Kerala's voice

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

Sukumar Azhikode in Chennai. A file potograph-SHAJU JOHN

Sukumar Azhikode in Chennai. A file potograph-SHAJU JOHN

Sukumar Azhikode (1926-2012) belonged to an ancient Indian tradition that believed in conflict resolution through debate.

APART from being a prolific public speaker, a literary critic who started off as an iconoclast, a contrarian most of his life, and revered guru to generations of students, Sukumar Azhikode (1926-2012) was also probably the last of public intellectuals in Kerala. For the last quarter of a century, a peripatetic Azhikode addressed thousands of meetings all over Kerala on issues as serious as the threat to the country's secular fabric from communal forces to, sometimes, matters not so grave, such as, say, an attention-deficit fast bowler Sreesanth's tantrums in Kochi airport. It will take some time to get used to his absence; such was the buzz he generated.

Azhikode belonged to an ancient Indian tradition that believed in conflict resolution through debate. Early in his life, he came under the influence of the social reformer Vagbhatananda.

Born in a Thiyya family in north Kerala, Vagbhatananda belonged to the non-Brahmanical Sanskrit tradition in Kerala, whose greatest product was his own teacher, Narayana Guru. But unlike Narayana Guru, Vagbhatananda was against the founding of temples and icon worship. He started the Atma Vidya Sangha to propagate his ideals.

Vagbhatananda's medium was public speaking. Across Kerala, he cast his oratorical spell in countless forums, something his acolyte Azhikode would emulate later.

The Atma Vidya Sangha did not believe in letting anything go unchallenged. From marriage feasts to public gatherings, Atma Vidya Sangha followers would set up lively debates everywhere. From his early exposure to dialectical discourses of this nature, Azhikode forged the most important weapon in his intellectual armoury, namely, khandana, or to contest any postulate.

In 1946, when he was 20, Azhikode visited Gandhiji in Sevagram Ashram in Gujarat. From then on, he would wear only white khadi. Azhikode became a Gandhian and a Congressman. It may be recalled that the middle of the last century saw two opposing political ideologies of the Gandhian Congress and of the fledgling Communist movement causing big churns in the northern Kerala society. The Communist Party, which was proscribed off and on, stayed away from organising public meetings.

During the same period, Azhikode sharpened his speech-making skills. In 1963, he contested the election to Parliament from Tellicherry (now Thalassery) as a Congress candidate, and lost.

That was also the time Azhikode grew in stature as a literary critic. His iconoclastic critical work, Sankara Kurup Vimarsikapetunnu (critiquing Sankara Kurup) stirred up such a storm that it took some time for it to die down. G. Sankara Kurup, the undisputed presiding deity of the literary establishment of the period, was taken on by a critic for the first time. What Azhikode said was that Sankara Kurup was not very original.

The controversy made Azhikode a household name, though many thought that by attacking Sankara Kurup, who had done Kerala proud by winning the first Jnanpith award, Azhikode was only revelling in schadenfreude.

Azhikode's image as a Gandhian and a humanist took a beating during the Emergency when he was the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Calicut University. Allegations regarding his role as a police informer mostly went unanswered.

For some time he went into a shell, only to emerge in 1984 with the most important work of his career Tatvamasi. The book, which was a survey of the Upanishads, was an unexpected bestseller. Tatvamasi also marked the near-end of Azhikode's writing career. From then on, we found Azhikode more on podiums than wielding his pen.

The next decade marked the emergence of Azhikode as an eminent public intellectual. The period witnessed the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, which peaked with the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

In meeting after meeting, Azhikode articulated his anguish about threats to secularism in his inimitable style. It was also during this period that he shook off the Congress tag and started sharing the stage with the Left.

In an interview given in 2010, he said that, by his reckoning, he had given speeches in 12,000 to 15,000 meetings. The use of oration as a vehicle for ideas is an old institution in India, probably because of its historically high illiteracy.

Azhikode perfected the craft through his carefully modulated voice, exquisitely sculpted gestures, and a body language that changed with the topic. His attire white high-collared kurta was stitched by the dozen by a particular tailor near Kozhikode. What Azhikode strove to present was a striking audio-visual experience.

Azhikode is not the only example of the phenomenon of a public speaker turned to a public intellectual. There was M.N. Vijayan, who spoke for a pure Communist Party. His good vs evil narrative of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s inner-party quarrel between idealist V.S. Achuthanandan and strongman Pinarayi Vijayan drew crowds.

After M.N. Vijayan's demise, Azhikode did, for a nanosecond, try to take on the official wing of the CPI(M) under Pinarayi Vijayan, but was not able to sustain the assault. In the last years of his life, Azhikode was perceived to be with the CPI(M) leadership. He also took an occasional potshot at Achuthanandan.

During this period, Azhikode spoke mostly about soft issues such as film stars, cricket or, occasionally, on writing. Instead of setting the agenda, he became a news commentator a daily issuer of obiter dicta.

With the passing away of M.N. Vijayan earlier, and now Azhikode, a generation that could mould public opinion through the spoken word is coming to an end in Kerala. People like them believed, as Christopher Hitchens put it: Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.

Television channels set up cameras over Azhikode's deathbed. What followed was theatre at times maudlin, at other times, absurd, but always unfolding human drama. There were scenes of his reconciliation with the bitterest of his former foes. An old lady friend came and renewed her love. Those who cringed at such invasion of privacy of a terminally ill patient did not notice that Azhikode, as always, was drawing strength from the attention and the crowds milling around him. He refused radiation therapy, for he could not even bear the thought of losing his voice.

In the end, it is three loud cheers to Azhikode, the man who engaged Malayalees on a daily basis for the last 25 years.

Be it secularism or human dignity, he always got the big picture right.

N.S. Madhavan is a Malayalam writer and the author of the award-winning novel Litanies of the Dutch Battery.

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