers and their significant role in society is suggested through the sickle.
35 See Mithavadi, 1916 February and Chentharassery, 134.
36 Chentharassery. T.H.P, 133
37 C. Abhimanyu. 143.
38 Mithavadi, February 1916.
39 His demands included (a) stoppage of the practice of not serving tea in tea shops to avarnas who were given tea only in coconut shells; (b) right to education for the subordinate caste children; (c) resting time for workers during work hours; and (d) replacement of the system of wages in kind by payment of cash.
40 See <http://www.asianetindia.com/commentary/ayyankali-harijan- leader-kerala-28081863-18061941_52864.html>.
41 Asyan and Adhyan Nambuthiris had different types of ornaments. Adhyans wore 15 brass bangles or bracelets on the right hand, and 14 on the left. Asyans wore bronze bangles. Everyone used to wear ‘Chittu’ (a wide ear ring) in the enlarged lobes of the ears. See the website, maintained by Namboothiri Website Trust, <http:// www.namboothiri.com/articles/ornaments.htm for details>.
42 Fawcett, Fred. Nambuthiris (1901). Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Volume III, No.1, New Delhi: Asian Education Services, 2004, 43.
43 Fawcett, Fred. Nayars of Malabar(1901). Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Volume III, No.3. New Delhi: Asian Education Services, 2004, 196-97.
44 Thurston, Edgar. Castes and Tribes of South India. 1909. Volume V. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975, 366-367.
45 Ibid, 170.
46 Mateer, Samuel. Land of Charity, 41
47 Forbes, James. Oriental Memoirs: Seventeen Years in India, Volume I. London: Richard Bentley, 1834, 245.
48 See Plate X, in Fawcett, Fred. Nayars of Malabar. 1901. Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Volume III, No.3. New Delhi: Asian Education Services,
2004. In the photographs of Nair girls given in the book on plate IX, their breasts are covered and one girl has a palm leaf umbrella (earlier, an indispensable attribute of antharjanam’s ghosha) in her hand.
49 Thurston, Edgar. Castes and Tribes in South India, Volume II (1909). Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975, 397.
50 Thurston, Edgar. Castes and Tribes in South India, Volume VII (1909). Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975, 47.
51 The songs sung by Pulaya women during harvesting contained overt references to the sexual overtures of the landlord or tampuran. See Sajitha.
K.R. ‘Penprathirodhangal Nadan Pattukalil’ (Women’s Resistance in Folksongs) in Varghese V. J and Vijaya Mohan Pillai (ed). Chila Arivadayalangal: Anjooru Varshathey Keralam. Trivandrum: Association for Comparative Studies, 2001, 310-313.
52 Mateer, Samuel. Land of Charity, 30.
53 Fawcett, Fred. Nambuthiris. Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Volume III, No.1. New Delhi: Asian Education Services, 40
54 Lieutenants Ward and Conner. Memoirs of the Survey of Travancore and Cochin States (1863), Volume I. Trivandrum: Kerala Gazetteers Department, 1994, 131.
55 Quoted in Balakrishnan. P.K. Jathivyavasthayum Kerala Charithravum. (The caste system and the history of Kerala). Calicut: Purna Publications, 1997, 68. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai made this observation in his work, Studies in Kerala History.
56 Keralolpatti is in the form of a mythological text and gives an account about the origin of Kerala. According to the myth, Kerala was reclaimed from the sea by Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu. There are many words and deeds of this sage woven cleverly into the narrative to confirm the superiority of Brahmins. The orthodox view about a Nambuthiri as stated in an official document of Travancore goes like this: His person is holy, his directions are commands, his movements are a procession, his meal is nectar, he is the holiest of human beings; he is the representative of god on earth. The dictates contained in the myth of Keralotpatti influenced the outlook on and attitude to Nambuthiris to a great extent and ensured reverence and subservience from other castes. I have used Menon.C.A (ed). Keralolpatti. (Madras University Malayalam Series No: 10). Madras: University of Madras, 1953 for reference.
57 Keralolpatti, 19.
58 Ibid, 46-47.
59 Aiya, Nagam. V. The Travancore State Manual, Volume II(1909). Trivandrum: Kerala Gazetteers Department, 1999, 37.
60 Menon, Padmanabha. History of Kerala, Volume III. Eranakulam, 1933, 48.
61 Ibid, 50.
62 Forbes, James. Oriental Memoirs: Seventeen Years in India, Volume I. London: Richard Bentley, 1834, 249.
63 Thurston, Edgar. Castes and Tribes of South India (1909), Volume V. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975, 366-368.
64 From Letters from Malabar. Qtd. in Thurston, Edgar. Castes and Tribes of South India. 1909. Volume V. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975, 367.
65 See the Introductory Notes in Menon, Padmanabha. History of Kerala, Volume III. Eranakulam, 1933.
66 Sam, N. (ed). Elamkulam Kunjan Pillayude Thiranjedutha Krithikal. (The Selected Works of Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai), Volume I. Trivandrum: International Centre for Kerala Studies, 2005, 660.
67 See Volume I, 383 in Mill. James. The History of British India.(6 Volumes). London: Baldwin, Cradock &Joy, 1826.
68 Chatterjee. Partha. ‘The Nation and Its Women’ in The Nation and its Fragments from The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus. Delhi: OUP, 2004, 118.
69 Dubois, Abbe. J.A. Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. 1906. New Delhi. Rupa &Co, 2006, 28.
70 Mateer, Samuel. Land of Charity, 26.
71 See the Introduction in Ghurye. G.S. Caste and Race in India. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932.
72 Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘Class and Classification’ in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste(1970). New York: Routledge, 2005.
Gordon, Colin, (ed.). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. London: Pantheon, 1981, 39.
74 People of subordinate castes, even Nairs never used njan (I) to indicate oneself while talking to a Nambuthiri, the word used was adiyan (foot servant). The food of Nambuthiri and the king was referred to as amrithethu (nectar).
75 Bailey, F.G. Politics and Social Change in Orissa. Berkley: University of California Press, 1963., 123.
76 Death in the family, menstruation and childbirth had ‘impurity’ attached to them and a ritual seclusion was observed on these occasions. Once the period of seclusion was over, the cloth washed by the woman of Vannan or washer woman had to be worn. Even dominant caste women had to wear the vannathimattu or change into the cloth brought by the Vannan woman.
77 Chatterjee, Partha. ‘The Nation and its Outcastes’ in Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, 194.
78 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House, 1975,138.
79 See the speech on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, 15 February, 1788 in Marshall. P.J (ed). The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Volume VI. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, 302-303.
80 See Dirks. Nicholas, B. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002, 26-27. This remark quoted in Dirk’s work is made by a colleague of William Carrey who was involved in some census related work.
81 Jeffrey. Robin. Politics, Women and Well-being: How Kerala Became a Model. New Delhi: OUP, 1992, 19.
82 Michael Kelly, Ed. ‘Two Lectures’ in Critique/ Power: Recasting the Foucault Habermas Debate. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, 22.
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BINI B. S. Is Research Associate with Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies.