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Sartorial assertions for change

The dictum, the one who controls the past controls the future, and, the one who controls the present controls the past, has been repeated by many. This could be one of the reasons why mainstream history has been mostly silent on the experiences of marginalised women.

While everyone would have heard of the Channar Revolt, Achippudava Samaram (or Ethappu Samaram as it is sometimes referred to) and Mookkuthi Samaram, which revolve around the violation of sartorial norms imposed by caste practices, has not entered the popular imaginary of the Malayali. Both these agitations were assertions of social aspirations, in which the clothes and ornaments of women were pivotal in subverting the structures of identity and social order.

The Channar Revolt or the Upper Cloth Movement that took place in 19th century Travancore posed an audacious challenge to social hierarchies based on caste. In the Channar Revolt, women of the Nadar or Channar caste, who were converted to Christianity, started wearing the upper-cloth in the fashion commonly adopted by the Hindu Nair women. In Kerala, till the late 19th century, women belonging to lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts. When the lower caste Channar women started wearing the upper-cloth, they were attacked for two reasons: firstly, for covering their breasts and secondly, for emulating the styles of attire used by privileged upper caste Nair women.

The Achippudava Samaram or the agitation for the right to wear a particular kind of cloth by the Ezhavas started when upper caste Hindus attacked some Ezhava women, who were weavers of this kind of cloth, for using it themselves. According to the attackers, the weavers could not claim the right to use this smooth white cotton cloth with beautiful gold border as it was usually worn by the women of upper castes as a mark of distinction. According to another version of the story that can lead to an entirely different interpretation, an Ezhava woman, who was walking along the market at Kayamkulam, her breasts covered, was brutally attacked by men of the upper castes. Aarattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, a fiery Ezhava chieftain who heard of this, stormed into the market armed, and distributed clothes to all the women there who were prohibited from covering the upper part of their body. This happened in 1858.

Ezhava women were also disallowed from wearing the mookkuthi or nose-stud. In the Mookkuthi Samaram of 1860, an Ezhava woman in Pandalam marked her protest against this interdiction by wearing a mookkuthi (nose stud). Enraged by this act of defiance, the men of upper castes ripped off the mookkuthi, maiming her. Panicker, furious on hearing this, supported the Ezhava women by making gold nose-studs in hundreds, and asking them to wear it. No one dared to challenge Panicker as he was immensely rich and had a reputation for being ruthless with those who opposed him.

While maintaining the necessity to understand history from an experiential plane, we must also acknowledge that there are a set of parameters and perspectives underlying the vicissitudes of every historical account as it takes shape as a narrative. The historical accounts of movements of marginalised women exemplify a ‘subjugation of knowledge.’ The Channar revolt finds space in historical accounts as a movement inspired by the Christian missionaries or as a social reform movement, or as an anti-caste movement, or ironically, as one prompted by non-political reasons.

The agency of Channar women, who were instrumental in bringing about a significant social change, is grievously underestimated in all these accounts. Similarly, the accounts of Achippudava Samaram and Mookkuthi Samaram are elided in mainstream history or presented as the result of the heroics of a bold man or narrated in ways that totally efface the symbolic significance of these acts of defiance, or presented as stories without political connotations.

(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. G.S Jayasree is Professor and Head, Institute of English, and editor of Samyukta. )

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 4:09:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/Sartorial-assertions-for-change/article14224494.ece

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