Public grounds and other public spaces that play a major social role in Kerala’s socio-political landscape have seen a decline in recent decades.

Children playing at the Santa Cruz ground in Fort Kochi as a man on a parked two-wheeler watches in the foregroundSanta Cruz ground, Fort Kochi | Pic by S Harikrishnan
news 2021 Kerala Assembly Election Monday, March 29, 2021 - 12:04

In early 2018, tensions built up at the site of an ongoing struggle in Vadayampadi near Kochi. The space in question is a public ground adjacent to the Bhajanamadam Bhagavathy temple. Already for a year, Dalit families in the area had been protesting a ‘caste wall’ that was built by the temple authorities around the temple, cutting off access to 95 cents of land that was shared by people in the locality, including those protesting who have inhabited the area since the late 1960s. In April 2017, demonstrators led by the Dalit Bhoo Avakasha Samara Munnani had demolished the wall and continued with protests in the area. Although disputes were settled with the intervention of authorities and the wall was eventually torn down, the lines have been deeply drawn between the different communities in the area.

The incident in Vadayampadi is not an exception in Kerala, where public grounds have seen a decline in recent decades, thanks to skyrocketing real estate prices and rapid urbanisation. But the incident does shine light on the social role that public grounds — and other public spaces that have seen a decline in recent decades — play in Kerala’s socio-political landscape.

Breaking ground

The history of Kerala’s political struggles is also one of democratising its public places. For centuries, ‘public spaces’ had, in effect, meant lands owned by local temples and administered by the caste-Hindu nobility that maintained them. Once this traditional order collapsed in the 19th century, reform movements included struggles from the oppressed caste communities for access not merely to public institutions for jobs and education, but, more importantly, to spaces like public roads, beaches, markets and grounds.

From Ayyankali’s villuvandi samaram (bullock-cart protest) in 1893 to the Kayal Sammelanam of 1913, oppressed caste communities rebelled against the traditional order in Kerala and for their equal right to public spaces. The 1913 sammelanam saw members of the Pulaya community, who were denied access to grounds or public spaces for meetings, row their small boats to the expanse of the backwaters near Cochin and tie them together to create a venue. Here, from a wooden-planked platform, leaders like Pandit Karuppan and Krishnadi Asan addressed the large crowds gathered in their little boats. The place was also chosen strategically because the king was attending a function at the nearby ground, to which the Pulaya community did not have access.

When the nationalist movement gained pace in the 1920s, large rallies and meetings were held by leaders along the banks of the backwater beaches, on paddy fields and public grounds, where people across religions and castes congregated to listen to reformists. When the Savarna Jatha — a march by caste-Hindus in support of allowing oppressed castes access to public roads in Vaikom — concluded at Puthenkacheri Maidan (present day Central Grounds) in 1924, Mannathu Padmanabhan writes: “Thiruvananthapuram would not have seen a bigger crowd than this earlier or later (sic). On that day Thiruvananthapuram transformed itself into a festival city.” After the 1930s, the various grounds across the state would also become the venue for political education and fiery election speeches alongside cultural and religious events.

SM Street area outside Mananchira Square, now a cultural corridor in Kozhikode city. Photo: S Harikrishnan

Public grounds as a social space

In other words, public grounds were central to challenging the archaic social structures, and forging new alliances, solidarities and shared futures that shaped modern Kerala in the last century. A large number of public grounds in Kerala are attached to — or are in the vicinity of — religious spaces like local temples or churches. Even as the entry inside temples continued to be restricted to non-Hindus, the grounds emerged as (gendered) spaces for mostly boys and men in the village to play games, socialise and while away time.

Malayalam poet Kureepuzha Sreekumar recollects the ground near his home: “…there was a ground in Vallikkeezhu... next to Kureepuzha and near Ashtamudi lake. We grew up playing there since our childhood. There is a temple in the centre. There’s a badminton court next to it, in the same compound. An important player there was Giyazuddin. So it was a space where Giyazuddin, Clement and Gopi could all practise sports and activities together.”

He recollects attending political speeches on the grounds and listening to recitals by renowned poets like Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Madhusoodanan Nair and others.

