M.G.S. Narayanan in Conversation with Kesavan Veluthat

M.G.S. Narayanan in Conversation with Kesavan Veluthat

in Interview
Published on: 27 September 2019

Kesavan Veluthat

Kesavan Veluthat is a prominent historian who specialises in early and medieval South India. Veluthat taught History in the University of Delhi for many years, from where he retired in 2016. Currently, he heads the Institute for the Study of the Heritage of Coastal Kerala, Kodungallur.

Eminent historian M.G.S. Narayanan in conversation with Kesavan Veluthat about his career, interests and contributions to historiography and literary criticism.

Professor Muttayil Govindamenon Sankara Narayanan (b. 1932), better known as M.G.S., has been a major cultural presence in Kerala for more than six decades. Educated in the University of Madras from where he earned a master’s degree in History with a first in first, M.G.S. taught in the Zamorin’s Guruvayurappan College, Kozhikode, before moving to the Post-Graduate Department of History of the University of Kerala, located in Kozhikode. This centre was incorporated into the University of Calicut on its inception and M.G.S. became a part of it. As the head of that department for many years, he brought about a major shift in the way history is studied and taught in Kerala.

He was closely associated with the Indian History Congress, which he served in various capacities as Member of the Executive Committee, Joint Secretary, Sectional President and Secretary. He also served the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) with distinction as a Member of its Executive Council, its first Member Secretary and later its Chairman. He was Director-General of the Centre for Heritage Studies, Kochi, for three years. M.G.S.’s work touched many distinct areas of academic interest and furthered the fields of history, epigraphy and cultural studies in Kerala, South India and beyond. But that is only one aspect of this multi-faceted personality. He is known in Kerala as a poet, literary critic, political observer, critic and social activist.

For M.G.S., there are no sacred cows, no sacrosanct assumptions and no unquestionable perspectives in his approach to scholarship. All evidence, all concepts and all theoretical frameworks must be rigorously and repeatedly tested and verified. Only a person of such great humour and generosity could have provoked so many strong reactions, prodded so many recalcitrant intellectual opponents, and promoted so many diverse and controversial arguments—and still maintained the deep respect of colleagues in India and abroad. A spirit of benign irreverence captures the approach that M.G.S. has passed on to this next generation well.

M.G.S. announced his arrival in the cultural field of Kerala more than six decades ago by a few trail-blazing essays in the field of literary criticism, some of them breaking cherished idols of Malayalam literature. Written when he was still in his thirties, his introduction to the collected poems of Eḍaśśēri Govindan Nair, one of the harbingers of the ‘modern’ in Malayalam poetry, is nothing short of a masterpiece. He began a serious career as a researcher in history around the mid-1960s, working on the political and social conditions of what was called the Kulaśekhara Empire. He went beyond the requirements of a routine PhD thesis: he picked up ancient scripts like vattezhuthu and grantha; he learned the classical languages like Tamil and Sanskrit and, more than anything else, he trained himself rigorously in the principles and practices of historical methods. Equipped with this, he travelled the whole of Kerala in what historian A.L. Rowse called an ‘open-air approach to history’, collecting inscriptions, visiting monuments and getting acquainted with the survivals of the past. He also used the estampages of inscriptions kept in the repository of the Chief Epigraphist’s Office in Mysore. The result was that he was able to far surpass, in terms of heuristic strength, his mentor and prominent historian Elamkulam P.N. Kunjan Pillai. He found that many of the details of the existing knowledge were faulty, including the title of his own dissertation. This dissertation was a definitive and exhaustive study of the history of Kerala for three-and-a-quarter centuries beginning with the ninth century of the Common Era. The text, running into more than eight hundred closely typed pages and a companion volume, indexing the Chera inscriptions, was a model for research and reporting. It was hailed by his examiners, including the ‘wonder that was’ A.L. Basham. Empirically rich, analytically rigorous and theoretically refreshing, it has not been improved upon—a huge compliment to him, although it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the historiography of Kerala. In any case, it has influenced a number of scholars who came after him.

