Ayyappa Paniker –His Interface with Theatre:Kavalam Narayana Panicker Reminisces

In a free-wheeling conversation with the Samyukta team, Kavalam Narayana Panicker spoke about his well-known cousin K. Ayyappa Paniker, their common interests, the unique as well as mutually augmenting relationship they shared and the influence their native culture wielded in their rich, creative careers.

Keywords: Ayyappa Paniker, Kavalam, ancestral roots, socio-cultural impacts, Malayalam theatre, Margi, Paniker’s literary evolution, overview of Paniker’s background

About Family Roots

We are from a village called Kavalam in Kuttanad. There we lived in a cluster of three houses, all belonging to a matrilineal group, derived from the same materfamilias, although the family property had been partitioned. Earlier our family had come from Pazhoor in Valadi. In fact, there is a Valadi kaavu in one of my plays. It is difficult to trace our exact roots, isn’t it? How far can we go back into the past? But people say we had originally come from the north of Kerala. They call it Punarkottu Swaroopam. From there, one branch moved to the north and we came here. The contact continued and until recently, we even used to observe pulavalayma (birth and death pollution).

My uncle Sardar K. M. Panicker, his brother, and my mother they were our group. Pulavalayma was very much in force then. They were such a close knit group. Those were the different facets of the old system of marumakkathayam. Some of these details are portrayed in Ayyappa Paniker’s `Kudumbapuranam’. So the poem tells the story of my family as well. It is also the story of all families, a reflection of the social set-up of Kerala, just like the Parayi petta pandeerukulam.

I used to call Ayyappa Paniker ‘Kochappan kunju.’ In private conversations, he used to call me `Narayana chettan’. I used to call him `kochappu’ too. He is a couple of years younger. We were playmates in our early childhood days. But that was a long time back — some 50 or 70 years ago. On the banks of the Kavalam river, there was a post office and an NSS school. The land for the school was donated by Ayyappa Paniker’s family. All the three tharavads were managed by an uncle, the eldest member of the three houses, a kind of paterfamilias . . .It was a sort of joint family system where we moved about like real siblings. Sardar K. M. Panicker’s novel Punarkottuswaroopam is the story of this family.

Our ancestry goes beyond the time of Tipu Sultan’s invasion. My mother and his mother were cousins. Some say that we are the descendants of a Dharmoth Paniker in the north. Whatever it may be, all these relationships are very much alive, between Paniker and myself, between his sisters and mine …. There is a kalari attached to our Pazhoor branch. Pazhoor, the ancestral home that we left — we used to go there with the feeling that it was the root of our entire family. Some would assure you that our roots went farther back to the Velorvattam temple. So the assumption is that the exodus happened some time then and our family came from northern Kerala and settled at Kavalam. We all come from somewhere and are going somewhere. This is true for all families. Because he knew all this family history, he desired to live and die there. He used to share this wish with me during our conversations. Later he bought a piece of land he there for his final resting place. All the three houses are still there but Kavalam has changed beyond recognition. Canals have given place to roads. Everything in has changed . . .

Later, after our childhood days, both of us parted ways. We would meet of only during vacations. Those were the days when my uncle Sardar K. M. Panicker to used to come to Kavalam. He used to read and appreciate Ayyappa Paniker’s poems. Vallathol used to come there too and we would have entertainments like .Kathakali performances. Beyond that, our meetings were few and far between, re u.each one going his own way, until I shifted to Trivandrum and the bond between a s grew stronger than ever.

Contribution of Kavalam to Ayyappa Paniker’s Cultural and Intellectual Life

His attachment to Kavalam during childhood days was quite intense. It’s the degree of intensity which counts most, and not longevity. Isn’t that why he longed to seek his place of eternal rest in Kavalam itself? Yet his involvement with the main occupation of Kavalam, that is agriculture, was practically nil. Myself and others, including his younger brother, continued to visit Kavalam frequently in connection with agriculture till the early 1970s.

Indeed, one need not be a farmer to understand the details of agriculture or the farmers. I used to record the farmers’ songs there and later share them with him. I came to Trivandrum only in 1974. He had not written lines like `Muthuveli Paappachante makal petta Rosilikku’ [the poem `Rosili’] then. The other poems of Kuttanad were written much later. Often one’s experiences may not be direct. One may have seen the scenes of Kuttanad only once. How deeply they impact depends on the state of the mind. Wasn’t it because of such a bond that he chose that place in the end?

It may be because of the peculiarity of the area. If I wrote something about Kuttanad, he would search it out and talk to me about it. If I sang the songs of the Pulayas of Kuttanad, he would memorize them or take some of the cassettes from my collection. All these may have been the means to re-explore Kuttanad. But I haven’t seen the influence of the songs and rhythms of Kuttanad in his early poems. That need not happen either. If anyone of you has tried your hand at creative writing, you may know how originality appears only after the artificiality of the initial stage fades and one finds one’s level.

