There is a general feeling that women’s writing from the period was backward. But the very fact that they were writing is saying something about them.”

- Haneena P.A., curator and researcher, 2023

There is a general feeling that women’s writing from the period was backward. But the very fact that they were writing is saying something about them.”

- Haneena P.A., curator and researcher, 2023

Unacknowledged Histories

The Beginnings

Women’s magazines were started in colonial Kerala with the express purpose of educating women. Women’s education and status were perceived as being connected to the status of the state and community, especially since there were debates in other locations about the backwardness of Indian women in general.

Magazines and periodicals, they capture the history of the present—what mattered to people, what were the raging issues of the times, and what was considered fashionable. Women’s magazines from colonial Kerala debated significant issues related to women that catalysed women’s education, health, and access to civil society in the state.

The First Magazine

The first women’s journal, Kerali Sugunabodhini, was launched in Thiruvananthapuram in 1884. The magazine ran for around six months initially.

The immediate reason was an increased interest in the subject of women’s education. Reading Malayalam in the printed form had gained popularity by this time, almost 36 years after the first newspaper and journal were printed in Malayalam. These were Rajyasamacharam and Paschimodayam, both by Herman Gundert, in 1847, while the first magazine to be published was Jnananikshepam by the CMS Press in 1848.

“No woman has written in it. Scholars like M.C. Narayanapilla were the writers. Even if there were women’s names, it would have been the pseudonym for a male writer.”

– G. Priyadarshanan, media historian on Kerali Sugunabodhini, 2023

 

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Street scene of a Travancore village. Image: A hundred years in Travancore, 1806-1906 (1908)
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Front page of Kerali Sugunabodhini. The magazine had articles deemed necessary for the upliftment of Malayali women. Image: Kerali Sugunabodhini, 1884
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Front page of Sharada 6 (3). Image: Sharada, 1920

Edited by women

Sharada (1904) was the first magazine to be published for women by women from Tripunithura. Sharada was edited by three women: T.C. Kalyani Amma, T. Ammukutty Amma, and B. Kalyani Amma. It ran until 1910, with a hiatus in the middle. A few years later, in 1913, T.K. Kalyanikutty Amma launched another magazine called Sharada, from Punalur which lasted for about a decade.

Another magazine called Bharathi was published in Kozhikode in 1904. There is not much information available about this magazine.

Who were the writers?

People told me that the articles in these early magazines were probably not written by the women, but by their spouses or brothers. Can one not extend the same argument to the male writers also? It may have been written by other men.”

– Haneena P.A., researcher and curator, Kochi, 2023

Prominent novelists, critics, and poets often contributed to both women’s and general magazines in colonial Kerala. The women writers, exceeding 220, came from diverse backgrounds—government officers, school inspectors, professors, principals, doctors, lawyers, and legislators. Notable figures from this era, such as K. Chinnamma (1882-1930), B. Kalyani Amma (1884-1959), Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1976), Muthukulam Parvathi Amma (1904-1971), Anna Chandy (1905-1996), Haleema Beevi (1918-2000), and K. Kalyanikutty Amma (1920-1996) were writers and activists, simultaneously holding various jobs.

 

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M. Haleema Beevi was the first woman legislator from Thiruvalla. She edited and published four periodicals during her lifetime. Image: Pathradhipa M. Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitham, 2022
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P.G. Ponnamma, M.I. was one of the editors of the magazine Srimathi. Srimathi was edited by various women and published/printed from two different locations in Kerala in the 1930s. Image: www.aroundthesufrah.in, 2023
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P.R. Mandakini, publisher of Sahodari in Shrimathi. Shrimathi was one of the early magazines that had images of authors with their articles. It also carried pictures of other writers of the period. Image: Shrimathi Special Edition, 1935

The male contributors included renowned poets, novelists, and essayists, such as Ulloor S. Parameshwara Iyer, Kumaran Asan, Vallathol K. Narayanamenon, and E.V. Krishnapilla. Many of the male contributors to these magazines are well-known in the current era, while the women contributors have largely been forgotten.

