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The recurring myth of breast tax doesn’t seem to die down, this time propagated by ‘Scroll’

(Article co-authored by @Dauhshanti and @aliceonaroll)

There are many allowances we can make for a false story published by a media outlet should we choose to give the benefit of the doubt, ranging from human error to acknowledging the volume of unverified or unverifiable information floating in the web with vague references that seem genuine. But when a story reappears over and over in the media, even after it has been busted as nothing but fantasy, it is pertinent to question the motive.

The vicious story of ‘breast tax’ that scroll.in published recently, is one such modern fabrication that keeps appearing in the media repeatedly – a graphic story about a supposed ‘breast tax’ in practice in 19th Century Kerala.

The story

This imaginative story claims that upper caste Nairs and Nambuthiri Brahmins in Kerala did not allow women from lower castes to cover their breasts and then levied ‘breast tax’ on them. In such an exploitative society, the story goes, rose Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who protested the unfair tax system by chopping her breasts off, attaining martyrdom.

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Of the many instances of atrocities in history, this may well be one of the most violent and graphic. Shaming of lower castes and what’s more, outrage of women’s modesty as a tool of oppression is surely the worst kind of exploitation one can imagine. Even as we read the story, the picture floats easily into our mind’s view: richly attired noblemen and ladies seated smugly on their ornate cushions, giving an outrageous decree, while dark and lanky, slavish people dressed in rags, bowing almost to the ground, listen but barely showing emotion. Only, we need to pause the imagination for a while to step back and ask a necessary question: just because a story is vivid and graphic in its imagery, does it become fact?

Kerala’s sartorial history

Let’s begin with a primer on the attire of women in 19th century Kerala, before we address the lack of authenticity of the story, the mindset, motives and motivations behind such a fabrication.

Kerala’s world famous tropical climate needs no introduction. Also, a widely observed pattern is that the traditional attire of a people is directly dependent on the climate of the land. Owing to the humid heat all through the year, a piece of cotton cloth draped around the middle with another (optional) hung over the shoulder as an afterthought, has largely been the traditional attire of the people of Kerala, regardless of gender or caste.

A 17th-Century Dutch visitor William Van Nieuhoff writes about the attire of Ashwathi Thirunal Umayamma Rani, then queen of Travancore, in the following manner:

“… I was introduced into her majesty’s presence. She had a guard of above 700 Nair soldiers about her, all clad after the Malabar fashion; the Queen’s attire being no more than a piece of callicoe wrapt around her middle, the upper part of her body appearing for the most part naked, with a piece of callicoe hanging carelessly round her shoulders.”

He drew a sketch of the queen and her attendants in his work (Voyages and travels to the East Indies; 1653-1670), where it is quite clear that the queen and her attendants wore little to no cloth to cover their bosoms.

Johan Nieuhoff meeting the Queen of Travancore. (Source: here)

If 17th Century seems a bit dated for our debate, let’s look at a few evidences from 19th and early 20th centuries, the very era our fable is supposed to have taken place. The story implies that nakedness was a humiliation imposed by the upper caste on the lower caste women, with the intention of depriving them of modesty and the luxury of wearing a second piece of cloth. This accusation hardly holds water when you realise that women of Nambuthiri families and affluent Nair families themselves saw no need for a breast-covering garment, either as a sign of luxury or ‘modesty’.

A Nambuthiri Brahmin woman from a 20th century Malayalam  book by Kanippayyur Shankaran Namboodiripad

 

Nambuthiri Brahmin women , from ‘The Cochin Tribes and Castes’ by L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer

 

Nair girls and men in a temple procession, from the book by L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer

Nair girls from the book by L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer

‘Modesty’ (?) in Art

While the images above are photographs of upper caste women from the era, the ones that follow are paintings of women of royalty, by the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma.

A 19th Century painting of Junior Rani of Travancore, Bharani Thirunal Rani Parvathi Bayi by Raja Ravi Varma (Source: here)

 

A 19th Century painting, ‘Malabar Beauty’ by Raja Ravi Varma (Source: here)

A connoisseur of portraiture would note the elegant pose of the women, who, guided by the artist surely, took care to hold the unstitched cloth in place as a mere accessory, in a manner that the ornaments on the left hand and the neck could be highlighted, and compare it to how a modern-day woman might hold up her exquisite handbag with one hand, the other hand on the waist, accentuating her lithe form and highlighting her classy taste in accessories, while smiling at the camera.

L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer in his book, The Cochin Tribes and Castes (pg. 100) writes the following about the clothing of upper caste Nair women during early 20th century:

The absence of any covering for the bosom in ordinary female dress has drawn much ridicule on the Nayars, and this custom has been much misunderstood by foreigners. So far from indicating immodesty, it is looked upon by the people themselves in exactly the opposite light…”A custom has in it nothing indecent when it is universal,” as one of the travellers philosophically remarks (Dall).

In the 20th century however, with the advent of modern (and Western, through colonial intervention) sensibilities of fashion and propriety, people of all backgrounds started to wear a stitched upper garment, or tuck in an unstitched cloth around the chest to form a full-bodied attire.

Ezhava girls, from the book by L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer

Ezhava family from an early 20th century book titled ‘Glimpses of Travancore’  by N. K.  Venkateswaran

Through all these records and more, it is fairly evident that the sartorial practices in Kerala changed organically with time, a phenomenon that is observed uniformly across the world.

Who was Nangeli?

