Keywords: romantic poetry, Malayalam poetry, Kurushetram, modernism, Malayalam translations

Ayyappa Paniker came to be counted as one of the most notable poets in. Kerala after the publication of Kurukshetram’, the first modernist poem in Malayalam. Kurukshetram’ is central in Paniker’s oeuvre and is the most hotly debated of his works. The poem challenged accepted notions of Malayalam poetry and modern life and is aeons away from the sentimental romantic poetry of the Changampuzha school. Nothing is explicit in ‘Kurukshetram’, for everything is mediated through myth and symbol. Through the poem’s proliferating associations, connections and comparisons, meaning in Bakhtin’s terminology is ‘centrifugal’ (dispersed) rather than ‘centripetal’ (centralized).

The poem has been translated into many Indian and foreign languages. In the year 2000, DC Books, the most prominent publishing house in Kerala, brought out a 300 page volume called Kurukshethram 2000 containing studies of the poem and its translations into English, Hindi, Tamil, French and Spanish. The poem that has been the subject of great critical attention is a work 4294 lines, divided into five segments.

‘Kurukshetram’ is the first poem of Paniker with a definitive thematic significance. The epigraph with which the poem begins is taken from the Bhagavad-Gita. The poet K. Satchidanandan has summed up the poem beautifully in the afterword to Days and Nights. He writes:

‘The first section of the poem introduces the ontological

anguish shared by Arjuna and Abraham alike and

inherited by the modern man in his Hamlet — like

trepidations. The second points to the futility of the

philosophical systems invalidated by the burning reality

of existence. The third contrasts the phenomena of

experience with the archetypes of the imagination and

rejects contemporary moral standards as stale and

unrealistic. The fourth expresses a kind of metaphysical

surrender to the illusion of existence of which we are mere

observers; the concluding filth section rejects even the

solace of mystery…’

Almost all responses to `Kurukshetram’ begin with the critics’ awareness of the looming shadow of ‘The Waste Land’, particularly as Paniker is the translator of Eliot’s poem into Malayalam.

Commenting on the `Ketrukshetram’ in his article entitled ‘Kurukshetropaghyanam’, the poet says that he took about six to seven years to write the poem. More than any other work that the poet had written, this poem had a long incubation in his workshop. The countless revisions, edition and the care the poet had lavished to sharpen and polish his words to perfection is evident in the most cursory of readings. In the article, that allows the reader the perspective of Daedalus, the poet reveals the context of the poem and talks of the places that he had lived in during these years ranging from Kottayam where he worked in C. M.S. College, his frequent trips to his sleepy village of Kavalam, to his short stint in M. G College and his longer stint in Trivandrum. He records that the very first lines that he had written is part of the first section but occurs only in the fifth stanza of the poem:

‘When the sun at break of day

sheds his gentle golden rays

on the world beneath,

with their double braid of lovely hair

and smiling faces fanned in shawls,

the little girl runs fast…

Tell me, Sanjaya, what my sons and the sons of Pandu did,

when they gathered on the sacred field of Kunikshetra eager for battle.

The Bhagavad Gita


where the horizon dips,

hurled out of the bowels of the steaming Void,

awake O star in the cerulean blue!

Quicken the flow of blood and the beat of the pulse.

O star in love with life, cast your gaze on the earth beneath,

sweep your glance on this stage

where we ply our mortal lot!

Do you not hear the mute voice of our grief?

Let drops of light fall from your eyes like tears!

See us

caught in the labyrinth of our daily grind:

this crowded market

where we plunge and push and outsmart

to gain each our end

this is the world as we style it.

And here they come,

come to buy and come to sell;

themselves they buy and themselves they sell,

in human souls they deal!

The eyes suck and sip

the tears that spurt;

the nerves drink up the coursing blood;

and it is the bones that

eat the marrow here,

while the skin preys on the bones.

The roots turn carnivore

as they prey on the flowers

while the earth in bloom

clutches and tears at the roots.

Look, look at this earthly sphere

where we walk our wonted ways.

