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K V Krishna Ayyar – The doyen of Malabar history

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

I will always remember this historian with a bit of fondness, for not only did he kindle my interest in history, but also had a hand in some of our family affairs at Palghat. He was a friend of my great grandfather, who together with JA Thorne got Ayyer started on the history path, Ayyar was a friend of my uncle and my brother talks about his later days in Kudallur and Pallavur, often. I never met him formally, unfortunately, but am now compiling this short article about him after reading all his books and some of his very interesting contributions to other collections. Ayyer later did yeoman service as a lecturer and was later professor of history at the Zamorin’s college (Guruvayurappan College) Calicut. But let us get to the details of his life and works.

We get a good idea of his life from the study of early Indian history writers by Subodh Kumar Mukopadhaya who introduces him as a person specializing in micro history and places him in the company of so called regional historians. That itself is a contradiction, for Ayyer’s early studies were on Greeks and the British. As the late Zamorin Puthiya Kovilaguth Manavedan Kunjaniyan Raja explained to me, the change occurred when he met Vidwan Ettan Thampuran who had by then compiled the Agnivamsha Rajakatha and provided the required inputs for Iyers work on the Zamorins in English, supported presumably by collector JA Thorne. The result of course was the much referred, easy reading account of the ‘Zamorins of Calicut’.

KVK’s ancestors moved to Pallavur (where my maternal side of the family is located) and he hailed from the Vekkamadom in Palghat (Perhaps at Kudallur). It is not clear where Ayyar born in 1894, schooled, it must have been at Alathur in those days and later he must have done his pre degree at Victoria College, before moving to MCC Madras to complete his BA Honors in History and Economics from the University of Madras. He came to Calicut in 1917 or a little earlier and must have been referred to the patron of Zamorin’s Guruvayoorappan college, the reigning patron Vidwan Ettan Thampuran with whose family he developed a good friendship. His next appointment was as a lecturer in history at the Zamorin’s college. Interestingly while he was teaching, he also completed his MA in English language and literature from the Madras University, by 1935. It is said that as an avid history enthusiast, he contributed over a hundred articles in English and Malayalam on subjects relating to Kerala. He also held various positions in academic bodies during his time and was considered an authority in the field. After joining the Zamorin’s College as a lecturer in 1919, he continued there till he retired in 1952 as the Vice Principal. At some later date he had a house in Malavya Street, Coimbatore as well, though my brother mentions seeing him often at Pallavur, riding his cycle, while being based at Kudallur.

However, it was not Malabar which figured in his early studies, but Britain and Greece. The first contributions were actually ‘An outline history of Greece’ and ‘The crossing of the swords and the bid for the empire’, both beginners text books and are works which I have not been able to unearth as yet. He later zoomed in on the history of Malabar by penning the famous ‘Zamorins of Calicut’ in 1938 and later the limited circulation work ‘A history of Kerala’ 1965 (An abridged version called A short history of Kerala is also available and this was a college text book published in 1966).  He did a couple of other books too, a history of Guruvayoor in 1986 and a very short book with Mary Samuel David titled ‘Making of History’.

Krishna Iyer is always modest when he uses words and in a later version of the history of Kerala book, mentions – I have no theory to prove nor a model to sustain. He wrote history on the go, as he collected information and always asked to hear fresh ideas and information of discoveries, ever ready to revise his opinions and states that history is to be used only on verifiable evidence (Hecataeus 550BC). This is the basis he used in all his work and that perhaps explains the anomaly I noted in the earlier paragraph.

It is interesting to note that KVK calls history his life time hobby. In one of his books, he pays homage to his professors KB Sundaresan of Victoria College and Rev E Montieth Macphail as well as Fernand E Corley of MCC Madras.

