Mother Kerala

Mother Kerala
Mother Kerala

Here’s an interesting image of Kerala Maataavu (Mother Kerala), for the upcoming ‘Kerala Day‘,1 November – actually a rather dull date – the anniversary of the formation of the linguistic State. I found this image in a women’s magazine from the 1930s – the Shreemati Annual Number 1935.

It was a black-and -white image, but the person in the studio where I got the image scanned added the colours! He’s enlarged and hung it up in the studio complete with garland and a lamp.

Now, I’d better hurry up and clarify that the formation of linguistic states in South India was a prime reason for the utter marginalisation of tribal peoples here, before I get thrashed for being a ‘blind devotee’ of Mother Kerala.

But you’d all agree that her wistful westward gaze is a bit of a premonition. Here we are, Mallus, all gazing westward, specifically Gulf- or US/Europe-ward.

23 thoughts on “Mother Kerala”

  1. Very interesting, Devika, that Mallus should not only cast their wistful gaze at the West (West of Kerala, that is), but what is intriguing is the relationship to the sea and the ocean. Traditional Hindu anxieties about travelling across the seas are well known. I remember some very popular Sharatchandra stories for example or from Gandhi’s life – the consternation that the very idea of crossing the seas causes. The seas being probably the unknown, the mysterious where you may ‘lose your caste’ without even your knowing. Land travel was never so problematic. I wonder why? Probably that was still within the realm of the known….


  2. I wonder how the custodians (fathers, brothers, sons) of Mother India would view this image. The whole of India is a mother so how could the mother be several mothers, and such incestuous confusion! Looking at the map from a certain angle, and showing only such a small part of the map, with Mother Kerala looking ‘out’ of India – it reminds me of the Himal map of Southasia that some years ago had caused great consternation in Delhi’s corridors of power.


  3. Shivam

    There’s of course there’s Tamil Thaai (Mother Tamil) and schoolchildren are expected to mug the song. They sing it even in public functions. See it on youtube here: There’s also Telugu Talli (Mother Telugu), who quite resembles Mother India and does not really have Kerala Mataavu’s “regional” (rather Nair woman-ike) iconography. I am sure each region had its own local ‘mothering’. They are all truly independent Mother India…


  4. I am struck by the fact that this mother is not the upright, martial Bharat Mata, but a langorous, reclining maiden awaiting her lover (her savior?) – from the West, from the sea, but in any case, from OUTSIDE “India”.
    She could as well have been represented standing, alert, feet towards the tip of the peninsula, in the same section of the map of India but oriented in the usual way. The choice of this orientation places the portrait in the tradition of Nation as Lover rather than as Mother, despite its title.
    Absolutely fascinating, thank you Devika.


  5. Aditya, when did the idea that crossing seas would result in loss of caste gain currency. for surely rulers and traders (and gandhi was born into the merchant caste) did cross seas. the glories of kingdoms of south india are built around such expediations. maybe going to srilanka were not considered crossing of seas, but what about travel to south east asia.


  6. Speaking of the sea there is a little anecdote from the second world war which bespeaks of the tremendous fascination it exercised even on the imaginations of land-locked communities like the Punjabis who, while they have long nomadic and trading roots all over central asia were not in that sense a sea-faring people.

    During the war the then Maharaja of Patiala, yadvendra Singh, wanted to contribute to the British war effort. For which he got built a ship called the HMIS Patiala. The Ship was built to scale, perfect in every way, fully kitted and fitted down to the telescope on the captain’s table. Except that it was built entirely of concrete. An enite crew was comissioned and it was officially inaugurated by some Brit officer whose name I forget. I even tried to find it but they demolished it in 1981, which is another story for another time…


  7. Ah, Nivi, right on the dot! This may be Mother Kerala but she isn’t isn’t married in the high-Hindu custom — no taali, no sindoor. She’s Nair alright — or matrilineal uppercaste.


