Monthly Archives: February 2017

Kochi’s own Aunt Greet

Kochi :

Dolls, a thousand of them, with curly or straight hair dressed in the national costume of countries including Japan, Norway, Sweden, Africa, America greet visitors when they step into Edith Virginia Greet’s neatly furnished office.

Edith Virginia Greet (file pic)

Her adoration for dolls stemmed from her genuine affection for children, remembers Geetha, her personal caretaker who has been living with Edith for the past 39 years.

“She used to say that the dolls reminded her of the pitter-patter of tiny feet and would make it a point to buy them for the children at the orphanage to play. She loved children, which is why she probably went on to start an orphanage in the following years,” she added. These kids loved her back and kept visiting her right upto the day she breathed her last on Monday.

Little children as young as three months who were abandoned would be brought to Kanaka Mandiram where Edith stayed. When their number increased, she started writing letters, in the dead of the night, to like-minded people living in the West, praying that they adopt these foundlings.

Many of the children were adopted by well-off families abroad. Over the years, she and Thomas Vadakekut along with other 15 members  started the Edith Greet’s Bethel Foundation and was sponsored by Swiss Nationals Laes Walan and Inguar Broden, who had adopted Johanna and David through the Foundation. Bethel Foundation’s orphanage, which has over 1,000 children, still runs efficiently at a village in Plamody.

Geetha, Edith Greet’s personal caretaker, with the dolls bought by Aunt Greet during her expeditions abroad| k sHIJITH

“She got a calling from the God which is why she left her government job in Washington DC after the World War II and arrived in Kerala. She came here with just 12 dollars in her pocket,” Geetha says. Esther, now 63, who was adopted by Edith when she was a baby, remembers how well-fed the staff and children at the orphanage were under Edith Greet’s patronage.

“It was heavenly. Edith aunty always ensured that we received foreign cloths, cod oil, mineral tablets, chocolates and medicines. It was given to us in boxes. We never ever knew what poverty was,” says Esther.

“I can still hear the grinding of peanut. Edith aunty loved making peanut butter which she would go and sell at the Lotus Club. She spent time with the ladies and would come back home for rest. This was another of her hobbies,” Esther said.

Her love for children becomes evident by the fact that Edith always ensured that she bathed the children. “She would give us a body message, but never applied coconut oil on our hair. Those senior to us, always said how Edith aunty loved spending time at Baby’s room,” adds Geetha. Greet’s Public School principal Jaya Sabin says she was always a motivation for children. “She had a special way with kids and everybody was so fond of her. She always reminded the children that they could achieve anything in life, if they followed the slogan ‘I can, I will, I did’.

source: / The New IndianExpress / Home> Cities> Kochi / by Princy Alexander / Express News Service / February 27th, 2017

Soaked in musical memories

‘Sahana’ is an isle of serenity on a busy road

Sahana,’ a gracious house located almost opposite the office of All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram, is an island of serenity on the busy road that connects Poojapura and Vazhuthecaud. The entrance to the spacious front room is flanked by a gable supported on two graceful pillars. Portraits in oils, Ravi Varma oleographs, old photographs and antique cabinets stacked with books, elegant furniture, and artefacts give it a cozy look.

Indira Ramakrishna Pillai in the living room of Sahana | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

“I have preserved the house the same way my father had maintained it during his time,” says 88-year-old Indira Ramakrishna Pillai, matriarch of the family and daughter of GP Sekhar BA (1895-1984). Sekhar was the son of journalist, orator, and nationalist barrister G Parameswaran Pillai (1864-1903).

“This house was originally built by R Srinivasan (1887-1975), a renowned mathematics professor at University College. The professor was a friend of Dewan CP Ramaswamy Aiyer and therefore constructed his residence right opposite the Dewan’s official residence,” recalls the octogenarian. Srinivasan’s love for traditional Carnatic music, literature, and arts was known throughout South India.

“During his days, the house resonated with melodious recitals by well-known vocalists such as MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari, Chembai, Ariyakudi, Musiri Subramanya Iyer, and Semmangudi. Srinivasan’s daughter Kamala Krishnamurthy was also a talented singer whose rendering of Vanjeeshamangalam was popular in erstwhile Travancore. MKK Nayar, the disciple of Srinivasan, has recorded that those who visited the Professor’s house “would hear the droning of thamburu and lovely music emanating from there.”

