Being a Woman
To many, the Malayalam alphabets look like unspooled balls of wool that have run amok. Curls and curves abound, and speaking the language too, requires performing major calisthenics with the tongue. An interesting piece of trivia – the word ‘Malayalam’ is a palindrome. I’m an average Malayali who enjoys Malayalam literature as long as it doesn’t involve complicated words. I love the language because it’s a part of my identity and I have dipped my feet in the world of Malayalam literature and enjoyed it, just a dip though, and not a plunge. Recently, I got a chance to rekindle my love for Malayalam when I visited a partner project at the Kochi Muziris Biennale(KMB). Titled ‘The Malayalam Project’, it was a collaborative effort between Thought Factory Design, Viakerala and Riyas Komu, the Director of the KMB.This work aims to showcase the beauty of the Malayalam language through two interesting tools, Typography and Graphic Design. Although I was slightly intimidated by the title, I decided to venture into Fort Kochi and find out what it was all about- undoubtedly one of the best decisions I’ve taken recently.
Situated at Lilly Street at the Viakerala store, The Malayalam Project welcomed me with open arms. This poem captivated me and made me glow with pride at the basic beauty of the Malayalam language. It basically states that “My Malayalam is not just 56 or 51 alphabets, Neither is it the 4 letters of the word Malayalam. It’s just one alphabet which means Mother , It’s just one alphabet which means the Earth.” (Please forgive my miserable attempts at translation.) Suffice to say that there was a little bit of welling up of eyes and tremulous lips. That set the tone for the rest of my foray into The Malayalam Project.
It was like taking a trip down the annals of Malayalam literature through excerpts from the works of writers, poets, artists and even journalists. What made it really interesting was that the focus was on the portrayal of women in Malayalam literature and newspapers over the past 100 years. So we had excerpts from Indulekha by O Chandu Menon, which is considered the first major novel in Malayalam. Published in 1889, it had a surprisingly empowered heroine and the message was about the advantages of education for women. Unfortunately we also get to read a few lines from a newspaper report from 1905 about the trial of Kuriyedathu Thathri a Nampoothiri( Kerala Brahmin) lady, accused of adultery. Hers was also one of the last known cases of trial by Smarthavicharam (Chastity trial). Once the accused is indicted, she’s referred to as a Sadhanam or thing.On seeing fact and fiction placed together in such sharp contrast, we get a feel of how reformists tried to use the medium of literature to propagate progress and development, while on the other hand society was unwilling to give up its stranglehold on women so easily.
All the excerpts have been taken from works which have gained popularity among the masses. It was a pleasure to browse through the works of my favourite novelists, from Madhavikutty, M T Vasudevan Nair, ONV Kurup, M Mukundan to Kunjunni Mash and Basheer. Stalwarts whose works I haven’t read were also represented there, like Perumbadavam, Sugathakumari, Vyloppilly, Changampuzha, Kumaranasan and Thakazhi, to name a few. There was also a smattering of proverbs and oft repeated dialogues from films, which have become an intrinsic part of a Malayali’s vocabulary. For e.g. A dialogue from the Malayalam superstar Mammooty’s magnum opus, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha -“Chanthuvine tholpikkan avilla makkale!” It was such a high to see it out there that I felt like whistling and clapping my hands like a crazy fan ! No true-blue Mallu can remain unmoved by that particular sentence 🙂
The Malayalam Project also has works of artists who have interpreted certain words or concepts from early Malayalam literature, given to them by the creators of the Project, in their own way and using their preferred medium.
The room itself has some quirky and interesting nooks which caught my interest. The wooden seat below a teal-bordered wooden window is ideal for soaking in the atmosphere and the ideas conveyed by so many prolific writers. The typewriter placed nearby also catches my attention with it’s type pad showing Malayalam alphabets. Visitors are encouraged to type out their names using that typewriter. It’s the first time I’m seeing a Malayalam type writer! The shelves on the opposite side are no less interesting, with their surfaces papered with pages from the first Malayalam- English dictionary created by Rev H Gundert. A lot of the words are completely alien to me, words which have disappeared over the ages.
The weathered walls of the Viakerala premises lend themselves beautifully to creating the right ambience for taking a trip into the past. I felt that they too would have their own stories to tell about strength,sorrow, tears and hope. It adds poignancy to the life of the women mentioned there, both fictional and real. I could easily picture in my mind the steely nonchalance of the twenty year old naxalite Ajitha; the calm inner strength of Accamma Cherian the freedom fighter who was also known as the Jhansi of Travancore; the brashness of Gowri Amma, one of the earliest Communists in Kerala and the iron-like resolve of Kuriyedathu Thathri which ensured an equal punishment being meted out to the men with whom she was supposed to have committed adultery. The walls enveloped me in their comfort and in the beauty of Malayalam arrayed all around me. The peace and serenity in the cool room with the high walls makes this not only a place to experience the intricacies of The Malayalam Project, but also makes it a place to indulge in introspection and thought, for taking a minute and reflecting on my life today vis-a-vis the lives of my sisters of the past.
After exiting The Malayalam Project I feel a quiet pride in my Malayalam and I’m also slightly shaken by my peek into the annals of history. However I’m certain about one thing, in fact it has become strengthened in my mind and I’m convinced beyond all doubt – Malayalam is a woman, with all her beauty, sensuousness, weaknesses and strengths …….