    1. Dear Devika, This is a late rejoinder to the discussion on “Kerala Matavu’. In the Kerala Sahitya Akademy periodicals library, I came across a picture of ‘Kerala Matavu’ in the Kerala State Supplement of Malayala Rajyam Weekly of 5 November 1956. In the p.4 of this issue they declared that they were reproducing the picture of Kerala Matavu from the annual number of Malayala Rajayam, 1930. Though, I could locate this 1930 Malayla Rajyam, the front page of it was missing. Interestingly, the picture is similar to the one you have published on kafila but in the Malayala Rajyam, 56 she was wearing a ‘mala’ (garland), may be of gold fitting to the modern malayali interests, and also had peaks or mountains in the background. Also, the painting was credited to one G.Krishna Varier.


  8. Janaki,
    I am not sure about this. Not something I have researched. Just heard or read stories about. The consternation that followed Gandhi’s decision to leave for foreign lands is of course recorded by him himself. He was excommunicated and his mother threw a fit and he had to promise her that he would ‘be pure’ – not eat meat etc. In other Bengali fiction (I am not sure exactly which…) the protagonists were to carry their cook with them if they had to cross the seas. Yes, one thing is clear, there were exceptions to this Brahmanical rule. This image is an evidence of that. But beyond that…well, it is a matter of further research…


  9. well she is not looking westwards but outwards (both from south india and towards the viewer). what is the complicity towards which we are drawn? she lies both seawards and at the head of a peni(n)sular projectile that realigns the orientation of the subcontinent towards the vastness of the ocean southwards (not towards west asia, africa or europe). why is her head in travancore and her feet in malabar (what local hierarchy is being produced here?) what exactly is her attitude here: lassitude, languor? i dont detect any come hitherness or go henceness anyway…this is not sexual imagery.what is it? the mother appears content as she should be in a matrilineal depiction; she doesnt feversihly solicit loyalty and aid; she seems to have it…is this an intimation of cosmopolitanism or a statement of localism?


  10. yes it would make for an interesting research. i am not looking at ‘exceptions’ to this belief rather the context in which this became a ‘traditional hindu’ belief. from my reading of some modernist nationalist historical fiction in tamil i can say that these texts, while quite brahmanical, do not refer to this belief at all. but my knowledge of tamil literature is very limited, so i am not making any generalisation.

    i tried searching on the internet now for some stuff on this belief and came up with fascinating and some very naive explanations like hindus are not supposed to cross the sea because the gods reside in them or that the dharmashastra prohibit travel in ships as hindu riutals cannot be observed in a ship(!!!) and not a areoplane.


  11. as amitav ghose rightly points out i.e. has a character say in the sea of poppies, pilgrimage across the sea was permissible for everyone. this too was a “traditional hindu belief”. when did sea voyage become forbidden for certain social elites. rather like in china after the amazing voyages of the eunuch cheng (zheng) ho in the 13th c chinese dynasties move towards a distrust of the sea and what comes through it (mainly jesuits!). gandhi was only a baniya. now why did his mum make a fuss? is it because grandad was a court official and had “sanskritised”?


  12. I too had been mulling over the heart in travancore and feet in malabar (the map is a sketchy so it is a bit tough to make out. Does the image go all the way to kasargod and beyond ?) The image appears in 1935 around the time when the communist party was beginning to be imagined as a possibility in Kerala, I guess. two years later, AK Gopalan led the hunger march from malabar to madras and also started attacking the travancore administration for accountability and responsibility. it would be interesting to know who owned the press that published the journal. and it goes to show once again that the ‘region’ – linguistic nationalism was such a powerful component of the Indian nationalism that the Congress sought to build. (The Telugu anthem from which the Telugu Thalli image that Anand was referring to yesterday comes from was originally composed for a movie titled deenabandhu in the 1930s. But the director figured that the song had greater potential and so recorded it as an independent HMV album. And the singer was the niece of T prakasam panthulu who was fighting two battles simultaneously – one against Gandhiji’s Indian nationalism and the other for a greater Andhra power in madras state. this charge based in a linguistic identity led at that time by andhra brahmins was later taken over by the kamma peasantry who benefited from the fight against large estates.