The writers and publishers were related or knew each other. The magazines featured contributions from other parts of India, sometimes in English, and sometimes in Tamil. Both male and female writers were actively engaged in contributing to multiple magazines, held editorial positions, and played significant roles in the public domain.

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R. Eswara Pilla was an educationist who used to write prolifically about education and women’s education in many periodicals. Image: Shrimathi Special Edition, 1935
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K. Chinnamma, the founder of Mahilamandiram, an orphanage and a magazine of the same name was a well-known figure during her lifetime. She was a close friend of B. Kalyani Amma, another writer, editor, and teacher of the period. Image: mahilamandiramorg.siteprotect.net, 2023
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Article in English written by Margaret E. Cousins. She went on to establish the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1927. Image: Mahila vol 10(9), 1930
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The front page of Adhunika Vanitha started by Haleema Beevi in 1970. Image: Pathradhipa M. Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitham, 2022

Articles published in one magazine would elicit critical responses that were published in other magazines or journals printed at the same time. Periodicals with similar or even the same name were published from different locations at various times. For instance, Vanitha was a popular name for magazines started by several people in 1944, 1959, and 1975. Some magazines carried the term Vanitha with another word, like Vanithakusumam or Adhunika Vanitha (started by Haleema Beevi). Prior to Haleema Beevi launching Bharatha Chandrika (a general magazine) in 1944, a weekly magazine with the same title was being printed in Kollam, owned by M.K. Abdulrahiman Kutty.

Education: The Most Discussed Topic in Early Malayalam Women’s Magazines

Women’s education became more common and valued in the 1920s and 1930s. Writers faced the challenge of proving that modern education was not a threat to Malayali culture or morals, but a way to improve their social status and important for the progress of the family and society.

Women entered new fields of work that were once male-dominated. Women’s lifestyles changed resulting from the social changes and a few educated women were choosing to remain single. These led to a demand for new syllabi and curricula that would reflect the changes while maintaining the traditional roles played by women within families.

“It is clear from the various issues of Mahila (Muslim Mahila) that the magazine is trying to eradicate prejudices and inequities rooted in Keralite women’s world, especially Muslim women’s world.”

– a reader of Muslim Mahila, 1924

“Very few women have supported English education and higher education of women,” writes Prof. Sreebitha from the University of Kannur about the Ezhava women’s magazines of the period. Rather they argued for homeschooling and someone from the community teaching the girls.

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The cover page of Muslim Mahila Vol. 2 (1). An article on education in this issue persuades readers that education is important for the progress and empowerment of Muslim women. Image: Mahila, 1927
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Students in a school in Malabar. Image: University of Southern California Digital Archives, 1914

Readership

Early Malayalam periodicals targeted a specific audience, those with the means to subscribe to them at ₹1 to ₹4 (local currency) annually. They were accessible through post, educational institutions, reading rooms, or libraries.

The highest recorded subscription for a women’s magazine at the time was 2,000 for Vanithakusumam, which commenced from Kottayam in 1927. Christhava Mahilamani published from Thiruvalla followed with 1,500 subscribers, while Lakshmibai in Thrissur had 1,300 readers. Mahila, one of the longest-running women’s magazines run by women, was established in 1921 and continued for two decades. Government schools began subscribing to it in 1924, with official records indicating 500 subscribers. These numbers may seem modest by today’s standards, but they reflect the historical context of women’s readership.

 

“Vanithakusumam had women writers. It became a model for all the magazines that followed. It had a clear-cut aim and wanted to achieve certain things. Vanithakusumam was published in Kottayam. It was in print for two and a half years.”

