Thomas Palakeel. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Origins of the Language
Endless debates about the origins of the Malayalam language mark one aspect of the Kerala public culture. Of the many theories of origin, the most popular ones claim that Malayalam was born out of the confluence of Tamil and Sanskrit, that it originated out of Sanskrit alone, and that both Malayalam and Tamil came out of a single protolanguage. In his Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages (1875), Bishop Robert Caldwell argued that Malayalam evolved out of Tamil and that the process took place during the Sangam period (first five centuries of the Common Era), when Kerala belonged to the larger political unit called Tamilakam, the apogee of Dravidian civilization.
After the waning of the Sangam Age, the Kerala region went through a prolonged “Dark Ages” (500-900 C.E.), when Sanksritization (influx of Aryan culture from the north) of the dialect was completed, which helped the emergence of Manipravalam (a mixture of the local dialect and Sanskrit), which, in turn, helped the formation of Malayalam as an independent language. Several poetic works written in this mixed style have survived; highly erotic and decadent in nature, they express the worldview of the feudal class that monopolized the Kerala culture until the first decade of the twentieth century.
The first Malayalam prose work, Bhashakautiliyam, a commentary on Kautilya’s Arthasastra, was written in the twelfth century. The first Malayalam grammar/literary treatise, Lilathilakam, compiled in the fourteenth century, is considered the culmination of Manipravalam style. While the region continued to produce important works of literature in Sanskrit and Tamil, by the fifteenth century, Malayalam had its first classic in Cherusseri’s Krishna Gatha, and the sixteenth century produced the father of modern Malayalam literature, Thunchath Ezhuthachan, whose renderings of Adhyatma Ramayana and Mahabharata employed the narrative device of kilipattu (Bird Song). Until the end of the eighteenth century, Malayalam literature was closely allied with kathakali, a complex operative dance form dependent on the literary quality of the text. The nexus between kathakali and poetry helped the growth of literary Malayalam.
Almost exclusively poetic in form, the post-Sangam literature was in the mythical mode, whereas the Sangam literature (35,000 lines of poetry by 400 authors have survived) tended to be realistic portrayals of common people and their domestic and personal experience, which we have come to expect from modern literature. Only in the eighteenth century, with the work of poets like Kunchan Nambiar, do we begin to see the return of such literary expressions of domesticity. A gradual departure from the mythical to a satirical mode of writing becomes evident at this juncture. By the nineteenth century, prose forms enter the tradition with the translations of the Bible, and many works of European prose literature become widely available.
Literary journals like Vidya Vinodini and Bhasha Poshini opened up the language for the larger public, while several prolific writers and scholars belonging to the different royal families patronized literature. Translations from Sanskrit and English helped the foundation of a broader base for Malayalam writers. This period is marked by the trailblazing work by the Text Book Committee of Travancore (1866), which functioned like a literary movement. Valiya Koyil Thampuran and A. R. Rajaraja Varma were champions of this movement, even though these two royals were basically part of the orthodox literary establishment.
European education and Christian missions had already created a suitable environment for journalism, historical writing, and prose in general. The first travelogue (a native Catholic’s journey to Rome) was written as early as 1786. The first history of Kerala was published in 1860, and its author, Pachu Moothathu, also wrote the first autobiography in Malayalam in 1871. The first Malayalam novel was published in 1887, and two years later, one of the greatest contributions to the genre was made by Chandu Menon, whose novel Indulekha ushered in the modern period of Malayalam literature.
Triumph of Social Modernity
After a long history of caste and class oppression, Kerala underwent radical cultural transformation in the 100 years that followed the Travancore Education Bill of 1817, promulgated by Queen Rani Gauri Parvathi Bhai. In 1853-54, both Travancore and Cochin kingdoms passed laws emancipating bonded laborers. In the year 1888, during the reign of Maharaja Srimulam Thirunal, for the first time ever in the history of an Indian kingdom, a legislative assembly began to participate in the administration. In the following decades, several schools, colleges, public libraries, and newspapers were founded all over the region, so that the rise of a modern sensibility was inevitable. Unlike in the previous centuries, prose literature came to play an increasingly important role in the new era.
However, poetry was enjoying its modern golden age. While the novelists were quickly building up their new genre by following the romantic tradition of the novel set by Chandu Menon (1847-99) and C. V. Raman Pillai (1858-1922), the poets, mainly Kumaran Asan (1871-1924) and Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958), produced great masterpieces and set a clearly modernist taste; their work made a radical break from the mythical and pseudophilosophical themes that had obsessed the poets of the ruling class up to that point. This aesthetic shift was a natural extension of the social modernity made possible by reform. Enlightened institutions of education, the law, the press, and several reform movements imbued the people with a robust optimism about the future of Indian society.
The rise of modern Malayalam poetry began with the Venmani group, whose members started experimenting with new forms and subject matter, abandoning the classicist mode, using simple diction and Dravidian meters, and, above all, daring to deal with taboo subjects. Ironically, this was also an era when the literary orthodoxy was the most active in public culture. For instance, the elite Brahmin poets (with last names like Iyer, Sharma, Moothathu, Varma, Namboothiri) and Nair poets (Menon, Pillai, Marar, Panicker) frequently indulged in poetic combats such as akshara sloka (recitation) and samasya (poetic riddles). A poetry feud of the period led to the historic “rhyme dispute,” during which the entire literary community of Kerala came to be divided on the question whether rhyme enhanced or hindered poetry. The lively literary environment also enabled many new poets to start resisting the orthodoxy to produce unrhymed verse, consequently freeing the language from the traditional epic poetry limited to endless veneration of the Hindu pantheon. While the orthodox poets had been evasive about the harsh social and economic realities prevalent in the land for over a millennium, the new generation became emboldened to seek out new forms and contents for their poetry.
With the publication of K. C. Kesava Pillai’s Asanna Marana Chinta Satakam (Verses on Imminent Death) and V. C. Balakrishna Panicker’s Oru Vilapam (A Lament, 1909), Malayalam poets began to proclaim their Romantic aspirations; the revolutionary spirit of the English Romantics appealed to these poets. Panicker’s short life was similar to that of Shelley and Keats. Having established himself as a major poet at the age of 19, he died at the age of 27. The poets of his generation defied mythological subjects and emphasized individual experience, altruism, and cultural renaissance, and motifs of sacrificial suffering became central poetic images. This late arrival of the romantic spirit quickly transformed Malayalam literature as a whole, and out of the ferment emerged the three poets known as the Great Trio.
The Great Trio of Poets
Three of the most prolific poets of the first half of the twentieth century, Kumaran Asan (1871-1924), Ullur Parameswara Iyer (1877-1949), and Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958), are collectively known as the Great Trio (mahakavitrayam). Their work provided Malayalam with a truly native tradition in literature, nationalist in spirit, romantic in style, and modernist in outlook. They freed the language from having to depend on the Sanskrit heritage. Together, their works have acquired the status of a “school of poetry,” even though each of them was unique and seldom stable in his aesthetic.
While the classicism of Cherusseri, Poonthanam, and Ezhuthachan derived mainly out of their allegiance to the Brahmin culture of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Great Trio produced a massive corpus of literature drawing on the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic, as well as Hindu, traditions, in essence creating a new mythos for the modern age. Much of the poetry and criticism of twentieth-century Malayalam literature is actually an extended response to the work of the Great Trio.
