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A rare harvest

By December 29, 2017No Comments

Source : Frontline


The two volumes give the non-Malayalee readers and the diaspora a solid, tangible proof of the existence of a proud culture and heritage. By A.J. THOMAS

THE Oxford University Press (India), under the editorial initiative of Mini Krishnan, the dauntless pioneer of publishing Indian literature in English translation in an organised manner, has come out with two iconic anthologies of modern Malayalam literature over the last six years—The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing (2011), and The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature (2017). During the same period, two other books, The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing (2012) and The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing(2016), have been published under her watch. In fact, these books effectively place the literatures concerned in the orbit of the international lingua franca, and two of them relate to Malayalam literature.

Mini Krishnan’s visionary contribution in this area has to be lauded at the outset. At a time when the English language acquires unprecedented importance as the prime link in the cyberworld, and increasingly as the language of humanities, social sciences, and particularly that of comparative literature, and world literature in translation, the publication of these two anthologies most certainly gives modern Malayalam literature a tremendous boost. (Most of us would not have heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and scores of other literary giants had they not been available to us in English translation.)

In the Preface to The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature, its editors, P.P. Raveendran and G.S. Jayasree, state: “This book is the result of a deeply felt need for a comprehensive anthology of modern Malayalam literature which would be useful alike to researchers, literary treasure hunters, and votaries of the language who can only read its literature in translation.” It is a fair enough thesis statement, spelling out the intent of the book in a nutshell. At the very beginning of his scholarly, well-researched “General Introduction”, Raveendran, however, gives a more specific indication of the scope and purpose of the work: “This anthology constitutes a comprehensive and representative selection of the seminal works of literary and imaginative writing composed in Malayalam over the past hundred and twenty years. The selection in two volumes is expected to permit the reader to gauge the range and depth of creative expression in the genres of poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fictional prose….” Comprehensive is the key word in both the opening sentences. But the elaborate processes of selection/rejection/revision/canonisation of assorted literary texts in Malayalam created over more than a century (spanning the late 19th and the early 21st centuries) are barely contained even in the loose garb of this adjective. The strategies adopted by the editors in the selection/rejection of authors/texts/translators would certainly keep literary enthusiasts interested for some time to come.

Evolution of Malayalam

The first volume comprises samples of poetry, drama and prose, and the second volume is set apart entirely for fiction (announcing its primacy among other genres), which includes the novel and the short story. The General Introduction starts off by narrating the story of the evolution of the Malayalam language as a separate entity more than a thousand years ago, “from a branch of the proto-Dravidian language and developed into an independent tongue through a healthy interaction with other languages, more particularly Sanskrit”, attempting to avoid, through a footnote, the tangle of unresolved arguments over the issue in the scholarly world over the last two centuries, to date. This introduction places Malayalam as the youngest of the four south Indian languages—the other three being Tamil, Kannada and Telugu—which have been awarded the status of Classical Languages by the Central government, and affirms its place as one of the country’s oldest bhashas. The poetry and drama sections are also separately introduced by Raveendran, while the fiction section is introduced by both the editors together. Raveendran has individually contributed to the anthology in a considerable manner.

An instance of bias

The works represented in the poetry section start with those of N. Kumaran Asan (1873-1924) and ends with M.R. Renukumar (born 1969), with deletions of notable names like that of T.P. Rajeevan, who is one of the pioneers of the “post”-modern era after Balachandran Chullikkad; the name of N.G. Unnikrishnan, whom many of the new crop of poets who established themselves by the early 1990s consider their inspiration, along with Aattoor Ravivarma, is not even mentioned in the introduction.

Towards the end of the General Introduction, Raveendran says: “Some of the authors omitted would be found discussed or mentioned in the introductions, though obviously this will be small comfort to admirers of specific writers, whom we could not, for practical reasons, include in the anthology. This is true especially of the younger writers of the present age who have been chosen keeping in view their representative status rather than canonical merit.” The last two italicised words speak volumes of a bias, shared by most of the “established” school critics, and some commentators that there has not been a “single, strong poetic voice since Balachandran Chullikkad”. The whole point of discussing the poetry of the past three decades is lost when such an argument is advanced. The socio-political, economic and cultural changes that have set in since the mid 1980s to the present, the world over and in India, particularly Kerala, are phenomenal and hence the poetry emanating from such an age has to be seen separately, and its canon should be determined on different reference points, and not by implying that their canonical merit is suspect.

