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History of an Emergence

History of an Emergence

History of an Emergence

‘Woman’ and ‘Man’ in Modern Kerala

Engendering Individuals: The Language of Re-forming in Early Twentieth Century Keralam

by J Devika; Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2007; pp xiii + 346, Rs 650.


t is nearly two decades since Recasting Women sought to engender the colonial history of India. It might not have been the first volume to do so, but it definitively set the terms for what was to become a prolific field of academic inquiry. To cruise in after several studies have marked out and explored this field is a challenge in itself. It is to the immediate credit of this book that it extends the parameters of discussion in a number of key areas. It brings into attention a geography that has not been adequately centred by this scholarship – early 20th century Kerala. Interestingly, unlike many areas of western India, Bengal and the Gangetic belt, the princely states of Tiruvitamkoor and Kochi were never under direct British rule. A scrutiny of these regions allows the author to examine how modern individuals and social arrangements were engendered outside the apparatus and technologies of colonial rule. It is also to the credit of this book that it displays considerable comfort with interdisciplinary forms of critical enquiry, while continuing to be rooted in the discipline of history. In its use of a variety of textual sources, disciplinary and intellectual lineages and in the fashioning of its research object creatively, this work demonstrates the possibilities that are available for such modes of enquiry

Importantly, this work is not a “status” of women study. Neither is it quite about the “recasting” of women. It is rather about the production of the categories that has come to be identified as “women” and “men”. As the author notes, to start “the story at ‘Women’” would be to “start the story too late” because the category (women) is in urgent “need of historical interrogation” (p 9). Analysing women’s journals, government reports, pamphlets, legislative assembly proceedings, newspapers, auto/biographies and literary works, the book presents us with the radical transformations that were taking place in Kerala vis-à-vis the imagining of modern woman and man. Apart from the possibilities it opens up for research on contemporary Kerala, the book also challenges some of the most entrenched stories of “women’s emancipation” in the state. The standard story has a linear narrative – first there was feudalism, which oppressed women of all castes; then there was social reform, which led to the remarkable “progress” in the status of women in late 19th and early 20th centuries; and then came their decline in contemporary times. Radically altering these frames, Devika convincingly argues for the need to step outside this standard narrative.

Individual and Society

The introductory chapter, besides laying out the broad outlines and scope of the

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007

book also offers a thumbnail gallery of some of the ideological and material changes that marked 19th century Kerala. Against the weight of received commonsense, Devika argues that gender difference as it obtains in present-day Kerala has a history of not more than a century. Notions of individual and society, so crucial to what is understood as “modern”, emerged alongside the public sphere in early 20th century. This emergent public sphere implicated individuals as gendered subjects; thus, the moment of becoming individual was also simultaneously the moment of becoming gender. In other words, gender was constitutive of the modern individuals fashioned in Kerala. The term “engendering” is deployed here to signify both the “coming into being” and the “production of gender”. Devika takes up the confluence of “ideas”, “culture” and “materialities”, (p 27) as constituting the discursive regime within which modern man and woman were imagined. She sets aside arguments which favour a dominance-submission framework where man dominates and woman is subjugated. Instead, she argues that the establishment of a gendered order attributed different kinds of power and authority to the genders that it constructed. This is clearly a significant move as it allows us to rethink notions of “agency” in relation to both men and women within historically changing forms of patriarchal social order. It also allows us to examine how notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” get deployed in its service.

Devika picks this up again in the next chapter, where she demonstrates how the individual, a new social category, comes to be constituted. Crucial to this enterprise is the need to replace the earlier social order based on ‘jati’ with the new order of gender. The latter is imagined to be a manifestation of a person’s internal capabilities and attributes, as opposed to the former which is seen as artificial, an external attribute, and in need of devaluation within modernity. The internalities of gender were understood to “naturally” fashion different social portfolios and spheres of authority for man and woman: “If authority ensuing from the acquisition of material goods or participation in political activity or knowledge-creation was deemed to be Man’s, a different sort of authority – emotional and sentimental – was assigned to woman as overseer of domestic and emotional affairs” (p 51). The limits of this authority in the case of women were established by instituting a difference between the notions of ‘swatanthryam’ (possessing the self means of survival) as against ‘tantonnitham’ (wantonness). But (swatanthryam) could not be claimed without first undergoing self-development, a process of education to clarify and cultivate natural, internal attributes. The chapter goes on to analyse the debates on differential education for boys and girls at the time. For both men and women, the notion of the individual was made compatible with a notion of collectivity through an insistence on productivity. Indeed, an important component of self-development comes to be productivity, or the ability of individuals to transform energies into social good. The new individual was to reproduce her/himself as useful for the social. It was in this context, especially in relation to the pedagogic intent of fashioning woman, that ‘stree samajams’ (women’s associations) and women’s journals start functioning in Kerala. The third chapter furthers some of the arguments of the second, through a closer analysis of ‘nambutiri’ (Malayala brahmin caste) reform. Her focus here is on the transformation of the nambutiri and the ‘antarjanam’ (nambutiri women) into man and woman, respectively. In demanding the transformation of self and community, the nambutiri reformer (invariably gendered male) became the harbinger of modernity. The language of rationality that was instituted by this moment is identified as prefiguring and leading to the “vision of ‘progressive Keralam’, enshrined in the “Kerala Model” literature” (p 170).