Kumaran Asan: The Poet of New Humanity
The oldest and the most important member of the Great Trio, Kumaran Asan belonged to the Ezhava caste, which was discriminated against by the upper castes that monopolized the literary and cultural life of Kerala throughout history. Influenced by the teachings of the philosopher/cultural activist Narayana Guru, Asan sought to create a new cultural ethos for Malayalam based on English liberal education. Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan also preached an increased adherence to the Sanskrit tradition—this helped them in effectively outwitting the proponents of caste supremacy on every level of culture and politics.
While most of the prominent poets wrote classical epics, in the year 1909, Kumaran Asan published his long elegiacal poem Vina Poovu (A Fallen Bloom) and provided a metaphor for the tragedy of human life in modern times. In many ways, much of the poetry of previous generations ignored human life, if it dealt with it at all; those poets seemed to treat everything as an illusion and spoke in the idioms of the Hindu philosophers. Asan’s poetry moved away from the glib philosophizations and started to capture the contemporary experience of bondage. He wrote repeatedly about the dehumanizing experience of the individual who has been deprived of fundamental human dignity. His new style of writing, characterized by unprecedented clarity and romantic rage, cried out for the freedom of the individual. Asan’s individualism was not a solipsistic, bourgeois ideal. A low-caste individual’s assertion of identity and self-respect was an act of subversion in the eyes of the higher castes, which, for centuries, refused to acknowledge such individuality; Asan’s poetry rendered, for the first time, the essence of the “low-caste” individual who possessed a higher moral authority than the oppressors; in effect, Asan’s poetry was affirming the essence of the collectivity that was historically denied.
In conjunction with Asan’s nationalist aspirations, his poetry proclaimed freedom from the bondage of ignorance and political and personal silence. He developed a consistent vision that included not only those who were oppressed but also the oppressors. In his Duravastha (The Tragic Plight, 1923), Kumaran Asan exhorted: “Remove the bonds of your effete tradition/ Or it will ruin you within your own selves.” Asan’s poetry brought into the culture a plea for a revolution of the heart. In Duravastha, his most celebrated khanda kavya (miniature epic), a Brahmin woman named Savithri marries Chathan, an untouchable, after he gave her refuge when her family home was destroyed in the Muslim revolt of Malabar (1921). This event takes place during a period when many Brahmins still considered lower-caste people untouchables. Having accepted the kindness of an untouchable, Savithri reciprocates his generosity by marrying him. This was incendiary material in the eyes of the orthodoxy; even distinguished critics like A. R. Rajaraja Varma, a part of the orthodoxy, sought to chastise Asan’s great work for faulty Sanskrit style. But Kumaran Asan’s poetry found the right audience among the nationalists and the new, educated class.
That Asan was able to create human drama without succumbing to didacticism provided unusual strength to his poetry, as well as his romantic vision. Having transformed Malayalam poetry from the stale, quotidian, cultural environment, Kumaran Asan was able to make his readers experience the horror of bondage, both external and internal; this was also the philosophical strategy of his mentor, Narayana Guru, whose followers became a ready audience for Asan’s poetry.
In his miniature epics such as Nalini (1911), Leela (1914), Chandalabhikshshuki (The Beggar Woman, 1923), Chintavishtayaya Sita (Brooding Sita), and Karuna (Mercy, 1924), Kumaran Asan sang eloquently about such issues as class oppression, feudalism, imperialism, materialism, untouchability, and unapproachability. Though there existed no gender-based cultural critique at this point, most of his works displayed a great understanding of womanhood. His heroines continue to inhabit the language as if they are actual human beings. His work drew much strength from Buddhism, which challenged the iniquities of caste while offering realistic materials suitable to make his romantic art. For instance, Chandala Bhikshuki is about a low-caste woman named Matangi who offers, with misgiving, a drink of water to a young Buddhist monk, Ananda. His acceptance of it is in defiance of caste. She undergoes a conversion experience and becomes a Buddhist nun. In Karuna, the courtesan Vasavadatha is attracted to the Buddhist monk Upagupta, who keeps telling her that it is not yet time for him to enter her life. After the courtesan had murdered a merchant, she was apprehended, and her limbs were dismembered in punishment. For Asan, Vasavadatta is a metaphor of alienation and decay, and the poet seems to suggest that her longing for the monk’s presence is that of society’s desire for renewal. Upagupta the monk does arrive to comfort her with the compassion of the Buddha.
It is important to note that Kumaran Asan chose a Buddha figure (as a religion, Buddhism is almost nonexistent in India because of its resistance to caste) instead of a Hindu ascetic (even contemplative life is prohibited for the lower castes) as a harbinger of renewal. The Buddhist conversion rhetoric here is not meant for proselytization at all; the poet uses it as a trope of dissent to all levels of cultural decay characteristic of Indian society of the times. Of the many poets of this romantic tradition who invoked Buddha and Jesus metaphors, the most significant figure was Vallathol, a member of the Great Trio.
Vallathol Narayana Menon: Lyrical Nationalist
Among the Great Trio of modern poets, Asan’s style was roughly hewn, and Ullur’s was pedantic, but Vallathol wrote as the consummate lyrical stylist. A poet who transformed himself from a traditional classicist poet to a popular romantic bard, Vallathol also outlived the other two members of the Great Trio to become one of the most recognized poets of modern India. Published in 1910, Vallathol’s first major work, Badhira Vilapam (A Deaf Man’s Lament), dealt with the poet’s loss of hearing, his sense of deprivation of the world. The poet seeks to transcend the world of frightening silence in the same manner Milton resigned himself to the reality of darkness in his sonnet “On His Blindness.”
In 1916, when the first of his eight-volume masterpiece Sahitya Manjari (A Bouquet of Literature), appeared, he was immediately recognized as a significant voice, particularly because of his use of both the Sanskrit and Dravidian meters in his lyrical poetry. Even though his earlier poetry, like much of the poetry of Asan and Ullur, was rooted primarily in the Sanskrit tradition and in religious themes, Vallathol changed with the times, becoming an integral part of the nationalist consciousness sweeping the land. He sought to reach beyond the regionalism of the Kerala tradition and the orthodoxy of the Sanskrit heritage. The Gandhian movement transformed him into a modernist with broader nationalist aspirations. His poem “Ente Gurunathan,” an eloquent testimonial of a Gandhi disciple’s trust in the teacher, pointed at the direction his future poetry was to take. His celebrated works such as Bandanasthanaya Anirudhan, Virasrinkala Divaswapnam, Achanum Makalum, and Magdalana Mariam reiterated the poet’s commitment to larger human issues. His khanda kavya on the life of Mary Magdalene continues to be popular; it also paved the way for a new tradition of Christian symbolism in Malayalam. A literary tradition attempting to disengage itself from the mythical mode found an easier transition in the figures of the gospel and in Gandhi and Buddha. Though Vallathol did not have the benefit of the English education that Asan and Ullur had, he did try to imbibe Western traditions. Through his efforts to bring Kathakali out of feudal control, Vallathol also modernized a theater that had dominated the literary scene for at least four centuries.
