K. Ayyappa Paniker, the Poet as Theoretician, Historiographer and Aesthetician

Abstract: The paper Ayyappa Paniker’s status as a literary critic and his flair for, or rather skill in, applying theories, Eastern as well as Western, to texts of all hues and shapes, which have never been either disputed or doubted. The formidable number of critical essays, both in Malayalam and English, that has emanated from his perceptive mind attests to this fact. They show a mind-boggling range of interests cutting across genres — poetry, short story, fiction, drama — including Kerala’s very own classical performing arts like Kathakali and Koodiyattom; aesthetic theories— covering nearly all disciplines in Indian and Western thought; languages and nations. Legions of students, research scholars, academics, critics and litterateurs themselves may certainly have drawn inspiration from his modus operandi and insights. Some of them may even have felt a need to assess his place in the history of modern English and Malayalam criticism. Still others, to plot the graph of his evolution as a literary critic.

Keywords: theory of interiorisation, Indian narratology, ancient Indian poetics, Malayalam literature, Malayalam writers, Indian literature theories, Indian poetics, evolving poetry, literary aesthetic

But what is perhaps still to be seriously scrutinised and evaluated is his stature as a theoretician. It is here that an analysis of his conceptualisation and elaboration of ‘Interiorisation’ or antasannivesha becomes relevant. Paniker’s Interorisation Theory, despite Krishna Rayan’s appreciative but extremely cautious description of it as ‘what can turn out to be a seminal formulation’ (35), is generally considered to be his major contribution to the field of critical thought. In fact, one admiring critic (Santhosh H. K.) would hail it as the sole Malayali investment in the field of world aesthetics while another (N. Jayakrishnan) would rate it as a work that (along with Kavidarshanam) gave a whole new literary culture to the Malayalis.

Even before presenting the theory, Paniker anticipates the readers’ justifiable as well as legitimate query about the need for yet another theory and even about the need for any theory for that matter. Empathizing with the readers, Paniker virtually shoots a question at himself about the very relevance of theory: ‘. . . why these theories at all? Is it not enough that we [the readers] aesthetically savour the poem, the novel, the play?’ His own reply highlights his non-dogmatic approach to the issue: ‘Well, if theories are not wanted, they can be dropped; if they are, let them remain — some day some use may be found for them’ (2003 b, 2).

He admits that there are various degrees of readerly expectations and many kinds of aesthetic appreciation. Likening a work of art to a house, Paniker graphically presents the different personalities and attitudes of the reader/visitor:

The reader can arrive at the front yard, announce his

business, and go away; or he can squat on the verandah

and gossip; or he can step in and heartily enjoy the

hospitality before leaving — it is not compulsory for him

to enter the interior. But those who want can do so and

`drink deep the Pierian spring’ — and resume the search.

(2003 b, 5)

While not condemning the superficial demands, the easy satisfaction and the unadventurous spirit of the first two kinds of readers who stop at the front yard or the veranda of the book and do not venture any further, Paniker states that the theory of interiorisation is meant for the third category mentioned in the analogy:

If interiorisation can enable at least a few readers to

gain access to the inside — the inside of the inside — of

some texts, it can be said to have, to that extent, served

some purpose. When interiorisation is compared with other

theories, all that is claimed for it is that it can be counted

as one of the paths that lead from the overt to the covert,

from the apparent to the latent.

(2003 b, 3)

This observation is an emphatic pointer to Paniker’s attitude towards theory in general. At a time when, in the academia, positing new critical theories and applying them scientifically as well as systematically to creative works have graduated from being a purposeful literary/aesthetic activity and become a personal platform for launching and maintaining high-profile teaching careers, such a statement about the secondary status of theories may appear old-fashioned, if not reactionary. His assertion that a ‘concept or theory or its name is no important. It must be emphasised here that what the reader must concentrate upon is how far its application makes the savouring of the text possible and meaningful’ (1) underscores his belief in the wisdom behind the traditional concept that literary texts are meant to delight and to instruct the readers and that critical theories are only tools meant to catalyze the process. He even argues that a theory’s very locus standi depends on its ability to ensure aesthetic satisfaction in a sensitive reader: ‘Only a theory based on application can be useful and relevant’ (2003 b, 7).

The theory of interiorisation — as opposed to exteriorisation or `uparisannivesha or bahya-sannivesha’ (2003 b, I) — he clearly spells out, is fundamentally ‘a mode of textual exploration’ (2003 b, 2). It is the key that opens the doors to the hinterland of texts so that ‘the author and the reader meet each other face to face and engage in discourse’ (2003 b, 2-3). This comment throws light on Paniker’s assumptions about the status of textual meaning. Meaning is not a definite quantum of ideas deposited in the text by the author to be recovered partially or in toto by the reader. Rather, it is a mutual fund of sorts, the quality as well as quantity of dividends being decided more or less by the readers’ investment, i. e., ‘the intensity of our [the readers’] emotional life’ (2003 b, 2).

Just how significant a culture of give-and-take is — firstly, for an intellectual comprehension of ideas, conveyed by the writer through his/her work, and secondly, for an aesthetic savouring of the text — is indicated in a light-hearted anecdote narrating his experiences at Luxemburg, where several poets from different parts of the world had, on invitation, assembled for a four-day poetic meet (described in the book Vyaktichitrangal, yaatradrishyangal). Paniker recalls an entertaining one-hour interface he had with school children there:

Each poet spent some time with ten or twelve boys

and girls from government schools.

It was a memorable hour

of cracking jokes, reciting poems and trying to answer their

questions. They are very much like the children of our country.

I had worn a large hat, far larger than the one I

usually wear. A child asked me: ‘Why are you wearing a

hat’?’ Well, would I let that opportunity slip by? ‘Because

I have a head. There’s no other reason.’ And then I recited

a poem [his own, titled ‘Reading habits’]:

I cut off my head and bought a hat

In exchange for it;

My hands I severed and in return

I got a wristwatch

Nobody asked me why I was doing it. I don’t think

anyone among them is likely to become a critic.

