No other poet has profoundly influenced Malayalam poetry in recent times as Changampuzha did, writes C. Sarat Chandran, 64 years after the poet’s death.
This year marks the birth centenary of one of the most revered and adulated of all Malayalam poets — Changampuzha Krishna Pillai. No other poet has so profoundly influenced Malayalam poetry in recent times as Changampuzha did. Sixty-four years after his death, his powerful poetry continues to mesmerize the Malayalee minds. He remains a cult figure!
Changampuzha played a transformational role in the democratisation of Malayalam literature. He broke away from Malayalam Poetry’s traditional focus on religious themes and its highly Sanskritised language to draw inspiration from the lives of ordinary people, their sorrows and sufferings, their unfulfilled dreams and their struggle to survive in an uneven world. He also explored the richness of Malayalam language as spoken by ordinary Malayalees — their idioms, their conversations and their folk tales.
One of his most influential poems “Vazhakkula” (a bunch of plantains) tells the tale of an impoverished farmer and his family and how the fruits of their labour are taken away by a heartless landlord. “Vazhakkula” captured the spirit of the times in Kerala waiting for an agrarian revolution. It was riding on the back of the emotional upheaval created by poems like “Vazhakkula” that the Communist party came to power in 1957 for the first time under the leadership of E.M.S. Namboodiripad. In Kerala, politics and literature have often intersected and overlapped.
Changampuzha's most popular poem, however, was “Ramanan”, a poignant love story based on the tragic life of his friend and fellow poet, Raghavan Pillai. The poem had an overwhelming impact on the reading public. No other poetic work has sold more copies than “Ramanan” in the history of Malayalam Literature —100,000 copies in 60 editions. “Ramanan” became an immortal classic turning Changampuzha into a heart-throb of a generation! Hysterical crowd followed him wherever he went. In an era when there were no film stars or cricket heroes, Changampuzha emerged as an icon. As the renowned Malayalam critic Joseph Mundassery colourfully observed: “People stopped for a moment to look at him even in a stampede.”
His famous line: “My failure is that I have a sincere heart in a world of hypocrisy” was repeated a million times even by ordinary people who knew nothing of the value of literature or poetry itself. They saw him as one among them.
Changampuzha set the benchmark for Malayalam poetry's future growth. Since his time, Malayalam poetry has always stood close to the people. Poets like Vayalar Rama Varma, P. Bhasakaran and O.N.V. Kurup, Malayalam’s latest Jnanpith Award winner, have carried forward the torch that Changampuzha lit. Not surprisingly, popular Malayalam film songs drew heavily from the works of these poets. O.N.V. Kurup observes that while he has never seen Changampuzha in real life, “his spirit is felt in my blood, under my skin”.
His death in 1947 at a relatively young age of 38, and at the height of his creative genius, has deepened the nostalgia for him and his works. The State of Kerala has sought to commemorate Changampuzha’s memory by naming a number of institutions after him. But his real shrine is in the hearts and minds of millions of people who know that Kerala will not see another phenomenon like him.