The real story of how one woman’s rebellion against oppressive feudalism has been hijacked and repurposed by the patriarchy
Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, a watery alcove on the Kerala coast. We do not know when she was born or who sired her. But we know she died in 1803, her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed. Today, Nangeli has champions on the Internet, her story is told by men and women seeking inspiration and courage on this side of time. And they too have recast her sacrifice, celebrating a tale that would have been alien to the protagonist. Nangeli has been reduced from a woman who thrust a dagger into the heart of society to one who died to preserve those artful shackles that many of us know as ‘honour’.
The contours of the tale are well known. Nangeli and her man, Chirukandan, were Ezhavas — toddy tappers — who laboured in that awkward gap that society fashions for those who are low but not the lowest. They had a little hut where they lived, and they had no children. Life for Nangeli and Chirukandan was as hard as it was for their neighbours. They toiled hand to mouth, toeing lines drawn by caste, and bowing before the pretensions of their superiors. Nothing about them was remarkable till Nangeli stood up. They will proclaim that she stood up to preserve her dignity, but that is because they are afraid to admit that she stood up to them. Nangeli was a rebel, but like many rebels, in death her memory became the possession of those she opposed. She threw off one tyrant, and found her legacy in the grasp of another.
The Kerala that Nangeli and Chirukandan knew was not the Kerala celebrated today for its healthy children, emancipated grandmothers, and literate masses. It was a hard, difficult landscape, and Cherthala was a speck on the map of Travancore, a state with a ruler of its own to whom was owed allegiance — and tax money. Land tax was low, but the Rajahs made up for this ancestral blunder through other levies. If you were a landless fisherman, you had a tax on your fishing net. If you were a man sporting a moustache, your facial hair fell within the mandate of the revenue inspector. If you owned slaves, you most certainly had to pay tax on these bleeding units of muscle. Nangeli and her husband acquiesced like loyal subjects, but they will tell you that she stood up to the one abhorrent tax that touched upon her honour; that when it came to her rights as a respectable woman, she declared: ‘No more.’
Cleaved her place
They came one morning, the story goes, to tax her breasts, leering at its shape and dimensions to calculate the figure owed. It was called mulakkaram — the breast tax — and women who were not high-born were surveyed as soon as they advanced from girlhood to adolescence. Nangeli was probably taxed for years, but in 1803 when the villains of the tale came to her hovel, she was prepared for the act that would cleave for her a place in history and lore. She went inside calmly while they waited by the threshold, it is said, and returned with the tax offering on a plantain leaf. Since they had come for the breast tax, that is what they got: Nangeli’s breasts, severed by her own hand and placed in a bleeding lump. She collapsed in a heap and died in agony, her corpse cradled by Chirukandan who returned to find his home turned into the scene of one of history’s great tragedies. Some say he jumped into the pyre as Nangeli burned and perished in flames of grief — for him too there was sacrifice.
The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. Women of low caste, they will tell you, couldn’t cover their bodies if they didn’t pay the breast tax. They silently wept and lamented their fate, shame building upon shame under the gaze of lewd old men for whom the right to dignity came with a price. But Nangeli was a woman of virtue — she would not barter money for honour. And so she chose death.
Embarrassed and horrified by the tyranny of their ways, the Rajahs abandoned the tax on breasts. Nangeli became a heroine. Womanhood prevailed.
This is the tale they will tell you of Nangeli. As it happens, it is all a travesty.
For a society as open as Kerala once was, breasts came to provoke a grave panic in the Victorian age. This was the land where Portuguese merchants in the 16th century beheld bare-breasted princesses, negotiating treaties of trade and leading bare-chested troops in battle. It was here that a 17th century Italian found himself in the court of a prince, packed with royal women covered only around the waist — two young nieces of the ruler wondered with amusement why on earth he was so covered up in the tropical heat. This was also the land where women enjoyed physical and sexual autonomy, where widowhood was no calamity and one husband could always be replaced with another. The coast was rich with the tales of great women — from Unniarcha of the Northern Ballad of Malabar, an accomplished warrior from Nangeli’s caste, to Umayamma of Attingal, a princess who reigned over kings. These were brave women of towering personality. But in the 19th century, Kerala’s moral conscience grappled not with their achievements as much as the conundrum that their unabashed bare-breastedness presented.
Virtue, as we recognise it today in its patriarchal definition, was not a concept that existed in Kerala. And till our colonial masters — and fellow Indians from patriarchal backgrounds — sat in judgement over the matrilineal streak heavily infused among the dominant groups here, women, their bare torsos, and their sexual freedoms did not in the least attract attention or opprobrium. Where elsewhere polygamy was a practice available to men, in Kerala there was polyandry on offer, because women were not unequal to their brothers (or, to be more exact, they were less unequal). They owned property and controlled resources, living fuller lives than the domesticated child-rearing destinies granted to their sisters elsewhere. But this was, of course, the case of women of privilege. For women like Nangeli there was no question of living a life of heroic glamour with armies or ballads; she had to earn her way through every day of uncertainty. It was in death that the songs followed, and so worrying were they, that they focussed not on Nangeli’s message but a perversion of it that was more palatable to changing social mores.
