Harmonizing the Opposites –the Poetic Personality of Ayyappa Paniker

Abstract: This article is an overview of Paniker as a poetic personality of Malayalam literature. It addresses aspects of his personality that shaped him to become one of the most renowned Malayalam poets. Instances that led him to convey poetry through demanding new methods are briefly discussed.

Keywords: Paniker’s poetic personality, family history, native tradition, unconventional poetic usage, poetic career modernist tendency, classical poetic structure, modern view

Whenever I recollect the memories of my uncle Ayyappa Paniker, a rare personality comes to mind as he was a man who succeeded in imbibing and harmonising the diversities and opposites that are seen or felt. He practised this in both art and life. As his nephew, I had the good fortune to closely associate myself with him from my childhood and observe his attitude to life and the astonishing aspects of his character. Ours was a family that followed some of the features of the matrilineal system on an emotional level and so considered him the head of our family, sought his advice as well as approval on all family matters. On all these occasions, I saw him directing us to follow what was best in our tradition and adapt them to changing life-patterns. Though he was modern in his outlook, he was very keen in retaining the values and virtues which his ancestors had laid. Even during his days of illness, he used to narrate to me ‘carious past events in our family life and tell me about his uncles, his great grandmothers and their views. He used to consider his own `Kudumbapuranam’ his favourite poem as it dealt with them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two novels he persuaded me to read were based on family histories —Alex Haley’s Roots which portrayed the lineage of an American Negro and Punarkottuswaroopam, written by my granduncle Sardar K. M. Panikkar, dealing with our own family history. Such was his attachment to traditional and ancestral values. This sort of interest in ancestral roots could be one of the reasons for choosing the poems of Robert Lowell for his research studies. Nevertheless, he was ready to accept the changes that occurred in the course of time and stood as a man who modernised himself always, without disregarding the values that are eternal.

As a writer, he was blessed with an inner vision and with this he penetrated deeply into the texture of a literary or artistic creation and found the ‘lotus thread’ that bound works of different ages and nations, from the aesthetic angle. Though he is regarded as the godfather of modernism in Malayalam literature, with the publication of `Kurukshetram’ and a promoter of modern trends in contemporary drama and other performances, he was a scholar and lover of classical arts like Koodiyattom, Kathakali and classical music. Moreover, he was well aware of the native traditions and folk elements in all and literature and encouraged writers and practitioners of modern theatre — personalities like Kaval am Narayana Panikkar, C. N. Sreekantan Nair, Narendra Prasad and Murali — to give new dimensions to contemporary theatre by incorporating various elements of both folk and classical traditions into the performing arts of Kerala.

In poetry, though he was well-known for his sense of wit, humour, unconventional poetic usages, treatment and presentations, he was equally in tune with the classical and romantic trends and tendencies and wrote many poems following the traditional metres and methods. A remarkable feature of his creative personality was that he never confined himself to any particular manner of expression, but instead experimented and adopted various techniques and methods. In the initial phase of his poetic career, one can trace romantic qualities that bear the influence of Changampuzha as in `Naanam Kaattaanenthullu’ (What should one be ashamed of?), or `Manjintemakar (Daughter of Snow) etc. But very soon he overcame those influences and wrote love poems like ‘On, Surrealistic Premagaanam’ (A Surrealistic Love Song) Premamenthanennarinjirunnilla Njan’ (I Did Not Know What Love Was), `Premam’ (Love), Pooja’ (Offerings) and such other poems, with notes of profundity and uniqueness. In these poems, he succeeded in constraining the overflow of sentiments and feelings and blended intellect with emotional strains which was rare in those days. Very soon he switched over to realistic, philosophical and metaphysical poems and also began exhibiting modernist tendencies. In poems like `Syamam’, Purooravas’ and ‘Siva-Parvathy’ (an adaptation of Kumarasambhavam) one can see the influence of classical literature whereas in the verses that are grouped under `Kuttanadan Drisyangal’ (Kuttanadan Sketches) and `Sheetha Samaram’ (Cold War) we can trace the regional/folk aspects presented in a realistic manner with humour and sarcasm.

