Imagining the Nation: Nation and nationalism through early 20th century Malayalam Literature

T Meera Keshav
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International (Deemed University)


Discourses on nationalism and nationalist movements tend to focus a great deal on the pan-Indian phenomenon. While many authors have acknowledged the apparent drawbacks in such a universalised account of Indian nationalism, along with the identification of the existence of multiple understandings of nationalisms, an effective accommodation of all such distinct experiences is yet to find utterance while discussing ‘Indian nationalism’ as we know it. This paper seeks to study the idea of nationalism that existed in Malayalam literature. By using textual analysis of Malayalam literature written during the early to mid-20th century, the study addresses the idea of the nation and nationalism that existed in Kerala. Focusing on the works of two authors, namely Sahodaran Ayyappan and Vallathol Narayana Menon, the representation of the idea of nation and nationalism in these texts are critically analyzed. The two writers’ responses to the socio-economic and cultural situations that prevailed at the time in the country and Kerala, in particular, their ideas of nation and nationalism are examined. It is found that although the two were writing in the same time period characterised by the independence struggle, their responses to key concepts such as freedom, the notion of a nation and nationalism are distinct from each other. While Sahodaran Ayyappan proposes a forward-looking imagination of an ideal nation and what India’s future should look like, he characterises and argues against nationalism as it tends to create hierarchies and divisions. Vallathol Narayana Menon on the other hand presents a conception of nationalism that can be understood at two levels: the pan-Indian version of it at the political level and the Malayalee sub-national identity at the cultural level. However, such a dichotomy is not where one supersedes the other. Rather, it can be understood as a continuum whereby the Malayalee identity forms a part of the whole Indian identity.

Keywords: sub-nationalism, social reforms, progressive literature, multi-nationalism, Malayalam literature, nationalist movements, nation.