– G. Priyadarsanan on Vanithakusumam, 2023

 

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List of patrons on the back page of Muslim Mahila. The patron list works like an advertisement telling the readers that these eminent people support the magazine. Image: Muslim Mahila, 1927.
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Title page of Vanithakusumam. It was a progressive Malayalam women’s magazine with the highest subscription figures in colonial times. It argued for women’s freedom and education and was the first women's magazine to have pictures from around the world. Image: Vanithakusumam
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List of subscribers printed on the last page of Lakshmibai Vol. 3(1). A cursory glance at the list shows that most of the subscribers are from castes equivalent or considered upper caste in those times. Image: Lakshmibai, 1907

Specific Audiences

While the magazines were ostensibly for all women, some were tailored for particular communities, later expanding their reader base. They did not overtly emphasise regional or community affiliations, yet articles touched upon region/community-specific matters.

The Muslim, Christian, and Ezhava communities started several women’s magazines. Haleema Beevi started Muslim Vanitha in 1938, Vanitha in 1944 and Adhunika Vanitha in 1970 for Muslim women. The periodicals did not run for very long. Researcher and curator, Haneena P.A. spent many months trying to locate copies of the Muslim Vanitha in the Ulloor Smaraka library, Thiruvananthapuram.

“The library had been closed for 10 years. The person in charge finally opened the library for my use after three months of request. I was given just three hours in this huge library. Everything was jumbled up, the call numbers of the books before and after this were on the shelf, but this particular magazine was missing… Locating copies of these magazines is the most difficult aspect of research.”

–  Haneena P.A., Kochi, 2023

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Cover page of Muslim Vanitha 2 (1), Editor: Haleema Beevi. Image: www.aroundthesufrah.in, 2023
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The back cover and front page of two issues of Maryrani, a Christian women’s magazine. The top left of the back cover gives the price for annual, six-month, EMI, and single-copy subscriptions. Image: Maryrani, 1913
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The cover page of Sthree. It was set up for Ezhava women by social reformer, K. Sahodaran Aiyappan and edited by his wife Parvathy Aiyappan. Image: Sthree, 1933

Overview of Content

As the primary objective was women’s education and literacy, the magazines included essays on current affairs, short stories, serialised novels, poetry, tales from the Puranas and mythology, and literary critique. Furthermore, the periodicals reported on meetings held by women’s groups from different parts of the world.

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Miss. Draupadi Amma and Miss. T.E. George from Kerala, who attended the AIWC in Pune in 1927. Image: Vanithakusumam, 1927
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Recipe for orange squash towards the right on the page of Aruna. There is an advertisement for a clothing store called Badshah Stores and the end part of an article on women's education towards the left. Image: Aruna, August 1950

Editors and writers used women’s magazines to engage in discussions, debates, and the dissemination of information they believed was relevant to women. The magazines covered a wide range of topics including women’s education, marriage, childcare, customs and rituals, household management, chastity, and fashion. They featured short biographies of notable women, as well as essays on health, contraception, medicines, recipes, and scientific topics. These magazines explored art, music, history, theology, astrology, and economics.

Lakshmibai (first year of publication-1905), Maryrani (1913), Bhashasharada (1915), Sumangala (1916), Mahilaratnam (1916), (Christava) Mahilamani (1920), Sanghamithra (1920), Mahila (1921), Sevini (1924), Sahodari (1925), Muslim Mahila (1926), Vanithakusumam (1927), Mahilamandiram (1927), Vanitharatnam (1928) Shrimathi (1929-30), Malayalamasika (1929), Sthree (1933), Vanitharamam (1942), and Vanithamithram (1944) are the magazines currently available in the various archives in Kerala. There may have been more than 25 women’s magazines published from different places in colonial Kerala.

“Lakshmibai was started in Thrissur when Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran’s wife passed away. It ran for 31 years (with breaks). It had several articles related to women and also on literature and poems. The well-known pandits of the time used to write in it, including Kerala Varma.”

