From Sardonic Disillusion to Sensuous Spirituality:the last two Decades in Ayyappa Paniker’s Creative Journey

Abstract: Ayyappa Paniker’s evolution in his poetry is one to be noted and valued. His style of poetry writing transcends from a typical romantic one to a more modernist inclusive approach. The paper aims at analysing the change in expressionism in Paniker’s poems with the help of excerpts taken from his work. It also covers the spiritual love identity that is found throughout most of his literary work. Paniker used his writing as a means to direct the discussion of socio-political issues found in society. He made use of satire and changed the lyrical tone as required to address social issues such as corruption.

Keywords: romantic literature, modernism, poetry aspects of love, social/political satire, lyrical tones, social criticism, corruption

Ayyappa Paniker started writing poetry in the 1950s, a period which was submerged in the romantic influence of Changampuzha Krishna Pillai. Like most other poets, Paniker too was temporarily under this heady influence, but soon progressed towards modernism. Paniker is credited with introducing new poetry in Malayalam literature and of shaking it free of the acquired dullness of form and theme. To be exact, modernism came to Malayalam as a visible presence in the 1960s. N.N.Kakkad and Attoor Ravi Val-ma were the other poets besides Ayyappa Paniker, who succeeded in substantially influencing a generation of modern poets in Malayalam. The major contribution of Ayyappa Paniker with regard to poetry is that he ushered in a new poetic idiom, and through many of his poems introduced free verse and poetic prose as effective vehicles to carry his message.

An important milestone in Ayyappa Paniker’s creative journey is `Kurukshetram’ published in the year 1960. This unique poem is a striking illustration of a typical tendency in the first phase of modernism of reinterpreting myths and using archetypes in an effort to ‘evolve an idiom that would best express the experience of modernity that in India co-existed with tradition.’ (`Modernism and Beyond: A Conversation with Poet Makarand Paranjpe’ in `Kurukshetram’ is an example of the dialogic quality that was introduced into Malayalam poetry, with the arrival of modernism. Moreover, poetry began to incorporate more of the dramatic than the lyrical, thus employing powerful prose which was the best tool for treating everyday themes and for highlighting social and political evils. Ayyappa Paniker made great use of this medium in his poems to put across his critiques and comments on the world around him.

Reading Ayyappa Paniker’s poems is exactly like talking to him. The twinkle in his eye, the playfulness, the sarcasm – mild and at times caustic, the straightforwardness, the empathy and the sensitivity, all these find clear expression in his poems. In every sense, Ayyappa Paniker’s poems are the windows to his soul. The thematic content of his poems is astounding in its variety. From common day to day themes to the highest exalted philosophy, all subjects find a place in his creative output. The forms and patterns he used to give expression to his thoughts are even more innovative. Even in the midst of this amazing variety, it is easy to trace the poet’s attempts to define his art in his more lyrical poems. These are the poems that contain the poetic essence of Ayyappa Paniker, poems that establish the fact that while social and political criticism was undoubtedly one of the professed objectives of the poet, he was constantly looking inward as well, querying to himself and trying to give a concrete grounding to the nature, origin and functions of poetry, of his creative urge. It is this questioning that leads Ayyappa Paniker from writing poems rippling with sardonic disillusion at the crumbling of values around him to those which appear firmly rooted in a form of sensuous spirituality.

It is interesting to note the change in the form and theme of his poems, especially by the time he wrote his last collection Pathumanippukkal. This change, might have been a condition brought about by a deeper awareness of the emotion of true love. The embracing of this sublime, spiritual love is to be read in connection with the concept of a return to nature. The poet who has been glorified and censured for his black humour and social and political caricatures is seen in the totally different vesture of an ideal lover by the end of his poetic career. What is of prime significance here is that poetry itself is defined and redefined and projected as the ultimate reality, the spiritual truth born of the union of Purusha and Prakriti or the masculine and feminine in nature. Poetry in particular and creativity in general is the ultimate truth. One may read multiple meanings into this new strategy adopted by the poet — it may be escapism from the oppressive world or it may be a surrendering to the finer emotion of love which always been present as a continuous thread in his poems.

The study I attempt here concerns the period spanning 1981 to 2004, a period that critics believe saw the evolution of a new style in Ayyappa Paniker’s poetry. And in this analysis with the help of a few standard examples, I hope to establish the marked transformation in the theme, form and purpose of the poet over a period of time. A close perusal of the poet’s output during this fertile poetic period clearly outlines at least two major strains in his poems social and political satires and poems of a more lyrical nature or poems that deal with the softer emotions which inevitably show an association with poetic art, the poet, creativity and the creation and reflect his spiritual thinking. My discussion is likewise in two parts, the first part dealing with the social and political satires of Ayyappa Paniker and the second part treating those with a lyrical tone.

A major portion of Paniker’s poetry comprises the satiric poems, written mostly in free verse or in biting prose, and are excellent pieces of social criticism pointing to the corruption and decay evident in every aspect of life. These are the poems which sport Ayyappa Paniker’s tongue in the cheek remarks, satirical sneers and dark laughter. The form and diction employed in these poems guarantee their easy acceptance among all sections of the public. The profusion of poems of this nature throughout his poetic corpus is proof that behind the apparent lighthearted, dismissive nature he sported, there was the real poetic personality pained at the loss of real values in the modern world. The social satires are famed for their sardonic tone and the suggested sense of disillusion. The poet felt that it was absolutely necessary for creative writers to wield the pen in such a way as to cut at the stem of the vices in society that were spreading their tentacles in a dangerously speedy manner.