On the patterned floor

sanctified by ritualistic lore,

down the cool gleams of vestal lamps

trickles the voice of human grief:

Give us our happiness, oh Lord!

Give us our happiness.

These acute geometrical spike-like spires

of church and mosque and temple

that rise against the sky

toss and tear in glee

the heart of the mortals that throng this earth.

And the hordes of the devout

deftly tear the eyes out of their sockets

and fix in their stead the lenses of faith.

Across the figure of the cross

gleams the keen and angry look

of the blind fanatic, chanting the gospel.

The order of faith

issues in a sterile flood, boiling hot,

in these centres of the devout.

In the theatre that is cleaned

Life like a surgeon works.

Here the priestly order

like aproned doctors move;

and these nuns and sisters,

these youthful nurses,

trail the doctors true.

As though all wakeful sins

would be wiped off soon

at the foot of the cross,

the course of mortal life

inches along in agony:

trail, Mary!

Full of grace…

Blessed art thou among women!

When the sun at break of day

sheds his gentle golden rays

on the world beneath,

with their double braid of lovely hair

and smiling faces framed in shawls,

the little girls run fast.

Before the hour of darkness

comes evening

like a drowsy river:

even so,

the girls glide along,

clad in their flowing skirts.

And here are the mothers going by

who in the strength and purity

of their passion of maternity

bring to the brooding soul

the fervour and warmth of the sun at noon.

Here like sombre clouds of darkness

that spread over the earth at midnight

hobble and stagger grey and withered crones.

Here where the passionate souls

pulsate in their bodies

and lusty youth tear past

and even death steps aside

before this onrush of the mortal stream,

why is the quiet voice of grief

continually swelling by?

Inside the church of faith,

inside the fortified wall,

in their black robes

the priestly order stand;

And like souls in torment

tremble, dwindle, and waste.


When the devouring flames of fire and, light.

erase the last traces of the dark blue clouds,

and civilization closes its eyes,

my soul wilts.

Do you who read this know it,

or don’t you?

Caught in the labyrinth of dreams fleeing

at the mercy of demented Time and Space

that play at hide-and-seek

with the burden of festering visions

trailing a bundle of fading memories

which I deftly tie up

in a fetch of crackling shroud

and dandle like a suckling babe,

and put to the deeps of slumber now;

and tongues of flame

of sullen red and amber bright

lick and wipe these corpses that lie quiet;

and out of the cradle

the ghosts of memory

like children in sleep

toss and turn

ready to wake with a start

like buried seeds sprouting in spring.

Out of the star-strewn sky

comes this backwash of music

to lull the senses to sleep.

And the tall palm trees

stretch their skeletal fingers athwart the

blue and glassy air

to plunder and pocket the blue of the skies.

Out of this watery lake

which the volcanic sun roils to its depths

spirals of steaming vapour dart and leap

and on the surface of this still-vexed lake

spread circles concentric and endless

that swell and break, into larger and larger

tidal waves.

Like this still-vexed lake with its ever receding shore

the movements of the mind foam and fret,

resting not, ceasing never.

In the atom split

in the dynamics of nuclear fission

is mirrored

the design of all these multiplex spheres

that move in the naked air above.

The melody simmering in the veins

reflects the pattern of the world

arising from the clash and clasp

of Being and Becoming.

My soul too does rage like a star

caught in the grip of the nuclear dance

that drums the singing blood to a wild ecstasy.

Do you who read this know it,

Or don’t you?

Rose of my dream,

why do you wear the fevered look?

Singer of my vision,

why do you droop and wilt?

Dear soul, have you forgotten

the hopes that visited us

in the time of your ample innocence?

Do you forget, dear reader,

the grief that fills us both?

The groundlings hold the stage now

with their derisive laughter.

Have you too

gone over to their side?

When life knocks at the door,

who is this that talks

like a wily trickster

of that Which Is and Is Not

turning the vedantic wheel?

A thousand questions rear their heads,

and who, pray, can shoot them off?