Following this landmark study, he turned his attention to the Bhakti Movement in South India, challenging the notion that it was an anti-caste movement. He argued that it was, instead, a reflection and legitimation of the emerging feudal formation in South India. Another major contribution of M.G.S. was in the history of early Tamizhakam. He published many research papers using early Tamil literature, bringing to bear upon their analysis a thorough mastery of the most modern theoretical perspectives on the subject. His analysis of the cattle-raids, peasant settlements, warriors, etc., have the potential of initiating a thorough re-examination of early Tamil history.

M.G.S. has been an effective teacher, guiding students on how to study history and not history itself. Naturally, he was invited to many universities in India and abroad as a visiting professor; many students from different parts of the world sought his affiliation in their studies. He has been a very successful organiser as well. Apart from heading the Department of History in the University of Calicut from its infancy to take it to the level of one of the best in the whole country, he has given direction to the Indian History Congress, Indian Council of Historical Research and the Centre for Heritage Studies.

M.G.S. has been a person of strong convictions and he has carried them with courage. He stood up, for instance, for the NCERT textbooks in the notorious textbook controversy in 1977–8, and his uncompromising position saved the Indian History Congress in the early 1980s when he was its General Secretary. A prolific writer in Malayalam and English, he has several books and articles to his credit. A festschrift brought out in his honour—edited by Kesavan Veluthat and Donald R. Davis, Jr. and titled Irreverent History: Essays for M.G.S. Narayanan—is only a minor testimony to his stature. He lives in Kozhikode with his wife.

Kesavan Veluthat is a prominent historian who specialises in early and medieval South India. Veluthat taught History in the University of Delhi for many years, from where he retired in 2016. Currently, he heads the Institute for the Study of the Heritage of Coastal Kerala, Kodungallur.


Kesavan Veluthat (KV): Thank you very much for allowing your time for Sahapedia, the online encyclopedia of art and culture. You have been a major figure in Indian historiography since the 1970s. You are more than that. Over the past six decades, you have been a cultural presence in Kerala. Your interests and achievements have been varied: poetry, theatre, literary criticism, painting and so on. Can you tell us something about your background­—social and intellectual—which enabled this?

M.G.S. Narayanan (MGS): I come from an obscure village, Parappanangadi, which had no influence of contemporary society. I had to move to Ponnani because there was no high school in Parappanangadi. I had my high school education in A.V. High School [Achutha Varrier High School] in Ponnani, which was one of the very few high schools in the Malabar region during that period. It is from there, life in Ponnani, that I came to know people like Edasseri Govindan Nair, P.C. Kuttikrishnan [called Uroob later], Kadavanad Kuttikrishnan, Akkitham, that group of people who created a kind of a stir in our society. It is their friendship, which gave me ideas of contemporary society and made me a part of it, part of the movement of the so-called renaissance in Kerala.

KV: This association that you have with these figures, Edasseri, V.T. Bhattathiripad, Akkitham and others around that Krishna Panicker Smaraka Vayanashala [Memorial Reading Centre] near Ponnani, yes, I remember that.

MGS: That was on top of a building,

KV: I remember. But your association with these scholars was perhaps the first formative influence upon your intellectual development, particularly in relation to your appreciation of literature, appreciation of contemporary events in politics and society. This leads to another question. Your high school education, particularly in Ponnani, was during the last years of the freedom struggle.

MGS: I passed SSLC (Class 10) in 1947.

KV: In the year of Independence, that is what I remember. You must have been reading newspapers at least, old newspapers, if not the day’s paper, you must have been following the events somewhat closely. The politics of contemporary society, particularly the Congress party, Congress Socialist Party, then the Communist Party which were developing at that time against the background of the Second World War, against the background of the last days of the British Empire in India—to what extent did it influence your life and thinking? A worldview?

MGS: I told you that I had my SSLC in 1947, the year of Independence for India. After that, I moved to Kozhikode for intermediate classes because we didn’t have any outside Kozhikode. Brennan College (Government Brennan College, Thalassery) was there, but Kozhikode was nearer for us. And in Kozhikode, in the then Zamorin’s College, later called Zamorin’s Guruvayoorappan College, we were exposed to all kinds of influences. In fact, I remember one thing. There was a competition with all sorts of things and I cornered a few first prizes for poetry, essay writing, public speaking and all that, poetry especially.