Some instances to illustrate certain typical social and political issues Ayyappa Paniker discusses in his poems are relevant in this context. In the poem ‘Njanoru Tyagi’ (Me, the Sacrificer), Paniker pokes fun at the politician for whom ‘the entire world is family; the grass and worm are voters who are his own kith and kin.’ Here a comparison and contrast is effected between the idealistic politics of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and the opportunistic politics of the present day. The parasitic politician who feeds and survives on the poor voters and his gullible followers is seen in:

You who yearn to become martyrs,

Your blood is my pride!

So my flag dons many colours

You preserve my blood from falling on it

You who love me,

Who live for my well being,

And die for it too,

Me, the sacrificer. (My translation)

This contemporary politician asks a very pertinent question to his avowed followers:

Gandhiji might be a Mahatma

But what did he acquire?

Just a bullet ‘He Ram!’ (My translation)

He goes on to slay that Gandhiji starved his wife while wandering about to eradicate the abject poverty of his country. He sought after the truth, instead of seeking to get his children into the best jobs. And now the Mahatma has been reduced to ‘stones and metal’ and can be seen here and there as an eternally poverty-stricken person. This new era politician’s own philosophy is to live happily in this world, and that according to him is the one and only truth.

Yet another poem ‘Raman Vaanaalum, Ravanan Vaanaalum’ (Whether Rama rules, or Ravana rules) is a bitter criticism of the prevailing political condition which offers little solace or justice to the layman. This poem is written with the echoes of the old popular song `Maveli Nadu Vanidum Kalam’(When Mahabali Ruled this Land) which glorified the era of King Mahabali who is said to have ruled over Kerala in the olden times. His reign was characterised by equality among subjects and equal distribution of wealth, absence of poverty and any kind of disaster. This poem is therefore a parody of the old lay, and sounds the message that whether Rama, the epitome of virtue rules or Ravana, the embodiment of vice rules, the common man has only tears to wet his tongue.

The poem goes:

When corruption rules the world,

Those in power are equal

When they reign happily

None of them is in danger.

O, there is no falsity, O, no cheating

Not even the tiniest speck of a lie. (My translation)

The poet goes on to severely censure the ongoing caste wars, the destruction of the environment, the disappearance of agricultural land, the exodus of native Malayalis to other countries, and the callousness of modern man towards miseries around the world. The poet cries out in intense pain ‘Deceit, fickleness, do not harden the strings of my heart with iron!’ Identifying the earth as Sita, the poet concludes in heart-rending tones that whether Rama rules, or Ravana rules, Sita is left in tears.

A group of prose poems titled ‘Five Cruel Poems’ comprises some of the harshest social criticism couched in humour. In fact, this set is ideally representative of all the social and political evils rampant in contemporary Kerala. In this group `Video Death’ is in the form of a letter from a brother in America to his sister in Kerala. He requests her to arrange for a video coverage of the last moments of -his dying mother. This video is expected to be of great interest to their friends in America who have already seen video presentations of Indian marriage, Indian wedding reception, honeymoon, first night, divorce, sati and so on. Now they are yearning to see the last moments of a dying person and the various rites associated with the Malayali funeral, He will even send a good quality cassette from America if needed. His friends will be coming for Christmas to see the video and so he tells his sister: ‘tell mother to adjust, before Christmas itself.’

Written in an extremely mocking style, this poem points a finger at one of the worst curses in society today. The state which boasts hundred percent literacy scores literally zero percent in terms of respect and regard for elders. Moreover, Paniker succeeds in poems such as this to ridicule the blatant hypocrisy of the average Malayali who settles in developed countries and immediately becomes a stranger to his own land.

The heartless attitude of a different nature is echoed in the piece `Readymade Ashes.’ Here the central character is one who is just back from his father’s funeral. Once before his father had tricked him — when he had gone last time hearing that his father was serious, he met him coming out of the intensive care unit as agile as a young monkey. So this time he made sure and only then left for his native place. He is now back with readymade ashes, as the cremation process has become very smooth and speedy following the electrification of the crematorium. This ‘devoted son’ however, finds it extremely difficult to spend twenty-five minutes in the crematorium. He curses the authorities who had not conditioned the crematorium. And he comments ‘all third world countries! O wonder the World Bank talks about under development!’

The third poem entitled `Vayojana Prayojanam’ (Old Age Benefits) removes the mask from the face of yet another fast spreading evil in the Kerala society that- of sending aged parents to old age homes, luring them out of their n houses and selling the family house and property. While the first three ms are clear illustrations of the decay of relationships, the remaining two in the group highlight the rotting administrative and political scenario. The Disaster Relief Tragedy’ is in the form of a government order issued by a very dubious personality ‘temporary acting assistant secretary on deputation as desk officer in charge.’ The poem discusses in considerable detail the farce of the so called `disaster-relief-fund’ claimed by state governments. The person signing the order is devoid of a concrete identity and this while signifying the deliberate laxity at the administrative level is also a jibe at the fact that such attempts at invisibility are invariably with the motive of saving one’s skin. The state of Kerala has obviously asked for flood relief fund and the question from the other side is ‘Is this present flood a real thing? What water do you mean? Native? Or Foreign?’ Here ‘water,’ the equivalent for the term `vellarn,’ used in the original is a euphemism for ‘liquor.’ Paniker picks at the officials coming to visit disaster areas to submit their reports on the situation; these people have a fine time staying in A/C rooms, enjoying their brand of liquor and choice of fish.

