It is late in the evening of March 24, 2011. The throng in the Durbar Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan puts hands together as the greatest living poet of the Malayalam-speaking world rises to receive the second-highest honour in the land. The applause is muted as Ottaplakkal Neelakantan Velu Kurup is handed his Padma Vibushan "for exceptional and distinguished service" in literature and education and over before he returns to his seat. Protocol is served.
Having stood up and been counted, his leapfrog from the rolls of India's fourth most-esteemed1 is in the books. A Buddha statue, from the Gupta dynasty, smiles as if in benediction. Or is it recollection? Neither finds mirror in ONV2 , too lost in thought to notice. "My mind flies away," he had been known to say — most recently, a month earlier on February 11, 2011, when he became the 43rd recipient of the Jnanpith award. 3
On that occasion, less dogged by decorum, he indulged his instinct to speechify. "I'm an Indian poet, and I write in Malayalam," he had said, paraphrasing the Gujarati poet laureate Umashankar Joshi, paraphrasing Tagore, who took inspiration from a litterateur now lost to antiquity. ONV wondered whether much the same would befall him in time, lamenting that though "it is the earnest ambition of every bard that his/her voice reaches a wider audience… the voice of the Indian bard does not go beyond his/her linguistic territory". 4
The concern about the "predicament of marginality" is not without cause as the common treasury of Indian poetry subsumes into itself, like a river does its tributaries, its constituent voices. And if, as Whitman writes in his preface to Leaves of Grass, "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it"5 , that these works and names remain 'inferred realities' — like the dark of the moon — to those outside their province is an egregious failing.
"When I vacate this rented abode," ONV continued, "I will leave a vital element of my having existed: my poetry." His passing in the ides of February, five years (nearly to the day) after that acceptance speech makes the poetry-lyricism (the two spheres he adroitly straddled cannot be decoupled, and only reluctantly hyphenated) that was his 'calling card' now his epitaph.
That ought to be enough. And yet, his death has lent agency to preserving and 'placing' his legacy in the pantheon poetica. Unsurprising given Kerala venerates its litterateurs like rock-stars. One need look only to the state funeral ONV was accorded: a public wake, honour guard, 21-round salute and an obituary reference and a scrapped sitting in the state legislature (the first cultural figure the assembly has given this homage to). Or the thousands of mourners queuing up to say goodbye.
Lying in state inside his glass freezer, caparisoned in shroud and petal, ONV — wearing even in death that toothy, downturned smile — might have wondered what all the fuss was about.
Enshrining ONV in the poetical register is beyond my ken and not my intent, though more learned others have sought to situate him in the pantheon of Malayalam poet laureates: as part of a modern trio with Vayalar Rama Varma and P. Bhaskaran6, following the triune of Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, Edassery Govindan Nair and P. Kunhiraman Nair, the triumvirate ("Adhunika kavithrayam") of N. Kumaran Asan, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer — back to the ancient trinity ("Pracheena kavithrayam") of Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan (the patriarch of Malayalam), Cherusseri Namboothiri and Kunchan Nambiar7.
What of preservation? Not for posterity, no, since his body of work, its many reprints and their virtual avatars — contained realities, resized for best fit — will be ported across the abstractness of futurity. There is no call for a posthumous redemption or justification — save, the arguments for his works to be taken beyond the bounds imposed by script and tongue — through the posterity cult of post-obits and retrospectives here.
For the sanctity of his textual afterlife, then: specifically, countering the tendency to approach (post-mortem) and appraise the transcendent using lenses clued to the immanent. While there must/will be room for exegesis, future revivifications must account for his context, ethic and idiom. There is, one hopes, little scope for piecemeal compartmentalisation of his oeuvre: no Blue and Rose periods.
Future Malayalee audiences will come to ONV without the curious posthumous ventriloquism that helps keep names on lips, if not memory. Already the buzzwords abound: his poetry is progressive, humanist, joyous, sorrowful, linear, lyrical, aesthetic, elegant, and "uncomplicated" (the cynic might suspect this last adjective an attempt at traduction).
Such indulgences to posterity trope poetry, erode its defining thetic, suppose context and aggravate the problem of dislocation (corresponding to distance from source material). Public opinion, more so acclaim, is a capricious enough quantity. And besides, poesy is its own laurel.
"What is of consequence," ONV observed, "is that the ritual called the poetic act offers countless garlands of sukrita to the inner self of the poet. That sukrita is the richest reward and highest fulfillment of kavikarma to me.8"
That ritual began as a child's crutch — "poetry was a drop of light that came to me in the darkness of my solitude"9 — against loss (his father's death) and loneliness. It began too as worship, with ONV being initiated into word-smithy through cross-legged readings of Ezhuthachan's Adhyatma Ramayanam (Spiritual Ramayana) in the light of the prayer lamp at the threshold of his mother's house in the village of Chavara, in Kerala's Kollam district.
It matured with liturgical zeal in the face of an uncomprehending childhood: imagine it, the only son of the house looking for a calling in poetry, finding it as a 15-year-old 'intermediate college' student with his first published poem Munnottu (Forward, 1946) at a time of fiery Independence speeches and a nascent Communist movement in Kerala, then supplementing the family income with poems (and hitherto uncatalogued fiction writing, since it paid better) through a seven-decade floruit (61 years — from 1955 to 2016 — of which ONV "applied"10 his versifying to pen film songs).