Gendered Grammar

These chapters reveal that a gendered grammar (nambutiri-antarjanam, manwoman, public-domestic) is under construction in early 20th century Kerala. Just when one begins to wonder (a) whether despite its persuasiveness and explanatory potential, this bivalence is not perhaps a little too neat and (b) whether the author is perhaps suggesting a unilateral and complete transformation of ‘janmabhedam’ (difference-by-birth like ‘jati’) into the order of gender, we find ourselves guided through two chapters that complicate the neatness of these distinctions and transformations. In chapter 4 we are shown how gendered complementarities and capacities served to expand the ambit of women’s space, allowing women to enter a range of modern institutions like schools, hospitals, charity organisations and reform institutions. This robbed the publicdomestic divide of much of its salience. A new apolitical space – the “social” – emerges in which women’s gendered capacities become serviceable. The “gentle power” exercised by women was seen to be an important complement and corrective to “male power”. There is also the interesting chapter that executes a “reading (through) dress” reforms (p 253) to demonstrate how the ideal female body was fashioned and reinscribed as a source of pleasure. The textured analysis in this chapter demonstrates that the order of modern gender transformed not only old “patriarchy”, but also the old order of janmabhedam. We find in this chapter that janmabhedam is not entirely dismantled; nor is it refurnished wholesale into modern gender. The reader is led through the negotiations and struggles of different castes to differentiate and produce modern community identities. A comparative perspective emerges most effectively in this chapter as we are shown how different caste-communities went about the project of clothing women’s bodies so that it carried a complex web of significations – of community, respectability, morality, class, Gandhian nationality.


Wedged between these is a chapter that examines the “unnamable discontents” that is displayed in the works of Lalitambika Antarjanam (1909-88). It sets out to examine how Antarjanam’s works re-evaluate both the new publics opening up for women and the new domesticities in which they are being lodged. It argues that Antarjanam’s works are a “meditation upon the strengths and weaknesses of modern ideals of gender” (p 233). This is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book, probably because unlike other chapters textual readings serve a primarily illustrative purpose here. While in other chapters stories (journalistic, literary and political), analysis and theorisations interweave, reinforce, challenge each other and yield implications, here they seem merely to offer examples to an already stabilised central thesis. The concluding chapter does not merely gather together the main threads of the preceding sections. It goes on to uncover an important impulse running through previous discussions – the engendering of governable subjects, subjects who are capable of self-government. It also clears initial routes that help in carrying through

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007 these histories for an understanding of the contemporary. Engendering individuals is clearly a work that is marked by the quiet confidence of its extensive scholarship. However, it seems to wrestle with two impulses: (a) the need to be attentive to the specificity of the field and (b) the need to simultaneously delineate the larger spheres of its relevance. The resolutions it strikes are not always satisfactory. Thus, we find that the introductory chapter, building upon the promise of the title, informs the reader, “In a broad sense, this work is about Individualisation as a historical process in Malayalee society. More specifically, it revolves around the en-gendering of the Individual in Keralam…” (p 8).


