Literary Review

A literary giant

Kodungallur Kunhikkuttan Thampuran. Illustration: P. Manivannan  

September 18 marked the 150th birth anniversary of one of the giants of Indian literature, Kodungallur Kunhikkuttan Thampuran (1864-1913), whose sterling contributions include the translation of the full text of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit to Malayalam, word by word, and metre by metre in 874 days!

A prolific writer, he wrote more than 130 books during his short life, including 14 works in Sanskrit, 18 poetic works in Malayalam, 11 Rupakams, 16 Gathas, 38 Khanda Kaavyas, many works on health, grammar etc, and 18 translations including Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet. It is a testimony to our abominable lack of a sense of history that this occasion has not been celebrated with the seriousness and commitment it deserves, especially as Malayalam was accorded ‘classical’ status recently.

Kunhikuttan Thampuran was born into a family known for its scholarly and poetic contributions. His father, Venmani Achan Namboothirippad, was an eminent poet. During that time, the Kodungallur Kalari was an institution of multidisciplinary excellence in grammar, literature, philosophy, logic, astrology, aesthetics, medicine … It was considered the fount of knowledge by scholars, poets and intellectuals of the time. Unequalled in his ability to churn out poems, Thampuran started writing poetry at an early age, and wrote his first book ( Kavibharatham) when he was a teenager. His oeuvre was an intense engagement with languages, genres and topics and included works in Sanskrit like Aryasatakam, Subhadraharanam, Dhanasastrakarika and Srisankaragurucaritam, Keralam (a poetic treatise in Malayalam on the socio-political and cultural history of Kerala and on language), Nalla Bhasha, Madirasiyathra (a travelogue), humorous pieces like Thuppalkolambi, invocations to various gods and goddesses, and several long poems.

Kunhikuttan Thampuran belonged to an era when Sanskrit dominated and ruled the literary and intellectual world. Into that elite atmosphere, he brought the freshness of everyday Malayalam (which he called pacha malayalam) energised by his rich and imaginative vocabulary, dexterous play of words, and facility with metres and articulation of ideas. Creativity was his nation, and poetry his mother tongue. Cosmopolitan and unorthodox in his ways of and views on life, Thampuran was never chained by the obscurantist social dictates of the casteist society; he spent hours playing chess, cards and marbles, and his friends called him pakiri for his endless wanderings. Ambadi Narayana Puthuval, his contemporary, described him thus: “Head overflowing with tuft, inside brimming with tradition, a voice never loud, look devoid of derision, body that is soft, intellect that is profound, for him, the whole world was home and everyone his kin…”

Apart from being a literary giant, Thampuran is remembered and revered for taking up the epic task of translating the complete text of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit to Malayalam. Legends abound about this marathon translation, and many of his poet contemporaries thought it was impossible. Some marvelled at his audacity, while many high-caste scholars ridiculed it. But unfazed by criticism, Thampuran completed the task in less than two years. Like the legendary Vyasa, Thampuran too dictated his Malayalam translation to the scribe after listening to the original verse that was read to him. His translation in lucid and poetic Malayalam influenced generations of writers. For instance, it inspired M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (The Second Turn) and P.K. Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte (Let Me Sleep Now), both based on the Mahabharata. Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai said that he kept reading Thampuran’s translation while writing his magnum opus Kayar.

Though there have been many Mahabharatas in various Indian languages, Thampuran’s work stands apart because the other versions were reinterpretations, abridgements or retellings. Thampuran’s was the first-ever complete verse-by-verse translation that followed the same metric patterns and order. This earned him the title ‘Kerala Vyasa’. Scholars consider it a marvel for its scholarly command over language and poetics, fidelity to the original and the pace at which it was accomplished. More than versification of the great epic in Malayalam, it was an intense and creative dialogue of a ‘regionalised’ language with the ‘divine’ language and the grand narratives of pan-Indian intellectual tradition.

Today, both these ‘events’ — Thampuran’s 150th birth anniversary and his monumental work of translation — assume new resonances and relevance. While Thampuran personifies the unrelenting pride and progressive roots of Malayalam and its universalist impulses, the epic narrative that he revivified in Malayalam resounds with the moral and ethical dilemmas of our times. The spiritual agonies that the Mahabharata grappled with — the meaning of life, liberation, and most importantly, what constitutes an ethical life — have assumed new forms and trajectories in contemporary India. What Kunhikkuttan Thampuran stood and worked for all his life needs to be re-read, rediscovered and reinterpreted to interrogate our past, revitalise the present and re-imagine our future.


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 9:32:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/remembering-kodungallur-kunhikkuttan-thampuran-the-prolific-writer-best-known-for-translating-the-mahabharata-into-malayalam/article6470973.ece

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