Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: Literature and History

Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: Literature and History

in Interview
Published on: 23 August 2019

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.

Kesavan Veluthat in conversation with Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019.

Kesavan Veluthat is one of the most important historians of precolonial South India from his generation. A Marxist by conviction, adhering to a structural-functional method of history writing, he is best known for his studies on the brahmana settlements in Kerala and political structure in early medieval South India, besides earning recognition as the theorist of South India’s early medieval epoch.  

Born in late 1950 in the lower Bharatapuzha Valley in southern Malabar, Veluthat was trained at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, from where he obtained an MPhil degree, and the University of Calicut, where he was conferred a PhD for his thesis on South Indian political structure under the Pallava, Chola, Chera and Pandya states. He taught at a couple of government colleges before joining the Department of History, Mangalore University, where he taught from 1982 to 2008. He joined the University of Delhi as Professor of History in 2009, from where he retired in 2016. Veluthat has also been visiting professor at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam and Jawaharlal Nehru University. He currently heads the Institute for the Study of the Heritage of Coastal Kerala, Kodungallur.

In the course of his illustrious career spanning more than four decades, Veluthat published 18 books in English and Malayalam, including two monographs and three collections of essays. His oeuvre consists of monumental works such as the critical edition of the Malayalam-Latin dictionary, Amarasimham: Dictionarium Latino-Historico-Mythologico Samscredonico Malabaricum, the eighteenth century Mahishashatakam of Vanchesvara Yajvan in English and Malayalam translations and a revised critical edition (jointly with M.R. Raghavavarier) of the Tarisappalli copperplates. 

Signs of amazing originality and dissent with existing scholarship are hallmarks of Veluthat’s work. These were to be seen even in his earliest works. As early as 1975 (the year when, incidentally, the doyen of South Indian history, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri passed away), he carried out a study of the shalas that figure with great regularity in the inscriptions, and established that more than being institutions dispensing instructions in religious, scriptural or secular forms of knowledge, they were centres for military training. This was the second research paper that Veluthat had written. The first paper, which appeared in 1973, was no less important, for in this paper, he marshalled evidence from the Sangam Tamil songs that, as early as the first centuries of the Christian Era, there existed a brahmana settlement at Chellur (Perunchellur, now Talipparamba) in northern Malabar. 

Veluthat’s first major landmark was a 1978 paper (which he jointly authored with M.G.S. Narayanan) on the Vaishnava Alvar and Shaiva Nayanar Bhakti movements in South India. In this paper, Veluthat challenged the existing perspectives that Bhakti was an expression of an individual’s longing for god or that it represented a form of resistance against state oppression. He argued, instead, that Alvar and Nayanar devotionalism was a state-sponsored project that found expression through the temples established or supported by the state and its functionaries. He presented Bhakti as a feudal ideology through which the state sought legitimacy and through which diverse sections of the population were brought into the ambit of the state. 

Veluthat’s next major work was The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India, which was based on his PhD thesis. In this work, he argued that the early medieval state in South India was feudal in structure. The thesis was, in theoretical terms, far reaching. In Veluthat’s estimation, the early medieval state was also the earliest state in South India, for the state as an institution was unknown in the preceding early historical period. In this sense, the advent of the state in this part of the world was itself characterised by feudalism. It presented a picture that was at variance from the influential thesis of Ram Sharan Sharma that Veluthat otherwise admired. Sharma had argued that feudalism in India was the result of the break up of an already existing centralised state and its replacement by numerous regional states. Veluthat awakened historians to the fact that there existed no state in South India before early medieval times that could have undergone fragmentation. In more recent times, he has nuanced this position, arguing that one of these states, the Chera state, was marked by feudal as well as integrative and early state features.

From a study of political structures, Veluthat moved forward to make a broader study of the early medieval period of South India, which led to his emergence as the theorist of the early medieval in South India. He made the first clear statement of his theory of the early medieval in his presidential address to the Medieval India section of the Indian History Congress in 1997, held in Bangalore. In his address, Veluthat argued that the early medieval in South India was characterised by the presence of the state, the veḷḷanvakai peasant settlements, eleemosynary settlements such as the brahmadeya and the devadana, and the temple with its ideology of Bhakti, which were all conspicuous only by their absence in the preceding period of chieftaincies, plunder, and gift-giving. The new world was a product of agrarian expansion and hierarchical patterning of landholding, in which the presence of the peasantry as a class that functioned on the principles of extra-kin labour was crucial. In fact, Veluthat recognised extra-kin labour as ‘the thin end of the wedge which brought about the eventual erosion of the earlier system of production and distribution based on kinship, reciprocity and patronage and the evolution of a new system based on the differential distribution of surplus’. This transition was, prima facie, a fundamental structural transformation in the mode of production. Labour—in the present instance, peasantry with its extra-kin form of labour—was the fulcrum of this understanding of the mode of production. This estimate of the mode of production and its categories was rigorous and marked by amazing clarity. They were not stained by eclecticism; nor were they diluted by flexible and endlessly malleable definitions. Few epochal transformations in Indian history have had the benefit of so rich an analysis.