What we get, however, is a rigorous and lucid analysis of the re-forming of one community, the nambutiris. Other social and community reform movements during this period whether of the ezhavas, the pulayas, the nairs, the various sections of the Christians, the Muslims, the nationalist reform initiatives or the Left mobilisations are almost completely absent. The complaint here is not that the study concentrates almost exclusively on one castecommunity, but that the language of reforming this one community gets conflated with the engendering of all of Kerala. Strikingly, it is not as if the author is not alert to this danger because we find her referring to it more than once. At one point (when critiquing the laudatory studies on the “Kerala Model”) she notes the tendency to project the histories of upper caste women as the history of “Malayalee Women” (p 12). It is therefore puzzling that the author should make the same slippages that she sets out to critique. Absence of a picture of time: Despite the richness of the historical material and the detailed analysis, it presents on nambutiri reform, the book leaves the reader with certain other feelings of lack. One is tempted to ask, why are we not given a picture of the time that is under discussion? This question is not based on a demand for a context outside the discourse that is being examined. Indeed, Devika, very early in the book, makes the sound assertion that the “text-context dichotomy, in which texts are taken to be ‘reflections of reality’ and the contexts, the reality itself, is rejected” (p 32). What is lacking then is not a pre-discursive reality that is assumed to form the background of the material, but a thicker description of the times as it emerges within the discourse itself. The problem of historicity is more acute when it comes to the central problematic of the book – i e, the story of “modern gender”. There is no significant discussion or theorisation of what modern gender is deemed to have replaced/ modified. The few references which are made to this past do not sufficiently acquaint the reader with the notion of “sexual difference”, which is argued to have been transformed by “modern gender” (p 22).

One is therefore tempted to push the argument and ask: What does “sexual difference” signify here? Is it a shorthand for biological differences? Surely not, because as some recent theorisations have pointed out, “sex” is made operational through “gender”; there cannot be a notion of “sexual difference” that precedes gender. If then the differentiation is between a modern and “non-modern” order of gender, the question remains: how was the latter embodied? Take the discussion on dress reform (Chapter 6) where we come to learn that women’s naked torso did not have the same connotations that it acquired after the dress reform. Or, take the discussion of the condition of antharjanams prior to reform among nambutiris. The short segment on their lives assures us that “[O]ne of the major axes of internal regulation among the Malayala brahmins was undoubtedly sex” (p 122). But what in fact constituted this ancien (sexual) regime, we never quite gather a sufficient conception. Absence of other reform contexts: The absence of any attempt to link the “Kerala” story with other reform contexts within India, is also striking. This presents a set of problems. Firstly, it appears to postulate a certain unity in the region which comes to be the Kerala of today. Thus the important historical differences between Malabar which was a part of the Madras presidency and Tiruvitamkoor and Kochi which were princely states, are elided. Secondly, the borrowings and cross-references to reform and community movements in the neighbouring regions and at the national level are curiously absent. On more than one occasion the author mentions the Indianising impulse of some of the reforms analysed here; the imperative they had to institute transformations that were “perceived to be at once both Indian and modern” (p 25). But the nature of traffic in ideologies and institutions between this region and its “outside” remains at the level of suggestion. As if symptomatic of this silence we find very little engagement with existing literature on social reform in India (most prominently from Bengal and Maharashtra, and more recently from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and the southern states) as well as with some significant interventions on early 19th century Kerala. A comparative mode of analysis could have thrown up significant aspects of the political imperative in pre-independence Kerala. Let us point to one such possibility. On page 126, Devika brings in a crucial comparative argument. She writes: “…the elite was generally open to state-sponsored efforts to recast the family. This was unlike other parts of India, for instance Bengal, where the family became the sphere over which the nationalist elite declared their sovereignty” (emphasis added).

This significant observation is left without further substantiation as though the intention of the comparison was merely to produce a certain “Kerala uniqueness” as opposed to “other parts of India” which (unlike Kerala) Bengal represents. What is foreclosed in this hurried reference to Bengal is a thicker understanding of the reform-gender-community-nation/region relationship. The discussion of the emergent public sphere in Kerala, early in the book, also falters because of a lack of specificity. It banks excessively on the readers’ familiarity with the nation-public sphere relationship from other contexts, which has been entirely, with some very recent and significant exceptions, derivative of the Habermasian model from 18th century Europe. The public sphere in Kerala clearly invites further analysis.

Many of the above are possibilities that the book itself identifies and leaves as open provocations for future work. There is little doubt thatEngendering Individuals: The Language of Re-forming in Early Twentieth Century Keralam will prove to be an essential reading for a range of scholars not only because it skilfully demonstrates how to unearth a rich archive and analyse them productively and imaginatively but also because it re-energises ways of historicising and understanding contemporary society. Its wide-ranging and provocative arguments offer important new directions to the debates on colonialism, region, patriarchy and gendered subjectivity.



Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007

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