Thursday, December 2, 2021



There are no memorials built for this courageous lady Nangeli (The beautiful one), nor does her name figure in any history book. But in the village of Cherthala in Kerala, there is an area called Mulachiperambu (Land of women’s breasts), which is popularly known as Manorama Kavala. The exact spot where her hut stood is bare, but surrounded by a patch of green, adjoining a pond. The local people are only too willing to share the story of this brave women to anyone who is willing to listen.

Nangeli and her husband Cherukandan lived in this village in the early 19th century. They belonged to the Ezhava community of low caste toddy tappers. They had no children.

Before the advent of Colonial rule, the women of Kerala went about with bare torsos. It was their way of life and was not considered immoral. But in the 19th century, British missionaries introduced their sense of morality and women began to cover their bare breasts with loose blouses or shawls. Nangeli too believed that she had the right to cover her breasts when she was outdoors.

The Rajah of Travancore was fleecing people with all kinds of taxes to fill his coffers and the poor lower castes suffered the most. A new tax called Mulakkaran (breast tax) was levied on women of the lower castes who wanted to cover their breasts. It was a standard tax not dependent on the size or attractiveness of the breasts.

One day when Nangeli was alone at home, the tax collectors arrived at her house to collect her Breast Tax which was due. These men started leering at the size and shape of her breasts to calculate the Mulakkaram that she should pay. Nangeli told them to wait outside. She went inside, lit a lamp and placed a plantain leaf on the floor and said a quick prayer. Then taking a sharp knife she chopped off both her breasts. She gathered the bloody lumps on the plantain leaf and took them to the tax collectors. Then she fell to the floor and died an agonizing death. The men panicked and ran away. Her husband came home to find Nangeli dead. Cuddling the corpse in his arms and weeping bitterly, Cherukandan jumped into her pyre and perished.

When the Rajah of Travancore heard about this tragic event he was filled with remorse and he scrapped the Breast Tax immediately. Nangeli the brave woman chose death to preserve her honour and dignity. She died in 1803.



Monday, July 19, 2021




Anna Chandy made her mark in the pre-Independence era of India as a first generation feminist, who strived for equality of the sexes in all walks of life.

Anna was born on 4th May 1905 in Trivandrum. She lost after father soon after her birth and was brought up in the matrilineal tradition, by her mother a brave and capable woman, who imbued her with a sense of self-esteem and independence.

Anna grew up during the reign of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi – the Regent of Travancore, who encouraged the education of women. Anna was the first woman in Kerala to obtain a Law degree, and went on to do her postgraduation in 1926, at the Government College of Trivandrum. She became a practising Barrister in 1929 and specialized in Criminal Law.

In 1930, Anna stood for elections to the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly. Needless to say there was much opposition from the narrow-minded men of that time, who believed that a woman’s place was in the home, and she was created for the domestic pleasure of her spouse. Their patriarchal minds believed that when women ventured out of their homes it brought about chaos and unhappiness in the family. They even started a smear campaign insinuating an affair with the Dewan of Travancore. But Anna was made of sterner stuff. She stood again for the elections in 1931. This time she won a place in the Assembly for a tenure of two years from 1932 – 1934.

In 1937, Anna was appointed by the Dewan, as the first female District Judge in Travancore. Of course her opponents were determined to prove that she being a woman could not make logical unbiased decisions. But Anna worked sincerely, determined to make a success of her career. Her efficiency was rewarded by her elevation to be the Judge of the Kerala High Court in 1959. She continued to hold this post till 1967, proving to her male antagonists that here career had been nothing but illustrious.

Anna fought tirelessly for the rights of women who were held in subjugation by the tenets of patriarchy. Women were prevented from pursuing higher education. They had no voting rights. Every profession was male dominated, so that jobs for women were scarce.