– G. Priyadarshanan on Lakshmibai, 2023

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Title page of the Lakshmibai 3(1). The page on the left says that the periodical was published in memory of the Elder Thampuran (rani) of Attingal. Image: Lakshmibai, 1907
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An article on sthreeswathandryam. The picture of the Hindu Goddess at the beginning of the article seems to provide scriptural support for women’s freedom. Image: Bashasharada, 1917

Negotiating Womanhood

Supporters of women’s education had to prove that it would not make women misuse sthreeswathandryam, roughly translated as responsibility and independence. Sthreeswathandryam aimed to liberate women from traditional family roles. Global women’s movements, especially after World War I, inspired some Malayali thinkers to want the same freedom for Malayali women as Western women. Articles debated whether education would make women too individualistic and selfish, and weaken their ties to their communities and castes. It was a complex idea and certain writers saw it as dangerous and did not want women to follow the Western idea of freedom.

 

“Some of the writers criticise European women for the liberty they have attained and adds that luckily the idea of liberation has not attacked women in India.”

– Prof. Sreebitha, Kannur University, 2022

Clothing and Accessories

Clothing styles in Kerala used to mark caste and religious differences. In the 20th century, women were adopting new styles from the West and other regions of India. This upset traditional ideas about dress and behaviour and caused debates about culture, morality, and cost. Some writers defended the new styles as useful and proper while others linked clothing to women’s freedom and immorality.

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Three sisters from Kerala who took over the Tamil film industry in the 1950s. Image: Newsminute, 2016
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Advertisements for stone-studded gold jewellery, perfume powder, and acne treatment in a general-purpose magazine. Women were reading not just women's magazines but also general magazines. Image: Sahapadi (Classmate), 1930s

Creating Icons

Due to the strict control over the printing press by native governments and British authority, individuals with a history of resistance against the British were not, in general, portrayed as role models. Moreover, softer qualities such as compassion, generosity, chastity, kindness, and spirituality were valued. Hence, warrior figures like Unniarcha did not find a place in most magazines. Magazine writers frequently drew comparisons between Malayali women and international women including women from the West and Asia. Asian and Russian women were positively described, more than Western women.

The magazine articles of the time conveyed a sense of belonging to the broader Indian nation, emphasising women’s role in nation-building. Women were expected to contribute by raising their children in a manner that would shape them into ideal citizens. They were also encouraged to assist the nation in various small ways, such as establishing small-scale home-based industries like weaving or teaching less fortunate women in rural areas. The influence of the nationalist movement, particularly that of Gandhi, is evident in writings from the 1920s.

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Cover page of Vanithamitram, the only Anglo-Malayalam magazine according to its subtitle, with the picture of Sharada Devi, wife of the saint Ramakrishna. The magazine carried an article on her life with Ramakrishna, glorifying her reverence and love for her saintly husband. Image: Vanithamitram, 1945
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Nationalist leader, K. Karthyani Amma, who led Kerala in the passive resistance movement. Image: Shrimathi Special Edition, 1935
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Aruna carried pictures of the wife of the Pakistan prime minister, Beegum Liaquat Khan and Indian diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (later President of the UN General Assembly) with Mrs Truman, wife of the American President, when they visited the US. These titbits were included as part of fostering a sense of nationalism among the readers. Image: Aruna, 1950

Early Consumerism

In early women’s magazines, a limited space was allocated for advertisements. These advertisements covered a wide range of topics, including hair oils, Ayurvedic medicines, treatments for various health concerns such as sexual issues and infertility, contraception, and pregnancy-related complications. There were also advertisements for clothing shops, battery and dynamo sales, rewinding services, tailoring shops, and related businesses. Furthermore, the magazines featured advertisements of other publications, magazines, and printing presses showing that manufacturers believed that there were potential customers for their products among the readers of women’s magazines.

