The Rise of the National-Popular and Its Limits: Communism and the Cultural in Kerala

Nissim Mannathukkaren. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Volume 14, Issue 4. 2013.


The communists came to power through democratic means in the Indian state of Kerala in 1957, an unprecedented event in the history of postcolonial societies. This naturally led to lot of academic attention on the communist movement in the state. Nevertheless, while the political and economic aspects of the rise of the movement have been well chronicled, surprisingly, there has not been enough focus on the cultural elements. In this paper, I will look at the way the communists (and their precursor, the socialists) negotiated the cultural in the two-decade period from their emergence in the mid-1930s until their ascension to power in 1957, especially with a focus on the attempt to incorporate the popular into struggles for social transformation. The sum effect was that different kinds of strands emerged, some progressive, and some conservative. On the one hand, the negotiation led to the sowing of the seeds of a national-popular will (Gramsci 1971, 198-199). This will simultaneously attempted to negotiate exclusions based on class, caste, language, region and the nation. On the other, not all the exclusions were equally contended with or the national-popular will that was constructed eliminated all hierarchies. The national-popular will was not completely homogeneous and seamless. In fact, it could be argued that the emergent national-popular was built by a reinforcement and recasting of some pre-existing exclusions, such as that of gender. Even caste and class exclusions were only partially addressed. The previously “untouchable” castes and the indigenous people located at the bottom of the social hierarchy continue to be placed there despite substantive changes heralded by the communist movement. There was no progressive march to democracy and freedom, as in many linear accounts. The communist intervention was riddled with contradictions. High theory was translated into the local language, at the same time, many a time it was applied mechanically. Culture became an important aspect of the communist mobilization, thus acquiring an unprecedented importance, but it was also used instrumentally, becoming subservient to political ends. The working class revolution was virtually led by an upper caste leadership hailing from elite feudal families, and radicalism and conservativism mixed, often without any tension.

Nevertheless, at least a semblance of the national-popular emerged, which could not be said of the vast majority of the other Indian states. Kerala is one of the most acclaimed “models” of social development in the global South. And much of the credit for this has been attributed to state policy both in the colonial and post-colonial periods: “Kerala’s uniqueness has to be understood as a historical confluence of changes and continuities at three levels—state, regime, and government” (Desai 2006, 8). But the problematic here cannot be reduced to its political-economic aspects; instead the cultural imaginaries, which went into the building of the model need to be examined. It can be argued that without the construction of something akin to a national-popular will in the cultural sphere, the communist contribution to the politico-economic model could not have been realized. The uniqueness of Kerala in terms of class mobilization and the hegemony that the communists were able to establish was, to a large extent, made possible by the struggles in the cultural sphere.

The communist movement sought to create wider political unities by linking the countryside and the city, the peasantry and the proletariat, class and caste. The national-popular will was something that was absent in Gramsci’s description of Italy during the 1930s:

In Italy the term “national” has ideologically very restricted meaning, and does not in any case coincide with “popular” because in Italy the intellectuals are distant from the people, i.e. from the “nation.” They are tied instead to caste tradition that has never been broken by a strong popular or national political movement from below.

The communists in Kerala, on the other hand, had clearly recognized what their contemporary Gramsci (1971, 132)—without reading him—was arguing: “any formation of a national-popular collective will is impossible, unless the great mass of peasant farmers bursts simultaneously into political life.” Of course the cultural was only one dimension of the construction of the national-popular. But without the transformations in popular culture, the construction of the national-popular could not be attempted. The communist project, ostensibly based on a class agenda, was not premised on essentialist primordialism. It viewed “cultural identity as a project that was very much part of the struggle for liberation that it informed” (Dirlik 1997, 15).

The communists altered the social consciousness of the masses through their sustained campaigns in the cultural sphere. A new genre of songs, and popular theater was born and it borrowed from folk culture. The communists tried to negotiate dualisms such as tradition/modernity and the universal/particular, with some success. Unlike many “Third World” nationalist projects, which emphasized cultural difference, the communist project’s attempt was to link cultural difference with the universal project of emancipation. Nationalist projects in the Third World, as explicated by postcolonial theory, were “posited not on identity but rather on a difference with the ‘modular’ forms of the national society propagated by the modern West” (Chatterjee 1993, 5). In the communist project there was no positing of a dichotomy between the indigenous and the alien. Thus, in the domain of national culture, it borrowed from alien sources even as it sought to create a new linguistic identity based on indigenous tradition.

Keeping in line with Marxist universalism, the project espoused universal themes. This universalism cannot be dismissed as what Gramsci terms as the “vague ‘cosmopolitanism’” and “universalism of the Catholic Middle Ages” in Italy (Gramsci 1971, 274). Unlike the Italian experience, here the universalism was complemented by a strong national and local consciousness too. But the communist nationalism, needless to say was in constant tension with bourgeois nationalism. It was also willing to go beyond national concerns and identify with communist internationalism.

It is necessary to understand the translation of Marxism into the vernacular and its appropriation by different cultural traditions (Dasgupta 2005, 80), but it is also necessary to understand the universal elements in the communist project. While the dominant tendency has been to study Marxism in different cultural contexts as merely an expression of a universal theory, the recent tendency has been to study it only in its specificity and particularity (see, for example, Menon 1994). But I will argue that it is in the relationship between the two that the communist project has been unique, compared with other projects of liberation like nationalism.

By bringing to the fore the material dimension of existence, the communist project sought to question the separation between the cultural and material dimensions that had characterized the national movement. It operated with the belief that decolonization “requires not the restoration of a historically continuous and allegedly pure precolonial heritage, but an imaginative creation of new form of consciousness and way of life” (Pieterse and Parekh 1995, 3). The fundamental feature of the communist project’s negotiation of the cultural was that it did not look to the West only, as in modernization projects, or to the indigenist past, as in traditionalism.

At the same time, betraying the many contradictions, the project was also implicated in the modernist and developmentalist paradigms of a stagist and reductionist Marxism, or those which uncritically reinforced some hierarchical aspects of tradition. There were disjunctures between the struggle for political power and the theoretical position on arts and culture and the consequent subsumption of the latter by the former (Rajeevan 2001, 173). The vibrant shift to incorporate the popular also had it dark side, with the eventual “partification of culture” (Vadakkedath 2000), reducing cultural questions to political expediency.

This paper will specifically look at these aspects of the communist engagement with culture: the inauguration of a new genre of songs, the political reinvention of folk arts, and the revolution in theater. It will end with a discussion of the limitations of the national-popular constructed by the communists.

