K. Satchidanandan

Malayalam Poetry Today

The history of modern Malayalam poetry is a narrative of continuous innovation, gradual emancipation from the formalistic grip of traditional Sanskrit poetic practice, growing awareness of contemporary social issues and the ongoing democratization of the genre in thematic as well as formal aspects. In the process, paradigms have been tried and abandoned, communities imagined and dissolved, traditions constructed and deconstructed, the concepts of the region and the nation alternately tried out, the impact of foreign literatures absorbed and transcended, the classical and the folk heritage explored one after the other, fresh genres and formal devices employed and indigenized and the concept of the avant-garde transformed from one generation to the next.. Only in the twentieth century did Malayalam poetry become truly contemporary with the life, thought and vision of the Malayalee. For the first time it began to reflect the his /her traumatised subjectivity with its morbidity, death-wish, schizophrenia, suppressed desire and subversiveness, all of which are perhaps the wounds and traces of that fast and disturbing transformation of Kerala’s society from a tribal community to a modern civil society. More than any other genre in Malayalam literature, poetry has articulated the profound contradictions of the Malayalee psyche, its moral trepidations and its desire for liberation from the oppressive ideologies of discrimination like those of  class, caste and gender. Poetry has insistently refused to be a mere entertainer or a leisure-pastime, involving itself seriously in social struggles and sharing the agonies and aspirations of individuals of all social layers and persuasions. This is also the reason for its unique vibrancy and popularity that we seldom find in most other languages of India.

Malayalam poetry’s turn towards the contemporary everyday- after its folk phase- may be said to have begun with the emergence of a poet like Kumaran Asan (1873-1924). He was a typical product of that self-criticism of the feudal Malayalee society that has been termed the Kerala Renaissance. The spread of modern education, the codification of grammar, the growth of prose genres like novel, short story, drama and essay, translations of the Bible, of Shakespeare and of  Sanskrit and Tamil classics, the emergence of the printing press, the new network of newspapers and periodicals including literary ones, the introduction of science and technology, the social reform movements initiated  by Sree Narayana Guru, Doctor Palpu, Chattampi Swamikal, V.T. Bhatta thirippad, Premji,  Ayyankali, Sahodaran Ayyappan and others, the rise of the  marginalized sections of the society to democratic awareness, the spread of egalitarian ideas, anti-colonial and anti-feudal social movements, the literacy and public library movements: all these  led to a complete reordering of society and its scale of values and to the emergence of a public sphere in culture and literature.. The dividing practices that concealed inequality and exploitation behind the masks of the natural and the providential now became visible and came to be identified in their inhuman shapes. The success of someone like Sree Narayana Guru who was also a poet besides being a philosopher and reformer lay in his recognition of the relationship of discourse to power, his subtle reversal of the significance of the oppressor’s legitimizing discourse through a secular reading of their sacred texts and a subversive use of their signs, symbols and images to liberate the body from its caste marks and to de-privilege the ‘upper’ castes by revealing the illusory nature of caste divisions within the species. Kumaran Asan had learnt his philosophy partly from the Guru and partly from the Tamil Siddhas who had inspired he Guru and partly from Buddhist texts. Asan who had started as a meditative poet soon matured into a meditative poet with a deep moral and spiritual commitment. His elegy, Oru Veena Poovu ( A Fallen Flower), with its dual emphasis on the glory of the flower and the transience of its beauty became a preface to his later poems of love and compassion. His dramatic narrative poems set often in the wilderness interrogated the values of the status-quo, its concept of an all-too-physical love, its patriarchal ordering of society, the demeaning system of caste and the oppressive concept of sin without redemption. His poems like Nalini, Leela, Chandalabhikshuki and Karuna were explorations of the self in its relationship to others and the world while his Chintavishtayaya Seeta (Seeta’s Lament) where Sita interrogates the ethics of Rama who had abandoned her, a to-be mother, in the forest is a critique of patriarchal justice and the Indian concept of an ideal man and king. Asan’s Duravastha (The Sad Plight) where a Brahmin woman,Savitri,  falls in love with Chathan, a dalit youth, is a direct critique of the unreal and inhuman category of caste. Asan himself was apparently apologetic about the poetic quality of this long narrative and traditional critics failed to grasp the irony in his apology. Only recently did the poet-critic Ayyappa Paniker point to the irony in Asan’s statement which was actually a challenge to the existing concept of ahistorical poetry. Paniker considers Duravastha to be the forerunner of dalit poetry in Malayalam. What survive in Kumaran Asan are the egalitarian philosopher, the great painter of exotic visuals and the interpreter of the soul in its search for peace and liberty. Vallathol Narayana Menon, his contemporary who survived him, has been noted for his felicity of phrase, sure hold on word music, dexterity in the creation of characters and commitment to the ideal of freedom and nationhood as revelaed in his narrative poems based on Hindu  and Christian legends like Sishyanum Makanum ( The Disciple and the Son), Acchanum Makalum (The Father and the Daughter) and Magdalana Mariam ( Mary Magdalene) and his lyrical poems collected in the series, Sahityamanjari (A Literary Bouquet). Ulloor Parameswara Iyer who was more of a scholar and literary historian than a poet is known for his tales of metamorphosis like Pingala and Karnabhooshanam (Karna’s Ornament) and his popular celebration of equality, Premasangeetam (The Song of Universal Love).