Subodh Kumar Mukopadhayaya his critic finds that he had an easy command of the English language, using words effectively and upto the mark when it comes to narration. He does feel that the book on the Zamorins was written with a definite attempt to put his patrons in a favorable light and because he received help and support in compiling it. But he agrees that all those books and the sources which we have access to today, were as not available to KVK in those days. Other than that, he considers KVK as an Indian pioneer in the art of unearthing micro history or regional studies as compared to national history.

KVK explained his opinion of ‘history’ as follows in a personal letter to Subodh Kumar. Just reading it and absorbing the content makes me wish that I had him as a teacher. How I would have loved to discuss all those notions running through my mind, theories, hypotheses, silly tangential thoughts, bouncing them on the formidable wall he would have formed with his treasure house of knowledge. And I feel so silly when I think that he was living just a few yards away from me, for so many years.

Quoting Subodh and KVK - For Krishna Iyer, as for many of his professional colleagues, history is the continuous story based on evidence, of man living in groups through the ages, from the primitive food gathering stage to the conquest of planets. It is not a mere story, it is also a science. Its phenomena are logically connected with one another as those of other sciences. It has its own laws formulated on the same logical principles and in the same manner as other sciences. The only difference between history and other sciences is that we cannot test historical laws by contrived experiments. History is philosophy teaching by examples, the examples being themselves the premises on which laws and their tests are based.

KVK did not recognize any providential or divine intervention in history (I am not too sure about this conclusion by Subodh, after reading the latter work History of Guruvayoor written in his twilight years in 1984). To prove his point, he gives two examples from the Bible. The crossing of the strait by Moses and the conception of Jesus by Mary are in his (KVK’s) eyes nothing more than natural phenomena. He (KVK) believed that God had nothing to do with them. Interestingly Tagore himself stated the same in 1923 to Subodh – that ‘The purpose of history is not to preach the glory of a country, it is to reveal the truth’!

And he said – History cannot be compared to a court of Law and the historian to a Judge. Their qualifications are the same, both in knowledge and mental equipment. Both have to collect, interpret and sift their evidence and form their opinion strictly according to the laws of logic. The only difference is that in law the number of appeals is limited and suo motu (A suo moto – Latin ‘on its own motion’ situation is one in which a judge acts without being requested to do so by either party in a case) appeals are rare. In history, on the discovery of every new evidence, the historian must suo moto reconsider his judgements and affirm, amend or totally reject them.

This is amply proven by KVK in his treatment of the Cheraman perumal legend. I have perused many of KVK’s books, but had always been confused by his treatment of the legend of Cheraman Perumal, till I read the firm basis he used in his studies. In fact his first attempt at deciphering the story was in 1945, and he wrote an exemplary article on the subject. But when he later worked on the history of Kerala, he changed tacks and stuck to oft mentioned themes. I had covered this subject in more detail earlier, see thelinked article if interested. 

On a personal note, we see that KVK and his wife Chelliamma had 8 children, of whom two died at childbirth. A grandson Narayana is married to popular dancer Vijayalaksmi, daughter of Mohiniyattam exponent and danseuse Padmashri Bharati Shivaji who by the way is a cultural ambassador of Kerala though a Tamilian from Tanjavur! At pallavur, he was mentioned by some as the ghost of Kudallur, riding a bicycle at night in whites, with a flowing white beard and known to be practicing hatha-yoga at 3AM every morning. He was in later years considered an eccentric to boot, especially after his son’s death. He was also the person who instigated my uncle in becoming the local Panchayat president.