And later on, one Sunday or so, I was sitting in my home when Edasseri Govindan Nair whom I didn’t know then [came]. He had acquired a reputation by that time, his first collection, Alakavali had been published. After the opening of the All India Radio in Kozhikode, these people had been coming to Kozhikode. And one day, I found that Edasseri Govindan Nair came to my house. I was there, seated in the front room. And then he said, he asked me to call my father’s elder sister who was a schoolteacher and head teacher of the girl’s school. So, she came out and then Edasseri told him [her], ‘See, you must be careful, this fellow, he writes poems.’

KV: A dangerous person.

MGS: ‘He writes poems.’ It was then that I realised that Edasseri was the person who had looked into our competition papers and marked me first.

It is after that that I came to know Edasseri Govindan Nair and his friend, P.C. Kuttikrishnan. P.C. Kuttikrishnan, in fact, was distantly related to my father’s family. And then we got into contact with Akkitham, Kadavanad Kuttikrishnan, etc. From Ponnani, it is about six miles or so [or four–five miles or so] to Chamravattom. So, we used to go to Chamravattom. The riverbed was open in those days when there was no flood. From Ponnani we used to walk these four or five miles and then sit on the sandy soil speaking about this and that, all kinds of things. And that is where I came to know the ideas of these people, Edasseri Govindan Nair, P.C. Kuttikrishnan, Kadavanad Kuttikrishnan, Akkitham, etc. It was that that gave me the exposure to contemporary politics and literary trends.

KV: Now coming to history, history was not one of the more attractive subjects for intellectual pursuit in Kerala at that time, in the 1950s, when you chose that. Historical writing and research were marked by extreme backwardness. What attracted you towards this subject, which was such a lacklustre subject at that time?

MGS: It was not history that attracted me. It was science, which frightened me. Because in the lab in high school, we used to see skeletons hanging and they (the students) used to catch hold of frogs, kill them and dissect them, paste them on the walls and all that. This frightened me. I couldn’t see blood or the suffering of people. So, in order to escape that kind of science, I took history. But then having taken history, I had a good experience of having one of the good teachers of history, K.V. Krishna Iyer, who was the author of The Zamorins of Calicut. He wrote that book in 1938. He had a way of teaching which was different and was far ahead of the teaching methods of that period. Say, for example, when he had to teach about mamankam (duodecennial medieval fair held on the banks of River Bharatappuzha), we used to take a bus and go to Thirunavaya, see the temples there and the sandy soil there, and it is from there that he explained things to us, where the nilapatu tara (a raised platform on which the Zamorin of Kozhikode used to stand) was and who all participated. So, we read K.V. Krishna Iyer’s The Zamorins of Calicut where this is described at the site itself. That was a new experience, which attracted me to history.

KV: After your distinguished performance in the Master’s in History from the University of Madras, you settled down as a teacher in one of the colleges in Kozhikode. In fact, in your own alma mater there were no openings for research, no possibilities of research. Kozhikode town at that time never offered a possibility of any research. This was perhaps one of the most productive periods of your literary activities, particularly the literary criticisms that you had written. Some of the trailblazing essays that you published on Vallathol (Vallathol Narayana Menon), on Asan (Kumaranasan), your introduction to Edasseri’s collected poems. This was the product of this period. How do you explain your shifted interest back to historical research from this?

MGS: It was a committee consisting of Akkitham, P.C. Kuttikrishnan, Edasseri and others who asked me to write this introduction for the selected works of Edasseri.

KV: I know! A youngster to be asked to introduce Edasseri! That itself is a great recognition.

MGS: Yes, that was a great recognition and a great challenge for me. I was afraid of the responsibility. Therefore, I made a serious attempt to read all his works, all the contemporary literary critical essays and all that, and made a lot of preparation before I wrote that piece. Because of that, because of the sense of responsibility and fear. I was thorough with that kind of literature.