Changampuzha Krishna Pillai who fits the description of a typical anarchist romantic poet brought about a stylistic revolution in Malayalam poetry bringing into it the distilled essence of the folk idiom while retaining his hold on the classical vocabulary. Love and death were his central themes, nature providing a sympathetic background for the human drama as in his popular pastoral elegy, Ramanan. His short lyrical poems are also passionate and sonorous if most often melancholic. His Padunna Pisachu (The Devil Who Sings) with its overpowering sense of evil, its sense of alienation, its surrealistic imagery and its irony and self-ridicule articulates the traumatic Baudelairean ambivalence of modernity. That the Jeevatsahitya ( Progressive) movement could not reduce his influence is evident from the style of the progressives poets in Malayalam, especially the trio, Vayalar Ramavarma, P. Bhaskaran and O. N. V. Kurup, whose  lyrical skill is seen  also in the  songs they composed for the theatre and cinema. The really important poets after Changampuzha were however another trio, Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon, Idassery Govindan Nair and P. Kunhiraman Nair. The impact of the progressive movement was felt better in the first two of these poets than the ‘official’ representatives of the movement who did little to innovate the poetic idiom and seldom addressed the complexities of post-colonial existence. Vailoppilly’s poems like ´Mala Thurakkunnavar (The Tunnel-diggers), Assam Panikkar (The Workers in Assam) and Onappattukar (The Singers of Onam) reveal the poet’s identification with the toilers and his dreams for a just world while his Kudiyozhikkal (The Eviction ) is one of the greatest poems in the language with its critical self-examination of the middle class and its profound grasp of the constructive and destructive aspects of the revolution. Vailoppilly could also write careful subjective poems like Kanneerpadam (The Field of Tears) and psychoanalytical works like Sahyante Makan (Mount Sahya’s Son) where he deals with a tamed  elephant’s dream of freedom in his native wilderness that drives him mad. Idassery looked at Kerala’s changing reality from the point of view of the enlightened farmer. His radical political sympathies found expression in poems like Panimudakku (The Strike) and Puthankalavum Arivalum (The New Jar and the Sickle) while his empathy with suffering women is evident in  Pengal (The Sister) and Nellukuthukari Paruvinte Katha (The Story of Paru, the  Rice-Maker). Poothappattu (The Song of the Pootham) summed up his vision of life: The pootham, the masked ritual dancer, in the poem is nature, death, the suppressed desire for motherhood and the past’s presence in the present while the mother whose child the pootham demands represents life, sacrifice, maternal intimacy and the ultimate mercy that redeems the pootham of her evil and invites her to eternal life. P. Kunhiraman Nair was the voice of memory that rebelled against the cultural amnesia brought about by colonialism and bemoaned the loss of native culture and of natural landscape occasioned by the rise of the new urban culture. G.Sankarakurup, the first Jnanpith winner now remembered mostly for his unique translations of Tagore, was a fine craftsman in verse who handled with ease cosmic themes in a high-classical style as in Viswadarsanam  (The Cosmic Vision) or Sargasangeetam ( The Music of Creation) and rustic narratives in a near-folk idiom  as in Chandanakkattil (The Sandalwood Cot) or Moonaruviyum Oru Puzhayum  (Three Streams and a River). N.V.Krishna Warrier brought a new realism into poetry as in his poem Kochuthomman. Olappamanna and Akkittam with their idealism and sympathetic understanding of the plight of their class, M.Govindan with his radical social awareness, G.Kumarapillai with his lyrical skill to express moods and colours in their subtlety were also important poets of the period. Of the women poets, Balamani Amma with her intense moral anxieties expressed in her deftly crafted dramatic monologues and moving lyrics and Sugathakumari with her profound sympathy for the suffering woman, her ecological awareness, mundane spirituality and evocative lyricism are the important women poets of this period of transition and stand between the tradition of Vallathol and the new poetry that emerged almost as a movement in the 1960s.

