Through my window

The poet as critic

Print edition : July 24, 2015

K. Ayyappa Paniker. Photo: Vipin Chandran

A portrait of Ezhuthachan at his memorial in Chittur, Kerala: Paniker discovers a political mission underlying his Adhyatma Ramayana. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A portait of Kumaran Asan. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A photograph of Vallathol Narayana Menon taken in 1956. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Balamani Amma. Photo: The Hindu Archives

While the West has several examples of poet-critics, and even poets who were not well-known as critics did a lot of critical writing in the form of letters, notebooks, reviews, lectures and introductions, in Indian literary practice we seldom come across poets who apply their literary insight, imagination, sensibility and understanding with equal innovative energy and attention to criticism in the manner of, say, a T.S. Eliot or a Czesław Miłosz. Many of those who have tried their hand at both are known either as major poets and minor critics or vice versa.

The scenario, however, has begun to change, especially after the rise of modernism in Indian languages, chiefly because the first generation modernists were forced by circumstances to legitimise their innovations by bringing their new sensibility to bear not just upon the criticism of contemporary poetry but on other genres and also on the writing of the past in their own languages as well as the classical languages whose texts have continued to inspire writers of all time, including the modernists who drew a lot from the classical tradition in order to battle the romantic sensibility which was ruling the roost when they emerged on the scene. The late K. Ayyappa Paniker, a pioneer of modern poetry in Malayalam—Ka. Na. Subramanyam in Tamil, Bishnu Dey and Shankha Ghosh in Bengali, B.S. Mardhekar and Bhalchandra Nemade in Marathi and S.H. Vatsyayan and G.M. Muktibodh in Hindi could be other examples—belongs to this new brood of modern poet-critics in Indian languages. Many of them, including Ayyappa Paniker, were also academics, translators of poetry and editors of poetry magazines, activities which complemented their creative-critical engagement.

Ayyappa Paniker’s poetic and critical endeavours share some common traits: uncompromising opposition to all forms of totalitarian power, an egalitarian vision shaped around human freedom, basic rights, dignity and social justice, a radical democratic impulse and an innovative spirit which aspired to remould literature and reset the canons. At the core of Paniker’s criticism is a liberal democratic approach that welcomes the new without rejecting the values of the old, believes in rereading texts to free them from established notions and attempts to integrate a social vision with an aesthetic one, without reducing literary criticism to mere sociology.

In his poetry, he had re-established the lost connections between written poetry and the oral and the performing traditions of Malayalam poetry by reviving and innovating several old forms, modes and metres; exposed the cant and hypocrisy of the world around him using invective, satire and black humour; fought the anti-democratic tendencies in politics (as in the poems he wrote during the Emergency) and the divisive tendencies in society without ever declaring himself as a “committed” poet as he did not want to compromise his freedom to criticise every form of vested interest and oppressive power.

Paniker’s critical essays, chronologically organised in three volumes (covering respectively the periods 1950-80, 1980-90 and 1990-2005), prove beyond doubt that the critical, democratic and egalitarian vision at the core of his poetry also informs his literary criticism in subtle and complex ways.

Paniker as a Modernist

Ayyappa Paniker has written many articles and books of poetics and criticism in English, but he is essentially a Malayalam critic writing about Malayalam literature and engaging seriously with the cultural contexts of Malayalam classics as well as contemporary works. Paniker recognised his real mission as a critic in the 1960s when Malayalam literature was passing through a major transition of sensibility and idiom in all the creative genres. That was the time when he launched the poetry quarterly Kerala Kavita—supported by 20 of us, poets and critics—which introduced a whole generation of avant-garde poets in Malayalam as well as poets from other languages in translation while also carrying critical essays on new trends and texts.

The first piece of this phase was an essay on the new poetry in Malayalam (1964). Here, he observes how tradition is like a chain and when it is old and weak and about to break, a new generation comes and changes the rusted link so that the chain goes on, and such generations are the ones who aid the survival of the species. They are equipped with a vision that grasps the deeper reality of their times, which makes them contemporary at all times. He does not believe in the binary, sustained by a lot of critics, of literature that lasts for all times and that which addresses its own times: these are not contradictory; it is by understanding our own times in their intense complexity that we gain the ability to address the readers of all time. What we call time is the consciousness about change. Creation is a one-time phenomenon, it does not follow models and cannot be imitated. To acknowledge change and not to be bound by set patterns is in the very nature of democracy.

