ONV Kurup

Shimmering drops of light

Print edition : March 18, 2016

O.N.V. Kurup delivering the "Samvatsar Lecture" at Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi in March 2014. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Interacting with a group of children at a summer camp oranised by the Chalachithra Academy in Thiruvananthapurm in 2007. Photo: S. Mahinsha

O.N.V. Kurup (1931-2016) wrote poetry from the heart, inspired by the grind, sorrows and joys of ordinary people, their simple songs and their hopes for a free and just world.

A RARE sight greeted the mourners at the public crematorium in Thiruvananthapuram, aptly named “Santhikavadam” (the Door to Peace) some years back by the man whose body was about to be consigned to the flames on February 15. On that sultry afternoon, as birds chirped in the background and policemen stood ready to offer funeral honours, a band of people began rendering the melodious songs and poems that have been on the lips of Malayalam speakers all over the world. There were 84 singers, representing the number of years that O.N.V. Kurup, one of Kerala’s most distinguished poets and lyricists and teacher to generations of students, had lived amongst them.

Ottaplakkal Neelakandan Velu Kurup, or ONV as he was popularly known, suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away on February 13 at a local hospital, after a brief period of ill health. Kerala was distraught, for the man, whom the nation had honoured with the Padma Vibhushan and Jnanpeeth awards, had also, over a period of time, become the State’s cultural counsellor, ambassador, guardian and sounding board. The State had acquired a habit of consulting its favourite bard even on mundane things, such as building a statue, honouring an artiste or naming a street, a venue, or even an aesthetically revamped crematorium.

Thus, along with the substantial wealth of poetry and lyrics that he used to mine regularly from the ravines of his heart, and the speeches, interviews and conversations that were a constant facet of his intellectual and political engagement with a discerning society, Kerala had come to cherish the vivid and stimulating images that he drew in people’s minds with a few lines of his poems or lines from the hundreds of his melodious drama or film songs, and the grace of his language and demeanour.

For some, he was “a man who showered golden letters laced with honey onto your soul”. For others, he was a poet who portrayed every climate, season, or human activity vividly, offering an intense poetic experience. He had a passion for egalitarian values, ingrained during his childhood, which was a period that saw the end of royalty and landlordism and the spread of progressive ideas in Kerala. He spoke evocatively, for example, of “the sickle moon” and of “all those fields that we reap that are going to be ours very soon”; of “a sun that was burning itself out for others”; and of “the dusk that sprinkled saffron dust through the keyhole”. He believed that poetry should improve the human condition and that his works should always serve as balm for sorrowing souls.

Universal message

He was one of Malayalam’s most talented poets of the past half a century. He travelled to many parts of the world and came back with the message that “human beings are the same everywhere; hunger, thirst and inner quest are the same; plants and trees anywhere belonged to the same fraternity; rivers everywhere are the same; and what grows out of man’s sweat is essentially the same”.

But his wanderings were more often to places which, he said, he could only “see with his heart”. Once, much before he wrote “Ujjaini” (a narrative poem, a love story as well as a statement on the evils of power), he travelled to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, the city that was once the capital of an ancient empire. As ONV explained it in a television interview, he went there not in search of history’s power symbols—to dig up Emperor Vikramaditya’s throne, so to say—but “to seek the truth about Kalidasa”, one of the “Nine Gems” in Vikramaditya’s court, in order to understand what the powers of the day did to poets like him and their dreams.

Poetic truth

As part of that quest, he said, he also went in search of a red light street in Ujjain described in Kalidasa’s famous lyrical poem “Meghadootam”. He found “Makara-radhya”, the street he had read about. But while his Malayalam-speaking guide perhaps only saw a dreary road with a few buildings and trees, ONV, in his mind, saw the colourful twilight world of Kalidasa: a group of “lovers” stepping out on to an old-world street, the joyous sounds of anklets, muted music flowing out of the buildings, and so on.

The fact that there was indeed a street there by that name perhaps indicated that it did exist once upon a time. But the poet in him was not seeking history’s truth, but “Kalidasa’s truth”, and that “he could only see with his mind’s eye”, he told his interviewer.

Such imaginary trails beckoned him throughout his life and the urge to explore them nagged him from very early days. As a child, he was a solitary soul who spent his time after school mostly by himself in the courtyards or paddy fields, talking to plants and flowers, or writing nonsense verse as he did the day’s homework. “Poetry was that single drop of light that I could gather during those dark, lonely days,” he wrote.

His father was a Sanskrit scholar and an Ayurveda physician who died when ONV was just seven years old. He spent the rest of his childhood at his mother’s home, where his grandfather, a man of some social standing, was a drama enthusiast. The Sanskrit works he read in childhood and the general cultural milieu of his childhood surroundings laid the foundations of his poetic life.

He was drawn to the poetry of Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, the well-known romantic poet, and Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, whose radical poetry marked the beginning of a different phase in Malayalam literature. ONV found the simple verses of Changampuzha enticing and his poetry had a “field day on his lips for a few years”. But his love and respect for Vyloppilli’s poems became “limitless” after he came to know him personally. “I came to like even his rough temperament and to respect his outspoken nature. That man saw in life’s dark ocean a poet’s bottle of ink,” he once observed.

Student activist

ONV was very active in radical student politics throughout his college days and soon people came to believe that his poems rose from the heart, from the sorrows and happiness of ordinary people, their simple folk songs, from the rhythms of their daily grind, and their desires and hopes for a free and just world.