Ullur S. Parameswara Iyer: Versatile Genius
The prolific Ullur was a scholar-poet. Though his position as one of the Great Trio is often questioned, his overall contribution to Malayalam literature is beyond dispute. He is known for his versatility, his lyricism, his innovative techniques of prosody, and, of course, his productivity. Ullur’s five-volume history of Malayalam literature is still the best work on pretwentieth-century Sanskrit, Tamil, and Malayalam. Though many critics eventually sought to attack Ullur as a member of the ruling class, the service he rendered to modern Malayalam literature through such works as Umakeralam, Karnabhushanam, Bhakthi Deepika, and Kiranavali ensured his position among the Great Trio. His most memorable poem is “Prema Sangitam,” a beautiful, ornate, pre-Raphaelite lyric about the aesthetics of love.
The author of the epic on Kerala, Umakeralam, Ullur was the most classical of the three poets. In midcareer, he abandoned some of his classicism and joined the new movement that was being popularized by Asan and Vallathol. As a first step, he adopted Dravidian meter and enriched it with his impeccable technical skill. His main contribution was to develop a sense of pride about the Indian identity of Malayalam-speakers. Being a top official in the government and an orthodox Brahmin himself, he predicated his works upon a lofty ideal of eternal India of Sanskrit culture and provided the best fusion of the Aryan and Dravidian cultures.
Ullur’s zeal for asserting cultural identity is most evident in Chithrasala (The Art Gallery), in which the poet takes the American writer Katharine Mayo for a demonstrative tour of the eternal India. In her Mother India, Mayo had attacked Indian culture and made many cynical, myopic remarks on Indian womanhood. Ullur took it upon himself to set the record straight by revealing to the American writer the gallery of portraits of men and women of the Indian tradition, describing their greatness, showing how the women often emerged nobler and wiser than their consorts.
The late Romantics were not merely a group of decadent aesthetes creating art for art’s sake. Extreme idealists and dreamers, they seemed to be obsessed with death and the awareness of transience and the futility of life. Among the Romantic poets who followed in the footsteps of the Great Trio, the most important figure was Nalappat Narayana Menon (1887-1955), but his poetic output was limited. From his early poetic phase, he shifted his attention to criticism, psychology, and ancient Indian philosophy; he also published translations from European writers. His best-known poetic work, Kannunirthulli (Teardrop), is an elegy on the death of his wife. Written in a terse, lucid style, the poem is still popular, as it possesses a rare nostalgic intensity and a new brand of metaphysical reflection. For a literature that thrived on glib invocations of fatalism, Nalappat’s poetry opened up a new way of looking at the experience of suffering.
Two younger late Romantics of equal importance, (both passed away early in their careers) stand out: Changanpuzha (1914-48) and Idappally (1909-36). Ramanan, the former poet’s Lycidas-like pastoral elegy about the latter’s suicide at a young age, continues to spawn generations of younger poets who freely exhibit their lofty idealism and passion of romantic suffering. Though Changanpuzha himself died at the age 34, he left behind a large volume of intensely lyrical, romantic poetry. His Vazhakkula (A Stalk of Plantains) is a small poetic gem; the poet narrates the story of an untouchable tenant who nurtures a plantain tree in his backyard; their father’s work enables the children to dream about the sweet nourishment the tree will render them when the fruit is ripe. But the landlord arrives. He claims the fruit. The fruit of the poor man’s labors is snatched away because the rich landlord claimed ownership on the patch of land.
In many ways, Changanpuzha’s Vazhakkula exemplifies the core of Malayalam Romanticism, which begins with the Great Trio and ends with the late Romantics: a profound sorrow about the human failure in acknowledging the dignity of all, even though all individuals must face the certainty of death. This poetic knowledge emboldens the poet to speak for a revolution of the heart.
Romantic poetry weakens with the death of Changanpuzha, whom Vallathol outlived by a whole decade. Romanticism in Malayalam contributed greatly toward developing a native poetic voice that is modern, yet nonimitative of Western models. Post Romantic and late Romantic poets, in general, sought to strike a truly Malayalam note in their poetry.
Among the dozens of poets who did hit the right note, the most important poet was G. Sankara Kurup. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Sankara Kurup attained a voice independent of the one set by Europeans. Kurup’s collection of symbolist lyrics, Odakkuzhal (Bamboo Flute, 1950), won him the first Jnanpith Award in 1965, India’s top literary honor. Inspired more by Tagore than Wordsworth, G. Sankara Kurup played an important role as a poet of the Indian independence movement, and he championed a poetry of humanism. He is probably the only poet of Kerala who is known as a bard of science, for he refers to the advancements in science in his meditations of the human potential, but his approach has to be understood as the beginnings of a postmodern sensibility, and the best example of this trend is his famous narrative poem “The Master Carpenter,” in which he uses a Kerala legend about a master carpenter’s envy for his son, who excels in the father’s art; to give a postmodern spin to the Western notion of the oedipal story, the poet offers a vivid character study of a father who kills his rival in art, his own son.
The legacy of the poets of the first half of the twentieth century (Kunjikuttan Thampuran, Rajaraja Varma, Kattakkayam, K. V. Simon, the two Naduvath poets Oravankara and Kundoor, and K. C. Kesava Pillai) was enhanced by the poets of the post Romantic period. Among the large number of the post-Romantics who have made significant contributions are Kunjiraman Nair, Balamani Amma, Edassery, Mary Benigna, Mary John Koothattukulam, Palai Narayanan Nair, Vennikulam, Vayalar Rama Varma, Mathan Tharakan, Vailoppilli, Krishna Warrier, M. P. Appan, Nalankal Krishna Pillai, G. Kumara Pillai, O.N.V. Kurup, P. Bhaskaran, Kadavadu Kuttikrishnan, K. V. Ramakrishnan, Sugatha Kumari, and Yusuf Ali Kecheri. It is interesting that Romantics like O.N.V. Kurup (Ujjaini, 1995), Sugatha Kumain (Ambalamani, 1993), and Naiv Madhusudhan (Naranath Bhranthan, 1995) are best sellers.
The Postmodernism of the Poets
As varied as their backgrounds and contributions, some of the late Romantics continued the Vallathol school of poetry; conservative and lyrical in style, yet progressive in terms of the poetic vision, their poems were region-specific and not easily translatable. Some of their work seemed like products of a region that was too distant from the larger world.
The postmodern poets and fiction writers connected Malayalam literature to a world larger than Kerala. With the death of Sankara Kurup, Idassery, and Kunjiraman Nair, what was known initially as a strange generation of “ultramoderns” came to take Malayalam poetry in a new direction. They were actually the postmoderns, and their landmark publication was Ayyappa Paniker’s long poem Kuruskhetra (1961). With its resonances of The Waste Land and The Bhagavat Gita, this long poem gathers together varied strands of Indian post-modernity: the East and the West merge in this era of late capitalism; poverty lingers; revolution has failed; no certainties are left to offer us solace, not even the old tribal rhythms, because our modernity has disturbed them. Paniker’s poem voices the sense of guilt and terror an individual has to bear with living in an unbounded historical moment in which, according to Panikker, the World Bank becomes the custodian of truth.
In spite of the wide difference in terms of their age, the postmodernist poets like Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, M. Govindan, A. Ayyappan, O. V. Usha, Satchidanandan, Balachandran Chullikkad, Chemmanam Chacko, Cherian K. Cherian, N. N. Kakkad, Madhavan Ayyppath, K. G. Sankara Pillai, Vinayachandran, and three dozen other poets have created a sustained poetic culture in Kerala. Some of these poets have also brought poetry into the public culture through street performances and campus readings, ushering in a new golden age of poetry.