The last poem in this segment ‘Rahasyanivedanam’ (The Secret Petition) is a letter sent to Devil in Hell. The sender requests that he may be appointed as P.A to the Devil. He is a ‘humble’ political worker who wishes to join the devil’s party and thereby get rid of his unemployment. He has all the qualifications that should meet with the devil’s approval and these include armed politics, beating up others for money, dealing in narcotics, smuggling, forging and many more. And for all these he can easily produce testimonials from the Chief Minister and all other authorities concerned. Commenting on poems of this type in Ayyappa Paniker’s oeuvre, Amiya Dev in his essay `Vakrokti 2002’ says that these are instances of ‘a more obvious kind of vakrokti,’ or twisted speech. He is of the opinion that here is one poet who prefers telling obliquely (Amiya Dev, in the sacred navel of our dreams, Kottayam, Current Books, 2003, p.68.) Surfing through the political satires and parodies of Ayyappa Paniker, the reader ends up being optimally sensitised with regard to the society he lives in and the levels of corruption and breakdown of values all round.

The modernist, deriding tone of Paniker is again audible in two poems, Paruvamma and Parameswarayyar’ and ‘Sivaperumal.’ The suppressed laughter of the poet, scoffing at modern values is portrayed in the first of these two. The protagonists are Lord Siva and his consort Parvathy, referred to as Parameswarayyar and Paruvamma. Here Paruvamma is a typical middle class wife desiring modern conveniences. Lord Siva, unlike Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma, who had their abodes in heaven, was destined to live on Mount Kailas on the earth. Besides, he is a mendicant and has no wealth to talk of. Within the framework of the prose poem, a number of modern themes are touched upon. Lord Siva has to remind his wife that he is a god, not a mortal and that gods are not supposed to accumulate property or wealth. ‘Gods cannot amass cash and riches. It is difficult to pay taxes.’ That is entirely the prerogative of man, The dialogue between husband and wife is compared to typical situations in soap operas known locally as ‘serials,’ repeated umpteen times to the extent of boring people so much that they don’t pay heed to such dialogues. Ayyappa Paniker concludes this poem: ‘Mount Kailas did not pay any attention to this dialogue, because he had seen this serial several times before. Nandikeshvara also has no security problems, because there are no visitors. Sleep, sound sleep.’ Lord Siva, who figures as an unpretentious, ordinary man has no visitors to speak of.

This poverty ridden and deglamorised world of the gods is again presented in ‘Sivaperumal.’ This is however a poem that carries an undertone of the poet’s sorrow at the plight of society which exploits even gods. Lord Siva in this poem is seen among beggars. The poet asks the mighty god why he has left the sanctum sanctorum:

O Lord! Is your place among these your devotees

Whose prayers are broken by burning hunger?

Do you see the beggars of this Valliparambu

As your dear friends?

. . . . .

What do you want, my Lord

To fill your cupped palms?

Shall I give as an offering

This, my beating heart? (My translation)

Underlying every social satire Paniker wrote, one can see the poet extremely distressed at the total destruction of values in society and the oppressive hopelessness closing in on him.

While projecting the cankerous society, Ayyappa Paniker also deems it necessary to highlight the actual magnificence of man, the being created in God’s own image. He gives succinct expression to the potency and importance of man in one of the most illuminating poems `Martyapuja’ (In Praise of Man). Written in the year 1985, this poem glorifies man, extending divinity to him. Every object in the world is created for man, each object and living being in the world moves for man and is totally dedicated to man. But man does not realise his own value. While the entire. universe pulsates for this splendid being, namely man, an himself is bent on total self destruction. The poet points out:

You are the universe, deluge, recreation

You yourself are the primordial sound and life

Oh Man! You indeed are, if you are not

Why is this universe throbbing for you? (My translation)

According to this visionary poet, man is one who stands beyond death and so man should not indulge in self destruction. In highly potent language, the poet advises:

Do not make the heavenly paths your battlefield

. . .

Do not consider the atom bomb a mere cracker

Resist this desire for death with real energy

Shatter into smithereens the death wishes,

that with their scorpion tail ready to strike

Sit on your shoulders and hiss into your ears

Man has only to slightly change his mantra and convince himself:

I am, I am the pulse of the Universe, I am the Eternal Soul

I am the Maya, Mantra and Moksha

When I realise that I am all this

Heaven is born on earth. (My translation)

The poem is didactic and optimistic, exhorting man to wake up to his mistakes and follies, embrace the true values and do justice to the divinity vested in him. Ayyappa Paniker, in poems such as these echoes the philosophy of the Upanishads – `Aham Brahmasmi’ (I am Brahma/the eternal soul). This is a poem that clearly spells out that Ayyappa Paniker had an exalted concept of man and what man is capable of, This awareness makes his social satires all the more meaningful because they bring to focus the sad reality that man who is by nature divine has fallen so much that now he. is trying to make pacts with the devil, because he can no longer make a heaven of this earth. So why not reside in hell?