The ritual is interrupted mid-stroke on a withering August afternoon in 2009 when I am thrust into his study. ONV is hunched over a writing plank that straddles the outstretched arms of his wooden easy chair. An oil portrait of Pushkin and line-drawing of Tagore hang overhead, abreast of cabinets crowned by awards and housing a tidy collection of bound books. The dulling vanilla of book musk refuses to be dispelled by open window or ceiling fan.
As introductions are made, ONV sizes me up: furrowed temple, arched brows and faraway blue-tinged eyes peering from behind moon-goggle glasses perched on the bridge of aquiline nose.
We know of, but are still unknown to, one another. Forewarned against faux pas, I am tongue-tied. The conversation hasn't a chance. I mumble something about sharing a birthday: May 27, separated by 54 years. Bemused, he tucks his tongue into his cheek and flashes the toothy smile. "Also the day Nehru died," he says, returning lingering pen to paper.
"Sheri, Kaanaam." Right then, be seeing you. The six years that follow, the last word is always his.
It is likely the most indelibly etched memory I have of the man I would come to call 'Muthachan' (grandfather). In the days after his passing aged 84 — with over 1,000 full moons11, nearly as many song lyrics and several times as many works to his name, it has doubtless been the most revisited.
There have been other significant, arguably more 'important', reminiscences I likely ought to dwell on: hence my opening this tribute with ONV becoming, hitherto, the only Malayalam litterateur to be awarded both the Padma Vibushan and the Jnanpith, impassioned speeches (the last being a "Music knows no nation" felicitation of Ghulam Ali during his concert in Trivandrum), six years of birthday wishes (as many Parker pens added to his treasured collection), even the not-a-few impromptu discussions on sundry socio-politico-cultural topics (which almost always referenced Neruda).
In time, perhaps, when anecdote meanders into apocrypha, I will remember Muthachan in neatly scripted vignettes. For now, though, the recall is near total: a filigree of unordered happenstance moments less accessed than intuited.
There is a triptych of black and white portraits of Muthachan in 'Indeevaram' (sweet home), his home since 1968 when Prof. Kurup, head of the Malayalam department at Government Women's College, decided to put down roots in Trivandrum after years of picking up sticks far off the tenure track across Kerala. Among the stops on the 'lecturer' circuit was a stint at Maharajas College in Ernakulam, where he would teach his wife-critic-amanuensis-sometimes muse.
The dust-gathered pictures capture near-perfectly the poet at contemplation: head propped aslant on finger, mildly disinterested eyes, pronounced downturn of the mouth and awning moustache. It is an ersatz memory, but welcome mooring in the deluge of recollections. The 'where' and 'when' are not now especially important.
I can 'see' Muthachan — as he was wont to, when going through the motions — humming and running his fingers along the armrest. A conversation or a comment made in passing, "Your intonation of Malayalam is good." Thank you. "Sheri, Kaanaam."
I remember also the conversations I'd hoped we would have: about how he would have more than the 13 state film awards that deck his study if, after years of consecutive wins, he hadn't written in asking to be removed from consideration after being swamped by anonymous hate mail; about his drama songs for the ground-breaking political theatre movement that was Kerala People's Arts Club (and why some refer to it as the Kayamkulam People's Arts Club); of the power of his word-music being fully realised by Salil Choudhary, Bombay Ravi, G. Devarajan Master, Pandit Raghunath Seth, Yesudas and a host of the music industry's most exalted; and perhaps even, his reasons behind standing for political office.
But I am thankful for the discussions we did have: on poetry, though he'd forgotten more than I know about Blok, Cesaire, Larkin and Whitman, he never stumbled for a Neruda verse, a Pushkin canto or a stanza from Kalidasa (with whom ONV felt a kinship and who he 'reclaims' in the over 4,450 lines of his epic 1994 fiction-poem Ujjayini); on his 'process' and his peers; on why he preferred football to cricket; and on his efforts to ensure Malayalam's status as a classical language.
The big question I did once ask — flippantly now that I think about it — and was indulged in was whether he would rather be remembered for his lyrics or his poetry. The answer was a wry smile. "Why? Poetry can be sung, metered and set to music. There is a reason why the Italians call 'beautiful singing' bel canto."
"The corresponding epithet in Sanskrit is tantreelayasamanvita (good singing). There is both indivisibility and universality to the concept of word-music."
As he would note elsewhere, "It is no sin to write poetry accompanied by shruti and laya… poetry is auspicious (kalyani) and worldly (laukiki)".12
"If at all there is music in my poetry, it is not due to any deliberate effort. It is not music attributed (aropita samgeetham), but music born with my poetry (sahajam)13."
There's probably an allusion or dig in there… and now I'll never know. As ever, the last word is his.
- Prof. Kurup was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998
- At once an acronym and an ‘address’ (to use the local colloquialism for assignments of recognisability)
- Though the award citation records the conferral year as 2007, the Jnanpith was presented to him in 2011
- ONV Kurup, This Ancient Lyre: Selected Poems, Sahitya Akademi (2005), p. xv
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, (First edition: 1855), p. 30
- This Ancient Lyre, p. xxiv
- This Ancient Lyre, p. xxiii
- This Ancient Lyre, p. xvii
- This Ancient Lyre, p. xvi
- He had often referred to his lyrics as “applied poetry”
- In Kerala, a person is a sathabisheki after turning 84 (it is 80 elsewhere in India)
- The Ancient Lyre, p. xvii
- The Ancient Lyre, p. xvii