Days of irreverence

Gnanakoothan’s (1938-2016) dissenting spirit not only opened up new landscapes of literature to aspiring young poets but also gave fresh meaning and form to tradition.

Published : Aug 17, 2016 12:30 IST

BETWEEN the years 1970 and 1974, for us a group of youngsters willing to see and to listen to, often the evening destination would be Gnanakoothan’s room, on the first floor of Saraswathi Gana Nilayam, on Thoppu Venkatachala Mudaly Street (street names were yet to drop caste appendages!) in Triplicane. It was a narrow lane, but it had space enough for our new world. The first floor was a large open terrace with rooms on the periphery, which were rented out to bachelors. Gnanakoothan’s room was at a slightly elevated level on the northern side and could be reached by a short flight of steps. It had the door facing south and a window facing east. It was rudimentary, with a couple of built-in open shelves. With no furniture, the floor offered ample space for the lodgers and visitors.

This was a well-known address among writers and poets in Madras, as it was among readers and writers outside Madras. It was common knowledge that if one went to Gnanakoothan’s room in the evenings, one could meet writers and poets. So, the place often had unannounced visitors and they were greeted by a scattering of books (most probably bought a little earlier from the pavement booksellers on Pycrofts Road, between the Buckingham Canal on the east and Bells Road on the west), a pall of cigarette smoke and a waft of dance music rising from the ground floor and, after August 1971 (when prohibition was lifted for the first time in Tamil Nadu), occasionally by bottles of liquor.

Gnanakoothan was the nucleus. The regular visitors were Mahaganapathy (who wrote poems under the name Pathy), the publisher of Ka cha ta tha pa ra, the writer Sa. Kandasamy, Na. Krishnamurthy, the editor of Ka cha ta tha pa ra, and I. This jaw-breaking name belonged to a spirited, loud and provocative little magazine in Tamil, run by this informal group, which called itself Ilakkia Sangam (literary academy). Incidentally, the name Ka cha ta tha pa ra was the brainchild of Gnanakoothan, who also appended the tag line “a magazine of the strong group” ( vallina maadha eadu —with a pun on vallinam , which refers to the class of the “rugged” among the Tamil consonants). The title, comprising loose phonemes, itself was revolutionary. For the first time in contemporary Tamil literature, a magazine dared to depart from the practice of having a “word” for its name. It would rather have a class of sounds, that too, the rugged ones in the Tamil speech sounds, which, incidentally, symbolised the fighting spirit of the group sponsoring the magazine.

Radically different

His suggestion found immediate acceptance among the Ilakkia Sangam “members”, who, between 1966 and 1969, had demonstrated through their monthly meetings that they did not approve of the ritualised literary atmosphere prevailing then and that they were for alternative ways of “seeing and doing” literature. There was also the perception that Ezhuththu , run by C.S. Chellappa, was not doing enough and that the other magazine, Nadai , which had some appeal for these youngsters, was only a quarterly and hence what it could contribute was too little. Nadai was the first to broaden a literary journal’s vision to include art forms that until then lay beyond literature. For the first time, discussions on modern art and contemporary theatre found place in a literary magazine. This broader context acquires significance if one remembers that in the late 1960s, both modern art and new poetry were objects of ridicule not only among the general public but even among some of the best writers.

Among the frequent visitors to Gnanakoothan’s room were Na. Muthuswamy, Balakumaran and R. Rajagopalan. At one time, the writer Jayakanthan was a regular visitor; Ashokamitran too dropped in now and then. The magazine’s life force was the long discussions, gossip, readings of one’s creations or those sent to the magazine; most importantly, the perceptive observations of Gnanakoothan, flavoured with irony and humour. The very first issue of the magazine carried a poem by him, defiant in tone and assertive of the literary claims of the group.