Ayyappa Paniker was a poet who empathised with the plight of women in society. He highlights the sad state of women from time immemorial, using one of the most potent metaphors of suffering inherent in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The poem ‘The Story of Jesus’ (Yesuvinte Katha) written in 1986 presents the crucifixion as a historical drama stage managed by Pilate. Written in three segments — ‘O Christ’; ‘Pilate, Pilate’ and ‘We Marias,’ the poet in his wry tone projects the insensitivity of men. The section ‘We Marias’ is a highly gender sensitive rendering which brings into focus the different faces of woman — mother, sister, daughter, lover, wife, mistress, whore, widow — which are as old as history. Women are described as the bitter sounds, the hot furnaces, thy tragic screenplays, the martyrs and the tender consciences of torturous experiences. They address Christ thus:

Son, brother, lord, O Praised one!

You at least have a resurrection

What about us, we Marias

Torturous experiences with no hope of resurrection

Just Marias. (My translation)

Jesus Christ at the end of his agony at least had the comfort of resurrection. But women are eternal-sufferers; their agony is as ancient as history. Their cupped palms are filled with tears; they safeguard the moistness of time. These unworthy beings, ‘Just Marius’ have no redemption to look forward to.

Only a sensitive poet could react to social injustices and inequalities as well as the sad political scenario as Ayyappa Paniker did. And we witness more of this sensitivity and insight in his lyrical poems too. What gives Ayyappa Paniker’s poems a more sustained value is the underlying optimism and the belief in the essential goodness of man reflected in many of these poems. That is how one can sense a progress from the earlier bitter cynicism to a poetic tone remarkable for its warmth and tenderness. Many of the poems which fall under his category treat more sublime themes such as empathy, love, spirituality, and the poetic art. Love in its various forms — romantic love, sensual love, sensuous love, spiritual love, maternal love, etc. are given succinct expression in the poems. The movement from gross sensuality to sensuousness and spirituality is also clearly perceivable.

`Ozhivukala Samvadam :Rahu Dasha’ and ‘Ozhivukala Samvadam : Vyazha Dasha’ (`Holiday Whispers: Rahu Phase’ and ‘Holiday Whispers: Jupiter Phase’) are two of the serious poems of Ayyappa Paniker. These two poems comprise smaller sections which are marked by a highly personal tone. The reference to the planets and the decision to group the poems under these heads ingenious. The Rahu phase encodes dark emotions, desperation and gloom in weeping with the planet Rahu, Similarly, the second set of poems contains suggestions of well being and harmony, which are the attributes of Jupiter. Both these groups focus on love. One sees the juxtaposition of opposites — love and lovelessness; light and darkness; worth and Worthlessness. The poems grouped under Rahu phase are sixteen in number, while the Jupiter phase has nine poems.

The sixteen Rahu poems display a mixture of nostalgia and despair along with acceptance of the inevitable situation. They convey the philosophic reflection that unfulfilled adolescent love is never going to be fulfilled. These poems are richly suggestive of the light quarrels, flippant talk and other sentiments of adolescence. However these also express in highly sensitised language the theme of separation, ensuing despair and death wish. ‘A Handful of Ashes’ is especially evocative of this. The lover picturises himself in the front yard of his beloved as a handful of ashes. However, it requires only a single teardrop of the beloved to awaken the lover from his ashes and make him rise like a phoenix and undergo a series of amazing transformations:

I shall come back to life

And rise from it with a shudder

And stretch my hands out

To hold in a single embrace

All the nights that sway in the moonlight

And turn into an unquenchable thirst in the end

On the wide breast of this earth

And turn into the throbbing red of the nipple

Awakening on the wide breast

And turn into the scent of the milk

Secreted by the startled breast in a thrill

And turn into a taste on the lips of the child

That sucks that scent, and turn into a memory of that taste.

(I Can’t Help Blossoming 67-68)

The protagonist’s own tears are so potent and voluminous that there is no ocean that can receive this Ganga of tears, this ocean of blood which flows from a broken heart Borrowing imagery from the mythical story of the churning of the ocean of milk, the protagonist avers that no Sage Agastya can drink this flood, no Mandara mountain can churn it, no Vasuki can be the rope, there is no Lord Siva to swallow the potent poison that flows out of it, and no devas or asuras to partake of the amrita. This is an occasion where myths and mythical persona lose relevance and are impotent. In other words, the consequences of the protagonist’s broken heart are uncontrollable and despairing.

The last poem in this group ‘Today the storm subsides’ is however optimistic and suggests a possible reunion of the lovers — it is the day when the tempest may subside.

Today the bride of my soul will unveil her heart to me,

Today is the sacred day the earth has her periodic ritual bath,

The day of cleansing ceremony, the day the celestial stars

Join their hands and dance, the day my immortal light

Takes my hand with a smile of sweetness and leads me

Along the paths of love, the day of holiness, of love,

The essence of abundant, enriching passion:

Today is the day the storm subsides.