Veluthat has continued to inspire awe by his unconventional approach to history writing that has constantly challenged accepted representations of the past. His interests and areas of engagement have expanded manifold, making occasional forays into early historical northern Indian history. His recent works on the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Manipravalam poetry of Kerala, the vishishtadvaita element in the devotional works of Kerala poets such as Ezhuttachan and Melpattur, and the influence, if any, of the Mauryan ruler Ashoka’s presence in South India break new grounds with their refreshingly novel analyses. But for his writings, the historiography of precolonial South India would have been more than a trifle poorer. 

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.

Here is the third part of the edited transcript of a three-part video interview with Kesavan Veluthat conducted by Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019.


Manu Devadevan (MD): You have given us the most rigorous explanation I should say of the transition from the early historical to early medieval in South India. This was addressed to the Indian History Congress in 1997 I guess, to the medieval section. You argued that the spread of agriculture in the Cauvery delta and elsewhere, this eventually led to the rise of a peasantry class, a new class as it were, organised on the principles of extra kin labour. In fact, you had called it the thin wedge that eroded an earlier system and brought the new one in its place. Why do you think epochal transformations such as these can be understood in terms of change in forms of labour?

Kesavan Veluthat (KV): Well, I should believe that this has to do with the reading of Marx in a big way. Because changes in the means and relations of production are seen in the base of major historical changes. Now when epochal transformations take place, behind these epochal transformations we have changes in the means and relations of production. Relations of production naturally involve changes in the form of labour, the way in which labour and its fruits are exploited. In the context of South India, what we see in the period before the formation of the state, that is the Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya kinds of state earlier, what we see is a situation where such economic activities that existed, such processes, production that existed, were managed with just family labour. So, you have a group of people living by cattle-keeping. You have a group of people living by just hunting and gathering. So, they didn’t require labour in a large manner. The requirement of such labour, as was necessary, was available within the family itself. There may be slash and burn cultivation, there may be fishing, there may be hunting, there may be gathering. When, in that society, the process of production [begins]—where land is cleared, larger areas of land are brought under the plough, etc.—labour is a very, very important factor in this. Agriculture is extremely labour-intensive. And when this labour-intensive process of agriculture is adopted, naturally this demands a lot of labour. And it produces a lot of surplus with which labour can be remunerated also. So, you have extra kin labour which must be, and can be, rewarded from the surplus that is produced. So, there is a total transformation in the way in which labour is employed. So, you have a situation where there is considerable surplus that is produced and the way in which the surplus is redistributed.

In the redistribution, unequal redistribution, this leads to stratification in society and stratification in society is at the base of the reformation of the state. So, it is here that I see labour as central. To begin with, it is not visible. That is why I described it as the thin end of the wedge. Now as it goes deeper and deeper, the system gets eroded. Otherwise, it doesn’t get affected. This is why I saw that the change in the character of labour was at the root of social transformation. Now perhaps the whole thing derives from my orthodox reading of Marxism.

MD: But let me repeat an earlier question in a different context. You were writing in the 1990s and that was the time when India was undergoing a very major transformation towards liberalisation. And our approach to the question of labour had also begun to change both in terms of practices as well as policies. Did that worry you and did that in some sense reflect in your work?

KV: I do not know if it gets reflected in my work but I was personally really affected by this. That is, as I was telling you, I was shuttling between Mangalore and home at that time and changes that were taking place in the social and economic setup particularly with a large number of labourers from the village migrating to the Gulf countries and non-availability of labour for purposes of agriculture, etc.—this I was really seeing in front of my eyes. And the major changes that were taking place in economy and society on account of the changes in the nature of labour, that certainly I had been really impressed with. Perhaps this may have affected, this may have influenced my way of looking at it, but not so much directly as in my reading of the theoretical literature, particularly Capital, Volume 3 of Marx.

