My marriage took place when I was fifteen. I knew about it only two days before the ceremony.
It was customary for the maidservants to inform the girl of her forthcoming marriage. On their way to the pond for the evening bath, the servant would say, ‘Kuttikkave (a way of addressing a namboodiri girl), it is your manerichil tomorrow.’ Manerichil was the ritual term for marriage and meant ‘leaving the mana’ or ‘shifting from one’s house’. The servant would have no idea about the groom’s house or about the groom. The girl herself would come to know about it only after her marriage.
But the person who informed me about my marriage was Thankam, my English teacher. ‘Kuttikkave, you’re getting married the day after tomorrow. Your tuitions will end tomorrow.’ Her voice sounded sad. She didn’t know the house into which I would be shifting.
Thus two years after puberty, I was given away in marriage. During this interval of two years, my life had been confined to the illam. A grown-up girl was not supposed to go out or see even the portico. There was a pond near the kitchen for the antharjanam. She could go there to take her bath, but had no freedom to step beyond that limit. She could not attend any social function. Food would be brought to her from the illams that conducted the celebrations. She was not permitted to attend any marriage ceremony – not even those of her brothers and sisters. In those days, there would be two or more grown-up girls in most namboodiri families. In houses, which could not afford dowries, girls would remain unmarried till the age of 25 or 30. I remember some illams near Pakaravoor where girls were still unwed at 30 and 32. It was not unusual to find some poor fathers who, in the name of marriage, would sell their daughters to unknown men. I was almost a witness to one such transaction.
An antharjanam, who stayed at the illam as our cook, had two daughters. The girls lived with their father in their ancestral house. One day, a woman came to the illam and told her, ‘It is your daughter’s marriage tomorrow. You must come home today itself.’ The antharjanam left for her house the very same day with that woman. On reaching home, she found that a man, apparently a Brahmin, had come there as a visitor. Her husband told her that the man was a namboodiri from the north and had arrived to marry the elder daughter. The visitor’s language was difficult to understand. The father left with his daughter and the man, saying that the marriage will be conducted at the groom’s illam. He, however, returned after seeing his daughter off at the railway station. The man had given the father some money. The mother must have wept bitterly. Gradually, she came to understand that it was no marriage and that, having no money to give as dowry, the father had ‘sold’ his child to a man from Mangalapuram. She never saw her daughter again. There were several such stories.
Considering all this, I believe my marriage was a blessing. It was after I settled down, that I slowly came to know more about my husband and his ancestral home. He was Ravi Namboodiri and belonged to the Nilayangode illam at Chattannur in Palakkad district. They were great feudal lords. He had studied up to the eighth standard but being more interested in agriculture, he supervised all the farming activities of the illam. His elder brother was Neelakantan Namboodiri. They were the sons of Ittiravi Somayajippad and were well known Kathakali artistes. There was no orthodoxy in this house. Neelakantan Namboodiri was a man who, after initiation into the Vedas, had joined the social reform movement. He was about the same age as V. T. Bhattathirippad. His wife was Parvathy from Aarangattu Munderu. Neelakantan Namboodiri made his wife wear ear rings, sari and blouse and took her to meetings. Parvathy was an antharjanam who had discarded her veil and the marakuda (cadjan umbrella carried by namboodiri women to prevent themselves from being seen by strangers). They sent two of their elder daughters to Namboodiri Vidyalaya in Thrissur and later to a college in Madras.
Nilayangode was a centre of Vedic learning that had the greatest number of students. Neelakantan Namboodiri, a Rigvedi, was a famous Vedic teacher. Even while following all the namboodiri customs inside the illam, he took part in public activities.
I was indeed very fortunate to become part of an ancestral house that accepted liberal views.
Before marriage, there was a ceremony called ‘Ayani oonu’. After taking an elaborate oil bath and lighting the traditional lamp, the bride would partake of a feast, somewhat similar to a birthday repast. Many married women would attend this function. Widows had no place there. After lunch, henna was applied on my hands. Then I was made to wear several silver rings on my fingers and sit in a room. That was normally the time when the bride would be instructed on how to conduct herself at her husband’s house. ‘Nangayya, go and instruct her,’ my mother said. Nangayya, my father’s sister’s daughter, then advised me in detail on how to behave in order to endear myself to everyone at my husband’s house.