A New Aesthetic

Even before the emergence of communism, there were substantial changes in society inaugurated by the hardening of colonial modernity in Kerala beginning towards the end of the 19th century. There saw the birth of social reform movements operating within the structure of caste, which aimed at the removal of crippling customs and superstitions. Although these movements, together known as the renaissance, began as early the 1830s they really gained strength only by the 1880s. There were different strands in the renaissance, some that negated hierarchies, while others reworked existing hierarchies, thus establishing its heterogeneous character. While the renaissance made immense contributions to the democratization of society, one cannot romanticize it. Thus, the lower caste movements substantially affected caste hierarchies but the reform movements of the lowest of castes, like the untouchables, were marginalized and never became a part of the mainstream. The renaissance largely preserved the hegemony of upper caste values even when some lower castes such as Ezhavas had achieved substantial mobility. Nevertheless, the deeply entrenched nature of the struggles for democracy and mass movements by the communists has been a result of the groundwork laid by the renaissance. The left movement was irrigated by personnel who belonged to the social reform/renaissance stream, and the ideas of socialism, the Soviet Union and the October Revolution, albeit in their nascence, were in the cultural public sphere before the emergence of the communist movement.

The communist movement is generally seen as a carrying forward of the ideas and ideals inaugurated by the renaissance. However, the socialist/communist movement, built on the back of the caste reform movement, cannot be seen merely as an extension of the anti-caste struggles (Kumar 2000, 77). The significant structural change was that the language of class was introduced into the social consciousness. The caste reform struggles had themselves became radicalized to pave the way for the communist movement (Desai 2006, 11). Laborers and peasants from lower castes, like the Ezhavas, began to move away from identifying with their caste alone to a class identity leading to differentiation within caste-based communities (Kumar 2000, 99). The communists expanded the agenda of reforms in the social sphere to include the project of political democratization (Venu 2001, 417).

Simultaneously with the shifts in the sphere of literature (for example, the democratization of literature by incorporating the subaltern through the movement for progressive literature), popular culture was showing significant shifts too with the emergence of a new aesthetic, which broke off the shackles of earlier segmentation between classes and castes, and between people and intellectuals. Here, protest songs and folk arts played a major role.

In the early days of the formation of the peasant unions by the socialists (in Malabar in the 1930s) it was really difficult to get peasants and laborers to get to join them as the latter were totally unused to this modern form of institution, which went beyond caste affiliations. Moreover, as they were under the sway of the moral economy of feudalism, they were not very open to the idea of defying the landlords openly. Here, the peasant unions used the medium of songs constructed in a folk style familiar to the peasants, but containing new themes (which were nevertheless an elaboration and carrying forward of older ideas of equality). K. A. Keraleeyan, secretary of the first peasant union formed in Kerala, the Kolacheri Peasant Union, describes how the organizers used to row in small boats in the night singing songs that would take the names of peasants living on the banks of the river and asking them to join the union.

Oh, Nullikodan Raman,
Won’t you join the union?
Oh, Kariattu Kunjamma,
Won’t you join the union? (Andalat 1987, 176-177)

Gradually, with the unions gaining strength, peasant activists used to sing songs for the women working on the paddy fields, which the latter used to take up. These songs recounted the injustices of colonialism, drew contrasts between the luxurious life style of the Viceroy with the miserable existence of the peasants, the burden of indebtedness, the illegal exactions of the lords, the greatness of the reading rooms and libraries and the need for children’s unions:

For two hundred years, the
Whites have been ruling our land.
Twenty One Thousand we pay as
Monthly rent to the Viceroy …
And he gets ten lakhs for his vacation …
Debts which break the spine,
Suffering that represses.
Not just the sum borrowed
It’s many times paid …
Whatever happens, debt is in
Arrears, always; what justice is this? …
Don’t we have to pay them all in time?
Don’t we have to bow down and make
Offerings to the lord on Onam and Vishu? …
What slavery and injustice, how
Do we suffer this? …
For long the lords have been extracting vasi,
The peasants have been destroyed.
Now by uniting to form unions
We shall show our vasi (Andalat 1987, 178-179)

Thus, the contrast between broad categories of the rich and the poor is the constant refrain: how the lords and elites have never worked hard, never held a plough or planted a rice sapling, while they, the peasants and laborers, cannot survive even when they slave the whole day in the fields; they are always working to fatten somebody else’s purses:

The elite in their mansions
eat and fatten themselves
Have they ever seen a plough?
Have they ever touched a paddy seedling? (Pavithran 2002, 305).

Songs such as the “Red Flag Song” written by T. S. Thirumumbu became very popular. The red flag became a new symbol of liberation and captures the imagination of the workers: Rise: rise in the midst of sky/Above, above the auspicious Red Flag (Kurup 1998, 83). The symbol becomes one that is relentlessly alluded to in marching songs (Devadas 1991, 7). The Soviet Union became another symbol of liberation:

Throughout the world it is reverberated
The thunder of the cannons of Revolution …
Russia, the pet child of November Seventh
Determines the destiny of the world extensively … (Kurup 1998, 84-85)

Most of these songs, written by communist activists were mocked by the literary establishment as mere padapattukal (marching songs) without any literary content. All the peasant union meetings at the taluk and firka levels were grand festivals with plays and various folk arts being their inalienable part. Even women and children came and stayed up very late to watch these programs. The paintings of the communist martyrs of Kayyur were displayed in an exhibition conducted as a part of the Thalasseri Jagannatha Temple festival (Kunhambu 1984, 105). Similarly, a communist song paid tribute to the martyrs:

You the valiant swordsmen
Who fought for the rise of the poor,
Verily you aren’t dead,
You are still alive in the proud hearts of many,
Like Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s valiant son,
Never shall we forget, comrades
The royal path that you have trodden
We swear, with our clenched fists,
That death and dry hay are alike to us!
Never shall we rest till we liberate the land
And never shall we withdraw from fight
Till Fascism is dead!
Hail to thee Bolshevik heroes
We salute thee “Lal Salaam, Lal Salaam.”

Here secular communist martyrs seamlessly become a part of the religious pantheon. At the same time the religious figures (albeit borrowed from the classical and upper caste Hindu mythology) themselves are being reinterpreted for the secular cause of liberation from material exploitation. Here there is no “passive acceptance of any past whatsoever … rather, it is the voluntary choice of realizing the unity of historical meaning by the reappropriation of a selective past” (Laroui 1976, 100). The shrine festivals were used to propagate the ideology of communism. The slogan “make every temple festival into an all night street corner meeting” was launched. Thus, instead of completely denying religion and rituals based on it the communists worked with them. Thus, there was “a revival of shrine culture albeit without the excesses of feudalism” (Menon 1994, 177).

