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Updated: November 6, 2010 17:48 IST

Poet of the people

C. SARAT CHANDRAN
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Tryst with verse: O.N.V. Kurup. Photo:S. Gopakumar
The Hindu
Tryst with verse: O.N.V. Kurup. Photo:S. Gopakumar

O.N.V. Kurup, one of Kerala's best loved poets, has been recognised with the country's highest literary award for 2007.

O N.V.Kurup, who won the Jnanpith Award for 2007 (announced last month) was often regarded the unofficial Poet-Laureate of Kerala. He is the second Malayalam Poet to win the prestigious award. The very first Jnanpith Award after the prize was instituted in 1965 went to the venerable G. Sankara Kurup who heralded the modernist phase in Malayalam poetry.

Poetry in Kerala has evolved as a people's movement through boatmen's songs, folk music, theatre songs and more recently through film songs. Eminent writers and poets in Kerala are often admired and adored as people's heroes like cricket players and film stars elsewhere in the country. The hysterical crowds that surrounded the late poet Changampuzha reflected the adulation he enjoyed from the people of the State.

O.N.V (as he is often referred to) is a household name in Kerala. His verse straddled “pure poetry” as well as lyrics for theatre and film songs. In both he drew themes and inspiration from the ordinary people and their daily struggles. Late Joseph Mundassery, the distinguished Malayalam critic, once observed “O.N.V's poetry smells of raw earth”. That was a fair comment on a poet who saw himself as the spokesman of the “disadvantaged and dispossessed”.

Beginnings

It was indeed that smell of raw earth that flavoured O.N.V's soul-stirring songs in “Ningalenne Communistakki” (“You made me a Communist”) a transformational play by Thoppil Bhasi in the mid-fifties. The play marked a significant departure from the familiar classical themes and traditional style of Malayalam theatre.

O.N.V's lyrics captured the language of ordinary villagers in all its rustic simplicity and Devarajan who composed the music borrowed heavily from the rich repertoire of Kerala's folk songs. Riding on the waves of the huge popularity of “Ningalenne Communistakki” the first Communist Government in Kerala under E.M.S. Nambodiripad came to power in 1957. That play, and those songs brought O.N.V to the limelight and he stayed there ever since. Later O.N.V, along with fellow poets Vayalar Rama Varma and Bhaskaran migrated to the film industry. The O.N.V-Devarajan team produced hundreds of super hits. There were accusations that these poets were diluting their craft with the banality of film songs. The truth, however, was the opposite. These talented poets were enriching Malayalam film songs with their poetic imagination.

This was also the time when Kannadasan in Tamil and Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi in Hindi, also moved over to their respective film industries and created legendary songs.Although his poetry's central concern on the marginalised people of this world remained throughout his career, O.N.V often reinvented himself and experimented with a wide range of new themes and subjects. His celebrated poem “Bhommikkoru Charamageetham” (A Requiem for Mother Earth) following the Silent Valley agitation to protect the rain forests of Kerala, reflects his environmental concerns. “Uppu” (Salt) is another touching poem where the grandmother tells her grandson that he would remember her long after she has gone because of the salt she has mixed in the spoonful of kanji (rice water) that she used to feed him while he was a childHis huge literary output includes 20 collections of poems, 900 film songs for 232 films, besides several songs written for plays and albums.

Separate worlds

In Kerala, Literature and Politics are often close allies. O.N.V Kurup never made a secret of his ideological leanings to the Left and he contested as a Left Democratic Front candidate for Parliament in 1989. But in Kerala people want their writers, however eminent they are, to remain as writers and not to meddle in politics. O.N.V lost the election. The irrepressible Kamala Das also made a similar attempt and failed.

That said, O.N.V has an identity with multiple facets. Besides his stature as a poet and lyricist, he is also an eminent academic and scholar, a promoter of Kerala's traditional art and perhaps the most visible face of Kerala's culture to the world outside.

“Which one of these is the true O.N.V?” he was asked once.

“You could say I am a true Kerala original”. He answered spontaneously.

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