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Yesudas and I: Many Hues of a Prejudice
malala-yesudas 1

James Michael

History of a prejudice

Yesudas’s recent remark against women wearing jeans is not an exceptional phenomenon. My parents and aunts are similarly prejudiced against jeans as much as some of your aunts and parents are. But that does not quite make my father or mother or scores of my other relatives misogynist. Neither would I like them to be at the centre of a national debate on misogyny through which their credentials of being proper citizens of India would be judged over the course of a week.

Like similar such cultural tropes, ‘national modernity’ in a third-world country such as India was also created on the basis of a gendered and casteist understanding of our dress codes. So an uppercaste man, expected to represent modernity and earn for the family, was also in sync with the cultural milieu that was generated by the circulation of colonial capital. By the mid-nineteenth century many urban uppercaste Indian males, especially in Calcutta and Bombay, could expertly transition from wearing western attire to what was considered as ‘rightful attire’ in the particular cultural milieu from which they came from. Similarly, woman’s body became the site on which ideas of the caste-nationalist tradition were being tested and perfected against the corrupting influences of the Western-modern.

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Malala is not just a person, but also a discourse. Yesudas is just a person, a very bad person ~ Author.

In our national imagination, we have these opposing views of sartorial modernity, modernity all the same, in the popular depiction of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr B. R Ambedkar, one as a half-naked fakir, the other fully-attired in a western garb—Gandhi shedding clothes, after his tryst with the West, on behalf of the poor, and Ambedkar accoutring himself in a three-piece suit, positioning himself as a beacon of emancipation for the untouchables. From where I hail, Southern Kerala, historical contestations over the right to wear dignified clothes have had a defining influence on my identity as a lowercaste man.

Until the nineteenth century, Travancore state had strict codes and conducts regarding how lowercaste women and men should have worn their attires. Nadars, a lower, predominantly toddy-tapping caste, for example, were prohibited from carrying umbrellas and wearing shoes, among other such things. As Bernard Cohn puts it in his book Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: “Nadar women could not carry pots on their hips nor could they cover the upper parts of their bodies. Nair women were allowed to wear a light scarf around their shoulders, which at times would be draped over their breasts. However, they were expected to be bare-breasted in the presence of brahmans and other high-status people, as a sign of respect. In addition, all castes below the rank of Nair could wear only a single cloth of rough texture, which was worn by both men and women and which could come no lower than the knee or higher than the waist. Syrian Christian and Moplah women were permitted to wear a short, tight-fitting jacket, the kuppayam.”

It was the Nadar caste members’ gradual conversion to Christianity that helped them break this stranglehold of uppercaste control over their bodies. By the early nineteenth century, women from Nadar caste “began wearing “long clothes” at the request of the missionaries; as conversion spread across the border into Travancore, the Nadar women began to wear the Nair breast cloth”. However, Nadar women who wore the Nair breast cloth “were attacked, stripped, and beaten; chapels and schools were also burned.” The right to wear what was deemed as dignified clothing was eventually extended to members of other lowercastes such as Ezhavas as well, thanks to protracted struggles waged by the lowercastes against uppercaste domination.

In this context, it should be remembered that not very far from where Yesudas and I hail, in Cherthala, Kerala, an Ezhava woman called Nangeli had cut off her breasts and bled to death over 200 years ago in protest against a breast tax imposed by the Travancore state. Much of the fabled wealth of the Travancore temple which was discovered recently was built over a period of several decades on such taxes imposed on lowercaste bodies and clothings.

Coincidentally, for the history of the Nadar caste’s struggles for a life of dignity, Cohn relies also on the documentation of these struggles done in a 1980 book by another Yesudas from Kerala, the historian R. N Yesudas. As Cohn puts it, “The controversy over the breast cloth lives on in the works of the historian R. N Yesudas”. It is no accident then that for people like R.N Yesudas and many such’Yesudases’ from the pre-independence generation who hail from similar lowercaste communities, the right to live a sartorially dignified life has a radically different connotation from what can be quickly captured using casteist uppercaste slants like misogyny.

Ideology of a prejudice

If there is a history of protracted struggle behind lowercaste people gaining sartorial dignity, how do we locate these struggles within the discourse of modernity? As I indicated earlier, Nadar people’s struggle to wear dignified clothes happens within the milieu of colonial capitalism and missionary conversion of which Yesudas and I are beneficiaries, however limited the actual benefits of the conversions would have been. The point is that we need to carefully locate Yesudas within that milieu and not within the milieu of uppercaste urban colonial modernity of the liberal or right-wing variety.