Prose Literature Comes of Age
Though the first prose treatise in Malayalam, Bhasha Kautiliyam, was written as early as the twelfth century, the development of prose literature was slow. Poetic works and kathakali texts had a ready audience throughout the history of Malayalam literature, but prose readership began to grow only with the growth of printing in the 1850s—the first press was established in 1563, at a seminary in Cochin. One of the famous early prose pieces, Velu Thampy’s Kundera Proclamation of 1809, a battle cry against British colonialism, had moments of literary brilliance:
Taking over the realms of others by treachery is their [British] hereditary tradition; when thus a land passes into their hands, their soldiery will take over palace and fort under their guard … then land and hut, field and orchard will become their monopoly.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, we also begin to see a gradual decline of such traditional and unique Malayalam genres as attakatha (poetic narratives), ithihasas (sagas), kavyas, and khanda kavyas (miniature epics), which were all replaced by the mainstream European genres.
The Rise of the Novel
Though the semifeudal modes of production continued to play an important role in literature and life, a sufficiently independent class of readers and writers emerged, making possible what Ian Watt called (in the context of eighteenth-century England) the “rise of the novel.” Appu Nedungadi’s Kundalatha (1887) is arguably the first original novel in Malayalam. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889) is certainly the first significant Malayalam novel; the English lineage of the novel is acknowledged in the novel’s subtitle: Englishnovel Matiriyilulla Oru Katha (A Story in the Manner of the English Novel).
Chandu Menon has written that he initially meant to translate Benjamin Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple (1836) into Malayalam, but, having struggled with the subtleties of an alien culture, he abandoned the project in favor of writing one on his own, depicting a familiar story. The fact that Chandu Menon’s novel deals with the decline of the feudal, Brahminical culture in Kerala also explains the rise of the novel form in Malayalam, as one of the necessary preconditions for the flourishing of the novel genre is the emergence of an educated middle class. Menon’s Indulekha dramatizes the resistance of a progressive woman named Indulekha, who is being pressured into marrying the lecherous Brahmin Suri Namboothiri, who represents the decadence of feudalism, its caste oppression, and polygamy.
While feudalism controlled art and kept it limited to self-serving ritual forms, caste prohibited literary production because education itself was prohibited to the lower castes. The Brahmins maintained a belief that the untouchables would pollute the sacred language, Sanskrit. The gradual breakdown of such structures of oppression opened up the culture and made the rise of the novel possible. Chandu Menon’s heroine persists in her educated convictions (she is an ardent student of the English language!) and eventually weds her lover, Madhavan, in the process defeating the Brahmin, who is shown as an effete oppressor. Many of the social evils depicted in the novel have disappeared in independent India, partly due to the forceful representation of these problems in new literary forms.
Chandu Menon’s Indulekha set the tone for the future development of the novel in Malayalam: novelists began debating social issues through their elaborate probing into the individual experience of characters who were drawn from contemporary society. This literary trend had shown its first signs in Malayalam as early as during the eighteenth century (as it did in Europe), when the poet Kunchan Nambiar satirized society and its mannerisms and inequities. Had he written a prose narrative, we would have called it a novel. In the absence of the print culture, prose fiction had to wait until the final years of the nineteenth century.
The second major novelist to emerge in Malayalam was C. V. Raman Pillai. His Walter Scott-inspired historical novels about the Travancore dynasty, Mar-thanda Varma (1891) and Dharmaraja (1911), made up for the late blooming of the genre. He produced grand historical romances about the different Travancore kings and war heroes who stood up to British imperialism. In his Dhar-maraja, actually a sequel to Marthanda Varma, C. V. Raman Pillai follows up on the historical events that ended with the execution of a clan of King Mar-thanda Varma’s enemies.
In Dharmaraja, two descendants from the clan return disguised as wandering monks seeking revenge at the new king and to usurp the throne of Travancore, but the conspiracy is spoiled by the king’s lieutenant, Kesava Pillai, who himself becomes the central character in the third part of the saga, Rama Raja Bahadur. The historical context is that of the incursions of Tippu Sultan into the kingdom and the persistence of clannish dissent, which leads Travancore into accepting the hegemony of the British. Very much in the manner of Walter Scott’s romances, C. V. Raman Pillai also creates an elaborate human drama grounded in history, yet peopled with realistic characters.
Following in the tradition of C. V. Raman Pillai, several historical novels were written. Pallath Raman’s Amrita Pulinam and Appan Thampuran’s Bhoota Rayar and Bhaskara Menon (the first detective novel) deserve mention. Sardar K. M. Panikkar’s Paranki Padayali (The Portuguese Soldier), Dhumakethuvinte Udayam (The Comet of Ill Omen), and Kerala Simham (The Lion of Kerala) are also important works of subaltern sensibility in presenting Kerala’s encounter with the colonizers and imperialists. The range and popularity of the early novels helped the construction of a culture of the novel in Malayalam literature.
When C. V. Raman Pillai wrote his first satirical novel, Premamrutam, it also spawned yet another series of imitations. At this time, translations of novels from world literature began to appear, further enhancing the credibility of the genre. Besides Nalappat’s classic translation of Les Miserables, several other translations of John Bunyan, Maxim Gorky, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Tagore elevated the position of the novel in Malayalam.
The Malayalam Novel in Transition
If Malayalam poetry was revitalized the moment it parted company with the rigidities dominating South Indian literatures after the waning of the Sangam period, the resurgence of the novel as the preeminent literary genre followed the social and political transformations taking place in response to Western humanist tradition, increasingly drawing its energy from Marxist philosophy and aesthetics.
By the 1930s, a whole new school of writers, known as progressive writers, had come into existence. Three young critics, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, M. P. Paul, and Joseph Muntasseri, became the theoreticians of the school. Having understood the great potential of realistic fiction, these critics theorized about the new role of Malayalam literature in an era of Western literary and cultural paradigms. Through the many critical introductions he contributed to the works of emerging writers, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai affirmed the literary and aesthetic qualities of prose fiction. The mature theoretical synthesis of M. P. Paul’s critical monographs, Novel Sahityam, Cherukatha Prasthanam, and Gadyagathi, defined the novel, the short story, and the essay, respectively, and aligned Malayalam literature with international aesthetic trends. Joseph Muntasseri spoke primarily as a Marxist aesthete grounded in Indian literary traditions.
The Progressive Writers
The progressives acquired the label as they started out as socialist realists. Most of them gradually transcended all such “isms” even as Kerala was becoming the first state in the world to bring a communist government to power through electoral process. A famous critical work of the period, Guptan Nair’s Isamgalkkapuram, advocated artistic freedom reaching beyond “isms” and agendas. Kuttikrishna Marar’s critical essays, eventually collected in 1965 as a single volume, Kala Jeevitham Thanne, took issue with both the socialist realists and the proponents of “art for art’s sake,” pointing at the unique path an Indian writer could take independent of Western prescriptions. Again, the aesthetic independence of leftist writers might have been a result of the peculiar mutations of Marxism itself as it won followers from upper and lower castes alike, forming, in essence, a regionalist coalition against the mainstream Congress Party and its bourgeois, sectarian allies.
