Seldom does a name evoke so many images: images of the oppressed and the dispossessed marching towards a new dawn, of the Baul singer dancing and singing in an ecstatic trance, of the boatswain whispering eternal truths in the ears of the lonely traveller, of the fading light of the day peeping in under the door, of the flower that lights up the darkness enveloping life…
The images cry out that name: ‘ONV' or formally, O. N. V. Kurup, a name that Malayalam speakers everywhere have grown up with, through his poems and his evocative lyrics. A poetic genius who has straddled Malayalam literary scene for over six decades, linking a rich poetic legacy with the complexities of the contemporary times, and crowning it all, he becomes the fifth Malayalam litterateur to win the Jnanpith Award.
Rooted in tradition
Almost everyone, both young and old, speak of ‘Oyenvi' as if he is one in the family. To the woman on the street, he is essentially his many songs. And to the connoisseur, there is that rich repertoire of poems that speak of worlds past and present and lives lived and living, each displaying great lyrical charm and admirable thematic variety. For someone whose poetic skills sprouted and evolved at the parting of ways between classicism and romanticism and who has continued to write through the periods of modernism and post-modernism, ONV has retained a level of relevance thanks to his firm roots in tradition and his lively engagement with changing sensibilities.
ONV once said: “My muse has been always with the sorrowing souls, with the tortured and the dispossessed…” The title that ONV gave to one of his early poems, published in 1949, was ‘Arivaalum Raakuyilum' (Sickle and the Cuckoo), a title that probably says a lot about the two dimensions of ONV's poetic persona and creative orientations, not just then, but even today. The social orientation of ONV's poetry has always been strong and it remains the same even today.
The same goes for his constant concern for the human individual's lonely encounters in the dark alleys of life. His persistent return to individuated experience, particularly during the middle phase of his creative life, has helped him stay connected with contemporary concerns. And, by adopting themes relating to ecological devastation and survival of the human kind, he has also put himself on guard against revivalist panaceas that are so much within reach.
If he is the finest of the lyrical poets of our times, the lyrics he has penned for hundreds of plays and films have been a collective auditory feast for Malayalis everywhere. Beginning with the songs for ‘Ningalenne Communistaakki' (1952), ONV had teamed up with G. Devarajan, friend and comrade from his formative days as a political activist and a poet, to gift Malayalis with some of the most memorable songs ever. The team moved into films with ‘Kaalam Maarunnu' (1955).
He went on to team up with Salil Choudhury who was virtually an elder brother to him since the first time the two met at the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) conference in Bombay in 1952, for over 15 films. He also partnered with K. Raghavan Master for several plays and films, with the legendary Baburaj for a few films and with M. B. Sreenivasan, another veteran of IPTA vintage, to produce magic out of the harmonious mix of words, themes and rhythms. No wonder, ONV has won the Kerala government's best lyricist awards a record 13 times and the best lyricist award at the national level once (1989).
Born to O. N. Krishna Kurup and K. Lakshmikutty Amma on May 27, 1931, at Chavara in Kollam district, ONV became active in the Communist movement during his young days and played a major part in the cultural front before he took up teaching as his career.
His first poem ‘Munnott' (Forward!) was published in 1946 and his first collection of poems ‘ Poruthunna Soudaryam' came out in 1949. His subsequent works are reflective of the changes in the trajectories of history; from the times when he, like many others, looked forward to and spoke with certainty about a new dawn, to the days when that edifice of hope came down crumbling, throwing him, and the others, into a state of ambivalence and introspection.
What perhaps stood him in good stead amidst all the turmoil was his ideological mooring and peculiar positioning at the cusp of the traditional and the modern in themes, concerns and poetic articulation, at times even inviting criticism for his romantic bend.
To ONV, a poem can be many things: ‘an ardent wish', ‘a prayer for peace,' ‘a soothing balm over a bleeding wound,' ‘a clarion call for social change'… “Poetry,” he tells us, “is brought forth and bred by humanity as pearl is by the ocean. The poet is the shell that breaks open its pearl to others and disappear in some corner of the earth.”
ONV knows well that no writer can claim that his or her works will change the world as he or she desires; that the crown of the saviour is too heavy for the poet. But he has no doubt that a poet cannot escape from his or her concern for mankind.
ONV's major works
‘Daahikkunna Paanapaathram' (The Thirsty Chalice – 1956)
‘Mayilpeeli (Peacock Feather – 1964)
‘Agnishalabhangal' (Fire Moths – 1971)
‘Aksharam' (Alphabet – 1974)
‘Karutha Pakshiyude Paattu' (Song of a Black Bird – 1977)
‘Uppu' (Salt - 1980)
‘Thonnyaaksharangal' (Nonsensical writing – 1989)
‘Bhoomikk Oru Charama Geetham' (A Dirge for the Earth – 1984)
‘Ujjayini' (Ujjain – 1994)
Jnanpith Award (2010)
Padma Shri (1998)
Kerala Sahithya Akademi Award for ‘Agnishalabhangal' (1971)
Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for ‘Aksharam' (1975)
Vayalar Rama Varma Award for ‘Uppu' (1982)