The modernists of the 60s had almost all been born in the villages and moved to towns and cities in search of a livelihood. The gradual deadening of progressive sensibilities, the dogmatism of  Kerala’s Left orthodoxy that led to an exclusive approach estranging from the Progressive Movement most of the writers except those who faithfully toed the party line, the new revelations about Stalin’s regime, the disappearance of Gandhian values from public life,  the alienation of the thinking individual from the urban mass,  an ambivalent approach to the modern experience, discontent with the existing forms and styles of poetry that seemed inadequate to express the complex experience of the times, growing acquaintance with the creative experiments in poetry in India as well as abroad: these were some of the premises of the modernist poetry of the sixties. The despair, irony and anger of Ayyappa Paniker, N.N. Kakkad, Madhavan Ayyappath, M.N. Paloor, Attoor Ravivarma, Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri, R. Ramachandran, Cheriyan K.Cheriyan, Satchidanandan and other poets of this stream came from their lack of faith in the establishment. It was to express the structures of their modern subjectivity that they employed strategies like fantasy, surrealism, foregrounding of the signifier, Dadaist games with words and letters, irony, black humour, the use of diverse masks, alternating metaphoric and metonymic modes, re-visioning of myths and archetypes, mixing of verse and prose, redeployment of folk elements, experimental syntax and tonal variations. Language was now looked upon more as a medium of self-discovery/recovery than self-expression where the self is assumed to be known and pre-exists language. The new poets negated ossified linguistic habits and the stereotypes of instrumental rationality: the social here was the definite negation of a definite society. The very institution of literature was subjected to criticism by the new avant-garde. 

Ayyappa Paniker was in a sense the epitome of all that modernism in Malayalam stood for. He introduced new forms like the cartoon poem, the sequence poem, and the ballet and drew from a variety of metrical resources, using for example the mallika metre used in the Parayan Thullal dance and the dandaka verse form used in Kathakali texts besides varieties of prose registers. His polyphonic poetry looks like an orchestra with many pieces. Touched by him, traditions no more remained the same. He wounded the unrelieved gravity of the romantics with satire and invective. He also used his black humour to critique social institutions like caste and maladies like hypocrisy, corruption, insularity and craving for material power. His more serious  works like Kurukshetram, Mrityupooja (A Hymn to Death), Kudumbapuranam (The Family Saga), Pakalukal – Ratrikal (Days, Nights), Passage to America, Ivide Jeevitam (Here, Life) Gotrayanam (The Clan’s Progress) and Pathumanippookkal (Ten O’Clock Flowers) reveal a deep sense of the paradoxes of life and the drama they generate.  Kurukshetram (1960) that is believed to have found the right idiom for the expression of the dilemma of the modern  poses the question of justice quoting Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata. The Bhagavatgeeta freezes and fails to to satisfy the living hour when the gods have gone to sleep and ideologies have failed man adding to the cacophony of the world’s discourse. The surreal image of the market place where “the bones eat the marrow” and “the skin preys on the bones” is central to the poem as it expresses not only the poet’s antagonism to the Luciferean city, but his revolt against the brutal mirage of the capitalist world that turns men into commodities with its Midas gaze and decomposes human consciousness in a flux of perpetual agony. The poet finds his final solace in the inner illumination, of being reborn in our dreams. N.N. Kakkad’s poems like 1963, Theerthatanam (The Pilgrimage) and Parkkil (In the Park) are also reflections on our fragmented identities in a strife-torn world and the overarching evil that rules the modern world. Attoor Ravivarma identifies himself with the exiled hero of Kalidasa’a Meghadootam in the poem, Nagarattil oru Yakshan (A Yaksha in the City) while Vishnu Narayanan gets panicky as he finds that the people in a festival procession drawn by his painter-friend have no faces and overhears the leaders of a demonstration whisper to one another, “Where is your face, where is yours?”. Then the poet himself rushes to the mirror to discover that he too has no face above his shirt collar. (Mukham Evide, Where is the face?)  M.N. Paloor finds his god to be a Sultan smoking his hookah filled with dried human lives (Pedithondan, The Coward). He finds the poet of his times caught between Boeings and Comets subsisting entirely on anacin (Vimanattavalattil oru Kavi, A Poet at the Airport). Madhavan Ayyappath compares himself to a trembling solitary man perched on a hill of corpses, trying to turn the hands of a clock backward. (Maniyarayil,  In the Bridal Chamber). Cheriyan finds life to be a redundant bore  (Jeevitam enna Boru, A Bore called Life).

