Poet and actor Balachandran Chullikkad's “chaotic and surreal imagery” was the modern element that he introduced to Malayalam poetry in the seventies.
Much like a wandering minstrel of yore, Balachandran Chullikkad began reciting his poems, in his deep voice, in the late 70s, across Kerala. Almost immediately he drew listeners into his world of words. Poetry, then, was a religion, a cult to a generation that was fast losing faith in the politics of the time. Balachandran’s poems came like a breath of fresh air. They empathised with the cause of the people, offering hope. The poetry was fresh not only in the way it was delivered, like performance art, but also for the elements of modernity. Mainstream Malayalam poetry till then was a mix of the Neo-classical, the progressive and the romantic.
“Missing was the avant-garde. I represented that. I was an outcast in poetry, the angry young man,” says Balachandran, adding that his use of “chaotic and surreal imagery” was the modern element that he introduced.
Surprisingly, for one who has been writing poetry for over four decades, the process has not turned easier. “When I was young I thought it would be easier to write poetry as I grew old, as my reading grew, awareness grew. But writing poetry became stressful and strenuous. It is an agony. In the process of composing poetry lies masochist ecstasy.”
But, alternatively, has the passage of time mellowed the poetic fervour within him?
“I have not mellowed but surrendered; surrendered to the invincible wall of injustice in society. I grow more ignorant about life and society. To quote T.S. Eliot, ‘I am living and partly living’, now.”
If the poet claims to have surrendered to the present injustices, he was once a spirited young man fighting the very same wrongs with only words as his weapons. A childhood of rejection and ridicule forced him to leave home. He found no comfort in his parents, teachers and relatives. “They hated me just like a serpent. Teachers tried to crush my self-respect. I was disliked for my attitude, my way of life. They even hated my voice,” he says bitterly, adding that in his childhood he had everything “except love, care and emotional security.”
Homeless, Balachandran found himself on the streets of Kochi begging for food, with only poetry as refuge. “I have lived as a beggar in the streets of Kochi. Poetry is the only refuge for beggars, whores and criminals. It has the quality of being all inclusive.”
And so he found peace and fulfilment in the art which he defines as “the subtlest and most complex language of the soul.”
Nurtured and tended by lovers of verse who gave him boarding and lodging, he began writing and reciting his poems in lodges, hostels, reading rooms and libraries all over Kerala.
“Fame came after me like a street dog following a man carrying fish. But fame has its negative aspects too. I lost all my privacy.”
Poetry became his mainstay. He defines poetry as the “expressed essence of his experiences”. “It is formed in the silences of my heart. Poetry is not my passion, it is my destiny.” But then Balachandran has long fallow periods of not expressing himself through poetry. “I have written under 100 poems. Poetry is not at will, it is not from me but through me. It depends wholly on inspiration. And inspiration comes unannounced.”
His love poems are bitter. He speaks of unrequited love, of having nothing to offer anybody except words. But it was through words that he met his best friend and wife, Vijaylakshmi.
“I lived with her for 12 years before I married her. She is my best friend.”
On women poets in Kerala he says, “Nowadays more than men, women need poetry as means of expression of their problems. Very few women wrote in the past. Now more and more are writing poetry in Malayalam. Many are very good poets, sincere in their expression.”
Fame brought him both love and hate, he says, in equal measure. Quite strangely, hate seems to motivate him. “Poetry should be hated by some. I have befriended the hate of people. Like death, the hate of people follows me. If my poetry is not able to provoke, then it is meaningless. Of course, some people love my poetry. And that is equally intense like the hatred. It is the counterbalance of the two that keeps me going.”
The hate that he talks so intensely about also came from his fans who resented his foray into the field of acting. His first role as a central character was in a film by G. Aravindan – Pokuveyil in 1981. After that he has done small roles in films and in serials. “I have no claims in acting but it is my passion.”
Balachandran’s poetic oeuvre is rich. His collection of published poems are Pathinettu Kavithakal, Amaavaasi, Ghazal, Maanasaantharam, Dracula ... In 2001, his memoir, Chidambarasmarana, was published.
He talks fondly about Satyajit Ray, Bismillah Khan, Mulk Raj Anand, Sivaji Ganeshan and Shivaram Karanth, some of the stalwarts from the field of arts, who have left an indelible impression on him.
He calls himself an old poet with old equipment, struggling to be a part of present-day poetry, for poetry itself has changed. “Anthropologically the roots of poetry are cut now. It has become a kind of casual poetry. It is use and throw, tatkal poetry. I struggled to be a part of it but failed. Now I am an old poet. Every generation will have its own poetry. They will have their own aesthetics. My parameters, my equipment are old. I am nobody to judge new poetry with my old equipment. It is the responsibility of the new generation to establish their poetry. They are bound to deny us. They should. I wish nobody to follow me in poetry.”