Recent death of Lakshmi Sehgal brings it to focus
The recent passing away of Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal, who was part of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), has brought to focus a matriarchal Nair ‘Tharavad,’ house of a joint family, that has produced several illustrious daughters of India.
The mansion ‘Vadakath,’ over a century old, in the sleepy Anakkara village in Palakkad district can be proud of the women who trace their lineage to their ‘Tharavad,’ as Nair families that followed the matriarchal system were known. They include political leaders, women’s right campaigners and danseuses, some of whom had come out in the public domain at a time when women in Kerala were confined to being homemakers.
Under the matriarchal system, which existed among the Nair community in Kerala for centuries, women inherited family property, while the men managed them. This disappeared with the collapse of the feudal order in the second half of the last century. Besides Capt. Lakshmi, who died recently in Kanpur, some other women of the ‘Tharavad’ who made a mark in society were freedom fighters A.V. Kuttimalu Amma and Ammu Swaminadhan (Capt. Lakshmi’s mother), (and in current times) the choreographers Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika Sarabhai and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Subhashini Ali (Capt. Lakshmi’s daughter).
The family home, built in the typical ‘Nalukettu’ style of Kerala, still exists with its sprawling courtyard and spacious verandas. Cutting across political lines, hundreds of people had visited the ‘Tharavad’ to pay homage to Capt. Lakshmi, when she passed away last month. Capt. Lakshmi, who led the women regiment of Bose’s INA, had spent her childhood at Anakkara and frequently made return trips, even in her advanced years.
Though many members of this family have been living outside Kerala for three generations, they acknowledge the strength of their roots. Kuttimalu Amma, Capt. Lakshmi’s maternal aunt, was one of the early women leaders of the Indian National Congress and a two-time member of the Madras Legislative Assembly in the pre-Independence period. Her dedication to the cause of rehabilitating orphaned and destitute children had even impressed Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Later, her husband, Kozhipurath Madhava Menon, held key portfolios in the government led by C. Rajagopalachari. Mrinalini Sarabhai, younger sister of Captain Lakshmi and wife of eminent space scientist Vikram Sarabhai, is one of India’s most talented danseuse. Her dancer-daughter Mallika Sarabhai has also been active in social and political issues. Subhashini Ali, elder daughter of Capt. Lakshmi and central committee member of the CPI(M), said her ‘Tharavad’ was a “unique one” and it was difficult to explain how the matriarchal home produced so many accomplished women.
“This may in part be due to the ‘marumakatayam’ (matriarchal system) that existed during the period, but not entirely. Another important factor was the influence of the freedom movement, which had influenced many of the male family members of that period. But certainly it was a unique family,” Ms. Ali said. But she said the successful women saga of ‘vadakkath’ was an exceptional case and the situation was not the same in many other families of the period in Kerala.
Capt Lakshmi used to visit the ‘tharavad’ during her school vacations. She visited the ‘Vadakkath’ house even before leaving for Singapore in the early 1940s to practise as a doctor there. She had decided to join ‘Netaji’ and became part of the INA during that trip. Not only women members, but some of the sons-in-law of the family were also well-known figures of the time. Ammu Swaminadhan’s husband S. Swaminadhan was an established criminal lawyer in Chennai. Mrinalini Sarabhai was married to Vikram Sarabhai, who is considered to be the ‘architect of India’s space programmes.’ Kozhipurath Madhava Menon, Kuttimalu Amma’s husband, was a prominent political figure in the 1940s.
Built by P. Govinda Menon and his brother P. Theyunni Menon in 1896, ‘Vadakkath’ mansion is a typical existing example of traditional Kerala style house. The tiled building, tucked away amid shady trees, celebrated its centenary in 1996 by holding a 'kudumba yogam’ (family get-together) in which most of its members living in various parts of the world assembled. “My mother last visited 'Vadakkath’ about eight years ago. She always dreamt of coming back,” Ms. Ali said.