Yesudas to Hyderali: Kerala's Dubious 'Tradition' of Barring Non-Hindu Artistes

Recently, two non-Hindu artistes VP Mansiya and Soumya Sukumaran were denied entry to temples in Kerala.

5 min read

In the last week of March, Kerala's Koodalmanikyam temple courted controversy after it barred a performance by Bharatanatyam dancer VP Mansiya for being a 'non-Hindu'. Later, dancer Soumya Sukumaran too was stopped from performing at two temples in the state for being a Christian.

But this is not a new phenomenon in Kerala. Several temples in the state have, in the past, denied access to 'non-Hindu' artistes.

Carnatic and playback singer KJ Yesudas, who has also sung some of the most popular devotional songs in praise of Hindu gods, has had to put up a sustained fight for over 50 years to enter some Hindu temples in Kerala. Yesudas has been the Malayalam film industry's most sought-after singer over the past five decades. In Bollywood, he is known for his song Surmayee Ankhiyon Mein of Kamal Haasan and Sridevi-starrer Sadma (1983).

The singer's popular song on Lord Ayyappa – Harivarasanam – is still played across numerous temples in southern India and used as a 'lullaby' for Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala. But he is still not allowed inside the famous Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur. Why? Because he was born to a Christian family. K Joseph Yesudas, however, has asserted that he is a believer in Hinduism.

'Even Insects Are Allowed Inside Temples, But Not Me'

In a career spanning over 60 years, Yesudas has, on several occasions, expressed his strong desire to enter the Guruvayur temple. Despite seeking permission multiple times, the temple has not allowed him to enter the sanctum sanctorum as he is a 'non- Hindu'.

The singer, however, has performed a number of concerts for the temple's annual Carnatic music festival Chembai Sangeetholsavam, held outside its premises. Ironically, his songs sung in praise of Lord Krishna are played on the temple loudspeakers, regularly.

Expressing his pain over the temple not allowing him access, Yesudas famously said in 2018, "Even insects are allowed inside the temple, but not me."

"I would have been able to enter the Guruvayur temple if I was born as a cockroach or a fly," he further said.

Back in 2008, the Kadampuzha Devi temple at Kerala's Malappuram also denied entry to the singer. But Yesudas, who was born in a Latin Catholic family, is a regular at Sabarimala and the Kollur Mookambika temple in Karnataka. Latin Catholics fall under the OBC category in Kerala.

Was Yesudas barred from the temple also because of his caste status? After Yesudas was barred entry, in 2007, veteran Congress leader Vayalar Ravi, an Ezhava (OBC) by caste, was also disallowed from entering Guruvayur temple as he had married a Christian – Mercy Ravi. He was the sitting Union minister for Overseas Affairs at the time.

In 2017, Yesudas sought permission to pray at the well-known Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. After some deliberations, the temple had allowed him entry on Mahanavami (29 September) or Vijayadasami (30 September) that year. He, however, didn't visit the temple on both days, reported The News Minute.

Notably, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala, which was ruling at that time, said that everyone, irrespective of their religion, must be allowed inside temples. But Kadakampally Surendran, who was the then Devaswom minister of Kerala, said that all temples had their own rules, which couldn't be changed overnight.


When a Temple Partially Broke Its Wall To 'Accommodate' Hyderali

Born to a Muslim family, the late Kalamandalam Hyderali was the state's first 'non-Hindu' artiste who succeeded as a Kathakali singer. However, like Yesudas, Hyderali too was not permitted inside temples, where his songs were often played.

Hyderali, who is well known for his soft and rich voice that soothed the melodramatic scenes of Kathakali, was one of the pioneers who had introduced independent Kathakali music performances, an innovation that has since stayed in the industry.

Speaking about the discrimination he had faced in his formative years, Hyderali, in a video uploaded on the YouTube channel Archescapes, had said, "When musician Bismillah Khan is allowed to play Shehnai at the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, I don't understand why temples here don't allow me inside, even if I sing songs only in praise of Hindu gods."

The 1946-born classical singer had further stated that he also faced discrimination within his training institute – Kerala Kalamandalam – for being a Muslim from a poor family.

"Everyone used to stay away from me, as I was a black and ugly boy from a poor Muslim family. I was also not allowed to perform at any temples for almost seven years," he had said in the video.

Kerala Kalamandalam, which has been regarded as a university of arts and culture by the Indian government, is a premier institute for learning artforms of the country, especially those developed in southern India.

Sharing an unusual anecdote, Hyderali said that a temple in Alappuzha's Haripad had partially pulled down its outer wall to 'accommodate' him on its stage.

"During one of my student's arangettam (first public performance) in a Haripad temple, the student and his family insisted that I come inside the temple. But the temple didn't want me in. A debate ensued. Finally, the outer wall of the temple, to which the stage was attached, was broken down partially, and the stage was extended. I sang on the portion of the stage, which was outside the temple, while dancers did their performances from inside," he said, adding that though he could not go in, he was content that his "voice was inside."


Caste Discrimination at Temples

Not just religious minorities, some temples in the state have also been discriminating against Dalit-Bahujan artistes, who are Hindus.

In February, this year, prominent Koodiyattam artiste Kapila Venu, in a Facebook post, pointed out that certain ritualistic performances at Koothambalams (temple theaters constructed for Koothu and Koodiyattam) are performed only by people from caste Hindu communities, like Chakyars and Nambiars.

In the post, she also urged the temples to open the Koothambalams for artistes from all castes.

Following this, several other artistes joined Venu's efforts and called for inclusivity at Koothambalams. Subsequently, the Cochin Devaswom board president Nandakumar said that artistes from all castes would be allowed to perform at Koothambalams, albeit with a caveat.

Such artistes will be allowed to perform only if they follow all the rules of the artform. Besides, they will be permitted only on days when the traditional communities that hold hereditary rights over certain ritualistic performances are not available, Nandakumar said.

Should temples in a progressive state like Kerala that is known for historic movements, including the Vaikom Satyagraha, Guruvayur Satyagraha, and the temple entry movement, which paved way for the entry of 'lower caste people' into Hindu temples, still hold on to such regressive practices?

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