The womb that breeds them

cannot still prophesy

the events yet to be.

Behold the naked air aloft!

You see the nude stars

caught in a tangle of arms and limbs,

locked in the curl and coil of a blinding lust;

and in the soft and luminous

ambience of the moonlit night

the earth sighs and the buds burst open,

the very air grows odorous.

Inside the shut and locked door,

behind the curtained window,

in the privacy of closed chambers,

the torments of dream, desire, and despair

make the soft air and the silent night

quiver like souls in pain;

and the blood-red blossoms on many a lurid stem

wet their parched lips

with the crystal drops

shaken down from their own shuffle of

stems and leaves;

a pair of stars, alien and unbeknown,

fly to each other’s arms.

Inside the convent walls

that so well serve like a fortress

and in the bosom of the family

which circumscribes like a cage,

the visions of youth

and the desires of love,

bloom and fade in succession

the dead hopes of a forgotten past.

And athwart the circumambient void

an expiring meteor hurtles to the earth beneath;

and this sphere of ours

turns on its self-driven axis.


On these skeletal crags

that dot this earth,

in mortal guise you traversed by:

why? Was it your vengeful spirit

that drove you to prey

on the life of him who ruled

the isles of Lanka?

Or, was it, like a hapless mortal,

to lose your destined spouse?

Could human intellect

pause, consider, amd mark off

this is Sugriva and that Vibhishana?

Could even Vasishta, that master of the Laws,

perpend this question, and give the answer meet?

And weighed in the balance,

after all the talk,

what was the bargain struck

what could Rama claim

as the mark of his life here on earth?

Time isn’t a lying jade, I believe,

the cunning dialectics of even the world-

renowned Chanakya

wilts before the bright mockery

of a blade of grass

that a mere curl of fire and smoke

could so well destroy.

On the field of battle

crying for justice

with streaming eyes

Arjuna heard the Gita;

but that Arjuna I am not.

In this earthly sphere

in the similitude of a nest of pain

I greet the living hour.

Fearful secrets and pent-up passions,

passing strange,

crawl and slither

in the dungeon of the heart,

sombre and dark.

And although at the crossroads afar off

I dealt a mortal blow

to him that begot me,

and her I ravished

who nursed me as a suckling babe,

these are the strange music of my pulse

caught in the coil of

my tormented spirit.

Sage Vyasa knew the truth

and one day, while at table,

illumined the soul of Vidura of old.

Since then endless sleep has supervened,

and all the gods gone to sleep,

till myths and fables come that way

to wake them up!


Fade and begone

you, memories of cast iron,

withered dugs of a battered dame!

Shades of darkness

and shadows as well

bless this earth with darkness and light

and thus they work

the ply of day and night,

turn and turn about

like the two shutters of a door

that open and shut

and shut and open

alternately for days on end

till they both are together shut

never to open again.

By that time

our dreams too shall fade

into the folds of forgetfulness.

Like a wave of rapture,

like a single faith for this vexed world,

in that brief season of my innocence

when zero-wise I moved in light and freedom,

then indeed your eyes grew soft and warm,

and you took in hand to chart and pilot

the course ahead,

A prop for the aged,

a symbol of love for the young

a kiss for the tender lips,

all through the revolving years

your beams enlivened the world around;

this earth of ours

was, then, emparadised:

but why do these twin eyes

that had witnessed all this

now sit in the porch of oblivion and grin?

Will not the heaven we foresaw

ever come into being?

Can the banks of this world

yield a better return?


like the gleams of a broken dream,

the wrecks of a dissolving faith

mock at the living hour;

they grin and hoot at whoever mounts the dais,

and force the meeting

to a ludicrous close.

Around us

the varied visions of a heaven on earth

grow dim, and dwindle, and die;

what avails the journeying spirit

in its onward march?

What can self sustain?

Let us, then,

move into a new frenzy

and wage an endless fight

to shape and remould

the world around

nearer to the heart’s desire.