Into a symphony of joy for my sake.(I Can’t Help Blossoming 73)

In the poems grouped under ‘Holiday Whispers: Jupiter Phase,’ the poet is the merchant of small dreams. He is tired of spelling out universal truths. There are others to speak of universal truths, for small things he is the only poet. Written in a more mature tone, the poems are striking in their sensuality:

To twine around whom in a tight embrace

Did you stretch out your arms?

To anoint whose lips with sweetness

Did you open your lips?

To grope over whose breast

Did you thrill at your fingertips?

To whom to lisp and whisper sweet nothings

Did you yearn both day and night? (I Can’t Help Blossoming 76-77)

Or more sexual overtones as in:

How is she now

That little finger which took my place

When you groped in the bed for me?

Is she not one of the ten?

Is she not my surrogate

Isn’t it great when you lick and lip it? (I Can’t Help Blossoming 80)

There is some kind of impediment that prevents the union of the protagonist and his beloved. However, in this set of poems there is an underlying hope that the Rahu phase now being over, good fortune ought to be near. While `Holiday Whispers’ encodes both adolescent and youthful love, Ayyappa Paniker’s epic `Gotrayanam’ presents a unique kind of love, suggested in the term sneha. Laying emphasis on the human mind, `Gotrayanam’ is Ayyappa Paniker’s venue for immortalising the concept of love. Written in the form of a leader’s address to his followers before their venturing on an enterprise, ‘Gotrayanam’ is a lore of the Aryan migration to the southern part of India, that is, Kerala. The central motif is that of the quest. The movement of the tribal group becomes a symbol of life itself. The leader warns his group against all kinds of evils they might have to encounter such as greed, treachery, ‘self-aggrandisement, commercialism, obsequiousness’ and more. It also speaks about the inability of the human mind to rest. The human mind is ‘the great illumination on a moonless night.’ There is ‘no occasion, time or place to lie down; the legs are for eternal walking, move one leg after another.’

In this great journey, the prime requirement is that of love and understanding. Krishna Ruyan in his essay Gotrayanam: A Humanist Statement’ (included in in the sacred navel of our dreams 175) gives elaborate expression to this quality of love and understanding glorified in the poem.

Love in ‘Gotrayanam’ stands for neither the sensual romantic attraction between the sexes, nor the heterosexual bond aimed at the preservation of the species. The love here signifies something larger and richer, a relationship which can only be described by the term sneha, a kind of love which shares the nature of emollients, unguents, ointments and such other oil-like substances. The English language has no equivalent for `sneha,’ except possibly an approximate phrase such as ‘loving kindness.’

Krishna Rayan goes on to point out how this concept of `sneha’ is illustrated in the poem itself through a parable.

When our forefathers found that seeds failed to put forth leaves or roots they offered anguished prayers for a solution. They eventually discovered that it was the oil carried in the seed that enabled it to strike roots and sprout leaves. When the oil content of the seed was discarded, demons were born. Therefore ‘just a little snigdhata’ we devote an entire lifetime to ‘tapas.’ Just a little sneha’ is man’s greatest wealth. (176)

But this kind of exalted love, like an act of creation, is born out of sorrow and pain. An incredible expression of human love, this poem expounds the theory that:

Man can attain greatness

Only through terrible sorrows.

The greatest wealth man may have

Is a little sneha

Push away the small sorrows

With the tip of your finger

Embed deep in your heart

The large sorrows alone

Make your heart the cradle

To rock them to sleep.

Sneha is also akin to ‘compassion, forgiveness and harmony, but also than these. [. . .] Sneha is the cohesiveness that involves members of the an community in a bond which is so intimate and organic that should one ber fail, another will assume his burden.’ (Krishna Rayan 176)

As the poem goes:

When the hands fumble

The legs are the support;

When the feet slip

The hands are the support . . .

. . . . .

When the eye flinches

The ear is the guardian;

When the ear winces

The eye is the guardian.

Many poems in the last two collected volumes emphasise this emotion Of pure and uncorrupted love.

`The Lay of the Anklet’ is a poem that has a curious blending of history, the paradox of feminine helplessness and feminine potency and conveys the poet’s concept of the genesis of poetry. The poem that recounts the story of Kannagi and Kovalan as told in the Tamil classic Cilappatikaram (The Story of the Anklet) written by the saintly poet Elankovadigal in the second century A .D, is a moving one. Kovalan is a rich merchant and Kannagi is his wife. Kovalan gets involved with the courtesan Madhavi who lived in the city of Puhar in the Chola kingdom. Kannagi is so devoted to her husband that she succeeds in extricating him from the hold of Madhavi. They decide to go and stay in Madhura, where Kovalan is arrested on the fictitious charge of stealing the queen’s anklet. The king puts Kovalan to death, and a furious Kannagi arrives at the royal court, tears away her breasts, throws her anklet and destroys the city in the fire of her anger. The story goes on to narrate that she went across the hills and settled down in the city of Kodungallur in Kerala, where she is worshipped as a goddess.

