ഈ വർഷത്തെ ‘ദി ഗ്രേറ്റ് ഇന്ത്യൻ കിച്ചണി’നായി പാളുവാ ഭാഷയിൽ മനോഹരമായ ഗാനങ്ങൾ രചിക്കുകയും, കഴിഞ്ഞ ആറ് വർഷമായി ദലിത്-അംബേദ്കറൈറ്റ് ഫെമിനിസ്റ്റ്, എഴുത്തുകാരി, ആക്ടിവിസ്റ്റ്, ചിന്തക എന്നീ നിലകളിൽ കേരളത്തിന്റെ കലാ-രാഷ്ട്രീയ മേഖലകളിൽ സജീവ സാന്നിധ്യവുമായ മൃദുലദേവി. എസ്, അവരുടെ ബഹുമുഖ രാഷ്ട്രീയ ഇടപെടലുകളെക്കുറിച്ച് സംസാരിക്കുന്നു.
Intro: It is only recently, after she composed beautiful songs in Paluva dialect for this year’s The Great Indian Kitchen, that Mrudula Devi S. has become a well-recognised name for us. However, for the past six years, she has been an active presence in Kerala’s cultural and political spheres as a Dalit-Ambedkarite feminist, writer, activist, and thinker. In this episode, she joins us to talk about her multi-faceted political interventions. Hello Ma’am, welcome to the podcast.
Shilpa: What is the context in which you became a public figure? Have your experiences as a teacher influenced your emergence as an activist?
Mrudula Devi: I am quite flattered that I am being described as a public figure! I had taken a hiatus from teaching for family-related reasons. I had to look after my husband’s mother, who was diagnosed with dementia, and I also decided to concentrate on preparing for PSC exams at the time. It is at this time that I began to write more on Facebook. My writings began to gain attention, and subsequently, those who were interested in my stances began to offer me spaces to speak. This is how I came to be known.
S: What prompted you to take your political observations to Facebook, and in what context did your political thinking take shape?
M: I chose Facebook because—in general, I am someone who makes political observations. Naturally, I am interested in Dalit politics, so I began to track down and read those who had similar political perspectives, and began to focus more on Dalit politics. I am someone who enjoys all the entertainment that Facebook offers, while spending a little bit more time on these matters as well. So my interventions shaped up through my general style of social commentary. My interventions did not go beyond commentary at the time; it was then that the deaths of Jisha and Rohith Vemula took place. When these issues emerged, I felt compelled to be an active participant in the discussions. And soon, similar issues were brought to my attention by other communities, and because these issues were something I was invested in, I continued my involvement.
S: You have spoken quite a bit about the Paluva dialect/language in the media by now. Even so, I would like to ask you why you decided to write in the dialect. With what hopes do you make such an intervention in Malayalam cinema? In general, do you think Malayalam cinema plays a role in maintaining casteist language norms?
M: I was always interested in language. Malayalam is the language I studied in, and that I speak, so my writings were also in Malayalam. I was someone who wrote poetry only in English and Malayalam. I have not written much in the Paluva dialect; I began as a matter of curiosity. I belong to the Paraya community, and this is a language spoken within our community. This is not a language that is used in public or formalised spheres—there, we have Malayalam, English, and Hindi. But because I knew the language, it became a hobby of mine to try and deconstruct the language and craft compositions using Malayalam script. During the pandemic, I posted one such composition on Facebook, and it caught the attention of Jeo Baby [the director of ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’]. He thought the composition suited the film very well, and also asked me to write more songs for the movie. So two of my poems in Paluva language have been featured in the film, and both were composed by me beforehand. I added more lines later as was suitable for the film. I had not decided to enter Malayalam cinema through this language; it all happened incidentally. But I would like to make this a part of my activism, and all my interventions henceforth will be of that nature too. If I get more opportunities, I will continue to intervene in ways that speak up against the casteism perpetuated in Malayalam cinema, and Indian cinema in general.
There are many anti-democratic, casteist tendencies in language even today. This is why we still have terms for master [melaalan] and servant [adiyaan], for king [rajaavu] and queen [rajni], for slave [adima]. That is why we still commonly feature phrases to imperiously beckon for our servants [aaravide], or say, ‘long live the ruler’ [neenaal vazhatte]. There is still a distinct section of people who are known as ‘rulers of the land’ [naaduvaazhi] and those whose deaths are referred to using respectful terms [theeppeduka, dipankathar], while others simply die [niryathar]. There are still some who ‘recline in slumber’ [palliyurakkam] and those who simply sleep, and all of these things indicate anti-democratic tendencies in our language. And it is in this space that I wish to establish a language that respects equality and human dignity.