Anna started a magazine called “Shrimathi,’ which served as a platform for the advancement of women’s rights. She fought for reservation in government jobs and against wage discrimination among labourers. She championed laws to permit widows to remarry. Though she never married, Anna fought for Women’s Reproductive Rights, insisting that women’s bodies were not toys for the pleasure of men. According to Travancore Law of that time, men were allowed conjugal rights without consent from wives. She insisted that every woman must have control over her own body.

Anna was a champion of Gender Equality. By equality she did not mean concessions for women. In 1035, she raised objections against women being exempted from the death penalty and this must have surprised the judiciary.

Anna was the first woman among Commonwealth nations to become a High Court judge. She was the second female judge in the world, the first being Florence Allan of USA who became a judge in 1922. After her retirement, she served on the Law Commission of India.

Anna wrote her biography ‘Atmakatha’ leaving behind her story of courage and determination, from which women can draw inspiration. She died at the ripe old age of 91 in the year 1996. Though she was born a Syrian Christian, Anna Chandy was interred as a Catholic.



Tuesday, March 30, 2021





Toru Dutt the young woman who blazed across the literary firmament like a shooting star is all but forgotten today. She was a translator and poet who wrote in English and French in British India. Some even called her a pioneer of Indian women writing in English.

Born Tarulatta Dutt on March 1856, she was the youngest of three children born to Goven Chandra and Kshetramoni Dutt. Her family was upper caste, well educated, progressive in outlook and influenced by Western culture. Toru grew up in aa environment where poetry was loved an appreciated. Her father too dabbled in poetry. In his anthology “Dutt Family Album” he described Toru as “Puny and elf-like with dishevelled tresses, self-willed and shy, intent to pay her tenderest addresses to bird and cat, but most intelligent.”

Toru and her siblings were privately tutored in French, English, Bengali and Sanskrit.

When Toru was six years old, the family converted to Christianity. Because of their conversion, they were socially isolated. So they moved to France in 1862, but returned to Calcutta in 1864. Soon after, her brother Abju succumbed to Tuberculosis.

The family again moved to France in 1869. Toru and her sister Aru were educated in French, History and Arts by private tutors. Toru had a fascination for French and her favourite authors were Victor Hugo and Pierre Jean de Beranger. Toru was the first Indian writer in French.

The family moved to England in 1870 where Toru studied at the University of Cambridge from 1871- 1873. Music, History and Scripture were the subjects of her choice. She was exposed to British intellectual life and attended ‘Higher lectures for women.’ She even came in contact with women suffragettes. During her time in Cambridge she became a friend of Mary Martin. They kept in touch even after the family moved back to India in 1873.

Toru remained a Christian all her life though the influence of Hindu literature was reflected in her works like ‘Sita’ and ‘Lakshman.’ Her writing was a mix of her Bengali background as well of her foreign influence. She was also a lover of Nature as expressed in her poems ‘Our Casuarina Tree’ and ‘Tree of Life.’

Toru’s book of poetry “A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields” was written in French but translated into English by the two sisters. It was published in 1876 by a little known publisher in Bhawanipore, and printed on cheap paper. It did not hit the headlines.

But in 1877, it was favourably reviewed by an English critic Edmund Gosse, in the Examiner. “The verse is exquisite,” he wrote. It went into second and third editions.

Toru lost her sister Aru to Tuberculosis. She died of the same disease in 1877, at the age of 21 years.

Toru’s book “Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan” was published posthumously in 1882. Edmund Gosse in his preface to the book wrote, “She would have brought from Europe a storehouse of knowledge that would have made an English or French girl seem learned, but in her case was simply miraculous.”

He also wrote, “Literature has no honours which need have been beyond the grasp of a girl, who at the age of 21 and in a language that separated from her own by so deep a chasm, had produced so much of lasting worth.”

James Darmesteter a French critic paid her a beautiful tribute, “Died in the full bloom of her talent and on the eve of the awakening of her genius.”

