Neelambikai Ammaiyar and Her Works:
This is the third part giving a brief introduction to the role of women during the colonial times, specifically the early 1900s in the Tamil society. This part specifically deals with the works of Neelambikai Ammaiyar whose works survived the various direct and indirect attempts to suppress the works of women folk which were blatant acts of opposing the entrenched social structure.
Neelambikai Ammaiyar’s writings survived the overt and covert social cleansing. Sarada Nambiarooran, grand niece of Neelambikai chronicled Neelambikai’s writings as “Neelambikai Ammaiyarin Padaipugalil Samuga Chintanaikal”. Her works involved the translation and incorporation of literary works of Thiruvaasagam, Thevaram, writings of Ramalinga Adigal and also Periyar and thus was an amalgam of freedom movement, Tani Thamizh Iyakkam, Religious and Atheist work, a wide spectrum indeed. Her work also extended to English, she compiled a book ‘Six hundred parallel proverbs” in Tamil-English in 1931. Neelambikai’s works were influenced by Subbulaksmi and Panditai Krishnaveni who guided her through her home-schooling years. She was the daughter of Vedachalam Pillai who later changed his name to Maraimalai Adigal. She also contributed to the Tani Thamizh Iyakkam with many of her works like the Tamil/Sanskrit dictionary (Vadatchol-Tamil Agara Varisai) which was an effort to provide Tamil equivalent terms of Sanskrit words. “Thamizhil Vadamizhi Kalakkal Aagadu” was one of her seminal essays.
Neelambikai Ammaiyar’s works were also influenced by Elizabeth Browning and Stowe, specifically by Stowe’s work that was a factual report of the escape of a slave, Dred Scott. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also subjected to a sympathetic handling in her biography. “Navalanteevin Pazhaiya Kudigal” (The ancient inhabitants of navalan island) is a work questioning the definition of cultural superiority as defined by the attitude to classify the “dasyus” and “meat-eating tribes’ as barbarians in Sanskrit scriptures. “Thamizh Nadum, Thamizhum Munneruvadu Eppadi” (How Tamil Nadu and Tamil can develop) is a book with her ideas for the improvement of the Tamil society in general.
While some of her works appreciated the women who stepped away from the traditional role of women in a patriarchal society and took up challenging roles, she also mothered thirteen children in fifteen years of married life. This personal ambiguity also shows up in her works. Apart from works that promoted and praised women who stepped over the traditional feminine social boundaries, she wrote “Muppennmanigal Varalaru” (Three-women’s history). This work talks about hagiographies of three women, two of whom belong to the Savaite Nayanar Pantheon. Karaikal Ammaiyar and Mangayarkarasiyar were chaste wives who possessed enormous spiritual powers. The third woman was Tilakavatiyar who undertook voluntary widowhood when her betrothed passed away. In the introduction to this book, Neelambikai Ammaiyar emphasizes that women should be given a spiritual outlook in life.
“Penmakkalin Arivum Aanmayum” (Women’s Intellect and Masculinity/Courage”) was one of her important works that questioned the established standards in the society of those days. In her work the word “Aanmai” denoting masculinity (aan is Tamil for Man) was used to represent “courage” common to man and woman instead of just a “manly character”. She used the old Tamil literary work “Tolkappiyam” in which “Aanmai” was used as a common term for courage commonly used for both the sexes as an example to promote “aanmai” among women.
Ironically she believed that widows over the age of twenty should not marry again while promoting re-marriage in the case of child widows. She gave birth to thirteen kids, eleven of whom survived during fifteen years of married life. Neelambikai Ammaiyar died in 1945 at the age of 42 during childbirth.
Neelambikai Ammaiyar’s life can be considered to be a pretty good example of the various women who challenged the patriarchal society during the freedom struggle, Tani Thamizh Iyakkam and other Dravidian Movements. A complex amalgam of interests and culture influenced and directed their ideas. Nevertheless, their contribution was important in mobilizing the women and uprooting entrenched ideas of female subjugation.