Revisiting Nangeli, and the Recasting of Oppressive History

As Rosalind O’Hanlon notes, while history is a dialogue between the present and the past from which we construct ‘stories’ that come ultimately out of our own present concerns – it is important that we verify, scrutinise and challenge them.

History writing, particularly of periods for which primary sources are central to reconstruction, pose the limitations in recreating histories of the lower castes/classes, given the inherently elitist nature of these sources. Alternatively, their stories, undocumented in mainstream sources, find their way into folklore.

Against the backdrop of debates on whether to accept folklore as primary sources of history, the story of Nangeli – the Ezhava (lower caste) woman who chopped off her breasts as a means of protest against Brahmanical patriarchy – is back in the news over its removal from the NCERT syllabus. Ongoing debates point to the deletion as an erase of Dalit struggles. Stories have been written, addressing the folk story as a struggle to “cover breasts”. In this process, the writers are ‘recasting history’.

Primary sources can aid contextualising the folklore, but the primary source to verify this tale is absent. The vicious story of ‘breast tax’ that keeps appearing in the media repeatedly and is part of a larger narrative of Brahmanical oppression undoubtedly highlights the stark realties of lived oppression. However, it begs the question: does the vivacity of a narrative translates to the validity of the narrative?

Whether a historical character named Nangeli existed or not is a different tangent of debate. However, one can assert that folklore is a rich source for caste-gender history prior to the influence of Western ideas that permeated during the British.

Also read: The CBSE Just Removed an Entire History of Women’s Caste Struggle

While Nangeli’s story had huge implications on later reform movements that played an important role in changing the history of Travancore and Kerala, the process of reviving her story marred the original context and imbued folklore with borrowed Western ideas of modesty, in turn recasting patriarchy via Nangeli.

This has clouded the true discourse of the story: that of lower caste oppression and in turn its rebellion against the upper caste.

As Manu S.Pillai writes,

“When Nangeli stood up, squeezed to the extremes of poverty by a regressive tax system, it was a statement made in great anguish about the injustice of the social order itself. Her call was not to celebrate modesty and honour; it was a siren call against caste and the rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it. She was a heroine of all who were poor and weak, not the archetype of middle-class womanly honour she has today become. But they could not admit that Nangeli’s sacrifice was an ultimatum to the order, so they remodelled her as a virtuous goddess, one who sought to cover her breasts rather than one who issued a challenge to power. The spirit of her rebellion was buried in favour of its letter, and Nangeli reduced to the sum of her breasts.”

So, is the case with Channar revolt or the ‘Maru Marakkal Samaram’, rather than covering the upper body, the issue was in relation to lower caste women’s right to cover their body with the shawl which only the upper castes could wear to show their social standing.

As Rosalind O’Hanlon noted,

“The new challenge to history as a discipline in a political culture that is in search of subaltern identities, looking to create the past in their own image, from the virtual communities and networks of social media which often promote scepticism towards all forms of ‘expertise’ and professional knowledge, seeking its own kinds of ‘truth’ about human experience find alternative methods to explore history.”

There are two branches of sorts when it comes to studying the past – ‘History 1’ and ‘History 2’, as Dipesh Chakrabarty calls it. The former is the evidence-based history associated with professional historians and history as a ‘discipline’, and the latter refers to history developed and practised beyond academia such as popular histories with an overt political, religious, caste agendas. If put together, we have the potential of creating alternate histories from mainstream narratives.

This would make history as a ‘discipline’ more accessible and accommodating. More so, it would allow popular histories to be framed professionally by contextualising it historically , which would ultimately aid in the process of emancipation.

Anne Mary Shaju is pursuing a Masters in History at Delhi University. She is interested in gender, and economic and socio-political oral histories.

Featured image: Orijit Sen/Guftugu