KV: I understand that. My question is what was responsible for the shift back to historical research? Towards the end of that decade or early in the next decade, you shifted to historical research. Now this shifted interest or shift back in interest in history is there anything which…

MGS: [It was] after my post graduate course in Madras Christian College, during which we had a professor of history, Dr Chandran Devanesan, who had a doctorate at that time and who was highly celebrated as a historian. And I was attached to Heber Hall in Madras Christian College where he was also the warden. And not only he, his wife was a very sociable lady, very glamorous and all that, they used to invite us to their house and we used to spend very interesting hours in conversation with them, discussing this and that, arguing about this and that. It was that which gave me the training and the necessary equipment (KV: To study?) Yes.

KV: Now looking back, after you have established yourself most authoritatively as a historian of the country, how would you say that your literary sensibilities have helped in your historical research and vice-versa—the historical sense that you developed through your researches—how did it help in your literary appreciation?

MGS: Well, I think the difference, the compartmentalisation that you made, is only for the sake of convenience. Actually, there is no difference between history and literature, arts and culture and all that. They are all mental activities, which are related to each other, which help each other also. So, this distinction that we make is for examination purposes, for convenience in teaching, etc. Otherwise, they are all one.

KV: So, will you agree with, for example, writers like Hayden White who believed that history is nothing but literature?

MGS: I don’t fully agree. Earlier history was created or written based on sources and all that, mostly literary resources. What travellers had observed and written, what occasionally some foreigner had written about this country. So, it was not a continuous history. Here and there you had purple patches where certain things were highlighted but there is no continuous history in that. It is only the coming of archaeology, which gave a new life to history. And I came to think that without archaeology, history is nothing. Archaeological sources, sources, which you can see, and touch and feel and criticise and try to recreate or imitate, it is this that makes history different from literature.

KV: Now coming back to your own career, about a decade after your Master’s in Madras, you went back to historical research but when you did that you went to Trivandrum, which was not one of the reputed centres of historical research. Why did you not go to more established universities like Madras, your own alma mater, or Kolkata or Varanasi or Allahabad, which were great centres of historical research at that time?

MGS: They were but that was a thing of the past.

I took more seriously to historical research and then what really helped me was a UGC grant for research. I did not know what research was. There was nobody to guide me. Not many people knew what research meant. So, I had to start from scratch, what research was and how others have been doing and all that. I made Nilakanta Sastri’s Cholas and Pandyan Kingdom my models and on that basis, Cholas and Pandyas and then what remained was Cheras. So, I started working on that. Luckily for me, I started taking an interest in ancient scripts—vattezhuthu, kolezhuthu, etc., and that gave me the privilege to see the original sources and inscriptions.

In fact, my PhD work on the Cheras is based on mostly inscriptions. I came to study some 150 inscriptions—Chera inscriptions and allied inscriptions of other dynasties. That was really a great privilege for me because having mastered the old scripts like vattezhuthu, I could see the original sources and that made my PhD thesis something very different from many others of the same period. It was a blessing for me that A.L. Basham [who wrote] The Wonder That Was India and all that, commented on my work. He said, ‘Oh, here is a work which is equal to ten PhD thesis’.

KV: And as you very rightly said, you went far beyond the routine requirements of a PhD thesis, working on your PhD thesis, picking up ancient scripts, studying archaic languages like old Tamil, Sanskrit, etc., and also doing field-work in very, very inhospitable conditions I should say, going from temple to temple, copying inscriptions in situ, you have done that. Can you share some of your interesting experiences during the process?

MGS: I think much of it started with my inferiority complex because I had no patron. No great model, except Nilakanta Sastri, who was not easily approachable to me. But, apart from that, there was no guide for my PhD work.

KV: By the way, who was your guide?

MGS: Nobody knows. It was one Professor V. Narayana Pillai who was the history professor in Kerala University. So, I had to select a guide. He was the only one that was available. He had no doctorate or anything. When I went to him with whatever work I was doing with the drafts and all that, he said, ‘Don’t come to me with this, I don’t know anything about it. I have never done any research and I cannot guide you properly. If you want to do any good work, there is a professor who is a friend of mine, Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He is a Malayalam professor, you go to him.’ I did not know him but with these words of encouragement, I went and met him.

