The ‘Reading Room Culture’ Is What Makes Kerala Literate With No Caste Or Religion Barriers, And Yet It’s So Simple

By Darshna Kumar:

What is a reading room or vaayanashalas?

Any room can be turned into a reading room. It can be a dilapidated room which is inexpensively re-painted with just a few chairs around old coffee tables on which some newspapers are left behind for readers by their predecessors or it can be two benches kept under a thatched roof of a room whose walls are adorned by posters of great thinkers.

It is a public space where usually the information is read aloud with a great possibility of a discussion to follow. It is a major source of knowledge for the population that cannot read in Kerala.

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It is run by public donations, funds, politicians, village/city councils or volunteers.

After the start of printing culture, when the distribution of newspapers were limited, back then reading rooms were established in Kerala and they spread around in late 1930s and 40s.

They severed as the primary center for the distribution of information related to the world and beyond for the villagers.

It was a place that created a liberating atmosphere, politically and socially.

Its rise was also due to the communist movement in Kerala which was trying to take to the people the ‘objective news’ rather than what was dispensed by the village officials.

The reading rooms also wanted to give marginalized people a voice by making them well-informed. The discussions that followed formed the initial stage of social emancipation for this population.

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These rooms also linked up to the literacy movement in Kerala and gave it a huge push. It motivated the commoners to be educated and to educate.

What affects does ‘Reading Rooms’ have?

Reading Rooms are now a unique institution in Kerala which contributes in maintaining the literacy rate in Kerala way above than other states.

It serves as a primary world of knowledge for the population that does not know how to read as it is situated even in the smallest villages and most “non-developed” parts of the state.

Readers and writers still visit these reading rooms in Kerala in search of new ideas and inspiration.

There is probably a library or a reading room at walking distances in most parts of Kerala.

These tiny institutions are places where people stop by randomly. Read few news reports, maybe talk about it and then leave for home. If time allows then these small talks are taken over by intense conversations lubricated by tea and coffee.

The beverages like the institution of reading rooms were created much later than and away from caste and religion. They do not fit into the taboos of strict vertical arrangement of society.

Reading rooms are still flourishing in the age of smart phones. It has established a reading culture which is way too strong and old than the current digital age.

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This is also an institution where youths from different communities get together to read and have cultural and political discussions. In doing so, they immensely contribute in the formation of deep social networks in Kerala.

The Kerala Tourism has launched a short ad film in which the camera is set inside a reading room and one can see the beauty and intrinsic aspects of Kerala through two huge windows.

This reflective space has posters of Gandhi and Che Guevara on one wall and on others quotes are painted and posters are stuck upon. It has a small cupboard with few books.

Through the window one can see the image of Kerala being created as a nun passes by followed by puli masks, Kathakali dancers, snake boats, elephants and more.

This short film beautifully portrays that the reading rooms are as important an intrinsic part of Kerala’s culture as are coconut trees and snake boats.

A survey published in 2004 by Kerala Research Programme on Local Level Development Centre for Development Studies Thiruvananthapuram states that in a rural location about one half of the respondents were subscribers of newspapers in Malayalam and about 2 percent subscribed to English newspapers whereas non- subscribers accounted for two-fifths of the population.

However, this population reported using the services of reading rooms and libraries as most of them belonged to the low income group.

Reading rooms have oiled the literacy rate in Kerala for years and have created an atmosphere that is unique to the political and cultural sensibility of this land.

Originally published at on July 13, 2019.

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