Book Review | Sahodaran Ayappan: Towards A Democratic Future | Chandramohan Sathyanathan


THE RADICAL SPEAKS: Documenting Sahodaran Ayyappan

This intellectual biography of Sahodaran Ayyappan by Dr. Ajay S. Sekhar* is a much needed attempt at documenting the most radical strand of social renaissance the state of Kerala had witnessed in the late 19th century and the first half of 20th century. This is even more pronounced at this point in time when we are at the crossroads of history; with the saffron fascists and other regressive forces on a mission to reset the rights won by the subaltern sections of the society after centuries of struggle.  A major distinction between renaissance movements in Kerala and other parts of India is that the most pronounced voices of radical social reform have come from within the Dalit-Bahujan communities in the southern state. Thus a process to restructure the society based on notions of egalitarianism and democracy was initiated by a bunch of visionaries – Ayyappan being the tallest in terms of his philosophical foresight.
I believe that just like the militant strand of social renaissance that Ayyappan epitomizes, this book hasn’t received the due attention  of Dalit-Bahujan thinkers.
Before studying history, one should  study the historian. If we were to briefly survey Dr. Ajay S. Sekhar ‘s writings, we will find that they have pioneered the revival of cultural Buddhism through cultural excavations of various customs of erstwhile Buddhism. His work has provided new insights into various specificities of Buddhist culture before the advent of Brahminism in 8th or 9th century AD.

Sanskritization of Ezhavas
The community that Ayyapan hailed from is now being rapidly Brahminised. Ezhavas,  a former untouchable caste who are today politically and economically powerful but continue to be socially backward were the torch bearers of social renaissance in Kerala. They also happened to be the  most loyal followers of the left forces. Relative accumulation of economic resources over a period of time has resulted in their being Sanskritized. This regressive step has reinforced social hierarchy based on graded inequality and blunts the resistance now being spearheaded by Ambedkarite Dalits. A closer scrutiny of Ayyappan could result in the revival of a glorious tradition of resistance against this ubiquitously permeating Brahmanism within a community that can also boast of other radicals like Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker.
The author steers clear of deification at every step of his impeccable research into a personality like Ayyappan who was a visionary decades ahead of his time.  The biographer unravels how Ayyappan had preceded the Marxist thinker Gramsci in many aspects of cultural criticism.  The observations made by the author can help students of cultural criticism develop newer insights concerning issues that were tackled by both Ayyappan and other 20th century critics (like Gramsci).

A New Manifesto for Ambedkarites
Another exemplary feature of this book is that it can help contemporary Ambedkarite activists draft a manifesto for the process of building an Ambedkarite public. Many of Ayyappan’s actions and writings like calling for widespread propagation of Buddhism, eulogizing non- Brahminical aesthetics and mythical characters, his critique of Gandhi - and some of his verses with profound political insights  - are invigorating for activists immersed in a quest for social justice.

The later part of this book contains translations of Mr. Ayyappan’s poems which are very much suited to his radical reformist mission. His poetics is one consisting of a charged political idiom, and a complete disregard to the conventional aesthetics of poetry where content and slogans reign supreme (superior even to the form.) In my opinion, this book should be on the library shelves of cultural theorists/critics along with intellectual biographies of Ambedkar(Christopher Jeffrelot, Elinor Zealot), a biography of Kanshi Ram (by Badri Narayan) and various texts by Ambedkar and others.

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