Kerala, the southwestern state of Independent India, had gained its distinct architectural heritage by the time the British East India Company began colonizing India in the 17th century. Upper caste Nambuthiris and Nayars organized their agrarian homesteads — four-winged courtyard houses with gender as their axis of internal regulation. Although the house layout remained the same, the gendered inhabitation varied based on caste. On their arrival, British colonists began reordering and reshaping this native cosmos into a perceived anglicized ‘normative'¹. The existing political and social terrains were fractured, revised, and reworked to create an anglicized model of society. The joint family system of the agrarian society was fragmented through top-down urban policies, thus impacting the lived spaces of the natives. It changed how families lived their daily lives and had a long-lasting impact on Kerala’s traditional culture’s social and physical landscape. It ultimately altered the choreography of Kerala’s domesticity.
In this thesis, I take a closer look at the agrarian houses and trace the alterations to the spatial organization and domestic practices of these homes through colonial intervention. My period of study covers the mid-19th to mid- 20th century as this period represented the beginning of a shift in Kerala society: from a traditional agrarian society built on a joint kinship structure to a market model that encouraged nuclear family arrangements. Through an interdisciplinary methodology, my approach is to analyze space through the lens of anthropology. I compared existing house layouts with archived blueprints to study temporal alterations and gendered divisions. I parsed archival records such as marriage acts, judiciary records of family disputes, property rights, and land committee reports to find evidence of how the abolishment of feudalism and women’s empowerment led to changes in the domestic sphere. I employed oral histories as a road map to locate pertinent records and reconstruct past spatial practices.
By combining architectural history and theory with the anthropology of dwelling, this study attempts to open the conversation on broader practices relating to State making and domestic spatial production in developing countries. Today as Kerala further adopts neoliberal policies, the housing patterns have altered to accommodate new modes of living. By focusing on the case of agrarian homesteads in Kerala, this study explores spatial production under the weight of a matrix of socio-cultural, political, and economic forces that continue to evolve in the global south. While American coastal communities see the impacts from sea level rise in evolving and changing landscapes, the existing modes of response fail to adequately mitigate and adapt. The coast becomes a site of immense loss, where the very land upon which humanity has settled, built, and cultivated succumbs to oceanic forces. Whether design, disaster response or managed retreat; the tools deployed are a part of a Westernized lens that recognizes nature as material for extraction, profit and control perpetuating a harmful status-quo of consumption. To engage with the coast’s multitudes–ecological, economic, social and political–this thesis is organized as an assemblage. A collection of essays, each revealing the limitations of existing systems, approaches and designs that converge to reveal gaps in long-term adaptation and resilience strategies along the American coast. Fieldwork in Southern California brings a specific site into the work, that is both a literal grounding for analysis and metaphorical of the challenges of working in and along the coast. Through revealing the mess, this work gestures towards the urgent need for a new imagination by recognizing that existence through climate change hangs on the intricate balance between humans and other living things. For the disciplines that work along the edge of land and sea, we must reorient humanity as existing within nature to confront the overall challenge of coastal resilience and adaptation.
¹ The British endeavored to transform the native urban fabric into an English model. They encouraged the growth of commercial ties, administrative reforms, and nuclear family models that reflected English society and its structures.