This story has stirred so much grief in the poet’s mind that he requests Elankovadigal to kindly rewrite the poem. This is another one of Paniker’s poems which is proof of his empathy for women and in this he identifies with the pain of Kannagi, who is the woman wronged, the woman betrayed. In this poem, we also come face to face with Paniker’s concept of the origin or genesis of a poem. If Kannagi can be compared to a poem, if she is poetry personified, one can think of poetry as originating and becoming consummate in pain. Painful experiences are said to produce the greatest of poems. The grief of Kannagi was sufficient to inflame the entire city of Madhura and turn it into ‘a handful of ashes. The agony experienced by Kannagi had inspired Elankovadigal to pen the immortal Cilappatikaram.

What hell fire, what shell fire

What funeral pyre breeds poetry?

Whose grief did the prince

Blend with this old tale?

Here’s flesh and blood breeding raw poetry

. . .

And thus is poetry engendered

From agonies, writhes, sobs and thoughts.

(I Can’t Help Blossoming 160-161)

In this poetic concept, Paniker visualises the kind of poetry that takes shape, is born and becomes the dearest companion to a lovelorn person. Poetry `turns into a dream unknown to man,’ and ‘it is the voice of the one yet to be born.’ The purest love and the most sublime poetry have this feature in common —both spring up from the deepest sorrows. Though conceived as a narrative on Kannagi and Kovalan, ‘The Lay of the Anklet’ lays deeper emphasis on the role of poetry and the nature of the poet. This poem has been hailed as an outstanding poem in Malayalam because of the poet’s pervasive presence in it. ‘Just as Kannaki and Elankovadikal are reborn as historical figures in this poem, the poetic self of the poet Ayyappa Paniker functions as an inner current in this poem’ And this is exactly the quality that makes this poem great. The figure of the restless Elankovadikal is reminiscent of any poet, the creator who is moved by passion and is unable to sleep.’ Abraham, in his introduction to Surajmukhi, a collection of selected narrative poems of Ayyappa Paniker, H & C Publishing House, Thrissur, 2006, pl6).

‘The Lay of the Anklet’ with its emphasis on the exalted love that Kannagi had for her husband, has some of the most appealing sensuous imagery pregnant with spirituality — a love that is more spiritual, beyond mere physical attraction:

The flower yearns not for a blushing hue

Nor it yearns for softness

Not yearns for a new fragrance

Nor yearns for sweet honey

The flower yearns just for the fine pollen. (My translation)

The images here call upon the senses, yet they speak of something beyond the senses. Kannagi’s feeling for her husband is in stark contrast to the purely sensual emotion that the courtesan Madhavi has for him. And it is indeed this spiritual power that lends immense potential to Kannagi, enabling her to reduce a great city to ashes.

The idea of the best poetry taking shape from intense pain is echoed in the poem `Dukhamo, Sakhi’ (Sorrow, my beloved?) Written in 1982, the poem has as central figures a sculptor, in search of the sculpture within the stone and the figurine within the stone in search of the sculptor. In the introductory lines of the poem, the poet exhorts his mind to search for his song, swinging between the quests of the sculptor and his figurine. As suggested overtly enough, the poem speaks about the poet’s search for the origin and meaning of poetry. The sculptor is representative of any creative artist, including the poet. He is searching for the stone within which his statuette, his beloved, is hidden. He does find the unique stone and carves his dream creation out of it and then exclaims:

What is this from within the stone

Who is this golden figurine, these blazing flames

Virgin or smouldering ember

Or the Purity born from the burned forest? (My translation)

Once the creation is born, the sculptor realises that the rock he had shattered was in his heart and the golden idol of his imagination was the vision of his own eyes. And above all, he learns the ultimate truth that the sculpture will not be complete until and unless he breathes all his life-breaths into it. So we see the sculptor breathing the life breath of the fourteen worlds through her lips, his senses uniting to fill life in the motionless sculpture. Heart to heart, he gives his blood, nerve to nerve he gives the pulsations of his life. And the figurine, which is the unique creation of the sculptor, tells him,

You the sculptor have given me your life

And I realise that with this you have died

But I bear your life within me

And I shall safeguard your life for-eternity.

There is no sculptor, no stone, the sculpture alone remains live

The sculpture is but a riddle of the stone and the sculptor.

My duty remains to maintain the you in me as you yourself

You in me, you me, that we don’t exist is the truth

We together is the only truth. (My translation)

Thus the poet shares his understanding that there is no creation without pain. Moreover, once the creation is born, the creator has no more roles to play. With his raw material he unites with the creation and is immortalised. Here again one can discern a curious blending of sensuousness and spirituality. If spirituality is something associated with the divine, then what we see here is an immortal or spiritual union of the senses of the sculptor and his `sakhi’ or beloved.