In 1921, Harihar Das an Indian author was so impressed by her poem “Buttoo” that he went on to publish a slim volume “Life and letters of Toru Dutt.”

It is tragic that a young talented girl should die so soon. She had the potential to interpret East to West through her beautiful verse. Almost forgotten today, she died on 30th August 1877 and lies in a simple grave at the Maniktalla Christian cemetery in Kolkata.


Thursday, December 10, 2020



            The Assi Ghat in Varanasi where the River Assi joins the Ganges, is the Alice Boner Institute, which was the home of Alice Boner a Swiss painter, sculptor, art historian and Indologist for four decades from 1936 -1978. It is a residential Cultural Centre for young artists to study the fundamental principles of Indian Art and pursue Academic Research.

            Alice Boner was born at Legano, Italy on 22nd July 1889, to Swiss parents. After her basic education, she studied painting and sculpture in Brussels, Munich and Basel between

1907-1911. By 1916, she was an independent artist and exhibited her work at the Museum of Modern Art, Zurich.

            Alice was 47 years old when she witnessed a dance performance by a noted Indian dancer Udaya Shankar at Kursaal, Zurich. She was enchanted by his elegant dance movements and made quick sketches of him on paper, which she later transformed into sculptures at her studio in the Rokoko Pavilion, very close to the University of Zurich.

            In 1929, Alice met Udaya Shankar again in Paris where he was performing. He was planning to go to India to form a troupe of dancers and musicians. Alice accompanied him to India. There was not much encouragement for Udaya’s plans to take Indian dance to the West.  In 1931, he and his troupe which consisted of some of his family members, gave their first performance at Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris. Alice became his co-director, administrator and costume designer. But after five years, Alice returned to India and settled down in Varanasi in 1936.

“This place is so warm and welcoming,” she said, “It encloses me with love and opens the world to me…..I feel fulfilled, happy settled and supported like a gentle stream.”

The place where she lived was called “Alice Boner Ghat” by the locals.

            As her interest in Indian Art and her fascination with the human body with its ‘intersections and tangents’ grew, she gave up sculpting. She thought it was a slow process and she had much to study systematically of the Sacred Scriptures and Temple Architecture. She spent months studying the sculptures of Ellora, Mahabalipuram and Badami. Her analytical sketches made her aware of the methods used by ancient artists to create well proportioned figures. Her in-depth study resulted in a book “The Principles of Composition of Hindu Sculptures,” which was published in 1968.

            Inspired by the study of Shilpa Prakasha, she learnt that the sculptures were carved around geometrical concepts and principles underlying all temple art. These principles, she absorbed into her own art, specially seen in her Tryptych – three large paintings titled Shristi, Sthithi and Samskara.  The paintings portrayed people around her as well as mythological figures, as if ‘entire Creation wanted to break forth from her subconscious.’  Alfred Wuerfel a German Sanskrit scholar said she painted from the ‘profane life around her and reached out to the sacred and numinous.’

            These large paintings are displayed at the Alice Boner Gallery in Bharat Kala Museum at the Benares Hindu University. The gallery was set up in 1989 to mark her birth centenary. A visitor to the gallery travels through the various phases of her life, culminating in the central Tryptych. Each exhibit is accompanied by quotations from her books. Part of her collection is also exhibited at the Reitberg Museum in Zurich.

            In 1969 Alice received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Zurich. In 1974 she was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award.

            Alice Boner lived a busy life. Apart from painting, she organized concerts for musicians like Ali Akbar Allaudin Khan, and dancers like Shantha Rao. She was also interested in the Kathakali dance form of Kerala. She entertained artists, intellectuals, scientists and important men like Nehru, Tagore and even Carl Jung the famous psychologist.

            In 1937, a French musicologist and artist Alain Danielou moved into her neighborhood. They became good friends and he described her as a ‘beautiful woman, tall and stately, haughty and strong willed.’