In 1956, the three Malayalam-speaking regions, Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore, were united to form the state of Kerala, bringing an environment of political and linguistic unity to the culture of Malayalam-speaking people. Many members of the new communist cabinet were literary personalities; the critic and novelist Joseph Muntasseri himself became the minister of education, and the chief minister was E.M.S. Namboothiripad, a prolific writer on history and Marxist aesthetics. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Kesava Dev, S. K. Pottekkat, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Uroob, and Cherukad are prominent novelists of this generation. The novelist who typifies the generation of the progressive is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai; he started out as a leftist and matured into a true Kerala original.
Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai
The best-known Malayalam writer, both nationally and internationally, is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1914). His fame is partly on account of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) translation of his masterpiece Chemmeen (The Prawn) and its classic film adaptation made in 1966 by Ramu Kariat. Though Thakazhi is often considered a hardcore socialist-realist, his major works, like Chemmeen and Enippadikal, are intense portrayals of love and tragedy, and they have little to do with socialism or realism. Very few Indian novelists have explored the nature of passion the way Thakazhi has in Chemmeen, in which the social and economic exploitation is mostly a subtext. Taken as a whole, his voluminous works present a proletarian position. Like Basheer’s work, Thakazhi Sivansankara Pillai also captured the living language of the underclass and traced the waxing and waning of its hopes in modern India.
In the novel Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger’s Son, 1947), we witness the story of three generations of thottis, cleaners of night soil. The first two generations struggle to attain individuality; they suffer and die unfulfilled, oppressed and ostracized, but their struggles enable Mohanan, the third-generation thotti, to assert his individual dignity and lead his fellow untouchables to rise against oppression and prejudice. The landscapes of Thakazhi’s novels are peopled with thousands of characters who represent a cross-section of Kerala: fisherfolk, toddy tappers, clerks, small farmers, landlords. He also tries to capture the peculiar social and mythical codes that continue to sustain their lives, making his works very much a part of the Indian tradition. In his voluminous novel Kayar (1978), through recapitulating the history of 200 years of the life of the working class and landowners, he also raised the scope of socialist realism by including the nuances of Kerala’s regional culture. Among the two dozen novels of this prolific writer are Enippadikal (Rungs of the Ladder), Randidangazhi (Two Measures of Rice), and nearly 100 short stories. His works have been translated into about 25 languages.
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer
Basheer (1910-94) is arguably the most significant novelist of the latter half of the century. He spent his youth wandering all over India and the Middle East when he was not incarcerated by the British. Having begun his writing career during the final phase of Gandhi’s struggles, he became a popular novelist after independence in 1947. Though one would suspect great revolutionary spirit in his works, what he offered were simple pictures of life in the poor, illiterate Muslim community of Kerala, trying to adjust to modernity, religious pluralism, and socialism. Though a tragic sense of life is prevalent in his early work, his characters learn to accept the tragic; they live in a spirit of profound love for their neighbors and fellow beings, including animals and birds and all the creatures of the natural world. His 30 or so novels and short story collections include Prema Lekhanam (Love Letter, 1943), Balyakala Sakhi (Childhood Playmate, 1944), Sabdangal (Voices, 1947), Pathummayude Aadu (Fathima’s Goat, 1959), and Mantrikapucha (Magic Cat, 1968). None of these works were overt commentaries about social and economic inequities, but Basheer captured the life of a whole underclass and helped it appropriate the culture that had been monopolized by one elite group for too long.
Kesava Dev and His Contemporaries
Another novelist who started out along with Thakazhi was Kesava Dev, whose novels Odayil Ninnu (From the Gutters) and Ulakka (The Pestle) are typical examples of socialist realism. Unlike Basheer and Thakazhi, Dev did not evolve and grow as a novelist; he even became a strident voice of the socialist orthodoxy. His tireless polemic against the postmodernist generation indicated the limitations of the original position of the progressives, and the literature of commitment came to be somewhat discredited in Malayalam.
Among other significant novels produced by the frontline progressives are Uroob’s Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum (Beautiful People) and Ommachu, S. K. Pottekkat’s Oru Desathinte Katha (The Story of a Land) and Visha Kanyaka (The Venomous Virgin), the military novelist Parappurath’s Ara Nazhika Neram (Half an Hour More) and Ninamaninja Kalpadukal (Blood-Stained Steps), Pon-jikkara Rafi’s Daivadoothan (The Angel), and Lalithambika Antherjanam’s Ag-nisakshi (Witness by Fire), a milestone work, written toward the end of her writing career; she harmonized both the spiritual and the social realms in this novel, as did the other thoughtful progressives who allowed themselves to be transformed by new ideas and voices.
There is also a transitional generation of younger novelists who distance themselves from the progressives. The best representative of this generation is M. T. Vasudevan Nair, whose novels Kalam (Time), Nalukettu (The Mansion), and Manj (Mist) are profound explorations of the northern Kerala characters startled by the abrupt changes in the traditional way of life. Equally important are his short stories and screenplays and his work as the editor of the foremost literary weekly, Mathrubhumi. N. P. Muhammad’s Arabiponnu (Arab Gold), Unnikrishnan Puthur’s Anappaka (The Elephantine Revenge); the late psychological novelist Vilasini’s 4,000-page, four-volume modern-day Mahabharata called Avakasikal (The Claimants); Malayatoor’s Verukal (Roots); C. Radhakrishanan’s Ellam Mayikunna Kadal; the various novels of G. Vivekanandan, E. Vasu, G. N. Panikkar, Perumbadavam Sreedharan, Joseph Mattom, Vettoor Raman Nair, Pamman, V. T. Nandakumar, and P. Valsala ( Nellu and Agneyam); and K. Surendran’s Kattu Kurangu (The Wild Ape) are among the best works in a vast category of authors.
Postmodernism and the Prose Writers
A literary historian who categorizes the writers of the twentieth century will have to relabel the progressives as modernists. Their worldview and their realistic style make them part of a broader phenomenon of modernity through which writers and thinkers around the world have tried to move away from the traditional cultural paradigms into the certainties of the age of the scientific temper. While, in modernity, such notions as democracy, socialism, global market, empiricism, rationalism, nationalism, existentialism, and other beliefs construct its certainties, in postmodernism, at least in its literary version, the writers tend to subvert some of these certainties from within.
Postmodernism in the West is primarily an engagement with form, but in Malayalam, besides its subversion of form, novelists and poets appear to be reinstating some of the irrationalities and tribalisms that modernism worked so hard to get rid of. In many ways, this trend is an extension of social postmo-dernity. The persistence of caste consciousness, the puzzling coexistence of tribalism and individualism, the ascent of consumerism and liberalization of capitalist enterprise, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the decline of the Left, and various anxieties about the future of modernity and nationality (all these are seen from the region, from Kerala’s peripheral position) are factors that are yet to be played out fully. However, the immediate trajectory for postmodernist writing has been the habitualization of modern literary forms (socialist realism). Among the more profound cultural reasons we can include the general breakdown of idealism, the excesses of political organizations (Marxist Party, the Naxalites), and the rise of communal and fascist organizations.