Paniker explains the premises of the new poetry in this essay: loyalty towards the complexity of experience; honest articulation of the spiritual dilemmas of our time; suggestiveness that demands contemplation; deployment of myths and archetypes, giving them new semantic-symbolic dimensions; and metrical freedom.

In another essay on free verse forms (1980), the critic points out how the escape from an obsession with the word music had liberated poetry and made it more dramatic. He advocates open forms and says that even ordinary conversation has its own rhythm. He gives examples from the poetry of several poets who were young at that time, such as Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, K. Satchidanandan and K.G. Sankara Pillai. Looking back, we feel this was prophetic since a lot of Malayalam poets today employ an idiom close to everyday conversations.

But Paniker moves forward with poetry. In another essay announcing the arrival of the postmodern in poetry, he points to the new style which is free from the rhetoric of the earlier poetry, less spectacular, less imagistic, more direct, leaner, terser and understated, necessitated by the post-Emergency sociopolitical climate. Paniker undertakes a more elaborate examination of the Indian and Western concepts of postmodernism in a later article titled “Uttara-Adhunika Prasthanam” (Postmodernist Movement). He presents the arguments of Western critics and poets such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard, David Cook, Jean-Francois Lyotard and others but focusses chiefly on Fredric Jameson’s critique, in order to point to its ahistoricism, theoretical superficiality, too much of an emphasis on new technology, cultural standardisation that annuls regional cultural identities, and the entanglement with the consumerism promoted by multinational capitalism.

The tools used by modernism to subvert tradition are employed here to denounce content itself. The argument that reality is non-representable leads to the concept of art as its own representation, thus allowing technique to dictate content and forcing the message to follow the code rather than the opposite. In the age of technology, it is often technology itself that is communicated, the medium becomes the message, as Marshal McLuhan says. While agreeing with this critique, Paniker also points to an Indian counter-postmodernism, represented by the oppositional writings of Dalits, Adivasis, women, environmentalists and anti-globalisers that exists along with the reactionary postmodernism, reflected in the culture of advertisements, television serials, film songs and beauty contests.

He illustrates postmodernism in Malayalam with examples from the later poetry of Paniker himself, Satchidanandan, Sankara Pillai, A. Ayyappan, Savithri Rajeevan, D. Vinayachandran and Attoor Ravi Varma, along with some of the fictional works of O.V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan, Anand (P. Sachidanand), N.S. Madhavan, Sethu (A. Sethumadhavan), Sara Joseph and Chandramati (Chandrika B.) and the later plays of Kavalam (Kavalam Narayana Panicker), Narendra Prasad, G. Sankara Pillai, Azeez, Baby and P. Balachandran. He also points to many critics having been impacted by the trend. While one may have a good argument about his examples, the central truth of his perception about two kinds of postmodernism can hardly be ignored.

Rereading Predecessors

Paniker is at his best when he turns his critical eye to older writers. He keeps going back to the classical seriousness of writers such as Ezhuthachan, the poet of the Malayalam Adhyatma Ramayana, Kumaran Asan and C.V. Raman Pillai, much like T.S. Eliot, who traces his lineage to poets such as Dante, Milton and John Donne.

He pits Vallathol Narayana Menon, the patriotic poet, against Kumaran Asan and points out how Vallathol was eminently imitable, producing several poets like him, while Asan was inimitable. Vallathol played to the gallery by taking up popular themes and invoking popular sentiments; he lacked integrity as well as intensity and went on changing his positions to suit the changing political-cultural environment. He replaced depth with breadth and easily wrote poems praising Stalin as well as hymns to gods and verses for advertisements. Paniker accuses Vallathol and the whole school of poets that followed him with superficiality, lack of psychological depth (in the long narrative poems) and fear of complexity.

However, in a later essay, written during the centenary of the poet and delivered as a memorial lecture, Paniker softens his stand and finds some positive virtues in his poetry, such as his nationalist consciousness, his concept of the family and the beauty of his descriptions of rural life. The 30 years that separated the early articles from the later pieces must have rendered a passionate denunciation of Vallathol superfluous as he now had very few followers in the language and modern poetry had established itself as the mainstream of Malayalam poetry. Now he is able to praise some of Vallathol’s narrative poems like Achhanum Makalum (The Father and the Daughter) for their emotional range and mature vision of life.

Kumaran Asan is a major radical renaissance poet in Malayalam who appears again and again in Paniker’s critical writings. The essential tension in Asan’s poetry, according to the critic, is between life and death that constantly confront each other in his works like Veeena Poovu (The Fallen Flower), Nalini, Leela and Karuna (Compassion). His basic concerns are the eternal truths and values such as love, death, happiness, sorrow, love and separation, and his characters are metaphors for the eternal human condition. The elements that mould his idiom are theme, time, community, character and genre.