The marriage ceremony was conducted the next day. It was not a very elaborate one. My father’s eldest daughter’s marriage had been celebrated on a grand scale. By the time my turn came, it was just a matter of fulfilling a duty. Four days of ceremony followed and on the fourth day, after bath, I was taken to Nilayangode illam. There was a special bus arranged for the trip. In view of the general conditions in 1942, this was indeed a rare phenomenon. Nilayangode was roughly 12 miles from Pakaravoor. By about ten in the morning, our group reached Chattannur.
The bus stopped at the gate of Nilayangode illam. Then we had to walk to the house. All of us alighted but as soon as we crossed the gate, my husband and I were asked to stop. Two persons came to us and put red garlands round our necks. It was Sarojini, my husband’s elder brother’s eldest daughter who garlanded me and Kizhakkedathu Namboodiri, a neighbour, who thus welcomed my husband. Almost immediately, many namboodiris who had assembled there shouted ‘Inquilaab Zindabaad’ three times. That was the first time I was hearing these words and the slogan. I didn’t understand what the words meant; nor could I fathom their reason for shouting so.
Much later I realized that many who were members of the Yoga Kshema Sabha had joined the Communist Party. They were the ones who shouted the slogan which meant ‘Victory to Revolution’.
My relatives who had come from Mookkuthala didn’t understand a word of it. They simply stared at what they saw, utterly baffled.
The name that most people of my generation would have heard repeated most often must be Kuriyedathu Thaatri. During my childhood I too had heard this name uttered in muted whispers. It was after my marriage, at my husband’s house, that I came to know more about Thaatri.
Thaatri’s notorious Smaarthavichaaram (the namboodiri system of trial of a fallen woman) took place in 1905, 23 years before I was born. Vedic teachers, artists, Sanskrit scholars, the social elite – all were implicated in the case and ostracized. Even 25-30 years later, the storm raised in the namboodiri community by Thaatri’s trial had not died down.
I heard Thaatri’s name for the first time from the gossip of the antharjanams who passed that way and stayed back at our illam. They would mention the name in fear and in low tones. And would keep repeating it too. Today, when I look back, I suspect that those poor antharjanams derived a strange sense of joy, satisfaction and enthusiasm in repeating Thaatri’s story endlessly.
In all their stories, the blame was always put on Thaatri. She was the fallen woman who had enticed and insulted great namboodiris as well as Vedic teachers. But beneath the tone of accusation, weren’t they also unconsciously congratulating Thaatri, I wonder.
It was from Paapthi Valiamma of Nilayangode that I next heard about Kuriyedathu Thaatri. Valiamma had seen Thaatri, was acquainted with her and had stayed at her illam. She also had a great regard for Thaatri, till she heard about the trial. Paapthi Valiamma had come as a bride to Nilayangode in her ninth year. When she was 25, her husband passed away. For the next fifty years, she remained a widow. When I came to Nilayangode, she must have been around 65 or 70 years old. My father-in-law was Valiachan Neelalohithan Namboodiri’s youngest brother. He was a famous Kathakali artiste.
Besides, Thaatri was one of the sahridayas who enjoyed his performances.
But my father-in-law was very keen on performing this dance. And he started learning it after his gurukula studies of the Vedas. He also learned the art of teaching it. K. P. S. Menon says that Ittiravi Namboodiri had his debut performance in his twenty-sixth year. Paapthi Valiamma was not very sure about the age. What she remembered was that my father-in-law had left the illam, without telling anyone about his intention of learning Kathakali. Kaavungal, the ancestral house of many famous Kathakali artistes, was in Thichoor that was close to Nilayangode. My father-in-law went there to study Kathakali under Kaavungal Kunjunni Paniker, the uncle of the famous Kaavungal Sankara Paniker (Sankara Paniker, who was implicated in the Thaatri case, was of my father-in-law’s age. He was born in 1873 and my father-in-law, in 1867). As Kaavungal was a Nair household, my father-in-law would not take his lunch from there. Instead, he would go to the dining hall attached to the Thichoor Ayyappa temple. After lunch, he would walk back to Kaavungal. Within two years of rigorous training at the kalari, he made a name for himself. K. P. S. Menon has written admiringly about his handsome appearance and consummate acting skills.