Two Postmodernists: O. V. Vijayan and Zacharia
The central figure in the postmodernist generation is O. V. Vijayan. He confronts the Marxist Party on a regular basis as he confronted, early on, the preeminent socialist realist Kesav Dev about his generation’s outmoded aesthetics and their suspicion toward the expressions of the younger generation. It must be remembered that, in both cases, it was the younger modernist revolting against the older modernist on issues of form and content, literary and social. Vijayan, who is also one of the leading English-language cartoonists in India, exploded into the literary scene with his dark, brooding, profoundly unsettling novel Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak, 1965, 1994). His writing was immediately identified as athyadunikam (ultramodern), as the term “postmodern” had not come into vogue in the critical vocabulary in Malayalam. Vijayan continued to write masterly short stories and social critiques until the national emergency in 1975, when his second novel, the scatalogical masterpiece Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri), was prevented from publication. Dharmapuranam seems to have been influenced by the existentialists as well as by Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne, but his vision and style, in general, spring out of the archetypal experience of the premodern India, vestiges of which have managed to survive in the remote village and tribal cultures of Kerala. The nascent postmodernist sensibility enabled him to bring out the essence of the premodern in a scorching, flaming narrative style, much to the confusion of the modern progressives, who claimed certainty in the matters of life and art. His dissent to modernism was evident in his early short stories and parodies. For instance, in the story “The Progressive Classic,” a woman sitting under the full moon asks her beloved, “Darling … have you read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital?” As the man begins to undo the woman’s blouse, she insists they read The Das Kapital right away. The author asks us to fill in the blanks with the four volumes of Marx, claiming that it would make his short story the lengthiest socialist-realist novel.
V. Vijayan has remained a thoroughly Indian writer by sustaining a certain continuity of the tradition established by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. This he achieves through delving deeper into the subcultures and the subtle dialectal variations of Malayalam and simultaneously connecting his work to the postmodern condition. Ravi, the young protagonist in Khasakinte Ithihasam,is an educated young man who loses himself in an isolated village where he volunteers to teach in an elementary school. Earlier, he had fled from the octopus clasp of modernity: city, college, intellectual life, a future career as an astrophysicist in the United States. When the village falls apart on account of the intrusion of the outside world, Ravi departs, seeing himself as an intruder, but, as he waits for the bus to take him back to the city, he allows a snake to bite him. At the close of the novel, we still see him awaiting his final journey. In his 1986 memoir about the writing of Khasakinte Ithihasam,Vijayan has explained that his art has nothing to do with Western forms of existentialist philosophy, as has been suggested, and that he receives his sustenance from postindependence Indian realities. This intentional rejection of Western modernity is actually a mark of Malayalam postmodernism.
Another significant postmodernist writer is Zacharia, whose style and posture are also comparable to the work of the novelist Basheer. Zacharia’s tightly drawn short stories possess a Borgesian inventiveness and the precision of Flan-nery O’Connor. The self-conscious narrative voice in his stories parades and parodies several recognizable styles, often within a single sentence. At the end of each story, he manages to collapse the whole edifice with a naughty nudge. His collections Oridath (1978) and Arkariyam (1986) also provide a unique Syrian-Christian texture to his stories. His characters are modern individuals, like Mr. Chacko, who has all the trappings of a Westernized pseudointellectual, but he also possesses a postmodernist sense of entrapment in the labyrinth of Indian culture that convinces Mr. Chacko to commit suicide, but he fails: he couldn’t quite open the poison bottle no matter how hard he tried. So he is condemned to live! Zacharia’s famous novella Bhaskara Pattelar and My Life (made into a film, Vidheyan, by Adoor Gopalakrishnan) provides us insights into his constant and evolving themes as the servile narrator lives his life to quench the master’s ruthless thirst for violence and deprivation. In spite of his introspective awareness about serving the devil, the narrator (like the fascist’s butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day) cannot act as a conscientious individual until the master is murdered, which leaves the servile man rather perplexed by the newly gained freedom.
The category of modernists and postmodernists encompasses a large number of poets, novelists, short story writers, critics, and historians. Among the most significant contemporary fiction writers who are making lasting contributions are Madhavikutty (Manasi), Anand (Alkoottam, Marana Certificate, Maru-bhmikal Undavunnathu Engane), Sethu (Pandava Puram), Punathil Kunjabdulla (Smaraka Shilakal, Marunnu), Kakanadan (Ushna Mekhala, Parankimala, Aru-deyo Oru Nagaram), M. Mukundan (Mayyazhippuzhayude Thirangalil, Elokam Athil Orun Manushyan), Padmarajan (Nakshatrangale Kaval), M. P. Narayana Pillai (Parinamam), V. K. N. ( Pithamahan and Payyan Kathakal), C. V. Balak-rishnan (Ayusinte Pusthakam), Gracy (Padiyirangippoya Parvathi), Sarah Joseph (Papathara), U. A. Khader (Khuraissikoottam), and K. L. Mohana Varma ( Nakshatrangalude Thadavukari). A list of important emerging writers to watch for in the years to come includes Nalini Bakal, Unnikrishnan Thiruvazhyodu, Madambu Kunhikuttan, K. B. Sridevi, M. D. Ratnamma, Sarah Thomas, T. V. Kochubava, Harikumar, N. S. Madhavan, V. G. Maramuttam, U. K. Kumaran, Jayanarayanan, C. V. Sreeraman, Ipe Paramel, P. T. Rajalakshmi, Thomas Joseph, K. P. Nirmal Kumar, and Joseph Vytilla.
Women Writing in the Age of Modernity and Postmodernity
Much of the good modernist and postmodernist fiction and poetry published over the second half of the century has been by women, mostly upper-caste women and Christians. During the first half of the century, fiction writers like Lalithambika Antherjanam, K. Saraswati Amma, and Annie Thayyil and poets like Balamani Amma, Mary John Thottam (Sister Benigna), Mary John Kooth-attukulam, and Muthukulam Parvathi Amma had emerged as major figures in a largely upper-caste, male-dominated world of Malayalam literature. Even Christian and Muslim male writers did not find favorable critical attention because cultural production was monopolized too long by the upper-caste Hindus. When Kattakkayam Cheriyan Mappila published his great epic on the life of Christ (Sreeyesu Vijayam), the critical establishment mocked the work, saying that, in the manner a moccasin might be called the king of snakes in an abandoned pond, Kattakkayam may be a Kalidas of the Christians! Women writers faced exclusionism of the worst kind: the social structure simply didn’t allow them to write, for they had “no room of their own” to engage in creative act. However, Kavitharamam (1929), a collection of poems by a Catholic nun named Sister Mary Benigna, became a best-seller (over 100,000 copies), and one of the poems in the collection, “Lokame Yatra” (Farewell, World), a brooding, funereal poem justifying her decision to abandon the material world in favor of the cloister, remains a classic among Romantic poems.