(2005, 150-160) (My translation)

What this casual-seeming story itself interiorises is Paniker’s notion that every work, for its full realisation, demands of its readers a healthy questioning attitude. In other words, meaning is not to be seen as a concrete entity, given directly or in full measure by the author to the reader; it is a product of an imaginative interface between the two, the result of their mutual discourse. Such is Paniker’s confidence in a good reader’s analytical and interpretative powers that he believes the defects of a theory can be rectified by an intelligent application of it: ‘Even if a theory is not faultless, can’t its application remove its shortcomings and make it complete?’ (2003 b, 6).

Thus, in Paniker’s scheme of things, theory and its application are inextricably, perhaps even symbiotically, interlinked, with each actively nourishing and strengthening the other. Precisely for this reason, he cannot `look favourably upon any tendency towards fetishising theory. In a tone of Seeming harshness, as if to suggest the incontrovertible nature of the fact, he declares that ‘Where is a name for the love of theories, which you can foster within you in order to dispense with the reading of works — it is dhikkaram (arrogance)’ (2003 b. 7).

From all these inputs, one gathers that the birth of a new theory will be accepted by Paniker as legitimate or inevitable only as long as it is not the offspring `dhikkaram’ and only when the application of existing theories fails to rectify their shortcomings and make them ‘complete’. And the formulation of the Interiorisation , theory, he seems to imply, fulfils these conditions. Interestingly, faint prefigurations theory can be found in a very embryonic form in Paniker ‘s monograph written layalam Akhyanakala: Siddhantavum Prayogavidhikalum (Art of Narration Theory and Modes of Practice), written ten years earlier. In a small segment, he a distinction between story and narration thus:

If we define a story in a restricted sense to mean a

description of events, it will become narration only on

including certain inventive factors associated with it.

The story can claim continuity of events. . . The main part of

a story comprises characters, their actions, motives and

aims. But narration will embrace all these and also include

other ingredients that the story does not contain. Although

stories have a narrative component within, narration

encloses those elements also that are not present in them.

(1993, 10) (My translation)

One can see that the almost casual allusion to the art of enclosing certain ‘other’ elements in narration is what evolves into his theory of interiorisation later.

Informed readers, he admits, may wonder why they should accept the theory of antassannivesha when they already enjoy the privilege of using Anandavardhana’s theory of dhvani (suggestion), Mahimabhatta’s theory of anumana (inference) and Kuntaka’s theory of vakrata (deviation). Paniker would argue that antassannivesha earns its right to an independent existence because it is different from all the three. Antassannivesha differs from dhvani in that: one, it is not always a conscious production of meaning; two, it can have a mode of operation that is both conscious and unconscious; and three, it has the power to get through to the spiritual force of a work. It differs from anumana in that, over and above the reader’s response, it requires the author’s conscious or unconscious mode of operation; and it differs from vakrata in that, even while embracing the principle of deviation, it penetrates deeper into a work of art. However, what is noteworthy about this manner of differentiation is that even while highlighting the unique features of the theory of interiorisation, Paniker does not ever trash the rest. Each theory, he believes, has its own area of applicability and its own degree of effectiveness. Such a spirit of accepting the relative strengths of every theory comes from a firm conviction that no single theory is ‘complete or perfect’ (2003 b, 3).

He then goes on to prove the validity of the interiorisation theory by using it to unveil the hidden texts in scores of narratives, from poetry, short and long fiction and drama in Indian as well as Western literature. The theory, in his hands, acts as a torchlight that illuminates the dark nooks, hidden crannies and secret trapdoors and shows how the texts are far more nuanced than they actually appear. For instance, Paniker’s close reading of Keats’s celebrated poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ illustrates how the narrator’s response to the figures painted on the urn is, at one level, a reflection of the Romantic poet’s own approach to life which in turn was influenced by his personal destiny.

All the emphasis on negative presence expressed

through the vocabulary of negation— unravished, quietness,

silence, slow, soft, etc. — points to the virtue of negative

capability, the potential as opposed to the achieved: Keats’s

personal life of 25 years underscores the value of desire

and not fulfilment. Experience here is interiorised, i.e.,

left to the imagination, and not to the reality. The man

with the pipe shown on the urn does not produce music,

hence he can continue to play forever. (2003 b, 95-96)

The same theory helps him cut through the surface of mere description in Book One of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, ‘The Symbol Dawn’, and capture the inner treasures of covert meanings:

The accumulation of negative images repeated with

obsessive insistence is perhaps intended to create a vacuum

in time and space that will be a poetic symbol of stagnation,

lack of freedom and cessation of creative activity —about

thirty images of deprivation and loss in as many lines —

that is, at the rate of at least one per line. This building up

of emptiness or sunyata, this cleaning and cleansing, as it

were, seems to be a necessary ritual before the attempt to

fill it up with meaning. This filling up is undertaken in the

rest of the poem, as we may see particularly in the last

cantos, which deal with the realisation. The recovery of

life, the return to earth and the redemption of happiness

are worked out at the end. One is tempted to read Savitri

as an epic of interiorised decolonisation written in the

language of the coloniser, but mastered by the erstwhile

colonised. (2003 b, 103)

Thus, text after text reveals its richly layered viscera when Paniker inserts the endoscope of interiorisation theory into it. The most remarkable quality about his method is the mildness with which he receives the natural results of his investigation. He is never too keen to forcibly draw definitive interpretative conclusions if they go against the grain of the text. Even when interiorisation theory merely leads him to ask hitherto-unraised questions inside a text and gives firm certitudes in reply, he accepts the vacuum as a textual ingredient which gives the reader an opportunity to hypothesise creatively within the framework permitted by the narrative. His analysis of Romeo and Juliet is a case in point:

A. . . complicated problem is raised in Shakespeare’s

Romeo and Juliet by Romeo’s first love, Rosaline, who

does not appear on the stage but is alluded to and is called

to mind by several people several times. A covert course

of events centred round her suggests the thoughts that the

plot of the play might well have been different and that the

density of the two families locked in hostility might have

been of a different kind. . . What made Romeo fasten his

heart to a member of the enemy clan? Why did

Shakespeare decide to move our attention away from

Rosaline? . . . Two maxims in Malayalam and English make

identical points: the forceful flow of passionate love cannot

but encounter obstacles; the course of true love never did

run smooth. The attempts to impede the forward surge of

the stream in a play cannot be said to be made by a

character, or the playwright or the reader or spectator. Can

it be then attributed to the will of God? If so, can we shrug

off the problem by saying that what makes a play sad or

glad, bad or good, is fate? Here it is the playwright that

can be said to be obstructing the progress. If fate were

otherwise, can it not be that the play ends in Act II? Can

the sub-plot be just wiped away, after it has been suggested?

Won’t its reflection, its shadow, the memory of it, linger

and last? Will it remain utterly obscured in what follows

of the plot? (2003 b, 88-89)

What the interiorisation theory has done here to the reader-critic of Romeo and Juliet is to sensitise him the huge world of hidden, partially articulated and unelaborated narratives that surrounds the smallest (relatively speaking) of events and the most minor of characters. The fact that the playwright has chosen not to focus attention on them itself becomes a source of mystery and suspense and, perhaps paradoxically, diverts the reader’s attention from the main plot displayed on the surface. The play may not yield answers or even throw up oblique hints to the numerous questions Paniker raises. That is not its failing; nor are the questions, for that reason, irrelevant or insignificant. But what the theory has revealed nonetheless is the rich potential of the narrative gap in Romeo and Juliet which invites the readers to be a co-producer in generating probable answers and thus to appreciate the nuanced texture of the play. It is in this sense, Paniker seems to imply, that interiorisation fosters a spirit of ‘joint .enterprise, a bonding in spirit’ (2003 b, 3) and leads to a greater aesthetic appreciation of the work. These examples not only illustrate how exactly antassannivesha is distinct from dhvani, anumana and vakrata, but, more importantly, they justify the positing of and the need for the new theory.

A second, and equally interesting, quality of Paniker the theoretician is his positive approach to all texts. Even while projecting the power of interiorisation to make a literary work rich and polyphonic, he does not pronounce Any disparaging comments on texts that eschew this technique. This sophistication or open-mindedness is nowhere more evident than in his comparative analysis of two of Kerala’s most popular story-tellers — Ponkunnam Varkey and Vaikom Mohamed Basheer. Assessing their narrative techniques, he remarks:

Varkey’s narrative mode is lucid statement. We should

read and explain what he has said exactly as what he has said.

To coax another level of meaning from it would not be valid.

This is precisely Varkey’s type of strength. To state what is

true and not state anything beyond it —that exhausts Varkey’s

art. On the other hand, Basheer is committed to interiorisation.

He cannot say anything unless it has something else or

something more behind or beyond it. Varkey’s narration is

close to mere presentation of events or facts. It is long on

strength, short on charm. (2003 b, 27-28)

There is no attempt to rank Varkey and Basheer in terms of their artistic qualities. milker only enumerates their relative strengths and weaknesses. And this is the only instance of the spirit of accommodation we see in the work. His parison of the different artistic stances adopted by two poets —Balamaniamma her daughter Kamala Das — also shows the care Paniker takes not to set self up as an arbiter of literary taste:

When the mother’s poem `Vibhishanan’ is translated

into English by the daughter, Rama’s direction to Sita,

`Reveal your purity of heart,’ becomes the harsh injunction,

`Prove your chastity, woman,’ because the translation

renders explicit the interiorised meaning in Rama’s

utterance. What one has omitted, the other provides. Such

mutual complementarity receives particular attention in

textual criticism and the study of intertextuality. (2003 b, 56-57)

The refusal to take an overtly judgemental attitude as well as the insistence on discovering a ‘mutual complementarity’ in the interplay of antassannivesha and bahya or upari-sannivesha is vintage Paniker. This is perhaps his modus operandi for getting closer to the writers’ unprofessed ideas about art, their unexpressed views about its purpose and their innermost beliefs about the world they seek to recreate through art. Equally, it is perhaps his way of making room for the readers to arrive at their own assessments and derive their own conclusions regarding the merits and/or demerits of exteriorisation and interiorisation. Could this be an example of Paniker’s tongue-in-cheek version of antassannivesha in the critical field, one wonders.

To readers conversant with Western aesthetic theories, it is tempting to draw parallels between Paniker’s theory of interiorisation and Koestler’s of infolding’, as explained in the work The Act of Creation:

All mythology is studded with symbols, veiled in

allegory; the parables of Christ pose riddles which the

audience must solve. The intention is not to obscure the

message, but to make it more luminous by compelling the

recipient to work it out by himself to re-create it. Hence

the message must be handed to him in implied form — and

implied means ‘folded in’. To make it unfold, he must fill

in the gaps, complete the hint, see through the symbolic

disguise. But the audience has a tendency to become more

sophisticated with time; once it has mastered all the tricks,

the excitement goes out of the game; so the message must

be made more implicit, more tightly folded. I believe that

this development towards greater economy (meaning not

brevity, but implicitness) can be traced in virtually all

periods and forms of art. To indulge in a little law-making,

let me call it the ‘law of infolding’. It is the antidote to

the law of diminishing returns in the domain of emotions. (338)

But interiorisation appears to be a broader and deeper concept because it is presented not merely as an artist’s conscious act of providing a negotiating space to his/her reader/consumer, but also, and more importantly, as the reader’s act (or privilege?) of creating a legitimate interpretative space even where the artist has consciously not left any.


