What makes a Malayali?

Published - May 05, 2016 11:50 am IST - Thiruvananthapuram

'Nanarthangal: Samooham, Charithram, Samskaram' by Sunil P. Elayidom

'Nanarthangal: Samooham, Charithram, Samskaram' by Sunil P. Elayidom

N anarthangal: Samooham, Charithram, Samskaram by Sunil P. Elayidom is a fascinating bouquet of essays on the rich and diverse terrains of Kerala’s social, cultural, literary and art history, published by Kairali Books. Here is an attempt to unpack the multiple meanings underlying the very idea of a Kerala culture, given the contexts of its fast changing social and economic conditions.

Straddling a wide array of topics from music, painting, sexuality and literature, Sunil tries to look at their pivotal roles in our discussions of culture and society, teasing out their multilayered meanings and interconnectedness. What is most interesting is the unwritten subtext of the book, which constantly plays with the idea of the instability of meanings attributed to cultural artefacts, meanings that change in response to the changing social, political and economic functions and desires of society.

There are 39 essays in this collection that are eclectic in their range, but which nevertheless have been divided into four sections, in order to give them a thematic coherence. The first section on the socio-cultural landscapes of Kerala begins with an essay on Sree Narayana Guru. It is interesting that Sunil refers to a quote by Narayana Guru that just as the caste of the cow is its ‘cowness’ the caste of a human being ought to be his/her humanity. A highly astute understanding of the continued relevance of Narayana Guru in Kerala society today by placing him squarely in the historic context of his age, this essay is a must read for all Malayalis, given the manner in which the words of seers and philosophers are being hijacked for political ends in our contemporary debates. Equally relevant is the essay on Kesari Balakrishna Pillai’s life, the revolutionary journalist whose life overflowed the difficult historic epoch of Kerala history in which he lived and gained new resonances in the ages to follow. From the political potential of the Kiss of Love campaign in recent times to the print revolution and the birth of modernity in Kerala, from moral policing to ecological crisis and the Gadgil Report, the essays in this section offer a sumptuous intellectual variety that is illuminating and integral to many current debates in Kerala.

The second section is on literary studies offering a broad spectrum of topics from the functions of a Marxist critique to the death of literary criticism in Malayalam. An interesting essay in this section is the reappraisal of the continuities and contradictions between the progressive literature movement and the modernist movement in Kerala. The third section is on art, encompassing its varied traditions and variant forms in Kerala. The final section offers provocative insights into certain crucial markers of our culture. For instance, the essay on the cultural history of calendars, the ones on ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Hindutva’ and on homosexuality, are all striking for their unique perspectives and striking novelty of approach.

This book is an essential read for Malayalis for multiple reasons. First, it remembers and in the process engages with some of the greatest intellectuals and reformers who shaped Kerala’s modernity. Secondly, these essays are not intellectual acrobatics but pertain to our own lived experiences and the underlying fact that culture is ordinary and that it is the sum total of our lived lives. Thirdly, they are profoundly illuminating in forging a connection with our pasts and, in the process, revealing our continuities and disjunctures with our histories. Without theoretical jargons or academic highbrowism these essays try to make sense of the moral, emotional, intellectual and ideological concerns that shape the idea of ‘Malayaliness’ today.

(A column on some of the best reads in Malayalam. The author is director, School of English and Foreign Languages, University of Kerala)

Nanarthangal: Samooham, Charithram, Samskaram

Sunil P. Elayidom

Kairali Books

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