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The advertisement of the newspaper, The Malayala Rajyam published in Shrimathi. Image: Shrimathi Special Edition, 1935
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An advertisement for a medicine claiming to remedy uterine complaints. Image: Shrimathi Special Edition, 1935
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Advertisement of Haleema Beevi’s Vanitha in Bharatha Chandrika (1944). Image: Pathradhipa M. Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitham, 2022
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Contents page of Vanithamitram 1 (11–12). There are seven poems, a laudatory piece (mangalashamsa), serialised novel, short story, literary criticism, essay, and one-act play. Neither plays nor these many poems are published in current women’s journals. Image: Vanithamitram, 1945

Shift in Focus

At the outset of World War II, there was a newsprint shortage, leading to the cessation of publication of many women’s magazines. This period saw a shift of focus among the politically inclined women editors and writers toward the nationalist movement. The early women’s periodicals can be categorised as belonging to the scarce media stage. A subsequent stage, called the mass media stage by Robin Jeffrey, emerged in the 1960s when newspapers began mass production. Profitability became the driving force, displacing earlier objectives of literary and reformative content. Consequently, women’s magazines shifted their focus to entertainment rather than education. The language and essay form were adapted to the changing times and needs.

In general, the writers and the magazines were progressive in tone, discussing topics and issues related to women to a depth that one does not normally find at present. They challenged patriarchal norms, expressed their views on social issues, and wrote about gender equality, family planning, and so on. They experimented with different genres and forms of literature. Current mainstream magazines resemble lifestyle publications, while the feminist and reformative elements have formed a separate genre within women’s periodicals. These outlets employ internet-based media to cater to different audiences for the most part. Therefore, looking back to the past from the present, colonial women’s magazines appear very different from women’s magazines/periodicals in the present.

 

“The editorials of these early women’s magazines state their intention—to encourage women to write and contribute to the public fields. While their origins lie in the woman’s question (political debates on women’s rights/status/inequality that emerged in the 19th century) and the desire to ‘reform’ women, increasingly, we find evidence of writings exhibiting women’s views, especially since many of the early feminists of the region contributed features and articles. There are articles that refute and challenge the reformist and traditionalist views on the woman’s question in these magazines.”

– Roopa Philip, teacher at Jyothi Nivas College, Bengaluru, 2024

 

Our Contributors

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G. Priyadarshanan is a former teacher and media historian. He was one of the first academics to write extensively about the history of periodicals in Kerala. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Haneena P.A. is a researcher and curator. She was working on digitising Muslim women’s magazines as part of a project at the time of the interview. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Dr. Roopa Philip is a teacher and researcher. She works on women’s writing and folklore. She has written on the feminist leanings of the early women writers from Kerala. Image: Roopa Philip, 2024

References

Antony, Teena. ‘An Introduction to the Early Malayalam Women’s Magazines’. Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture 7, no. 1 (January 2022).

Antony, Teena. ‘Women’s History: An Overview of Early Malayalam Periodicals for Women’. Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture 5, no. 2 (31 July 2020).

Devika, J. Engendering Individuals: The Language of Re-Forming in Early Twentieth Century Keralam. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2007.

Jeffrey, Robin. ‘Testing Concepts about Print, Newspapers, and Politics: Kerala, India, 1800-2009’. The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 2 (2009): 465–89.

Kumar K., Swapna, and Sibi Natuvilakkandy. ‘Making Space for Women: Role of Early Malayalam Magazines and Newspapers in Kerala’. International Journal of Advanced Research in Social Sciences and Humanities 5, no. 1 (January 2017): 1–7.

Mazumdar, Vina. ‘Emergence of the Women’s Question in India and the Role of Women’s Studies’. Working Paper. Centre for Women’s Development Studies, 1985.

Orsini, Francesca. ‘Domesticity and Beyond: Hindi Women’s Journals in the Early Twentieth’. South Asia Research 19, no. 2 (1999): 137–60.

Philip, Roopa. ‘The Woman’s Question: Negotiating Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Magazines in Malayalam.’ Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture 7, no. 1 (January 2022).

Priyadarshanan, G. Masikapatanangal. Kottayam: Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Ltd., 1974.

Satyanweshi. ‘Letter to Editor of Muslim Mahila’. Muslim Mahila, 1924.

Sreebitha, P.V. ‘Question of English Language and Higher Education: Early Twentieth Century Ezhava Women’s Magazines in Kerala’. Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture 7, no. 1 (January 2022).

 


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