As to the specific story of Nangeli and her self-mutilation as protest, there are no historical records of any authenticity of such an event taking place.

A careful look at the references and sources of the Wikipedia article on Nangeli reveal that all of them are from the last decade and mostly from the last couple of years. None of them cites any historical records on Nangeli.

Where did the story come from?

The mysteriously new Nangeli story was recently popularized by a Malayali painter named T Murali who refers to himself as Chitrakaran. Interestingly, Chitrakaran’s blog is quite a fascinating study of his extremely bitter and hateful mindset towards Hindu deities and culture. For example, in this blogpost he ‘muses’ about Devi Saraswati in a crass manner that speaks volumes about his blind hatred rather than any intellectual authenticity.

He says:

“സമൂഹത്തിലെഭക്തിഭ്രാന്ത്കൂടിവരുന്നസാഹചര്യത്തില്സരസ്വതിയുടെമുലകളുടെമുഴുപ്പ്, സരസ്വതിഉപയോഗിക്കുന്നസാരി, ബ്രായുടെബ്രാന്ഡ്തനെയിം, പാന്റീസ്, തുടങ്ങിയവസ്തുതകളെക്കുറിച്ച്ചിന്തിക്കുന്നത്പ്രസക്തമാണെന്ന്ബോധോദയമുണ്ടായിരിക്കുന്നു.”

Translation:

“Since bhakti (he calls it ‘madness’) towards Gods is becoming popular in the society, thought that it is relevant to think about the breast size of Sarasvati, the brand name of bra and panties which she uses etc.

Another statement from the blog :

“ബ്രാഹ്മണന്റെമഹാവിഷ്ണുഎന്നകുണ്ടന്ദൈവത്തിന്(മോഹിനിയാട്ടക്കാരി/രന്)എത്രലിംഗമുണ്ടെന്നും,എത്രയോനിയുണ്ടെന്നുംചിത്രകാരന്സന്ദേഹിച്ചുകൊണ്ടിരിക്കുന്നസത്യംകൂടിവെളിപ്പെടുത്തട്ടെ”

Translation:

“Let me also reveal that Chitrakaran (addressing himself) has been thinking about how many penises and vaginas the gay God Vishnu of Brahmins has.”

Making rude, incoherent allusions to genitals with an intent to vilify simply because devotion is becoming popular, by the blogger’s own admission, is an unwarranted expression of hatred towards a certain culture and an extreme example of unapologetic bigotry.

The fact, then, that a person with known hatred for Hindu culture, a propensity for vivid, graphic imagination and a tendency for irreverent sexualisation popularises a fictional story about non-existent ‘breast tax’ is quite telling.

Forget the messenger, what about the message?

Having discussed the true nature of Kerala’s cultural history, it would be naïve to take a stance that any accusation of social exploitation is false. Any astute observer of social psychology would readily admit that oppression, discrimination and exploitation have existed in all societies in one form or the other in varying degrees in every era, including the current one. Kerala, like all other regions of the world, has had its share of social inequalities and injustice as a consequence. The exemplary life and work of Sri Narayana Guru (born into an Ezhava family and faced much discrimination) in the area of social reform stand as testimony to the issues that troubled the society in the 19th Century. The study into historical evidences so far is not to deny the issue of exploitation altogether, but to explore a much deeper question: when Kerala’s history offers quite a few incidents and stories about social discrimination, why does a certain section of the media feel the need to fabricate a new story that has no basis in truth? Why can’t we talk about real issues with real basis in history, with genuine care and introspection, rather than throw outrageously wild allegations that are completely in contradiction with reality?

What purpose does Nangeli’s story serve?

Clearly, now that we have established it as fiction, Nangeli’s story is a strong  concoction of all the ingredients that are accepted as most despicable in a civilised society. Humiliation of women, oppression of a community, tyranny of unfair tax – all of these hint to a cruel, oppressive regime and a society with a morally corrupt core. In short, we are presented with a black-and-white image of an oppressive rule (of the Travancore and Cochin Kings) and victimised subjects that validates intense hatred, irrational anger towards ruling-class “oppressors” and makes the present-day problems pale in comparison to the “dark past”. Interestingly, the blame of all the terror and oppression, with a story like this, is placed entirely on the upper castes within Kerala society, with hardly a glance at the destructive influence of Colonialism. A pragmatic approach, one must note, as there is not much political mileage to be achieved by hating European colonisers, and much to be gained by dividing present-day society into blaming each other for past wrongs. With a story like Nangeli’s to sufficiently horrify the modern audience, present-day Kerala with its high Human Development Index and a few inevitable snags here and there, sounds like a liberated haven that has been rescued from its horrendous tyrants.

If this is true, then the world’s sociologists must be writing paeans about this turnaround ‘success story’ in the shortest span known to history. However, a fair, unbiased study of history points us to the efforts of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, queen of Travancore, who spent nearly a fifth of her revenue on education, contributing to Kerala’s march towards the high literacy rate which we see today. No less is the contribution of Chithira Thirunal, the last Maharaja of Travancore who ended discrimination and permitted entry of people of all castes into upper-caste-owned temples.

So, it appears, that certain sections of the media will resort to any sensationalised, vulgar hype to elicit strong reactions from the audience and impose a skewed worldview that gives strength to one faction of the political propaganda machinery. The world, as much as we want, does not render itself into a black-and-white picture. History and truth are all shades of hues.

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