Gnanakoothan’s room was not a mere space. It was a life-giving, nourishing ambience. The exchanges among those assembled were quite eclectic. In a sense, it was a modern version of the fabled sangappalakai (the academy of ancient Tamil poets); it welcomed everyone who had something to say. There were many who brought in fresh energy; many were shaped by the air in that “creative space”. There were Athmanam, Balakumaran, Rajagopalan, Anand, all youngsters eager for an opening. Gnanakoothan provided strong support to these passionate youngsters, not with explicit approval or disapproval but with comments that illuminated the past as well as the present; and with knowledge and a desire to share. That’s how a few of us, who had gone through a stymied formal education and had been denied access to the richness of tradition, were sensitised to look back even as we were keen to take contemporary literature forward. Gnanakoothan was not for showing off. None of us sought “demonstrative knowledge”. It was a new attitude, an invitation to look at literature in ways we were not yet familiar with.

It was Gnanakoothan’s creativity that provided young poets the springboard that they much needed. He was the impulse from which came a group and a sensibility virtually unknown to the Tamil society then. From that invisible nook rose the myriad voices that have helped Tamil literature gain visibility, acceptance and stature.

There have been, in recent times, individuals who have provided a centre around which new literary sensibilities could develop. One parallel to Gnanakoothan’s room was the house of M. Govindan, the renowned poet and critic in Malayalam, on Harris Road, off the then Mount Road. Govindan’s reach was far wider; around Govindan one saw a range of artistes, from poets to film-makers. But in essence, both Govindan and Gnanakoothan provided that vital space not available elsewhere for pulsating new creative energies. Govindan, himself an institution, facilitated the rich interaction between writers and painters. It was Govindan who introduced painters from Kerala and the then Madras School of Arts to our group in the late 1960s. Later, this interaction continued to enrich Ka cha ta tha pa ra . The movement would not have been complete without this mutually nourishing interaction that came to be newly established in the Tamil environment then.

The conception and production of Gnanakoothan’s first collection of poems, Andru Veru Kizhamai (That was a different day), was a guiding spirit and a milestone which was used to measure publications in Tamil for years to come. The excitement that Gnanakoothan’s poems evoked in painters is understandable when one considers that new poetry and modern art had a shared vision; a vision which saw the world in a way different from the one that Tamil society was used to. The layout was done by K.M. Adimoolam. R.B. Bhaskaran, Dakshinamurthi, Varadarajan and Chidambarakrishnan were among those who lent support to Adimoolam, who designed the jacket too. I remember our springy steps as Adimoolam and I walked to Janatha Printers to have the jacket printed. The production of that collection was a fond expression of fraternity between writers and painters.

Gnanakoothan was born as R. Ranganathan in Tiruvinthaloor, near Mayiladuthurai. His mother tongue was Kannada. Like many important contemporary Tamil creators, he worked as a government employee to earn his living. Gnanakoothan entered the parallel Tamil literary stream at the appropriate moment. From the late 1950s, C.S. Chellappa and Ka Na Subramaniam had prepared the ground for new poetry to grow. The soil was ready for new strains even within the course of new poetry. While Chellappa’s literary journal Ezhuththu was the first major platform for new poets, his perspective of new poetry was different and he did not approve of Gnanakoothan’s approach. It was, ironically, Si Manee, one of Chellappa’s proteges, who recognised the highly original voice of Gnanakoothan.

Gnanakoothan’s irreverence and satire were unknown even to the school of new poets. The strident irreverence of Gnanakoothan could be seen in some of his iconic lines: “For me too Tamil is the life breath, but I wouldn’t breathe it out on others.” It was a voice of dissenting spirit, questioning the established perception of Tamil. In a society obsessed with the glory of the past, he could take an ancient poet and place him, in a deliberately anachronistic way, in a modern government office (the poem “Mosikeeranaar”). He could lampoon those idolised by society; mimic their language and reduce them to caricatures. In doing this, he elevated the ordinary, and aesthetically contrived to link the sublime to the banal at one stroke. Having thoroughly internalised the discipline and beauty of classicism, he could give fresh meaning and form to tradition. He laid a new path for a host of new poets. After the coming of Gnanakoothan, Tamil poetry was not the same; it became more daring, less inhibited and more open to change, giving it new vitality and freshness.

S. Ramakrishnan is editor-publisher, Cre-A, and one of the founders of Ka cha ta tha pa ra. Email:

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