In 1948, after Professor Srinivasan and family left for Madras [Chennai], the house was bought by Justice TK Joseph. It was only in 1957 that Sekhar and his family moved in as the new occupants. “My father’s love for Carnatic music is apparent in the new name he chose for the house.” A patron of music, dance, and arts, Sekhar is still remembered for his contribution towards the academic sphere. Starting his career as a teacher, he later left his job and authored numerous textbooks that became popular in schools in Travancore and Madras. He also wrote guides for students. G.P. Sekhar’s Guide was one of the earliest of its kind in Kerala. Beside his busy schedule, Sekhar donned the role of a much sought after socialite who was instrumental in organising Trivandrum Arts Festival.

“I still recall my father’s association with talented vocalists and dancers. MS Subbulakshmi sang during my wedding celebrations (1951) and maintained a cordial relationship with my father,” Indira recalls.

“This Nataraja idol,” she points to an idol adorning the hall, “was a gift from Guru Gopinath, the well-known dancer.”

The house reminds one of a harmonious marriage between the traditional and colonial architectural styles. Within its colonial demeanour – spacious rooms, high ceiling and large windows and doors – the house seems to have a traditional soul.

A rectangular courtyard and the spacious inner courtyard separate the residential unit from the kitchen; the window shutters are also crafted in wood, devoid of any trace of glass.

(The author is a conservation architect and history buff)

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture> Hidden Histories / by Sharad Sunder Rajeev / Thiruvananthapuram – February 24th, 2017

Fleeting canvas of vibrant artistry

The finished Kalam of Bhadrakali | Photo Credit: Aswin V N

Kalamezhuthu Pattu artist Manikandan Kallat talks about the art form that is unique to Kerala

Squatting on the floor, Manikandan Kallat draws the outline of the image of goddess Bhadrakali using finely-ground rice flour. He takes a handful of flour and using his thumb and index finger creates fine, curved white lines with ease. This is a routine for the veteran Kalamezhuthu artist who single-handedly finished a 1,800 sq.ft kalam of Bhadrakali with 64 hands in 14-and-a-half hours in May 2016, at the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in Thrissur, in a bid to set a Guinness record for the biggest powder drawing by a single person.

Kalamezhuthu is for Kalamezhuthu Pattu, a ritualistic art form. The present one is at a family temple in Thrissur district. The art form is believed to have its roots in ancient tribal and Dravidian traditions. Kalamezhuthu, which involves drawing elaborate figures of Bhadrakali, Vettakorumakan, Ayyappa, Gandharvas and Serpent gods, is native to the state.

Manikandan, one of the top Kalamezhuthu artists in Kerala, is a Kallat Kurup, one of the communities traditionally practising Kalamezhuthu Pattu. “Communities such as Mannaan, Malayan , Theeyadi Nambiar, Theyampadi Nambiar and Theeyattunni also practise this art form. But there are only a few people who are into this full time today,” he says.

On the day of the ritual, the drawing of the Kalam begins after an initial round of puja and pattu (songs) – narrating the tales of gods or goddesses being drawn in the Kalam. Manikandan finishes the outline (Kalam Kurikkal) in less than an hour. Then his team joins in with colours.

“The five colours, denoting the Pancha Bhoothas, are made of natural ingredients. White powder is rice flour, black is ground charcoal, green is powdered Manchadi or Vaka leaves, yellow is turmeric powder and red is turmeric-quick lime mixture,” explains Manikandan.

To teach and popularise the art form, Manikandan opened a Kalamezhuthu Pattu school at his house at Kattakampal, near Kunnamkulam, three years ago.“As of now, I only take in students from the Kallat Kurup community. But I do give talks and demonstrations for art researchers and tourists who often visit our place. School and colleges invite me once in a while to give a demo to the students,” he says.

Manikandan and five artists work on the Kalam for three more hours. By 5 p.m. the Kalam is almost ready. The furious, red-eyed Bhadrakali holds a blood-stained sword in one of her hands, the head of demon Dharika in the other and things like the Trishool, a serpent and a shield in her other six hands. The flowing attire, jewels and crown showcase intricate designs. “Although the basic figure of the image and weapons are done in the traditional manner, the artist can innovate with the design of the dress, jewels, crown and the Prabhamandalam (elaborate frame of the Kalam),” says Manikandan.