The ideas of love and sacrifice and the glory of creation are also seen in one of the most beautifully penned poems of Ayyappa Paniker, ‘I Can’t Help Blossoming.’ The poem personifies the cassia tree which blooms for others —the tree has to necessarily burst out into golden blooms when the festival of Vishu is around. The cassia tree is visualised as one born to give happiness to others. If we look at the beautiful, golden flowers as the unique offspring, the precious creations of the tree, it is easy to relate the underlying idea in this poem to similar concepts in the poems discussed. More importantly, the poet conveys the message that for a creative artist, creation is indispensable. No matter what, he has to give vent to his inspired outpouring. And what can be a better metaphor than the golden flowers, which like the golden daffodils of William Wordsworth are objects which ‘flash upon that inward eye’ and are capable of making one dance and sway with them ‘in vacant and in pensive moods.’ Associated with everything that is auspicious, the cassia flowers are wonderful for their colour:

The colour of love that fills the turmeric

Paste that’s used to decorate the bride,

The colour of the illusion-fed youthfulness

Eager to catch even a fleeting sidelong glance,

The colour that sprinkles the spell of glory,

The colour that swings to the tunes of music,

The colour that gleams and glows by itself,

The colour that adds luster to everything else,

The colour that accompanies the twilight red

Worn by the sea waves as the day grows thin

(I Can’t Help Blossoming 51)

And this shining colour, as the poet conceives, is made by filtering the golden rays of twelve suns through the sieve of clouds, and mixed with the concentrated silver colour drawn from eleven full moons!

By the tail end of Ayyappa Paniker’s career, in his last volume of collected poems Pathumanipookkal, published in 2004, these aspects of sensuousness, tenderness, spirituality are all reinforced and presented in some of the most Iinspired lyrical poems. One can clearly perceive the emergence of a new poetic vision, when he redefines poetry and poet. The collection is a continuous dialogue between the male protagonist and a mysterious woman who addresses him as `friend’ (suhrut). The woman in the poems is understood as Trakriti’ and the man as Turusha.’ The poems are a sustained expression of they earning of the masculine and feminine to unite. In this sense, they embody the sublime concept of the Ras Lila or the Divine Dance as well. There is no grossness in their union; the friends or lovers who are the protagonists rise beyond the physical plane to the spiritual, a journey which is paradoxically undertaken through the senses. A point to note in this context is that the spirit and the body are very much connected in this earthly existence of ours and it may be said that the closer one is to the senses, the easier it is to experience the soul within. The senses are the unique, divine gifts that transmit messages both from the outside and inside. Spirituality, as in many other poems, is seen in the spirit of selflessness — a deep seated desire to attempt the impossible for the loved one.

To live more with the senses, the protagonist in the poem ‘Youth’ ardently wishes to have his sensual youth returned at least for a year. The protagonist covets the sensuality of youth to satiate his moist Earth and once this is done, he does not mind surrendering to Death. Here the protagonist wishes for his youth more for the sake of his beloved and hopes to attain immortality after a blissful union with his Prakriti or Earth:

Who is the master of life on earth? Let him

Change my term, rekindle my passions,

Put a spark to the petard of my body, satiate

My damp earth, and then

If Death comes any day, let him come.

The poems included in Pathumanipookkal celebrate the joy of love. One is frequently reminded of The Song of Songs, written by Solomon that sings about the joy experienced through sensual association— man with Woman, flesh with flesh. Ayyappa Paniker’s poems speak of the joy and enlightenment that comes to us when we establish connection with one another as well as with the rest of the created world. Like the Song of Songs, in this volume are lyrical dialogues or monologues, with a dramatic element incorporated. The sensuality is suggestive of a higher spirituality, when the physical love stands as a symbol for ideal love or sacred love that can be attained between people. True love is that which helps one to experience oneness with the world. Paradoxically, truth and enlightenment are achieved through love of the flesh. Spirituality and sensuousness have been associated from olden times itself : St. Theresa’s reaction when the angel stabbed her with Christ’s spear; St John of the Cross describing himself as a bride of Christ, Kabir glorifying himself as the faithful wife of Ram, and Krishna’s love for the female cowherds are all instances of religious ecstasy expressed in sensuous terms. In such a sublime state, there is no longer the sense of you and I; there is only a sense of happy consummation with no conflicts whatsoever, Similarly in the poems coming in Pathumanipookkal, we see the central characters losing their identity in one another and even merging with other creatures in nature. They perceive the natural objects come into existence after their own union as in ‘A Story’:

Then, when we met each other

And became one,

The rains came

Rainbow came,

Feathers came, wings came

Nests came, birds came

Branches came, trees came

Forests came, earth came

The sky and the stars came

And fishes in the oceans-


The woman is pictured as dusk, night, moonlight and the lone star in the poem ‘The Lone Star;’ the metamorphosis of both protagonists figure in the poem ‘Village’:

You rose to the sky as a cloud.

I became a lightning and tickled you.

You turned into raindrops and got scattered on the ground.

I changed into the dampness of the earth.

We played hopscotch in the courtyard,

And became paintings in your study.

Nature has existence only in the consummation of the protagonists’ love, the protagonists themselves are Nature. It is in this regard, that the poems celebrate a return to nature, a return to supreme bliss.

In some of the poems in this volume, there are concrete references to the woman character — we know her as one with a mole on her upper lip which is said to arouse the male protagonist. We are given hints that the female character is a married woman as in ‘The Baby Poem’ The Swallows’ The Hospital’ and others. There is also a suggestion in the poem `Prakriti’ that the protagonist saw his Prakriti in a number of guises’. She is visualised as the ‘daughter of the snow,’ Rajput beauty’ and more. Here there is another similarity with the Ras lila, namely Lord Krishna seeing each of the cowherd maidens (gopis) as embodiment of a particular purified emotion. The protagonist, seeing Prakriti in a variety of forms, has been and is incessantly singing for her and both of them are bound by innumerable golden threads. This poem concludes in a highly philosophic tone:

You showed me the me in myself

Friend, you are my mirror, my image

I see you as myself

Someone asks if prakriti and purusha

Aren’t one and the same.

