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Friday Review

The bard of Malayalam

O.N.V. Kurup Photo: K. Ananthan

O.N.V. Kurup Photo: K. Ananthan   | Photo Credit: K. Ananthan

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Poet Prabha Varma pays homage to ONV Kurup by recalling his contributions to Malayalam language and literature.



A gifted poet elevates and shapes his inherited language to new heights of magnificence. This is all the more true of ONV Kurup, the doyen of modern Malayalam literature. A sublime poet, award-winning lyricist, renowned orator, noted scholar and academic of distinction, Professor ONV Kurup was unmatched in his virtuosity and literary sensitivity. K. Sachidanandan, poet and critic, put it this way: 'ONV is a humanist among poets and a poet among humanists'.

As a brilliant poet, ONV’s modern outlook, fluent diction, unparalleled imagination and progressive views left an indelible imprint on many branches of Malayalam literature, ranging from pure poetry to melodious lyrics. His essays and speeches were marked by a blend of those values that went a long way in enriching the sensibility of the modern era. Both his poetic genius and humanitarian concerns were reflected in his writings. His literary career spanning seven decades is a confluence of the traditional, the modern, the regional and the international.

Born in 1931, at Chavara, a picturesque coastal village in South Kerala, ONV spent his childhood in an environment steeped in classical art and literature. He had his schooling at his native village and graduated from S.N. College, Kollam. Following his post graduation from University College, Thiruvananthapuram, he worked as professor and academic par excellence at various government colleges in Kerala.

He had been chairman of Kerala Kalamandalam and a member of the executive board of Sahitya Akademi. Malayalam language attained the status of classical language and Kerala Kalamandalam got the status of a deemed university, thanks to the initiative of ONV.

During his college days, he was involved with progressive movements and began his literary career as a trailblazer of progressive literature. ‘Arivalum Rakkuyilum' and 'Poruthunna Soundaryam' were his literary outputs during this era, which combined social realism, sensuous lyricism and Leftist aesthetics. Later his poetry encompassed in itself all that contribute to the flowering of humanity. This period is marked by 'Choroonu', Mayilpeeli' and so on which absorbed the subtle nuances of nostalgia. From poems of strict subjectivity he moved on to poems of cosmic dimension; from anthologies he rose to novels in verse, such as Ujjayini and Swayamvaram. Ujjayini deals with the conflict between art and power, where as Swayamvaram addresses the plight of womanhood.

He was also a lyricist who bagged the national film award for the best lyrics and won numerous State awards for his memorable lines of verse. In 1971, ONV received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for his anthology Agnisalabhangal. His awards include the National Academy Award, Vayalar Award and Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, the coveted award given by the Kerala State Government to a leading literary personality every year. The Jnanpith award was conferred on him in 2007. The nation honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan in 2011.

He began his literary career against the backdrop of a series of tumultuous international events such as the victory of socialism over Nazism, the people's revolution of China, and the emergence of half a dozen socialist countries in eastern Europe. At the national level also the atmosphere was agog with a number of revolutionary struggles such as the Royal Navy revolt, Punnapra-Vayalar struggle, Telangana struggles, Bombay mill strike and so on. All these had its impact on his writings and he rose to become a poet of high eminence in the radical triumvirate in which P. Bhaskaran and Vayalar were the other stars.

The revolutionary zeal that was associated with the songs he wrote for Kerala Progressive Arts Club (KPAC) ignited the spirit of many youngsters then to get associated with workers’ movements.

With the demise of ONV, an era comes to a close in Malayalam literature, an era that was marked by radically vibrant social realism, instantaneously sensuous romanticism and a high dose of humanitarian optimism.

ONV continues to live amongst us even after his death – he lives in the minds of readers.

The author had talked to ONV some weeks before he fell ill and was hospitalised. Excerpts from the freewheeling interview when ONV opened up on his childhood, writing and influences.

Would you tell us something about your childhood that moulded you as a poet? You had said that poetry came to your mind as a ray of light in the midst of dark solitude. Would you elaborate?

I lost my father when I was eight. He was a renowned physician, scholar and editor of a journal, Swarajyam. He was my first guru in Malayalam and Sanskrit. His untimely demise was like 'sunset at noon' and my mother and I had to shift to our village, where I missed all that I enjoyed in my father's residence at Kollam – the frequent visits of classical singers, Kathakali artists, and social and cultural celebrities. Poetry was my only solace. It was in that situation that I wrote that poetry was that ray of light that came to me in the dark solitude of my childhood.

In many of your poems, you appear to be a world citizen. Transcending the barriers of nation states, you seem to communicate....