The poets of the Sixties discovered a new idiom to express the new subjectivity in the making. M.Govindan used sinewy rhythms and the alliterative syntax and the pithy style of Malayalam proverbs and riddles to move along the precarious borderland of meaning and nonsense (eg. “The foresaken leopard ate a bundle of grass; the sterile cow on seeing this devoured the bull”); Ayyappa Paniker played with words and used irony (eg; “Didn’t you call me a robber when I am merely a thief?”, “Who would cook the Vedic lore? Are we to fry it with mustard?”); Kunjunny’s limerick-like poems laughed at the hollow men of our times and the institutions they have built (eg; “My son should learn English from the moment of his birth, and so I had my wife’s delivery arranged in England”); Madhavan Ayyappath turned poetry into a collage of quotations and used prose and verse interspersed with passages in English and Sanskrit. Kadammanitta used simple rhythms akin to the folklore.

In the Seventies, the quest for individual identity gave way to that for a socio-political identity and modern poetry got politicized. The growth of a new Maoist left in Kerala, the dalit and Bandaya Movements in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, the all India strikes of port and railway workers, the revolts of the landless peasants and adivasis in  Naxalbari, Srikakaulam and Bhojpur, women’s movements for emancipation from patriarchy, the political turbulence in African and Latin American countries, the students’ rebellion in France, the impact of Maoist thought - all these served as an impetus to a paradigmatic change. Along with this came the discovery of a parallel political tradition in modernist poetry represented by poets like Mayakovsky, Bertolt Brecht, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Nazim Hikmet, Nizar Khabbani, Mahmood Darwish, Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen, David Diop, Wole Soyinka, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor and several others a lot of whose poetry was translated in the decade chiefly by K.Satchidanandan along with Kadammanitta, Ayyappa Paniker, K.G.Sankara Pillai and others. Indian poets like Sri Sri, Bishnu Dey, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, P. Lankesh, Namdeo Dhasal etc also came to be known during this time. A third world modernism seemed to be on the anvil, inspired by Nicanor Parra’s concept of ‘anti-poetry’ and Neruda’s concept of ‘impure poetry’. The pioneers of the transformation were, by general admission, K. Satchidanandan and K. G. Sankara Pillai. though several poets contributed to the new spring including older poets like Attoor Ravivarma and Kadammanitta  and younger poets like Civic Chandran, Sanal Das and P. Udayabhanu. K. G. Sankara Pillai’s  Bengal , like Ayyappa Paniker’s Kurukshetram took off from the Mahabharata; only here the war turns into a metaphor for armed class struggle, Dhritarashtra representing the blinded hegemonic classes unable to gauge the new turns of events and haunted by the nightmares of an imminent overthrow: “This burning summer fills me with a strange fear. Even with a slight wind the dry leaves will roar and rise… and the cyclone, unawares, will rise and crush the mountains that block its way”. While the poem is ostensibly about the impending revolution, it has a subtext that is critical of the earlier ‘high modernist’ view of things as Dhritarashtra speaks of the ‘blind singers of the wasteland,’ ‘the sycophants of Death’, startled by the cyclone and refers to Sanjaya’s speech exhorting young poets to turn their poems into torches and stab the rulers with them in their faces.

