M. G. S. Narayanan

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M. G. S Narayanan
M.G.S Narayanan.jpg
M. G. S. Narayanan speaking at Kerala Literature Festival, Kozhikode (2017)
Muttayil Govindamenon Sankara Narayanan

(1932-08-20) 20 August 1932 (age 87)
Alma materMadras Christian College, University of Madras (Master's Degree)
University of Kerala (Doctoral Studies)
Political Commentator
Notable work
  • Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (1972)
  • Perumals of Kerala (1972)
  • Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited (2006)
ChildrenVijay Kumar Narayanan and Vinaya Narayanan

Muttayil Govindamenon Sankara Narayanan, commonly known as M. G. S. Narayanan (born on 20 August 1932) is an Indian historian, academic and political commentator. He headed the Department of History at Calicut University (Kerala) from 1976 to 1990.[1] He writes and appears in magazines and popular media regularly.[2] He is generally considered as "one of India’s top authorities on ancient history".[3]

M. G. S. is among the few southern Indian historians known nationally and internationally. He is a scholar of southern Indian history, Kerala history, in particular.[1] He is also a specialist in ancient Indian history.[4] M. G. S. studied ancient Indian scripts (like Brahmi, Vatteluttu and Grantha) and is well versed in Tamil and Classical Sanskrit.[1] He participated as observer in archaeological excavations at Kodungallur, Kerala (1969–70). He has also discovered and published several medieval Vatteluttu inscriptions mentioning the Chera Perumals of Kerala.[2] He was Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1974 –75); Visiting Fellow, Universities of Moscow and Leningrad (1991); Visiting Research Professor, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo (1994–95).[2] He served as the First Member Secretary (1990–92) and as the Chairman (2001–03) of the Indian Council of Historical Research.[1]

Perumals of Kerala (1972) – often touted as M. G. S's masterpiece – is considered a landmark in historiography of Kerala.[5] The appendix to the 1972 doctoral thesis, called "Index to Chera inscriptions", was hailed by A. L. Basham as "a contribution to knowledge more valuable than many PhD theses".[6] The "Brahman oligarchy model", constructed by M. G. S. through his study of the Chera Perumals, is a widely recognised state formation model falling outside the standard models of state formation in medieval southern India.[7]

M. G. S. is said to have spend a night alone at Cheraman Parambu (Kodungallur), the location of the legendary palace complex of the Chera Perumals, during his research on these line of rulers.[8] He has "accidentally" discovered and published a fragmentary label inscription of Maurya ruler Bindusara from Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. In April, 2018 M. G. S. handed over his private library to the Department of History, University of Calicut.[9] The autobiography of M. G. S. was published by Current Books in December, 2018.

Early life and education[edit]

Muttayil Govindamenon Sankara Narayanan was born at Ponnani, Malabar district on 20 August 1932.[2]

He had his early education at Parappanangadi, Ponnani, Calicut and Thrissur. He later moved to Madras (present day Chennai) to pursue his master's degree in history from Madras Christian College. He topped the University of Madras in his post-graduation in 1953 (1st Rank and 1st Class).[10]

M. G. S. married Premalatha in August, 1965.[11]

M. G. S. received a three-year University Grants Commission Research Fellowship during his doctoral studies from the University of Kerala. He was guided by Prof. V. Narayana Pillai, Retired Principal and Professor of History and formerly Dean of the Faculty of Arts in University of Kerala. He was personally trained in Vatteluttu script and Early Malayalam language by historian Ilamkulam P. N. Kunjan Pillai.[2][10] He was awarded Ph. D. by the University of Kerala in 1973.[2]

A few copies of 1972 doctoral thesis titled "Perumals of Kerala" were printed for private circulation in 1996.[2] The monograph was eventually published for general public in 2013, as Perumals of Kerala: Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy, by Thrissur-based CosmoBooks.[10] The book is dedicated by the author to his mentor Ilamkulam.[10] "The empirical details and the theoretical framework put forward by M. G. S. remain unchallenged even after four decades [1972-2012],” says historian Kesavan Veluthat.[10] The book was also praised by the critic for the lack of any sentiments of regionalism.[6]