Modern drama, which is actually seen as less flourishing than poetry and fiction in Malayalam, has only a few stars, and the most important among them, except perhaps Narendra Prasad (the reason for the exclusion is explained below) and P. Balachandran, have been represented, beginning with the veteran V.T. Bhattathirippad (1896-1982) to K.V. Sreeja (b. 1966), a woman dramatist, a rarity and a welcome addition. One wishes that the farces of a pioneer like C.V. Raman Pillai (represented in the fiction section, and hence excluded here) and the dramas and satires of E.V. Krishna Pillai had been included to demonstrate the natural course of growth in this genre.

The prose section has been introduced by Jayasree. Beginning with C. Kesavan (1891-1969) and ending with J. Devika (b. 1968), this section offers what is more of a random selection from among hundreds of authors worthy of possible inclusion. One would expect that perhaps prose would have had a lot more to be represented, as it has been freed in the instant case from the traditional restriction to naturally belong to the genre of literary criticism in similar circumstances and thrown open the entire gamut of prose writings for selection. Although different kinds of prose writings are represented here, important areas such as travelogue and popular science are seen left out.

Dominant genre

The fiction section begins with O. Chandu Menon (1847-1899) and ends with S. Sithara (b.1976). Fiction is undoubtedly the dominant genre in modern Malayalam literature, and it developed over a little more than a century, from the late 19th. The development it has reached, especially the short story, is phenomenal, and sometimes the cognoscenti attribute world-level status to it.

Of the fiction writers (apart from those already mentioned below along with the reason for their exclusion), the omission of Parappurathu is glaring. Along with Kovilan and Nandanar, he had already been ghettoised into the genre of “Military Story Writers” in the modernist critical canon in Malayalam, and the present editors have missed an opportunity to see, through fresh eyes, the master who contributed such iconic social novels as Aranaazhikaneram (Just a Fraction of an Hour). Failing to mention, at least in the introduction, the names of short story writers such as Aymanam John, Victor Lenus and Thomas Joseph, whose contributions are important in defining the curve of the phenomenal growth of postmodern Malayalam short story, stands out. Another jarring note is when the name of Paul Zacharia (Vol.2, page 23) is mentioned only along with the postmodernists who flourished since the 1980s, whereas he is a strong presence of the 1970s, winning the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1978.

Dropping of such cult writers as Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, pioneering literary critic and philosopher who inspired modernism in Malayalam, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Madhavikutty, besides Kovilan, N.P. Muhammad, and K.P. Ramanunni—all fiction writers—and R. Narendra Prasad, literary critic and important dramatist, owing to problems connected with copyright clearance as mentioned in the General Introduction by Raveendran, is regrettable. That said, it should not be lost sight of that the editors have done a highly commendable job of choosing what they thought was the best offered in Malayalam literature in modern times, especially after the Western genres, such as the novel, the short story and drama got established in the language.

The General Introduction by Raveendran, along with his individual introductions for the poetry, drama and fiction sections, as well as Jayasree’s introduction for the prose section, deserve to be reviewed closely, as they constitute serious studies regarding the origin and development of these genres in Malayalam.

Historical survey

In the General Introduction, Raveendran launches on a historical survey laced with patches of incisive analyses of the different phases of the more than a millennium-old life of Malayalam literature. From the 9th century C.E., there has been a “steady flow of written literature in the language, first in the shape of inscriptions and later, from the 12th century, in the form of literary works, some of them translations and adaptations from Sanskrit”. This literature emerges from two traditions—the first being the “Paattu” (songs) tradition following the ritual, folk and country songs from the hoary past which also are occasionally laced with Tamil phrases and expressions, and the other being the “Manipravaalam” tradition, a mixture of two languages, in which Mani (ruby) stands for Tamil, and later Malayalam (as it emerged as an independent language), and Pravaalam(which means coral in Sanskrit) representing Sanskrit. With Ramacharitam written in the Paattu tradition by Cheeraman (celebrated as the first Malayalam poet) in the second half of the ninth century and Vaisikatantram in the Manipravaalam tradition, Malayalam literature begins its journey in the written form. Leelatilakam is a 14th century work on the grammar and rhetoric of Manipravaalam.