With the strengthening of peasant and worker struggles elsewhere, the songs composed began to increasingly show an extra-local sensibility paralleling the scope and scale of these struggles. Now, they began to encompass the concerns of the workers in the towns and even those of the exploited teachers in schools:

One by one
Companies close down.
Life comes to a standstill
Everywhere in the land.
Lords are hardly bothered
Lords of the government are
Hardly bothered (Andalat 1987, 181)

And they also began to connect the peasant struggles with imaginations of nationalism and linguistic regionalism. Towards this purpose an array of personalities began to be invoked from the early 19th-century rebellions against the East India Company led by Pazhassi Raja and Veluthambi Dhalava to the Moplah rebellion led by Variakunnathu Haji. And in the same breath, a land without feudalism, kingship and exploitation is envisaged:

The courageous land of Kerala,
Of the courageous Pazhassi Raja.
The tender land of Kerala
Where lived the brave Veluthambi.
Kerala which bears the battle valor
Of Variakunnathu Haji …
Kerala without feudalism,
Without royalty and oppression.
Kerala that will be independent
Will be a united Kerala (Andalat 1987, 181-183)

Even if this is rhetoric, one can see the expansion of language and the elements of a critical appropriation of the past. It evokes Frantz Fanon’s characterization of a revolutionary nationalism:

A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover a people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which the people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (Quoted in Dirlik 1997, 15)

Unlike the subaltern history portrayed by the influential Subaltern Studies School, where subaltern and elite spheres are always autonomous and dichotomous (Ludden 2001), here the nationalism that emerges is one that is shaped by the aspirations of peasants and laborers too, even if not completely, as we will see below. Unlike Gandhian nationalism, which believed in a reconstructed benign feudalism, here Kerala is envisaged without feudalism and kingship. Thus, peasants and laborers sing:

Slaves, we are not,
Rest we shall not,
Fight we shall unshaken …
Rest we shall not
Until we get the
Power and rights
Entitled to us. (Andalat 1987, 183)

In the communist project, the future beckoned. In a song the writer praises the bravery of:

Those who write
In their own blood the
New history of
Independent India.
Those who fly the
In the battle of the
Oppressed people. (Azad 2000, 212)

Here the future is what is being looked forward to. The present is not a site from which one “must escape” (Chatterjee 1997, 15) but is one that leads to an egalitarian future.

The songs composed by communist activists such as K. A. Keraleeyan, K. P. R. Gopalan, Premji, Thirumumbu and so on as part of peasant union activity were popular despite being not of the highest aesthetic quality. Even now they are part of popular memory and also have become so much a part of the folk tradition of society to obscure their original authorship. The activists shaped folk arts and songs into instruments for protest against class and caste exploitation and for raising awareness (Kurup, K. K. N. 2000, 135, 145).

In Travancore too, the importance of culture to the organization of the working class was being realized by unions such as the Alleppey Coir Factory Workers’ Union, which set up a workers’ cultural center. The center rewrote the prevalent conventions of drama, which had it as subjects kings and the lords, or portrayed myths or epics by staging a play about the travails of a poverty-stricken worker family. The center even trained workers in various arts. During the Second World War some of the ottan thullal songs composed by the center about the starvation faced by the worker families became very popular. The same was the case with the plays too. The future founding of the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) which was to revolutionize the stage was definitely on the path trodden by the center (Raghavan 1999, 141-142). Since the agenda of the communists was to link culture with other aspects of society, they tried to engage the political through culture. This was seen during the People’s War line when the Communist Party concentrated on developing a cultural campaign condemning Japanese fascism. Songs such as “Vallatha Kaalam” (Terrible Times) were penned. This alone sold 4000 copies in a single day. In addition, various folk arts such as ottan thullalkummikolattamkolkkalikaikottikali, etc. and plays were staged incorporating the themes of anti-Japanese fascism (Chandrashekaran 1999, 108). The anti-fascist songs used features from outside, like that of Brechtian war ballads (Damodaran 2008). These are examples when concerns far beyond the local and the national became incorporated into the popular struggles. Thus, they were similar to the articulation of the imageries of the Soviet Union as a symbol of liberation.

In the late 1940s the Travancore government was expressing concern over the setting up of dramatic clubs and village libraries by the communists. In Malabar too, similar concerns were being expressed. In 1948, the district magistrate wrote in reference to the melas (cultural festivals) that were held for collection of funds for the party newspaper:

Processions and postings have become now the sole form of activity of communists who deftly arrange during the various Deshabhimani Melas that are organized, interesting music and drama along with long propaganda speeches. Some of the dramatic representations are reported to consist of showing officials’ corruption and Jenmi [feudal lord]-official conspiracy.

This is what prompted the government to think of banning melas under the Dramatic Performances Act. One unintended consequence of the melas was that the party was drawn closer to the people and the folk arts. In fact, the theater movement in Malabar was an outcome of the melas (Pavanan 1995, 22). Plays and other folk arts were staged in these gatherings, which lasted into the wee hours of the night (Pavanan 1995, 23). In a period when modern forms of mass entertainment had not taken roots, the melas were a major draw. But at the same time they were not just mere entertainment. For example, on April 3, 1946, the peasant communists staged a play in Urathur village satirizing the oppression of the Kalliatt landlord using the folk art form of kurattipattu. The goons of the landlord disturbed the play by throwing country-bombs onto the stage (Kurup 1989, 15). Similarly, one of the accused in the Karivellur incident was an ottan thullal dancer who used to propagate communist ideas in his dances (Kurup 1989, 22). Culture becomes crucial to communist mobilization: a typical advertisement of a party meeting would include announcements of “exciting cultural programs” along with the speeches of party leaders (see Navayugam, November 21, 1953). If elite culture, under communist influence, was showing paradigmatic shifts to incorporate the popular, popular culture itself was overcoming a different kind of fragmentation to make linkages beyond the local. Subaltern and elite politics converge here on new terms, with a substantial voice for the former. What was condemned by elite/high culture as propagandist art was the key factor in linking with the folk culture. Here, the negotiation of the transition to modern politics takes place not by completely denying the existing language but by relying on it. But significantly, the language was expanded too. Moreover, the folk arts and culture, denigrated until then, were accorded respect and dignity.

A major outcome of communist cultural and political struggles is the move of the lower castes from symbolic criticism of the upper castes to real, material contestation with them. For centuries, the only legitimate avenue for the lower castes to criticize the injustices perpetrated by the upper castes was through a variety of folk arts. In North Kerala, the most prominent among them was teyyattam, which was performed by the dalits, lower castes and tribes. The themes of the art form are about persons who were unjustly punished/put to death for violating caste rules. But later they were deified by the upper castes who wanted to atone for their mistake by such an act. During the ritual, the lower caste performers were possessed by these deities and then they criticize the upper castes on the gross misdeeds perpetrated on them (Menon 1993, 189). The essence of the ritual is that in a society with extreme caste segregation and oppression, it provided a space for the breakdown and inversion of the hierarchical rules. Thus, “it was a ‘symbolic strategy’ (by the dominated) where by limits were placed on the actions, arbitrary or immoral, of those in power.” But with the emergence of the communist movement and the resultant contestation and defiance by the lower classes and castes, ritual channelization of critique lost its rationale (Menon 1993, 190, 217). The criticism inherent in some folk arts does not now become an end in itself, but a means to change the material reality. The communist movement empowered, even if minimally, hitherto oppressed castes like the dalits who led virtually slave-like lives. As Thoppil Bhasi, famous communist playwright, recounts in his memoirs, with the emergence of communism, even former serfs began to defy their landlords (Bhasi 1999, 27-28).

