A Short History Of Caste In Kerala Narrated Through Its Pots & Pans

A Short History Of Caste In Kerala Narrated Through Its Pots & Pans
Green Heirloom

Caste has been such an entrenched part of the Indian society that it manages to seep through every little crevice. Homegrown has previously spoken about casteism in the food that goes on the plate but it’s also that the plate is never free of caste. In fact, the plate has long been seen as a marker of one’s social location as is evinced by this historical account of casteism in Kerala as told through its utensils by writer Diya Joseph. Diya, who enumerates a unique aspect of Kerala’s history, also draws upon its reclamation to show how pieces of cookware like ‘Kinnam’ and ‘Mannchatti’, that stand as symbols of an oppressed era, are being evoked in the contemporary milieu to preserve the forgotten past. Diya introduces Kaviya Cherian’s Green Heirloom, a brand that offers a unique platform to local artisans and brings to us sustainable and eco-friendly cookware from creators across the country.

This narrative starts in Mannar in Kerala, a town like any other, except for its bustling fumes and sweltering workshops with toiling men melding metals for a living. It is a story of ‘proletariat’ skilled labourers toiling away to build works of beauty, embalmed with metals and alloys – iconic pieces of cookware like ‘Uruli’, ‘Varpu’, ‘Kinnam’, and ‘Ottukalam’, to name a few.

The Uruli was widely used for cooking and serving food with its impeccable capacity to hold heat and its relative capability to add taste to its dishes. In the recent past, this artefact has found its way to the lounges and lobbies of luxury hotels to amplify the cultural dial.

A metallic cauldron made of bronze was a mark of celebration in the yesteryears, taken out from the dusty attics to make large portions of food for large family gatherings or even potion ayurvedic medicines. Just like its cousin, Uruli, the Varpu has been far removed from its initial utility and has metamorphosed as a decorative item to spew connotations of heritage. The bronze Kinnam and Ottukalam, once a staple in every Kerala household to store food or water, as they retain temperatures for a long part of the day, now lay muddled as ‘in-between’ charms to decorate a space.

The Mannar town is remarked as the ‘Bell Metal Town’ of Kerala, considering its cluster of merchants and labourer’s surrounding the area. This town lives and breathes the art of metal melding; bronze in particular. The reason for this ‘art’ or profession to lay its roots in Mannar is owed to its ideal soil that is necessary as a resource for the creation of these artefacts. Moulds are designed with clay onto which molten wax is poured to create an even coating, which is then left to cool and harden. This process ends with molten metal alloys being poured into the cavity to create the item.

The skilled delicacies and details of this artform surpass my frugal mind. Once a thriving industry, passed on from generations to generations as an heirloom, has now dwindled in numbers from some 250 to merely 20-30 families practising this craft in the community. The reasons for this plight seem to be the strenuous effort involved in this occupation, and poor financial incentives for the labourers due to declining demand for such metallic artefacts.

This rather quaint town has gained a foothold in the national and international forum for their Bronze statue displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the massive Cathedral Church of Redemption Bell, clanging and resounding through the streets of New Delhi. The accolades don’t end here but line up as a formidable list of victorious ballads. The history of the few existing establishments in Mannar can be traced back to 100 years of expertise and tradition in the industry. Amidst these rather profound accomplishments, our story zones in particularly on the cookware utensils that are moulded by the artisans of Mannar.

Before we gauge the metallic cookware industry, let’s rewind and trace back the vestiges of an unsaid past; a new discourse, one in which the metallic utensils embrace the voice of the subaltern, the marginalised, the ‘other’.