            In 1981 while visiting Zurich, Alice fell ill and died on April 13th at the age of 91 years. The world has not given this truly visionary artist her due acclaim.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Amy Carmicheal – ‘Amma’ Of Dohnavur


The story of Amy Carmichael is fascinating for its sheer grit and immense faith that led her to a life of service to the poor, the downtrodden and the exploited. Unpredictable and independent by nature, she did not fit into any Missionary community who usually separated themselves in “other worldly” bubbles, keeping their distance away from the very people they wished to serve. Through her unflinching trust in God, she led a life of faith and victory.

            Amy Carmichael was born on 16th December 1867, in County Town, North Ireland, to David and Catherine Carmichael. They belonged to the Presbyterian Church. Her mother was a woman of strong faith and Amy inherited her ‘apostolic spirit’. Her father owned several flour mills and the family was fairly well off. She attended the Wesleyan Methodist School. They moved to Belfast because of changes in the milling business. However, not very long after, her father’s business collapsed. The shock brought about his death in 1885. Amy now had to drop out of school to help her mother take care of her brothers and sisters. She was the eldest in a family of seven children.

            One Sunday while returning from church, Amy saw a poor old woman straining under the bundle she was carrying. With the help of her brothers, the woman was relieved of her bundle and escorted to her house. She was moved by the woman’s poverty. It brought about a change in her life’s values and she decided that her calling would be to help the poor.

            Amy would often accompany her pastor to distribute food and tracts in the poor quarter of town. She had a burden for the poor girls who worked in the mills and started a ministry among them, beginning with Sunday school. She even moved into their neighborhood and slept in their bug infested beds. They were called ‘shawlies’ because they couldn’t afford to buy hats and wore shawls instead. Through her efforts she found a hall where they could meet. It later became the Welcome Evangelical Church. Her time here prepared her for full time ministry.

            In 1886, Amy was invited to the Keswick Convention in Glasgow. It was here that she became convinced of her calling for missionary work. She was sent abroad by the Keswick Convention, and her first trip abroad was to Japan in 1893. However, it lasted for only 15 months due to ill health. She then moved briefly to China and then to Ceylon, but had to return to England in 1894.

            It took her just a year to set out again, and on November 9th, 1895, she sailed to India under the authority of the Church of England’s Zenana Ministry Society. Amy’s idea of service and ministry did not go down well with other missionaries. She wanted to pattern her work along the lines of Hudson Taylor’s ministry in China. The blue print for her work dropped unexpectedly into her lap.

            On March 6th 1901, a girl of seven called Preena, landed on her doorstep. She had absconded from a temple where she had been initiated into the life of a temple prostitute. Her parents had sold her into the service of a Goddess. This was just a smoke screen for prostitution. The girl had sought protection in the Mission compound.

            Amy was aware of the risk she was taking in sheltering the girl. She could have been charged with kidnapping which invited imprisonment for seven years. But in spite of brushes with the Law, this brave lady made the rescue of ‘devadasis’ like this girl, her life’s mission.

            And so began the Dohnavur Mission – an orphanage for girls who were saved from defilement and prostitution. She became ‘Amma’ (mother) to these girls. She began to wear a sari and even dyed her skin with coffee decoction, to blend with her protégés. Amy did not solicit funds for her work, but whatever donations came in went into the Missionary account to be dispensed ‘as the Lord directed.’ The Mission never borrowed money or went into debt.

            Amy chose her helpers carefully especially as she espoused a “no salary policy.” They had to be committed to Christ and work for the welfare of the inmates. Her little band was called “Sisters of Common Life.” Young women who wished to serve at Dohnavur were cautioned “Missionary work is simply a chance to die.”

            In 1904 there were 17 children. But by 1918 the number increased to 130. Then babies were also brought to her. In 1918, a section was opened for boys who were also sold into temple slavery. Some of them were children of prostitutes. Earlier, in 1912, a hospital sprung up on the campus, which was funded by Queen Mary.