The use of folk arts like teyyam was not without its contradictions for the communists. After all, they were part of the feudal structure of power and they legitimized it. At the same time, they were also products of the people and masses, and often recounted stories of valiant resistance by them against oppression despite the fact that they were also sources of critique (Tarabout 2005, 193-194).

Revolution in Theater

It was only by the 1880s that modern forms of drama emerged in Kerala in the Malayalam language. But initially the plays were by and large translations from Sanskrit and based on religious epics. For a long time, until the emergence of Malayalam plays, Sanskrit (which was the language of the religious and political elite) dominated over the vernacular language (Ramachandran 2000). Even after Malayalam drama emerged, Tamil commercial dramas were the staple diet of Kerala until the 1920s and the masses flocked to them (Menon 1979, 6; Appukkuttan 2000, 315). The genre of musical drama was the dominant one for a long time. The ideology of these dramas was thoroughly based on the values of the upper classes even when they targeted the masses. With the emergence of the educated middle classes, there was a shift in drama. It moved away from the cultural framework of the nobility and the feudal classes, which structured the content and form of plays. Nevertheless, it was still shackled by an imagination that looked down upon the lower classes (Ramachandran 2000). The seeds of nationalism and anti-imperialism were being sown from the beginning of the 1900s. Despite that, the worldview of the plays was largely, at least in Travancore and Cochin, the princely states, deferential to kingship.

It was only by the 1920s that significant shifts began to take place. Critiques of caste and gender exclusion began to emerge in a strong fashion (Kurup 1998). V. T. Bhattathiripad’s 1930 play Adukkalayilninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Stage) was a landmark in this regard. It was aimed at the liberation of the Brahmin Namboodiri (the highest caste) women whose social condition was abysmal. Brahiminical ideology thus faced a powerful internal critique when other plays by Namboodiris continued in the same vein. There was also the emergence of nationalist-based concerns in drama. The genre of musical drama itself began to give away to other genres.

With the movement towards realism in literature inspired by the socialist/communist movement, there was a significant alteration in the mode of Malayalam drama from the early 1930s. But it was the play Pattabakki (Rent Arrears), written by Marxist theoretician and communist activist K. Damodaran, that actually inaugurated socialist realism. It was the first play to directly address the issue of class struggle. Writer and intellectual, C. J. Thomas, called it the first political play in Kerala (Appukkuttan 2000, 335). What Pattabakki did was to bring about structural changes in the arena of theater. From a field governed by the upper castes and looked upon as merely as art and for pleasure, theater was now a rational and conscious activity meant as tool for social and political change (Ramachandran 2000).

Pattabakki’s popularity was huge and was performed in all the peasant meetings and party conferences all over Malabar. C. Kannan, communist leader, acted in the play from 1937 in various peasant meetings. Similarly, A. K. Gopalan, one of the most important communist leaders, also acted in the play on many stages. It was the most popular play written by Damodaran. After Rent Arrears, he wrote another propagandist play Rakthapanam (Draught of Blood) in 1939, which again was quite popular and was performed in all the peasant meetings and party conferences all over Malabar. It was a simplistic, melodramatic tale of class war in which the capitalists are cruel and inhuman, while the poor workers are the paragon of virtues, it appealed to the rural masses immensely. So much so that the government was terribly afraid of its consequences: “it is objectionable as it tends to bring about class hatred between capitalist and labourers” noted the Superintendent of Police. The laborers towards the end of the play are optimistic: “We might die; but our death will be the death of capitalism.” Further, “All factories are alike; all capitalists are alike; Everywhere labourers—the poor—must suffer oppression, exploitation and disgrace. To be free from them there is only one way—destroy capitalism.” Finally, “All capitalists will be cruel” who resort to “various tricks” to defeat the workers and even try to seduce some of the women among them. Moralistic judgments abound through the play. Socialism/communism as a superior moral system is constantly alluded to. Communism is not only an inevitable result of the logical contradictions of capitalism but is also brought about by the summoning of moral force.

Damodaran initiated the practice of linking the communist trade union movement with art and cultural practice (Kumar, Anil A. V. 2002, 41). The socialist newspaper exhorted that since capitalists try to inculcate religious superstitions among the workers, the latter should use the religious holidays to build class-consciousness so as to reinterpret the religious experience itself. On major religious festivals such as Thiruvathira, workers’ theater performed on many themes with the minimum of props (Prabhatham, January 23, 1939). Again the secular and the religious intermingle. Then there were occasions when peasants performed plays, which were seemingly dealing with religious epics, but were really critique of the oppression of landlords (Pavithran 2002, 307-308).

Although Pattabakki inaugurated political theater it was not the dominant mode in the 1940s when political struggles of all kinds were taking place. But by the 1950s, theater had taken on an explicitly political role. The 1950s were the most productive for political plays. The writers who were in the forefront of the Progressive Literary Movement were also the pioneers of the theater movement, which began to flourish with the spread of the struggles led by communism. Prominent writers such as Ponkunnam Varkey were popular playwrights too. Bhasi’s play Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist, 1952) was a path-breaking play in terms of popularizing Communism. Performed by KPAC, it was taken to every town and village in Kerala. It was to later create a record by being staged more than 10,000 times (Menon 2001). The play was controversial as there were allegations that it contained subversive ideas and that it encouraged people to rebel against the government. The play was banned in 1953 under the Dramatic Performances Act. A mass movement was initiated against the ban by the CPI, which led to the overturn of the ban.

Bhasi drew the material for the play from the attempted communist uprising in Surnad in 1949 in which five policemen were killed. Again, it was a simple tale of how people caught up in the vortex of the great changes— the disintegration of the feudal society— finally come to realize that that there is no better future than one that is guided by communism. As many other plays of the time, this one too was not aesthetically well developed, which nevertheless did not affect its popularity precisely because of the fact that its content was able to successfully capture the aspirations of the people. EMS Namboodiripad, the pre-eminent Communist leader, later self-critically looked (1982, 406) “The playwright has portrayed him (the Communist hero) as one who is not a living and developing Communist, with human feelings and foibles. This ‘Communist’ comes to the stage and talks in hackneyed phrases which are supposed to be ‘political’.” He points out that a majority of the plays were not of a quality that allowed them to be staged more than once or twice (Namboodiripad 1990, 41). The other successful plays of KPAC were Mooladhanam (Capital), Sarvekallu (Survey Stone), Nammalonnu (We are One), Mudiyanaya Puthran (The Prodigal Son), Puthiya Aakasam (New Sky), Puthiya Bhoomi (New Earth) and so on. If one examines the themes of the songs in the plays of KPAC, one sees a similar kind of pattern of themes to that of the protest songs: an exhortation of the agricultural laborers, especially women, to be unfazed in front of the lord; to break the chains that have bound them for years; to claim for themselves what belong to them; to take the red flag and lead from the front; to recount the horrors of serving the masters; to wish for a new and wonderful tomorrow (a constant theme), to chant the mantra of change, and to invoke the motifs of hammer and sickle and the red flag (KPAC 2000, 18-22, 43, 129, 148, 164).