S: In another interview you gave, you mentioned that the Paluva dialect is a ‘hidden’ (goodha) language. What did you mean by that, and what is the reason for the ‘hidden’ nature of Paluva language?
M: I am happy that you brought this up. My usage of goodham has become widely misinterpreted. There are diverse forms of language-use in Dalit-Adivasi communities, and this has historically been the case. There are those within the community who do not want to share this language with others, particularly in my Paraya community. There is a lot of exaggeration surrounding the use of this language, like the idea that this is a kind of ‘code’ or ‘secret’ language developed by enslaved people. There is no way that such a language could have been developed during the era of enslavement, because it was a time of intolerable levels of hardship, and it was impossible even for Paraya people to meet or speak to one another or gather. For a language to take shape systematically, there needs to be spaces of community. In an era of enslavement, where there were no such circumstances, such a ‘code’ language cannot have grown. For a community that struggles for unity even today, sharing a language then would have been difficult, and it is wrong to infer this. As far as I have learned, this is a language about which much has been written at least since the 1950s—I have not investigated whether there are even older studies. So it is clear that there are those in the community who are willing to share the language, and those who aren’t. So describing a language as goodham does not mean that it was not passed on to others—goodham is not the same as nigoodham (hidden). If it is a hidden language, it is difficult to bring it to light. But by goodham, I simply meant that this is a language that remained invisible because it is a ‘lived’ language that could not compete with formalised language. It is possible to shed light on such languages, and that is what I have done with the oru kudam paaru song. Paluva language has appeared before in Malayalam cinema, though not in songs, and there have been writings in/on the language. The English term ‘obscure’ is perhaps best suited here. ‘Obscure language’ has many meanings, some related to meditation in Buddhist practice. ‘Obscure language’ refers to languages that were not visibilised, and those that can flourish if they are rendered visible, and not in the sense of ‘surrendering’ it to others.
S: What is your opinion about Dalit-Adivasi representation in Malayalam cinema? Can such attempts in recent films like Kammattippaadam, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, and the upcoming Rachiyamma be considered advances in this regard?
M: Definitely not. Dalit-Adivasi representation in these films is minimal, except for some attempts at introducing audiences to such figures. Such representations are just spectacles that do not really delve into lived experience, and are attempts by those outside these communities that are not undergirded by in-depth study. Some such representations do good, some don’t, and they partially represent social truths. To be specific, consider the 1954 film, Neelakkuyil. It is claimed that Neelakkuyil is the first film in Malayalam to represent modernity. Firstly, this manifests in the form of the train in the film, a symbol of modernity in those times. Secondly, the film ends with the protagonist [savarna] Sreedharan Nair accepting the child he had with his Dalit lover, Neeli. In that representation, the ‘Neeli perspective’ of the story was subordinate to the ‘Sreedharan perspective’ of the story. In those times, this was an acceptable representation.
But even when we come to Kammattippadam, the ‘Neeli perspective’ remains subordinate. Although the film does bring up many issues, the Dalit characters in it are represented in a grotesque manner. They are fitted with prominently crooked teeth, and are shown to be playing the harmonium at funerals, as if untouched by modernity. There may be people like that, but such a representation is valued in the film instead of representing the many Dalit interventions and interpretations in academia, language, and literature. At the end of the film, the [savarna] hero, played by Dulquer Salman, is represented as sacrificing his moral purity and adopting the path of vice solely to return to Kammattippaadam and ‘save’ its people. Very strategically, he also escapes marrying the scheduled-caste heroine. So the Neeli and Sreedharan perspectives have changed very little since 1954. Now, to take the case of Ayyappanum Koshiyum, there is a very strong Adivasi female protagonist, and it features a song by Nanjiyamma [an artist from the Adivasi Irular community]. This is a film I liked very much, it portrays things very well. Even so, the main character is half-Dalit, and is given the name ‘Ayyappan Nair’. I would argue that this is because we still have not overcome the need for a ‘Nair’ or ‘Namboothiri’ tag for a trustworthy protagonist. Did you refer to any other film?
S: Rachiyamma was the other film.
M: Yes, Rachiyamma. Rachiyamma is a character from [writer] Uroob’s story. She is described as being as dark as a pillar of salt, and is a Shudra woman, not a Dalit woman as such. It is because Malayalam cinema cannot accept the darkness even of a woman who is not Dalit that the fair-skinned actress Parvathy was cast in the role of a protagonist clearly described as being the colour of black iron.
S: You often say that you are a Dalit feminist more than just a Dalit thinker. What is the value you see in Dalit feminism, and what are the ways in which you have brought those values into practice in your life?