If Interiorisation is the brainchild of Paniker the theoretician, Indian Sahithya Sidhantam: Prasakthiyum Sadhyathayum (Contemporary Relevance Ancient Indian Poetics) and the monograph Indian Narratology are the products of Paniker, the historiographer. An earlier work A Short History of Malayalam Literature, which reveals the historian in him, is however not analyzed in this study. It cannot be called a substantial work for the simple reason that, as Paniker himself admits in the ‘Author’s Note’, in this brief layman’s account of the evolution of Malayalam literature over the past one thousand years, no attempt has been made to be exhaustive. Some authors and works had to be left out for want of space; and several authors briefly mentioned here deserve to be discussed in greater detail. The contemporary period has not been fully covered .. The compression of a thousand-year-old history into a book that runs to less than one hundred pages speaks volumes for his talent for brevity but hardly does justice to his finer critical skills.

Indian Sahithya Sidhantam: Prasakthiyum Sadhyathayum is an ambitious attempt at re-reading and assessing the power and relevance of several ancient Indian literary theories, like rasa, dhvani, anumana, aucitya, riti, guna, alamkara, vakrokti and so on, in the study of contemporary Indian as well as non-Indian literary works. In virtually every chapter, Paniker stresses that in questioning the significance and applicability of ancient Indian poetics, which is indeed the need of the hour, one should not lose sight of its essence but rather aim at transforming/contemporising it after taking into consideration the changes that have come over people, their lifestyles, perspectives, language, literary forms, relationships, family structures, social beliefs, customs, etc.

As to why this project is so essential, Paniker has a very clear reason to present — to repair the damage that British colonisation has inflicted on the continuous flow of Indian critical thinking and thus to set it back on smooth rails:

Through renewing Indian tradition, it may be possible

to resist the colonisation of imported theories and to

ideologically strengthen the opposition. A rejection of

foreign theories is not what is implied here. History teaches

us that India has always welcomed interaction with other

countries. But a foreign connection at the cost of one’s

own individuality may not do good to anyone. (1999,119)

(My translation)

But this desire to reform and reactivate ancient theories does not ever indicate a disproportionate respect for theories per se. Paniker’s approach to theory is essentially commonsensical and functional as is evident in his acknowledgement of its subsidiary position: it is the literary work that is important, not the theory that helps understand it. We should be prepared to correct theories in the light of creative works. It is through practical criticism that a theory takes shape and reveals its relevance’ (1999, 110).

However, in reviving an intelligent interest in Indian aesthetics, he does not pander to parochial interests. Instead, it comes out of a belief in the universal applicability of all theoretical insights:

Just as non-Indian theories are helpful in studying

Indian works also, Dravidian theories are helpful in

understanding and enjoying non-Dravidian literary works.

It is meaningless to limit their applicability by arguing that

theories, which take birth in the literature of a particular

language, are relevant only for works written in that tongue.

In their basic principles, literary theories can claim

universality, although many limitations may be found in

the finer details. (1999, 109-110) (My translation)

Having thus established the importance of Indian aesthetics. Paniker identifies two major factors that have contributed greatly to the decline of its popularity. One, most of our ancient theoreticians concentrated their attention almost exclusively on positing theories and thereby failed to explicate or illustrate them sufficiently. This has led not only to widespread misinterpretations and stereotyping of great creative writers but, tragically enough, to wrong assessments of the theoreticians’ own acumen. In Paniker’s view, the fact that an eminent Malayalam critic of contemporary times like Sukumar Azhikode should complain about how in most cases the literary examples, cited by the ancient theoreticians, ridicule their theory, is illustrative of this shortcoming (1999, 36). Two, most practitioners of ancient Indian aesthetics believed and continue to believe in the primacy of nomenclature. As a result, most so-called critical studies are mere inventories of the different rasas or ritis or alamkaras, etc. found either in a selected literary work or in a canon. Paniker believes that such a mechanical application of theory is counterproductive.

Criticism, to be truly worthwhile, has to be more analytical and almost as if to facilitate that process, he lists five essential values that a critic should bear in mind while approaching a literary work: one, he/she should avoid nursing pre-conceived notions regarding words, their usage, figures of speech, etc.; two, he/she should not decontextualise segments of a work when they are taken up for analysis; three, he/she should see the segments against the whole work; four, he/she should consider the aim of the work, its result, its intended reader, historical situation, literary movement, etc. while judging the merits or demerits of a work; and five, he/she should remember that in the field of art, the relevance of iconoclasm is relative, not authoritative (1999, 75).

It is easy to deduce from this quotation that Paniker’s concept of criticism does not preclude the component of value judgement. In fact, on numerous occasions, he spells out that evaluating the worth of a creative text is indeed one of the prime duties of a critic. (It must however be remembered that in his own role as a critic, Paniker preferred to flout this dictum. It was his practice to concentrate on the strengths and complexities of writers and their works and studiously avoid giving verdicts.) For instance, in his discussion of alamkaras, he opines:

Are guna and alamkara the same’? Is rasa one of the

alamkaras? How many alamkaras are there altogether?

A critic should treat such questions as meaningless and

realise that his responsibility lies in finding the relevance

of the alamkaras employed [in a work] and examining

whether they look clumsy or not. (1999, 86-87)

(My translation)

By the same token, the validity of a theory lies in its power to assist the reader in evaluating the quality of a work:

Why do we determine the form [of a work]?