The KPAC (founded in Central Travancore in 1950), in fact came into existence with the explicit purpose of using theater for spreading revolutionary ideas in the social and political spheres. It was closely tied to the communist movement and was founded by a group of activists associated with the Communist Party. In the words of an artist associated with it: “Once a month a general body meeting was convened. All artists attended it and made suggestions to improve the play that was being staged.” Almost all artistes of KPAC, in the initial days, were members of the party and contributed Rs. 40 of their Rs. 500 salary as levy to the party. The party acted as a coordinator without directly controlling it. The organization also created a ripple effect with other troupes coming into existence started by artistes associated with KPAC (Menon 2001).

KPAC derived inspiration from IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association). A significant development in the national sphere in the 1940s was the founding of IPTA. It had the explicit aim of using art as a means of protest against exploitation. “The setting up of the IPTA and other such formations was a response to a perceived need for new aesthetic forms that represented the people while distinguishing themselves from the cultural traditions of the mainstream nationalist movement on the one hand and commercial theater on the other” (Damodaran 2008). Thus, it had key goals such as reviving people’s culture and the folk traditions. This was seen as a crucial element in the democratization of culture as envisaged by the communists.

The Kerala Theaters group, which staged many successful plays, was also linked to the Communist Party. The organization had the unique custom of the main actor and the menial worker drawing the same salary. And everybody’s expenses were borne by the company (Dileep 2000). Popular writers such as Ponkunnam Varkey were associated with it and a number of his plays were to be staged by it in the1950s. The songs written by Vayalar Ramavarma for his plays became huge successes.

In Malabar there was a strong and popular theater movement under a group called the Kendra Kala Samithy, which had ties to the national theater movement of the Left. There were some prominent literary figures who were associated with it. The strength of the movement derived from the fact that it was anchored in the life of the village and linked to other movements like the library and reading room movement (Menon 1979, 12; Ramachandran 2000). The annual theater festivals organized by the Samithy were not just about watching plays but were participatory social events that energized the cultural and political life of people (Ramachandran 2000). The communist movement was a source of inspiration for groups such as the Samithy.

Although the communist activists associated with KPAC never tried to hide their political leanings, the group’s productions became very popular (Appukkuttan 2000, 339). The immense popularity of the songs in the plays is attributed to their grounding in folk culture, demonstrating the significance of form. As we saw, until the 1920s the drama scene in Kerala was dominated by translations from Sanskrit plays with puranic (mythical) themes. Even the Malayalam plays were written in the style of classical Sanskrit drama. The text used for the play was mixed with slokas (verses) in Sanskrit meter. If the educated middle classes were the patrons of these plays, the masses, it was noted, favored the Tamil musical dramas (which were devoid of Sanskritic influences). Even when Western style prose drama became strong in Malayalam in the 1930s, the audience was mainly restricted to the educated classes (Menon 1979). It was the success of combining Malayalam with a folk sensibility that led the KPAC songs to chart new paths, which were unprecedented at the time (Kurup, O. N. V. 2000, vii-viii). Bhasi, for instance, used a very colloquial from of Malayalam prevalent in Central Travancore and among the lower caste peasant and agricultural laborers (Menon 1979, 15). But folk was not used by KPAC without modification. It blended folk with other styles of music, especially Hindustani music of North India, thus showing the intention to create a new culture which was not essentialist or sectarian. Equally important was the adaption and use of songs from the international protest tradition. Even when the KPAC sought to create a Malayalee identity, moving away from the dominant Sanskirt and Tamil influences, it borrowed from various sources, national and international (Damodaran 2008).

Moreover, the KPAC plays decided to use the most popular form—the music dramas rather than prose dramas. Here, it should be added that this development of a particular cultural essence also beckoned to the universalism of a revolutionary politics: the necessity of destroying feudalism and capitalism across the world. The form used vernacular sources but the content went beyond them. But this was done by expanding the meaning of the vernacular itself. Again, linguistic identity is harnessed for a politics that is in a dialectical relationship with the universal.

Even though the critics looked down upon the propagandist plays, their popularity was undeniable. Theater became in the 1950s the primary instrument of social criticism and a weapon of social change. The fact that the capitalist backed-culture industry was yet to entrench itself and the popular/pulp dichotomy had not developed also helped the theater movement. What the theater movement did was to liberate the production of plays from a professional system. Instead, youths in towns and villages, unschooled in the theories of drama, formed theater groups of their own. These groups became the foundation of the theater revolution. Although not totally secure in the aesthetic sphere, they performed the task of communicating with the masses (Namboodiripad 1990, 34). For a long time under feudalism the visual culture was confined to the temples and the mansions of the lords. Art was dominated by “elitist predilections … which had engrossed itself in witty epigrammatic verses devoted to graphic head-to-foot descriptions of famous courtesans (such as Unnineeli and Unnichiruthevi) and the frankly erotic dance depictions on the Kathakali [elite dance form] stage” (Ramachandran 1999, 6). The products of art were the result of an “aesthetics that prioritizes pleasure over everything else.” And poverty and other social problems in elite and upper-caste art were not caused by social injustices and inequalities and could only be solved by divine intervention (Dasan 2012, xxv).

Some attribute to the socialist realist drama movement a significant role in bringing about the death of feudalism and the initiation of land reforms (Kurup, K. K. N. 2000, 141). Darren Zook too argues, “it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the popularity of the communists, which allowed them to capture state power in the elections of 1957, stemmed largely from the popularity of Bhasi’s play and its songs” (Zook 2001, 181). While this might be an exaggeration, the impact of the theater movement was definitely remarkable. Poets such as O. N. V. Kurup became popular through plays staged by KPAC. His songs, such as “All the paddy that we harvest, belong to us, darlings” (Chandrashekaran 1998, 151) captured the imagination of the masses. There were also were plays that were not exactly anchored in Marxist/communist perspectives, but were nevertheless expounding ideas that were from the perspectives of peasants and laborers (Namboodiripad 1990, 144) thus demonstrating the hegemony of communist cultural and political activism. Koottukrishi (Collective Farming) penned by writer Edassery Govindan Nair is an example.

The theater revolution provided another instance of the construction of the national-popular. The plays, although they supposedly used the socialist realist mode, had doses of melodrama in them as pointed out in the critique by Namboodiripad. But the crucial distinction was that they were substantially different from the aristocratic and feudal melodramas of the previous era with their glorification of the feudal order and its claims to divine sanction. Aesthetic forms can be used for different political purposes. To attribute one political function exclusively to an aesthetic form is to take an essentialist and anti-materialist position (Prasad 1998, 58). Thus melodramas are appropriated for a different function here. If the feudal melodramas were confined to the elite upper caste space, the communist plays were created by writers and activists committed to a radical transformation of society and performed for the masses. Therefore, while the plays of the 1950s in Kerala could be accused of theatricality and excessive sentiment, they cannot be characterized as escapist and reactionary or instilling false consciousness in the working class. Even when they used moral categories they did not shy away from social reality and portrayed the working classes and the peasantry as the agents of social transformation, albeit with limitations, as we will see below. Thus, they differed from the conventional melodrama, which “aspires to the transcendental, ceaselessly submitting the realities of existence into mythical moral categories because these are the currency of human interaction in the pre-modern symbolic order maintained by the church and the monarchic state” (Prasad 1998, 58).