Later in the evening, rituals resume. The event concludes late at night with Manikandan arriving as the oracle (Velichapaadu), performing a ritualistic dance as the Bhadrakali and finally erasing the Kalam. Although a part of the ritual, it is hard to watch hours of painstaking artistry turned into dust. Talking about it after the performance, Manikandan says, “I don’t think about it when I am performing. But it is sad, especially in the case of big Kalams that takes a long time to complete like the 64-hand Bhadrakali that I did at the Sangeetha Nataka Academy.” Often for special shows, like the one he helped create for an expo of contemporary arts in France in 2000, the Kalam was preserved for some time so that people could see and photograph it.

Although Kalamezhuthu season is for six months, he gets to do more than 100 Kalams in a season. “This used to be restricted to temples, palaces and wealthy households. Now we do it in small households and as a performing art. It is recognised as an art form and we are considered as artists,” he adds.

Manikandan and his group have also performed outside Kerala as well – courtesy of Malayali associations, small temples and other communities in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai.

Learning the art form

The art form itself is time consuming, to learn as well as to practise. It takes years for a student to master the powder drawing and colouring techniques employed in the Kalamezhuthu. Manikandan himself took more than three years to learn the different facets of the art. “I was trained at Guruvayur Kshetra Kalanilayam, a performing art school run by Dewaswom Board. They offered a Kalamezhuthu course from 1986 onwards. But they had to stop it in 1992 as there weren’t enough students,” recalls Manikandan. The studies usually start with Kalam Kurrikal. It gives the student a general idea about the proportion of the Kalam. Only after mastering it are the students taught to colour or prepare the face of the image of the god and goddesses, which is the most difficult part of the art apart from the outline.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture / by Aswin V N / Thiruvananthapuram – February 23rd, 2017

When a noisy creature brought laurels to a not too silent campus

A short film on cicada, shot at Maharaja’s College, bags top honours at National Science Film Festival

Kochi :

Cicada is an insect that turns an otherwise silent place noisy. In fact, it is its absence that continues to preserve the silence in the rain forests of Silent Valley.

However, it required these noisy creatures to bring laurels to Maharaja’s College campus, which was in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, thanks to its fare share of noisy scenes.

Ore Naadam…Ore Thaalam (Same Tune, Same Rhythm), a short film made by Kottarakkara-based Padanakendram of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, in association with the zoology department at the college, has bagged the prestigious Golden Beaver Award for the best science and technology film at the seventh National Science Film Festival held at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum in Kolkata from February 14 to 18.

The festival was organised by Vigyan Prasar of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Council for Science Museums.

The 25-minute film was directed by K.V. Sreenivasan Kartha, who had previously won the Golden Beaver Award in 2015 for another short film. C. Lilly, who wrote the screenplay, also received a special jury award.

“The whole idea was the popularisation of science, and the film aims at deconstructing several myths and misconceptions about cicadas and the sound they generate,” said K.S. Sunish, a faculty member of the zoology department at Maharaja’s College.

The film narrates how a group of children from Kottarakkara approaches Maharaja’s College in their quest to know more about cicada and where L.P. Rema, head of the zoology department, and Mr. Sunish take them through the many characteristics and life cycle of the insect.

One of the highlights of the film is a 2.30-minute visual on the moulting of cicada. But as ubiquitous as their sound is, it is equally tough to spot cicadas.

Some portions of the film were shot at Kottarakkara and some at the Kerala Forest Research Institute based on interactions with a scientist, T.V. Sajeev, who also happens to be an alumnus of Maharaja’s College.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Cities> Kochi / by M P Praveen / February 26th, 2017

Tracking the roots of a legacy in art

Going back in timeConservation architect and history buff Sharat Sunder Rajeev is the author of The King’s Craftsmen , which follows the footsteps of his ancestors / Special arrangement

Conservation architect Sharat Sunder Rajeev pieces together the history of his ancestors, legendary ivory carvers of Thiruvananthapuram, in his book The King’s Craftsmen

They came to the city in a large boat that halts at Vallakadavu. From Vallakadavu, they got into bullock carts to make the rest of the journey to my home…. Just behind the cart occupied by the patriarch was the cart that carried the wooden cradle made for the newborn Prince of Travancore…” narrated Sharada Ammal, then in her nineties, as a group of little children listened in wide-eyed wonder.