Is it to give a name to a work and thus fetter it? It shouldn’t be

so. The use of any theory should fundamentally be aimed

at discovering a work’s enjoyability. We make use of a

theory in order to understand the greatness of a literary

work, to find out how it attained greatness and to explain

how that work can be savoured. If a theory does not yield

all these, it will be barren. (1999, 121) (My translation)

Ancient Indian literary theories, he underscores frequently, are not barren but they need to be popularised through easily available translations so that, through repeated and widespread application, they may reveal their powers and their limitations as well. Full-length studies of prominent works from the perspective of each of the theories, he believes, will help achieve this aim. It is in this context that Krishnan Rayan’s substantial contributions, in the form of four books – Suggestion and Statement in. Poetry, Text and Subtext, The Burning Bush and Sahitya — A Theory for Indian Critical Practice — come in for special praise: `These works are an excellent working model as well, that can be used by Indian scholars and teachers of literature’ (1999, 220).

Paniker is all appreciation for Krishna Rayan’s efforts to popularise the ancient theories of rasa and dhvani. Nevertheless, his mild criticism of Rayan’s methodology is a pointer to Paniker’s own ideas about what the responsibility of popularising actually entails:

Rayan, who never hesitates to make great claims for

the possibilities of the rasa and dhvani theories, does not

appear to mention the natural limitations or shortcomings

of such an approach. Perhaps the argument that this theory

is particularly relevant to modern literature itself contains

an unstated but unwittingly suggested indication that it may

not be equally relevant in other situations. (1999, 225)

(My translation)

Paniker himself is not driven by any jingoistic compulsions to turn a blind eye to the inadequacies of our ancient theories. His eclectic view would even recommend a familiarity with Western theories because at times they have the power to elucidate or complement their ancient Indian counterparts. The argument that a close reading of Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading will give deeper insights into Mahimabhatta’s anumana theory (1999, 58-59) is an instance of this catholicity. Interestingly, many of these features that go into the making of Paniker the historiographer find resonances in Indian Narratology as well. The primary purpose of Indian Narratology is to focus on the ‘quality and kind, the potential sweep of the Indian narrative imagination’ (2003 a, 1). But even within this rigid framework of presenting the ‘long and varied history’ of ‘the narrative in Indian languages’ (1), it is not difficult to see some strong gleams of Paniker’s critical acumen. Characteristically enough, the book begins with his explanation of its raison d’ etre. He observes that when one considers the ancientness, richness and variety of the Indian narrative tradition, the sheer absence of attempts to either chronicle its growth or map its ever-shifting contours seems glaring. Indian Narratology is an attempt to fill this lacuna.

The shouldering of this onerous and challenging responsibility however is not accompanied by any condescension or contempt towards earlier literary/ critical historians. Paniker seems to be only too aware of the odds working against them (and thereby, against himself). The most obvious obstacle on the way is the fact that many of Indian narrative practices have always had an oral tradition and they have been lost in the course of centuries. The second and more insidious roadblock is the parochialism of our peoples: The multiplicity of languages made the speakers of one language ignorant of the developments in other languages, and an obsession with regional loyalties also created darkness in the minds of the speakers of different languages’. Paniker’s opinion is that `tilt is time that Indian critics retrieved what was lost to them due to socio-political changes and recognised the value and worth of the extensive creative output of Indian narrators , even when they remain largely anonymous even today …’ (2003 a. 3). By implication, Indian Narratology humbly claims to be only one such step in this corrective mission.

Written as it is with an express intention to inform and to explain, the work exhibits the basic qualities Paniker has always been known and admired for — conciseness and clarity of thought and style. It is erected on a clear-cut frame — classification of the distinctive features of Indian narratology under ten separate heads, with each category presented in four steps: ‘definition, explanation, illustration and evaluation’ (2003 a, 3). All the ten chapters that allow adhere to this pattern unswervingly. And a feature that the reader of Indian Narratology is most likely to appreciate is Paniker’s use, consciously or otherwise, of different styles for each of the four sub-sections that constitute the individual chapters. Definitions are, more often than not, epigrammatic; explanations, elaborate and picturesque; illustrations, eclectic; and evaluations invariably non-judgemental.

Needless to say, it is the ‘explanation’ part, where he tries to connect a specific narrative method to general Indian culture and its most tangible manifestations, that is the most interesting section. For instance, when he explains the peculiar features of ‘Serialisation’, particularly its rambling structure, he brings in the analogy of Indian architecture, thus ensuring that the reader understands it fully and learns to differentiate it from the other nine forms of narrative styles:

The long narrative in India is reminiscent of the Indian

temple or palace architecture: there are many entrances,

many archways, many substructures, which give to

the whole structure a spatial extension: the mini temples

dedicated to minor deities or mini palaces occupied by

young princes or princesses or concubines reassure the

sumptuousness of the divine or royal splendour, but are

not essential parts of the central authority. They may be

vacant or disused or damaged, but that does not affect the

power of the presiding deity or royalty. The villages of

India too are structurally identical to this: they may look

ramshackle to the westerner who has his own idea of how

a well-kept rural set-up should be like. It is not that the

Indian village has no cohesiveness, but it is organised on a

very different idea of social cohesion and space

management. The episodic looseness of the Indian

narrative allows for variations in tone and style

in the middle of the work; even gaps are provided for as part of

the system; and wherever necessary, a song or dance or

variety show could be inserted to fill the gaps when it is

felt necessary. (2003 a, 7)

Such a graphic description, besides fulfilling its primary purpose, serves to caution those Indian critics and readers who, being ‘mostly brought up on western education’ and consequently ‘alienated from their own culture’ (2003 a, 2) tend to overlook or disregard the levels of literary and aesthetic sophistication achieved by ancient practitioners of art in India.