The shift towards the incorporation of the popular thus meant that the cultural sphere was radically altered. Historically, the elite upper-caste domination of art had ensured that most of the performing arts could be performed only in temples and shrines or feudal mansions (from which the lower castes were excluded), as noted above. Examples were chakyarkoothupatakamkathakali and so on. So the common folk had nothing to do with them. Art and literature are always governed by the ruling elites of a particular society. Thus, art forms such as kathakali were products of the upper caste-feudal complex (Namboodiripad 1990, 241). The exclusion of the lower castes from education and knowledge was the main form of domination exercised by the upper castes. The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai estimates that until 1600, known as the Age of the Namboodiris (Brahmins), less than 1% of the common people in Kerala had any kind of education (Andalat 1993, 53). Needless to add, the dominance of Brahmin orthodoxy and the people-intellectual separation brought about by it is not unique to Kerala. Only the degree varies across different parts of the country. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu too, the Brahmin orthodoxy virulently guarded the sacradotal status of Sanskrit. It argued that Tamil language (the main language in Tamil Nadu) and literature were mere derivatives of Sanskrit. This was part of the large system of exclusion that legitimized Hinduism and its caste-based inequalities (Pandian 1996, 3323-3324). In Kerala, for the Sanskrit and Brahmin-dominated minority culture, the arts of the common people like poorakkalithacholipattupulluvanpattu were not worthy of being considered art (Pokker 1999, 34).

The Structural Shift

The communist intervention in culture, ultimately, was the culmination of a long process of democratization of culture begun with the renaissance. In many ways it carried forward and also extensively reinforced the processes inaugurated by the renaissance, especially the de-elitization of culture. At the same time, there were also significant additions, such as a structural shift towards the language of class. The contribution of the communists was to systematically bring to the fore the class question through arts and culture. This was something that remained nascent and untheorized in the cultural production before even in works that explicitly addressed the problems of the lower castes. P. Krishna Pillai, the leading communist of the early period, exhorted workers in 1934 to leave behind caste and religious identities and identify themselves as workers first. In his words: “let the priests squabble over religion while workers fight for bread” (Pavithran 2002, 301). This is reflected in peasant songs that talked about how the peasants could not be cowed down by the violence unleashed by their superiors, and how they will not rest until feudal landlordism is completely overthrown (Kurup, K. K. N. 2000, 145). They exhort the peasants to join the union to accomplish the same (Kurup, K. K. N. 2000, 134).

It is interesting to note that some of these songs, written in the period 1937-38, were already talking about the destruction of landlordism even when the daily struggles were still looking to find solutions within the moral economy of feudalism. Tirumumbu in his “Red Flag song,” asks workers and peasants to unite under the red flag so that they can fight poverty and exploitation. The popular now explicitly locates the cause of hunger and poverty in feudalism and capitalism and not as misfortunes that befell human beings. The song ends with “let big capitalism be scared of its wits/let landlordism explode” (Kurup, K. K. N. 2000, 135). There was a structural change in language by the 1940s, and now the songs talked about factory strikes and so on (Azad 2000, 212). Many of them were populated by the motifs of hammer and sickle. The motif of the sickle was a powerful imaginary in the communist movement in other parts of the country too, such as Bengal (Dasgupta 2005, 89). Once again, we can see the shift in the discourse in which symbols of the working classes acquire prominence, an important aspect in the overall generation of self-worth and dignity. Peasant unions become a central point of resistance and contention as seen in the poems and songs of the time (Chandrashekaran 1998, 29). A radically different sensibility was inaugurated when the peasants move away from the “moral economy” framework to the assertion of political power. A new future with possibilities of liberation hitherto not envisaged are dreamt of when many poems talk about communism and the communist way of life. There is also the definitive assertion that what the workers sow belongs to them, as in the famous song written by O. N. V. Kurup (Chandrashekaran 1998, 64). Vayalar, the site of a major communist confrontation with the state becomes “Kerala’s Paris Commune” in the poet’s imagination (Chandrashekaran 1998, 67):

Kerala’s Paris Commune!
That is Vayalar! Salute.

The Limits of the National-Popular

The contradictions of the renaissance—in which substantial victory against some old caste hierarchies was also accompanied by a persistence of, and a reinvention of other caste hierarchies—were a feature of the communist project as well. Despite important material and symbolic gains by associating with communism, the lowest of the castes are still at the bottom of the hierarchy, both in terms of social and economic indicators. Thus, although the seeds of a national-popular were sown, the emergent national-popular was an incomplete one. The greatest lacuna was that it still failed to give equal rights to the dalits, both in terms of economic redistribution and social recognition. The land reforms, which were to be implemented later in the 1970s, after almost four decades of momentous communist-led struggles, did not benefit all classes equally. Thus “the landless agricultural laborers who were important constituents of the struggle were the last in terms of conferment of rights over land” (Mannathukkaren 2011, 381-382). The land reforms effectively conferred ownership on the tenant farmers, who belonged to the upper, and intermediate castes, and not the landless laborers (Kappikad 2011, 469). The dalit agricultural labor were to be given all the rights required for modern citizenship: minimum wages, access to health and education (Devika 2010, 803). But they were still not recognized as tillers of the soil or as peasants who needed access to land. Thus, the land reform movement, which began with the concept of the “land to the tiller” in the 1950s moved away from it later (Satyanarayana and Tharu 2011c, 506).

There were some iconic struggles by the communists against feudalism and the horrific caste indignities perpetrated by it. This had completely altered rural social relations, as we saw, by provoking defiance by the lower castes against established hierarchies. The communist leaders mainly belonging to upper caste, landlord families, as a part of their political mobilization, broke caste barriers by visiting untouchable households and sharing food with them (Bhasi 1999). This was revolutionary for the times. Usually, the caste elites never entered untouchable households, they only asked the lower castes to come out even when the former were seeking votes (Kunhaman 2001, 103). Nevertheless, the untouchables or the dalits were on the margins of the communist movement. They were always to be “led” by the upper caste communist leaders in their struggles (Jose 1997, 45; Manalil 2002, 125), not themselves reaching leadership positions within the party and the movement (Prabhakaran 1997, 53). The organizing framework of mobilization was that of paternalism (Steur 2011, 72). This is despite the fact that many of the dalits and indigenous people had completely placed their hopes on communism as a liberator and had sacrificed everything for the movement (Kumar, Anil T. K. 2002, 246). Thus, the communist struggle against caste was an incomplete one. There were a lot of instances of communist leadership and activists breaking caste barriers in their personal lives, as in the sphere of marriage. But the complete destruction of caste as a program was never taken up seriously by the party (Bhasi 1999, 140). It could be argued that if there was a radicalization with regard to the introduction of the language of class, the same could not be said of caste. Thus, it could not, for example tap the most radical currents within the renaissance.

