60 Minutes History & Culture

The solution is to go back to real history: T.M. Thomas Isaac

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

When the former minister made a chance visit to Alappuzha, I got a 10-minute window to meet him. He generously extended that, and went on to speak extensively about heritage and culture. And how highlighting the diverse landscape of history might help combat today’s polarising cultural currents. It is what T.M. Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s Minister for Finance and Coir until earlier this year, is banking on with his strong support for arts and conservation schemes. Medieval structures are being restored in Kodungallur — erstwhile Mahodayapuram, capital of the Chera Perumals — while a major project is on to reinvent post-industrial Alappuzha as a heritage town. The CPI(M) leader spoke of why these efforts are important in Kerala’s present stage of development. Edited excerpts:

You are giving enormous importance to heritage conservation in Kerala. What motivates this?

I was brought up in Kodungallur, which is believed to be in the vicinity of Muziris, the ancient port on the Malabar coast that dates back to at least the first century BC. Artefacts dating back to Roman times have been found there. The Jews, Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English were all there. I thought, if these sites were conserved, a tour through them could become a circuit for informal history education. For me, education was the primary focus, because I wanted to give students a walk through history, to teach them about the past so that they can know better about the present. Though the project is under the tourism department, the tourism angle was actually a spin-off; we are focused on our children, on future generations. We are going to organise a three-day certificate course on Muziris for students.

  • Minister for Finance from 2006 to 2011 and 2016 to 2021
  • MLA for Alappuzha from 2011 to 2021
  • Ph.D. from the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, where he was professor
  • Author of numerous articles and books, including Kerala: Land and Man, which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989

And you are extending the same idea to Alappuzha now.

In Alappuzha, the focus of the project is much larger. The attempt is to reinvent it as a heritage town. In the latter half of the 18th century, all the harbours on the Malabar coast were controlled by the Dutch. To counter their influence, the Diwan of Travancore, Raja Kesavadas, created a new harbour here. It became a major port town, exporting forest produce, spices and coir, and importing kerosene and grains. Its importance declined with the rise of Kochi, but it received a new lease of life with the localisation of the coir industry in the town. In the post-Independence period, the industries shifted, the port died, and the canal system decayed. Now, only a shell remains.

We are now cleaning the canals, renovating colonial-era godowns and factories as well as churches and mosques. Our idea is to set up around two dozen small living museums in these conserved historical buildings. We are spending around ₹1,500 crore on the project, including ₹400 crore on the transport hub alone. Some 6-7 lakh tourists come to Alappuzha each year for the houseboats, and we want to persuade at least half of them to stay one extra day to see the heritage town. It will be Alappuzha’s second rebirth.

You have always been known for your support of art and culture. What drives your interest?

Well, I am essentially a development economist. I have been persuaded by [CPI(M) leader] M.A. Baby, who is also a cultural activist. Investment in culture is important to preserve the progressive and secular cultural traditions of the State. In Kerala, the per capita income is at least 50% higher than the Indian average. What do we do with this money? We are buying gold, purchasing consumer durables and constructing houses — Kerala is now dotted with large and ugly houses. This consumerist culture is overwhelming, and goes against all socialist ideals.

So, what are the alternative avenues for expenditure? People should consume more cultural goods and services. But to do that, you need cultural infrastructure. And you need to create a certain mindset. A rapidly developing economy like Kerala must invest in history and culture, otherwise it’s not socialist ideals but the ideals of consumerism that will dominate. I have been criticised for spending borrowed funds on cultural infrastructure, like in the Muziris project. My answer is that this expenditure on history and culture will have major developmental spinoffs besides promoting culture.

Does the Party buy into this reasoning?

By and large, yes. At one time, the Party had a cultural hegemony in Kerala. That is being challenged now — by post-modernism, by right-wing anarchism etc. So, the Party sees it as important to intervene. Till recently, nobody would have given any credence to disputes like those being raised around the Mappila Revolt, but now it spreads rapidly. Hindu society in Kerala underwent a renaissance and it had become a most secular society, but that is being challenged now. We need to acknowledge and confront the threat.

The solution is to go back to heritage and to real history; show how cosmopolitan it was, how accommodative. People will respond. Take the Cheraman Juma Mosque, the oldest in India, or the Holy Cross Church, both in Kodungallur. When we wanted to restore the original Kerala architectural façade, the authorities were reluctant to hand over the structures to us, but now after seeing the restoration, the Jamaat is using its own money to restore the basement.

Your government is invested in culture, but what happens when the government changes? Can the momentum be maintained?

The idea is to create mass participation and to ride on that. This way, even if the government changes, the people will still want the cultural investments to continue, as in the case of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Now, we have gone back to seeding efforts there because there is people’s involvement. That is why we have invited art exhibitions like Lokame Tharavadu to Alappuzha. It ties in with our ideas for branding Alappuzha. Besides this, I am banking on there being a competitive drive from successive governments to keep such projects going. Especially because what we are doing is not any narrow Marxist interpretation of culture but a broad, progressive and secular interpretation.

How has COVID-19 impacted all these plans?

Kerala’s finances have been impacted in three ways. One, the lockdowns have affected our economy like all others. Second, nearly 30% of Kerala’s income comes from remittances, which have been reduced drastically. Third, tourism, our most dynamic sector, has been forced to close. This has resulted in job losses and business shutdowns. Any reduction in government revenues impacts Kerala more because we spend more. Our social and welfare expenditure is high, and it must go on, regardless of income. And we’ve not stopped any of it.

But every crisis also brings its own opportunity. So, we have crafted an exit strategy from COVID-19 that will improve livelihoods and social sectors, overhaul infrastructure, and push Kerala into a time-bound transition towards a knowledge economy.

What does this mean from a Left perspective?

It involves transforming the technological base of existing agriculture, industry and services with innovation and modern techniques; prioritising investment in knowledge-intensive industries; and massive digital skilling programmes to take advantage of the global shift to a gig economy.


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 9:02:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-solution-is-to-go-back-to-real-history-tm-thomas-isaac/article36771766.ece

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