MD: Ideology figures in a major way in your understanding of historical transformations. And in your work, ideology appears as an aspect of power. Why do you think ideology is important for power in a pre-modern context when you don’t have the ‘we the people’ model of statecraft, the democratic statecraft? So, it is much more easy to gain consent or acceptance just by distributing power in various ways, as military tenures, as revenue farming assignments and so on. Why then would society require ideology in that context?

KV: I don’t really think that it is as simple as that. That is, distribute this revenue farming and such lollipops to the people and ask them, come and stay with us. Any situation where there are sections in positions of power, they will have to communicate and come to terms with the dominant sections of society, groups like . . . I was talking about the land-owning groups. I was talking about the trading magnates. I was talking about the brahmanical temple-centred agrarian corporations. So, the rulers, sections of society which were in positions of power and control, they had to come to terms with these major nodes of power. These are the real nodes of power. And this coming to terms with these nodes of power, this required some extra economic factors . . . just by distributing a few revenue forms, etc. doesn’t help. These extra economic forms of coming to terms with the nodes of power, one of the best means is ideology. Again, I go back to Engels who says that idea itself is a material force when captured. It becomes a material force. Now for instance, when Rajaraja decides to build the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Rajaraja was very conscious of the way in which it can communicate with the people. Now he boasts, saying that he, Udaiyur Rajaraja-deva, was building a temple for Rajarajeshwaram Udaiyur. So, he transposes himself in the position of Shiva consecrated there. And Shiva is seen in his own image.

I have written about the number of Tripurantaka images and the way in which he was patronising this. There are temples with Tripurantaka motifs, this is amazing. The reason is Tripurantaka was a metaphor for Rajaraja himself. He was using it in the sense that, you know the famous story of Tripurantaka. When the Tripuras were brought in, two of them were put as the doorkeepers of Shiva—Parashupani and Shulapani and Chandeswara as the nirmalyadhari (sub-deity to whom leftovers of main offerings are given). So, when this is happening, this is actually a representation of what was happening at the political level. The local chieftains like the Paluvettaraiyar or the Kodambalur chieftains, [they] were being run over by the bulldozer of the Chola state under Rajaraja, and [they] were made so many functionaries of the Chola state. So, this he was representing at the ideological level. So, through this ideology he could communicate better with the nodes of power. And these nodes of power could accept it rather than accepting it as if some revenue farming or the other things were given.

Here, I differ considerably with Stein’s use of the notion of ideology, when Stein says that the state was ideological, that it was ritual hegemony, etc. He thinks that there was no political hegemony. Here, there is political hegemony and it is not a make-believe thing.

MD: Let us leave power and politics for a while and get to something which is much more appealing, literature for example. You have been reflecting on literature for quite some time now and you also started writing about literature in recent years. How did you get attracted towards literature?

KV: No, I didn’t get attracted to literature recently. As I was telling you, I always wanted to do literature. Literature was my first love, so to say.

MD: But you have been writing more about it.

KV: What happened was, after I was taken away from literature and put into the history department by my teacher of literature, I was getting increasingly convinced that reading history helped considerably in my ability to appreciate literature better. I am now convinced that without a sense of history, your appreciation of literature is never complete. If you can read literature with a sense of history, that is always superior to your reading literature without the sense of history. When I read, for example, Kalidasa now, [I realize that] the understanding of literature is never complete without an understanding of the historical context in which it was produced. Now, as I was saying, I am now able to appreciate Kalidasa better when I place him against the background of the post-Gupta socio-political order. Now I can make better sense of Raghu’s Digvijaya. Or I can make better sense of the description of Aushadhiprastha in Kumarasambhava when I have read Arthashastra and the idea of the creation of new settlements in the Arthashastra. The Janapadanivesha section of Arthashastra.

But that apart, your specific question about my own reading of the medieval Malayalam literature, that is, Manipravalam, this has been there in my mind for several decades now. Even when I was doing my MA, I was reading these Manipravalam texts but I wasn’t sure because the dominant, received wisdom regarding Manipravalam literature at that time was what Elamkulam had written—that this was the product of a decadent feudal culture dominated by the Namboodiri brahmins, that it represented the product of the season when the Namboodiris went into heat. ‘Polappu kalam’ was the word he used. I wasn’t very sure but I didn’t have the arguments and there is no point in meeting arguments with sentiments. But as I read further, on the one side I was reading European history, for example, the writings of Huizinga—The Waning of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, specifically in the context of Indian history, I was recently reading Shonaleeka Kaul’s Imagining the Urban where, with the help of literature, she was trying to look at the urban processes.