Some critics argue that the communist cultural agenda was one that reinstated upper caste values as the dominant norm, but this was couched in the language in Marxist theory. The communists in this narrative are responsible for a “refurbished caste elitism” which selectively appropriates aspects of the traditional exclusionary upper caste culture as “high culture” and which also posits a “developmental modern” self that excludes the question of caste oppression. Thus, “even as traditional caste servitude was challenged, upper-caste culture and social norms were not only largely spared, but actually reclaimed as the ‘unifying core’ of Kerala’s national culture” (Devika 2010, 808). From the dalit point of view, the language of class created a mirage that “liberation had only one form: the struggle against class exploitation” (Dasan 2012, xiv) and “class analysis and the philosophical resources of a determinist Marxism have been used in Kerala to obscure the decisive relationship between property ownership and caste” (Kappikad 2011, 465).

Some of these criticisms are based on Namboodiripad’s writings, which purportedly justify upper caste dominance. Namboodiripad, for example, had argued that the superiority of the Namboodiris or the Brahmins had derived from the fact that they had the caste system. The caste system, like slavery, helped in moving human society from an uncivilized state (Namboodiripad 2007, 80). He also pointed out the classical forms of art and literature, while being upper caste, “laid the basis for the creation of a style and technique that go beyond all castes and communities; they are truly national” (Namboodiripad 1984, 46). Namboodiripad’s take on the history of Kerala was seen as an attempt at negotiating his “Nambudiri identity at a time when brahmins were under siege in South India as malevolent parasites.” Thus, his work “recovers a role for the Nambudiri as the prime mover in the economic and social transformation of the region” (Menon 1999, 65). This is what has also led Namboodiripad to ignore the contributions of dalit radicals such as Ayyankali in the tracing of Kerala history (Pampirikunnu 2011, 559).

While the communist imbrication in dominant upper caste ethos is very evident, to see Namboodiripad’s intervention as merely a conscious re-establishment of older forms of caste hierarchy is reductionist. In this analysis, Marxism itself is not relevant, but only an instrument to pursue goals of caste dominance. A more plausible explanation than the one in which communists like Nambodiripad were simply casteists speaking the language of Marxism is that they were following teleological versions of Marxism in which each stage progressively gave way to a higher and developed stage (Nigam 2000). This mechanical understanding made them see the caste system as a necessary stage in the development of human society. It also led to the naive modernist belief that the growth of industry and scientific agriculture would lead to the growth of science, which in turn would lead to the erosion of caste system and other superstitions (see Namboodiripad 1999, 346). As Nigam (2000, 4262) puts it: the communist self that emerges “is modern and in its self-perception, thoroughly purged of its traditional, caste socialization. Often, it sincerely believes that the best way to be modern is to erase all thought of caste and religion from its mind. It is thus the truly liberated self that in looking beyond the narrow confines of sectarian particularisms, actually becomes blind to their continuing salience in a myriad new ways.” This optimism, of course, has not been borne out. The theoretical lacunae in understanding caste because of class reductionism and the practical failures in anti-caste struggles (caused by both a theoretical lack as well as continuing hegemony of the ideology of caste) has led to the persistence of the structural features of the caste system, such as endogamy, until the present.

Thus, despite the victory of the communists, the upper castes were to be still at the helm. Progressive plays such as Ningalenne made dalits secondary even when a call to the revolution was made. As Mala, the protagonist in the play Ningalare Communistakki (Whom Have You Made a Communist?), a satire written in the early 2000s by Civic Chandran on Ningalenne Communistakki: “That flag is red because of our blood. It belongs to us. But we have lost in the struggle. Lost …” (Chandran 2002, 15). The play alludes to the remarkable dexterity of the upper castes to adapt to different ideological and social systems without losing their privileges (Chandran 2002, 41; see also Kappikad 2012, 262). According to Chandran, feudalistic oppression is also attacked in a very simplistic manner, it is shown as an individual aberration rather than as a systemic one (Sreejith 2005). Colonial capitalism and feudalism were still not engaged with systematically in the emerging cultural commonsense. Instead various simplistic dichotomies, such as rich versus poor, subaltern versus elite, modernity versus tradition were resorted to (Ganesh 2000, 638).

Thus, despite the emergence of the marginalized and oppressed figure in popular culture, the treatment was mainly superficial. One of the reasons was the fact that the producers of the new culture were predominantly from the upper castes and elites (Kumar, Anil T. K. 2002, 240). Thus, if one looks at the composition of the activists who set up KPAC and helmed it in the initial years, and the writers and other artists whose work was used for KPAC plays, it is obvious that it was overwhelmingly upper caste (see It was again a question of subaltern aspirations being represented by the elites and middle classes. There were, of course, empathetic portrayals of dalits in progressive art and literature—and there were many—but they never penetrated the lifeworld of the dalits (Satyanarayana and Tharu 2011b, 487; Kochu 2012, 255; Dasan et al. 2012b).

Language underwent significant changes as a result of the cultural struggles waged by the communist and progressive forces, but, ultimately, it was still elitist, but this time it was a different sort of elitism, a middle-class one. Thus, even when the aspirations and thoughts of the marginalized were brought to the fore, they were represented in middle-class language (Ganesh 2000, 639). The theater movement, despite its immense contribution to the democratization of society, still did not go the way of radical theater movements like that of Augusto Boal’s “theater of the oppressed” in which the audience itself becomes participants in representing their own history and oppression (see Mohan 2004). The inherent potentialities of the subaltern and marginalized cultures were not completely developed. Folk arts and culture, while coming out of their marginalization, were still being used in an instrumental fashion, which was a major limitation in understanding their essence (Ganesh 2000, 644-645). Nevertheless, even the instrumental nature of the engagement with the folk arts gave them respect, unlike before when they were denounced as lower caste culture (Tarabout 2005, 195). Popular cultural forms such as teyyam had been condemned as primitive by a people ranging from Hindu social reformers to Christian evangelists (Tarabout 2005, 192).