The ‘illustration’ section of Paniker’s methodology highlights his eclectic range. For instance, while detailing what he calls the Rg Veda model of cryptic narrative, he brings in examples from epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvasiyam, the Tamil classic Tirukkural by Thiruvalluvar, Jayadeva’s Gitagovirndam, the murals in Mattanchery Palace at Kochi, the musical compositions of Tyagaraja and Swati Tirunal and the sculpted figures in Ellora and Khajuraho. These narrative, pictorial, musical and plastic texts are however not merely inventoried. Relevant portions of most of them are quoted and their significance elaborated so that the readers can not only see how the same category can have various manifestations but also appreciate the extent to which the medium influences the form in each case. By choosing such a wide canvas in order to accommodate so many different examples, Paniker seems to be providing several conduits through which a serious reader can approach the cryptic narrative and savour its complexity. All the chapters follow a matching pattern.

He adopts a similarly reader-friendly approach in the ‘evaluation’ segment as well. In the chapter concerning the purana/saga narrative, he takes the stance of a professional cartographer who draws his map to scale in order to give the readers an accurate glimpse of its actual size. Alluding to the cosmic or encyclopaedic range of the purana, he deems it fit to substantiate his argument by using contemporary examples that are easily accessible to the modern reader:

. . . the Bhagavata model of the Puranic narrative is a very complex narrative structure, with ramifications in all directions. It combines several features which may be found in a number of individual western novels: some novels are philosophical, like those of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy; some mainly psychological, like those of D. H. Lawrence; some socio-political like those of Balzac or Hugo; some allegorical like those of Kalla or Orwell: but it appears the Puranic narrative combines all these into one. (2.003 a, 39)

While evaluations generally maintain a neutral and non-judgemental tone, they do not completely avoid a corrective role, especially when it is necessary to put things in their proper perspective. This is evident in his discussion of the ithihasa or the epic narrative. Referring to the ‘multiplex’ (2.003 a, 56) quality of the Mahabharata, Paniker mentions how this famous epic has been subjected to very reductivist readings, even by noted critics:

It is an epic of nature or of folk origin, an expression

of national destiny, evolved out of primordial experiences

and concepts, based on archetypes and the collective

unconscious of the entire community, mixing fact and

fantasy, mythology and history, insisting on an imaginative

reading and interpretation, rather than a logical and linear

reading or an anthropological interpretation as most

western scholars like H. H. Wilson or an archeological

one of Indian pundits like D. D. Kosambi. (2003 a, 56-57)

It is significant that he makes no attempt either to analyze why and how they made mistakes or to pillory them for doing injustice to the Indian epic. Nor is there any assumption either on Paniker’s part that he has read it in the right manner, comprehensively and minutely. Rather, the humble tone with which the chapter ends serves to indicate how the epic defies easy understanding: ‘Before that massive, stupendous, Himalayan work, critics and readers stand in awe and re

In the final analysis, the value of Indian Narratology will be acknowledged not merely for its classificatory and explanatory lucidity but also for the light it sheds on some of the mental attributes that have gone into forging Paniker’s persona as a critic. Chief among them is the cultivation of common sense as a dependable gauge for assessing the worth of both, idiomatically speaking, the wood and the trees. His views on the folk/tribal narrative are proof of this:

The tendency among the scholars dealing with folk or

tribal culture is to categorise it in a manner suitable to

their investigation and reduce it to a few stereotypes to

suit their convenience and fancy. The questionnaires they

use are themselves questionable and naturally produce

distorted images. This is true of most studies of tribal

narratives as well. In a sense, all art is at bottom tribal.

There is no reason to believe that the people now living in

the hills were not staying in the plains before they were

driven to forest shelter by the monster of civilisation.

Actually there is greater cohesion between art and life,

society and individual, abstract and concrete, work and

play, rational and irrational in the tribal consciousness. And

the study of the tribal narrative is part of the study of tribal

aesthetics/poetics. (2003 a, 121)

A second significant feature is his preternatural aesthetic as well as critical sensitivity that helps him maintain an open and non-dogmatic outlook throughout the work. This reveals itself in his ambivalent attitude towards every kind of classification: Every generalisation, including the present one, is at the best a half-truth; at the worst, a lie’ (2003 a, 160). While the method no doubt serves both to untangle several intertwined entities and acknowledge the special qualities of individual units, it invariably involves an element of brutality because the heavy grid of classification may not be able to hold some gossamery items without damaging their beauty or structure. Obliquely, perhaps Paniker is alluding to the tightrope walk he had to execute as a historiographer, balancing the interests of two opposing demands — comprehensiveness of approach and delicateness in handling. It may also be an invitation to the readers to join him in this scholastic exercise and play a complementary, if not corrective, role so that the study of Indian narratology that has remained neglected so long may be taken forward a meaningful manner.


In comparison with Interiorisation, Indian Sallithya Sidltantanr Prasaktitiyain Sadhyathayurn and Indian Narratology, Paniker’s Vyaktichitrangal, yaatradrishyangal (Portraits and Travel Scenes) may appear to fall into the intellectual lightweight category. As its title denotes, it is a compilation of thumbnail sketches of people he knew either personally or through their works as well as scenes that etched themselves in his memory as he travelled to various parts of India and the world. Nevertheless, its importance in Paniker’s critical canon cannot be ignored because nearly all the articles (totally thirty-six) — though unintentionally — present different facets of Paniker, the aesthetician. Despite his disclaimer, in the Foreword, that the pieces are not research articles as well as his statement that they should be considered only as simple, personal essays to be read against the times they were written in the book offers the readers several insights into the aesthetic concepts that operate in his enjoyment of art and the artistic principles he values highly.

