Against Aachaaram: CV Kunhiraman’s Warning about Hypocrisy

 

This is the sixth in a series titled Against Aachaaram: A Dossier from Malayalam on Kafila. The note below is by J Devika. The short essay by C V Kunhiraman has been translated by LIJU JACOB KURIAKOSE.

The formidable CV Kunhiraman (1871-1949) was one of the most explosive anti-aachaaram voices of the early twentieth century in Kerala. A follower of Sreenarayana Guru and the general secretary of the SNDP Yogam in 1928 and 1931, he was also a leading figure in Malayalam journalism of the time. Kerala Kaumudi, which grew to be one of the leading newspapers in Malayalam, was founded by him in 1911. In the 1920s and 30s, he was a leading political figure deeply involved in the Vaikom Satyagraha, and in the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936.

In the short essay titled Mundukoda that refers to the traditional wedding ceremony practised by his community, the ezhava (considered untouchable at that time), Kunhiraman criticizes the reluctance of the monied and powerful elements within the community to accept the reformed wedding ceremonies recommended by Sreenarayana Guru. But more importantly, he points to another danger: hypocrisy.

Mundukoda was a non-brahminical ceremony, but it fitted into the larger order of exclusion instituted by the Brahminical order in pre-modern Malayali society. In its place, Sreenarayana Guru recommended a marriage ceremony that confirmed to established understandings of gender but which shunned conspicuous consumption and was essentially limited to blessing the understanding between two individuals and their families with a simple prayer. What rouses Kunhiraman’s ire is not so much the retention of mundukoda, as the participation of reformist-leaning and educated ezhavas in it. He appeals to the wealthy, educated, and sophisticated ezhavas to practice what they preach; and also notes that the poor tend to be braver in following the new practises compared to the wealthier sections of the ezhavas.

This is, of course, an important insight in the wake of the revival of aachaaram in twenty-first-century Kerala. The re-vision of aachaaram initiated by the Guru was neither frozen nor misogynist. Instead of embracing it as a living, evolving practise, the present-day ezhava elite let it be infected by Brahminical frameworks of ritual over the twentieth century. And now they claim Sreenarayana Guru’s legacy even as they cling to dehumanizing understandings and practise of aachaaram. Kunhiraman’s warning, therefore, rings true even for his descendants.

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Mundukoda

This is an age in which we have shunned the despicable and archaic custom of Mundukoda (Pudavakoda)[1] and have established a new system for marital union amongst the Ezhavas. However, it is mostly only the poor who practice this new custom. Surprisingly, only a few have embraced this new custom in this state with a sizeable share of the population renowned for their inclination towards reform. In Central Travancore, the wealthiest individual of repute after Alummoottil Channan, is Komalezhuthu Chovan.  It is to this Komalezhuthu family that Mr. TK Madhavan, the renowned Editor of Deshabhimani; Mr KC Kunjiraman, a prominent advocate; Adv. Shankaran, as well as many other BA students, belong.

A bride (daughter of Mullasseri Karuthakunju Panikkar Avarkal[2]) of this family was given in marriage on Edavom 19 around 7:30 at night to a young man who is the nephew of the Vilayadaseri Kunjusankaran Avarkal from Ullannoor, Chenganoor. It was at the insistence of the present-day pontiffs of the Komalezhuthu family that this marital union was conducted according to the old-fashioned custom of Mundukoda. Varanapally Panikkans, the prominent rich of Central Travancore; Menatheri Panikkers and other prominent gentlemen; Chankoor Krishna Panikkar Avarkal, Urileth Panikkar Avarkal, Alumoottil Govindan Channan Avarkal, members of the Prajasabha[3], as well as many others were present for the ceremony. Certain individuals from the groom’s party including Muloor S Padmanabha Panikkar insisted that “we will not cooperate with such a wedding that goes against the orders of Guruswami thrippadangal[4]”.However, the hosts refused to comply. Considering it appalling to have the nuptials called-off over such a trivial disagreement, and honouring the reconciliatory efforts of Govindan Channan and others, the groom’s party relented, and the Mundukoda ceremony was conducted.

Mundukoda had been proscribed for the people of Chengannur Taluk for the past twelve years. The elder of this family agreed to the Mundukoda only after having received and counted each and every coin of the “Twenty-one rupees as bride-price, three Rupees of gift-to-the-mother-in-law (Ammavippanam), twenty-one and a half chakrams as fee for the ritual (Parikkappanam), and four chakras as fee for the kin-witness (Inangusakshippanam)”.

The matter was handled “without losing a single pie” by Pullemballil Kochukrishnan, a young lad well-versed in Sanskrit and English, with a flair for literary criticism as well as an all-round enthusiasm towards reform. Mr Padmanabhan, the brother of the Deshabhimani Editor, has also ably assisted Mr Kochukrishnan in this matter. It is when one remembers that the matrimony of a young lady who is a sister or a niece of some among the above-mentioned gentlemen took place in the abovementioned manner, that the usage “that way in the lesson, this way in practice” emerge.

Beloved Channans! Chekons!(Chovans!) Panikkans! Editors! Barristers! Representatives of the Prajasabha! Young Luminaries! You preach one thing and practice another! How far will the Ezhava community which emulates you, progress? The nitpickers wouldn’t call it an exaggeration if it is said that the Kuchelas[5] of Kunnathur, Chengannoor, Thiruvalla, Changanacherry Taluks have progressed a dozen times farther in communal reform than the Kuberas[6] of Karunagappally, Karthikappally and Mavelikkara.

Notes

[1] Literally, ‘cloth-giving’, a simple ceremony that accompanied  notions of marriage and conjugality that were relatively looser compared to modern, neo-savarna marriage.

[2] An honorific affixed after the names of prominent individuals or their positions denoting respect for their esteem.

[3]SreeMoolamPraja Sabha (SreeMoolam People’s Assembly), established in 1904, was an advisory body of the Kingdom of Travancore with elected and nominated members from the landowning and educated classes. Though it had no legislative powers, it functioned as a precursor to the modern legislative assembly of Kerala.

[4] A term of reference denoting the feet of Sree Narayana Guru as a mark of respect to synecdochically refer to Guru himself.

[5] A mythical figure who was blessed and raised out of poverty by his childhood playmate, Krishna. The name has come to refer to any person experiencing a lack, material or otherwise.

[6] A mythical figure who is believed to be extremely rich amongst the Gods. The name has come to denote a person experiencing an abundance, material or otherwise.

 

[Liju Jacob Kuriakose is a doctoral student in English at the National Institute of Technology, Puducherry who occasionally engages in translation.]

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