The poems take the reader through feelings of intense love, desperation, fear of separation, quarrels, settling quarrels and a number of mundane occurrences which emphasise the earthly and sensuous quality of the poems. At the same time, they extol the spirituality behind the apparent sensuousness as in the poem ‘Warmth’:

First I came to know your touch only,

Only later

Did I come to know your odour.

It intoxicated me greatly then.

I had inhaled all of it.

It was after this

That I tasted the sweetness of grapes.

How I wished you were just a tongue

How I wished you were just two ears,

After all the five senses are sated

What still remains is love, isn’t it?

Similarly, the spirituality inherent in the sensuousness is quite tangible in poem `Innale Ninne Njan’ (Yesterday I did not). While listing the physical activities that the protagonist could have indulged in with his beloved, the poem makes clear that he did not resort to all that and even then

Yet what is in today’s memory is

The sweet recollection of finding

A space in the panchakoshas yesterday

Not in annamaya, of food, of pranamaya, of life breath,

Manomaya, of the mind, or vignanamaya, of knowledge,

But the two of us fused together in a spiritual bind

In anandamaya, like bliss that was brimming over.

Here in the concluding lines, the physical love is overcome by a deeper spiritual love which is more enduring. These poems if read in the light of the concept of the divine Ras Lila, may be said to embody the longing of the individual soul or `jivatma’ to attain union with the `paramatma’ or the Supreme Soul.

The collection Pathumanipookkal is significant also in that the poems contain a new definition Of poetic art and the role of the poet. The poet emphasises that a good poem is a dialogue, sometimes one person alone talks, sometimes both and that is the enduring characteristic of poetry. In the poem ‘Writing,’ Ayyappa Paniker clearly defines the art of writing poetry, introducing the concept of `aparan’ or ‘the other.’ Defining poetry as a kind of eternal search. it gives a lucid explanation about how and why one is able to write poems:

Poetry is a means to know

Not a manifestation of what is known.

He who thinks he has known

Does not write anything.

The question at the beginning of the poem is :

Do you know how you wrote my poems?

Do you know why you wrote them?

Do you know that all good works

Are written by the other self?

Taking into consideration the Prakriti—Purusha concept that is visibly projected throughout the collection, this is a poem which encodes a mystical truth regarding poetry. Poetry is born, can be born only out of a subtle fusion of the masculine and feminine, of man and his environment, and of the individual soul and the Supreme Soul. Without this fusion, there can be no inspiration and consequently no poetic creation. This theory of poetry can be related to the instance earlier quoted from the poem `Dukhamo, sakhi,’ where the sculptor is on an agonising search for the raw material for his creation.

The poetic philosophy encoded in these sensuous, spiritual poetry can be associated with the theories of Tantra that advocate that man and woman must honour their divine origin and that the body with its nine gateways, solar and lunar energies, five elements, senses and mind is the most holy temple. The male powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara have no existence without their corresponding female counterparts, shaktis or energies, namely, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvathy. Only a harmonious balance of the male and female potencies can sustain Nature, The poems even have a scientific connotation if one were to read them on the basis of Freud’s theory that we each have a male and female persona within us and perfect balance between the two is necessary for a healthy psyche.

The lyrical poems of Ayyappa Paniker are a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings;’ these poetic pieces evince an amalgamation of the sensual/ spiritual, personal/political, perceiver/perceived and the self/soul. Philosophy, spirituality and sensuousness thus merge in these poems contributing to the incredible variety. These themes are complemented by an underlying rhythm and subtle organisation of words. Many of Ayyappa Paniker’s poems reveal his viewpoint that to stagnate is death, in movement alone is life. Like the tribal movement in Gotrayanam, here is a poet always on the move experimenting, prodding, analysing and recording. His poetic output presents a poetic personality undergoing constant transformation.

Note: The translations included from Pathumanipookal are by Ravindran Nayar.


Ayyappapanikerute Kruthikal Vol 111 ( 1981 — 1989). 3rd ed. Kottayam: DC Books, 2006.

Ayyappapanikerute Kruthikal Vol 1V ( 1990 —1999). 2nd ed. Kottayam: DC Books, 2006.

Ayyappa Paniker. I Can’t Help Blossoming, Selections from Ayyappapanikerute Kruthikal (1990 -99). Translated from Malayalam, Kottayam: Current Books, 2002.

in the sacred navel of our dreams. Essays on Ayyappa Paniker’s Poetry, ed. and compiled by Editorial Dept., Kottayam: DC Books, Current Books, 2003.

Surajmukhi, Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker. Thrissur: H & C Publishing House, 2006.

Ayyappa Paniker. Pathumanipookal. Thrissur: Current Books. 2004.


JAYASREE RAMAKRISHNAN NAIR. Professional translator and Senior Associate Editor, Samyukta. Has to her credit among other published translations, the translations of four plays of Shakespeare into Malayalam. Has contributed many articles in research journals.

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Professional translator and Senior Associate Editor, Samyukta. Has to her credit among other published translations, the translations of four plays of Shakespeare into Malayalam. Has contributed many articles in research journals.

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