Paniker illustrates this with examples from Asan’s Buddhacharitam, a free rendering of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Even his choice of metre depends on what he wants to convey, as is evident from the elegy Prarodanam (The Cry). In another discussion, Paniker shows how Asan gradually moved from Sanskrit metres to Dravidian metres and how even his poetic idiom became less Sanskritic.

He looks at this as a conscious process of de-Sanskritisation, in the sense in which M.N. Srinivas would use the term. It is in this context that he discusses Asan’s Duravasta (The Tragic Plight), which he had earlier considered relatively less poetic and more topical and had left out from his discussions.

He discovers that it is different from the rest of Asan’s work in a positive way as its woman protagonist, unlike the others in his narrative poems who embrace death in moments of despair, is one who decides to live even while having plenty of reasons to die.

The work problematises Kerala’s social life and asks daring questions about the discriminatory caste system by introducing a Brahmin heroine falling in love with a Dalit youth. Again, the idiom here is more modern, the vocabulary less Sanskritic and closer to everyday, the structure more loose and the movement of time slower, unlike in the earlier work. Thus, its social vision and the style complement each other and the whole work calls for a new poetics.

Paniker also rereads Ezhuthachan’s Adhyatma Ramayana and discovers the political mission that underlay the work. Even though he was a Shudra, he rose to be a teacher of the Vedas to the common folk and taught them to read. He established a strong link between the region and the nation and presented the idea of the nation far ahead of the concepts available to him. He ignited the poetic imagination of his people and created many models of poetic speech for generations to come. He elevated translation to a creative art and helped shape the cultural identity of all the people who spoke Malayalam much before the birth of the linguistic State of Kerala.

Anti-colonial text

Paniker reads even Aurobindo’s Savitri as an anti-colonial text whose author was an enlightened witness of his time who integrated yogic vision with contemporary history. Aurobindo was inspired by Valmiki and Kalidasa, but the acquaintance with Western classical writers helped him make his works historical and timeless at the same time.

Like Dante, he makes a woman his protagonist who traverses the three worlds. Like Shakespeare, he uses his characters to present a serious philosophy of life. He is close to Milton in his repetitive use of concrete concepts and the discovery of poetic meanings in nature. Savitri’s decision to conquer death and recover freedom carries a political message to colonised India; she becomes the symbol of a nation struggling against spiritual death. Her refusal—after vanquishing Yama and regaining Satyavan—to accept salvation and instead come back to earth and serve her fellow human beings reveals Aurobindo’s belief in action—Karmayoga—rather than renunciation. Thus, Paniker rereads the epic democratically to reveal its underlying politics.

Paniker sees the poetry of Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon as an example of what he would call controlled romanticism that denounces the excesses of Changampuzha Krishna Pillai and is characterised by concentration, structural integrity, balance, and an attempt to revive society through poetry. The rough surface and the romantic wonder inside the poem reflect the conflict between reality and romantic imagination.

Paniker considers Balamani Amma a philosophical poet and not just a poet of motherhood as critics are wont to qualify her. She is painfully conscious of the violence of the modern world and tries to battle it through her monologues and lyrics. Paniker keeps reminding readers of the need to retrieve the lost modes and mores of folk poetry and looks at the humanist, egalitarian message in the poetry of his predecessors like Cherussery and contemporaries like Sugathakumari and O.N.V. Kurup. He also praises Kamala Das for bringing back lightness, passion and spontaneity to Indian poetry in English and finds a synthesis of irony and satire in the poetry of Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan. The critic has also looked at Indian elements in the works of Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet, and examined the American writer—and architect of the Harlem Renaissance—Jean Toomer’s Cane as a typical Third World work of lyrical fiction.

