A short History of Malayalam Literature Dr. K. Ayyappa Paniker M



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A Short History of Malayalam Literature

Dr. K. Ayyappa Paniker

Malayalam, the mother tongue of nearly thirty million Malayalis, ninety per cent of whom live in Kerala State in the south-west corner of India, belongs to the Dravidian family of languages. Like the speakers, the language also has been receptive to influences from abroad and tolerant of elements added from outside. Malayalam literature too reflects this spirit of accommodation and has over the centuries developed a tradition which, even while rooted in the locality, is truly universal in taste. It is remarkably free from the provincialisms and parochial prejudices that have bedeviled the literature of certain other areas. To its basic Dravidian stock have been added elements borrowed or adopted from non-Dravidian literatures such as Sanskrit, Arabic, French, Portuguese and English. The earliest of these associations was inevitably with Tamil. Sanskrit, however, accounts for the largest of the “foreign” influences, followed closely in recent times by English. The broad-based cosmopolitanism has indeed become a distinctive feature of Malayalam literature. According to the most dependable evidence now available to us, Malayalam literature is at least a thousand years old. The language must certainly be older; but linguistic research has yet to discover unmistakable evidence to prove its antiquity. Historical accuracy has often been a problem since the records in most cases show no reference to the exact date of the composition. Legends and folklore have often taken the place of historical facts and chronology has been consciously or unconsciously tampered with. Modern research on scientific lines, however, has gone a long way to explain the origin and early development of the language. A comprehensive literary history of Kerala should take into account the works produced in the region not only in Malayalam language, but also in Tamil, beginning with the fourth century B.C. and continuing to the end of the first millennium A.D. It should also trace the evolution of the works in Sanskrit produced by writers in Kerala. The contribution of Kerala to Tamil literature which includes Chilappathikaram produced in the 2nd century A.D. should perhaps find its proper place in the history of Tamil literature just as Kerala’s contribution to Sanskrit, which includes the works of Sankaracharya and Kulasekhara Alwar of the early 9th century A.D., should come within a history of Sanskrit literature. The contribution of Kerala writers to English and Hindi in recent years, in the same way, is part of the literatures in those languages. Since this book is primarily devoted to the evolution of literature in Malayalam, the political history and the history of the language as well as the literature written in other languages are not discussed here in detail.

The Modern Age

Nineteenth century was not a very creative period for Malayalam literature (except towards the end) from the point of view of imaginative writing. But the foundations for the great renaissance that began at the end of the century were laid during this period. The establishment of colleges for imparting English education, the translation of the Bible and other religious works, the compilation of dictionaries and grammars, the formation of the text book committee, the growth of printing presses, the starting of newspapers and periodicals, the introduction of science and technology, the beginning of industrialization and the awakening of social and political consciousness: these constitute the giant strides towards modernization. It would appear as if the people’s energies were totally consumed by these activities. Like his predecessors Swati Thirunal and Uttram Thirunal, Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma Maharaja of Travancore (1832-1880) was a great patron of letters. There were many great scholars at his court. He was personally interested in promoting prose literature. He himself wrote, while still young, two prose works Meenaketanacharitam and Bhasha Sakuntalam which were published by Kerala Varma Valiya Koyitampuran after his death. In Meenaketanacharitam one of the Arabian tales is retold; Bhasha Shakunthalam is a free translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam. These two works are pioneers indicating the way Malayalam literature was destined to develop in the coming decades. The spate of translations from Indian languages including Sanskrit and from European languages including English, which began in Ayilyam Tirunal’s time, has not yet abated. Vishakam Tirunal Rama Varma Maharaja (1837-1885) who succeeded Ayilyam Tirunal, was also an indefatigable promoter of education and the arts. Himself a talented writer of discursive prose in English and translator of English works into Malayalam, he was the cause that others also took up writing original works and doing translations. Chidambara Vadhyar who had translated Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale into Malayalam received encouragement from him. Visakham Thirunal was one of the earliest essayists in Malayalam. Benjamin Bailey (1805- 1871) Joseph Peet, Richard Collins and George Mathen (1819-1870) were responsible for many works on Malayalam language based on western models. Archdeacon Koshy (1826-1900) is remembered for his numerous works in prose, especially for his work Pulleli Kunchu (1882). Perhaps the most important of these missionaries was Herman Gundert (1814-1893). Born in Stuttgart in Germany and educated at Tubingen and Switzerland, Gundert came to India in 1836. He wrote over twenty books in Malayalam, the most important of which are A Malayalam-English Dictionary, A Grammar of Malayalam, Keralappazhama (Kerala antiquity) and Pazhamcholmala (A garland of proverbs). He also edited an anthology of prose and verse for the use of students under the name, Pathamala. The first authoritative grammar of Malayalam was also Gundert’s contribution (1851). This led to the production of a number of grammatical works in Malayalam. Vaikkam Patchu Moothathu (1814-1883) published his Grammar of Malayalam in 1876; Kerala Kaumudi by Kovunni Nedungadi (1831-1889) came out in 1878. This was soon followed by the first history of the language by P. Govinda Pillai (1849-1897) published in 1881. The first work on rhetoric in Malayalam on the European model was brought out by Father Gerard under the title Alankara Sastram in the same year. These works are a clear indication of the increasing western influence which became established by the end of the 19th century. There were of course distinguished scholars of the traditionalist school like Kaikulangara Rama Warrier (1833-1897), who specialised in writing commentaries on the classics of Sanskrit literature. But the influence of Kerala Varma Valiya Koyithampuran and the general socio-political developments seemed to favour a reorientation towards western models. This trend continued to be powerful until the middle of the 20th century.