Monarchy supported by a Brahmin oligarchy[edit]

Much of M. G. S's works on the Chera Perumals can be considered as a continuation of the pioneering studies by historian Ilamkulam P. N. Kunjan Pillai (1904 – 1973). Ilamkulam had studied comprehensively Old/Early Malayalam - Vatteluttu inscriptions from the ninth century AD, and with the help of literary texts, claimed they belonged to a single line of kings that ruled Kerala from Kodungallur. He had challenged the very foundations of the then existing William Logan-K. P. Padmanabha Menon construction of Kerala history.[10] He proposed a unitary or imperial state model, emphasising centralised administration, for the Chera Perumal kingdom.[7]

"This monograph stands out for many reasons. First and foremost, there is an uncompromising commitment to historical method. There is no single statement that the sources will not support; there is nothing the warranty of which can be questioned. The range of sources used in the study is astounding."[12]

Kesavan Veluthat, Review of Perumals of Kerala. Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy: Political and Social Conditions of Kerala Under the Cera Perumals of Makotai (c. A. D 800-A. D. 1124), Frontline 24 January 2014

Travelling across Kerala, M. G. S. closely re-examined the Chera Perumal inscriptions. He also examined the estampages preserved in the office of the Chief Epigraphist of the Union Government. The secrecy, inaccessibility and obscurity of the Chera Perumal records, found in difficult scripts and languages (Old/Early Malayalam - Vatteluttu) and preserved in different places were a serious challenge to M. G. S. The Chera Perumal inscriptions were not properly deciphered and chronologically arranged. Even among the published records there were variations in the texts and interpretation. Uneven quality of the decipherment and the need for correction here and there made uniformity of reference impossible.[13][13]

M. G. S. discovered and deciphered many unpublished, unnoticed inscriptions from originals or estampages. He revisited Ilamkulam’s assumptions about the social and political conditions of Kerala under the Chera Perumal. He analysed the history of Kerala in the light of the politics of southern India, which saw the Pandyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Cholas engaging in a struggle for supremacy. Several of Elamkulam's hypotheses were questioned and reassessed in the course of the work in the light of the fresh evidence. The thesis was eventually published in 1972. M. G. S. concluded in the dissertation that what obtained in Kerala under the Chera Perumals was "a monarchy supported by a Brahmin oligarchy".[10][6][7] The Brahmin oligarchy model was different from the existing standard models of state formation in ancient and medieval India, particularly in the early medieval period.[7]

Ritual sovereignty combined with a Brahmin oligarchy[edit]

M. G. S. was one of major critics of Burton Stein's "segmentary state" model for the Chola Empire. Stein denied the centralized structure of the state, and assumed that the state was integrated only ritually. Scholars such as R. Champakalakshmi, Kesavan Veluthat, Noboru Karashima, Y. Subbarayalu, and R. S. Sharma also criticized Stein’s categorical denial of the Chola king’s political authority.[7]

Some of M. G. S.'s ideas regarding the role of the Chera Perumals of Kodungallur and the character of the kingdom were modified when he revisited the sources for preparing a research paper (2002).[14] He concluded that the central government of the Chera Perumals did not have much power, and that the kings were controlled by the leaders of "a bold and visible" Brahmin oligarchy.[7] M. G. S. also asserted that the rule of the Chera Perumals was different from Stein’s notion of ritual sovereignty because it was combined with a Brahmin oligarchy.[7] To indicate the new findings a second title "Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy" was introduced to the 2013 edition of the monograph "Perumals of Kerala".[10] This casual change in the title was criticised by reviewers of the monograph.[6]

Academic career[edit]