Of the women writers who persisted in their calling in spite of the oppressive environment, Lalithambika Antherjanam (1909-87) and Madhavikutty are the best examples of a fulfilled literary career. Lalithambika’s last name, “Anthe-janam” (those who live inside the house), offers us a clue about the level of social incarceration women faced in her orthodox Brahmin community, but she was fortunate to be born in a Gandhiyan family actively involved in fighting the many social and political battles of the day. Even after her marriage to a farmer, with whom she raised a large family, she was able to pursue her career in fiction and to emerge as one of the greatest writers of the century. She published her first collection of stories in 1937 and followed it up with a wide range of books in different genres, culminating with her most famous novel, Agnisakshi (Witness by Fire), which appeared as late as 1976. From the romanticism of her early poetry, she quickly switched to a realist mode at the time of the progressive writers and became known for her craft of the short story, which retained the stylistic elegance and control of her poetry and brought in new elements of anger and commitment. Her work provided insights into the many levels of alienation women of her powerful orthodox community experienced, much of it resulting from pointless rituals and the burden of tradition and caste, which served only the family patriarch and harmed practically everybody else. In the wake of social modernity, the Brahmin community lost much of its power, and Kerala society, as a whole, became radicalized in conjunction with the nationalist struggle. Large-scale women’s participation in the Gandhiyan movement helped to bring more women into the public culture, particularly into the political, literary, and academic fields. The transformation was not always easy. The case of Rajalakshmi (1930-65) illustrates the persistence of the suffocating domestic milieu a woman has to encounter in spite of the fact that Kerala is now known for its traditional acceptance of women’s equality, its matrilineal heritage, the history of women’s participation in education and politics, and its commendable male-female ratio. Rajalakshmi wrote about father-daughter relationships and the choking effects patriarchal figures could have upon women, particularly those who were accomplished and imaginative. The serial publication of her novel Uchaveyilum Ilam Nilavum (Midday Sun and Tender Moonlight) was canceled because of protest from readers who found her attack on the hypocrisy of idealist men too close to home. She found it impossible to continue her writing career and took her own life. K. Saraswati Amma (1919-75), the author of Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men), did not take her own life, but she lived single and isolated, her work applauded only after her death. Her last book, Cholamarangal, was published in 1958 and virtually disappeared from the scene.
The most important feminist writer to emerge in the last 30 years is Mad-havikutty (Kamala Das), who is known nationally for her profoundly feminine, lyrical English poetry and for her short stories in Malayalam. Like Lalithambika Antherjanam, she comes from a distinguished literary family of northern Kerala. Her mother, Balamani Amma, is among the most significant poets to emerge after the Great Trio. The late Romantic poet and translator Nalapatt Nayaraya Menon was her maternal granduncle. However, her marriage and urban experience living in Calcutta and Bombay inspired her work in English and Mala-yalam. She began publishing fiction in the mid-1960s with such collections as Mathilukal, Oru Pakshiyude Manam, and Thanuppu, and immediately she was received as one of the key figures in the “ultramodern” (postmodern) literary movement, but her controversial memoir Ente Katha, published in both Mala-yalam and English ( My Story, 1975), brought her national attention and some international notoriety ( Time magazine featured her as an Indian confessional writer). The memoir was a watershed event for women writers in Kerala, as the work made it possible for women to write more candidly about sexuality as a structure of oppression. Over a decade after Ente Katha, Madhavikutty followed it with Balyakala Smaranakal (1987) and Nirmathalam Poothakalam (1994); the three memoirs are increasingly perceived as documents about constructing a feminist self. Though written in a gentle, lyrical style, her memoirs are charged with much rebellious anger aimed at her aristocratic background and at many of the illustrious literary and cultural figures born in her ancestral family. In her short stories and novellas, she discusses women’s inner lives in an age when their traditional lifestyle has been altered radically in the wake of social modernity. Many women who grew up in the dual worlds of tradition and modernity increasingly found themselves vulnerable and unprepared to face the world, which is still controlled by patriarchal values.
In terms of her double existence as a bilingual writer who also runs for election and participates in the active public culture of Kerala, Madhavikutty is a product of postmodernity and postcoloniality, whereas Lalithambika Anther-janam wrote as a consummate modernist who possessed many certainties and convictions about the condition of women who were under the yoke of a maledominated tradition and hypocrisy. In these final years of the century, many new women writers of fiction and poetry have begun to publish their first books, and their works are characterized by gender consciousness and the politics of desire; they are also conscious of the metafictionality of their work. The short short stories of Gracy (Padiyirangippoya Parvathy) is a case in point. In her one-page story about the “Parable of the Sower,” Gracy brings in a broad narrative context of contemporary drug culture and the pseudoreligious cults of Westernized gurus. The guru quotes the biblical parable, but his disciples fall at his feet, asking for the esoteric meaning of the parable. The guru tells them:
We are the sowers. The seeds sown into barren women are eaten away by their barrenness. Virgins abort the seed before they begin to sprout. Seeds sown in whores are choked by the pills they take. But, alas, it is the seed sown in thy neighbor’s wife that sprouts and come to fruition.
In a short story called “Maranantharam” (After the Death), the narrator, a young woman who has committed suicide, begins to chastise all those hypocrites who wait around her coffin, mourning for her. She opens her eyes and then asks her father why he was struggling so to pretend sorrow. The question makes him withdraw from the scene. To her lazy brother she says, Go on eating and sleeping, for my share of land is now secure in your hands. After talking likewise to all her relatives, she sees her lover, who kissed her and pretended much love, but, when he got a job, he wished to go separate ways. She speaks out to him and to all the other mourners: “You’re all nobody for me. Why go on pretending sorrow? Please, shut my coffin and go.” The longer pieces in the collection also have layers and layers of sarcasm and irony and gender-conscious critique of the lingering power of traditional ways to force women to internalize their rebellion instead of bringing it out into the public, as we see in the voice of the suicide.
The future looks very promising for women writers of poetry and fiction, and, already, some of the best writing in Malayalam is done by gender-conscious women writers. Besides, the woman writer of today is an active public figure, as we see in the case of the poet Sugatha Kumari, who has become the preeminent voice against environmental exploitation in India. In her famous poem Ratrimazha (Night Rain), she merges the private and the public, and, in much of her work, we hear a woman’s lamentation as she immerses her whole being into the metaphor of nature, which is being driven to the brink of death. The novelist Sarah Joseph is involved with the feminist movement, and P. Vatsala’s fiction seldom deviates from the social and political context of women, tribals, and the Kerala working class. Similarly, the poet O. V. Usha, like her contemporaries Sugatha Kumari, Kanammanitta, and Chullikad, exemplifies the unique postmodern sensibility in Malayalam poetry by attempting to link the mystical and modern, political and domestic, philosophical and religious to capture the puzzle of human experience in the second half of the century. A coherent feminist aesthetics (pennezhuthu) has many adherents.
Revolutionary Theater and the Theater Revolution
Though Sanskrit literature had a distinguished dramatic literature, and a school of Sanskrit plays known as Trivandrum Plays was written by playwrights from different regions of Kerala, theater in modern Malayalam literature did not begin to flourish until late into the nineteenth century. Since the dominant Hindu culture had elaborate traditions of temple theater such as Koodiyattam, Thullal, and Kathakali, realistic drama failed to receive respectability or audience.
The Portuguese contact had helped the development of a Christian theater, and the Christians who lived primarily in central Kerala staged plays on the history of Charlemagne, Jacob of the Old Testament, and the lives of various saints. Most churches produced passion plays and gospel enactments, which went unnoticed by the mainstream culture. Only after Valia Koyil Thampuran’s translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntala (1882) did drama begin to get the proper attention of Malayalam writers. The Kalidasa play set off a stream of translations and borrowings from Sanskrit and English, and, following Varghese Mappilai’s adaptation in 1893 of Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare plays began to appear.
The novelist C. V. Raman Pillai also produced adaptations of English neoclassical dramas of Sheridan and Goldsmith. His Kurupilla Kalari (A Chaotic Place, 1909) provided a model for the future development of comedy, and E. V. Krishna Pillai’s farces filled the lacuna of a dramatic tradition in Mala-yalam. At this point, Thottakkat Ikkavamma, the first woman dramatist in Malayalam, introduced her play Subhadrarjunam with a proclamation that it was not to the glory of the Muse that women were incompetent in writing plays.