Kerala Varma Valiya Koyithampuran

Kerala Varma represents the confluence of two major traditions in literature, the Oriental as represented by the Sanskrit classics and the Western represented by English/European classics. His translation of Kalidasa’s Abhinjana Shakuntalam (completed in 1882), and of Von Limburg Brower’s Akbar (started in 1882) clearly illustrates the historic role of a synthesizer which he was destined to play on the Kerala cultural front. His connections with the royal family, his education and upbringing, his position as president of the Text Book Committee, his progressive and independent outlook, his intellectual prowess and other personality factors made him tower head and shoulders above all his contemporaries. He wrote a number of works in both Sanskrit and Malayalam, both in prose and verse but his personal influence was greater than what was achieved through these works. It may be said that the man was greater than all his writings. Well versed in all aspects of classical Sanskrit poetics and quite at home in the native tradition, with a good command of English as well master of a sonorous Sanskrit diction and proficient in simple colloquial Malayalam, Kerala Varma’s reputation still depends not on any single book he wrote. The development of Malayalam language and literature was his life’s mission; and in collaboration with C.P. Achutha Menon (editor of Vidyavinodini magazine) and Kandathil Varghese Mappila (editor of Malayala Manorama), he did his utmost to encourage all kinds of writers and writings. Even undeserving quill-pushers received his support, encouragement and blessing in this process of all-out promotion of letters. His most widely known literary work is Mayurasandesam (Peacock Message) written in 1884. Its intrinsic merits were perhaps exaggerated at the time of its first appearance, but its historical importance is yet to be properly assessed. It is a work that looks in many directions. It harks back to Kalidasa, the most romantic and subjective work of that poet, whose influence among other things was chiefly responsible for the revival of romanticism in 19th century Europe. It combines the mixed style of Manipravala poems with the pure Malayalam of Venmani poets but used for a “personal” communication. It allows the free play of fancy (as seen in the pun on “Neelakanta”), but also reveals the operation of complex imagination at times (as in the identification quatrain). It would be too much to say that Mayurasandesam anticipates the Romantic Movement but there is no doubt that there is a softening of the rhetoric of classicism in several of its quatrains. Already in the heart of classicism one hears the soft notes of romantic lyricism:

Once while alone hunting birds in the park,

O blue-eyed one, I happened to kill a bird.

Out of pity for his bereaved companion close by

Did you not, O timid one, ask me to kill her too!

The lyrical note is heard at some depth, the subjective element is openly acknowledged; these are important gains. Some of his prose essays are of an informal, subjective type like Mrigayasmaranakal (Memories of Hunting).



