In his poem ‘Kavalam’ in the anthology ‘Pathumanippookkal’ (translated as Poetry at Midnight) Dr K Ayyappa Paniker makes a nostalgic reference to his ancestral home and its surroundings. The poem evocatively recreates from the distant past the rustic ambience of Kavalam, a part of the water-logged Kuttanad area where the main mode of conveyance used to be the ubiquitous row boat. ‘Before the road, the bridge and the cars came,’ the poem says, ‘the boatman had to be hailed from the other bank.’ During day-time visibility was good, but in the night one had to call out aloud.
‘The lone wick of the small lamp, at times,
Would reflect on the ripples as a long moving line.’
The poem is in the form of a conversation between two people, possibly the poet and his female companion, who wants to know if she is being taken to Kavalam in this fashion.
‘Is that the way you are taking me there?’
‘I want to go to Kavalam.
Want to see all the places.
The door of the log chamber, the central court-yard,
The river landing, the basil platform,
The school yard and the riverside.
Will I get a plot there?’ she asks and the poet’s reply is a counter-question:
‘Will it be sufficient to see the final resting place?’
Dr Paniker had set apart a plot of land on the western side of his ancestral family house, Olickal tharavad, at Kavalam twelve years before his death to serve as his final resting place. It was here that his body was brought from Thiruvananthapuram for cremation on August 24, 2006, a day after he died of complications arising from a prolonged lung disorder.
On the day of the funeral, after the last respects were paid and the body was consigned to the flames I looked around for the ‘mantaram’(Indian coral tree) and the ‘matalam’ (pomegranate) planted by his great grandmothers Laachi and Uppali fondly mentioned by him in his celebrated poem ‘Kudumbapuranam’ (Family Saga). I could not easily locate them as there was an abundance of trees and plants in the premises where he was laid to rest.
But the Thulasithara (basil platform), the central court yard, the river landing, the door of the log chamber and the school yard were unmistakable in their identity. They were there exactly as they had been conjured up in his poem ‘Kavalam.’
Dr Paniker probably had a premonition of his death much before he was admitted to the hospital. In fact he had tried to avoid hospitalization for long, to the point of resistance. He used to say that walking into the hospital was easy, but there was no guarantee that a person would walk out the way he walked in. Most probably he may have to be carried out.
Perhaps aware that death was stalking him, Dr Paniker had wanted to make many arrangements in regard to family matters and his literary pursuits much before he went into the hospital. In respect of the latter, one of the things he did was to ensure that his voice was preserved for posterity. He said there were video recordings of readings of some of his poems but a majority of the readings of his poems by himself was on audio tape. Since the tapes were not dependable and were liable to damage, he wanted all such recordings to be copied in compact disc format.
This was a slow process as he was not sure which audio cassettes in his vast collection contained the recordings. He and his second daughter Meena painstakingly went through the collection and came up with the wanted cassettes in twos and threes. Though readings of almost all of his major poems like ‘Kurukshethram,’ ‘Gothrayanam,’ ‘Passage to America,’ ‘Kadevide Makkale,’ ‘Mrithyupooja,’ ‘Dukhamo Sakhi,’ ‘Purushanallee Nee,’ ‘Hoogly,’ ‘Sarakoodam’ and many of the humorous poems were thus rendered to CD format, he was a little unhappy that the tape recording of one of his personal favorites, ‘Gopika Dandakam,’ could not be located initially.
In his vast and varied output as a poet Dr Paniker had dealt with almost every subject under the sun: life and death, love and marriage, friendship and enmity, science and technology, man’s follies and foibles, nature and environment and what not. As a social critic he was devastating in his sarcasm while as a torch bearer to the society he was at his illuminating best.
Death, in a way, finds a subdued presence in many of his poems, as in ‘Kavalam.’ Sometimes its treatment is somber and overt, sometimes matter of fact, sometimes plain funny, depending on the mood of the poet. In the ‘Epitaph’ that he had written for himself in a poem of the early 1980s he said :
‘Here lies the body of Mister Panicker
Who at the end of his panicking days
Agreed to lie still for a while.
It is not known what happened to his soul,
If indeed he ever had one.
He was not quite unlike anyone of us while he lived.
His flesh, to tell the truth, often revolted
And upset his delicate sensibility.
Space he could never control to his liking,
His sense of time, you know, wasn’t strong either.
He had of course in his wallet many a theory;
The things he could touch, however,
Told him a different story.
All his life he was patiently
Learning how not to live at all.
Who knows, perhaps
Given another chance
He might do a better job of it than before.’
Perhaps only Dr Paniker could look at himself and say like this. A consummate artist in the realm of comedy and sarcasm, he could entertain audiences or readers by poking fun at himself.
