Smell of raw earth

At his home in Vazhuthacaud. Photo:S.Gopakumar  

In Kerala, poetry is a people’s movement, evolving through boatmen’s songs, folk music, theatre and, more recently, films. Eminent writers and poets in Kerala are often adored as people’s heroes, much like cricket players and film stars elsewhere in the country. The hysterical crowds that surrounded the late poet Changampuzha was proof of the adulation the people of this beautiful coastal State reserve for their writers.

O.N.V. Kurup or ONV (as he was referred to) was such a household name in Kerala. For over half a century, till his death on February 13 this year, ONV mesmerised Malayalam literary circles with the magic of his poetry. Always regarded as the unofficial Poet Laureate of Kerala, he won the prestigious Jnanpith Award in 2007.

His verse straddled “pure poetry” as well as lyrics for theatre and film songs. For both, he drew themes and inspiration from the ordinary people and their daily struggles. Late Joseph Mundassery, the distinguished Malayalam critic, once said that “ONV’s poetry smells of raw earth”. That was a fair comment on a poet who saw himself as the spokesman of the “disadvantaged and dispossessed”.

It was indeed the smell of raw earth that scented ONV’s soul-stirring songs in Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist), a transformational play by Thoppil Bhasi written in the mid-50s. The play marked a significant departure from the familiar classical themes and traditional style of Malayalam theatre up until then. ONV’s lyrics captured the language of ordinary villagers in all its rustic simplicity and Devarajan, who composed the music, borrowed heavily from the rich repertoire of Kerala’s folk songs.

Riding on the waves of the huge popularity of Ningalenne Communistakki, the first Communist government in Kerala under E.M.S. Namboodiripad came to power in 1957. That play and those songs brought ONV to the limelight and he stayed there firmly. Later, he and fellow poets Vayalar Rama Varma and Bhaskaran migrated to the film industry. The ONV-Devarajan team produced hundreds of super-hit films. There were accusations that these poets were diluting their craft with the banality of film songs. The truth, however, was the opposite. These talented writers were enriching Malayalam film songs with their poetic imagination.

This was also the time when Kannadasan in Tamil and Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi in Hindi had also moved over to their respective film industries and were writing legendary songs. Although ONV’s central concern in his poems was marginalised people everywhere, he often reinvented himself and experimented with a wide range of new themes and subjects. His celebrated poem ‘Bhommikkoru Charamageetham’ (A Requiem for Mother Earth) following the Silent Valley agitation to protect the rainforests of Kerala and reflected his environmental concerns. ‘Uppu’ (Salt) is another touching poem where a grandmother tells her grandson that he will remember her long after she is gone because of the salt she mixed in the spoonful of  kanji (rice water) she used to feed him when he was a child. ONV’s literary output is huge and includes 20 collections of poems, 900 film songs for 232 films, besides several songs written for plays and albums.

In Kerala, literature and politics are often close allies, and ONV never made a secret of his ideological leanings to the Left, contesting for Parliament as a Left Democratic Front candidate in 1989. But the State also likes its writers, however eminent, to remain writers and not meddle in politics. ONV lost the election. The irrepressible Kamala Das had also made a similar attempt and failed.

That said, ONV’s identity had multiple facets. Besides his stature as poet and lyricist, he was also an eminent academic and scholar, a promoter of Kerala’s traditional arts and perhaps the most visible face of Kerala’s culture to the outside world.

“Which one of these is the true ONV?” he was once asked.

“You could say I am a true Kerala original,” he replied.

The writer is director, Indo-Australian Chamber of Commerce.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 8:13:41 AM |

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