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A thousand suns of empathy: The poetry of Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri

For more than 70 years, until his death aged 94 on October 15, Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri was a transformational figure in Malayalam poetry. Yet, his familiar image was that of a soft-spoken, self-effacing personality who preferred to stay out of the limelight. When he heard the news that he had been chosen for the Jnanpith Award in 2019, Akkitham — as he was widely known — reacted with the comment, “My great contemporaries, Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon and Edasseri Govindan Nair, were equally deserving of the award. Maybe I am now blessed with the honour as I have had a longer life.” That was quintessential Akkitham.

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Akkitham was a product of the literary churn that took place in Kerala in the first half of the 20th century, which saw Malayalam poetry evolve into a people’s movement. Hundreds began experimenting with the craft, and poetry was in the air everywhere, in dedicated gatherings and recitals, in antakshari sessions on the sidelines of temple festivals, in the verse epistles that became a popular form of correspondence. Kumaran Asan and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai were the folk heroes of the period. They chose themes that touched ordinary lives and spoke of their struggles in an unequal society.

Two phases

Deeply religious, Akkitham’s spiritualism was, however, part of a wider human vision. The Namboothiri community to which he belonged was in ferment, no longer enjoying the unchallenged spiritual and social dominance that had once been theirs and facing the onslaught of modern ideas. The revolution came from within when younger members of the community, led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad and V.T. Bhattathiripad, took a reformist path. Akkitham chose to join the movement, and this involvement had a great impact on his poetic life.

His poetic career can be divided into two phases. In the early years, when he had an ideological affinity with the Left movement, his verse sensitively captured the pain, prejudices and exploitations that abounded in Kerala’s feudal society as well as its slow disintegration over the years. ‘The Wet Clod’, a poem on the agrarian struggle in Kerala, was a product of this phase. His genius, however, steadily evolved to take a broader view of the modern human condition. Akkitham came to see a moral vacuum in contemporary life and society, which he attributed to a deterioration of human values in an incredibly divided and uneven world.

Unfettered creativity

Two of his most celebrated poems, ‘Epic of the Twentieth Century’ and ‘Broken, Shattered World’, were creations of this phase of his poetic journey. It is here that he matures into the role of a philosopher-poet. In both the poems, he pleads for restoration of compassion and generosity as essential elements of good living. The ‘Epic of the Twentieth Century’ opens with these oft-quoted lines.

‘As I shed a teardrop for others, There rise within me a thousand suns.’

This broader human concern resonates in most of the poems he wrote during this time.

Akkitham’s literary style deserves mention. While he wrote on complex issues that define human life, he never gave the impression that he was imposing any lofty wisdom on his readers. His craft was disciplined and his language penetrating.

He treasured his long-standing friendship with M.T. Vasudevan Nair, another superstar of Malayalam literature. It’s one of the rare coincidences of history that these two Jnanpith laureates attended the same small village school in Kumaranellur in Palakkad. They maintained a warm friendship over the years.

Last year’s Jnanpith came on top of every one of Kerala’s major literary awards. The nation had also honoured him with a Padma Shri in 2017. Even as he advanced in years, Akkitham never let age fetter his creativity. His translation of Shrimad Bhagavatam from Sanskrit into Malayalam, published in 2002, was a monumental effort running into 2,400 pages, a product of painstaking scholarship and dedication. Right up to the end, Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri glittered in Malayalam literature.

The writer is Honorary Fellow, London School of Economics.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 9:18:59 PM |

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