His titular work is the Zamorin of Calicut and introducing it, JA Thorne or JAT states – It is many years now since my close connection (readers may note that when the Zamorins estates started generating huge losses, the decision was finally to handover those to the care of British wards in the 1916 time frame and the person who was the British collector of those estates, working closely with the Zamorin, was JAT. He spent a decade or so in Calicut before moving on to Madurai, Andhra and finally Delhi). With the affairs of the Zamorin ended. During, and for some time after, the interesting years of that connection, I dallied with the hope of (readers may also recollect that JAT had provided very interesting and original footnotes and insights about Malabar in the Mansell Longworth Dames version of Durate Barbosa’s accounts)someday sitting down to the task which Mr Krishna Ayyar has now completed. But more leisure was needed than I could find: the mass of literature to be studied and used was formidable and some of it was inaccessible to the student in India. Mr Ayyar would be the first to admit the gaps in his list of authorities. But it would be ungracious, and ungrateful, to swell on defects inseparable from work done at a distance from the great libraries. To compensate for them the reader will here find collected much of value from indigenous sources. If I may say so, Mr Ayyar has used this material (often difficult and intractable) with nice discrimination.

For me personally, The Zamorins of Calicut was the book that kindled my personal interest in history and provided me the necessary impetus to search deeper and deeper, while at the same time presenting what little I learnt, to interested readers. But the book that gave me more satisfaction was the History of Kerala, a personal gift from him to my uncle (Interestingly he changed my uncle’s name U Vijayan to match the Iyer fashion – making it PU Vijayan or Pallavur Ullattil Vijayan in his autograph!!) and which I possess now with great pride. Sadly my uncle did not see the resurgence of a history interest in me for he had passed on by then, or he would have been the first person to provide valuable insights and contributions as he himself was a master on the topic.

The other work namely History of Guruvayoor – I am not too sure if much has changed between the original version and the one published by the dewaswam, provides a collection of legends and we can surmise that it was made to order in 1984 in terms of interpretation and meant to be a handbook for pilgrims, not the history student.

The book ‘Making of history’ coauthored with Mary Samuel David in 1979 is somewhat of a letdown in terms of volume and content, for it features just three of his articles and five of Mary’s. Most interesting is the article – ‘Some parallelisms in the thoughts and events of the East and the West’ which should be republished in a newspaper if possible, for reading it tells you how differences can still bring about unity! You can see that he did extensive studies on the Bible before writing it. The next two are equally interesting, tracing history from words and finally a summary of cultural development in Kerala through the ages.

I understand that he did a number of radio talks on the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, Arabs on the Malabar Coast and their interaction with the locals but I have heard none and I am sure AIR might have copies in their archives; His newspaper articles on Kerala land tenure have not been collected and compiled, but I understand some efforts are on. Wikipedia states that two of his students, P. P. Ummer Koya and C. H. Mohammed Koya, who became ministers in the Kerala cabinet later compelled him to assume membership and adorn chairmanship of many committees on History, Archeology and Anthropology of Kerala. With all this, one can see what an enormous impact this doyen had on the history scene in Kerala.

I still recall, all but ten years back, when I myself stepped into the history world, I could walk into the bookshops and pick up book copies, yellowed with age. I still recall my visit some years ago to a well-known publisher in Calicut who bluntly told me that such books do not sell. Today history books are snapped up in months and so many are published with increasing regularity. Without doubt we must commend the efforts of pioneers like KVK for making history simple to read, understand and enjoy and not a topic to be feared or shrugged off or used as a sleep inducer for one suffering from mild insomnia.

Most readers would not have had the good fortune to read some of his fine articles which have been published in ancient historical journals, some of them cover subjects like the Tirunavaya mamankham, Cheraman Perumal, Kerala’s relations with the outside world, New light on old problems. An interesting anthropological article of his covers the Chatan – a devil or disease.

I understand that his other hobbies included astrology, black magic and homeopathy. He was a Freemason and was associated with the RSS. Prof.Ayyar passed away on 4th March 1982 at Coimbatore.

That my friends is a bit about Prof Ayyar, a pioneer of sorts when it comes to Malabar history as told by a native. I hope you will all read his writings some day and learn some lessons of those times and people, of the special culture that we all share….


Historiography in Modern India - Subodh Kumar Mukopadhayaya

Pic from Zamorins of Calicut rear cover, courtesy Calicut University Publications