Critically viewing and revising our collective historical canon is incredibly crucial, especially in the light of newer and more jarring narratives.
In a very chaotic India, where hero-worshipping is rampant (case in point—our political narrative of the past year itself has been fraught with god-like statuses for the men who have been elected to power), these lessons are frequently lost on us. Quite often, the most privileged among us walk away with utmost attention. Unfortunate as these instances are, there are moments when silence makes its presence felt. In the story of Nangeli, drenched in blood as it is, we find a symbolic voice which echoes to this day, much like a substantial piece of history – a history that subverts and is in defiance with ruling ideological apparatuses.
The Travancore of the 19th century holds within itself the vestiges of Nangeli’s sacrifice. Popular notions hold the state of Kerala in the years before independence as one where caste and its allied issues had found little ground to blossom. Yet this view, one from outside the fringes of society seems hazy. To the unknown eye, the words of Dr T.K. Ravindran, a historian might confirm suspicions, “of all the territorial divisions in India. Kerala, particularly, Travancore took the sin of pride in the matter of extending the limits of social inequality (Dr M.S. Jaya Prakash).”
It is here in this land of Travancore whose vast riches were founded on the shoulders of the ever-growing and tax-paying lower castes and classes that one finds monetary compensation levied on body parts, for both men and women. From taxes on growing a moustache to the right to wear jewellery, the value seemed to have been placed on every aspect of their lives. Ludicrous as it may seem, a tax given the term mulakkaram, was levied on a woman’s breasts.
Unlike upper-caste women, women of the Ezhava caste were not given the option of covering their bosom in public unless they paid taxes. This ensured that the freedom to choose for women belonging to the lower castes to be taken away.
It was during this time that Nangeli, an Ezhava woman living in Cherthala, decided to deny the pravathiyar, the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. Despite the humiliation and brutality that followed such antics, alarms against such taxes had been sporadic and muted. Lower caste men and women who had lost the battle stayed away from speaking out, preferring to spend their days painfully adhering to the rigid social order, away from the voyeuristic eyes of the upper-castes and the colonial powers.
In a BBC article, Dr Sheeba KM, an associate Professor of Gender Ecology and Dalit Studies at the Shri Shankaracharya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Kerala says, “The purpose of the breast-tax was to maintain the caste structure.”
Once the news of her defiance spread around the village of Cherthala, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli followed the rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home, drenched in her own blood having cut her breasts which she summarily placed in front of the officer, much to his horror. A few minutes took away the last shreds of life from within her and by that evening, Nangeli was cremated. Her husband Chirukandan, according to Manu S Pillai in the Hindustan Times states, “he jumped into the pyre as Nangeli burned and perished in flames of grief — for him too there was sacrifice.”
The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation. Women from lower castes were now allowed to adorn a shawl. The home of Nangeli and Chirukandan where the incidence took place became known as mulalchi parambu, the land of the breasted woman. Manu S Pillai also reiterates how feminist icons have been recast in our present historical discourses. He says, “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. Maitrayee Chaudhuri states, “Cultural practices often chosen as emblematic of community identity pertain to women’s mobility, and control of sexuality.” It posits that the choices a woman makes, especially, a lower caste woman, either will aid her erasure or destroy her true identity within the norms of that cultural milieu. Here it is both colonialism and the advance of the patriarchy in matriarchal Kerala that casts Nangeli in its shadows.
Today, however, this sacrifice, responsible for giving power to women in the community to challenge dominant social systems, seems to have lost itself to communal embarrassment. The land which witnessed the event now stands shared between several owners, bereft of any representation of Nangeli and her courage. Moreover, in the many texts which articulate the caste struggles of men and women in Kerala or the liberation movement undertaken by women, Nangeli’s story is missing. Her courage, however, has found a place in the autobiographies of local leaders like C. Kesavan and K.R. Gowri Amma. Prejudiced as it may be, history must be constantly rewritten and revised so as to take us away from what Gayatri Spivak terms as ‘sanctioned amnesia and ignorance.’
Nangeli’s story, amongst many others which speak of the silent strength of true heroes, is suppressed due to the overwhelming narrative of the patriarchal and Brahmanical history of our country. Manu S Pillai further states, “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.”
Excavation of stories, forgotten, known but unwritten, and those which remain unknown due to lack of an audience, must benefit from the light of awareness. Nangeli’s story still hunts for pages to be written on but percolating her story will make her a powerful agent in our present day. This road that we trudge on today, has benefitted from the trailblazing gestures of Nangeli. And though the rust under us might have been replaced by concrete, it will not bode well for us to forget that our present is still founded on the shoulders of a faulty, often injustice laden history and tales of resistance are necessary for a better, more inclusive, future.
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