 I use the term modernity as shorthand for capitalism, and as we have earlier observed, modernity had produced two different varieties of sartorial conventions as illustrated via Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar. One of the characteristic features of modernity and therefore capitalism is its ability to renew constantly as an effect of and means for circulating capital. However, this renewal itself cannot happen without locating within modernity those who are the full beneficiaries of its benefits and those who fall outside its periphery. Under the logic of modernity this would mean: a) the ones who have the capital to be ideal consumers in sync with its vagaries, and b) the ones who are incapable of catching up with modernity, that is with the time of capital which is always the present, and therefore would be deemed uncouth, pre-historic, barbaric, or uncivilised.

For example, when we were university students, by the time lowercaste students caught up with floppy discs, uppercaste students had moved ahead with their CDs. By the time lowercaste students started using CDs, uppercastes had moved ahead with DVDs, and then to thumbdrives, external harddrives, flash drives and what not. Technically, as we all know, floppy discs are not pre-historic instruments, but students who used them were deemed one-step behind acquiring full modernity.

Modernity also invents tradition, as Hobsbawm would have it. This tradition is not out of sync with the time of capital. We need to carefully distinguish the set of people whom I am marking here as uppercaste as those who are in sync with both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’—a concept that best captures this ‘seemingly antagonistic’ but comfortable existence of both tradition and modernity that marks the subjectivity of an uppercaste is that ofideologeme. I want to further argue that one of the fundamental markers of lowercaste identity is an unsettled ‘ideologeme’, that is a lowercaste is outside the pale of the ‘ideal’ tradition-modernity dyad.

An uppercaste who is ensconced within this caste ideologeme then can comfortably proceed to criticise both tradition and modernity, as left liberals would or in a certain sense Gandhi could. My reference in this regard is Kiran Desai’s statement about both tradition and modernity with regard to her sartorial choices. “Why did they (jeans and tshirts) become so popular? Remember after September 11, when everyone was terrified that anyone who looked strange in New York would summarily shoot something? Well, my aunt has only worn saris her whole life, and her son told her: “You’ve got to try to wear jeans.” So they put her into jeans and she couldn’t sit down. I kept saying, “Sit down,” and she’d say, “I can’t!” You have to have some sort of self-respect in the end that doesn’t alter depending on where you go, which place you travel to. Ideally, I would come up with some sort of uniform, something I’m happy in, that’s not dull, but also that I could wear all the time.”

It is clear that although she proposes a division within the regime of uppercaste ideologeme, as someone who would only partake the benefits of tradition, she owns the whole of the time frame of capital, even as she poses to criticise its modern dimension. As far as I am concerned, Yesudas is outside this dominant regime of uppercaste ideologeme, and therefore easily becomes the superconductor through which people such as Kiran Desai can resolve their psychic dilemmas. Here misogyny is the code word that indicates that Yesudas exists in a corrupt ideologeme, a mongrel dyad of not-yet-pure tradition and not-yet-there modernity.

Politics of a prejudice

Why is Yesudas’s ideologeme understood as mongrel? Is it that Yesudas has no robust tradition of his own to resort to? Is it that there is in reality a certain lack in his modernity? If one were to understand Yesudas’s legacy by virtue of the dominant framework, one has to resort to tactical explanations such as he is a playback singer but he is also an advocate of ‘pure music’; he is from the backward caste but craves to enter Guruvayur temple, which in turn lays bare his anxiety to please dominant savarna political consciousness, among others. The subject-predicate formula is supplemented with an additional ‘but’ qualification to account for his persona. Through this sleight of hand, critics who otherwise relish on concepts such as ‘agency’ resort to calling Yesudas savarna and brahminical. However, Yesudas has a persona which is beyond and above the framework of such metaphorical excesses deployed by trigger-happy critics, even as one would be hard-pressed to find another person from the fisher community who has entered the national imagination as Yesudas has.