"When I went to the Soviet Union as a Government of India delegation member, I found no freedom there. Then the Marxists in Kerala, they were autocratic when in power, unlike in opposition. They destroyed the democratic culture in universities and education suffered. My direct experience as Member Secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), where I found the Marxists manipulating information, completely disillusioned me. For the Communists whatever is non-Hindu is secular. There is nothing wrong with saffron - it is a colour of renunciation in the Indian tradition. I am proud to be a Hindu though I don't worship or perform rituals."[1]

M. G. S. Narayanan, Interview with G. N. Prashanth, The Hindu

M. G. S. Narayanan started his formal academic career in 1965 at the Post-Graduation Centre of Kerala University at the Zamorin's Guruvayurappan College, Kozhikode. Later, when the University of Calicut was established in 1968, he served in the Department of History in various positions (Lecturer, Reader (1973) and Professor (1976) before retiring in 1992 as Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, a post he held from 1970.[2] He was Professor and Head of the Department of History in Calicut University from 1976 to 1990.[15]

M. G. S. was instrumental in developing a specialized library and Museum of Kerala History and Culture at the University of Calicut, and in starting the Calicut University Historical Series publications. He was also known for conducting workshops and summer institutes, modernizing the university syllabus, introducing semester scheme and in starting departmental publications.[1] As General Editor of the Calicut University Historical Series, he brought out 3 volumes of sources for Kerala history, including Vanjeri Grandhavari, 1987, which he himself edited.[2] In 1994 he served as Chief Editor of Malabar, a compilation of research extracts.[2]

Since 1969, M. G. S. was closely associated with the Indian History Congress, of which he was member of Executive Committee for several years from 1974; Local Secretary (1976); President of Section I - Ancient India (1978, IHC Hyderabad); Joint Secretary for many years, and General Secretary (1982-1985). He was President of Indian History and Culture Society (2001). He took active part in establishing and promoting South Indian History Congress, Epigraphical Society of India, and Place Name Society of India; and has been Member of Executive Committee and President of these bodies at different times. He was member of the following academic bodies: Editorial Committee, Journal of Indian History, Kerala, Indian Historical Review; Editorial Board, History Text Books in the NCERT; and Team Project on Socio-Religious Movements, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.[2] M. G. S. was also a Member of UGC Panel in History, UGC National Lecturer, UGC Visiting Professor, School of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam (1992–93); Visiting Professor, Mangalore University (1996) and Chairman, Technical Advisory Committee for Kerala State Archives (2004-5).[2]

Chairman of Indian Council of Historical Research (2001–03)[edit]

"The Ministry of Human Resource Development is deliberately trying to kill creativity and destroy historical and other types of knowledge by spreading religious superstition based on 'saffronism'. It opposes rational, objective and scientific approach not only to historical problems but also to all social science and other problems. It is in pursuit of this policy that the Human Resource Development Minister (Murli Manohar Joshi) has removed M. G. S. Narayanan from the chairmanship of an autonomous body. In recent years, M. G. S. had turned out to be a very competent Chairman. Nearly 40 books were published during his tenure of nearly two and a half years."[16]

R. S. Sharma, Founder-chairman of the Council

M. G. S. served as First Member Secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research under Irfan Habib in 1990-92 and later as its Chairman from July 2001 to December 2003.[1]

When the Indian People's Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in India after the 1999 general elections, one of its priorities was to ensure that academic and research institutions are headed by persons who are not hostile to the ideology of the right-wing politics.[17][15]

In 2001, ICHR Chairman K.S. Lal was asked to step down for "administrative lapses", and M. G. S. emerged as the consensus candidate for the post of the chairman. It was a time when the National Democratic Alliance government in Delhi was attacking the Indian Council of Historical Research as being "Left-oriented".[1] Even though his nomination to the Chairman post, by the Bharatiya Janata Party, had raised some controversy, mainly in the state of Kerala, it was by and large welcomed by academic circles all over India.[18] The media described M. G. S. as Bharatiya Janata Party's "non-controversial" candidate for the post of Chairman.[1] "They may have invited me because I was acceptable to the right as well as to the left, and to the North (India) and South (India). I consented on condition no one would interfere with my work. The Union Education Minister (Murli Manohar Joshi) assured me that", M. G. S. said in an interview.[1] ICHR insiders never expected any controversy over his appointment because, according to them, despite his proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party, M. G. S. was not a (right) "hardliner".[15]

