Poet of the masses

Print edition : November 05, 2010

O.N.V. Kurup. The way he has reached out to people through poetry remains unique.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

O.N.V. Kurup, who has been awarded the Jnanpith Award for 2007, is a literary icon with a universal appeal.

O.N.V. KURUP grabbed the headlines on September 24 as the Jnanpith Award graced Malayalam for the fifth time. The entire Malayalam-speaking world is in a celebratory mood at the moment, forgetting differences. This is, therefore, the time for a stocktaking of the poet's work.

It will be difficult for anyone to define O.N.V. Kurup's poetry through any single approach academic, popular, aesthetic, and so on. Because ONV' the initials identify the literary/cultural/social/political figure venerated in the niche of the Malayali psyche for the past six decades appeals to people from all strata of society. Not only Malayalis but many people from other parts of India, especially Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and the Hindi-speaking States (Bhisham Sahni was his close friend from the Progressive Writers' Association days; so are Namwar Singh, Sitakant Mahapatra and many others), and the Malayali diaspora around the globe recognise these three letters. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the special issue of a magazine without an ONV poem has been unthinkable over the last six decades in Malayalam. Malayalis have this habit of keeping close to their heart what they adore. This fond affection for ONV has not diminished after all these years; it has only grown stronger.

To understand this phenomenon, one has to look at the socio-political and cultural scene of Kerala around the period leading to Independence. In Travancore, which now forms part of the State, peasants and labourers had risen in revolt in Punnapra and Vayalar, which was put down by the army, causing a bloodbath that was unprecedented in the history of the princely State. In the British Malabar part of Kerala, the peasant rebellions of Kayyur, Morazha and Karivelloor had also been crushed. Agricultural and industrial workers were oppressed and exploited and were in general thraldom. The voice of the Progressive Writers' Association had been heard all over India for a decade by then. In Kerala too, the movement was active.

In such a milieu, the message of liberation was so sweet to the ears of the common man that when ONV started writing poetry championing their cause [at the age of 15, in 1946, he published his first poem, Munnottu (Forward)], he found ready acceptance. By the 1950s, ONV and poets such as P. Bhaskaran and Vayalar Rama Varma were writing poetry spreading socialist ideals of egalitarianism, justice and freedom. The Communist Party was gaining quick ground amongst the masses through the medium of popular performances like drama that contained the message of resistance and liberation. ONV's famous drama-lyric beginning with the lines Ponnarivaal ambiliyil kanneriyunnoley (O lass! Who dart your eyes/towards the golden sickle-moon) is on the lips of the common people of Kerala even to this day. So are his film lyrics evergreen through all these years.

The rural spirit

Apart from the ideological factor, there are other aspects of his poetry that endeared him to his admirers. His mellifluous diction, blessed with natural word-music, mesmerises the masses. He draws his vocabulary and usages from the folk songs and idioms of the common people. Every poem of his carries the rural spirit. Look at the alluring alliteration in the following lines of another evergreen drama song:

Illimulam kaadukalil lallalalam paadivarum Tennaleeee, tennaleeee Allimalarkkaavukalil vallikalilooyalaadum Tennaleeee, tennaleeee

He employs similar word-effects in his poetry as well. The way he has reached out to people through poetry remains unique, except perhaps for the fiery, power-packed diction of Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan in the 1970s.

Thus enthroned in the hearts of the people, the poet's image has never waned.The Muse had taken up residence in the poet's heart very early on. ONV had an extraordinary childhood. In a literary discussion with M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who had won the Jnanpith Award earlier, he recollects:

In early childhood I had let me describe it thus the good fortune' of living in a family atmosphere filled with poetry and music. My father's interest in poetry and his craze for Kathakali and music had certainly contributed a lot to it. I had the occasion to listen to great musicians who sat in the verandah of our house and sang. Our house in Kollam was a haven for poets and musicians. My father was a member of the Municipal Council and, more importantly, a Member of the Travancore State Assembly founded by Maharaja Sree Moolam Tirunal indeed a social worker. I had met many great persons thus in my childhood. That has certainly created positive vibrations in my heart.

The father, whom he idealised thus, died suddenly, and young ONV's life plunged into a period of darkness. Poetry was a drop of light that came to me in the dark solitude of my childhood, he says of those days.

Gradually, his personal grief gave way to a deep concern for the poor and the oppressed, which he had begun to express in his early poems. Along with this, he began to address problems arising out of industrialisation in a predominantly rural set-up, beginning with his own native village Chavara near Kollam where mineral sand-based industries had started to deface the agrarian edifice of rural life through various factors including the devastation it caused to the land and its environs. ONV's eco-consciousness, thus germinated, would, in future, lead to the writing of poems like A Requiem to Mother Earth, which featured prominently along with those of leading poets Sugathakumari, K. Ayyappa Paniker, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, K. Satchidanandan and others in the environmentalists' struggle to save the Silent Valley rainforests in the 1970s.

The ideological upheavals the Communist Party underwent towards the late 1950s led to a deep disillusionment amongst progressive poets and writers in general. The dream of a humanist paradise was lost; ONV wrote poems like Broken Bangles (1960) around this time. He mourns:

Passion that came to woo this virgin earth! How could you take Indra's gorgeous bow and shatter it so!

Throughout the 1960s, a kind of ideological and philosophical restructuring was taking place in the literary consciousness of ONV. By 1968, when he wrote the poem The Promised Land, he had poised himself to stand his ground and question the false gods:

As the electric shock of a shattered dream signals the message of death

through tottering feet, searing soul and limpid eyes,

here, standing in this desert bleak I cry, O, tell me! Where's that Promised Land? Universal concern

We see from now on, the poet who bases his writing on a personal philosophy, the main tenets of which are humanism, justice, compassion, eco-consciousness and universality. He began to travel all over India and to different parts of the world. He could see for himself that humanity was one and the same everywhere the same hopes, aspirations, fears, joys, sorrows. This vision of his brought about poems of universal concern.