By the time I had done something—I had questioned some of his work, criticised some of them. He went through [all that]. He said, ‘Narayan, if you think this is the right thing, you go ahead.’ That was something unbelievable. People had told me that his main work was moneylending. And he also asked me, ‘Do you want any help? I can give you money. You don’t have to pay me interest or anything or [produce] any written document.’ And when I said that I had disagreement with some of his work, he said, ‘okay, go ahead, you go ahead with what you think is right.’ Now that was a good beginning for me. And with this UGC grant, I started working.

Then, as far as the old scripts were concerned, when I started studying, N.N. Kakkad was there. He was my classmate, a poet, and a good friend. So, he came with the idea that he also wanted to study old scripts and all that, and we started working together. Gradually, I collected about 150 inscriptions of the Chera period, some of them are published, some of them are unpublished. So, I collected them. I never published them in one volume or anything but all of them, all the copies, all the texts were available to me. So, I thought that that could be made the basis of a PhD thesis. And when it was done, I got the recommendation and appreciation of people like A.L. Basham.

KV: Now we all know that your dissertation on the Perumals is a landmark. It is a landmark not only for the history of Kerala, perhaps in the historiography of the whole country, for the uncompromising fidelity to sources, the rigour and discipline. The historical materialism is the foundation of your work on the Perumals, particularly the influence of historians like D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma in the context of India. This is very clear. In spite of this, you fight shy of using the kind of terminology that these historians have used. For instance, the model of Indian feudalism, which could have very, very successfully explained the picture that you were drawing. Why did you fight shy of that?

MGS: I accepted historical materialism, the so-called Marxist historiography but, even then, feudalism was a bone that could not be swallowed by me. So, feudalism was something, which I played with, but I didn’t fully absorb whether there was an Indian feudalism as R.S. Sharma has described. However, Sharmaji was very kind to me in our personal dealings. He was in Delhi and I used to go there occasionally, and, whenever we met, he thought that I was his South Indian disciple. Feudalism (monograph-Indian Feudalism)—he had that book and he thought I was extending feudalism theory to South Indian history. And that created a particular bond between us.

KV: In fact, in one of your landmark papers on the Bhakti movement in which you were graceful enough to include your research assistant as a co-author, there you very articulately say that Bhakti was an ideology of the emerging feudal formation. By the time you published this Bhakti paper, you had given up this shyness of using the word—feudalism. What prompted you to think differently from the received wisdom, which perceived Bhakti as a religious-philosophical phenomenon with some content of protest against caste, etc.?

MGS: That was because by that time I had accepted the Marxist theory of historical explanation. Therefore, anything like Bhakti, it must have a foundation in social contradictions, class antagonism, class relations and all that. That is what made me take that route.

KV: That was also the time, I am talking again about the late ’70s and the early ’80s. That was also the time when you were very active in the Indian History Congress where some of your more important papers such as the one on Hundred Organisations or Kandalur Salai or cattle raids, peasant settlements, warrior groups, etc. were published. Looking back, how do you rate this most productive period of your research?

MGS: I don’t know. It is difficult to explain what made me do so, what sustained me and all that.

KV: You were doing it as if with a vengeance.

MGS: That is true because I used to attend the History Congress every year but I made it a rule that I would not attend a Congress without a paper. So, every year, I produced at least one or two papers. For that, I had to do a lot of work and it is only when a paper was ready that I was ready to go to the History Congress. This kind of a religious vow made me produce all those papers at that time.

KV: About a few papers I mentioned, of these, perhaps the one on cattle raids that you wrote, that had immense potential, particularly on the way in which booty was captured, how it was unequally distributed, etc. It had immense potential of bringing about a kind of an anthropological turn in historiography. Unfortunately, it did not bring it about in South Indian historiography. Any hunch about the reason for its failure to provoke?

MGS: I can’t explain this.

KV: I should believe it to be one of the best papers you have written.

MGS: Well, it was a good paper, I liked it. But I did not do any further work on that.

KV: You did not do it. Unfortunately, others did not pursue it also.

MGS: Others also didn’t.