Again, Sankunni Nair’s Chatravum Chamaravum, his understanding of Kalidasa’s poetry against the background of the socio-political realities. When I was combining all these, I was able to see that the Manipravalam literature exudes an urban sensibility rather than feudal agrarian sensibilities, that is, urban trading centre-based sensibility. And when I read the Manipravalam texts once again with this in my mind, naturally it started making sense to me in a big way. On the one side, you have the flowering of West Asian and Chinese trade, particularly in the period after the twelfth century going up to the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries, the number of urban centres that are coming up, the kind of competition among the urban centres. And then when you read the Champus (Champu kavyas), when you read the Sandesakavyas, it is all urban centres and trading centres that you have, that is, the traders that are coming up as the more important nagaraka, the Kamasutra description of the nagaraka, you can see in every little detail in the Manipravalam literature. So, I made bold to say that Elamkulam was wrong there and this is the way in which Manipravalam literature has to be looked at.

MD: You argued that the philosophy of vishishtadvaita, Ramanuja’s Sri Bhashyam, this had a major impact or it influenced several sixteenth-century Kerala poets such as Melpathur (Melpathur Narayanan Bhattathiri) or Ezhuthachan (Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan). But this goes against the received wisdom that these poets were advaitins. So why do you think that they were vishishitadvaitins and not advaitins?

KV: It again starts from my study of the Bhakti movement in South India. I was amused to see the way in which a movement which began as a liberating movement ended up as a very, very intrusive kind of movement in the hands of the acharyas. Ramanuja and the later acharyas of the Sri Vaishanava tradition. Now that is what attracted me towards the making of a study of vishishitadvaita, particularly Ramanuja’s Sri Bhashya (Sri Bhashyam) where there are key elements in the understanding of vishishtadvaita. What is the idea of the absolute represented by Vishnu? The second is the mediation of Sri or Lakshmi. The third one is the role of guru as a mediator between you and this absolute.

When I was reading the medieval Malayalam or Kerala poets like Melpathur or Ezhuthachan, I was struck by the fact that all these three, that is the absolute; yes, but the absolute represented in Vishnu. Then the mediation of Lakshmi. The role of the guru. These three are very, very clearly seen there.

Now if you want me to quote from Ezhuthachan, ‘Onnaya ninneyiha randennu kandalavil’ (When you the One, was presented as Two) everything is Advaita there. ‘Undayorindal batha mindavathalla mama, Pandekanakku varuvan ninkrupa valikal, Undakayengaliha’ (It is hard to describe the sadness I had. Have mercy, make it as it was in the past)—until then it is all fine. You have Advaita there. ‘Narayanaya nama’ (Salutation to Narayana). So, the one that you are finally reaching is Narayana. So here it is qualified monism, it is not absolute monism.

Similarly, in the case of Melpathur, if you look at the very first verse of Narayaneeyam—‘Saandraanandaavabodhaatmakamanupamitam’ (That which is of the nature of intense bliss and supreme consciousness, incomparable) ‘bkaalaadeshaavadhibhyaam nirmuktam’ (free from the limitations of time and space) ‘nityamuktam’ (ever free)—everything is fine but ‘tattaavadbhaati saakshaadgurupavanapure’ (That very reality, then, is right in front of your eyes in the temple of Guruvayur).  It is here that qualified monism comes.

People believe that the name of Ezhuthachan was Ramanujan, Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthanchan. I was telling somebody in a lighter vein that perhaps this was a sobriquet that he got because he was, every now and again, quoting Ramanuja and so he was called Ramanujan.  

MD: You made a very interesting observation about the Upanishads some years ago. Upanishads are generally regarded as systems of knowledge of the brahmins. But you argued that they were, in fact, kshatriya-sponsored systems of knowledge and that it was against the brahmins. It called the supremacy of the brahmins into question. Can you tell us about that?

KV: The first part of it, that is, the Upanishads being taken as a brahmanical system of thinking, as part of the Vedic literature. etc.—this is part of an appropriation of the Upanishads that had taken place particularly in the post-Buddhist period when Mimamsa philosophy developed particularly in the Uttara Mimamsa part of it. There was an attempt to say that the Upanishads, all the post Vedic, later Vedic texts were part of the Vedic corpus. Now the Mimamsa definition of Veda as ‘mantra-brahmana samudaya’, that is the combination of ‘mantra’ and ‘brahmana’, so Veda nama deyam. So Veda means mantra and brahmana. The Samhita and the manuals such as Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishad, etc. This was an attempt at appropriating anything that deviated from the Vedic literature. This is to counter the Buddhist onslaught. But before that, when you look at, for example, Chandogya Upanishad or Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we can see that here was an element of protest. Here was an element of breaking away from the larger Vedic tradition at that time.