In the meantime, the media was filled with the news around the controversial project on the history of nationalism, the Towards Freedom project. M. G. S. was keen on the ICHR bringing out the remaining volumes of the project. As per M. G. S. the first thing some media-persons asked him was when he would write school textbooks for Human Resource Development Minister.[1][15]

After a stalemate of over three months, M. G. S. was unceremoniously sacked as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research in December 2003. No official explanation was given in the government notification, and the media was told of some financial irregularities that the Chairperson allegedly indulged in. It was alleged that the ouster was a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development's scheme to "saffronise" the agenda in academia. M. G. S. made known his displeasure over the manner in which the Ministry had appointed the new Member Secretary of the Council. This was the immediate reason, though M. G. S. had, by taking certain "unpopular" stands, especially in the context of the new National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, also upset the Ministry. He had criticized some of the new NCERT history textbooks. Commentators assumed that he had given the impression of a "no-nonsense academic" as far as history was concerned, which may have become too difficult for the Ministry to handle. The sacking also brought into question the nature of autonomy supposed to have been enjoyed by the Council.[19]

Even M. G. S's bitter critics acknowledge that he has brought a "certain discipline" to the ICHR during his tenure. "We published guidelines for research projects; brought out a newsletter with information on fellowships and grants; activated regional centres such as Guwahati and Bangalore, which had been neglected for long. The idea was to break the Delhi-centred outlook of ICHR" , M. G. S. said in an interview.[1] "Research funding rules were codified and published, and the publishing of a newsletter had brought increased transparency and accessibility to the functioning of the Council.", he stated.[19] Several important publications were brought out during his tenure.[19] M. G. S. believed that the Communists have had a hold on the ICHR for too long. His objective was to rid the institution of such monopoly and ensure that "every individual who approachs [sic?] the ICHR for project and research help would be treated fairly regardless of ideological affiliation". M. G. S. also alleged that most of the research funding from ICHR used to be cornered by three universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Calcutta University, and Aligarh University.[1]

Political views[edit]

M. G. S. is generally considered as a centre-right historian. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, M. G. S. Narayanan can be best described as a man of the "anti-Left".[20] "He grew up with the Communists in Kerala, read [Karl] Marx and Marxists, took some inclination to the Left, and in course of time, came to be annoyed with all things Communist," the Frontline magazine wrote in June, 2003.[1]

M. G. Radhakrishnan, a prominent centre-left political analyst in Kerala, describes M. G. S. as "said to be pro-BJP".[21] The temptation to classify him as one who found favour with the Right, M. G. S. says, is because he accepted the chairmanship of the ICHR in 2001.[1]

Research and publications[edit]

M. G. S. has published numerous research papers in Indian and international journals. The more prominent among his works include:[22]

  • Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (1972) - collection of research papers[2]
  • Perumals of Kerala (1972, PhD thesis)
    • Perumals of Kerala (1996, 2013 and 2018)
  • Aspects of Aryanisation in Kerala (1973) - collection of research papers[2]
  • Kerala Through the Ages, Part I (co-authored with K. Veluthat;[2] 1976)
  • Historical Studies in Kerala (1976) – co-authored with K. K. N Kurup
  • Re-Interpretations in South Indian History (1977) - collection of research papers[2]
  • Foundations of South Indian Society and Culture (1994) - collection of research papers[2]
  • The People's Plan: a Debate on Kerala's Decentralised Planning Experiment (1997) – co-authored with N. P. Chekkutty
  • Narayanan, M. G. S. 2002. ‘The State in the Era of the Ceraman Perumals of Kerala’, in State and Society in Premodern South India, eds R. Champakalakshmi, Kesavan Veluthat, and T. R. Venugopalan, pp.111–19. Thrissur, CosmoBooks.