However, there were two other poets, Vayalar Rama Varma and P. Bhaskaran, who also wrote similarly vibrant poetry and inspiring lyrics at that time. The songs they wrote for the plays presented by the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) partly inspired Kerala’s progressive movements. Vayalar, Bhaskaran and ONV were known as “the communist trio”. They were all equally talented and followed very similar routes to early stardom. The songs for the landmark KPAC play Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made me a Communist) in a way helped define the early communist movement in Kerala. Many described the period as one of democratisation of verse. But ONV believed that he and his peers were in fact “making poetry from everyday language”.

In a preface he wrote for ONV’s first collection of poems, The Thirsty Chalice, published when he was only 25, Joseph Mundasseri, a doyen of letters, speaks in laudatory terms about ONV’s simple, accessible style of poetry and says that it is a skill which usually takes a lifetime for a poet to achieve.

The split in the Communist Party (as also the disintegration of the Soviet Union later) came as a shock to poets like ONV. There was much disillusionment and it showed in their poems. But ONV said he restored himself with the belief that the way forward was to align firmly with the “have-nots”. In one of his interviews, he said: “I did not feel like joining one side or the other. I told my mind, I am always with the have-nots. That is how I set right my mind, by saying ‘we are with the have-nots’. When we say ‘have-nots’, we could see them also as not confined to a particular party.”

Even though he was a sympathiser and was a regular presence at Left platforms, he avoided aligning with one party or the other. And he was careful not to go overboard with his frustration and throughout his life would not say anything that would harm the Left movement. True, soon after the split, he wrote “Broken Bangles” and “Promised Land” and his poetry contained lines such as “I’ve drifted into a green isle of gloom” and “Passion that came to woo this virgin Earth! How could you take Indra’s gorgeous bow and shatter it so!” (quoted in a selection of his poems titled That Ancient Lyre, published by the Sahitya Akademi). But later on he said: “I wrote it then not because I resigned or I wanted to quit. But it was all a sign of my anguish. I carry that pain even now.”

ONV wrote a poem titled “Aparanham” (Afternoon) after the fall of the Soviet Union. The poem ends thus: “Someone as mighty as god used to be here/ I offered him amrut (eternal life)/ But he was his own enemy.” Yet, the poet would say later: “Those who were happy when the Soviet Union fell are not people who love the have-nots. They are not people who love the freedom that is there in every part of the world.”

ONV taught Malayalam in several government colleges in Kerala from 1958 until his retirement in 1986. His students adored him for the depth of his scholarship, the poetic quality of his lectures, his sense of world literature and the warm personal relations he maintained outside the classroom. During a recent get-together at the University College in Thiruvananthapuram, the college from where he retired, some of his former students, now teachers and writers in their own right, recollected how they used to be regularly transported to “borderless worlds of language and literature” while in his class. “He was always up to date with the latest trends in world literature. And he would offer all of it to students on a plate full of affection, love and human values. In short, what we experienced were sessions with a truly great guru,” one of them said. Like all good teachers, ONV was used to students crowding his classrooms, invariably because his style of teaching “was as enjoyable as his poetry”.

Poetry and lyrics

Because he was also a lyricist, ONV was often asked to differentiate between poetry and lyrics. He said that one was “art”, while the other was “craft”; that one was “salt” and the other was “pickle”, and that poetry ought to be a purely individual effort. But he liked writing both and, most often, it turned out to be “golden”. “I do not claim that all of those lyrics could be termed poetry. But, as far as possible, I have taken care to make it appear that they were written by a poet,” he said.

Sometime back, when a television interviewer asked him about the criticism that it was greed that led him to write lyrics for so many film songs, the audience expected ONV to admonish him. Instead, he said: “Did I ever go and live in Kodambakkam and devastate my poetry? Have I ever been untrue to my teaching profession because I wrote those lyrics? Do you think I sold my lyrics for those few extra thousands? Writing lyrics is a process that illuminates your soul. Even if the story and the context are fashioned by someone else, you can fill it with poetry. I gain my real reward when I see a song so laden with poetry dancing on the lips of other people.”

People have lost count of such ONV songs. By one estimate, his works include about 20 collections of poems, nearly 900 songs for films and a large number written for plays and albums. He has acquired an assortment of prizes and national and State awards for his poetry and songs. The abiding element in all his works—over the years he has tried various styles and themes in his poems and has explored a range of subjects—has been his concern for the have-nots. He saw god in human endeavour, and paradise was “where everybody has equal rights; no one is hungry; no one is marginalised or discarded; there is no need for a freedom struggle; and everybody is free”.

He won the State award for the best lyricist for 13 years and the national award once. He has received nearly all the major national and State honours for poetry, including those instituted by the national and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, the Jnanapith Award (2007), the Padma Shri (1998) and the Padma Vibhushan (2011). But he said: “I always remember Tagore’s words, ‘let humility be your crown.’ That crown of humility is always on my head.”

One aberrant note in his life was his decision to stand for election as a Left independent candidate contesting for the Lok Sabha seat from Thiruvananthapuram in 1989. He was coerced into it by old friends. Surely, he was not cut out for mundane, everyday politics: he lost. On all other occasions, Kerala has acknowledged his true genius, his dynamic engagement with society and his efforts to promote the Malayalam language, including the recent campaign he led with others to get for it the classical language status.

Poetry was his life, but ONV was a family man, often coming through as a benign, progressive patriarch who looked after his flock well and nurtured their talents in an atmosphere of love, affection, mutual respect and encouragement. His wife, Sarojini, his former student, was a constant, gentle presence near him. Once, in an interview, she spoke of his writing habits, how restless he would become once he got an idea for a poem or a song and, how, after some reflection, he would abruptly start writing, even in the most ungodly hours.

O.N.V. Kurup’s Jnanpith acceptance speech ended poignantly like this: “One day, as I leave this rented house called Earth, I leave a part of my life force here. That is my poetry. My thanks once again to all those who love and respect it.”