The popular itself and the conceptions of art and culture were something that did provoke contestation. In fact, during the whole period of the emergence of the communist movement, there were intense debates between the communists and the others about the ends of art and culture. The communist-backed progressive literature movement argued that art is not for art’s sake but for the sake of progress of society. The movement saw all the classical works and the recent romantic ones as a part of “literature of escape.” Instead, according to it, what was needed was a literature of “expression” that portrayed man and his reality in all its complexity, the economic, social and political aspects of his existence (Sardarkutty 1993, 49-50). Although there were criticisms of the communist privileging content over form of cultural products, there was significant acceptance even among the non-communist litterateurs of the communist contention that cultural work should have a broader purpose. And writers such as “Kesari” Balakrishna Pillai, C. J. Thomas, Ponkunnam Varkey, Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, Kesava Dev and Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai played an equally important role in the construction of the national-popular, democratizing literature and bringing people closer to art. Remarkably, a non-communist poet like Edassery in his post-independence poem “Puthan Kalavum Arivalum” (A New Pot and Sickle, 1951) makes the peasants sing the famous lines: “power, we should harvest first” (Chandrashekaran 1999, 107). And another major poet Changampuzha sang:

Let me tell you the
philosophy of the sickle (Gopalakrishnan 1987, 147)

But this hegemony of communist ideas, which was one of the main factors in the construction of the national-popular will suffered a huge blow with the independence of the country, and the adoption of a new line by the communists of overthrowing of the Indian state by armed revolution. The communist argument for literature being committed to a politics and ideology had now shifted to writers being actually members of a political party. The communists also introduced a manifesto, which put forth that “politics is the heart of progressive literature” and “imperialism is the root of all injustices in society.” This drew a lot of opposition from many writers. They were wary of the communist program, which asked them to state their position on each and every day-to-day political issue. Writers such as M. P. Paul, who were fellow travellers of the communist movement until then, questioned the absolute supremacy of politics that communists wanted the writers to acknowledge. Paul did not deny the importance of politics but only that of the omniscience of politics (Chandrashekaran 1999, 273, 301). Thus, in this conjuncture, politics itself for the communists was conceived in a very narrow sense. Art was to be subject to party and organizational politics. The division in the movement for a progressive culture mainly caused by the Communist Party’s mechanical and reductionist understanding of culture was an immense setback. Poets such as Bhaskaran, important cogs in the cultural wheel of the communist movement, did not renew their membership in the party after the split (Chandrashekaran 1999, 304). His poetry even began to critique the degeneration of the revolutionary party without losing his concern for the oppressed:

We, the ones who watered the
Ideologies of terrible hate
We, the ones who pretended not to be
Human beings in a war protecting
Human beings.

In another poem called the “Aavi Vandi” (Steam Rail) he compares the Communist Party to the

Rail tracks that lead us backward
In the guise of inviting us ahead (Chandrashekaran 1998, 40)

The sum effect of the split was the alienation of some of the best writers from the communist-led front. This included some of the important figures of Malayalam literature, such as Thakazhi, Dev, Basheer and many others. The dogmatism of the Communist Party in this period had its consequences at the national level too. Some of the leading progressive writers, such as Mulkraj Anand and K. A. Abbas were also alienated from the movement (Gopalakrishnan 1987, 128). A more serious outcome was the Communist Party’s witch-hunt of many talented writers as anti-communists and CIA agents (Narayanan 2001, 298; Venu 2001, 151). Thus, the possibilities of a deeper and more democratic popular culture were scotched prematurely.


The changes in the material sphere cannot be understood unless the cultural/ideational sphere, which influences them and is influenced by them, is also understood. Similarly, social transformation cannot be reduced to political and economic aspects. But much of the literature on Kerala’s democratic transformation has done so, ignoring the cultural aspects. The communist hegemony would not have been possible without the massive shift in the aesthetic dimension, both in the elite and popular segments. For Gramsci, culture “is the sphere in which ideologies are diffused and organized, in which hegemony is constructed and can be broken and reconstructed” (Forgacs 1993, 186). And what was impeded in the Italian case—the molecular diffusion of “a new ideology, a new commonsense based on historical materialism”—fructified in Kerala, of course, with many contradictions. Even as a national-popular will was constructed, it was not completely democratic.

The “historical task as educators and elaborators of the intellect and the moral awareness of the people-nation” was taken up by the communist activists. The attempt was to reach the “simplest and most uneducated classes” (Gramsci 1985, 211). The communists had recognized the need to construct a “unified national language.” For Gramsci, intervention in this regard, to be effective, must be “organically tied to tradition.” The importance of the concept is that it “recognizes the specificity of national conditions and traditions” (Gramsci 1971, 350). Gramsci (1985, 102) had argued:

The premiss of the new literature cannot but be historical, political and popular: it must work towards the elaboration of what already exists, whether polemically or in other ways does not matter. What matters is that it sinks its roots in the humus of popular culture as it is, with its tastes and tendencies and with its moral and intellectual world, even if it is backward and conventional.

The communists sought to develop a popular aesthetic by bridging the gap between the intellectuals and the people. The popular language and culture itself was expanded beyond the local, to incorporate imaginaries of the national and the international.

At the same time, the communist engagement with the popular and the attempt to construct a national-popular will was marked by severe limitations like that of the reinforcement of the gender hierarchy. The recognition of culture as an important dimension of social life was very significant, but was also marred by instrumentalism and the subjugation of culture to the pursuit of political power. While the Brahminical culture based on feudalism was severely dented, upper caste ethos itself was not completely dismantled. Power did percolate down and some lower castes and lower peasantry like the Ezhavas did have substantial upward mobility by being affiliated with the communist movement, but class politics still did not destroy the caste system nor did it confer land to the actual tiller. The sinking of the roots in the “humus of popular culture” had not still tapped the most radical counterhegemonic currents within it.

In comparative national terms, the lowest of the castes, the dalits did make gains by being associated with the communist movement, especially in terms of the ending of overtly oppressive caste indignities—which are still rampant in many other parts of the country—and securing minimum entitlements. And just as the critical attitude fostered by the inversion of hierarchy in symbolic acts like teyyattam were carried over outside the ritual spaces (Menon 1993, 197), the communist cultural and political struggles empowered the dalits even though they were at the margins of communist mobilization. Thus, ironically, while the communist movement in the present has by and large turned into a conservative force, the dalit and indigenous subalterns who were politicized by the movement have started asserting themselves against their marginalization, both within the communist parties and outside them in social movements. As a dalit character in Chandran’s play asserts, “We will not let the red flag be snatched away. We will hoist the red flag ourselves, by standing in the very front” (Chandran 2002, 37). Thus, there will be new richer imaginings of the national-popular will, such as when the dalit poet Kavikkad envisages a new nation with dalits as its inheritors (Satyanarayana and Tharu 2011b, 487).

The most progressive outcome of the communist engagement could be said to be the attempt to overcome, what in the author’s view, has been the bane of anti-colonial and post-colonial nationalist projects, culturalism. Culturalism can be defined as the

ensemble of intellectual orientations that crystallize methodologically around the reduction of social and historical questions to abstract questions of culture and responsible therefore not only for legitimizing hegemonic relations between societies, but also for mystifying hegemonic relations of exploitation and oppression within societies. (Dirlik 1997, 26)

Instead, culture itself became a cog in the movement towards a material understanding and transformation of society. In the communist cultural intervention there were intimations of a

new culture which is neither of the West nor of the past, in other words, which can be national without being parochial and cosmopolitan without being alien—a new culture, the making of which must accompany the making of the new world, but without which the latter cannot be conceived. (Dirlik 1997, 27).

These did not always fructify, but some beginnings were made towards the democratization of society.