July 15th marked the 110th anniversary of the most infamous Smarthavicharam to have been conducted in the history of Kerala; the Samarthavicharam of Kuriyedathu Thathri. Smarthavicharam was the ritualistic trial of Antharjanams (Namboothiri women) accused of having extra marital affairs.
In olden times, in a Namboothiri household, only the eldest son could marry. He could marry as many Namboothiri women as he wanted. The others could only have formal ‘Sambandams’ or affairs with Nair women. This left many Namoothiri women in unsatisfactory marriages where they received little or no attention at all or as for many, not marry at all.
An Antharjanam’s life was a miserable one. They were not allowed to step outside the house. Even if they did, that would be to the temple and that too escorted by Nair women by a screen, wrapped in cloth from head to toe and an ‘Olakkuda’ (Palm leaf umbrella) to cover their faces. They were not to be seen by anyone. The meaning of the word Antharjanam itself is ‘beings inside the house’.
Living in such oppression and usually married to a Namboothiri much older than them, some of these women went on to have illegitimate affairs. If an Antharjanam was suspected to have an affair, the consequences were gruesome. An Antharjanam would turn to be a ‘Saadanam’ then. ‘Saadhanam’ meaning merely ‘a thing’. They were excommunicated and considered outcast.
Kuriyedathu Thathri’s Smarthavicharam was sensational in those times as she was supposed to have had affairs with 65 men. She had revealed names of many prominent men including scholars, musicians, kathakali artists etc which created many outbursts. It is said after the 64th revelation, Cochin Raja, who had called for the trial himself stopped it, which made way to the rumours that the 65th person was he himself.
This Artwork by Anoopa John is an exploration into the duality present in the lives of women from the rich, aristocratic Namboothiri families. The woman at the centre piece is an Antarjanam who lives this double life of affluence and constraint.