E.V. Ramakrishnan

Panel 3B Politics of Transcodification
Session 3 – July 2, 11:00 – 13:00

  Trial as Spectacle, Woman as the Missing Subject: Performing Gender in Times of Transgression

How is gender performed along the axis of changing power relations as a society transforms itself from a feudal/caste-bound structure to a modern/bourgeoisie one? This question is examined in this paper with reference to an event that gets repeatedly narrated across multiple media over a period of more than a century in Malayalam literature and films. The event concerns the ritualistic trial (called Smartavicharam) of a high caste Brahmin woman (named Thatrikutty) accused of adultery and tried by a court of Brahmin priests appointed by the local king of Cochin. By 1905, the year in which this trial happened, Kerala the southern-most state of India, had a vibrant public sphere with several newspapers and periodicals where issues of social reforms, women’s education and social justice for the lower castes were actively debated. Reports regarding this trial appeared regularly in Malayala Manorama, a well-known newspaper. In the trial, Thatrikutty named 64 men as her paramours, most of them highly placed Brahmins occupying positions of power in the community. All of them were excommunicated for life. The event shook the very foundations of the Brahmin orthodoxy in Kerala, leading to radical reforms in the community. In the process, Thatrikutty became an icon of rebellion and revenge, whose sexual transgression rendered her an outcaste both in the prevailing Brahminic code as well as in the emergent narrative of individual-centred morality. Thatri has been the subject of several essays, poems, short stories, two novels and two films in Malayalam. The paper will examine how the various representations of Thatrikutty in fiction and films performs her gendered identity as sexuality becomes a site of conflicts and contradictions against essentialist notions of morality. The role of the media in constructing the figure of Thatrikutty will be worked out with reference to the two novels, Kuriyedathu Thatri and Brashtu (Outcaste) and two films, Parinayam and Vanaprastam.  


E.V.Ramakrishnan, a bilingual writer, has published poetry and criticism in English and Malayalam. He has authored six books of criticism in Malayalam, twelve books of criticism (including edited ones) in English, and four volumes of poetry in English. He is presently the President of Comparative Literature Association of India and a Vice-President of ICLA.