Variety

Arya Premji, an icon of struggle for Namboodiri widows’ rights

KPM Basheer Kochi | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 24, 2016

Arya Premji

Premji

Wife of actor Premji was the last of the witnesses to dramatic times in Kerala’s social history

In an age when Namboodiri (Kerala Brahmins) men took many wives but their widows were prohibited from remarrying, Arya Antharjanam’s decision to break the taboo shook the deeply conservative and superstitious community to the roots.

She had remained a widow for 12 long years after her husband died when she was 15. Just a year earlier, unschooled and poverty-stricken, she had been forced to marry a 40-year-old widower. But that was commonplace in an era when 70- and-80-year-old wealthy Namboodiri men took teenage girls as their fourth or fifth wives. And, in Namboodiri families, only the eldest son had the privilege to marry — the younger ones had to find concubines.

When Arya married MP Bhattathirippad (later called Premji), actor, writer, and social reformer, it was the second widow remarriage in the Namboodiri community that was steeped in feudalistic and upper-caste socio-cultural milieu. When she died on May 22, at age 99, she was the last of the witnesses to dramatic times in Kerala’s social history. One of the facilitators of her revolutionary remarriage over seven decades ago was EMS Namboodirippad, Kerala’s first Communist Chief Minister.

Premji

Remember Piravi, which won the best national film award, and the best actor award for Premji, in 1989 and which went on to win several international honours? Premji was 80 years old when he took on the role of Raghava Chakyar, whose long, heart-rending search for his son, taken away by the police, had left every movie-goer in tears. The movie was the real-life story of Eachara Warrier, a professor whose son Rajan, an engineering student, was picked from his hostel by the police during Emergency days and tortured to death.

Premji had started his acting career with the Malayalam reformist drama Adukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Stage) in 1930. Written by the Namboodiri social reformer and champion of women’s rights, VT Bhattathirippad, the drama was a great catalyst of change among the Namboodiri community. It unleashed a frontal attack on the degenerative practices within the community and kicked off a soul-searching about child marriage, polygamy and widow’s remarriage.

It was in the afterglow of the drama that two Namboodiri brothers, MR Bhattathirippad (MRB) and MP Battathirippad (Premji) publicly expressed their willingness to marry widows. And both kept their words. When Premji married Arya, the caste leaders excommunicated not only the couple, but also those who facilitated and attended the wedding. These included EMS Namboothirippad and VT Bhattathirippad.

‘Brasht’ and after

“You can’t imagine the impact of brasht (excommunication) at that time,” the couple’s son Neelan, who is a TV journalist, writer and filmmaker, told BusinessLine. “As children of the brasht couple, we were not allowed to even touch other Namboodiri children, enter Namboodiri homes or attend wedding feasts.”

He was not even allowed to touch his grandmother’s feet. But this caste boycott was more than compensated by the visits by writers, actors, politicians and socio-cultural leaders of the time. Since Premji was a Communist activist too, several senior Communist leaders would frequently drop in on the family. As Premji was a theatre artist and later became a film actor, their house was venue for many rehearsals.

“My mother used to cook and serve hundreds of such people,” Neelan recalls. “She was bold, strong and hard-working and all her life she kept her individuality.”

She contested a municipal election and for five years from 1964 she was a member of the then Thrissur municipal council.

‘Amma’ short film

Neelan’s short film Amma is a tribute to his mother. The film won a national award in 2015. While Neelan is happy that Namboodiri women have achieved remarkable progress in terms of freedom, education and jobs in the wake of the initiatives taken by his parents and other reformers, he is worried that the Namboodiri community is now reviving many of the superstitions and practices.







Published on May 24, 2016
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