Grandmas have always told stories to children, tales that snuggled inside their imagination and nestled there for years together. That was how women kept alive oral history, especially about those that did not belong to upper echelons of society and so did not have the luxury of having their stories written by scholars and historians.

So it was with young Sharat Sunder Rajeev when he heard his grandaunts Sharada Ammal and Kamalam narrate stories about princes and princesses who came all the way from a place up on the Malabar coast and fabulous craftsmen who accompanied them to build palaces and temples for the royal family.

Little did Rajeev realise that the tales his grandaunts told the children were about their ancestors. By the time Rajeev became a teenager, the stories awoke in him an abiding curiosity to know more about his legendary ancestors; ingenious craftsmen who built many of the fabled temples in erstwhile Travancore and later became world famous as ivory carvers of Travancore.

“ Right from my school days, I began interacting with elders in my family to learn about the great craftsmen who had done our families proud with their breathtaking craftsmanship,” says Rajeev, a conservation architect and author of a book on ivory craftsmen of Thiruvananthapuram, The King’s Craftsmen .

The book tracks the footprints of his ancestors who came down from places around Kannur with two princesses who were adopted into the royal family of Travacore and settled in Attingal.

“Most of the earlier period had to be oral history as there is little written evidence. But their work has been mentioned in documents and temple records. So my book is a combination of oral history that has been passed down in our family and early records of some of the incidents that were written down by one of two of my ancestors. For instance, it has been documented that one of my ancestors Thottathil Moothu Asari was associated with the construction of the eastern gopurams of Padmanabhaswamy temple built around the 16th century,” says Rajeev.

Gathering stories

He has been working on the book for more than 10 years and travelled extensively to meet people and collect tales and material evidence of the craftsmen, who initially settled in Attingal, Kadakavoor and Navaikulam.

“Once the capital city began to grow under the monarchy of Marthanda Varma, these guilds began settling in Palkulangara, Pettah and Manacaud. I began the book when I was a student of the College of Engineering, Trivandrum and so there were limitations on how much time I could spend on the book. But I followed all the clues I got and met many of the descendants of the artisans who had once worked closely with the ruling families in Travancore and as Durbar artists,” says Sharat.

Completed five years ago, the book was published recently by the Kerala Council of Historical Research. Sharat’s book is at once a portrait of his illustrious ancestors and a thumbnail sketch of Kerala’s society in different periods of time. It is a piece of untold history that is told from the view of craftsmen and their legacy and how their body of work was shaped by influential princes.

He talks about how the legendary craftsmen of wood gradually began working in ivory as per the monarch’s orders, most likely during the time of Swathi Thirunal and how, over time, they became the best in the field of ivory carving and became famous as the Travancore school of ivory carving.

“Records show that Swathi was presented with a musical instrument Swarbath that was made in ivory by Kochu Kunju Asari on January 4, 1836. The best known is of course the ivory throne that was made for the Great Exhibition held in London. It won a prestigious prize at the exhibition and established Travancore as a centre of the finest ivory craftsmen,” explains Sharat.

To ensure that their craft was passed on to a new generation, the School of Arts was established around 1860 in Thiruvananthapuram and this eventually became the first fine arts college in Travancore and Kerala. Sharat got lucky as one of his relatives was able to give him a kind of log book that was once used in the college. That gave Sharat details about classes, teachers and students.

Turning artists

“Once ivory carving became illegal in the seventies, many of the craftsmen began to exchange the chisel for the brush and became well-known artists. Many of the early portraits of the royalty and feudal families were painted by them. Some of them went to Madras [Chennai] and got work as artists for posters and backdrops for plays and movies,” he says.

He points out how K. Madhavan, who printed some of the early posters of films in South India, was famous in those days for his posters for Tamil films.

That is not all. As Rajeev points out the book neatly documents the now extinct art of ivory carving with detailed diagrams and technical explanations. “The craft guilds had experts who could come up with exquisite works of art. They made everything from figurines and inlay work to cuff links, combs and bangles. Each had to be worked in a different way and since ivory was very hard, one wrong chip could spoil an expensive piece of ivory. So the carvers were perfectionists and disciplinarians,” he says with a smile.

