Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Icons of the Reformist Period and ‘Re-formed’ Icons of the Present

Poyikayil Yohannan (1879-1939)


The case of Poikayil Yohannan is revealing, as it initiates a particular kind of discourse that over a period of time constructed his image as Sree Kumara Gurudevan derived from his childhood pet name as Komaran/Kumarran [Fig. 33-39]. To his followers today, he is not Poyikayil Yohannan, but Poyikayil Sree Kumara Guru Devan following the practice of investing leaders of social reform movements with the power of the guru, as noted earlier. His real life as Yohanann is erased and a new icon is constructed through the imaginative practice of retelling the biography of Yohannan attributing divinity to him. As a result of this process, biographies in circulation today are hagiographies. He was born in the Paraya community, but because of the prevalence of caste practices in Christianity, he had to leave various Church denominations and became the founder of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha in 1909-10. As the leader of the movement as well as a member of the Travancore Popular Assembly, Sree Mulam Praja Sabha, and before that, as an itinerant preacher who worked alongside native and British missionaries, he was once represented in the modern attire [Fig. 36]. But once he had attained divine status, there is a visible change in his pictorial representation with the addition of a halo around his head, and his right hand positioned in the gesture of blessing the devotees [Fig. 37-39]. His facial expressions and body postures begin to resemble those of other saintly figures. The everyday circulation of such pictures and the ideas generated through the continuous inculcation of them drive home the divinity of Sree Kumara Gurudevan.


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