The Growth of Literary Criticism

The establishment of periodicals was a factor directly responsible for the development of literary criticism. The year 1890 saw the starting of two important periodicals, Kandathil Varghese Mappila’s Malayala Manorama and C.P. Achutha Menon’s Vidyavinodini. Appan Thampuran started his Rasikaranjini in 1903. Varghese Mappila had the active cooperation of Kottarathil Sankunni, the author of Aithihyamala. Bhashaposhini Sabha acted as a catalyst. C.P. Achutha Menon wrote a number of perceptive reviews which are still marvels of honesty, frankness, fearlessness, and commitment to definite values. Here is an example to show his sense of commitment. Since defects exceed virtues in new books, it is inevitable that, when one tries to express unbiased and impartial opinions on them, the demonstration of faults may be more conspicuous. We are scincerely sorry that as we do point out these defects, some people are deeply hurt. But then we cannot but do so, since our interest in our literature is far greater than their hurt feelings. Reviewing another book called Rathisundari, Achutha Menon says “Man’s life on earth is limited and sorrowfilled; hence whether wasting part of it on the painful experience of reading books like this is a sin, let the conscience of good people decide; whether it is a legal crime, let the advocates decide.”

The Plethora of Plays

In the wake of Kerala Varma’s translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam (which got him the title of Kerala Kalidasa), several attempts were made to translate numerous plays from Sanskrit and English into Malayalam. Chathukutty Mannadiar translated Uttararamacharitam and Janakiparinayam. Other translations followed, such as Kalahini Damanakom from Shakespere’s Taming of the Shrew. New plays came to be written in this fanciful style. These plays were seldom acted. The stage conditions of those days were crude and unfit to project a performance. Most writers did not care for or know enough of the technique of stage presentation. This delayed the growth of an indigenous dramatic form and structure in the language. Numerous plays on the model of Sanskrit drama, using both prose and verse, came to be written about this time. As if irritated by this and with a view to discouraging the plethora of plays of low quality,P. Rama Kurup wrote Chakki Chankaram (1893). There was another Chakki Chankaram (1894) by K.C. Narayanan Nambiar (1873 1922). The effect of this burlesque of the couple, Chakki and Chankaran, was to put an end, temporarily at least, to the mad rush for producing plays fashionable at the time.

A.R. Rajaraja Varma (1863-1918)

Kerala Varma’s nephew A.R. Rajaraja Varma went a step further than his uncle in the promotion of a synthesis between the different trends current in the literature of his time. A professor in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, he had to modernize the process of teaching Malayalam language and literature; this made him write books on grammar and rhetoric (which earned him the title of Kerala Panini) and eventually prepare the ground for an enlightened renaissance in Malayalam poetry and literary criticism. His differences of opinion with Kerala Varma were not confined to the continued use of the second syllable rhyme: behind the controversy lay the basis of a new poetics: the rejection of neoclassicism and the acceptance of a romantic theory of literature. The influence of the study of British Romantic poets of the 19th century coupled with a renewed interest in the real classics of Sanskrit literature can be seen in Rajaraja Varma’s poetic efforts. The critic and scholar in him might have stifled the poet, but in works like Malayavilasam he may be seen as looking forward to an expected romantic revival. His translation of Kalidasa and Bhasa and the preface he wrote for Kumaran Asan’s Nalini point to this trend in unmistakable terms. Like Kerala Varma, Rajaraja Varma also contributed significantly to the growth of prose through his essays.

K.C. Kesava Pillai (1868-1914)

