Trigger Warning: casteist violence, violence against women, suicide
“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist”.
– Bell Hooks
This line portrays the lifelong struggles of women in society – be it in the family, be it to make decisions for herself, be it a question of their identity or be it to cover their own body. Many women have fought and struggled to completely annihilate the deeply-rooted customs and freed other women and those from future generations from suppressive norms. Here, I will talk about one such legend named Nangeli, who fought against the atrocity of the Brahmins in order to end the humiliation and the further entrenchment of non-dominant sections of society.
History of the Breast Tax in Kerala
The coerced imposition on women in terms of covering faces and different body parts still prevails in different corners of the world. Ezhava women are one of the fighters/sheroes in Kerala who have fought humongous battles and protested against caste-based discrimination to eradicate the inhumane ‘breast tax’ (also known as ‘Mulakaram’), which means a tax that has to be paid by non-dominant caste women in order to cover their breasts in public spaces. Ezhava women were left out of the frame of modern India with when it came to ‘equity and equality’ for everyone. This tax was solely imposed on non-dominant castes, which continued until 1924.
The short film Mulakaram narrates the story of a woman named Nangeli who used to live in Cherthala Village, known as an erstwhile princely state of Travancore, with her husband Chirukandan, in the 19th century. The ‘breast tax’ was considered to be a kind of veneration to the Brahmins or ruling classes. This act carried various aspects – taxes depended upon the size of the breasts, as shown in the film itself. The royal officers would visit every month to collect taxes from those who reached puberty and ensured that every woman was adopting this heinous custom.
Nangeli was also paying this tax. She often pondered upon the question of one’s own body as their biggest liability – it begged the question – is it imperative to get permission from someone to cover their body parts publicly? Then she decided that enough was enough. She had had enough humiliation and insults to her dignity and self-respect in society. One day, the village tax collector was on his regular visit and started collecting the pending taxes. They also asked Nangeli to pay her tax amount, but she kept him waiting for a while. She laid down a plantain leaf, lit a lamp and then cut off her breasts and served them on the leaf instead of the money, to end the brutality of the king and the breast tax system, once and for all.
Nangeli succumbed to death after immense blood loss. The news of Nangeli’s death shattered her husband. He could not bear the loss of his beloved wife and he jumped into her funeral pyre and took his own life. The place where Nangeli made her sacrifice and her last stand is called ‘Mulachiparambu’ (meaning the land of women’s breasts). The King of Travancore abolished the heinous tax system immediately after her death. Nangeli’s death had sparked a protest among the women who were paying the breast tax and they put an end to it in 1924.
Disputes over Nangeli’s Death
Different parties have different accounts of Nangeli’s revolt. An article in Velivada states that she did not chop off her breasts in protest – instead, she outright refused to pay the tax. The tax collector was so enraged about a non-dominant caste woman standing up to him, he sent a mob of his Savarna goons to her house. They sexually assaulted her and chopped off her breasts with their swords. Following which, the cowardly king of Travancore announced that she took her own life but never mentioned what the actual circumstances were behind her death – for the sake of disavowing all responsibility from the heinous act and in fear of protests.
CBSE had an entire chapter in the NCERT textbook of social sciences about the protests undertaken by men and women to rebel against the adherents of the breast tax system. The section was named ‘Caste, Conflict and Dress Change’, which was legally removed from the syllabus immediately after the Madras High Court marked it as “Objectionable Content”. It was removed from the syllabus on grounds of being a negative influence on students’ thoughts. It was also a subject matter of disputes and conflicts because of no historical records. The court reasoned it held a degrading value because of no factual records as to when it started or ended and that it was all based on assumptions. Further, they added that an assumption has no place in the historical narratives of India. Paradoxically, our syllabus happily welcomes the story of Ramayana and Mahabharata, despite lacking in factual evidence.
View this post on Instagram
// Portrait of Nangeli // In protest against the Mulakkaram (Breast Tax) imposed on lower-caste and minority communities, she cut off her own breasts. •⠀ •⠀ • #portraits #the100dayproject #instagood #instadaily #originalartist #calledtobecreative #visualsoflife #artofvisuals #illustagram #womenwithpencils #drawingfromlife #illo ⠀ #illustration #sketchbook #womenwhodraw #southasianart #southasianartist⠀ #nangeli #illustagram #illustration #illustree #characterdesign #penandink⠀ #womenartists #digitalillustration #createeveryday #designinspiration #graphicart #visualnarrative
Nangeli’s story has been written off as a source of embarrassment when it comes to the Indian curriculum. An Assistant Professor Santosh R. said in one of his interviews that the dismissal of her story culminates in all the previous actions taken by the government to render highly sanitized sections of Indian history to the young generations. The latter are being deprived of acknowledging a better understanding of the historical evolution of women and the essence of gender and caste relations in India. It is incredibly unfair to the current generation and coming ones by removing this vital lesson from the curriculum and heading into the direction of subverting the education system and the movements led by anti-caste struggles.
Is this the only way for a woman to get rid of discrimination and violence? Is it really imperative to end one’s life for a complete boycott of such rules and regulations which are completely filled with loathing and are the by-products of caste and patriarchy? Nangeli’s death had outraged the Ezhava community and there was some discourse about protests against the breast tax happening before her death. But fear of repercussions from the dominant castes and being unable to form a system of unity among each other had thwarted them. Following her death, there was a huge uprising of people’s movements.
“A strong woman stands up for herself. And a stronger woman stands up for everybody else”– appropriately said by the Joan of Arc. There are very few women whose pioneering actions are commemorated by society to a large extent. Nangeli’s sacrifice might not get a place in Indian historical contexts, but she will always be remembered for her bravery and courage in resisting the functioning of the system and her legacy will always live on.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Nangeli’s paintings by T. Murali/Deccan Chronicle