It is no secret that women belonging to marginalized communities and scheduled caste were subjected to heinous discrimination until there was a collective reckoning post-independence.
During the 19th century, women from oppressed caste had to pay 'Mula Karam' or breast tax for covering their breasts and the amount was determined by the size of their breasts.
Mainly the Nadar and Ezhava communities were not allowed to cover their chests in front of the privileged caste men. This is because clothes were regarded as a sign of ‘wealth’ and prosperity. Covering the chest was considered as an ‘immodest’ move by the oppressed caste before the rich and royalty. The members of the oppressed caste were burdened with many forms of taxes during this period. Brahmin and Nair communities thrived at the cost of the marginalized people. As per the records, despite the privilege, even Nair women were expected to be "modest" and not cover their chest in front of the Brahmin men.
This period saw the Channar Mutiny where women started fighting for their dignity.
Nangeli belonged to the Ezhava community, which is categorized under the 'Other Backward Caste'. She lived in Cherthala which was part of the princely state of Travancore in Kerala. She was married to Chirukandan who also belonged to the poorer section of society.
As per the records, the King imposed breast tax on oppressed caste women and it is determined based on their breast size. Nangeli was angered by this information and she was courageous enough to defy it.
The records go back to 1803 where Nangeli started wearing the clothes to cover her breasts much to the horror of her fellow women. They knew that Nangeli will face consequences for not obeying the laws of the land.
The news regarding the act of defiance and rebellion reached the highest authority of the land. Soon, Pravathiyar or village officer came to her doors demanding her to pay the breast tax or to leave her chest naked.
Nangeli refused. Taking his power into place, the village officer and his men subjected Nangeli into harassment and ripped her chest cloth off.
This angered Nangeli and she responded in a way that was not expected. She grabbed a sickle and chopped her breasts off and placed them on a plantain leaf.
"If this is what you want, take it," she said after placing the plantain leaf with her breasts before the officers.
They were shell shocked after seeing Nangeli's response. She succumbed to her injuries right there and then. Nangeli's husband overcome with grief jumped into her funeral pyre and committed suicide. That was also his way of calling out the authorities for the atrocities against his family.
Nangeli's death led to similar movements against the oppressive regime, demanding women's right to a dignified life and liberation, lighting the fire called Channar movement (Maaru Marakkal Samaram, right to cover breasts).
Eventually, the breast tax was annulled in the state of Travancore and the place where she lived came to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman).
Historians have recorded various theories. Kerala as a state was liberal and women's bare naked chest itself was seen as a sign of liberation until the British rule. After the arrival of Victorian standards of morality and dignity, wearing an upper piece of cloth became a struggle for the marginalised community people and a sign of classism.
Historians stated that Nangeli's rebellion was not for the right to cover breasts alone but also against the feudal caste system which imposed taxes that were a burden on women.
Both politics and religion, over the years used women's body, for the authenticity of their functioning, morality, honour and progressiveness that is superficial in nature.
Women are forced to cover, not cover, bind their feet, wear a corset to restrict body movement etc. but all in the name of social status, honour and even beauty. Women's autonomy was and in many ways continue to be judged by the politics and religion she is born in.
Nangeli represents the woman who fought for herself and for her right to have control over her own body and dignity. What's sad is that it took a deed that cost her life.
While Nangeli's story was lost in many history textbooks, her act of defiance and sacrifice was a very important moment in history in the upper caste patriarchal society. In those days, marginalized caste women were double victims - they faced both caste-based oppression and gender-based oppression. Nangeli's is seen as a symbol of women who fought the right to dignity of other women.
The 2019 Tamil hit film 'Aadai', starring Amala Paul showed an animated montage sequence narrating Nangeli's life and the casteist history that saw her sacrifice.
Malayalam director Vinayan announced that he wants to make a film about Nangeli's life. A play on Nangeli's life was presented Dhananjay Laxmanrao Sable.