            Amy was an avid reader. She read not just different translations of the Bible, but history of the Church fathers, of mystics and even Greek philosophers. It was her way of relaxing after a day of heavy work. She was also a prolific writer. She wrote 52 books of various kinds – the story of Dohnavur, stories of children who were rescued, poems, devotionals and meditations. Her staunch but simple faith echoed through her writings.

            Amy lost her usual activity after she suffered a fall on October 24th, 1931. She was physically confined to her
room, but continued to direct her ministry. During the next 20 years she wrote 13 books and many letters. But when she fell for the second time in 1948, she was confined to her bed until her death on January 18, 1951, at the age of 83. No tombstone marks her grave. A bird bath with a simple inscription “Amma” stands over the spot.

            The work of Dohnavur Fellowship continues even today. It is now functioning under the CSI Tinnevelly Diocese.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020


Kesar Devi Sethia of Sujangarh was a woman of extraordinary courage and compassion. During the partition of India, when violence flared up in her little town of Sujangarh, she bravely averted a Hindu-Muslim riot that might have resulted in a massacre of Bisayathi Muslims. Her story was brought to light by her grandson Umrao Singh Sethia, who learnt of her bravery directly from the lady herself.
Kesar Devi belonged to the influential Baid family of Ladnun, whose forefathers were hereditary Dewans of the State of Cooch Bihar. Like the male members of her family, she was trained in martial arts, horse riding and other outdoor sports.
She was married off at an early age to Srimant L.C.Sethia, a member of the Advisory Council of Maharaja Sardul Singh of Bikaner. During the reign of Akbar the Great, Srimant Sethia’s ancestors were bestowed the title of ‘Sethia.’ The family was always close to the seat of power and so enjoyed de facto status of a local ruler. Tragically Srimant Sethia died at the early age of 32 years, leaving Kesar Devi to involve herself in the welfare of the people of Sujangarh.
Sujangarh is about 150 kilometers from Bikaner. In those days the population of the town was about 30,000. It was a peaceful town famous for its havelis, temples and ancient forts. People of all sects and religions lived in perfect harmony for generations.  About 30% of the population were Muslims and belonged to different communities like the Bisayathis, Mohils, Chippas and others. They occupied the eastern and southern parts of the town and were mostly labourers, hawkers and petty traders.
The Bisayathi Muslims were a peace loving community who lived on the northern side of the Sethia Mahal. Some of them were employed in the gardens and stables of the Mahal. Kesar Devi was known for her kindness and generosity to deserving people and felt responsible for their welfare. She was looked upon with respect and reverence and was popularly referred to as Maaji Saheb.
In 1947, when the partition of India took place, the line of partition ran through Sujangarh. A small part of the town went to Pakistan. Even though Maharajah Sardul Singh had assured the Muslims of safety and protection, some of them opted to go to Pakistan.
Simultaneously, there was an influx of Hindu refugees from Sindh, who came with frightening stories of brutality and murder of Hindus in Pakistan. For a while there was calm in Sujangarh. But as the Sindhi population grew, the local Hindus were influenced by their stories of gory atrocities. Together they planned to attack the Muslims and get rid of them. As the Bisayathis were a quiet people, they were the first group to be attacked. Their houses were torched and many lost their lives.
Kesar Devi was woken up one night by shouts and screams of people crying “Bachao, Bachao.” From her window she saw flames of fire spreading through the Bisayathi ghetto. Men, women and children both old and young were frantically running towards the Mahal, which was their only hope of refuge from their attackers. Some had already reached the gates and were crying out for protection.
Maaji Saheb rushed down towards the gates and ordered the security guards who were poised to shoot, to lower their arms.
“Open the gates at once,” she shouted, “Let the people in.”
“But this is a dangerous crowd,” they protested.
“At once,” she shouted.
The frightened Bisayathis rushed into the compound. Then the gates were firmly closed.
There were about 150 of them. Maaji Saheb ordered her staff to herd them into the underground store rooms of the Mahal where they would be safe.
            A few minutes later, the menacing attackers arrived with sticks, staves and burning torches.
“Open the gates before we break them down,” they shouted, “Send out those people you are hiding in your compound.”
Maaji Saheb stood there like Goddess Durga, an unleashed sword in her right hand.
“Get out – Go home at once. These Bisayathis are like my own children. I will see that no harm comes to them.”
But the crowd shouted louder. “We will break down the gates if you don’t send them out at once. We will rid Sujangarh of everyone of their tribe.”
Now Maaji Sahib was furious. “If you don’t disperse within ten minutes, I will ask my guards to shoot all of you. You will drown in your own blood.”
The anger reflected in her eyes showed that she meant what she said. Turning to the guards she ordered, “Just 10 minutes. After that you must shoot them all down.”
The crowd quickly dispersed, but Maaji Saheb stood at the gates all night to make sure that they did not return.
            The Bisayathis enjoyed her hospitality for over a month. They had food, clothing and shelter. They were even given money and assistance to rebuild their homes.
            The local authorities rounded up the trouble makers and sent them to prison. The refugees from Sindh were warned that if they continued to stir up trouble, they would be sent back to Pakistan.
            Ever since then, Sujangarh has remained an oasis of peace. The population of the town today is about 1.5 lakhs. As a sign of gratitude to the lady, the Bisayathis came to the Mahal at every Eid to receive her blessings.  At Muharram, they brought the Tazia to the gates of the Mahal as a sign of respect. Though Maaji Sahib died in 1965, the Bisayathis still continue the practice.