Ayyappa Paniker’s Initiation into Cholkaazhcha

It was not in 1974 that we spent time singing `Muthuveli Paappachante makal petta Rosilikku’ . Maybe in ‘68 or sometime at the end of the ‘60s— the change in his writing came over from then onwards. To tell you the truth, we even went to Kavalam and sang there. From the time we were inspired to sing the poems, it became a big movement. In the early days, we had Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan and Satchidanandan. Also Kalavankodu Balakrishnan. Ayyappa Paniker was in Trivandrum and I was at Alappuzha. Those were the days when the activities of Kerala Kavita had reached its peak. Thereafter it was hectic activity for us during the release of each issue of Kerala Kavita. Whenever a meeting was held, be it at Kuttanad, Alappuzha or Ernakulam or even Mysore or Bangalore, Sreekantan Nair and a group of writers, not only poets but also artists and those connected with the theatre as well as the cinema— all became associated with it. People like Sreekantan Nair, G. Sankara Pillai, M. V. Devan and many others joined our group and poetry-reading sessions soon became Cholkaazhchas. Once, during its very early phase, sometime at the end of the 1960s, the year after the Communist party in Kerala split in two, we organized a Cholkaazhcha session at Cherthala.

I was then at Alappuzha. There were several others with me there who took part in the Cholkaazhcha. For me it was a presentation. The others — Ayyappa Paniker and Kadammanitta included — recited poems individually. I would take some of my friends along and we would jointly recite many poems — including Ayyappa Paniker’s— not merely recite, but act them out as well. At that time when we had changed the tradition of poetry recitation and made it Cholkaazhcha, Nedumudi Venu joined us. Soon it became a rage — to write poems, get them published in Kerala Kavita or some other magazine and wait to have them presented dramatically. Adopt Gopalakrishnan also joined the group. Then all of us would read the poems, prepare ourselves, each according to his ability, conduct rehearsals and make the presentation. Slowly it evolved into my theatre.

Meanwhile my own theatre in Alappuzha was functioning as a parallel activity. Ayyappa Paniker used to make frequent visits, especially to watch the rehearsals. We would have rehearsals for every poem we selected, irrespective of who wrote it. Some prominent writers of that time, like N. V Krishna Warrier, however strongly opposed this practice. According to them, poetry was not to be sung aloud for enjoyment. It was a personal and private interaction between the poet, the reader and the chosen subject, that takes place at the aesthetic plane. It was not to be destroyed in this manner.

It’s not that they did not recite their own compositions in their own style. They would do it at literary functions like Sahitya Parishad. But Cholkaazhcha was not very palatable because most of them experienced difficulty in presenting their poems. The histrionics required for enacting a poem goes beyond the mere act of reading. It is a problem of communication. Some poets communicate as though reading poetry is a very private experience. But even today, we don’t view it as a bad method.

The general belief was that poetry is for private enjoyment and that if it is shared, its aesthetic value suffers. But our experiences proved otherwise, not only in conveying its social aspect but also in communicating its social content and even its beauty… Cholkaazhcha was not about singing in Sankarabharana or Thodi ragas and provoking laughter. If that were so, we would agree with our critics. Cholkaazhcha was all about acting. Ayyappa Paniker would also sing and act. That was not all. It was in 1978 that we presented Madhyamavyayogam for the first time. Karnabhaaram came later. Staging these Bhasa plays was his weakness. Whenever an occasion arose, Ayyappa Paniker would praise the plays of Bhasa at every available international seminar. He would even quote some of our experiences and demonstrate them.

He would come to see the rehearsals and watch me act. He used to say that he wanted to see only the rehearsals and not the final productions. Whenever I invited him, he would say, Tut I’ve seen the rehearsal. I shall come for the production but there’s no excitement in it. I shall come merely for the sake of it’. He would spend a long time watching rehearsals.

Ayyappa Paniker as a Theatre-Critic

In Karnabhaaram, Karna utters the word `Divasoyamaagata’ at the end of a shloka. It means ‘That day has come’ which suggests that the day has come when the warrior’s ability will be put to test in three different ways. One: the day when my mother told me that the Pandavas are my brothers, the sad day when I have to defy my mother’s request that I should not fight the Pandavas. Two: the day when I have to satisfy my urge to wreak vengeance on Arjuna for all the humiliations showered on me. And three: the day when I have to order my charioteer to take me to face Arjuna and afterwards to shed my feelings of vendetta towards him. In the play, this shloka is recited and enacted three times. The play depicts Karna’s entry into the battlefield of Kurukshetra as he directs his charioteer Shalya to take him to Arjuna. The play ends with the encounter between Karna and Arjuna.

Ayyappa Paniker named it `bhavatraya’. I had not given it such a technical term or intended it as a technical point. But he presented it as `bhavatraya’ in his paper at a seminar. Later he showed me his article. He had written a great deal about the three stages in which the `bhavatraya’ is presented. He also wrote about my presentation of Karna’s daana. Thus this common aspect of my works and Ayyappa Paniker’s papers on them paved the way for debates at Margi on the Natyasastra, Koodiyattom and even modern as well as contemporary drama. This was after I came to Trivandrum some 20-25 years back. We would also have very lengthy discussions about aesthetics, lokadharmi and so on.