The formal experiments carried out by some poets and the inundation of new ideas that came in through literary windows from around the globe had taken Malayalam poetry to the modernist phase as early as the late 1950s. A whole new generation of poets grew around it, succeeded by their younger generations moving on to different phases. Today Malayalam poetry is identified with this modernist mainstream and its latest reaches, which can be described as various levels of uttara-aadhunikam (for want of a better word, as postmodern' doesn't fit in, in our context; it is after-modernist' approximately). History is the record of reality in evolution. One cannot ignore the reality of history, even literary history for that matter!

However, ONV remained where he was, in his own school, as he chooses to call it, but always coming up with innovative themes and his own latest modes of expression. He has, from time to time, commented on the difference between him and the modernist school, in various moods, drawing sharp reactions. However, I am also aware of the fact that certain senior modernist poets warmly respond to ONV privately when he comes up with a strikingly fresh new poem. Academic critics look at the ONV phenomenon in different ways. However, one can also look at it this way: in the magnificent garden of Malayalam poetry, let there be banyan trees that spread their branches, and also jack-fruit, mango, tamarind, sandalwood, guava, neem and what not! Why should one subscribe to linear logic in literature alone and consider that progress is from point A to point B?

Poetic stance

Let me illustrate ONV's poetic stance further, by quoting from my Editor's Note to This Ancient Lyre:

In A Requiem to Mother Earth' and A Hymn to the Sun' in which he has reached heights hitherto not scaled, ONV breaks the mould of his usual style and employs shocking, angry, and pathetic images that strike directly at the root of one's consciousness. Analysing the two poems as well as their inter-relatedness in an essay in the collection Phoenixnte Sangeetam (The Music of the Phoenix), K. Jayakumar, noted poet, establishes the fact that ONV had accomplished the task of creating a new language and of using it to reflect contemporary realities in a supreme poetic manner; where modernists failed, this poet, through his integrity towards the poetic art, gave birth to a new kind of poetry that responded to the times. He says that it is not entirely unexpected in a poet who is an honest and inveterate practitioner of the art for an emotional issue to be developed gradually into an ideology and then into an entire philosophy. The above two poems prove that ONV attained such a holistic vision. As his love for human beings is developed into humaneness, and his patriotism into universal love, the awareness about his own past and his love and concern for nature combine to evolve into a haunting vision of a bleak future for the earth, which is systematically degraded by rapacious humans.

Given below are the representative Malayalam poets from the subsequent generations, to show how they look at him, though their paths are different.

T.P. Rajeevan, a poet in the second generation down from ONV, has this to say in his review of This Ancient Lyre that appeared in the Hindu Literary Review: He deserves our admiration for the gravity of the issues addressed in poems such as A Requiem to Mother Earth' and A Hymn to the Sun' and the apocalyptic views on man and nature in them, and for the formal accomplishment in verse narratives like Mrugaya: The Royal Hunt' and Ujjayini'. But, the lyric is his forte. Specifically, his uncanny gift to draw out the hidden music in words without distorting meaning.

Anvar Ali, a poet of the third generation from ONV's, says:

Synthesising the romantic lyric and a Left-oriented civil awareness within the framework of an established metrically/allegorically structured writing technique, and keeping the strings of his poetic lyre ever taut for the past six decades, the poet could lead the process of the democratisation of the idiom from the forefront, whereas none of the other poets who were his peers or contemporaries could ever achieve this.

Anitha Thampi, in the same generation as Anvar Ali, says about ONV's poetry:

Though there have been poets whose works have tossed me about through deep and intense emotions, it is ONV's lines that disturbed and distressed me for the first time in my life. He's the only poet who has read the poems I wrote while still a small child, and affectionately corrected them. I bow before him on this occasion when he gets this prestigious national recognition.

Lekshmy Rajeev, a young poet, columnist and editor, who has also translated ONV's poems, comments:

I still remember my first meeting with ONV Sir. He has the gift of inner grace and peace and he is the only person on earth who told me that he is absolutely happy about life and living. He spreads that feeling to everyone he meets, encourages youngsters and remains dedicated and disciplined. In Kerala it is impossible to spend a day without listening to his verse and it mesmerises the learned and the commoner alike with its romance and sweetness. He treats all his poems with affection and is very passionate about them like a parent and rejoices like a child when it is appreciated. His poems express his humanistic ideals. His contribution as a Malayalam movie lyricist is also valuable.

In the four decades from the 1970s to the present, the banyan tree that is ONV has spread and branched out, forming a gigantic canopy of foliage all around, encompassing the Malayali consciousness.

With 35 books and several prestigious awards to his credit, crowned now with the Jnanpith, ONV is definitely at the pinnacle of his glory.

I have had the unique privilege of being the main translator of the poet's works. My translation of his novel in verse, Ujjayini, based on the life of Kalidasa, was first published by Sanchar Publishers, New Delhi, in 1997, and a revised edition came out from Rupa & Co in 2002. In 2005, I compiled and edited for Sahitya Akademi This Ancient Lyre, a collection of his poems, a considerable number of which I translated. I am now translating his latest book, Dinaantam (The End of the Day).

A.J. Thomas, poet, fiction-writer, translator and editor, voluntarily retired from Sahitya Akademi as Editor, Indian Literature, in August 2010. He now teaches English at Garyounis University (Benghazi, Libya), in its Ajdabiya Branch.

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