Valiamma had heard that my father-in-law’s best performance was when he played Azhakiya Ravanan. He used to participate regularly in the cultural programmes organized during the festival of Thichoor temple.
Both during her husband’s lifetime and later, Valiamma would occasionally visit her illam at Kaplingattu. On the way, she would take rest at Kalpagamcheri illam. In the past, this had been the practice with the other antharjanams of Nilayangode as well. Kalpagamcheri was none other than Kuriyedathu Thaatri’s native illam. After marriage, she had to go to her husband’s house – Chemmanthitta Kuriyedathu illam.
Valiamma and Thaatri must have been of the same age. Even in her childhood, Valiamma had heard about Thaatri. She had felt a liking for Thaatri’s friendly nature, her beauty and behaviour. One night, while resting at Kalpagamcheri, Valiamma heard someone reading the Ramayana in a melodious voice and was astonished. It was Thaatri. In those days, there were very few girls in the namboodiri community who had such skills.
It was around that time that Valiamma’s husband Neelalohithan Namboodiri died. They did not have any children. There was no heir at the illam but the family line had to go on. It was decided that the youngest son of the illam, Ittiravi Namboodiri, should marry immediately. Many horoscopes were examined. Kalpagamcheri Thaatri’s horoscope was one among them. Valiamma remembered having eagerly insisted that Thaatri’s case be considered. But before it could happen, Thaatri’s marriage was conducted, as her horoscope was found to match with Kuriyedathu’s. By then, my father-in-law had taken to wife at Kaavungal. I think his wife was Sankara Paniker’s sister. He had a son by her. It was at that time that plans were afoot at the illam to arrange his marriage. As he was always in the company of Kathakali actors, he had virtually been ostracized by the namboodiri community. And he didn’t appear to be in favour of leaving that field either. But on everyone’s insistence, he had to yield. He was made to promise that he would never again don the Kathakali costume. Thereafter, he became a householder and a little later, a Somayaji.
Years went by. One day, news about Thaatri’s trial began to make waves. When it became known that names of some Kathakali performers were also mentioned along with those of several others, fear gripped the inmates of Nilayangode illam. There were stories about how Thaatri used to go to Thichoor temple to watch my father-in-law’s performances and how, as a well-informed woman, she would send him instructions regarding his choreography and so on. Soon, several kinds of poojas were conducted and many votive offerings made to the gods at the illam so that my father-in-law’s name would not be unjustifiably mentioned by Thaatri. Fortunately, Thaatri did not mention the name Ittiravi. Everyone felt relieved.
With this trial, all the good impression Valiamma had about Thaatri vanished completely. Perhaps this was because her brother Narayana Bhattathiri was one among the 65 names mentioned by Thaatri. Narayana Bhattathiri was a famous Vedic scholar. Thaatri, who had relations with prominent Vedic teachers of the community, famous artists and powerful men, had preserved a meticulous record of the dates, stars (zodiac signs) and days of her liaisons. It seems she had even jotted down, in her palm leaf documents, details about their birthmarks. Had she foreseen that these bits of information would one day come to her rescue and provide valuable evidence?
I have a vivid memory of directly witnessing the trauma and tragedy that Thaatri’s evidences precipitated. One of my relatives was accused in the trial and ostracized- a namboodiri, who belonged to Okeel mana at Chemmanitta. he was my maternal grandfather’s sister’s husband. Okeel mana was situated near Kuriyedathu. After his name escaped the lips of the ‘Saadhanam’ (literally ‘object’ – as Thaatri was called during the trial), he could not enter his illam any more. My grandfather immediately went to Okeel and brought his sister back home to Naripetti. Such a move was legally permissible. A namboodiri may be ostracized but that ignominy would not apply to his wife. But it was on reaching Naripetti that my grandfather came to know of his sister’s pregnancy. There was a cruel clause in the law: even if the mother is not ostracized, the child cannot escape its father’s fate, that is, if the conception had taken place subsequent to the liaison that led to the father’s ostracism.
