In the 1950s, every Communist Party pamphlet in Kerala used to have an essential line: “The meeting will have a mike and comrade Medini’s revolutionary songs.” P.K. Medini was a singer even before loudspeakers became a staple at the public meetings. From the time she was a teenager, she had a voice that was captivating and loud enough to soar above the crowds assembled, as she sang poems tuned to popular songs about a world where men were free from their chains and humanity prevails. Her songs sold the dream of an equal and just society and in many ways a dream of a unified Kerala that came about in November 1956, unifying the three major regions – the princely states of Travancore and Kochi, and the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency.
Medini is 88 today. But the fire in her heart and voice still burns with the spirit and promise of revolution. She remains one of those rare icons that the Left can uphold with pride, to truly symbolise what its fight means to Kerala.
In his preface to the book by Dr T. Geena Kumari, P.K. Medini – The Nightingale in the Road to Revolution, Kerala’s highly revered poet-lyricist O.N.V. Kurup remembers an episode from his student life, when in 1948, he was invited to speak at the 100th anniversary celebration of The Communist Manifesto. Following the Calcutta thesis that called for an armed rebellion, the Communist Party was banned. Lookout notices were issued against leaders and they mostly functioned underground. A strict curfew was imposed in Travancore to keep the Communists under check.
Kurup agreed to speak at the event, fully aware of the dangers that would follow if he was seen as being supportive of the Communist party. Still, he reached the venue at Alappuzha. There was a battalion of police standing in guard and a CID officer was taking notes from the front row. It was announced that the meeting would start with a song and soon from a hut behind the informal dais, a girl was carried by someone and placed on top of the table. “It’s been 100 years since the communist manifesto was launched,” she sang with power and sweetness, set to the tune of a popular Malayalam film song. “Till date, the beauty of the song and her voice reverberates in my heart.” noted Kurup.
Speaking to The Wire, Medini says, “Even when there was no mike and there was a crowd, I would sing confidently, making sure the whole crowd could hear. My songs echoed the feeling of my heart – the cry for justice and equality.”
I met Medini at the Press Club in Cherthala of the Alappuzha district, where she was releasing the video of her campaign song for the Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate, P. Prasad. Medini has lent voice to two campaign songs. She greeted me with a warm smile and shook my hand with a firm grip as I introduced myself. This great-grandmother had just climbed three floors and though a bit slow in her walk, was exuberant about the task ahead. Her voice was melodious and speech certain, and her face exuded a calm that betrayed a life of suffering, poverty and revolution.
Two days later, the LDF came out with its campaign video – the opening shot prominently featuring Medini writing against the background score of fierce Inquilab’s.
Caste discrimination and atrocities
She was born in 1933 as one of twelve children of Kankali and Paapi, who were labourers. When asked, Medini refused to be identified by her caste or community. She remembered how revolutionary it was to even name her Medini – a distinctly upper caste name. “It just wasn’t acceptable back then. Even in school, I was sneered at,” she told me. But her voice and skills found quick acceptance. From the time she was five years old, she was the lead singer in her school and took part in many plays.
Her biography says that children from backward castes were expected to go to school in a thorthumundu – a waistcloth – and that she was happy when her relative, a tailor, stitched a frock for her from scrap cloth pieces. By the time she reached Class VI, the Bengal famine was raging and food and money were scarce. She had to discontinue her studies at the missionary school as her parents were unable to pay the fee of 15 chakras.
But her two brothers – scriptwriter P.K. Sharangapani; and trade union leader and hero of Punnapra Vayalar Samaram P.K. Bava – became influential figures who moulded her life and experiences. She started singing at public functions from the age of 10 and soon became a routine presence at Communist party public meetings with her energising revolutionary songs that had leaders and cadres enthralled.
With pain, Medini recollects a time in her childhood when she, her parents and siblings worked in the farms where they were bonded labourers. They were at the mercy of their landlord and had to water and till his lands. “You would get beaten up for even small failings,” she told me.
Medini would water the land, carrying half-filled earthen pots. She used to sing, inviting the taunts of the landlords.
Medini says after a Pulaya woman got married, her husband had no option but to “present” her to the landlord. “In that moment the landlords had no abhorrence towards us,” she says.
“If the landlords laid their eyes on a healthy, good looking Pulaya girl, they would rape them in their huts. It did not matter how young the girl was,” she narrates with anger.
She recollects the fate of one Appi Pulayan, who used to give her beaten rice and loved her songs. “But when he died, the landlords gave no land was given to bury his body. His body had to be wrapped and thrown deep into the back waters. When I witnessed this, I cried a lot. I had asked my parents if we could bury him, behind our hut. They told me to shut up, lest we be driven out of our hut. It was the law of the land then.”
“Before the Punnapra revolts, we had to get up before sunrise and beat the husks till 6 in the evening. There was no fixed pay for this. And after the day was over, the landlords would enter the house of a woman and force themselves upon them. This is what first got us to come together and fight for fundamental rights that would grant us the right to live like humans.”
“In an era where lower caste women were not allowed to cover their upper body, my guru Kalikutty Asatti protested for this right. She was the one who taught me to write my first letters. She shaped my political awareness, and instilled values in me,” Medini says.
Asatii was a significant early woman leader from Alappuzha and a great organiser. She was part of the SNDP’s women’s committee and later the president of Ambalappuzha Taluka Mahila Sangham, formed in 1943, which came about as part of efforts by coir factory workers to organise. “She would tell me about her fight to start wearing a roukka to cover her breasts. Her memory still lives on in my heart,” she says.