On Other Genres

Paniker’s democratic concept of theme, form and outlook is revealed as much in his essays on fiction, drama and criticism as in those on poetry. Two novelists that he frequently goes back to are C.V. Raman Pillai and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. In the essay “C.V. Raman Pillai and the Political Novel”, he endorses the view that history is politics that is past and politics is history in the present. A political novel should present the problems of power—its concentration, distribution, employment, benefits and dangers—that are relevant to its time as exemplified by Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

What C.V. Raman Pillai does is to discover and present the glorious virtues of Kerala’s past in order to inspire the present, as in his masterpieces Marthanda Varma and Ramaraja Bahadoor. His characters, like Raja Kesavadasan in the latter novel, represent the dilemma of a people caught between foreign domination and internal dissension. C.V. Raman Pillai contemporises history and narrates the struggles of a state in order to survive the onslaught of foreign power. In Marthanda Varma, the example the novelist follows is not as much Walter Scott’s fiction that Bankim Chandra followed but Shakespeare’s historical plays. He created a history for the people of Travancore to cherish and to celebrate. The novel reflects the diversity of the people by using different registers and community dialects, and speech patterns that at times mix languages. He also creates several fascinating characters that cannot be found in real history. He seems to tell the reader also about the making of his work, thus making his novels metanarratives.

Paniker has four essays on Thakazhi’s fiction. He considers Thakazhi the literary heir of C.V. Raman Pillai. His masterpiece Kayar (Coir) shows the writer’s ability to portray complex, three-dimensional characters and to see society in all its paradoxical complexity. It is an epic novel that tells the story of many generations, communities and families and depicts the intimate connections between people and their environment, men and objects.

In one essay, Paniker uses the thinai concept in Tamil to analyse the ecology and characterisation of the novel. The critic chooses for special appreciation the short stories of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer and Karoor Neelakanta Pillai for their subtle depictions of society free from sloganeering and loudness. The narrator in their stories helps to distance the writer from the story and save it from sentimentality and melodrama. Paniker finds compassion ( karunarasa) central to Basheer’s works.

In theatre, Paniker’s choices are C.J. Thomas and C.N. Sreekantan Nair. The essays on them reveal the critic’s intimate understanding of the various forms of theatre, like the Japanese No and Kabuki, Kathakali, Kerala’s folk plays, Greek, Shakespearean and Brechtian theatre. C.J. Thomas is a playwright of inner conflicts as can be seen when he transforms the tale of David in the Bible into a spiritual drama of sin, remorse and expiation. Drama brings about catharsis and sublimation, not by direct moralising but by humanising them, guiding the spectators through the inner conflicts of characters, showing them unseen worlds, and invoking in them unknown feelings. Each of the five independent plays of C.J. Thomas (he has also translated Sophocles’ plays) follows a different pattern.

Reinterpreting Ramayana

C.N. Sreekantan Nair is well known for his Ramayana trilogy where he reinterprets the chief episodes of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Paniker examines the concept of the nation that underlies these plays. He raises fundamental existential questions: Who is a ruler? When does power turn against the people? Do individuals and their kinship have any place in politics? Can success be a substitute for truth?

These three plays together offer a sharp critique of the Aryan concept of values, of Brahminism and of the idea of royalty. Urmila becomes a major character who brings out the conflict between individuals and institutions in her arguments with Vasishta, Lakshmana, and Kausalya. She also finds that the Aryan attitude to enemies and women is equally oppressive. Her plea for Sita is in fact a plea for all womankind. The playwright picks up for criticism Sita’s exile into the forest, the murder of Shambooka, the maiming of Shoorpanakha, the proposal for Rama’s remarriage and the making of the golden Sita during the coronation. Hanuman asks Rama whether he is only the king and the protector and not a human being too. Rama’s denial of his being human shocks his messenger. Rama explains that he is only a bridge built by mankind to cross the ocean of time and that bridge should not shake under any circumstance. The trilogy is a devastating critique of totalitarian power, an allegory of political violence in our times.

In other essays, Paniker also looks at the links that connect the ritualistic and folk theatre of Kerala to modern theatre. He points to the continuities between folk and classical forms of performance like Teyyam, Tira, Mudiyettu, Teeyattu, Kalamezhuthu, Padayani, Koodiyattam, Koothu and Kathakali and modern plays like Kavalam Narayana Paniker’s Daivattar and C.N. Sreekantan Nair’s Kali. This is followed by an exploration of “open theatre”, from Shakespeare to Habib Tanveer. He discovers a critique of power in the attakkathas (Kathakali texts) like Bakavadham, Kirmeeravadham, Kalyana Saugandhikam and Nivatakavachakalakeyavadham written by Kottayam Tampuran and states that Sophocles’ plays explore the relationship between the human condition and moral values. Paniker also formulates a Dravidian concept of theatre based on the Tamil classic Tolkappiyam.

Everywhere, he brings in his concern for the democratic roots of all arts and seeks the connections between nationalism and subnationalisms. In his later articles, Paniker grows more and more concerned with society and the loss of values in public life. His critical oeuvre is a sustained attempt to integrate the social with the aesthetic.

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