Situating Childhoods in Kerala's Pasts | Department of History

Situating Childhoods in Kerala's Pasts

Divya Kannan, Assistant Professor, Department of History, gave a lecture on Situating Childhoods in Kerala's Pasts at  National Conference on Contemporary Writings in Histories of Keralam, Department of History, Sree Sanakaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady,  on 11 March 2021. 

Abstract of the lecture
Historical accounts of the nineteenth and twentieth-century Kerala have heavily focussed on social reform, cultural change, and the paradoxes of gender. These contending discourses have assumed the ‘adult’ figure as its central focus, and young people are rendered powerless and reduced as mostly dependent beings by virtue of their age and physical immaturity. However, the ‘child’ figure looms large both in the archival paper trails and the narratives produced as objects of pity, study, and intervention. Yet, the presence and absence of various groups of children embedded in existent hierachies challenge us to rethink the adult-centric nature of reading and writing history itself. Often, norms of childhood and its concomitant material cultures are constructed by what powerful adults feel fit to remember, preserve, and classify. Anxieties and panics abound on how to control and regulate young people’s bodies and movements across geographical and social contexts. Though not creators of archival material per se, delineating the relational dynamics between adults and young people in Kerala’s pasts helps us to uncover a wide array of complex relationships.

Who is the ‘child’ in Kerala, and in what ways is the category of childhood entangled with notions of modernity and progress? I explore these questions by engaging with the idea of ‘multiple childhoods’ and move away from the universalizing, Western view of the ‘innocent, protected, immature child.’ Instead, child-figures in Kerala emerge within specific material, spatial and temporal frames, and shape notions of family, state, educational policy, and labour. Drawing on my engagement with missionary archives in the 19th and 20th centuries, I argue that historical encounters involving various adults and young people are characterized by processes of negotiation, adaptation, and accommodation with the realities of caste-determined colonial childhood statuses. Even as Kerala makes strides in human development levels, it begs the question that was ever present before and now: are all children equal?

Divya Kannan's research interests include histories of empire, childhood, youth, gender, and oral narratives. She graduated from the Centre of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2017 and is currently working on her book project that explores the history of education, childhood, and poverty in 19th and 20th century Kerala. She is also the co-founder of the Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective, bringing together scholars and practitioners in South Asia (