Shelley, Nair and Lawrence

An occasional reader with little time to peruse this further, but with some imagination would assume that this title is about a firm of lawyers (into which an Indian lawyer strayed or some such thing) for lawyers are wont to naming their companies thus, in what I would term a singularly unimaginative fashion. But this short article is not about a lawyer’s firm, but about two people and their relation to the Nair’s of Malabar.

The Malabar community, Nair’s in particular has been a subject of great curiosity from Roman times and a number of legends have been attributed to them in traveler’s tales. Many of them are far fetched and meant for the only purpose of evoking extreme reactions. Books have been written about them, notably by Fawcett and Forbes. Their customs and traditions until the turn of the century, especially the matrilineal and matriarchal lineage was the object of much study by the travelers, for it was a rare place where women were sometimes considered more important in the family system though mainly from an inheritance point of view. This particular (matrilineal) aspect has been the subject of a huge book by anthropologist Kathleen Gough, which I am incidentally in the process of perusing.

Nayar (or Nair) society was reputed in those days to be harmonious and productive, without property disputes and sexual jealousies, enlightened and spiritually favored (Indian renaissance – Pg 89 Almeida and Gilpin). Of course this did raise a lot of questions about polyandry and free love amongst a group of people in Europe. Cameo’s Lusiad’s even tried to portray how idyllic the life style in Calicut was compared to the cheap and gaudy lifestyle of the Portuguese and the Dutch in Cochin. Forbes wrote about the stillness of nature in Malabar and the softness of life, providing a soothing effect without the using of drugs like Opium (!!). Forbe’s account of the encounter with the bathing lady and the Nair temple and his flight are fascinating for a reader. He called the people handsome, fair and the women well made, sometimes tall but very graceful (in his 1813 version he changes this graceful to ‘masculine’). In short he equated the place to the mythical ‘garden of Eden’ till the next version of 1813.

James Henry Lawrence (a.k.a Chevalier Lawrence – Knight of Malta) living in Jamaica was fascinated by the original (privately circulated) Forbes account and many others. After studying the Nair race, he wrote an essay ‘Nair marriage traditions’ in 1793 and then a romantic novel originally in German as ‘Das Paradies der Liebe’ later reprinted as Das Reich der Nairen. According to him, Nair customs were based on the Freedom of nature. In the book, a British ‘Nairess’ known as the Countess Camilla is brought up in Malabar and goes back to London topropogate her ideas.

The novel was read by Friedrich Schiller the famous German writer (a friend of Goethe) who recommended to Lawrence that he publish it. Lawrence himself translated the book into English as ‘The Empire of the Nair’s’ (Rights of women – An utopian romance) in 1811. Alas, the book is not easily available today except for some parts here & there (Unless you want to spend a fortune and buy Modern British Utopias, 1700–1850 edited by Gregory Clayes). Lawrence in his longish and apparently ‘dull’ work entreated Europe to advocate the customs of Nair’s when it came to marriage.

It got some recognition after the famous but unconventional (from a lifestyle point of view) writer and romantic poet Percy Shelley read it. He wrote to Lawrence stating himself a complete convert to Lawrence’s ideas and advocating the abolition of marriage, calling marriage as licensed prostitution. Shelley then referred to these ideas in his Queen Mab (others roundly condemned him for bringing Nair domestic governance to Europe)

Unfortunately a lot of things happened between 1792 when Lawrence first wrote the book and 1811 when he published it. The relations between the Malabar Zamorin’s, the Mysore rulers and the English changed. Political factors came into play and the English saw a chance of subjugating the weakened Malabar Nair’s. Malabar had by then been annexed by the EIC and the British crown. Nair men were soon seen as threatening to the British interests (after various revolts by the Zamorin’s relatives and the Pazhassi raja). The writing about Nair’s soon changed their tone and the once touted customs soon changed to uncultured and barbaric, adulterous and demeaning (Buchanan accounts). Lawrence’s book was no longer the ‘in thing’…

Even the published Forbes version about travels to Malabar (1813) played down the original glowing comments and took a more cautious tone.

Strangely Lawrence and Shelley never visited India though Lawrence had a number of contacts with East India Company personnel. Schiller (read his play The Indian Exiles) too was intrigued by the Nair’s and was probably influenced by Lawrence’s writings about Malabar. German writer Cristoph Wieland and Richard Carlile often quoted these customs. Mary Shelly was however not enchanted with the book and parodied it in ‘Frankenstein’. At times, Lawrence was even called Nair Lawrence (W St Clair – Godwins and Shelleys pg 471)

Shelley’s interesting letter to Lawrence about the book and his opinion about Nair’s can be read here. At that time Shelly was married to Harriet Westbrook and feeling miserable about the ‘jail’ institution of marriage. Later he married Mary Godwin only for legal reasons (SL Gladden – Shelley’s textual seductions Pg 127)

Dr Prof Robin Jeffrey (An Aussie academic and keen follower of Nayar society & Kerala) in his essay on the Legacies of Matrliny states thus – Why is Kerala different from the rest of India? It is a question asked for over 30 years. He states the answer right at the beginning of his essay - The place of women in their society is, he believes, the key to the puzzle of the “Kerala model”. In his lovely essay he covers the path taken by the Nair matrilineal society in Kerala till it was finally abolished in 1976. He summarizes - Matriliny did not make women rulers of their families, but it did allow some of them a remarkable latitude unknown elsewhere in India.