Raveendran then traces the major works in both traditions through the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in the works of Thunchath Ezhuthachan—acclaimed as the “Father of the Malayalam Language”—who attained, “under the power of poetic imagination”, a synthesis, not only of the two traditions to the highest possible degree of perfection, but also of many others like folk songs and ballads orally handed down the centuries and narratives of ritual and social performances.

Prominent among the Paattus were Vadakkan Paattukal (Northern Ballads) and ThekkanPaattukal (Southern Ballads) accumulated over several centuries but collected into anthologies much later. Thottams were the chorus-narratives and action-descriptions of ritual performances such as Theyyam, Thira and Mudiyettu. Aattaprakaarams were stage manuals prepared in the vernacular for classical Sanskrit drama like Koodiyattam, for the benefit of performers, while Kramadeepikas were detailed instructions for the preparation of the stage—both in lucid prose in the language from as early as the ninth century.

In Manipravaalam, the literary form Champu, deriving from the interspersing of verse and prose patches, was prevalent. Even as Malayalam developed into a full-fledged language, the tradition of Champu survived into much later centuries.

Along with Ezhuthachan in the 16th century, bhakti was full-blown in the works of Poonthanam Namboodiri, at the tail end of the bhakti movement launched in south India in the 6th century by Naayanmars (Saivite saints) and Alwars (Vaishnavite saints) of Tamil and the Veerasaiva Vachanakaaras of Kannada. The social reformation ingrained in the classless, casteless teachings of the advocates of bhakti could be reached to the common masses only if the writing was done in their tongue. The journey of the vernacular, which began in the ninth century thus comes to a fruitful conclusion, as exemplified in the works of Ezhuttachan and Poonthaanam.


The age of Ezhuthachan and Poonthaanam were followed by the great composers of Aattakkathas, of the play scripts of Kathakali performances, the most prominent among whom is Unnai Varier, whose Nalacharitam in four parts, meant for four nights of performance, is the most poetic of all, and remains unparalleled to this day.

The great poet-dramatist of the 18th century, Kunchan Nambiar, whose Tullal texts meant for different caste groupings among the depressed classes, marks a great departure from the hitherto canonised versions, in that they incorporated the speech patterns of these subgroups as well as offered scathing criticism of the social set-up of the times. In the performance of Tullal, Nambiar also adopted elements of the Chakyar Kuthu, the plebeian version of the classic Koodiyattam, in providing prose narrative patches. All these proved to be tremendous contributions in the development of Malayalam as a modern language.

The last part of the development of the language was its scientific structuring, for which credit must be given to Christian missionaries who came to Kerala between the 18th and 19th centuries. Johan Ernst Hanxleden (better known as Arnos Padiri, 1681-1732), Clement Pianius (1731-1782), John Philip Wesdin (Poulinose Padiri) and Herman Gundert (1814-1893) were Malayalam’s first grammarians and lexicographers. Their objective vision of the language and literature prompted the writers of subsequent eras to introspect and also to accommodate new genres such as the novel, the short story, modern drama and modern prose.

Malayalam poetry

Raveendran’s individual introductions of the poetry, drama and fiction (along with Jayasree) sections are also discursive, interspersed with analyses.

In his introduction to the poetry section, Raveendran traces the history of the Malayalam poetry of the 20th century, beginning with the tension between “tradition” and “modernity” not only in the literary sphere but in political, social and cultural ones as well. The movement led by Mahatma Ayyankaali, for the rights of the depressed classes as individuals, Sree Narayana Guru’s wide-ranging social reforms involving organising and educating the backward castes, and many other such reformers, had awakened the Kerala society, which was divided into many strata.