He was thorough with the native, folk and classical poetic structures, metres, rhythms and expressions and used them effectively to present even modern views. The best example is `Mrthyu Pooja’ wherein he successfully used the metre dandakam which was very rarely used by masters like Irayimman Thampi, to present the complexities and angst of modern life. He could fit typically modern views and expressions into the native and classical poetic structure in an astonishing manner. Meanwhile, he began experimenting with his own poetic devices and expressive techniques and ‘Kurukshetram’ was such an attempt. It is a poem in which he has combined various expressive methods wherein he included melancholy, wit, humour, metaphysical conceits and modernist tendencies. But even after establishing himself as a modern poet, he often wrote romantic verses like `Gopi ka Dandakam’, `Ozhivukala Sainvadam’, `Charamasayyayil Ninneyum Kathu’ major metaphysical poems like `Gotrayanam’, poems included in the collection Pathumanipookkal, along with numerous sarcastic poems like ‘Videomaranam’, ‘Award’ and so on. Thus throughout his poetic personality he can be seen deeply involved in experimenting and renewing himself and his poetic career can be considered as a combination of folk, classical, realistic, metaphysical and modernist tendencies.

In the realm of criticism, what made him more remarkable and genuine was his method of contemporising Sanskrit critical theories and Dravidian aesthetics such as the Thina concept. Such approaches have influenced contemporary Malayalam criticism and I remember my own experience of drawing inspiration from them when I undertook studies of M. T. Vasudevan Nair and Karoor. Another salient contribution which was typically genuine was his theory of interiorisation wherein he made deep explorations and revealed how great writers effectively interfused emotional contents and aspects in their Works through meaningful utterances that were highly suggestive. He made extensive studies of Indian literary theories like Rasa, Dhvani and Vakrokti and analysed European works from that perspective, which was indeed a novel attempt in contemporary criticism. He made it his mission to explore the native literary traditions and concepts and to find their possibilities in the modem context but was sorry for the younger generation of English teachers in Kerala who regarded Malayalam language and literature as someone else’s. He also strongly ridiculed the cultural illiteracy they maintained in terms of Indian sensibility. This was mainly because he was well aware of the strength and spirit of the mother tongue and the cultural legacy that sprung from its tradition which included his creativity. That was why he once remarked, ‘I don’t write in English as it is not the language of my creativity’. He was conscious of the native tradition and its values which always provided him moral strength and courage. In the opening lines of Kudumbapuranam he describes the ‘fondness that flickered in the seven wicks of lamps during the dusk hours which were so bountiful’ and pays tribute to his maternal uncles like Eravi Kesava Panikkar, who taming the Vembanad lake introduced farming practices in Kuttanad and made his land the rice-bowl of Kerala, and Sardar K. M. Panikkar who acquired international reputation as a diplomat, historian, academician and Malayalam novelist.

The family environment, the temple courtyards which were centres of cultural activities and the village landscape which was gifted with backwaters and rivers were the chief sources of his creative imagination. Besides this, his father, Narayanan Nambuthiri, a temple priest and scholar in ancient texts, initiated him into the world of classics. His mother Meenakshi Amma who was a pious and devout woman and his eldest sister Parukutty Amma who brought him up after his mother’s death were the members of his family who moulded his character. The family atmosphere was so favourable in nourishing his creative talents that even as a young boy he could begin his literary pursuits. He published his first volume of poems when he was barely sixteen Panineerpoovu —which carried a foreword by the noted poet and critic C. S. Subramaniam Potti.

He was very much fond of the Kuttanad locale and his family roots there and maintained a strong attachment with his native soil. It was this intimate bond with his roots that made him express his last wish of going back to Kavalam to take eternal rest.

In this context, I remember the involvement of the entire village community of Kavalam who attended his funeral ceremony to pay homage. There he was described as the ‘contribution of Kavalam to world literature’. This is perhaps the most deserving praise for his literary contribution as he can be very well considered as a promoter of universal literature transcending the barriers of time and geographical limits.


ANAND KAVALAM. Teaches English at the V.T.M.N.S.S. College, Thiruvananthapuram. Has published poems and critical studies in Malayalam and written the script for a documentary. His areas of interest are Comparative Literature and Eco-aesthetics. 

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Teaches English at the V.T.M.N.S.S. College, Thiruvananthapuram. Has published poems and critical studies in Malayalam and written the script for a documentary. His areas of interest are Comparative Literature and Eco-aesthetics.

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