Academic-author J Devika begins website dedicated to feminists of Kerala in the first half of the 20th century

The pioneering website has biographies, speeches, articles, short stories, essays, excerpts from their autobiographies and more

“She is headstrong, mannish and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes”

This was how ME Watts, the then Dewan of Travancore described Lakshmikutty Amma from erstwhile Travancore. It did not matter that the erudite young woman had taught at Queen Mary’s College in Chennai before she went on leave to London for higher studies in 1926, points out academic-translator-author J Devika in her note on how the feminists of Kerala in the twenties of the last century were perceived by men and many women of that age.

This is just one of the gems in her eclectic collection of writings on and of the early feminists in Kerala in her website, Swatantryavaadini. As discussions rage in contemporary Kerala on who is a feminist and what he/she espouses and her/his identity and so on, it is interesting to take a deep dive into this website to read about women of previous generations and their fight against discrimination and patriarchy.

Swatantryavaadini (free thinkers), a term coined by Devika, is a celebration, analysis, critique and collection of feminist thought, literature and feminism in Kerala, from the twenties to the fifties of the 20th century. The writing is incisive, the thought process, radical and the content, fresh and insightful.

Within 10 days in August, even as the lockdown was in effect in Kerala, Devika began the website and uploaded 120 articles. “I learnt how to go about creating a website and did the entire work myself. I myself was amazed at the plethora of content I managed to upload,” she says, speaking on telephone from her home in Thiruvananthapuram, where she is a senior faculty member at the Centre for Development Studies.

Divided into sections such as history, poetry, speeches, fiction, legislative assembly debates, biography, petitions, memoirs, autobiography, critique etc, the website has a rare collection of women-related works, almost of which have been translated by Devika. Authors and scholars like KR Meera, Manu S Pillai, Darsana S Mini, Vinil Paul and a few others have also contributed their articles to the website.

As a young research scholar, Devika recalls how difficult it was to get authentic reading material written by the early feminists in Kerala in the twenties and thirties of the previous century. “Even their works were relegated to the sidelines. In fact, a scholar told me that most of what the women had written must have been written by the menfolk in their families!”

Not deterred by that condescending attitude, Devika forged ahead to discover more of those pioneering women who had been so cavalierly dismissed to the sidelines by the chauvinistic and patronising attitude to their writing.

The website, a pioneering work, provides glimpses into the minds of those early women thinkers and activists, some of whom had to face ostracisation, character assassination and more, for their writing and refusal to stay within the confines of conservative thinking of those times.

“I prefer to use the term the Great Churning — van-kadayal in Malayalam — to represent social change during the period of the early twentieth century of Malayali society in general, and mahaaturavi — the Great Opening — instead of the term Navoddhanam — Renaissance — to characterise the great upsurge of the oppressed communities towards liberation — of the same time, treating them as analytically distinct,” she notes in the website.

“What was interesting in those days was that some of the women belonged to different political dispensations, but when it came to the interests of women, those political divides didn’t seem to matter. They put the welfare and intellectual emancipation of women above narrow political interests,” she adds.

Women legislators, film actor Thresiamma, alias Ms. Kumari, Kulakutti Maria, a Dalit woman preacher of the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha, women labour leaders like cashew worker Gomathy, pioneers in trained nursing such as Rugmani Amma and Chandramathy, strong women in the royal households, early educationists…are just some of the women that Devika introduces to readers.

The speeches, writing and notes on the women legislators from the twenties onwards to the mid-fifties of the last century — women such as Dr Mary Poonen Lukose, Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma, Mrs Elizabeth Kuruvilla, Mrs A Sankaran Pillai, Mrs GM D’Souza, AV Kuttimalu Amma, Anna Chandy, CC Rudrani, Meenakshi….all of them nominated to various legislative bodies, are an eye-opener to the contributions of the women. It also documents the struggle each of the women had to battle on many fronts to create the space that women enjoy today. “They were not faultless. They made mistakes. They veered off the course. But that in no way discounts the work undertaken by these women leaders,” says Devika.

Syncretic and analytical

This path-breaking work draws inspiration from letters, short stories, essays, newspaper articles, fragments of speeches, excerpts from books and some of Devika’s own writing on different topics. The approach is syncretic and analytical at the same time, providing a fascinating overview of women and their lives in Kerala. “I also paid attention to the aesthetics of the page and a number of readers remarked on that,” she adds.

Devika has also translated and included select works of the late author K Saraswathy Amma. A ragged book, its pages dog-eared and falling to pieces, introduced Devika to the polemics of Saraswathy Amma’s short stories. However, the book, unlike those of her male contemporaries, never got the attention or close studies that it should have, points out Devika.

As she fills in the blanks in the history of Kerala, Devika hopes that other women will also step in to write about those women, famous and unknown, of another generation who freed themselves from different kinds of shackles although many of them had to face backlash from the patriarchy, while many more had to step back and fall in line due to familial pressure and convention. “But it is important for us to remember those bold women, their courage of conviction and their contributions,” says Devika.

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