A close associate of both Kerala Varma and Rajaraja Varma, K.C. Kesava Pillai was a man of remarkable talent. His major works are Kesaviyam (a mahakavya), Sadarama (a musical play on the Tamil model, extremely popular at the time), Asanna marana chinta satakam (Reflections of a Dying Man, in a century of quatrains) and a number of attakkathas. His Kesaviyam is a mahakavya modelled on the Sanskrit pattern and strictly adhering to the rules of structure and style laid down by the classical rhetorician, Dandi. The first fifteen years of the 20th century saw a mushrooming of mahakavyas. Kesava Pillai’s contemporaries like Azhakathu Padmanabha Kurup (1869-1932: author of Ramachandravilasam), Pandalam Kerala Varma (1879-1919: author of Rukmangatha charitam), Kattakkayam Cherian Mappila (1859 - 1937: author of Sri Yesu Vijayam), Ulloor Parameswara Iyer (1877-1949 : author of Umakeralam) and Vallathol Narayana Menon (1879-1958: author of Chitrayogam), all paid their obeisance to this neoclassicist trend P. Sankaran Nambiar refers to the appearance of a mock-mahakavya Kothakelam by one Vidushaka, which did to the flood of these exercises what Ramakurup’s Chakki Chankaram did to the imitation plays, Datyuha Sandesam (1897) by Seevolli NarayananNambudiri (1869-1906) did to spurious message poems and Parangodi Parinayam (1892) by Kizhakkeppatt Ramankutty Menon (1858-1894) under inspiration from Kesari Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar, tried to do to the spurt of uninspired novels in imitation of Indulekha. K.C. Kesava Pillai was also a distinguished composer of songs of rare merit and his position as a composer is next only to those of Swati Tirunal and Irayimman Tampi among Kerala musicians. But his best work as a poet is Asanna marana chintasatakam which, although written for a competition, is a touching lyrical monologue with a predominant elegiac tone and anticipates the Khandakavyam or shorter poems of the poets of the renaissance. It has an underground connection with C.S. Subramanian Potti’s Oruvilapam (A Lament 1903), V.C. Balakrishna Panikkar’s Oruvilapam (A Lament: 1908), and even Kumaran Asan’s Veena Poovu (A Fallen Flower: 1907) which may be thought of as an elegy in disguise.

The Essay

The developments in prose at this time were very significant, Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar (1861-1895), more famous under his pseudonym Kesari, was one of the first to explore the essay form in Malayalam. He was closely associated with periodicals like Kerala Chandrika (started in 1879 at Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala Patrika (started in 1884 by C. Kunhiraman Menon (1854-1936) and Appu Nedungadi (1866-1934) at Kozhikode), Kerala Sanchari (after 1898 under the editorship of Murkoth Kumaran) and the English Journal Malabar Spectator. Kesari has often been compared to Mark Twain. As he was not overburdened with scholarship, he could write in a simple, popular, informal style. He was a life-long devotee of the goddess of comedy. Here is a passage from his essay, “The Pleasures of Death” When you don’t have to breathe any longer, you will not be troubled by the innumerable germs of disease in the air norby the insufferable smoke from other people’s cigars, etc.Nothing to be anxious about even if motor cars and bicycles send up dust while driving along or if you fall or die or your nose is hurt. You don’t have to endure any such grief. You don’t have to put up any longer with the ringing of bells or the call of the siren or frog-tongued voice-refiners exerting their throats or reciting songs from plays even on the road. Kesari belongs to the comic tradition in our literature, and like Tholan, Nambiar, Chandu Menon, E.V. Krishna Pillai and Sanjayan he was a sharp critic of social reality.

The Rise of the Novel

An inevitable consequence of the development of prose was a creative use of this medium for imaginative literary communication. The last quarter of the 19th century saw the birth of the novel in Malayalam. It

has been pointed out that the novel arose in Kerala as in other regions of India, not just because of European influence through English education but chiefly because the conditions that existed in India at this time were similar to those in England in the 17th and 18th centuries which favoured the growth of this new form of writing called the novel. It would perhaps be more correct to say that both internal socio-educational conditions and external influence combined to produce and popularize this new genre. It was perhaps not wholly transplanted as a finished product into Malayalam: the existence of the printing press, the growth of a literate reading public, the development of the habit of buying books, the increasing requirements of educational institutions and libraries, the rise in the status of women (Appu Nedungadi, the author of Kundalatha was also the founder of the society for the promotion of the education of women, Chandu Menon also thought of women as potential readers of his works) and the gradual penetration of democratic ideas and liberalism into the social fabric: these were essential factors which by their conjunction could favour the growth of the novel in Malayalam. The question which is the first novel in Malayalam can be answered only if we agree on the definition of the novel. Ghathaka Vadham (The Slayer Slain) by Mrs. Collins, Pullelikunchu by Archdeacon Koshy, his translation of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Ayilyam Thirunal’s translation of Meenaketanacharitam, Kerala Varma’s translation of Akbar - these certainly have a historical importance. The use of prose for long narratives based on non-puranic themes was itself of great importance. Appu Nedungadi’s Kundalata (1887) marks an important stage in the development of prose fiction in Malayalam. The events are supposed to have taken place in a far-off place and the characters bear more or less outlandish names like Kundalata, Aghoranathan, Ramakisoran and Tharanathan. Pullelikunchu has greater realism as far as physical details are concerned. Parts of Kundalatha read like the prose romances which in England and other countries of Europe preceded the novel. Appu Nedungadi may have been influenced by Bengali novels too, since the novel as the term is understood in the modern world appeared earliest in Bengali than in other Indian languages. The air was thick with expectations of the birth of the great novel all through the 1880’s when in the last year of the decade O. Chandu Menon brought out his Indulekha.