For a whole generation that grew up in post-reforms Kerala, the public ground is where friendships were formed, opinions shaped and politics evolved. Hema was born to Christian parents in a Hindu majority area near Thrissur. As a child, she recalls playing in the grounds during the temple festival: “On 23rd, 24th or 25th December was when the temple festival happened. So this was also when Christians celebrated Christmas. As children, we would all be in the temple during these days, in the purapparambu…”, she says, adding that she, like everyone else in the village, saw the temple as belonging to the “community”.

Thekkinkaadu Maidanam. Photo: S Harikrishnan

Over the century, grounds such as Thekkinkadu Maidanam in Thrissur, Mananchira Maidanam (now Mananchira Square) in Kozhikode, Kota Maidanam (Palakkad), Durbar Hall Grounds (Ernakulam), and others became etched in Kerala’s political and cultural history, as much as they did in the everyday lives of people who inhabited them. By the 1980s, social, political and economic factors had started to influence all aspects of life in Kerala, including public spaces.

Changing times, changing spaces

Hema remembers coming back to her village during her college days to see a board banning non-Hindus outside the temple: “Honestly, it was something that troubled me... it was the alienation of a space that we had for so long assumed to be ours, and we were being kept outside.” She recollects this was around the time RSS activities picked up pace in their neighbourhood in the 1980s. The ground near K Sreekumar’s home where Giyazuddin, Clement and Gopi would play together has also been lost, after the temple decided to build a wall some years ago.

Ajith, a native of Thiruvananthapuram, says the grounds around the temple in his native village was also walled a decade or so ago. He asserts that while religious institutions have been responsible for some of these changes, the state and capital share equal blame. When the local school ground was walled some eight years ago, he says “antisocial activities” were blamed. “There should be another way to find a solution to that problem. Managements and government officials get together to run public spaces like they run their homes; building walls like they would build around their private homes for safety,” he adds.

K Ramachandran, an environmental activist based in Payyannur in the north of Kerala, suggests that this has been a worrying phenomenon across the state. Recalling how finding a public space for meetings was never a problem back in the day, he says, “Public places are being privatised with a vengeance. Literally. This is the tendency. It can be anyone... real estate mafias, their owners, anyone. Many plots owned by individuals used to exist [in Payyannur]. We could go have meetings there. But once you build a compound wall and put a gate there, then your entry is prevented. Take any town. Places where meetings and conferences were held is all gone. They’ve all been walled.”

A need to reimagine

There is now an awareness that public spaces have been on a decline in Kerala and that there is a need to preserve them. A visible indication is that it has found space within the cultural productions and political language in recent years. Apart from the 2017 Malayalam movie Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu, which revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to save the village playground, the more recent web series Scoot tells the story of three friends who wish to purchase property in Kochi.

One of the ads by the incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan government in the run-up to the upcoming Assembly elections also emphasises its efforts in promoting sports and playgrounds. The ad shows a group of men sitting as they watch a younger generation play on a public ground revived with the efforts of the government. Interestingly, the three friends and all the children seen playing in the background are all male.

Screenshot from LDF’s campaign ad highlighting the government’s initiatives to revive playgrounds

The recently released manifestos of both the main political fronts in Kerala — the UDF and the LDF — include promises to create and maintain public grounds and spaces for people of all ages for recreation and exercise. The LDF manifesto promises the creation of a “sporting culture”, and also measures for geriatric welfare, including setting up of recreation clubs for the elderly population in every ward, maintained by Kudumbashree.

While these measures look reassuring, the government must also take steps towards making public spaces in Kerala more gender inclusive. New spaces like Manaveeyam Veedhi, Compassionate Kozhikode, and specific initiatives like Pothu idam entethum, and “freedom night rides” aimed at making spaces more accessible and safe for women are far from sufficient. A systematic effort from the incoming government with the support of local bodies and civil society is necessary to ensure that constant political, economic and religious pressures that suffocate public grounds are resisted, and a more inclusive spatiality is shaped. Anything less would be a step backwards and, as we saw in Vadayampadi, a literal and metaphorical wall between communities.

S Harikrishnan is a post-doctoral researcher at Dublin City University, and founding editor of Ala.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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