For instance, his assessment of the most striking feature of the celebrated Malayalam poet Balamaniamma’s compositions conveys his conviction about the power of suggestion over statement in art:

What assumes importance in the writing of a poem is

not that which is directly visible. It is indirection which

reveals the secret of a poem’s suggestive power. Loudness

and hyperactivity is alien to Balamaniamma’s nature. But h

er poetic genius has the power to see and understand the

inner world of such characters and the pith of the poem

gains intensity through this mysterious process. Even when

the exterior appears devoid of emotions, the interior would

be seething with passion. The greasy wick that burns and

gets scorched has a tale to tell. Not in the loudest manner

possible, but in a very low voice, in a bass tone. A story

that reduces outer action and intensifies emotion but which

appears detached and pure. Thus, even after the story-

bird has climbed its perch and tucked its wings, we get the

impression that it is still aloft on the wings of its soul. The

graph of emotions depicted in Balamaniamma’s poems may

not register great fluctuations. But their suggestive power

remains unattainable to many other poets who are fuelled

by propagandist zeal. (2005, 7) (My translation)

Another artistic quality he admires in Balamaniamma is her deep and genuine empathy that leads to a sincere rendering of experiences. He discusses her small poem `Kulakkadavil’ (At the Pond side) and comments very appreciatively about how the poet is able to recreate pathos of a poor servant girl’s life, drowned in hard work and misery:

We have so many revolutionary poems! But how rarely

we see such a moving, sincere and compassionate picture

in our language! The poem attained such a dignity because

the poet could put herself in the place of the wrong-doer.

Self-justification is what other poets seek to do. (2005, 6)

(My translation)

Similarly, his essay on Vaikom Mohamed Basheer, indirectly underscores his views about originality in art and the factors that sustain it. The true greatness of a writer, in Paniker’s opinion, lies in his ability to avoid being stereotyped and to keep reinventing himself. Only this attitude will give birth to newer and substantial works. If a writer permits himself to become a cult figure, as Basheer did, he becomes ossified; his works become stale and repetitive. Paniker observes that the predictableness of Basheer’s stories in the second half of his literary career, as opposed to the sparkling newness and originality of the works of the earlier period – exemplified in Balyakalasakhi (The Childhood Friend), Viddhikalude Swargam (Fool’s Paradise), Ntuppuppakkuranendarnu (Me Granddad had an elephant) and Paathuininayude Aadu (Pathumma’s Goat) — was the result of his desire to pamper the readers’ wishes and satisfy their expectations. Paniker’s concept of a writer as a quintessential iconoclast finds no better and more effective expression than in his essay on Basheer.

Interestingly, the same principle applies to the creative wellsprings of critics as well. In a piece on the well-known Malayalam critic S. Guptan Nair, Paniker states:

Fortunately, Guptan Nair has not yet become a cult

figure. His creative powers continue to flow abundantly.

Precisely for this reason, he does not have to become a

cult. He has not lost the powers of self-criticism either.

As a result, there is no likelihood of hyperbole or

exaggeration breaking through those fortress walls. He

continues to be independent. It is when the creative juices

dry up that one becomes a cult. (2005,64) (My translation)

He brings in an example to substantiate this statement about Guptan Nair’s is spirit of independence and refusal to comply with popular demand until an urge came from within:

Fifty years back, when I requested him to write a

comprehensive study on Changampuzha [Kerala’s

foremost Romantic poet] he did not openly say ‘It’s not

time yet’. But when the time was ripe, he did it. To evaluate

one’s contemporaries is a difficult task. An unknown spirit

of partisanship leads even great people into wrong paths.

What saves Guptan Nair from such a mistake is his refusal

to let criticism reflect any bias. (2005,65-66)

(My translation)

It is easy to see that honesty to oneself and the strength to withstand the forces of public opinion are what Paniker regards as effective bulwarks against mediocrity and stagnation as much in the field of creative writing as of criticism.

A different shade of the same conviction appears in his review of the famous painter and sculptor M. V Devan’s book Devaspandanam. Commenting on the raw power of Devan’s creations. Paniker mentions that it is Devan’s closeness to real life experiences that gives his works such profundity:

The essay ‘Kerala Architecture: Some Thoughts’,

despite its casually-worded title, also contains several

things that experts in Kerala Culture should understand

deeply. It carries certain new calculations that textbook

writers should study and imbibe. There lies Devan’s

originality. He is not a mere essayist. We realise that

Devan’s thoughts on architecture are an integral part of

his views about art, derived from his comprehensive vision

of life. His method of distilling theory from practice is a

genuine one. Devan’s personal experience in each field —

an emotional experience which encompasses lines, colours,

figures, various styles, awareness of history and, above

all, a healthy attitude towards human life — imparts depth

and uniqueness to his approach. (2005, 55) (My translation)

When Paniker switches attention to a different genre altogether — autobiography — his set of readerly expectations are, understandably, vastly different from those that he demands creative writings to fulfil. Nevertheless, even when he wants an autobiographical text to be strictly and literally true to life (as opposed to the imaginative truthfulness of realistic literature), he d not look for a heavily denotative style because that would shut out the role readers altogether. Thus the challenge an autobiographer faces is a formidab one instead of filling up the entire narrative space with himself, he should re in his personality to make room for his readers as well. Paniker presents autobiography of Pavanan (a well-known journalist-writer in Kerala) as a instance of how this difficult task can be beautifully accomplished.

Pavanan’s autobiography has three major qualities that make it, Paniker’s reckoning, an example worth following. They are: one, an impressive control over his material so that it avoids descriptive bulk, self-praise and digressions; two, a balanced and fact-based approach towards his own life; and three, his sincerity and clear-sightedness. Mentioning in particular, Pavanan’s yen for presenting himself in a satirical light, Paniker remarks:

One cannot say that there is no logic in the question:

`Why should I write to ridicule myself?’ But Pavanan’s

work exemplifies the fact that the charm of

autobiographical literature lies in its aura of self-ridicule.

It helps to establish a rapport with the readers because

readers like the author who gives them an opportunity to

laugh at him; they scoff at and feel distant from him who

stands aloof and on a high pedestal. (2005, 77-78)

(My translation)

This statement, by underlying the need for the writer and reader to share a common platform for proper and effective communication to take place, comes very close to his theory that generation of meaning as well as aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art is possible only when the two link hands in a ‘joint enterprise’ (2003 b, 3).