As most Malayalis would know, Yesudas is known as a secularist. Before unravelling the nature of his secularism, I want to declare that I am not a fan of statist secularism. Statist secularism, as every critical theorist knows by now, is just a sanitized form of communal casteism through which lowercastes (a word I prefer over the hegemonic term minorities) are coerced into adopting savarna mores and manners. If you were a lower caste minority and declare your unconditional love for what passes of as savarna culture, you would be deemed as de facto secularist. It is in this particular format that critics have tried to place Yesudas’s brand of secularism. However, even when Yesudas is accused of being an exponent of ‘filmic pure music’, conservatives scoff at him for not being an accomplished classical singer. Even as he wants to enter Guruvayur Temple, where his devotional songs to god Krishna are played on a regular basis, he still cannot enter its premises because he is a non-Hindu. It should be remembered that Guruvayur Temple allowed backward castes to enter its premises only in 1936, just four years before Yesudas was born. However, if we consider minority religions as mostly comprising lowercastes, the ban on the lowercastes’ entry into temples still exists, although this time it is imposed via means such as the deployment of statist secularism which essentially cages lowercastes into silos of religions. In this particular context, we need to distinguish Yesudas’s secularism, for the secularism cherished by a lowercaste Christian who sings Muslim, Christian, and Hindu devotional songs cannot but be of a qualitatively different kind.

The lyrics of the first song recorded of Yesudas started with the lines written by Sree Narayana Guru, who, based in Kerala, was a robust champion of lowercaste people’s right to dignity. Translated, the lines read: “This is an ideal place where everyone lives together as siblings without caste discrimination and religious hatred”. It is said that Yesudas usually sings this song on special occasions forhis audience. If we understand a lowercaste as someone whose identity is not strictly defined by the idioms of a particular religion, Yesudas easily qualifies as one. It is not as if a lowercaste would not want to be defined via the pure idioms of a religion, but he would not be, even if he would like to be defined in such terms. Yesudas is not a pure Hindu—if he were so, he would be allowed into savarna temples. He is a not a pure Christian—if he were so, his caste would not be denigrated by dominant uppercaste Syrian Christians. Most often than not, most bahujans who associate with particular religions end up being derided in some way or the other. It is this derision that produces the secular bahujan, for a bahujan gains nothing but contempt by being invested in a particular religion. I would like to call this secularism as a specific form of subaltern secularism, practiced, for example, by the followers of Sree Narayana Guru, or harking back in time, by scores of anti-caste leaders such as Ayyankali, or Poykayil Johannan, the legacy of which could be traced even back to Kabir or Buddha and beyond.

This particular aspect of the lowercastes’ lack of investment in a particular religion, subaltern secularism, is produced as a result of dominant religions’ inability to provide a robust ideologeme which takes into account or assimilates the particular histories of lowercastes. I am of the belief that Yesudas is one among the last of a generation of lowercastes who could be genuinely called as practitioners of this distinct brand of anti-caste politics in their demeanour and persona in Kerala. It should be remembered that Yesudas has refused to baptize his children. It should also be remembered that until recently if you had entered an Ezahava temple, along with the bust of Sree Narayana Guru you would also find pictures of Jesus Christ and Quranic verses.

In short, Yesudas is part of a vigorous tradition which is quite distinct from that of the ideal ideologeme in which figures like Kiran Desai live—I would like to claim that it is the absence or the continuous erasure of this particular tradition of the lowercaste from the Indian state’s ‘common sense’ that resulted in the production of copious amounts of vitriol in the media over the course of a week against the singer. As a thought exercise, contrast his utterances with Lata Mangeshkar’s praise of Modi, or Kiran Desai’s tirade against jeans, or regular sexist comments spewed on television or film magazines by veterans of Malayalam film music industry such as music director Sharreth or playback singer M.G Sreekumar, and similar other directors and movie stars.

By refusing to locate Yesudas in his specific tradition and by calling him a savarna, our critics are employing metaphors to understand a phenomenon which has nary a material referent—one would like to call this as an instance of the production of a casteist catachresis. This imposition, made either by the state or by the left liberal critic, can only produce an etiolated ideologeme which now threatens to engulf and caricature the 50-year legacy of a legendary singer. However, obnoxious as the unfolding of this particular series of events may look, there could always be a silver lining amid the dark clouds. I would like to believe that this etiolation is for him and other bahujans not just an instance of distress but also of hope—a hope that one day a ray of sunshine would illuminate for the world their rightful place in history.



James Michael is an independent researcher based in Hyderabad. He can be reached at

Images courtesy: the net. 

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