B 21

The arrival of Christian missionaries in Kerala had set a series of social changes in motion, of which the ‘Right to Cover Breast’ was very prominent. In 19th-century Travancore, uncovering one’s chest to higher-status people was considered a sign of respect by both males and females. Thus, lower-caste women, such as the Channars, had to uncover their chests in the presence of members of the upper caste. In 1813, Col. Munro, the British dewan in the Travancore court, issued an order granting permission to women converted to Christianity to wear upper cloth. The order was withdrawn when upper-caste people complained about it. The women continued to fight for the right to wear upper cloth. This led to increasing violence in the 1820s against Channar women, as well as the burning of schools and churches. In a series of events in the 19th century, despite the legal moves initiated by Col. Munro and his ilk, Channar women were attacked by upper-caste men. LMS Missionary Rev. Charles Mead played an important role in this upper-cloth revolt. Finally, the Travancore royal government had to yield to public demand, supported by the British Residents, and on July 26th, 1859, Uthram Thirunam Maharaja granted freedom to Channar women to wear the clothes of their liking.

In this relief panel, Jubiliant Unni has depicted this history in a symbolic form. The social forces that triggered the changes are not directly referred to. Instead, the artist places a semi-nude female figure at the center. She is in the clutches of a huge python, representing the dominant social forces. Her situation is further worsened by the pyre that is slowly engulfing her. She is seen gathering the strength to free herself, and the forward thrust of her effort is palpable in the modeling. In the right corner, one can see women with scythes rising up against social injustice. In the left-hand corner of the relief, a woman is being freed as she is blessed by and initiated into the spirit of Christianity.

Published On: January 27th, 2024Categories: Relief Sculpture

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