The advent of the British meant more than just political rule; they brought to Kerala a new sense of morality, reinforced by missionaries who had the ear of these foreign masters. Polyandrous marriage was deemed ‘very revolting’ — women were told that they ought to be virtuous, which meant deference to one husband, one master. They had to cultivate modesty, and toplessness was not a step in that direction. The sexual gaze of the patriarchal Victorian was turned towards the breast in Kerala, till then not a cause of concern. When men and women entered temples, they both took off their top cloth. Today only the men are obliged to do this. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, when Namboothiri Brahmin women for the first time acquired the blouse to cover themselves, purists excommunicated them for breaching custom — modesty and true moral superiority lay, they argued, in not covering up. As Aubrey Menen remarked of his grandmother’s attitude to his Irish mother, it was thought that ‘married women who wore blouses were Jezebels’ and ‘a wife who dressed herself could only be aiming at adultery’. To cover breasts because men demanded it, was regressive to elders as it meant succumbing to objectification. But these elders were a minority in the face of young, ‘progressive’ men bent on making their women ‘virtuous’.
Across the coast, the torso — male and female — was not something that was covered. Higher castes sported shawls, but not for reasons of modesty or because they had notions of virtue more consistent with those of a patriarchal society, but because the shawl was a mark of honour. When Christian converts from lower castes covered themselves in the 1850s, riots broke out after violent upper-caste attacks on them. The bone of contention was not that the converted women wanted to cover themselves — it was that they had covered themselves with the shawl permitted only to the high-born. Peace was restored when the converts invented a blouse; the covering was not the issue in the first place. The tale of Nangeli that they will tell you today has her fighting to preserve her honour, where honour is construed as her right to cover the breast. But in Nangeli’s time, the honour of a woman was hardly linked to the area above the waist. As F. Fawcett remarked, dress was ‘a conventional affair, and it will be a matter of regret should false ideas of shame supplant those of natural dignity such as one sees expressed in the carriage and bearing of the well-bred… lady’.
But the import of Victorian patriarchy also imported shame, and women were told that a bare body was a mark of disgrace. Dignity lay in accepting male objectification; honour was in docility. Men, studying in colleges in big cities, received jibes about their topless mothers who may have had more than one husband. Could they ever be sure about who their fathers were? These men dragged into Kerala the masculinity of their patriarchal interlocutors, and women too, exposed to the West and a new conception of femininity, succumbed. ‘We will publish nothing related to politics,’ declared one of the region’s earliest women’s magazines in 1892, adding that ‘writings that energise the moral conscience’ — tips on cooking, stories of ‘ideal women’ — and ‘other such enlightening topics’ alone would be covered. A lady’s job was in the home as a mother, as a loyal wife, and as a housekeeper, not outside as a topless harlot who exercised her customary right to divorce. ‘As women,’ another declaration went, ‘our god-ordained duty is the care of the home and service towards our husbands.’
New icons needed to be found. Women who fit the bill of the new order rather than those who were emblems of a now disgusting bare-bosomed past. And where such women were in short supply, existing women were reincarnated, as J. Devika has shown. Umayamma of Attingal, the topless queen whom the Dutch noted for her ‘noble and manly conduct’, who was ‘feared and respected by everyone’, and who was a ‘young Amazon’, became in S. Parameswara Iyer’s poetry, a melodramatic damsel in distress, a helpless mother (when, in fact, she had no children) pleading for a male protector. Where the English found that the ‘handsomest young men about the country’ formed her seraglio and ‘whom and as many [men] as she pleases to the honour of her bed’ could be had by her, now she became a loyal, patriarchal icon of womanly virtue. The women of the past were turned into ciphers for the present, filled with doses of honour and draped in garbs tailored by men. The wheels of time had turned and this is what was needed in Kerala.
Nangeli too was recast. When Nangeli offered her breasts on a plantain leaf to the Rajah’s men, she demanded not the right to cover her breasts, for she would not have cared about this ‘right’ that meant nothing in her day. Indeed, the mulakkaram had little to do with breasts other than the tenuous connection of nomenclature. It was a poll tax charged from low-caste communities, as well as other minorities. Capitation due from men was the talakkaram — head tax — and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram — breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli’s storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax.
When Nangeli stood up, squeezed to the extremes of poverty by a regressive tax system, it was a statement made in great anguish about the injustice of the social order itself. Her call was not to celebrate modesty and honour; it was a siren call against caste and the rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it. She was a heroine of all who were poor and weak, not the archetype of middle-class womanly honour she has today become. But they could not admit that Nangeli’s sacrifice was an ultimatum to the order, so they remodelled her as a virtuous goddess, one who sought to cover her breasts rather than one who issued a challenge to power. The spirit of her rebellion was buried in favour of its letter, and Nangeli reduced to the sum of her breasts.