With the rise of communism, drama became popular as an expression of the revolutionary zeal of the emerging political culture. The progressive writers were at the vanguard of the new theater movement. With Thoppil Bhasi’s socialist-realist play Ningalenne Kammunistakki (You Made Me a Communist, 1952) performed by the Kerala People’s Arts Club in every village and town in the state, Malayalam theater came of age. C. J. Thomas ushered in the modernist phase with his Avan Vintum Varunnu! (Behold! He Comes Again, 1949) and Crime 27 (1954). Krishna Pillai’s adaptation of Ibsen, especially in his Bhagna Bhavanam (Broken Home), helped the refinement of the theater and led to further adaptations and translations from Continental drama. With the enormous success of a dozen plays written and produced by N. N. Pillai (Easwaran Arrestil [God under Arrest, 1967]), the psychological and existential drama became a dominant part of Malayalam literature. With Thoppil Bhasi, N. N. Pillai, and K. T. Muhammad, touring theater companies became a major cultural factor in Kerala, but in the late 1960s, the artistic theater declined with the rise of the popular, commercialized theater, performed by groups like Alleppey Theaters and Kalanilayam and by dozens of smaller professional and amateur companies located throughout the state. That most of these performing groups are still patronized by Hindu temples and church organizations explains the general weakness of modern Malayalam drama.
Other important playwrights of the midcentury include Ponkunnam Varkey, C. N. Srikantan Nair, Kainikkara Kumara Pillai, Thikodeeyan, Idassery, T. N. Gopinathan Nair, K. T. Muhammad, P. R. Chandran, and C. L. Jose. Though television and the film industry have weakened the theater, a new wave of postmodernist drama has begun to take root, rivaling the mainstream theater. Again, like the fiction writers and poets, their formal approach is determined by a new anchoring in precolonial cultural forms, reinterpreted for a world that has lost much of the certainties of modernism. This new generation is led by G. Sankara Pillai, Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, Vasu Pradeep, Kadavoor Chandran Pillai, S. Ramesan Nair, Narendra Prasad, and Kavalam Narayana Panickar. They have begun to relink theater with Kerala’s ancient traditions of ritual theater. Theater has been used by promoters of scientific temper, by extremist socialist groups, and, more important, by Malayalam-speaking people settled elsewhere—the postmodern reality of geopolitical displacement to other parts of India and in the United States and Arab countries. A fatwa (religious edict) was declared upon an amateur group that performed in Abu Dhabi, for daring to portray Mohammad in a play along with Jesus and Buddha and other religious figures. The entire cast has been jailed; the playwright Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, who lives in Kerala, has allegedly denied its authorship. In the past decade, the state government has banned the production of several plays in Kerala, the most recent one being P. M. Antony’s adaptation in 1986 of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Criticism, Theory, and Other Prose Writings
We discussed the influence of criticism and aesthetic theory (M. P. Paul, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, and Joseph Muntasseri) on modern writers who came to be known as the progressives. Critical activity at the turn of the twentieth century was limited to delineations of two primary Indian classical notions of rasa (mood, aesthetic pleasure, reader response) and dhvani (suggestion, tone, intentionality) and their variants anumanam, riti, alamkaram, gunam, ouchityam, and vakrokthi codified in classical Sanskrit texts composed between the sixth and seventeenth centuries.
Even after the flood of European criticism, a small group of critics has continued to write primarily on the basis of Indian literary theories. The best example of such an approach is Kuttikrishna Marar, whose classical scholarship and dense Sanskritized prose performance, notably in his 1950 classic Bharatha Paryadanam (A Journey through Mahabharatha), dazzled readers and elevated the status of critical writing. His works, such as Sahitya Vidya (On Literary Technique), Hasasahityam (On Humor), and his selected critical essays “Kala Jeevithan Thanne” (On the Purpose of Literature), have enabled Malayalam literature to keep itself grounded in the Indian traditions. A writer with greater range in both Indian and European traditions is Nityachaitanya Yati. Among his dozens of philosophical works, his two critiques of Kumaran Asan’s poetry, Nalini Enna Kavya Shilpam and Duravastha: Oru Patanam, demonstrate the continuing relevance of the Indian aesthetic approach.
As a continuation of the legacy of both critical traditions, a new generation of younger critics capable of developing a postmodern critical practice seems to be emerging. They seem to be attempting to harmonize the Western avantgarde criticism and the Indian traditional aesthetics to create a new critical methodology. Notable among this group are V. C. Sreejan and Asha Menon, whose writings are highly poetic and Sanskritized; their first books are fastidious explorations of our literature and culture in the context of postmodernist, postcolonial world writing.
Major Critics and Prose Writers
A survey of a century of critical prose in Malayalam should at least name the following writers and the areas they have enriched. Sardar K. M. Panikker’s work in politics and the history of Western dominance is internationally known. The prolific historical and philosophical output of the Marxist leader E.M.S. Namboothiripad and K. Damodaran will continue to have national relevance. The Montaignesque essays of Sanjayan and E. V. Krishna Pillai will go down in literary history as the best prose works of the century. Kottarathil Sankunni’s eight-volume work on Kerala mythology and Vettom Mani’s voluminous philological and lexicographical works will be difficult to replace. The philosophical work of Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swamikal, and Nityachaitanya Yati will become part of our great tradition.
Among those who made lasting contributions to criticism and prose writings, the following writers deserve mention: P. K. Parameswaran Nair’s biographies of Gandhi and Voltaire, I. C. Chacko’s work on linguistics, K. P. Kesava Menon’s life of Christ, K. Raghavan Pillai’s work on existentialism, M. Achu-than’s monumental studies in Western literary theory and the history of the short story in Malayalam, K. M. Tharakan’s work on the novel, M. Mukundan’s essays on modernism, K. T. Rama Varma’s historical survey of Western art, Ayyappa Paniker’s collections of essays on English and Malayalam literature, Sukumar Azhikode’s work on literature and Vedanta, S. K. Nair’s literary memoirs,
M. George’s philological studies and comparativist approach to Indian regional literatures, Sebastian Kappen’s seminal book on liberation theology for the Indian context, K. Venu’s theoretical speculations on a Marxist-Leninist revolution for the Kerala working class, Ajitha’s memoir about her failed experiments with that revolution, K. P. Appan’s provocative essays on European modernist writers, Mathew Kuzhiveli’s work on children’s literature, P. K. Ba-lakrishnan’s critical works on the Western novel and Kerala historiography, Ponjikkara Rafi and Sabina Rafi’s reflections on counterculture, Chummar Chundal’s work on folklore, Krishna Chaitanya’s monumental literary histories and cultural critiques, the psychological criticism of M. Lilavathy, and, of course, the personality of M. Krishnan Nair, the columnist who has been publishing a weekly almanac of the literary world for over a quarter of a century. He has been provoking writers and entertaining readers by assessing the week’s literary output after comparing them with his usual touchstones: Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Foucault, and Carl Jung. Considered an enemy of every writer in the land, his column, although glib, has brought Malayalam readers and writers closer to an awareness of our existence as part of two larger categories, Indian literature and world literature.