Friday, June 19, 2020



            Nancowry is a group of islands in the middle of the Nicobar Archipelago. Islon an illiterate tribal woman from this region improved her social status by marrying a Tahshildar of Nancowry who acted as a British administrator. He was a generous man who helped his tribal wife to command respect from her fellow-Nicobarese. When disputes were brought before him, he referred them to Islon to settle, conferring on her the dignity of a magistrate. In time Islon grew in importance and became a British agent in Nicobar.
            In 1914, the German cruiser Emden struck terror in the heart of the British Empire. The cruiser commanded by Karl Freiderich Max von Muller would sneak into Indian waters and raid British ships plying on busy trade routes. The cruiser was called the ‘swan of the East.’ One of its funnels was camouflaged to look like a British ship. In two months the German cruiser had intercepted 23 merchant and naval ships and destroyed 74000 tonnes of goods.
            In October 1914, the Emden sailed to the Nicobar Islands. Islon mistook it for a British ship and hoisted the Union Jack to welcome the ship. Commander Muller was fooled into thinking there was a strong British presence in the islands, and hastily withdrew and sailed off to Penang. Islon soon realised this was a German ship. She immediately dispatched a messenger to the nearest signal station to tip off the British, who were able to capture the elusive ship with its commander and crew. Islon’s information led to the capture of Emden, and Muller remained as a prisoner of war in England until the end of the war in 1918.
            The grateful British conferred on Islon the title “Rani of Nancowry.” She lived with her family in three buildings which came to be known as the Rani Ghat (Queen’s Palace.) Her contact with the British ended in 1945.But Islon continued to remain an important person even after Indian Independence. She was the link between the Nicobarese and the newly independent India. She continued to head her unique political institution and appointed her brother Ramakrishna as her Chief Captain. Even the Japanese held Islon and her brother in great respect.
            Rani Islon died in 1954, and her daughter Lachmi became the next Rani. She ushered in a period of economic prosperity. The people of Nancowry started a regular trade with merchants in South East Asia. Lachmi died in 1989 and was succeeded by her daughter Fatima. But the tsunami washed away this small peaceful world.
            Rani Islon was one of the tallest leaders of the Nicobarese. But belonging to a historically isolated community not much is known about her life.