    the question of sea travel becoming forbidden – doesnt it vary with region and actual ritual practices of purification ? along the east coast by which the cholas traveled to expand their empires there are many brahmin sects whose status among other brahmin sects is atributed to their ability to have managed to hold on to the ‘fire’ while going across the sea. so for instance, a community that is said to have managed to travel by sea while accompanying the chola armies – without losing the fire that they took from home to keep them pure until they reach their destination is regarded higher in status than those who lost it along the way. Visakhapatnam (kulothunga cholapuram) was one of such stopover for the cholas.

    Even in Saratchandra’s fiction there are always rituals to stay pure or purify oneself after return. I cannot recollect the exact references now, but I remember the distinct impression that i got when reading this kind of literature a long time ago that thing about traveling across sea was really about a man (mmm does anyone remember female sea farers from India) being out of sight for many years. and so the higher chances of his becoming impure – and in some sense breaking out of the affective ties that keep him a member of the community. with the change of technologies – and the actual mechanism of travel itself going out of one’s control – steamers run by british companies i wonder if the anxieties were also about eating food prepared by lower castes on board. once you are on land, you have control over food and fire again.

    Aarti – just to add to your anecdote, HMIS Patiala was really meant to be a demonstration model for recruiting the Sikhs into the Navy as opposed to the army. Sikhs had been traveling the sea in large numbers since at least 1897 when several contingents of Sikh soldiers were taken to attend the Queen’s diamond jubilee and on their return route discovered Vancouver. That discovery changed Punjab’s political trajectory in very important ways. But that as you say is a story for another time.:)


  13. The journal was published from Travancore and the general mood of the times was one in which Travancoreans generally felt themselves to be ahead of both Cochin and Malabar. But I don’t know about the head-feet posturing. In the ‘head-to-toe’ descriptions of Goddesses, mythical women characters, or veshayas in the medieval sandesakavyams (and even right up to early modern poets– some descriptions of Kunjan Nambiar, for instance), the body hierarchy of head over the feet is invalid. Every part from toenail to tip of the tresses is deemed beautiful and sacred.


  14. Hello Devika et al. Thanks much for this image, and the discussion. I have been working on a similar convergence (between the cartographic and the anthropomorphic) for both Mother India and Tamilttay (see, for instance, my image essay in, and other published essays). There are many interesting parallels in the use of the female body, especially the sari to claim cartographic space;I think Dilip’s point about the head in the south and the feet pointing north is very interesting: Bharat Mata and Tamilltay are always shown with their head occuping the north; I also think the east orientation of the map of India is a departure from most such images: the north-south orientation of modern scientific carography is rarely, if ever abandoned, in most images I have been focusing on (and of course, all such claims assume the institutionalization of a scientific-modern cartographic common sense as well as practice).
    Devika, wd it be possible for me to get a jpeg version of this image? If so, could you mail it to my email address? Also, perhaps I can invite you to write a short piece on this image for us to post in Tasveerghar ( Many thanks, sumathi


  15. The poet imagines a short, obese mother
    “resting with her head on the green carpetted Ghats and legs on the beach sands, receiving the oblations of the calm and clear sea, and
    guarded on the two sides by (goddess Kanya) Kumari and Lord of Gokarnam.”

    Pacchayaam virippitta Sahyanil thala vechum, Swachabdi manalthittaam padopadanam poondum
    Pallikondidunna nin parsayugmathekathu
    kollunnu Kumariyum Govanesanumamme.


  16. Both Kerala and India are our mother lands……
    The pride of regionalism and Nationalism is there in the minds of every Indian citizen…
    You cant say one is wrong or the other is right…


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