M. G. S. Narayanan co-authored with his student Kesavan Veluthat the chapter on the history of Nambutiri community in Agni, the Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Berkeley, 1983.[2]

M. G. S. has also published many books in Malayalam, including:

  • India Charitra Parichayam (1969)[2]
  • Sahitya Aparadhangal (1970)
  • Kerala Charitrathinte Adisthaana Silakal (1971 & 2001)
  • Vanjeri Grandhavari (1987)
  • Kozhikkodinte Katha (2001)
  • Secular Jaatiyum Secular Matavum (2001)
  • Janaadhipatyavum Communisavum (2004)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o G. N. Prashanth On the wrong side of Left? [1] [2] The Hindu 16 June 2003
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s MGS Narayanan (Profile) University of Calicut [3]
  3. ^ "Historian MGS Narayanan on National anthem row: India not a nation, but federation of nationalities". The Indian Express. 27 December 2016. Archived from the original on 3 November 2018. Retrieved 9 September 2018.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  4. ^ T. K. Rajalakshmi. CONTROVERSY: Appointment and disappointment Frontline. Volume 18 - Issue 15, 21 Jul. – 3 Aug. 2001 [4] [5]
  5. ^ A masterpiece in reprint [6] [7] The Hindu 15 July 2013
  6. ^ a b c d Kesavan Veluthat. Kerala’s past Frontline. 24 January 2014 [8]
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Noburu Karashmia (ed.), A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014
  8. ^ R. L. Harilal. Charitrapurushan [9] Mathrubhumi. 11 Aug 2013
  9. ^ Reporter, Staff (19 April 2018). "MGS hands over his library to varsity". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h A masterpiece in reprint. [10]. The Hindu 15 July 2013
  11. ^ Reporter, Staff (31 August 2018). "Former students hold birthday bash for MGS". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  12. ^ Kesavan Veluthat. Kerala’s past (Book Review). Frontline. January 24, 2014 [11]
  13. ^ a b M. G. S. Narayanan. Biography. [12] Madhyamam (2015)
  14. ^ Narayanan, M. G. S. 2002. ‘The State in the Era of the Ceraman Perumals of Kerala’, in State and Society in Premodern South India, eds R. Champakalakshmi, Kesavan Veluthat, and T. R. Venugopalan, pp.111–19. Thrissur, CosmoBooks.
  15. ^ a b c d T.K. RAJALAKSHMI CONTROVERSY: Appointment and disappointment Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 15, 21 Jul. – 3 Aug. 2001 [13]
  16. ^ T.K. RAJALAKSHMI ICHR: Removing an irritant Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 26, 20 December 2003 [14] [15]
  17. ^ T.K. RAJALAKSHMI ICHR: Removing an irritant Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 26, 20 December 2003 [16]
  18. ^ J. Ajith Kumar. Historian with a difference 05 Mar 2002 The Hindu [17] [18]
  19. ^ a b c T. K. RAJALAKSHMI ICHR: Removing an irritant Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 26, 20 December 2003 [19]
  20. ^ Ramachandra Guha. COMMUNISM’S OTHER BASTION - In spite of similarities, West Bengal cannot match Kerala in development [20] [21] 5 October 2003
  21. ^ November 30, M. G. Radhakrishnan; November 30, 1998 ISSUE DATE; April 11, 1998UPDATED; Ist, 2013 12:38. "ICHR member lashes out at panel of editors chosen to write cultural history of Kerala". India Today. Retrieved 1 March 2019.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ "inauthor:"M. G. S. Narayanan" - Google Search". www.google.com. Retrieved 19 July 2019.

Further reading[edit]