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Posts Tagged ‘matrilineal system’

189 – The school teachers who went on a twelve-day satyagraha

My mother, K Jagadammal (right) with her peer and friend Jayshree Sawant (left), Bombay, Maharashtra. 1977

Image & narrative contributed by Nishant Radhakrishnan, Mumbai

This is a photograph taken in 1977 of my mother, K Jagadammal (right) with her peer and friend Jayshree Sawant (left) in Bombay. They were on a strike, outside a school compound, protesting the injustices served by the school they both taught in.

My mother, K Jagadammal was born in 1949 in Kalanjoor, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. Her parents were farmers, and she was one of five sisters and a brother. Her father later ran his own grocery shop, exactly opposite Kalanjoor Government School, that all of his children attended. My mother and her siblings all grew up to have careers as school-teachers.

In 1972, following a matrilineal Dravidian tradition, the Marumakkattayam system (where women of the family are legitimate inheritors of property and therefore integral to families), my mother was betrothed to her cousin, her mother’s brother’s son, my eventual father, M. G. Radhakrishnan. My father had been living in Bombay (now Mumbai) since 1968 and worked in a clerical position at the Indian Cotton Mills Federation. After their marriage they moved to Bombay and on June 11, 1973, my mother armed with degrees in B. Sc (Science) and B. Ed (Education), joined the ranks of thousands of Malayalee migrants (mostly teachers and nurses), and became a Primary section teacher at Abhyudaya Education Society High School where she taught all subjects except Marathi.

From 1975, my parents lived in the teeming mill suburb of Kalachowky, among other migrants, in a one-room kitchen apartment. The 70s were also the years when the political party, Shiv Sena were mobilising their cadre against migrants, especially South Indians like my parents. But this was also the time that people away from their birth homes had begun to embrace and appreciate the other Indias. Yet like many others from Kerala, my parents had a high degree of political agency and found it hard to tolerate injustice. While it may sound like a cliché, it is second nature for us Malayalees to go on strike. The 1970s were a potent moment in India – the heady years of Emergency and after. In this photograph my mother (right) was 28 years old when the two teachers went on a strike demanding their reinstatement at the Abhyudaya Education Society High School, following three years of harassment and intimidation by a member of the school management.

In 1975, a new teacher, Kalyanikutty joined the school. She was related to a Mr. Nair, the school administrator, known to be an authoritarian figure. Allegedly, he would run the school like his personal fiefdom. On several occasions, he would command Kalyanikutty to return home over perceived slights or mistakes. The personal harassment was purely based on the close family relationship between them – found often in patriarchal Indian households. Unable to tolerate the injustice, and in solidarity with Kalyanikutty, all teachers, including my mother submitted a protest letter asking Mr. Nair to stop troubling Kalyanikutty. In retaliation, he called upon each teacher and asked them to withdraw their signatures. All the Secondary School section teachers refused to do so, but from the Primary section, with the exception of my mother, all teachers withdrew their signatures – and categorically refused to withdraw it. This began a long period of harassment for my mother – threats, show cause notices, random inspections on her classes, a trip to the police station. But my mother, with the support of my father, teachers, students and much of the management, maintained her stand. My parents’ position was clear – Mr Nair did not own the school or its employees – he was her co-worker, an employee, just like her – an equal in hierarchy.

So the stage was set – My mother, a teacher – K. Jagadammal versus Mr. Nair, the patriarch. Heavily pregnant with me, she was denied her rightful maternity leave and made to accept half-pay on leave, albeit was abruptly terminated from service. In 1976, shortly after my birth, pressured by committee members, she was reinstated, but demoted to a lower teaching position. Following Mr. Nair’s machinations, at the end of the academic year, she was terminated, again.

So in 1977, my mother was no longer an employee of the school, yet she simply refused to accept the unfair termination and continued to attend the school in protest. Every single day, she would go to the Headmaster’s office to sign-in on the attendance muster. When she was not allowed to sign it, she began submitting letters – every day – stating that “she had come to the school and not allowed to sign”. She would stay in the school all through the working hours. She tells me that inside the headmaster’s cabin, there were two chairs and she began to make herself comfortable on one of them. Weeks later, one chair was removed, so she would sit on the remaining available chair. Then that one chair, too, was removed. After this, the only chair available was the Headmaster’s own. It was also used by Mr. Nair, when he was present. My mother clearly had no choice – she says “ I simply plonked myself on the Headmaster’s chair.” The Headmaster or Mr. Nair would remain standing, while she would sit on “their” chair and would only get to sit on it when she had needed a rest-room break. These passive aggressive comedic moments notwithstanding – every single day, K Jagadammal ensured that her protest and attendance was marked.

Five months later, after submitting a forewarning as due process to the authorities, my mother and Jayshree Sawant (herself, a victim of nepotism) embarked on a civil disobedience movement of their own – a Satyagraha. When this photograph was taken, my mother ‘s brother, my uncle, would bring me – a toddler – to the school every day, through the twelve days protest, and point her out to me. Soon after, the protest by these two teachers blew up into a full-fledged students boycott, led by my father, teachers and others. The heat was really on.

During a meeting with the enquiry commission by the BMC, (Bombay Municipal Corporation), a letter alleging that my mother ‘was not teaching at all’, but instead ‘was taking rest-room breaks all the time’ was passed around, including onto students. The letter was a tipping point and she lost her temper – she removed her footwear and proceeded to chastise one of the administrators with it. To her (and the target’s) good fortune, she was dissuaded and the slipper did not reach its destination. The protest soon found political attention and was even discussed in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.

But the tides were turning – for this protest shed light upon several illegalities that the administration was indulging in – forgery of musters, salary embezzlement, autocratic, misogynistic behaviour by male officials. After the enquiry, both K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant were reinstated and the 12-day Satyagraha was called off. Nonetheless, a price still had to be paid and neither of the two were paid salaries for that year. The good news was that the two officials including Mr. Nair, lost the managing committee elections and never found their way back.

My mother, K. Jagadammal eventually became a beloved (and much revered) teacher in the same school and Jayshree Sawant after two years, joined another school. Somehow, the two Satyagrahis lost touch since. My mother I feel paid yet another price for her beliefs. The events of 1974-77 did compromise her merited right to be promoted as Headmistress at the school, yet she served her commitment to teach, and after 35 years at Abhyudaya Education Society School she retired in 2007.

During my childhood, I witnessed K. Jagadammal wake up every day at 4.30 AM, cook meals for my father and me, go to work on the 6.10 AM train and return at 2 pm and my father eventually became a legendary Malayalam copywriter during the golden age of Indian regional languages advertising. This photograph is a reminder of an inspiring and just legacy my parents have given me and my own new family. The two ladies in this photograph – K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant teach us the value of standing up for others, to seek justice and protest whenever needed. I have grown up watching them all, but most of all, I continue to find empowerment through my mother.


175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here.