During the period from the end of the 19th century to the early 20th, the advances made through social renaissance could not be represented in poetry through the prevailing language ridden with the “faded echo of the mediocre traditions in Sanskrit, or a copy of the language of effete romanticism imbibed from the West”, which was in use by poets of diverse sensibilities, ranging from the Venmani poets of lurid erotica to Kerala Varma Valiayakoil Thampuran and Kodungalloor Kunhikkuttan Thampuran of the grand discourses, and V.C. Balakrishna Panikkar, the pioneering pre-romantic. It was into this scenario that Kumaran Asan, the greatest of the pre-modernists, arrived. He who became a Mahakavi without writing a Mahakavya was, however, flanked by Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, who brought gravity of expression to the language, and Vallathol Narayana Menon, who was noted for the felicity of his expression—the trinity brought the Romantic Era in

Malayalam poetry culminated in the excess of Changampuzha Krishnapillai and dissipated into more sober strains in later poets such as P. Bhaskaran, O.N.V. Kurup and Vayalar Ramavarma. Even in the works of the later trinity of poets, Edasserry, Vyloppilly and P. Kunhiraman Nair, the sap roots of romanticism played a subterranean role, especially in the case of the latter.

The advent of modernists, with K. Ayyappa Paniker, Madhavan Ayyappathu, N.N. Kakkad and others in the late 1950s, followed by the blossoming of Aattoor Ravivarma, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, K. Satchidanandan, K.G. Sankra Pillai, D. Vinayachandran and Maythil Radhakrishnan, among others, followed by the “in-between” poets such as K.A. Jayasheelan, N.G. Unnikrishnan and T.P. Rajeevan, who served as a bridge between the poets of the present who begin their flowering from the mid 1980s—Raveendran’s introduction to the section thus covers the whole ambit of modern Malayalam poetry.

The introduction to the prose section is an overarching study of prose beginning from the passages found in the Yajurveda (1400-1000 BCE) and exploring examples in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali down the centuries, until the ninth century, and again tracing the earliest appearance of prose in the language, which developed into Malayalam, as found in the Vazhappalli Saashanam of the Chera King Rajasekhara Varman who ruled from 820-844 to the present. This 16-page-long (pages 315-330) authoritative account provides a non-Malayalee reader with a glimpse of how the language has been built on the strong foundations of solid prose. Proceeding on the above-described story of the history of the development of the language, Jayasree ably traces the history of prose in Malayalam.

The introduction to the drama section by Raveendran is a comprehensive study, beginning from the ritual and folk performance forms. He moves on to describe how Malayalam theatre, a modern phenomenon, developed.

Beginning from the translations of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Kalidasa’s Abhijnaana Shakuntalam by Kerala Varma Valiyakoyil Thampuran, the study covers the next 130 years. Moving on from the farces of C.V. Raman Pillai, the performance traditions of drama, ranging from the historical, religious, mythological, social, realist and experimental to the present are dwelt upon.

The 23-page introduction to the fiction section by Raveendran and Jayasree is a rich study, which will benefit researchers in the area. Though they begin by mentioning the 1877 work Ghaatakavadham (The Slayer Slain) written by an English lady, Mrs. Collins, and Archdeacon Koshy’s Pullelikkunju (1882), they acknowledge that Appu Nedungadi’s Kundalata (1887), as literary historians admit, is the first Malayalam novel. Next in line, Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889), is the first Malayalam novel modelled effectively on the Western genre. From this point on, the introduction furnishes a gripping account of the development of the genre of fiction in Malayalam, to date.

Altogether, these two volumes give non-Malayalee readers, and most importantly, the diaspora who do not mostly speak, read or write their parents’ or forebears’ mother tongue, a solid, tangible proof of the existence of their proud culture and heritage. Universities outside Kerala and abroad, with Malayalam departments, or Chairs, would greatly benefit from this anthology. Let us hope more comprehensive anthologies of this type are brought out in future, taking care of the shortcomings pointed out. However, it is to be emphasised once again that, with all its imperfections, this anthology certainly holds its own.


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