O. Chandu Menon (1847-1900)

In the preface to the first edition of Indulekha (1889) Chandu Menon describes the genesis of the novel thus. I began to read English novels extensively after I left Calicut in the end of 1886, and I then devoted all the leisure which my official duties left me, to novel reading. Thereupon, I found that my circle of intimates with whom I had been accustomed to pass the time in social conversation and amusement considered itself somewhat neglected, and I accordingly endeavoured to find means by which I could conciliate its members without in any degree for going my novels. With this object in view, I attempted at first to convey to them in Malayalam the gist of the story contained in some of the novels I had read, but my hearers did not seem particularly interested in the version which I gave them of two or three of these books. At last it happened that one of these individuals was greatly taken with Lord Beaconsfield’s Henrietta Temple, and the taste then acquired for listening to novels translated orally, gradually developed into a passion. The importunity of this personage in the matter was so great that I had seldom time to read a book on my own account ..... Finally, I was urged to produce a written translation of the novel by Beaconsfield which I have mentioned, and I consented. But when I had made some little progress in the work, I thought the matter over, and decided that a translation thus made would be absolutely without value ... Taking therefore, all these circumstances (the difficulties and inadequacies of translation), I determined to write a Malayalam novel more or less after the English fashion and gave my persecutor a promise to this effect ... I do not know how my countrymen will be disposed to regard a work of this description. Those who do not understand English have had no opportunity of reading stories in this mould, and I doubt if they will relish their first experience of this kind of literature. This prefatory note, which itself reads like a passage in a novel highlights the twin sources of inspiration for the novel in Malayalam: the influence of the English model and the pressure of a readership. His last sentence also makes it clear that at the time of writing, he thought of his work as the first novel in Malayalam, which incidentally is a possible answerto the question we posed at the beginning of our discussion on the novel. Chandu Menon started as a writer rather late in his life. He wrote Indulekha his first work and a novel of no mean length in just about two months. It is easily seen that plot is not his strong point. But Indulekha is a work which Malayalis can always hold up aloft as an excellent specimen of what a novel should aim to be. The dramatic unfolding of the tale, the perfect balance between narration and dialogue, the magnificent characterization, the splendid direct and indirect criticism of manners and morals, the all pervasive humour and irony, the vitality of every scene fully visualized these are among the many virtues of his pioneering work of exceptional maturity. Chandu Menon started writing his second novel Sarada, but he could not finish it. The first part - about one third of the proposed work - was published in 1892. The author reveals here a firmer grip over the novel form: his speculations during the four year interval between the two works, as P.K. Balakrishnan has pointed out, have taken him to a far more serious conception of the nature and function of the novel as a work of art. The interview between Indulekha and Nambudiripad may be quoted to illustrate Chandu Menon’s art at its ironic best.

Are you mad about play, Indulekha?” inquired the Nambudiripad.

Mad about what?” asked Indulekha.

About the play-the Kathakali”.

I have never yet been mad about anything”. Answered Indulekha.

Oh, I’m very mad about it, I’am as mad as I can be”.

I can quite believe that there is no doubt about it”. Responded Indulekha with a smile.

How do you know, Indulekha? Did any one tell you about it before?”

No, I knew it only now”.

You know it from what I said, did’nt you?”

Exactly, I felt certain of it from your own words”.

I had a piece acted at your place yesterday”, said the Namboodiripad. “That fellow Raman acts beautifully on the stage. Have you ever heard of Raman, Indulekha? Raman, Raman,



I mean: the Sudras call him Rama Panikkar, he is immensely clever, such a splendid actor and so handsome. Hereafter, Indulekha, you shall see a play every day. I am quite mad on it. I have a play on most nights of the week, and yesterday I saw a male impersonating a female character. You have never seen anything like it. It was Raghavan, a boy they call Raghavan. Do you know Raghavan, Indulekha? If his face were smooth, it would be just like yours, just like it; there wouldn’t be the slightest difference.”
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