Indian Renaissance - Hermione De Almeida, George H. Gilpin
Lion Magazine 1828 – Pages 653-672

Shelley pic from Shelley resource pages


Indrani said...

How much of research you do, Maddy!

It is always a pleasure to read, rather learn interesting bits of information on History and literature from you posts.

Anonymous said...

Gosh you always make me want to read lots! The link to Legacies of Matrliny is not working. Err what is it really?

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Interesting to know how and why the tone of accounts on Nairs changed.
Just can't imagine how much of documented history would have been influenced by such trivial reasons.


Maddy said...

Thanks Indrani, Cris - I have updated the link - it is working now.

Nikhil - As I mentioned, the tone started to change when the submissive populace started to revolt and when the ideas of EIC's 'just trade' changed to colonial status.


Very interesting read. I am all for the revival of matrilineal culture. Women get their due place in families that way.

Happy Kitten said...

Maddy.. like Raji.. even I vote for the matrilineal culture!

You men just trust and leave it to us.. we assure you that we will do our best! :)

kallu said...

Maddy, not clear which customs are actually advocated as those that brought about such a peaceful, harmonious and productive society.. the matriarchal society was the root cause? or were there other customs too that were praised?

Interesting beginning too

Maddy said...

thanks raji, HK and Kallu - even today in north malabar, at least in some'tharavads', matriliny or an inclination to matriliny is practiced. In some cases the home is willed to the daughter.

Kallu - did you click on Dr Jeffrey's 'linked' paper - you can get an answer there, at least it is a good start. I am also venturing into that complex field as I too have a few questions that I hope Dr Gough's book will answer, yet to wade through it.

Maddy said...

Kallu - thanks for noticing the beginning - that was a Victorian styled start ..

Anonymous said...

as ever,a well researched article.Hats off to you,man, for the effort you put in [is that an effort or still a joy?!]reading non-fiction books and then in looking out for links for further reading!

Is Nayar and Nair the same? Sorry to ask such a silly question but when Arun Nayar was dating the lovely Liz Hurley we had this debate and I was told that Nayar was a north indian caste name? [like Varma vs Verma].

Equally amazing[like your herculean efforts] is the interest showed by these foreigners in a custom which caught their attention and in taking efforts to learn more about it.[Shelley's letter to Lawrence-does the link work or is it me?].


Anonymous said...

Why is Kerala different from the rest of the country?

Are you implying by default, ie by concluding with the article from the Canadian professor, that it is mainly /solely due to the matrilineal system? I think the answer is in the article itself which has explored the other reasons= ie multi-factorial. The influence of Christianity and more perhaps that of Communism in making Kerala so different and so special cannot be emphasised enough.


Anonymous said...

Some of the respondees seem to favour the matrilineal system. Did they mean a matriarchial system?

Liked Shelley's observation on the institution called marriage-like a jail!The jailor and the prisoner!!Maddy-what do you say? [just kidding,mate!]


Maddy said...

Hi Alex - As you can imagine, it is an effort where the joy part is greater!! Even so when somebody takes the pain to read it in detail, like you..

1. nayar and Nair are synonymous, the North Indian one is Nayyar. double ya - like the neyyal - weaving pronunciation. AH! why did you have to remind me of Liz Hurley? I will redo the link, sorry about that.

2. I must agree that it is a key to the puzzle and that it is also one of the many factors. Exposure to many cultures for ages is yet another.

3. You really went for that, eh? well I guess the responders would favor either of the two - for the benefit of others, matriarchal is where the female takes a leading role, whereas matrilineal is where property passes down the female line.

4. about the institution, well I do favor marriage. At the moment it is a big thing in California, every road corner has people holding placards stating vote yes for prop 8 or no for prop 8. yes on 8 means man women couple and no means gay couples legally valid.

Maddy said...

Alex - I meant to type 'more so' not even so - a typo.

Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy

Thanks for that clarification. In fact when I d/w one of my friends the next day he said the same about nayyar.[ ? akin to Varma vs Verma].

Liz Hurley-sorry mate!A voluptous female, if ever there was one!


Californian placards-sign of the times,eh?


Maddy said...

yes - the link is working alex...
California always had these types especially in frisco..where they proclaim what they feel at street corners...

Ashvin said...

My maternal grandparents lived in my grandmother's house and my parents in the same house which belongs to my mother....

Anonymous said...

Matrilineal tradition was practiced by many communities(both castes and tribes) in Tulu and Malayalam regions and few communities in Tamil region (Maravar). One difference is matrifocality(by matrifocal I mean both husband and wife living in their respective matrilineal homes) of Nayars. For other communities matrilocality(living at wife's place) and patrilocality was common. I have read that few north Malabar Nayar families were also matrilocal or partilocal(husband's place). However, I'm not sure of this.

The Malabar community, Nair’s in particular has been a subject of great curiosity from Roman times

Could you please point me to the source? Thanks.

Maddy said...

Yes, Manjunath
thanks for further details on matrifocality..
One of the earlier references to Nairs (Nareae ) is by Pliny in his Natural History 73-77AD. They come up also in 'The Periplus....which belongs to I think, the 3AD time (here it is Naoura).

Maddy said...

oh yes - i forgot also the Megasthenes book Indica where nareae are mentioned. But then I could clarify they were Greeks even earlier than Romans..

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the references.