Medini explained how the first struggle for dignity started as a protest against the sexual violence of the landlords. “The people started taking up arms and finishing off the landlords, in some cases. The first fight that started in Kuttanad was to save our honour and the fights for wages and jobs followed later,” she says.
“Kerala is a heaven today,” said Medini who has travelled across India, and is clearly satisfied with the progress that the state has made.
As communism started taking roots in Kerala in the 1940s, her war songs were famous for doing the job that a hundred speeches could. ‘Mardhaka’ was one of her famous songs that she started singing at the age of 10.
“Oppressors, we will ring your death bell around the world
As we bury you in the pit that you have dug
We will burn you by your weapons
You have pushed us into this war
And we will be your murderers.
The way you have used men and women, old and young
Your injustice that butchered the people
To burn it we are coming
We are your murderers
Alappuzha was the hotbed of Communist activities. She remembers in her biography how Alappuzha in the 40s resonated with slogans and protests demanding the end of the Diwan’s rule and universal adult franchise. Other demands included a 15-day maternity leave for labourers with full pay.
In an era when voting rights are often taken for granted, she said in those days, this right was only available to those who paid taxes amounting to at least Rs 5. Adult franchise came to the princely state of Travancore in February 1948. In that same year, at the age of 15, Medini was arrested from Kottayam for the first time, for singing banned songs. “Yet I was lucky not to be tortured by the police like in all the stories from that time. They just made me sing a song and slapped me hard for it. The court couldn’t charge me as I was a minor.” But the court did fine her Rs 500 for crossing her arms during proceedings.
Her biography notes that it was a time when a kilo of rice cost only 10 paise. But the party members got together to raise funds, visiting every shop in the locality. By that evening, they raised the money and freed her.
Her war songs gave spirited support to the Punnapra Vayalar Samaram of October 1946 – one of the most important moments in Kerala’s fight for independence – that resulted in the death of nearly 500 Communist party members. Her brother Bava was arrested in the aftermath and spent five years in jail. When he was released, he had a broken arm and a twisted finger that told stories of the police brutalities he suffered in jail. Ten years later, he succumbed to the injuries.
In the aftermath of the Punnapra Vayalar Samaram, Medini’s house was demolished by the military and she had to spend several months in hiding. She was just 12. And in 1952, when she became an adult, Medini officially became a member of the Communist party and has remained with the parent party, in spite of its later split into and the creation of the CPI (Marxist).
Red Salute, written by Kaniyapuram Ramachandran, for the 25th anniversary of the Punnapra-Vayalar Samaram, was one of her famous songs.
She still holds the Punnapra revolt as a landmark event that helped in ending the Diwan’s rule and landlordism in Kerala.
A life of sharing the stage with stalwarts
In 2014, she acted and sang in Vasanthathinte Kanal Vazhikalil, a cinema on the life of one of the Communist party’s founding fathers, poet and the foremost party-builder, P. Krishna Pillai who was otherwise known as P or the Comrade.
Medini met P just a week before he died due to a snakebite. He gifted her with a copy of the banned book by E.M.S. Namboodiripad titled One and a Quarter Crore Malayalees. Namboodiripad would later go on to be Kerala’s first chief minister and one of the Communist party’s prominent thinkers and writers.
Much of Medini’s life was spent sharing the stage with the stalwarts and leaders of the Communist party, energising events with her voice and songs. She also acted in many plays and was a playback singer. Without any formal training in Carnatic, she sang Carnatic padams for dance programmes to earn her living. She performed songs penned by some of the famous Malayalam poets like Changampuzha Krishna Pillai and Vayalar Rama Varma. In 1987, the Sangeet Natak Akademi awarded her the popular singer title.
She remembered ex-CM Achutha Menon, who she says used to prioritise the environment in his speeches. But his awareness was before his time, she rued. “No politics is good until it t prioritises the environment. We should have pure air and preserve water and forests.” She says she has been involved in protecting streams in her panchayat and is enthusiastic about growing vegetables.
“Politics should look towards science and scientific studies to learn how to plan for the future, to use science for the betterment of people. What have we saved for future generations? Not even water. In no time, we will all have to protest for access to water.”
She retired as an employee at the Kerala Spinning Mills. In 1996, she became panchayat president of the village of Mannancheri in Alappuzha and represented an award-winning administration that helped her go on to serve another term as the block panchayat president of the Aryadu block.
“I am here today because I need to support this movement. It is important that this government continues. We will have to pay a very high cost if we don’t ensure that it happens,” Medini told me with conviction. “The Central government is back to dividing us on the basis of caste and religion with their laws and rules. Everywhere, there are efforts to divide us.”
She talked about Sabarimala and the importance of accepting gender equality. “Many temples played a huge role in building us up and supporting social and cultural movements.” She remembered a time when even from the temples, there was large support for the Communist party.
But where does the Communist party stand on its ideals, she wondered. She is currently a guest member of the CPI’s state committee.
She asserted that like individuals, parties will also make mistakes. These need to be corrected and move forward. “There are so many who are deserting the party and running into the opposition camp. This is a testing time and the party cadre should understand the compromises that the party has to make to keep them together,” she said. Kerala is one of the few states which is yet to surrender to the BJP, she noted.
Going back in time, she remembered the work of her fellow comrades in helping build a just society. “Many people sacrificed their lives to build this. Many mothers shed tears and many hearts were broken. There were so many martyrs, from Kannur, Karivellur, Punnapra and Andhra. How much blood flowed through these fields for our freedom? That’s how we build this movement and the life of comfort today. But now it’s all just petty politics, fights for power everywhere!”