Rebel

Artist revives story of Indian villager who stood up to the British breast tax … and lost hers

Detail from a painting of Nangeli, as imagined by artist Murali T.

In the early 1900s, when British rulers enforced a “breast tax” on women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, one woman dared to break the rules. According to the BBC, the breast tax required women in lower castes to pay a tax to cover the breasts in an effort to deter them from covering up so that they could be properly identified as belonging to the lower caste just by the way they dressed.

But Nangeli refused to play by the rules. She would not pay the tax associated with going bare, even when a tax collector came to her door.

“When the tax inspector heard she was refusing to pay the tax, he went to her house to ask her to stop breaking the law. But she still refused to pay the tax, and cut her breasts off in protest instead,” a local resident told The BBC for a story about Nangeli.

Nangeli died of blood loss, according to the locals, and her husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre.

“Her act was selfless, a sacrifice to benefit all the women of Travancore, and ultimately forced the king to roll back the breast-tax,” a distant relative of Nangeli’s, Maniyan Velu, told the BBC. “We feel so proud that we are her family. All we want is that more people should know about her sacrifice. It would be befitting if her name was made a part of this region’s history.”

Now, an artist named Murali T, who has rediscovered Nangeli’s story and hopes to bring it to a wider audience, has completed three paintings based on Nangeli that have been published in his book. He hopes to ensure that Nangeli’s story is not forgotten.

Read the full story at the BBC.

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