Bengal with its radical manipulation of archetypes, its mixing of the dramatic and narrative modes, its quick rhythms and refrains that capture the panic of the blind king and its interweaving of the history of the society and of poetry, was to set the tone for young poetry for a whole decade. Sankara Pillai’s own poems like Anandan that delves into the psychology of the Indian middle class with its ambivalent attitudes to social change, Nissabdata (Silence) that sees the promise of revolt in the silence of the home and the work place, and Kashandi (Baldness) that attacks the cowardice of the intellectuals that fear the truth, articulated the despair and the anger of the ‘midnight’s children’. Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan’s poems viewed Indian reality from the point of view of the marginalized, especially the adivasis, (eg; Kattalan - the savage, Kiratahahvritham - the Tale of the Outcaste, Kurathi - the Kurava woman being good examples) while Ravivarama in his poems like Piravi (The Birth), Sankramanam (The Transition), and Ottovin Pattu (The Song of the Autorikshaw) commented on the present that announces a new birth  and transforms the meek into the terrible. Satchidanandan’s poems like Satyavangmoolam (My Testament), Pani (Fever) and Idavela (The Interval) tried to articulate the dishonesty of the intellectuals, the wrath of the subaltern and the hope of a more just society while also expressing a change in the mode of looking at poetry. By the time the Emergency came to be declared, Malayalam poetry was ready to respond to it through various means like irony, humour  and allegory. M.Govindan’s Prarthana (The Prayer), Ayyappa Paniker’s Kadukka (The Gallnut ) used black humour and irony to laugh at the  plight of freedom while Satchidanandan’s Navumaram (The  Tree of Tongues) invoked the folk mode to speak of people’s resistance and ultimate victory  against dictatorship as also the poet’s victory over censorship symbolized by the severed tongue of the singer growing up into a tree of tongues. Many poets underwent incarceration during that time while many poems were disallowed by the censor.

The poetry of the Seventies as the radical poetry of the decade is generally called, marked a transition form the lyrical to the dramatic mode. Dialogues replaced the monologues of the earlier decade, and prose, often forthright and sinewy, came to be used widely as a poetic medium. The idiom came closer to everyday speech and symbols, images and metaphors became charged with political meaning.

The local came to the fore in the Malayalam poetry of the Eighties. The failure of the federal polity made writers think more in terms of the regional and linguistic identity than national identity. Attoor Ravivarma’s poem Pandi (Pandi is a typical Keralite form of percussion) was published in 1987. Here a man who had left his village and served for thirty years in a hotel in the city comes back to the village to see that all the signs that had marked his native place apart have disappeared. He feels like an alien as no human being or beast or plant recognises him. He tries to recall what he has lost. Then he hears the pandi percussion from the rural temple. The drums and pipes and the percussionists and the listening ears are all new; yet the rhythm has retained its distinctiveness. It is a moment of the recovery of the self for him. Nervazhikal (Straight Passages), edited by Satchidanandan, foregrounds this new regional perspective. K. G. Sankara Pillai’s poems like Kadambanattu Kadambilla (There is no Kadamba in the Land of Kadambas - a play on the name of his native place) and  Kochiyile Vrikshangal (The Trees of Kochi) and Satchidanandan’s own series on Kerala including the poem on his language, Malayalam along with the poems of Ayyappa Paniker, M. Govindan, D. Vinayachandran etc are attempts to listen to the voice of the collective unconscious of the Malayali and replicate it in region-specific forms. Thus they fought the narcissistic urges of early modernism as also the illusion of an impending revolution that characterised the Seventies. In the Eighties as well as Nineties there was a resurgence of typically regional themes: local histories, legends, celebrations, rituals, heroes and heroines, flora  and fauna. There was also the deployment of  regional rhythms and meters and  a rejuvenation of native ways of seeing and imagining. 

