Sailing the sea of Indian narrative

K. Ayyappa Panicker

K. Ayyappa Panicker  

The renowned poet, writer and teacher speaks to Shyama Rajagopal about his views on India and the Puranas.

SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS is not his cup of tea. But when a young enthusiast who caught up with him extended a notebook and said a little haltingly, "sir... autograph", he could not refuse it. Poet, writer, critic and teacher, K. Ayyappa Panicker did sign the notebook with a smile. His irrepressible sense of humour was evident as he went about talking to his students and other admirers with ease.

Hailing from a family in Kuttanad, which has given Kerala prominent personalities in the cultural and literary fields, Dr. Panicker became a household name with his poetry that he started writing in the late 1940s. Prof. Panicker did his Master's Degree from the University of Indiana and did his doctoral research at the Yale and Harvard Universities. He has to his credit over 25 published works.

He was also the Chief Editor of Indian Literary Encyclopedia published by the Sahitya Akademi. A student of Gandhian and poet, G. Kumara Pillai, Prof. Panicker has received many awards including the Sahitya Akademi award for his poetry.

Prof. Panicker, in his mid-70s, is an icon for today's youth too. His poetry continues to makes people clap and sing. The poet himself is quite reticent about his works. In fact, the Padmashree awardee was quite reluctant to be interviewed too. "I will not talk about myself or my works", he said.

At the same time, he has bold opinions but expressed subtly. "I do not want India to be strong as our politicians want it to be, because a strong country will be cruel too", says Prof. Panicker, almost with a sense of foreboding. A very thought-provoking comment in today's times. He believes that such thinking is not worthy of the Indian culture.

For the most celebrated academic in the English language studies in the State, Indian narratology is a subject that is very close to his heart. That is the subject of his latest book too.

The Vedas, he says should be read as folk poetry. "These anonymous creations should not be learnt by heart but learnt with a heart." Arguing that the Puranas, which the West brands as philosophical or "non-worldly", are very much "worldly, he says that it is only from them poetry and stories have originated.

For a poet, who can be called a pioneer in the modern Malayalam poetry, he feels that Indian critics have ignored Indian narratives and have only concentrated on poems. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are the best examples of Indian narratives. The Mahabharata with its multiple beginnings and multiple inside narrators is so vast that it is difficult for the westerners to grasp. The West cannot understand such narratives where the narrator is free to add or omit anything without changing the storyline. The Indian narratology is like an ocean, Prof. Panicker says. The Western narrative is like a river, which has a beginning, middle and an end.

According to Prof. Panicker, the animal fables of Panchatantra could be the idea behind the cartoons, which have become an animation industry in itself. Giving characters to animals was something that existed long ago in the Puranas, he says. Indian culture and tradition are yet to be taken up as a subject. Closely related to these subjects is Sanskrit.

Coming down heavily on the earlier hegemony of Sanskrit, the poet said that it led to the destruction of other languages such as Prakrit, Dravidia and others. But now Sanskrit itself is facing the prospects of being a dead language.

According to him, as the language is already indigenous, one only needs to modernise it. The language is not to be worshiped as a dead language. "Make it a living language," he says. "Don't give it a divinity by calling it Devabhasha. Plough it back into everyday life," he adds.

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