The antharjanam delivered a girl child in due course of time. My grandfather informed the king and the Smaarthan (the judge) of this development. I think the trial was still underway then. Or perhaps it was just over. After consulting Thaatri’s records, the judge decreed that the child had to be ostracized. Thus a girl child was ostracized at birth.
The laws did not permit such a child to live with its mother. If the mother touched the child, she had to take a bath. This had to be followed every time the mother suckled the baby. As a result, bathing several times daily became her habit. However, after the child was weaned, it was deprived of the caresses of its mother. Until her ‘uduthu thudangal’ at the age of nine, she was under the care of the maidservants. The primitive and low notions about purity and pollution were such that she could not keep contact with even the maidservants later on.
If a namboodiri is ostracized at birth, he becomes a chakyar. An outcaste antharjanam becomes a nangyar. Thus the unfortunate child of my grandfather’s sister became a nangyar. When she was six months old, a nambiar came to Naripetti. He whispered the word ‘nangyemma’ into her ears and put a few grains of cooked rice in her mouth. This simple ritual transformed a small namboodiri girl into a nangyar.
The seventy years that Nangyemma Nangyar spent at the illam must have been very lonely and unbearably sad. On reaching marriageable age, perhaps she realized that it would be difficult to find a groom from among the already dwindling numbers of chakyars. That wise lady opted to remain single. I distinctly remember seeing this nangyar when she accompanied my grandfather’s sister to Pakaravoor, on their way to Mukkola temple. Although they were mother and daughter, the latter was not permitted entry into the nalukettu of the illam.
There were many such nangyars in the vicinity of Kuriyedathu illam. K. B. Sreedevi’s novel Yagnam tells the tale of one such nangyar.
I have heard another sad story of a personal tragedy that came in the wake of Thaatri’s trial. On seeing that even after Thaatri’s mention of 65 names, the trial showed no signs of ending, the distraught king ordered the judge and others to wind up the case. Yet Thaatri did not lose her composure. It seems she concluded saying, ‘My younger aunt will say the rest,’ much to the discomfiture of the judge and the interpreters of the law.
The younger aunt was a middle-aged antharjanam widow at Chemmanthitta and Thaatri’s husband’s aunt. Hearing this declaration, it was impossible for the jury to let the aunt go unexamined. Although they tried their best to collect evidence from that woman, nothing was forthcoming. Nevertheless, they did not have the courage to exempt her from ostracism and retain her within the community. The final verdict was that she should be confined for life to a building, north of Chemmanthitta illam, with no right even to touch her maidservants. The widow spent the rest of her life inside that building, with no one for support and surviving solely on the rations of food, the servants left for her.
In my childhood, I had heard some antharjanams who came to the illam, say this about the younger aunt’s last days: ‘It seems she died in that building . . . she is indeed lucky . . . didn’t suffer much, after all.’
I stayed at Nilayangode illam for only about a decade. Paapthi Valiamma had died by then. After partition, we bought a small house near the Thichoor temple and shifted residence. Our house was situated beyond the western gate of the temple and the adjoining pond. It was on the stage below the banyan tree near this gate that Kaavungal Kunjikrishna Paniker and his students, that is, my father-in-law and his contemporary Kaavungal Sankara Paniker (who, subsequent to his ostracism after the trial, had to leave the place) performed the Kathakali. And it was in the bathhouse attached to the temple pond that Thaatri had sought to make love to Kaavungal Sankara Paniker while he was still in the ‘Keechaka’ costume she so much admired. For a long time, that bathhouse remained intact. Gradually, it collapsed. Now the building does not stand there. What remains are only a few huge bricks that once formed its foundation. They lie scattered here and there – like the last letters that bring a grand story to its close.
Translated from Malayalam by P. Radhika.
P.RADHIKA. Teaches English at the Fathima Matha National College, Kollam. Has contributed articles to numerous research journals. Interested in translating. She is at present Assistant Editor, Samyukta.
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