M: To take an example, in Afro-American countries, as white feminism flourished, it failed to address the experiences of all women. It is when Black women put forth feminist thinking that feminism in these countries was able to address the crises in democracy in third world nations. And that is how those like Sojourner Truth and Anna Julia Cooper came up. So here, similarly, Dalit feminist standpoints exist as the wielders of grassroots democracy. As the mainstream remains content to let the fruits of democracy remain within established and dominant communities, Dalit feminist standpoints fight for these benefits to reach groups such as domestic workers, safaiwallahs, those who clean toilets, construction labourers—those who are in informal sectors of work, and those who are not even visible as part of the informal sector.
How I put these values into practice is by continually speaking up about these issues. I also bring them into my actions. A Dalit woman is always put in the position of speaking against both the patriarchy within Dalit communities and the patriarchy in the mainstream. It is only by battling with both these communities that alternative modes of thinking can be created. So these points feature in my writing, my thinking, and my reading. When one says ‘humans’ instead of ‘man’, we are able to include everyone—men, women, those in the LGBTIQ spectrum, those who are ill, those who are ageing. My Dalit feminist standpoint also enables me to insist that we say ‘they’ instead of ‘he’. All my work in the past six years has centred on these stances. Even in the song I wrote, I said, ‘The woman seeps, the rain soaks, the woman is wet, the land cools, the woman is drenched, the earth is drenched, the song spreads, the dance gains pace…’–here, I centre the woman without waxing lyrical about her breasts or hips to satisfy the expectations of a certain kind of society. And so this is how I bring my standpoint into practice.
S: Through WCC [Women in Cinema Collective] and its members, gender and feminism have become topics of discussion in the field of cinema. They also started the P. K. Rosy Film Society. As a Dalit feminist, what do you think about this movement and its politics?
M: WCC, which broke ranks with AMMA [Association of Malayali Movie Artists], initially provided cause for hope. First, the formation of a democratic body such as Amma—later AMMA—that was different from other associations in Malayalam cinema, and then, the emergence of a feminist standpoint from within AMMA, were all welcome changes. WCC’s intervention in the case of the actress being attacked was also commendable. But even WCC’s inclusion of those who are from communities branded as marginalised is suspect. When the P. K. Rosy Society was founded, I was invited to give the inaugural address—so I am not unknown to them. The Dalit director Jeeva Janardhanan and Adivasi director Lella Santhosh are all part of WCC. There are other Dalit members, but they are not public about their identity. That is their private matter, and WCC cannot do anything about it. But WCC was fully capable of bringing in more Dalit and Adivasi representation in their collective, and they have not taken any action in this regard. I myself had applied for a membership, and I am yet to hear back from them. Even before I wrote the songs for The Great Indian Kitchen, I have been a film critic, and I have been involved with films that centred Dalit perspectives, such as the short film ‘Njaavalpazhangal’ and the film ‘Richter Scale’. Beyond saying that my application will be processed in six months, there has not been a response.
Apart from this, a collective for women in cinema has not in any way officially acknowledged the fact that a Dalit woman, for the first time, has wielded the pen in Malayalam cinema, even as I am not an unknown person to them. In any case, it is their responsibility to make the effort to include a Dalit woman who has made an entry into the industry. At the very least, an email or a phone call is warranted. What this effectively shows is that there is no ‘Dalit Woman’ in the ‘Women’ in Cinema Collective. Even as they applauded [Mahila Congress member] Lathika Subhash shaving her head [protesting the lack of women candidates from Congress], they do not have the capacity to recognise the head-shaving carried out by the mother of the two Dalit girls in Walayar who died—and this is savarna privilege.
S: You mentioned that there are many who do not publicise their Dalit identity or speak about it in the cinema industry. Why does such a situation arise? We spoke about representation in cinema, but has your work also given you insight into the casteism that operates in the backstage of cinema production?
M: The insight I got is precisely that many do not reveal their Dalit identity. It is because of caste atrocities within cinema that many keep their identity secret. If they reveal their Dalit identity, there will be a fall in their remuneration, they will begin to lose opportunities. And because it is a matter of their livelihood, I cannot demand that they practice Dalit politics in those spaces. Because they enter such fields as a matter of passion, often foregoing training in other modes of employment, and because I am in no position to find them alternative employment, all I can do is close my eyes to the fact that this is happening. Dalit people who have a passion for camera work, for example, have told me that they are not able to afford an expensive camera, and have to struggle to find cameras and equipment for rent. In contrast, the son of a major film star, let us call him X, might just come in before the program begins, do his recording, and leave immediately after in a car. Those like us, they say, do not get the kind of treatment that X gets. If they compalin, they will be asked to not come for the next session, because there are enough Dalit people to work for even less remuneration. So people like them hang on somehow, hoping that the situation will change someday. This is an issue in all fields, be it for actors or technicians.
