Clarity and Newness in Malayalam Poetry

Kerala’s ‘new poetry’, writes Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, is replacing ideology with experience and reclaiming the spontaneity of language.

Poetry, in any language, is a creative gadget that allows one to measure the wavelength of social, political and historical movements that occur in the lives of the speakers of that language. Contemporary poetry in Malayalam is no exception. It reflects all the peaks and troughs experienced by the people who inhabit the strip of land, the state of Kerala, on the southernmost coast of the Indian subcontinent.

Like the linguistic history of many developing nations, poetry in Malayalam too has an inerasable colonial past. Earlier, it was from the Sanskrit classics, largely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, that mainstream Malayalam poetry sourced its thematic and aesthetic requirements. With the coming of the Europeans, and as a result of their cultural hegemony, Sanskrit was replaced with English, German and French. Thus, modern Malayalam poetry owes much to Europe for its refinement in form and content.

In the past, irrespective of the source of inspiration and the devices used, there seems to have been a consensus among poets and readers of Malayalam that poetry was an extension of social activism. The poet was considered answerable to society, the guardian of moral values, the champion of freedom and human rights, saviour of the oppressed, and so on. This was a commonly shared principle handed down for generations until the advent of economic liberalisation and globalisation towards the end of the last century. In that sense, the turn of the century was also a turning point in poetry with the emergence of new themes, styles, techniques and aesthetic standards.

It is only in the last two decades that women and marginalised sections of society, like Dalits as well as religious and social minorities, have begun to mark their presence in poetry – traditionally a male-oriented and elitist domain. These decades have also seen the development of issues related to the environment, human rights and gender equality in poetic discourses. To quote Atoor Ravi Varma, a leading poet of the earlier generation: "The new poets do not rely on the habitual values of individual, family, nation, and tradition. They have no simple answers. And, they don't mix dreams, morals and ideologies in their poems. These are the poems of those who have lost their weapons and shields. Their way is rough with questions, arguments, negations and doubts.”

Contemporary poetry in Malayalam is characterised by a sympathy for poetry that is peculiarly Kerala's in sensibility. Aesthetically speaking, it is a celebration of naturalness, as P. Raman writes in the poem, Mullathara (The Jasmine Mount):

Where is the way? 
Where is the way?
Little climbers are restless on the jasmine mount

I didn't put up a pandal
Nor did I tame them to spread out
But keep their restlessness intact.

(In: Kanam, Current Books, Trichur, 2006)

This naturalness, though it may seem like a denial of the knowledge-systems of modernist culture, is not retrogression to pre-modernism. It is a way of coming to terms with one's immediate environs, and doing away with the centered and schematised practices of modernism. It is also an attempt at refining language so as to reflect the delicate contours and shades of experience. This is an aspect that poets of the sixties and the seventies either ignored or were incapable of, given their ideological preconditioning. Hence, manifestly, the thrust of the new poetry is on reclaiming the objectivity of words and, thus, the spontaneity of language.

For contemporary poets, the word is all that matters. As prominent contemporary poet Kalpetta Narayanan articulates in his poem Kavi (The Poet), their belief is:

Man is in a fortress
that has no doors other than words.
Only the poet knows it.
He comes in making anything a door.
He goes out making anything a door.
(In: Ozhinja Vricha Chayalil, Mulberry Books, Khozikode, 2001)

In women's poetry, the freedom from inhibition turns into a sort of deceptive naivety. The gamut of experience is often resolved into parameters of the body, as Anitha Thampi expresses in her poem Ezhuthu (Writing):

As the water
drains away
and the naked body
chills over
The shivering wind
stretched his fingers in
through the windows
I felt cold
for a moment
And the loincloth of
wetness flew away.
And wound in
crazy summer,
I forgot bashfulness.
Like the big drops
from the treetops
only the strands of hair
Write on the body
from memory
Two or three lines
with water.

(In: Muttamatikkumbol, Current Books, Thrissur, 2004)

The replacement of ideology with experience enables the new poets to be plural and eclectic. Whether social, political, historical or personal in nature, it is clarity (often mistaken for plainness) that is the most outstanding feature of the new poetry. These poets make no big claims for what they write.

Thachom Poyil Rajeevan writes in Malayalam and English. His published works include poems, novels, travelogue and essays. His novels in Malayalam were made into movies and his poems were widely translated. He is currently the Director of Monsoon Editions, an English publishing initiative from Kerala and a Malayalam contributing editor at Muse India.
Thachom Poyil Rajeevan