Column | How a Maharashtrian scribe described Malayali women to the West in 1925

'Dressed always in spotless white, all they need is a couple of yards of cloth tied around the waist and a slip thrown across the shoulders', Karandikar wrote. Manorama graphics

The deeper one digs into the newspaper archives, the more interesting and bizarre the stories get about India, and Kerala in particular. The main reason for this is the fact that 18th and 19th-century European writers had very little understanding about the cultures and mindsets of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

By the 1920s, however, more and more accounts about India that were written by Indians started appearing in the international media. One particular journalist, who was close to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, managed to make a name for himself in London by writing articles about places such as Kashmir and modern-day Kerala.

Vishnu R Karandikar, who ran a private news agency, wrote about Malayali women in an article that was picked up a few international publications in 1925. He described Kerala as a “more-than-Utopia-for-women.”

In the article, Karandikar wrote that a warrior from northern India invaded Kerala in the fifth millennium before Christ and described it as the “Kingdom of Women,” adding, “The women of this kingdom were described as being fair-skinned with long, dark hair, fine physique, lotus eyes on a full moon face, the eyelashes being long and dark, and really making the orbs beneath them look like blue lotuses of Indian lakes.”

One has to wonder where the Maharashtrian scribe managed to get such a description from? Surely, such a poetic description in an ancient text would have been celebrated and passed down the generations? The more realistic conclusion is of the 20th-century journalist using his poet’s pen.

Karandikar did have more than a rudimentary understanding of dominant caste Malayali society of that era. He wrote about the matriarchal system of the Nairs: “The son is nobody in the family, the husband but the creature of his wife, the manager of the estates belonging to the woman of the household.”

Writing about how a woman could easily divorce her husband just by telling him that “he is no longer wanted” and ordering him “to leave immediately,” Karandikar added that a woman was “the real ruler of the household.”

One particular part of this article reminded me of my own great-grandmother, a woman who became a widow in her early 30s and managed to raise and educate six children. No easy task in India in the 1930s.

Karandikar wrote about the Malayali matriarch, “Every evening she assembles all the family together and reads extracts from the old Scriptures and mythology and explains them to the people.” The journalist could have easily been describing a post-sunset daily ritual in my great-grandmother’s home at Thathamangalam. At that time when there was very little entertainment for children after dark, this must have been something they really looked forward to.

Karandikar was also impressed with the personal and public hygiene practised by Malayali women. “The Malayalam women take credit for the cleanliness and neatness seen all over the land,” he wrote. The thing he kept harping on, though, in the article was their looks.

“They are so conscious of their charm and beauty that they need scarcely any adornment,” he wrote. “Dressed always in spotless white, all they need is a couple of yards of cloth tied around the waist and a slip thrown across the shoulders.”

Karandikar went on and on: “Neat in their habits, gentle in their behaviour and warm in their affection, the Malayalam women form a type distinct even in India.”

The article found its way to a few American publications where there were some minor edits. A few papers took off his byline which may have appeared unusual to an American audience.
There’s no way of finding out how westerners reacted to such a description of women from Kerala.

The intended audience was definitely not Indian and Karandikar’s article didn’t get published anywhere in his own country. On seeing the clippings from almost a century ago, one young Malayali woman friend of mine had a good laugh, while another did not see the humour in what she called a “problematic article reflecting the racist and casteist times the journalist lived in.”

Much of the world still has a Eurocentric idea of beauty, and India and Kerala are far from being exceptions. However, even in this part of the world, attitudes are slowly changing.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.