‘I had an enemy called Ayyappa Paniker,’ he says in another poem.
‘At times he tried to stare at me and frighten me.
When I stared back at him,
He might have felt frightened too.
Some day or other he is likely to come back.
Since he left I have been depressed
For want of someone to frighten.
Why should I frighten anyone
That doesn’t frighten me?’
In the early 1960s when he joined the University College at Thiruvananthapuram as a Lecturer in English, Dr Paniker had already achieved fame as the main voice of modernism in Malayalam poetry. His celebrated poem ‘Kurukshethram,’ that sought to re-define poetic sensibilities by freeing poetry from its romantic mould, had been published by then and was being hotly debated in literary circles. His students had looked upon him with awe as they realized that they were in the presence of intellectual brilliance. Apart from being one of the best teachers whose erudition knew no bounds, he had the aura of a pioneer of a significant literary movement.
In ‘Kurukshethram,’ among other things, he had made a clarion call for change, in the sensibilities as in everything else:
The varied visions of a heaven on earth
Grow dim, 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 re-mould
The world around
Nearer to the heart’s desire.’
While ‘Kurukshethram’ marked a watershed in Malayalam literature, something that provided the impetus for change, Dr Paniker did not stop with his experimentation with it. He did not stick to any given formula for writing and continued to evolve his style in everything that he wrote, whether it is ‘Mrithyupooja,’ ‘Gothrayanam,’ ‘Passage to America,’ ‘Kudumbapuranam,’ Pakalukal Rathrikal, Soorajmukhi, or the ‘cartoon poems’ or nonsense verse. And he touched upon every subject one could think of, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the advent of space travel that opened up new vistas for technological innovation and ingeniousness to the pleasures of scratching an itch.
When Yuri Gagarin of the erstwhile Soviet Union ushered in a new era of space travel, it upset the prevailing notions of time and space. Dr Paniker had a poetic response to such an epochal event. In his celebrated poem ‘Hey Gagarin’ he said
‘Hey Gagarin, space traveller,
I come, a wayfarer, get off my tracks.
Yield today to my mortal concerns,
To my poetic fancy,
To my creative urge
Before you measure out
All these expanses….’
He also called upon his fellow poets to
‘Grow new wings to catch up with science
Across the recesses of the outer space.
The pioneers have unfurled their flags on the heights;
Break you your idols and bless yourselves.
Nothing is empty anymore, nothing is outside of us;
The whole universe is filled with subtle sensations.
Where is our telescope, where our thermometer?
Brandish the torch, fulfill the urge to create,
Cut off the barriers of time and space,
Keep the spirit ablaze that will burn up
Every trace of death dealing darkness.
His longest poem, ‘Gothrayanam’ is considered by many as epochal and as one of the best poems he had written. Crafted in the form of exhortation of a tribal leader to his followers before setting out on a long, hard and obstacle- ridden voyage to find a new place for settlement, the poem is seen as the story of the Aryan migration to the south-- the search for Aryavarta, the abode of Aryans.
‘Naale suryanudikkumpol namangottu purappedum...
We begin our journey thither
at sunrise tomorrow.
Set out our right foot first,
not forgetting the left.
Keep eastbound our eyes
but do follow the mind.
Every sorrow that unfolds
adds to our stock.
Once we set out, our feet
should not falter,
And not a moment’s rest till
that far, far land is reached.
The clan leader gives them elaborate advice on every aspect of the journey: what to take and what not to take, how to go forward with determination, how to tackle the umpteen obstacles they may encounter on the way. In a metaphysical sense the journey is life itself and the poem enshrines the courage and the fortitude with which man faces and subdues obstacles and heroically overcomes sufferings.
It was just two years before his death that Dr Paniker brought out his last anthology, Pathumanippookkal (Poetry at Midnight) which marked a definite shift in his writing style. Here is a chain of 62 poems, a continuous dialogue between two people, the writer and ‘friend,’ who alternately take male or female forms. Lyrical, sensuous and sometimes metaphysical, many of the poems depict the protagonist and friend as prakriti and purusha, showing the yearning of the masculine and feminine for not only physical but spiritual union.
The best example of this is in the poem Innale Ninne Njan... (Yesterday I did Not)
Yesterday I did not see you or hear you,
Yesterday I did not touch you or prod you
When you were sleeping with your eyes closed
Did not come to you to rouse you with a kiss.
Did not re-arrange the bangles on your wrist
Or caress the toe-ring on your foot.
Did not stroke the tip of your saree
Or sing to you any youthful melody.
Did not inhale the fragrance of the flower buds
On your breast or wet your lips with the tongue........