Rajeev adds that the book also explains the reasons for the current socio-political place of the craftsmen’s descendants.

Even as his book opens a new chapter on the history of Thiruvananthapuram, Rajeev is busy at work on his next one.

The craft guilds had experts who could come up with exquisite works of art

Avid collector

Sharat Sunder Rajeev is a collector of antiques. On February 18, a day after the new redesigned The Hindu reached readers, Rajeev shared an image of The Hindu dated April 1, Friday, 1892 on his Facebook page, along with an explanation of how he had found it

source: / The Hindu / Home> Features> MetroPlus / by Saraswathy Nagarajan / February 24th, 2017

The woman who cut off her breasts

The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Satwik Gade

The real story of how one woman’s rebellion against oppressive feudalism has been hijacked and repurposed by the patriarchy

Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, a watery alcove on the Kerala coast. We do not know when she was born or who sired her. But we know she died in 1803, her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed. Today, Nangeli has champions on the Internet, her story is told by men and women seeking inspiration and courage on this side of time. And they too have recast her sacrifice, celebrating a tale that would have been alien to the protagonist. Nangeli has been reduced from a woman who thrust a dagger into the heart of society to one who died to preserve those artful shackles that many of us know as ‘honour’.

The contours of the tale are well known. Nangeli and her man, Chirukandan, were Ezhavas — toddy tappers — who laboured in that awkward gap that society fashions for those who are low but not the lowest. They had a little hut where they lived, and they had no children. Life for Nangeli and Chirukandan was as hard as it was for their neighbours. They toiled hand to mouth, toeing lines drawn by caste, and bowing before the pretensions of their superiors. Nothing about them was remarkable till Nangeli stood up. They will proclaim that she stood up to preserve her dignity, but that is because they are afraid to admit that she stood up to them. Nangeli was a rebel, but like many rebels, in death her memory became the possession of those she opposed. She threw off one tyrant, and found her legacy in the grasp of another.

The Kerala that Nangeli and Chirukandan knew was not the Kerala celebrated today for its healthy children, emancipated grandmothers, and literate masses. It was a hard, difficult landscape, and Cherthala was a speck on the map of Travancore, a state with a ruler of its own to whom was owed allegiance — and tax money. Land tax was low, but the Rajahs made up for this ancestral blunder through other levies. If you were a landless fisherman, you had a tax on your fishing net. If you were a man sporting a moustache, your facial hair fell within the mandate of the revenue inspector. If you owned slaves, you most certainly had to pay tax on these bleeding units of muscle. Nangeli and her husband acquiesced like loyal subjects, but they will tell you that she stood up to the one abhorrent tax that touched upon her honour; that when it came to her rights as a respectable woman, she declared: ‘No more.’

Cleaved her place

They came one morning, the story goes, to tax her breasts, leering at its shape and dimensions to calculate the figure owed. It was called mulakkaram — the breast tax — and women who were not high-born were surveyed as soon as they advanced from girlhood to adolescence. Nangeli was probably taxed for years, but in 1803 when the villains of the tale came to her hovel, she was prepared for the act that would cleave for her a place in history and lore. She went inside calmly while they waited by the threshold, it is said, and returned with the tax offering on a plantain leaf. Since they had come for the breast tax, that is what they got: Nangeli’s breasts, severed by her own hand and placed in a bleeding lump. She collapsed in a heap and died in agony, her corpse cradled by Chirukandan who returned to find his home turned into the scene of one of history’s great tragedies. Some say he jumped into the pyre as Nangeli burned and perished in flames of grief — for him too there was sacrifice.

The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. Women of low caste, they will tell you, couldn’t cover their bodies if they didn’t pay the breast tax. They silently wept and lamented their fate, shame building upon shame under the gaze of lewd old men for whom the right to dignity came with a price. But Nangeli was a woman of virtue — she would not barter money for honour. And so she chose death.

Embarrassed and horrified by the tyranny of their ways, the Rajahs abandoned the tax on breasts. Nangeli became a heroine. Womanhood prevailed.

This is the tale they will tell you of Nangeli. As it happens, it is all a travesty.


