What you see above is a painting by the brilliant Kerala artist Om Soorya, Reconstructing Identities Through Resistance. It is a very special painting for many reasons--it encapsulates how Dalit militancy has sought to affirm itself in the South Indian states--posing a counter and a radical challenge to caste-Hindu oppression. At the same time, my personal happiness flows from the discovery that the t-shirt worn by the Dalit hero in this image is the cover of the first English biography of the Kerala Revolutionary Ayyankali, a book that I was incredibly lucky to co-author with Abdul M. Nisar. Published by the brilliant, selfless and encouraging team at Other Books, Calicut in 2007, this biography of Ayyankali (1863 - 1941) is 150 pages long
Working on this book allowed me the opportunity to learn the special history of caste in Kerala, and allowed me (as a Tamil woman) to establish a greater understanding and love for the history of anti-caste struggle in my neighbouring state.
Pulayars, one of the many Dalit communities in Kerala, were ordered to keep at a distance of ninety-six steps away from a Brahmin, not allowed to cover themselves above the waist or below the knees, denied admission to public roads and subjected to endless oppression. Besides, they were bought and sold as slaves even up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Ayyankali (1863-1941), one of the foremost Dalit leaders, challenged these brutal caste codes. This book chronicles his organic protest in Travancore and provides a critical analysis of the social reform movements in Kerala under the colonial rule. It seeks answers to a lot of questions: How did the various reformist organizations disintegrate into instruments of caste consolidation? How did western education and colonial modernity affect the orthodox setup? What was the role of the middle class in the development of community formation? Why did the so-called reform movement refuse to bother itself with the problems of the poor, the women and the Dalits? How did the Dalits, who were inferiorized and oppressed, react to these changes? What fuelled the emergence of Dalit leadership? What were the changes brought about in the social landscape of Kerala by Ayyankali’s movement?