But what is my memory today is the
Sweet remembrance of finding
A space in panchakosha yesterday,
Not anna maya or prana maya,
Mano maya or vignana maya, but the two
Of us fused together in the spiritual sheath
Of ananda maya, like bliss that was brimming over.
Another poem that likewise brims with sensuousness is Youth in which the aged protagonist yearns for a return to his youth at least for one year. Once that is enjoyed he does not mind succumbing to Death.
For one more year
Give me my youth.
Who is the master of all life on earth?
Let him bestow on me a new youthfulness.
I am not content yet with the flowers and fruits
That give sweetness to my zest and lust.
If not for one year, for one year more
Give me my sensual youth.
After that it is vanaprastha.
But till then let me have a fresh youthfulness.
It is not yet time to put out the fire in my gut,
So let it be a dam burst of resurgent youth.
His prayer is:
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 anthology also gives a new definition of the poetic craft. Dr Paniker defines it as a dialogue.
‘Good poetry is conversation,’ he says in Conversation, the end piece of the anthology, as though giving his last word on the matter.
Good poetry is conversaion.
Sometimes only one person speaks
That is the enduring characteristic of poetry.
Dr Paniker, for a long time the Director of the Institute of English of the Kerala University, had always been considered as a world citizen in the true sense of the term. Apart from having his doctoral studies and post-doctoral research in the United States, he had frequently travelled to many parts of the world, attending international poetry conferences and camps, giving lectures and projecting Malayalam poetry at all such world fora. He had also utilized those occasions to imbibe the best of their literary traditions. There is a distinct segment of his poetic output that deals with his experiences and observations in those countries.
But wherever he went, he carried with him the ever fresh images of the village where he was born. He was a world citizen in outlook, but a Kavalam villager at heart. It was a relationship he could never snap even if he wanted to. His nostalgic longings for his village have found best expression in ‘Kudumbapuranam,’ that traces the history of the family from the times of his great grandmothers. In perfect word pictures he tells the stories of Laachi and Uppali his great grandmothers, of maternal uncle Kesava Panicker, a heroic figure who pioneered cultivation of paddy in the waterlogged Kuttanad, of Sardar K M Panicker, a close relative who achieved fame as one of the most distinguished administrators and diplomats of the country. Apart from the tales of such leading lights of his family and the village, the poem also tells us, in the manner of gossip, tales of many of the village folk, such as that of hunchback Janaki and how her hump was straightened by neighbour Kittan though it was Raman who got a bad name.
Nostalgic references to his village have been made in many other poems as well. In ‘The Village’ in Pathumanippookkal’ (Poetry at Midnight), he says:
‘Now when you go to your village hereafter,
You should meditate for some time
In the incense burning memory chamber.
A river, a river bank and some men.
You take this picture with you.
To villages not like this
You take along these village memories as well.’
And his village memories would remain with him as he was laid to rest in the village from where he started on his long global journey.
Dr Ayyappa Paniker: A Biographical Note
Awards: Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Poetry, 1975,
Kalyani Krishna Menon Prize, 1977,
S P C S Award. 1978,
Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Criticism,1984,
Central Sahitya Akademi Award for Poetry, 1984,
Distinguished Teacher Award, 1990,
Mahakavi Kuttamath Award for Poetry, 1990,
Mahakavi Ulloor Award for Poetry, 1990,
Samastha Kerala Sahitya Parishath Award for Poetry,1993,
Kabir Samman. 1996-97,
Indira Gandhi Memorial Fellowship, 1997,
Gangadhar Meher National Award for Poetry,1998,
Asan Prize(Chennai), 1999,
Panthalam Kerala Varma Award, 2002,
Vallathol Award for 2004,Padmashree 2004,
Sanjayan Puraskaram, 2005,
Saraswati Samman, 2006 and
Mahakavi P Kunhiraman Nair Award, 2006.
Born: Sep 12, 1930 at Kavalam,Kuttanad. Studied at Malabar Christian Ccollege, Kozhikode, and University College,Thiruvananthapuram. MA Phd from Indiana University in the United States. Lecturer in English at the CMS College, Kottayam, University College, Thiruvananthapuram and Institute of English, Thiruvananthapuram. Later Director and Head of the Department of the Institute of English. During 1980-81 did post-doctoral research in the Harvard and Yale Universities. Had served as Chief Editor of Central Sahitya Akademi’s compilation ‘Medieval Indian Literature.’
Works: Ayyappa Panikkarude Krithikal -4 volumes. Indian Renaissance, A Perspective of Malayalam Literature, Indian Narratology , Mayakovisky’s Poems (Translation), Cuban Poetry (Translation), Guru Granth Sahib (Abridged Translation).