KV: Now you are responsible in a big way, again I am talking about early South Indian history, in initiating a re-reading of what is called Sangam literature on South Indian history. For instance, a scholar like Kailasapathy, although he was in the public domain for nearly two decades, he was practically a stranger in South Indian academia. It was you who introduced his work, I do not know if you personally knew him. It was you who introduced his work to South India. It was you who introduced Sivathamby’s work to South India. How do you explain South India’s refusal to accept scholars like Kailasapathy and Sivathamby, Sri Lankan scholars like Kailasapathy and Sivathamby?

MGS: They were not known or accepted in South India among historians.

KV: Can I use a harsher word? They were blacked out in South India.

MGS: I don’t think that was the case. People did not recognise their significance, that is all. But somehow or the other, a copy of Kailasapathy’s work came into my hands when I was in London.

KV: You worked in London, I remember.

MGS: One copy. And that was an eye-opener to me. So, from Kailasapathy, I went to Thamby and others, the whole group of historians.

KV: I remember the first sentence in Kailasapathy, ‘the word Sangam literature is a misnomer.’ How can you possibly imagine a Tamil accepting this? So that is why I asked you, is it a blacking out?

MGS: Tamils were not ready to accept anything except the adjective ‘classical’, for Sangam literature. Whereas, I and others also later on, I think, started thinking about it as primitive oral history.

KV: Now can I ask a question about you as a teacher of history. I have always felt that you taught history differently, differently from other teachers that I was familiar with. You would go to the sources and discuss them, encourage your students to read the sources rather than repeat what historians have written on the basis of these sources. This even where what you were teaching was outside your own area of primary research. Even when, for example, when you taught us Mauryan history, you would take out a copy of Arthashastra, then inscriptions of Ashoka. This was the way in which, somewhat lawlessly, this was what you were doing. Who was your model in this kind of a teaching?

MGS: There was no model for me at that time.

KV: If you did not have a model, what was the inspiration behind this?

MGS: I did not know how to lecture. What to do? Going to the class, you know, one has to teach the subject. I studied the subject [but] how to explain it to the students was not known to me. But one thing, I had the example of K.V. Krishna Iyer, who was my first teacher when I came to the college. He used to take us to Thirunavaya to tell us about mamankam. He used to take us to temples, palaces, etc., make us see the sites of history. In those days, seminars, symposia and such dialogues were not very common. They had not entered the field of teaching history but that example, that inspired me.

KV: In the syllabi that you introduced in Calicut [University], which you went on sharpening every now and again, there were many innovative elements, unheard of in other universities in India at that time. For instance, there was the source-based study, Kerala history from sources. Now that is the course that I had done with you. Similarly, there was an optional dissertation, which you introduced at the M.A. level. There were a larger number of papers, problems in Indian history, this problem-oriented study of history rather than survey courses. In these innovative techniques again, what could have been the inspiration that you had?

MGS: It is not inspiration as such. But you remember, I had a colleague, Sreekumaran Nair. He had some kind of a fellowship. Fulbright. He went to the States and came back. There he had studied historical theory and historiography. These two subjects were unknown to Indian historians at that time. And from Sreekumaran Nair I mastered it, from his example and his help and guidance. We were good friends, so it is from him that I copied it.

KV: Now, as one who has trained several generations of historians in South India or students of history in South India, are you happy with the state of historical writing in Kerala, in South India at large or in the whole of the country? Are you happy with the state of the discipline in the country?

MGS: No, no.

KV: You are not.

MGS: Because people still adhere to certain petty ideas and theories and quarrel with each other. Without a broad approach to history, the common laws, general laws about history, causation and all that, those things are not there; mostly people follow parties and try to please them. This is a very humiliating experience for me.

KV: So, if I say that you are somewhat disappointed with the state of affairs, will you agree with me?

MGS: Yes.

KV: Now that leads me to very, very hypothetical kind of question. If you were to have another birth and if you were given the choice, would you choose to be a historian?

MGS: I can’t say that. But one thing, I fell into history in a way—because I hated the other subjects. And then, of course, the way in which teachers like Krishna Iyer taught us.

KV: Krishna Iyer, Devanesan and others.

KV: So, thank you very much. It was enjoyable. Educative as always.