In fact, there are very interesting stories which I have quoted in that article, in the Upanishads, the way in which Uddalaka was trying to take lessons and every time there had to be a lesson on brahmin, it was a kshatriya teacher who was doing this. And in one place, I don’t remember the passage, he says that all the while it was the brahmanas teaching the kshatriyas, now the kshatriyas have to teach it because we have the power.

MD: Janaka?

KV: Janaka. So it is also a function of power. That is the way in which I have seen this. Particularly when dissent from the norm is accepted as norm, and this norm becomes a tradition. That was the theme of that paper which I was writing.

MD: The paper, ‘From Dissent to Norm to Tradition’.

KV: I had taken up three instances and one of them was this Upanishadic instance where the Upanishadic knowledge is very clearly a kshatriya-dominated knowledge as opposed to the brahmana kind of knowledge, and that is also a function of the way in which power was articulating itself in the context of the mid-first millennium BC.

MD: Prof. Veluthat, this was a wonderful conversation. Before we wind this up, I have a few one-line questions for you, what they call the rapid-fire questions. You are a historian. Who is your favourite historian?

KV: Do you expect a one-line answer also for these questions? I would say that I have a large number of favourite historians for different reasons. Certain historians I have liked for the analytical rigour they have. Certain other historians I have liked for the methodological apparatus that they use. So, there are certain other historians whom I like for the lucid way of presentation, the eminently readable way in which they write. So, I will not be able to identify a single historian as my favourite historian. And if you push me to a corner—‘No, you must give me one name!’ I will give you one. Kesavan Veluthat!

MD: What would be your favourite kavya?

KV: Here, again, I will more or less give the same answer. I have enjoyed reading many kavyas. For example, some of the khandakavyas in Malayalam—Vallathol’s (Vallathol Narayana Menon) Bandhanasthanaya Anirudhan or Sishyanum Makanum. These were the kavyas on which I was brought up.

Then Kalidasa. And again, if you tell me that I must give a name, I may perhaps point to Raghuvamsa because of the representation of the different rasas, the way in which he deals with it. Although I have enjoyed reading other kavyas also, Meghasandesa is a kavya which is very dear to me. So also Kumarasambhava. But if you tell me in the next birth I will be allowed to read only one kavya, and ask which one that is, I will say Raghuvamsa.

MD: You have worked mostly on the early medieval and medieval periods. Is there a historical figure from this period whom you very deeply admire, whom you deeply revere?

KV: I don’t think so. I don’t have any . . .

MD: No Alexanders or no Napoleons from this period? Or no Shakespeares?

KV: I am not very confident.

MD: What is your take on Asan (Kumaranasan) because you referred to Vallathol?

KV: I was always prejudiced. I must honestly admit to that. After I grew up, when I tried to read Asan, I was able to appreciate much of what he wrote but, in my childhood, I was attracted more towards Ulloor (Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer) and Vallathol, that is because of the background from which I came.

MD: So who among the three is your most favourite?

KV: Vallathol, absolutely.

MD: Why not Ulloor?

KV: I was always unhappy with the very forced and involved way in which Ulloor wrote. I thought it was always very forced, very convoluted kind of writing.

MD: Is there a historical place, a site that you would like to go back to very often, a place which you are never tired of visiting?

KV: I should believe it is Kodungallur where I live now because it has many layers of history. You have the early historical phase of Muziris, you have the phase of the later Chera kingdom, Mahodayapuram. You have the phase of Kodungallur in the Manipravalam period. Then the theatre of Portuguese–Dutch warfare. Then the renaissance in Malayalam literature with the Kodungallur Kovilakam and Venmani Kalari in the nineteenth century. And the socio-political religious movements in the twentieth century. And my own presence there in the twenty-first century.

MD: Is there a book on history that you admire so much that you have felt ‘I should have written this book’?

KV: I wouldn’t say that but I have been always interested. I will put it slightly differently, one of my ambitions is to write a history of India the way in which Hendrik van Loon has written The Story of Mankind. But I don’t think I will be able to do that. That will remain an ambition.

MD: Okay. If at all you are blessed or cursed to be born once again, would you like to be born as a historian?

KV: Yes. This is what I used to say. If god comes and asks me like a waiter, I will say ‘repeat’.

MD: Prof. Veluthat, it was wonderful speaking to you. Thank you very much.

KV: Thank you. I have always enjoyed talking to you.