Our own hands must trace the route ahead;

our own eyes decide where the feet should go.

Unable to distinguish

that which is before

and that which is behind,

we face a thousand questions.

Plunge into the fray, shall we?

Or, be content with whatever delights

the living moment promises.

Let us not, then,

put our trust in Time that nibbles

at events which seem to flatter our vanity.

Like a mother’s wealth of affection,

this world invites us

to a thousand bonds of delight.

And death we shall court

for the sake of that passion

that taught us to love one another,

even as the spirit thrills

to the concord of sweet music,

and ecstasy shakes our life to the root.

When this game of Right and Wrong is on,

we shall enter the world of oblivion,

singing and rejoicing.


out of the white seeds of fire

hurled down by the sovereign sun

and plunged into the womb of the sea,

days are born anew;

Time that within a moment

annihilates time

erects this dome of desire endless,

out of every act and deed,

out of all those truths of life,

that in a vision held out for view,

both beauty and terror.

All these, sculpted

into the fabric of mortal desire,

stay still and spike the air.

Here at the crossroads

as time lengthens,

let us watch and witness

like wayfarers

this fabric of life,

so like a dream

erected by Time.


In the uncertain course of this world

where we together rise and set,

these tents and these tombs

bed us a little while

in this fugitive sphere.

The time we spent in

friendly camaraderie

is the sum of happiness

gained; this much I know;

this, after all, is all that life means.


although you be a star,

I greet in you the very seat

that holds the warmth and fervour

of my affection and love.

To me you have bequeathed

strange and visionary dreams never thought of,

made me speak a language I never learned,

granted me an heir by a grace I barely touched.

O star, you burn in the high heavens,

so my blood drip and the world awaken to life!

We throb and pulse

with the rhythm of life,

and driven to each other’s arms,

by the force of desire and love

we create anew this joy.

At the twilight time of my life

that is full like the sounding sea,

when that rhythm and that joy

make themselves felt

and the flames of a burning rapture

leap across all Time and Space,

when that hour is come,

will these varied spheres

hearken to the harmony

we have together evoked?

When I sow my thought in you,

putting the holy seed within,

the living light shall grow and ripen

to a smile through you

in the fullness of time

when we are gone.

Children of goodwill

shall once again walk this earth

and cherish visions of sweetness;

bright and new-fledged stars

shall light the heavens above,

when we and the world for us are annulled

and beneath this then different sky,

the curtain drawn on the stage of time,

be adventure of human endeavour

shall bring delights still undreamt of.

Today we know each other,

today we converge.

Under the vast, expanding skies,

out of smouldering bowels of time

in the intense heat of the earth’s interior,

the roots break their shells,

and sprout into suckling birds,

the message of my eyes

and the compassion of your rays unite,

and your love buds into blossom into fruit into seed.

At the time

when this spectral world,

all through the seven spheres,

was lost in slumber

and riven by nightmares

and lay insensate,

when, shouldering the load of human pain,

I waged the battle of the spirit at Wardha,

When, on my mission of peace, I trod the

streets of Noakhali,

what had you to say

on good and evil?

When the subtle dialectics of the intellect

lay quiescent,

breathed there a mortal

who could cook this vedic lore?

And do we have to fry it with mustard?

All that philosophy

with its varied schools of thought

could do

is, I think,

to arrest a splintered gleam

of the primal cause, that

sustains whatever we feel and perceive.

Schools of speculation dazzle the eye;

they cannot trap the bird in the air.

The forced mating of cause and effect

which all the lessons of philosophy flaunt

is the discord that stifles

the voice of the spirit,

the vile cacophony

that tears the air

and breaks the music.

While yet we know this in our veins

in the prolonged stillness around,

who, pray, hies to the sacred Bodhi tree

for the torch that will cast the needed light?

If the soul is illumined

who has to speak

of the Mount of Calvary

If indeed for a rare moment

we could all just human be…

If only we could redeem

the visions that hurtle

through our dreaming soul…

Translated from Malayalam by Nakulan

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