For a society as open as Kerala once was, breasts came to provoke a grave panic in the Victorian age. This was the land where Portuguese merchants in the 16th century beheld bare-breasted princesses, negotiating treaties of trade and leading bare-chested troops in battle. It was here that a 17th century Italian found himself in the court of a prince, packed with royal women covered only around the waist — two young nieces of the ruler wondered with amusement why on earth he was so covered up in the tropical heat. This was also the land where women enjoyed physical and sexual autonomy, where widowhood was no calamity and one husband could always be replaced with another. The coast was rich with the tales of great women — from Unniarcha of the Northern Ballad of Malabar, an accomplished warrior from Nangeli’s caste, to Umayamma of Attingal, a princess who reigned over kings. These were brave women of towering personality. But in the 19th century, Kerala’s moral conscience grappled not with their achievements as much as the conundrum that their unabashed bare-breastedness presented.

Virtue, as we recognise it today in its patriarchal definition, was not a concept that existed in Kerala. And till our colonial masters — and fellow Indians from patriarchal backgrounds — sat in judgement over the matrilineal streak heavily infused among the dominant groups here, women, their bare torsos, and their sexual freedoms did not in the least attract attention or opprobrium. Where elsewhere polygamy was a practice available to men, in Kerala there was polyandry on offer, because women were not unequal to their brothers (or, to be more exact, they were less unequal). They owned property and controlled resources, living fuller lives than the domesticated child-rearing destinies granted to their sisters elsewhere. But this was, of course, the case of women of privilege. For women like Nangeli there was no question of living a life of heroic glamour with armies or ballads; she had to earn her way through every day of uncertainty. It was in death that the songs followed, and so worrying were they, that they focussed not on Nangeli’s message but a perversion of it that was more palatable to changing social mores.

The advent of the British meant more than just political rule; they brought to Kerala a new sense of morality, reinforced by missionaries who had the ear of these foreign masters. Polyandrous marriage was deemed ‘very revolting’ — women were told that they ought to be virtuous, which meant deference to one husband, one master. They had to cultivate modesty, and toplessness was not a step in that direction. The sexual gaze of the patriarchal Victorian was turned towards the breast in Kerala, till then not a cause of concern. When men and women entered temples, they both took off their top cloth. Today only the men are obliged to do this. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, when Namboothiri Brahmin women for the first time acquired the blouse to cover themselves, purists excommunicated them for breaching custom — modesty and true moral superiority lay, they argued, in not covering up. As Aubrey Menen remarked of his grandmother’s attitude to his Irish mother, it was thought that ‘married women who wore blouses were Jezebels’ and ‘a wife who dressed herself could only be aiming at adultery’. To cover breasts because men demanded it, was regressive to elders as it meant succumbing to objectification. But these elders were a minority in the face of young, ‘progressive’ men bent on making their women ‘virtuous’.

What morality?

Across the coast, the torso — male and female — was not something that was covered. Higher castes sported shawls, but not for reasons of modesty or because they had notions of virtue more consistent with those of a patriarchal society, but because the shawl was a mark of honour. When Christian converts from lower castes covered themselves in the 1850s, riots broke out after violent upper-caste attacks on them. The bone of contention was not that the converted women wanted to cover themselves — it was that they had covered themselves with the shawl permitted only to the high-born. Peace was restored when the converts invented a blouse; the covering was not the issue in the first place. The tale of Nangeli that they will tell you today has her fighting to preserve her honour, where honour is construed as her right to cover the breast. But in Nangeli’s time, the honour of a woman was hardly linked to the area above the waist. As F. Fawcett remarked, dress was ‘a conventional affair, and it will be a matter of regret should false ideas of shame supplant those of natural dignity such as one sees expressed in the carriage and bearing of the well-bred… lady’.

But the import of Victorian patriarchy also imported shame, and women were told that a bare body was a mark of disgrace. Dignity lay in accepting male objectification; honour was in docility. Men, studying in colleges in big cities, received jibes about their topless mothers who may have had more than one husband. Could they ever be sure about who their fathers were? These men dragged into Kerala the masculinity of their patriarchal interlocutors, and women too, exposed to the West and a new conception of femininity, succumbed. ‘We will publish nothing related to politics,’ declared one of the region’s earliest women’s magazines in 1892, adding that ‘writings that energise the moral conscience’ — tips on cooking, stories of ‘ideal women’ — and ‘other such enlightening topics’ alone would be covered. A lady’s job was in the home as a mother, as a loyal wife, and as a housekeeper, not outside as a topless harlot who exercised her customary right to divorce. ‘As women,’ another declaration went, ‘our god-ordained duty is the care of the home and service towards our husbands.’