In a conversation with the elderly in my household, I came across an interesting anecdote, rather a curious fact. In the state of Kerala, the land of Indian Communism, a spearhead in literacy, lay age-old customs, caste and disparity. Malayalis were divided based on caste in both the Hindu and Christian communities; this was, crudely, a divide between the ‘Touchable’ and the ‘Untouchable’. The Untouchable, lower-caste ‘other’ could be one of the Paravans, the Pelayas, or the Pulayas. The poor, degrading scourge of these communities was so profound that often, they were not allowed to access public roads, educational institutions or cover their upper bodies. Even their very breath and presence seemed to defile the air. While the dominant upper-caste ate and relished their meals in fancy crockery, or the then-popular stainless-steel plates, the silenced marginalised community ate and drank in utensils of which, widely used where the ‘Kavadi Kinnam’, ‘Irumbu Kinnam’ and ‘Ottu Kinnam’. They were made with copper, bronze, iron and other alloys coated with baked enamel to prevent corrosion. Before these metallic utensils were introduced in the market, it was the Mannchatti (clay pot) that acted as the bowl of the poor. These utensils were never touched by the dominant class nor similar kinds used in their daily lives. The ‘Kavadi Kinnam’ and others were tainted crockery polluted by its association with the Paravans, the Pelayas and the Pulayas. However, these utensils that were once thought to be below the dominant castes were, in fact, made from expensive metals that lasted a lifetime. Aluminium cookware, on the other hand, was discovered to release toxins under high temperature and gather rust over time.

Going over the historic narratives of caste and creed, the remarkable Land Reforms Act of Kerala (1969) tried to redistribute wealth among its inhabitants. The practised feudal system was struck a blow at as peasants were given the legal power to own the land they cultivated. Land ceiling was introduced to distribute excess land among the landless labourers – in essence, to end the feudal system and exploitation in the agrarian sector. This caused many in the marginalised periphery to rise and gain a foothold in economic development.

Now, what do these utensils and pieces of cookware represent?

They are clanging cymbals of an end to exploitation. They are mirrors that hold up the foolishness of the upper-caste mentality. They are symbols of years of defilement and triumph over inequality.

Zoning back to the story of Mannar, at this point, owing to the attempt to bring back past cultural milieu and celebrate its nuances, the bronze metal industry is gaining its momentum. There is a drastic shift in the utility of the utensils and cookware from the living spaces, back to the kitchen. Uruli, Varpu, Kinnam and Ottukalam that were once essential household commodities are back in the vicinity of the kitchen. This phenomenon is not secluded to the boundaries of a locale but has taken the country by storm. Multi-cuisine five-star hotels are embracing the ancient and spinning an old-world charm into the narrative of their ventures. This growing attraction has led to an increase in demand for such cookware and utensils; a growing hope to save an otherwise dying industry.

Young entrepreneurs are rising from the ranks of Kerala to spearhead such movements. A homegrown brand, Green Heirloom is one such venture that is garnering growing recognition. The brand incentivises artisan talent from across Mannar to curate beautiful collections of cookware that aims to reinstate the integrity of this craft. Kinnam, Uruli, Mannchatti, Kalchatti (stone pot) and many such products that are part of the brand, are specifically curated according to the customer specifications. Such initiatives to bring back to life, a dying industry while supporting and engaging local artisans to protect the legacy of culture is truly awe-inspiring.

The narrative of the oppressor and the oppressed is ever-evolving, with varied facets of the truth. Kinnam and Mannchatti are symbols of an oppressed era, that have been evoked in the contemporary milieu to preserve the forgotten past. For this is the politics of people, “an un-historical historiography” of Kerala.

Diya Joseph is a postgraduate in Marketing, specialised in Consumer Behaviour from the University of Manchester, UK. She’s a keen writer, amateur marketeer with a recent interest in baking. Her articles have been featured in The Week and The Hindu MetroPlus.

Green Heirloom, run by Kaviya Cherian, is a sustainable organic cookware brand that provides a bigger platform for local artisans. They reach out to artisans, involve and engage with them at each step of the way, to bring us a product suited to our precise specifications while also ensuring that the artisans are rewarded adequately for their efforts.

You can find more about them here.

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