Column | How the West saw Kerala in the 1950s and 60s

How the West saw Kerala in the 1950s and 60s

Many Malayalis take great pride in the way Kerala is portrayed by international writers and journalists these days. It makes those of us who live outside the state feel good to know that foreigners are in love with our piece of paradise.

The Lonely Planet guidebook puts it with a certain kind of eloquence: “Just setting foot on this swathe of soul-soothing, palm-shaded green will slow your subcontinental stride to a blissed-out amble.” It adds, “Kerala is a world away from the frenzy of the rest of India, its long, fascinating backstory illuminated by historically evocative cities like Kochi (Cochin) and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum).” Those of that live in crowded and chaotic parts of India love the serenity that Kerala offers. This gets nicely reinforced with all the international appreciation.

International praise for the state’s natural bounty was forthcoming even in the 1950s. In its July-September 1958 edition, Les Cahiers d'Outre-Mer (Overseas Notebook), a Bordeaux-based quarterly journal of geography that looks to inform the French-speaking world of the tropics, had an extensive feature on Kerala. “At first glance, Kerala resembles the humid and mountainous southern part of Ceylon more than it does any other part of India,” Jacques Dupuis wrote. He wrote in detail of the state’s equatorial vegetation, mountain estates and forests full of coconut trees, adding that the “relatively light-skinned” Malayalis resembled the Sinhalese more than they did the Tamils.

How the West saw Kerala in the 1950s and 60s
"Kerala is the smallest and poorest of the Indian states, but it’s also the most literate,"The Life magazine’s correspondent wrote.

Dupuis also highlighted the stark differences in development between the Travancore-Cochin area in the south and Malabar in the north. He said Travancore and Cochin had acquired the reputation of being model states because of the “capacity and wisdom of their sovereigns.” The French writer also praised the Diwans of these states. “The difference in development between the north and the south doesn’t imply the inferiority of the British government of India when compared with the princely states,” he wrote. “It just permits us to underline the exceptional quality of the rulers of Travancore and Cochin.”

How the West saw Kerala in the 1950s and 60s
An 80-year-old photograph of a wedding procession through Thrissur town.

The French writer also spoke of the density of the population of Kerala, which at that time was 391 people per square kilometre. The actual pressure on land was much higher since a large part of Kerala was forested. Dupuis attributed the population density to the fact that the state had a large number of educated people and hence practised better hygiene.

Not all writers and journalists shared the enthusiasm of Jacques Dupuis. In an article published on May 6, 1957, Life Magazine said the Communists won the state elections by cashing in on the state’s “chaos.” The magazine’s correspondent wrote, “Kerala is the smallest and poorest of the Indian states, but it’s also the most literate. Its literacy rate is 52 per cent, compared to 18 per cent for the rest of India. But its 13.6 million people are crammed into 15,000 square miles and are split between Moslem, Hindu and Christian.” Its interesting to note that the American magazine saw the religious mix of the state as a challenge, while the French quarterly thought of it as an asset.

Life was heavily critical of the Congress party in Kerala and the article suggested that it was their poor governance that brought the Communists into power. “Worst of all, there are 1.5 million unemployed,” the magazine wrote, as it poked fun at Jawaharlal Nehru’s friendliness with Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Bulganin and his hostility towards Indian Communists.

In 1964, The New York Times also took a swipe at Kerala. In a provocative headline before the elections, it said: “Kerala’s Hunger Helpful to Reds; Food crisis may sway vote in divided Indian state.”

How the West saw Kerala in the 1950s and 60s

While mentioning the fact that the Communists had won the 1957 elections and were at that point out of power, the paper wrote, “Nevertheless, they remained strong in this underprivileged, relatively well‐educated state, where the literacy rate is the highest in India and per capita income is among the lowest.”

The paper added that the elections would be further complicated by “religious and caste divisions,” which it said had a “profound though not always calculated effect on voting.”

Looking back at those days, it is quite incredible that Kerala has progressed at the rate that it has. While there are still many problems, the rapid strides in literacy, the lack of visible poverty, and general well being in the state is something that cannot be under-appreciated. It’s the very fact that economic and social problems are far fewer in number now that make writers and journalists from the West look at Kerala in a far more positive manner than they did in the 1950s and 60s. Constructive criticism from the rest of India and abroad should nonetheless be welcomed by resident and non-resident Keralites alike.

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