My acquaintance with an abridged form of Valmiki Ramayana taught me that poetry should console sorrowing souls. My muse has been always with the tortured and the abandoned, the oppressed and the dispossessed. My visits to many countries both in the East and the West confirmed the view that man is the same everywhere. Irrespective of complexion, nationality and religion, the colour of blood is red and the rhythm of the heart beat is the same.

The refrain of my song is ‘One earth, one sky and one sun for entire humanity’. No rule prevents my spirit from entering into any country and identifying with the agony and ecstasy of the people there. No passport, No visa! What I envisage is a world which is one nest for all birds; true to the profound vision of our ancestors – ‘Yatra viswam bhavatyeka needam'.

I think, this sentiment has its roots in your childhood itself. On the one hand, you seem to have been greatly influenced by the Indian concept of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam' and, on the other, a new sense of internationalism prevailed during the initial years of your writing...

You are absolutely right. As a schoolboy I used to watch minerals factory workers of my village marching along the streets demanding better wages and better living conditions. In their slogans I heard reverberations of the voice of the workers in the streets of Chicago long, long ago.

I think the political significance of the era, that saw the defeat of fascism and the emergence of progressive nation states too got reflected to a great extent, in your poems of that particular period.

In the fifties of the last century, there was a strong world peace movement which inspired Indian poets also. In fact it was an anti-imperialist movement that influenced and inspired my poetry also - it lingers even today as evidenced in many of my poems such as 'The song of the black bird', 'O! black sun!’, 'To America with love', to name a few.

At a later period, it seems, you along with the fellow poets of those times got disillusioned a little bit. A feeling that the soul has been ravaged and devastated.... that a promise for justice has been broken...

It is interpreted like that. But that is only one side of the moon. We have to reconcile with the inevitable. But that does not mean that we have to lull our hopes and go to sleep. My recent poem 'Dinantham' (The end of the day) concludes with this line from the famous 'Black Song of Resistence' – ‘We shall overcome one day!' Is it pessimism or defeatism?

However, it is true that you switched over to a strictly personalised style of poetry... to more subjective and less doctrinaire subjects. How far this is true?

I do agree with your observation. But I can't explain it in an analytical way. As a poet, you also know that there are certain imperceptible factors in the poetic process.

Later on, what we see is a diverse growth of your poetry and personality. You started writing on a variety of topics and themes, ranging from personal poetry to poems of universal appeal, from ethnic significance to global significance… Nothing under the sun was alien to your poetic genius. What triggered this?

There is a trend to brand a poet as a mere lyricist when his lyrics become popular; as a mere singer when his poems have a high musical quality; as a revivalist when he deals with old themes and that too as long narratives; as a mere environmentalist if he writes about nature! This is the result of shallow observation. For me, both 'theme wise' and 'form wise' I do no have any self-imposed restriction. Nothing under the sun is alien to poetry. The poet is free to accept any poetic form or theme that occurs to him spontaneously.

You delved deeper into the soil, language, roots, traditions, rituals, ceremonies, culture and ethnicity, which became the essence and substance of culture...

Poetry should be deep rooted in the past; then only it can soar to conquer heights. Otherwise it will be a water weed swirling in the waves. The more the roots explore the depths, the more it will gather strength to spread out so that it can proudly declare that the entire sky is its own.

At a time, when people go after capsule forms, you go in search of mega narratives. In Ujjayini and Swayamvaram, you deconstructed classical myths in your own way and recreated an original modern one, with great sophistication and dexterity.

Ujjayini is a modest attempt to liberate Kalidasa from the tales that portrayed him as an idiot, a pleasure seeking philanderer etc. and to discover a new Kalidasa as evidenced in his great works – of course in tune with the theory of probability. Swayamvaram is a fresh reading of the story of Madhavi, daughter of Yayati. I dedicated my version of that epic episode to Indian womanhood. I don't think that poetry should be in capsule form only. It is only one of its many manifestations. Poetry is 'Bahuroopi'. It can be smallest of the small (like a Haiku) and the biggest of the big (like the Mahabharata) in its form. The changing sensibility of the readers and the creative urge of the poet are the decisive factors.

What is the borderline between poems and lyrics?

A film lyric is 'applied poetry'; it attains its form as per the text and the context of the film. Poetry, on the contrary, is like the spontaneous awakening of a fountain - free and forceful.

(Poet, lyricist and media person Prabha Varma is recipient of several awards, including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1995 and Vayalar Award in 2013)

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Printable version | Jul 16, 2018 4:13:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/a-homage-to-onv-kurup/article8252318.ece