Roles recast

New icons needed to be found. Women who fit the bill of the new order rather than those who were emblems of a now disgusting bare-bosomed past. And where such women were in short supply, existing women were reincarnated, as J. Devika has shown. Umayamma of Attingal, the topless queen whom the Dutch noted for her ‘noble and manly conduct’, who was ‘feared and respected by everyone’, and who was a ‘young Amazon’, became in S. Parameswara Iyer’s poetry, a melodramatic damsel in distress, a helpless mother (when, in fact, she had no children) pleading for a male protector. Where the English found that the ‘handsomest young men about the country’ formed her seraglio and ‘whom and as many [men] as she pleases to the honour of her bed’ could be had by her, now she became a loyal, patriarchal icon of womanly virtue. The women of the past were turned into ciphers for the present, filled with doses of honour and draped in garbs tailored by men. The wheels of time had turned and this is what was needed in Kerala.


Nangeli too was recast. When Nangeli offered her breasts on a plantain leaf to the Rajah’s men, she demanded not the right to cover her breasts, for she would not have cared about this ‘right’ that meant nothing in her day. Indeed, the mulakkaram had little to do with breasts other than the tenuous connection of nomenclature. It was a poll tax charged from low-caste communities, as well as other minorities. Capitation due from men was the talakkaram — head tax — and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram — breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli’s storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax.

When Nangeli stood up, squeezed to the extremes of poverty by a regressive tax system, it was a statement made in great anguish about the injustice of the social order itself. Her call was not to celebrate modesty and honour; it was a siren call against caste and the rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it. She was a heroine of all who were poor and weak, not the archetype of middle-class womanly honour she has today become. But they could not admit that Nangeli’s sacrifice was an ultimatum to the order, so they remodelled her as a virtuous goddess, one who sought to cover her breasts rather than one who issued a challenge to power. The spirit of her rebellion was buried in favour of its letter, and Nangeli reduced to the sum of her breasts.

The writer, who authored the award-winning The Ivory Throne, when not writing is busy trying to make a mean meen pollichathu.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture / by Manu S. Pillai

The transformation of a historic church

Window to past The Koonan Kurishu Church that was renovated by avoiding conventional building materials.

Church commemorates the January 1653 vow taken by Malankara Nazranis

The Koonan Kurishu Church (Church of the Leaning Cross) in Mattancherry has undergone a transformation worthy of its remarkable place in history.

The church, built in 1751, commemorates the January 1653 vow taken by the Malankara Nazranis or Christians against Portuguese and Roman Catholic Church attempts to dominate their spiritual and ritual affairs.

The 1751 church underwent major renovation in 1974. Now, it has been renovated by retaining the original structure except in places where it had deteriorated badly. The church has been rebuilt, mostly avoiding conventional materials such as cement and steel, and using compressed, stabilised mud blocks.

The renovated church provides a brief glimpse into the past with its earthy shade, domes, vaults and arches that rise up as symbols of early eastern Christianity. The Marthoma Cross (St. Thomas Cross) crowns it and the altar is blessed by a cross formed by light beams, says NRI businessman and philanthropist John Samuel Kuruvilla who oversaw the renovation works.

He said architect Vinu Daniel designed the structure. The masons were provided training in the use of earth blocks, employing the ancient Nubian technology of arch and vault-building without extensive shuttering, said Mr. Kuruvilla.

The Koonankurisu Church, under the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church, will be reconsecrated on February 24 and 25. A religious amity meet will be organised as part of the reconsecration of the church. The all-religion meet will celebrate its lineage steeped in an era when different communities lived in harmony.

The spot where the church is located is where thousands of the Nazranis, restive over the Portuguese efforts to dominate, gathered to pledge their allegiance to their long-standing traditions. But the gathering was so large that hundreds were unable to touch the cross directly. They drew a rope from the cross, and touching it, publicly denounced the Portuguese. The story is that the cross bent under pressure and hence the name ‘Koonan Kurisu’. The event is described as ‘Koonan Kurishu Sathyam’ or the oath before the bent cross.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Cities> Kochi / by Special Correspondent / Kochi – February 22nd, 2017