Dalit people have not been able to gain clout through collective work. For example, Mohanlal, M. G. Sreekumar, Jagatheesh, Priyadarshan—they represent a collective that is equal in terms of caste privilege and other aspects. But Dalit communities have not been able to form such collectives in Malayalam cinema. Their situation is always precarious; they can be replaced at any time. So they do not reveal their identities. I recently came to know a person from cinema who has a Christian name. When I first met him and in our later interactions, I assumed that he was a Christian. It is only recently that he revealed to me that he is a Dalit Christian, with the request that I do not make this public, since many doors would close for him. The only way to change the helpless situation of Dalits in cinema is for activists like me to speak up about casteism and to consciously use teaching moments to change attitudes. If bodies of film workers like AMMA, FEFKA, MACTA and WCC all intervene, there will be a change. For this to happen, I hope that there will be more Dalit representation in these organisations.
S: Elsewhere, you have said that your interventions are primarily for your survival, and for you to lead a happy and fulfilling life. What is the politics behind saying this as a Dalit woman who is an activist? Do you face difficulties in managing the expectations of a public that sees you as a spokesperson?
M: I say this in all my interviews: I am an absent-minded person, and someone like me cannot take up the many responsibilities foisted upon me by the public. I sometimes hear someone speak without listening, or forget appointments–that is how fragile my personality is. I am someone who can be lazy and undisciplined, even as I enjoy recognition. I am not an anti-social person, that is all. If we work with this expectation, both society and I will be happy. In a country like India, where caste is the grounds for social and cultural capital, there are very many issues that crop up around caste, but nobody should expect that I will intervene in all such issues. I will only intervene if I am able to reach that place and afford the costs of transportation and food without relying on someone else; if it is a political context that suits my political understandings. In short, I will work only within safe spaces. I am openly stating this so nobody comes to me tomorrow asking why I did not intervene in this or that issue. The work I do to stand on my own two feet may benefit many others. The reason is that when a woman like me, who has no resources or rights over land or social capital, speaks up stridently and gains something out of it, others will also be benefited. I will adamantly say ‘no’ to demands that I do more than this, because I do not have the backing of caste or religious privilege, wealth, resources, or property.
S: As we reach the end of this podcast, let us end with your writing. What is your relationship with writing? What, and who, motivates your writing? Relatedly, we would also like to hear about your work as part of the editorial board of the magazine, Paatabhedam.
M: Even in my childhood, all my Malayalam teachers did a good job of introducing me to literature, and that is perhaps how I became interested in writing. The respect and fame that writers get must have appealed to me. I was seeing that writers were exalted in society as ‘creatures of the mind’. And so I often tried to show off as a writer in college, speaking in formal Malayalam, saying that I missed the ‘vahanam’ [vehicle] rather than the bus. I could not match the others in my educational achievements, so I tried to make up for it in this way. And because we could afford to in my family, we subscribed to a lot of good magazines. I do everything very consciously, and so, I had decided as a young person that I wanted to be a writer, and one that is not anti-social. But I was not able to make a big entry into writing—some of my poems were published in magazines, some weren’t. Since college, I enjoyed the status of being arts club secretary, and I had an aesthetic mind and an entrepreneurial impulse. In the past six years, from writing on social media to being involved with the avant-garde magazine Paatabhedam, meaning ‘altertext’, I did not want to simply protect the mainstream agenda. Even as I enjoy the recognition that writers are given, I hold the democratic stance that I will not write in an anti-social manner. In my youth, I was also highly influenced by the broad perspectives that emerged in Dalit studies under the influence of postmodernism in the 1990s. Through this exposure, I became determined to focus more on the writings of those who are from marginalised communities. Later, I understood the need for a Dalit feminist standpoint, and focused more on feminist writings coming from Dalit communities. I have been an editorial member at Paatabhedam for the past five years. Among the best work I have done in this position is a series on eminent Afro-American personalities called ‘The Politics of Blackness’, which is forthcoming as a compiled volume. The other project is a Malayalam translation of G. N. Saibaba’s poetry—he is currently in jail under charges of sedition—undertaken by me and my friend Ajith. I take up socially responsible writing projects with the conscious aim of being recognised as a social critic. I am a Dalit woman, and I write so I will be remembered after my death, because I do not want to remain a part of the generations of women who ate from holes dug in the ground. I want my writings to be taught as part of curricula; I want the world to study my work. If you see that as my hubris, it is my battle to be myself. If you see it as courage, it is a courage that carves out a space for myself.
S: Thank you so much, Ma’am. Although there is so much more to talk about, we must stop here because of time constraints. Thank you for joining us today.
Producer: Harikrishnan S.; Interviewer: Shilpa Menon
About the Guest: Mrudula Devi. S is a poet and Dalit activist. She is also an editorial board member at Paatabhedam Magazine.