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Ayyappa Paniker: The satirist who sang love songs

Oh! What a wild Oscar.” That was my first taste of K. Ayyappa Paniker’s black humour. It was 1987, and we were at the University of Kerala’s Institute of English in Thiruvananthapuram. In five short words he had explained what Oscar Wilde means when he says “I can resist anything except temptation” in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

The Ayyappa Paniker who revealed himself before me since that day was a man of many parts. Most of his students felt that he was first and foremost a teacher. For the Malayali literati, however, he was the guru of modern poets. Thinker, theoretician, critic, translator, linguist, humanist — Ayyappa Paniker was all these and more.

Born to E. Narayanan Namboodiri of Periyamana Illam and Meenakshiamma on September 12, 1930, in the picturesque village of Kavalam, Paniker (whose 90th birth anniversary was observed yesterday) had always radiated the rustic charm of Kuttanad. The irony, satire and black humour in his works are meant to unravel the hypocrisy of society. As former diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan says in an article, Paniker’s black humour has no parallel in Malayalam literature.

First shoots of modernism

Paniker’s poem, Kurukshetram (the scene of the great battle in Mahabharata), published in 1960, fuelled the modernist impulse in Malayalam literature. According to K. Satchidanandan, it marked a decisive departure in poetry, freely mixing meters, breaking linear structure, and expressing in fresh, sometimes surreal, images the dilemma of contemporary life (‘Modernism in Malayalam Literature’).

Critics generally agree that the first indications of modernism in Malayalam can be found in the fiction of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, especially his novel, Shabdangal (Voices, 1947), and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s poem Padunna Pishachu (The Devil that Sings, 1949). Then came Paniker’s Oru Surrealistinte Premaganam (The Love Song of a Surrealist, 1952) and O.V. Vijayan’s Moonnu Yudhangal (Three Wars, 1957), which showed some traits of modernism. Poets N.V. Krishna Variyar, M. Govindan and G. Kumara Pillai, and playwright C.J. Thomas are among the transitional figures of modernism in Malayalam literature.

Modernism rejected the clichés of romantic Malayalam poetry on the one hand and, on the other, fought against the simplifications of the progressive poetry that parroted egalitarian principles. The usual criticism levelled against modernism that it made literature more of an experimentation with techniques than a creative articulation of socio-economic situations does not apply to Paniker’s works, especially Kurukshetram, which calls for love and action.

True colours

Paniker’s first collection of poems (1951-69) was published in 1974. The second (1969-81), Pakalukal Rathrikal (Days and Nights), published in 1982, was well received by academics and readers aliks. Days and Nights and Passage to America, written during his days in the West, are in a sense a subtle dialogue between the East and the West: the material and the spiritual on one hand and the eternal and the fleeting on the other. Some poems from Days and Nights look at the mass of contradictions that is modern India. In ‘The Sabarmati’, the poet laments: “Where have they gone, Sabarmati, your fountain springs?”

Clifford Endres of Kadir Has University, Istanbul, writes in his introduction to Days and Nights that “The thread binding his poems is a vision deriving from an unflinching confrontation of life in its true colours: an intuition of the reality behind realism.”

Beyond formula

Paniker produced three more volumes of poetry: the third volume covering 1981 to 1989, the fourth 1990 to 1999, and the fifth 2000 to 2006.

The lavish use of free verse in his poems, especially during the latter part of his career, helped him do away with artificiality and formalise a pattern suited to modern idiom and the more casual tonality of Malayalam. Abandoning the prosodic units of metrical feet per line, he sought to lay emphasis on sounds, words, phrases and sentences.

Paniker did not stick to any one formula for writing. His style continued to evolve till he passed away on August 23, 2006. Gotrayanam (Southbound),Mrithyupooja (Hymn to Death), Kudumbapuranam (The Family Saga), Ivide Jeevitham (Here, Life), and Pookkathirikkan Enikkavathille (I Can’t Help Blossoming) bear testimony to his erudition.

If his poetry opened up new areas of experience, his critical works created new levels of awareness for his readers and students.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 2:09:07 PM |

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