When I saw him last, he said that we should stage all of Bhasa’s plays, especially Avimarakam. I am going to produce Avirnarakam and dedicate it to him. That will be my ninth production. When he suggested that we do all of Bhasa’s plays, I had objected. I wanted to do Kalidasa as well. We have two major trends in Indian theatre — Kalidasa’s and Bhasa’s. So I told him that if I didn’t do Kalidasa, I’d be failing in my duty. He came to see my productions of Kalidasa.

But I couldn’t show him my most recent one, Malavikaagnimitram. The first Kalidasa play I produced was Shakuntalam. He has written about it. He used to speak about it too. The next play I produced was Vikramorvasheeyam. He not only came to see it but accompanied us to Ujjain as well. And participated in a seminar conducted there on the play.

I used to wonder why a man with three wives and still pursing them was given such an evocative and intense name as `Agnimitra’. Ayyappa Paniker told me that the point was worth exploring. But he: still maintained, ‘Nothing to beat Bhasa. . . . . ‘

Ayyappa Paniker’s Interest in Contemporary Malayalam Theatre

His study of contemporary Indian theatre began with Sreekantan Nair. When he returned from Indiana university, Sreekantan Nair’s Saketam and Lanka Lakshmi were being staged here. That was how he became interested in them. Our theatre was very much behind the times. Ayyappa Paniker has done a study of three of Sreekantan Nair’s plays. He also undertook a study of three of my plays.

I remember an interesting experience we had then. We had just produced my play Ottayaan before a very small audience at Margi. Kainikkara Kumara Pillai had been invited to inaugurate the play and he made some negative remarks about it in his speech. Ile stated that its script was bad and Appukkuttan Nair argued that the dramatic presentation was faulty. The very next day, armed with a mike and the tape-recorder he had brought from Indiana, Ayyappa Paniker took me and Jagannathan (the main actor in Ottayaan) to meet Kainikkara Kumara Pillai at his residence in Poojappura. Disregarding Kumara Pillai’s embarrassment, Ayyappa Paniker recorded his comments and got them transcribed by someone. He did the same with Appukuttan Nair. Later he organized a discussion on the topic, after re-playing their recorded observations to a group of modern and contemporary directors of Malayalam theatre. It was a fairly extended exercise and has been published in full.

In it, Kainikkara Kumara Pillai is recorded as saying that it [Ottayaan] is not a play at all. At this point, Ayyappa Paniker’s contention was: ‘Isn’t such a criticism made because it did not conform to his style of writing?’ Kainikkara spoke about the readers’ identification with the characters and about how, when enacted the role of Christ in the play Kalvaryile Kalpa Padapam, some people n the audience got up from their seats, kneeled on the floor, crossed themselves and prayed. Ayyappa Paniker would ask whether Kainikkara considered such a response the feature of a true rasika. This was a question about Alienation Theory and involvement and was discussed extensively.

Ayyappa Paniker made an in-depth study of three of my plays — Avanavan Kadamba, Daivattar and Ottayaan. He even made Sankara Pillai comment on them, knowing fully well that Sankara Pillai had differences of opinion about them. Sreekantan Nair also knew about it. Ayyappa Paniker and Sreekantan Nair collected the views and opinions of several people and edited them. Thus he initiated a detailed examination of theatre.

Ayyappa Paniker’s Association with Margi

Ayyappa.Paniker would go to Margi regularly. It was an active centre, with people coming from several places to watch rehearsals. At times, rehearsals would stretch to 90 days! There would be hordes of people, actors and spectators. Ayyappa Paniker would watch all this activity silently, without uttering a word. After getting back home, he would ring me up and convey his impressions. His role as a critic was a very valuable one. Thus throughout our association, it was an intense give-and-take relationship between us.


KAVALAM NARAYANA PANICKER.  Famous dramatist and poet. Founding Director of Sopanam, a theatre group. Has written and directed a number of Malayalam plays. Has directed his own plays as well as the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa. Has received prestigious awards such as the Kalidas Samman Award for Theatre (1996), the National Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi for Theatre Direction (1983), the Kerala State Sahitya Akademi Award for the best Malayalam playwright (1974) and a Ford Foundation Fellowship. Has also received the Padma Bhushan award for his outstanding contribution from the Government of India.

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Kavalam Narayana Panicker
Famous dramatist and poet. Founding Director of Sopanam, a theatre group. Has written and directed a number of Malayalam plays. Has directed his own plays as well as the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa. Has received prestigious awards such as the Kalidas Samman Award for Theatre (1996), the National Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi for Theatre Direction (1983), the Kerala State Sahitya Akademi Award for the best Malayalam playwright (1974) and a Ford Foundation Fellowship. Has also received the Padma Bhushan award for his outstanding contribution from the Government of India.

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