If exclusion of Indians from governance produced the Congress, interaction with Westerners produced a new literature. Enabling South India’s society to look at itself during a time of disconcerting change, O Chandu Menon’s Malayalam novel, Indulekha, first published in 1889, and Gurajada Apparao’s Telugu play, Kanyasulkam (Bride-price), first staged in 1892, have also lasted as literary texts.
Parenthetically and briefly, Indulekha discussed whether the newly formed Congress was anti-British: being anti-British was seen as a risk or a flaw. For men like [WC] Bonnerjee and [DN] Naoroji, it was a charge to be refuted. Yet Indulekha is not a text in colonialism’s defence. As the scholar G Arunima puts it, the novel provides “a complex engagement with nationalism and colonialism”. Among the questions it touches upon is the equation between one of the Malayali world’s most energetic castes, the Nairs (still called Sudras at the time, including by some Nairs), and that world’s “highest” caste, the Nambudiri Brahmins.
The novel’s story revolves around a love affair between two Nairs: Indulekha and Madhavan, an English-educated student waiting to graduate from Madras University before starting a legal career. Though not receiving any formal school education, Indulekha is fluent in both English and Sanskrit, having been trained at home by the best teachers. In Arunima’s words, “By making Indulekha, a Sudra (Nayar) woman, a Sanskrit scholar, Chandu Menon made a serious critique of the caste pretensions of the Brahmins.” Menon also makes Indulekha the winner in an argument she has with a pretentious Nambudiri.
Son of a prosperous Nair tahsildar in Madras Presidency’s Malabar district, Chandu Menon went to a school started by the Basel Mission in the coastal town of Talasseri, but he was also taught Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindustani at home. Learning the law without going to a law college and gaining admiration for acuteness and impartiality, he became, unusually for an Indian in his time, a sub-judge.
Work took Menon to the spaces of British officials, who were appreciative of his abilities, but one of them, GR Sharp, went too far when, on one occasion, he caught hold of Menon’s kuduma (hair-knot) and suggested its removal. Indulekha contains a hint of the offending incident.
Along with colonial rule, shoes and slippers were introduced to the Malabar countryside, but custom forbade footwear before superiors or elders. When Menon saw one day, in front of his house, a subordinate of his, a Tamil Brahmin, carrying something wrapped in paper, he asked, “Sweets?” “No, sir,” the man replied, “these are my new slippers.” This incident too found a place in Indulekha. Recognising that new customs threatened long-nursed pictures of an Indian self, and of the standing in society of an Indian’s caste, Indulekha seemed to point out that a native could accept, reject or modify the colonising world’s offerings.
A mixed response was the ground reality. While Western impact caused a few Nairs like Chandu Menon’s father to give his son a paternal prefix (Oyyarathu in this case), the great majority chose to remain linked in their names to their mother’s taravad, her house and lineage.
Allowing Malayalis to smile at changes in their society and also at the odd ways of their new masters, Indulekha captivated Nair households because its Malayalam was closer to the spoken idiom, and because it told a story near to their lives or hopes, not a tale of ages gone by, or of “the marvels of gods and goddesses, recoverable only through the medium of a pristine, Sanskritised language”. Even if, as Chandu Menon conceded, there were very few actual Indulekhas in 1889, a great many Malayali young women were willing to imagine themselves as future Indulekhas.
Kanyasulkam’s creator was Gurajada Apparao (1862–1915), a Niyogi Brahmin from the princely tract of Vizianagaram in the northern part of the east coast’s Telugu country. After graduating from the college created in Vizianagaram by its raja, Ananda Gajapati Raju, Apparao taught there before joining the raja’s staff in 1886.
This munificent raja funded several intellectual and cultural efforts in the presidency and also in distant Calcutta. Apparao assisted him in a series of responsible capacities, including as Vizianagaram’s epigraphist. Following the raja’s death in 1897, Apparao became assistant, adviser and personal friend to the raja’s younger sister, the Maharani of Rewa, a widow who lived in Vizianagaram after the death, shortly after their marriage, of her husband, the Rajput raja of the north Indian principality of Rewa.
Three short lines, translated into English by the poet Srirangam Srinivasa Rao from Apparao’s Telugu verse, “Desabhakti”, convey an idea of our artist’s outlook:
Never does land
Mean clay and sand
The people, the people, they are the land.
A writer of English poems while a student, Apparao soon switched to Telugu, where he employed words that people actually spoke. Often called the greatest play in Telugu, Kanyasulkam was staged for the first time in 1892 and published, with a dedication to the Vizianagaram raja, in 1909.
The play’s plot is formed by two intersecting stories. One is the desire of an elderly Brahmin to buy as his new bride Subbi, the very young daughter of another Brahmin who is willing to go through with the deal but whose wife is not, since her older daughter is already a widow and she fears Subbi will become one too.
The other is the love life of a smooth-talking, handsome, English-educated Girish (or Girisham). He has an ongoing secret affair with a young widow who runs an eatery providing meals to employed middle-class Brahmin males. Girish is also involved with a courtesan, Madhuravani, who is anxious to save Subbi.
A recent translator of the play into English, Velcheru Narayana Rao, calls Kanyasulkam “devastatingly honest”. Noting that its thirty-two-strong cast of characters includes Brahmins and non-Brahmins, “corrupt police officers, idealistic lawyers, smart courtesans, pseudo yogis” and more, Narayana Rao adds: “Every character in the original speaks in a dialect of Telugu specific to his or her caste, social status, gender, educational level and individual style”.
The contest between an unprincipled Girish and the chivalrous and resourceful prostitute, Madhuravani, has fascinated the Telugu world for more than a century. Kanyasulkam is celebrated as a historically powerful voice against the cruel and lifelong widowhoods that were foretold when old Brahmin males procured very young wives and widow remarriage was forbidden.
Narayana Rao, however, questions this standard portrayal of Apparao as a reforming advocate of widow remarriage, suggestive of Bengal’s better-known Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. He asks us to note that Kanyasulkam’s characters, “dynamic, enterprising, creative, funny, intriguing and tough”, seem to be having a good time in the play.
More importantly, says Narayana Rao, the heated debates over widow remarriage that took place in India around the time of the play’s creation involved “only the small upper-caste layer of Brahmins and an even smaller number of people from Brahminised castes”. Those from more populous castes “did not really need the social reform agenda as most of their women freely married again if a husband died”.
Whether Apparao is best seen as a bold reformer or as an uninhibited portrayer of life, the triumphs in Kanyasulkam of Madhuravani over Girish, and over the old man thirsty for a child-wife, have been cheered for over a century by the play’s audiences and readers.
Excerpted with permission from Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times, Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company.