Not quite ‘Renaissance’

J Devika | Updated on February 22, 2019 Published on February 22, 2019

Hands down: The ‘Women’s Wall’, the Kerala government’s attempt to project a progressive outlook on gender issues, went unchallenged even by feminists   -  H VIBHU

In the fabled Kerala Model, the values of freedom, equality, justice, and fraternity still elude the woman

The flavour of the season in Kerala at the moment is “Renaissance”. In the state Budget, the finance minister has set apart resources for starting a research institute focused on the “Kerala Renaissance”, thereby investing heavily in the term as an unquestionable and well-defined historical reality. The chief minister routinely calls for the defence of Renaissance values as the main bulwark internal to Kerala against the external challenge, of the Hindtuva horde. And mainstream Left public speakers refer endlessly to it.

Only in the explicit and vocal expression of a pre-existing historical account authorised by the mainstream Left does the early 20th century emerge as a flawless epoch of modern values and democratisation. It is widely accepted as the foundation of the Kerala Model of social development. And foundations are rarely re-examined as long as the superstructure continues to be extended and be refurbished in different ways. Unlike Bengal, where the idea of the Bengal Renaissance was thoroughly critiqued and rewritten from within mainstream male Leftist scholarship in the 1970s, in Kerala, the critiques and recasting of the Kerala Renaissance of the early 20th century emerged only in the ’90s and after. This happened when feminist, dalit and Muslim intellectuals began to complain that the superstructure was either crumbling or inadequate or both. Not surprisingly, they called for a serious re-examination of the foundations.

Most of this work pointed to the serious omissions in the Left-liberal account: It rendered invisible the rise of modern patriarchy and reduced the women’s experience of these changing times to a mere list of ‘Great Women’. It also reduced the dalit experience by selectively highlighting iconic figures such as the reformer Ayyankali and cherry-picking what could be bundled into secular and rationalist social reform. Muslims were rendered the other in this discourse, and high-Hindu culture and its reform occupied its vital centre. In response to the challenge of Hindutva, which implicitly demands a return to pre-modern forms of gender and caste oppression, the mainstream Left’s cultural defence utilised both the feminist and dalit rewritings of the Renaissance — either its vocabulary or its insights — to different degrees. However, when it came to cultural offensive, the mainstream Left sought to revive the their own version of Kerala’s ‘Renaissance’.

This puzzled some of us. Feminist historians studying this period have pointed out how modern familial mores (“conjugal patriarchy”, as the social scientist Praveena Kodoth put it), a certain biological foundationalism, and the argument that men exposed to modern ideas earlier have the right to set the terms of women’s individuation, limited women’s entry into modern society. They also point out that it was precisely in this period that many institutions relatively favourable to women — such as matriliny — were done away with under the banner of “civilisation”, “progress”, and “rebirth of true Indian/Hindu values”. These feminist critiques were ignored as the dominant Left sought to resuscitate their effete but highly patriarchal understanding of the Renaissance.

Worse, this went unchallenged. Leading feminists meekly took orders from the assembly of patriarchs — politicians and male leaders of caste-community organisations — regarding the event envisaged as a show of strength, the “Women’s Wall”. In other words, when women were called upon to form a “wall” in defence of “Renaissance values”, not one of the prominent feminists invited to participate asked: Which values of the period are being promoted?

The past two months mark an all-time low in the history of feminist politics in Kerala, in which too many gains of the 20th century were sacrificed ostensibly to fight Hindutva.

However, there are new, hopeful developments. Recently, two women have published life-writing that exposes the lie of the “Renaissance” woman or the Kerala Model woman.

One of them is a fiction writer in Malayalam, Ashitha, who spoke about her childhood and adolescence in a long interview published in the magazine Mathrubhumi.

The other, who writes under the name Echmukutty, produces a blog, and her readership is burgeoning.

The writers — who grew up in the middle decades of the 20th century, just after the ‘Renaissance’ — reveal the violence and misogyny at the heart of respectable families and radical intellectual circles of the times. These accounts force us to reject myths about the availability of ‘Renaissance’ values — freedom, equality, justice, and fraternity — to women during or after this period of intense change. In this way, they expose the inadequacy of the Left-liberal account once again.

As usual, it is not the ‘official feminists’, but those who have barely identified themselves as feminists who are now pushing hard at the boundaries.



J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on February 22, 2019
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