 The young poets  who came up in the eighties and nineties have liberated the poetic idiom from the cliches of the Sixties as well as the Seventies. The best of them – Anwar Ali, T.P. Rajeevan, P. P. Ramachandran, K.R.Tony, P. Raman, Anita Thampi, Biju Kanhangad, S.Baiju, Rafeek Ahmed, P N Gopikrishnan, Veerankutty, Mohanakrishnan Kalady, Manoj Kuroor, Sarju, Sebastian, P.A.Nazimuddeen, Latheesh Mohan, M R Vishnuprasad, Kuzhoor Wilson, Nazeer Kadikkaad, Ajeesh Dasan and scores of others –  are extremely careful about form and have a nuanced understanding of language. Their poems are deeply suggestive and seldom loud or rhetorical. They are free from the morbidity of the early modernists as also from the revolutionary ambitions of the later ones. Many of them use everyday language for poetic expression.Two trends stand out in the newest poetry: one is that of women’s poetry, not overtly feminist yet recognisably feminine: the poems of Savitri Rajeevan and Vijayalakshmi belong more to the eighties while the newer poets include Anita Tampi, Rose Mary, Muse Mary, V. M. Girija,  Lakshmeedevi, Rajani Mannadiyar, Kanimol, Saheera Tangal, Dona Mayoora, Girija Pathekkara and several others. Here is a poem by Anita Tampi: (tr. J. Devika)

Sweeping the Front Yard

The back aches,
as the broom sweeps
into memory, at dawn
soil-pimples sprouted, 
on the front yard
of the house in slumber
eyes deep shut.

Perhaps the rain  could have
eased the ground
last night.
Earthworms must have 
stirred it under,
toiling ,may be sleepless, to
build tiny homes of earth.

Only to be razed,
to be spread,
in finger-streaks
the broom leaves behind.
After the sweeper girl's 
morning dance, 
her Bent Backstep.

The sweeping done, 
dawn alights
Light falls, the eyes 
of the house open
No footprint, 
Not even fallen leaves,
how clean it is!

The newspaper arrives
having scoured 
the depths of night, it falls
stumbling against the door.
Then she rises from clearing the shreds
So thirsty, she'd drink the coffee to its lees.

The other trend is Dalit poetry whose origins have been traced to reformer-poets like Sahodaran Ayyappan, Poykayil Appachan and Kumaran Asan himself especially as represented in Duravasta (The Tragic Plight) and Oru Tiyyakkuttiyude Vicharam (The Thoughts of a Tiyya Boy). S. Joseph with three collections of poetry is undoubtedly the most important of these poets invoking a so-far unexpressed world of  dalit experience in his poetry through a chiselled style that employs a lot of words and expressions used by the marginalised people of Kerala. Raghavan Attoli, M.B. Manoj, Vijila, S. Kalesh, M. R. Renukumar and many others represented in the recent dalit anthologies published in English are also striving to create an idiom that is modern and at the same time capable of expressing their specific dalit experience. There are literally scores of poets in all the four generations writing today in Malayalam using different registers and tones and rhythms and articulating a range of attitudes and world views. The present of poetry in the language is marked by this diversity as well as by a vitality that springs from poetry’s organic links with the people and the creative traditions of the land. 

Blogs and other social media have encouraged a lot of poets who would otherwise have remained invisible to publish their poems for their circle of friends. Some of them are now known names. The first printed anthology of Malayalam blog poetry edited by K Satchidanandan  (Naalaamidam, Fourth Space) was published in 2010 carrying sixty poets.  There are also a whole generation of poets from Kerala who write in English like Ravishanker, Rukhaya M K, Ampat Koshy, Chandramohan, Hema Hemambika and others.

Let me close with two samples of recent poetry in Malayalam.The first is a poem by S. Joseph, a Dalit Christian poet (tr.Satchidanandan):

My Sister’s Bible

These are what my sister’s Bible has:
a ration- book come loose,
a loan application form,
a card from the cut-throat money-lender,
the notices of feasts 
in the church and the temple,
a photograph of my brother’s child,
a paper that says how to knit a babycap,
a hundred- rupee note,
an S. S. L. C. Book.

These are what my sister’s Bible doesn’t have:
the Old Testament and the New,
the red cover.

The other is a poem by P. P. Ramachandran ( tr. Satchidanandan):


To let you know
I am here,
a sweet cry,

To suggest
I was here
drop a feather,

To prove
I will be here
the warmth of brooding,

How can birds
express life
simpler than this?

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