Kavidarshanam is an equally interesting work which, from the point of view of tone and perspective, resembles the critiques of poets that find inclusion in Vyaktichitrangal, yaatradrishyangal. Though intended specifically as an anthology of serious assessments of at least seven of Kerala’s leading poetic voices, Kavidarshanam projects the aesthetician rather than the critic in .Paniker. It appears that his intention is not to read the selected poets from any known and established ideological standpoint, employing an exclusive set of critical tools as well as parameters. The focus seems more on releasing his subjects from certain rigid moulds that most earlier readers have tended to put them in. As he very clearly points out in the essay on Kunjiraman Nair:

When only one aspect of a poet is taken into

consideration and in the light of that aspect his/her poetry

is branded and pigeonholed, it is not the poet alone who is

adversely affected. The reader’s entire process of

comprehension is defeated. The argument is not that

Kunjiraman Nair is not a religious poet but rather, he is

not that alone. It should also be remembered that until

a particular poet’s uniqueness difference— intrinsic quality

— is understood, we do not comprehend him/her properly.

This is the reason why at least some people realise it is

high time the defects in the criticism of twentieth-century

Malayalam poetry were rectified. Besides, studies and

interpretations should be corrected in correspondence with

the changing and growing insights into every work.

Continuous correction expansion of knowledge — that is

the essence of criticism. When Balamaniamma is seen only

as a poet of motherhood, or G. Sankara Kurup as a mystic

only, or Kumaran Asan merely as a poet who opposed

casteism, or Vallathol solely as a celebrator of freedom,

it indicates a decline in awareness and aesthetic relish.

The readers realise this. Critics need to realise this too.

(2002, 46-47) (My translation)

Paniker’s assessment of the poet’s works paves the way for a more constructive re-reading of their individual vision. Thus, he provokes the sahridayas to see how Poonthanam Nambudiri in his famous Jnanappana (or the Song of Divine Wisdom) interiorises severe social criticism within its overtly religious garb and how the element of social criticism is a product of Poonthanam’s deep love for human beings (4-5). In his reading of Kunjan Nambiar, Paniker alludes to the sheer poetic skill of this acknowledged comic genius of Malayalam literature, a skill that could expertly insert tender emotions like fraternal and romantic love within the boisterous humour of the Thullal compositions (22). What is urgently needed in a future critique of Kumaran Asan’s poems, Paniker feels, is a renewed interest in an aspect that has virtually escaped critical notice so far, the incipient glimmerings of subaltern consciousness in works like `Duravastha’ (31-32). It is a similar motivating spirit that we find his evaluation of P. Kunjiraman Nair, Balamaniamma, Vailoppillil Sreedhara Menon and Edassery Govindan Nair — all included in Kavidarshanam.

On the surface, all the works analyzed in this study seem to be distinct from one another. Each has its own separate mission, launch pad, payload, trajectory and target. But beneath the seeming differences, it is not difficult for us to see a common thread linking them, i.e., the thread of certain beliefs Paniker has, regarding the requirements of great literature, about writers’ responsibilities, readers’ role and so on. Directly or otherwise, they betray his conviction that no literary text, however original its seminal ideas and however grand its dimensions, can live or grow without the intellectual intervention of its readers. And this is possible only if the artist is resourceful enough to build a structure with several hidden recesses, trapdoors, secret chambers and passageways that tease the readers into the interior, offers them promises of riches inside and fulfils his/her promise adequately. All the examples he showcases in Interiorisation, Kavidarshanam as well as Indian Narratology and many of those he chooses to discuss in Vyaktichitrangal, yaatraadrishyangal reveal a marked preference for such texts. Thus at one level, the three personae – the theoretician, the historiographer and the aesthetician – highlighting as they do, his artistic preoccupations, appear as the incarnations of Paniker the poet rather than Paniker the critic.


Jayakrishnan, N. `Ayyappa Panikerude Kavyalokam’ (AyyappaPaniker’s Poetic World), Vigyaanakairali 37.9, September 2006: 6-9.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation: A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious in Science and Art, New York : Dell, 1967.

Paniker, K. Ayyappa. A Short History of Malayalam Literature,2nd Edn. Thiruvananthapuram : Department of Public Relations, Government of Kerala, 1978.

. Akhyanakala: Siddhantavum Prayogavidhikalum (Art of Narration: Theory and Modes of Practice), Thiruvananthapuram : University of Kerala, 1993.

. Indian Sahithya Sidhantam: Prasakthiyum Sadhyathayun (Contemporary Relevance of Ancient Indian Poetics), Thiruvananthapuram State Institute of Languages, 1999.

. Kavidarshanam, Thiruvananthapuram : State Institute of Languages, 2002.

. Indian Narratology, New Delhi : Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in association with Sterling Publishers, 2003(a).

. Interiorisation (Antassannivesha): Essays on Literary Theory, Kariavattom : International Centre for Kerala Studies, 2003 (b).

. Vyaktichitrangal, Yaatradrishyangal (Profiles and Travel Scenes), Thiruvananthapuram : Cultural Publications Department, Government of Kerala, 2005.

Rayan, Krishna. ‘Ingrafting: A Response to the Theory of Interiorsation’, Samyukta 2004, IV. 1: 35-42.

Santhosh, 11. K., The White Ambassador,’ Malayalam 15 September 2006: 36-39.


P. RADHIKA. Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Currently she is UGC Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Kerala and Assistant Editor of Samyukta. Expereinced translator and critic. Has authored Story-teller to Visionary: Angus Wilson’s Narrative Craft.

Default image
Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Currently she is UGC Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Kerala and Assistant Editor of Samyukta. Expereinced translator and critic. Has authored Story-teller to Visionary: Angus Wilson’s Narrative Craft.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124