The poet who most clearly symbolizes the poetic revolution in the first quarter of the 20th century is Kumaran Asan. His early discipleship of Sri. Narayana Guru and his Sanskrit studies at Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta were important influences on his poetic development. The three and a half years he spent outside Kerala provided him with a kind of broad outlook and deep sensibility which would perhaps have been impossible if he had stayed at home. A deep moral and spiritual commitment became part of Asan’s personality and when after a spell of writing devotional poetry he turned to secular themes, he could produce something without any precedent in the language. Veena Poovu (A fallen flower, 1907) combines the lyrical and the elegiac with the romantic. Yet the relaxed discipline of a classical training was always there to add a deeper tone to his close investigation of the meaning of life as seen in the brief career of a flower. The infinite delicacy of touch in passages like the following was rare in Malayalam poetry at that time (Translation by G. Kumara Pillai).
The mother-plant with loving care
Enfolded your infant charm in calyx soft;
The gentle breeze came rocking you to sleep
To the lullaby of the murmuring leaves.
Your lovely body told a moving tale
Of golden days of fulfilled youth;
Your days were brief, and yet so rich and full;
You had your woes; and yet your mind was steeped in joy.
The same close attention to detail may be found in all his poems, which authenticates and thereby enhances their spiritual glow. Asan did not try to write a neoclassicist mahakavya: instead he specialized in the narratives of middle length. Nalini (1911), Leela (1914), Chintavishtayaya Sita (1919), Duravastha (1922). Chandalabhikshuki (1923) and Karuna (1923) are eloquent testimony to Asan’s powers of poetic concentration and dramatic contextualization. Occasionally the call of social pressures lured him to try a different strain, as in “Reflections of a Thiyya Boy”:
Why shouldst thou wail, then, O Bharat?
Thy slavery is thy destiny, O Mother!
Thy sons, blinded by caste, clash among themselves
And get killed; what for is freedom, then?
Asan is often described as the poet of love: many writers have written about love, but Asan’s love is of a transcendental kind and in poem after poem, Nalini, Leela, Chandalabhikshuki, he demonstrates it. For him it was identical with ultimate and absolute freedom, as he explains it in “The Song of Freedom”. In Sita his reflections on love turn a bit bitter as the situation perhaps deserves it. In Duravastha it achieves a slight transformation, since he tries to seek love’s meaning in terms of contemporary reality. It is set against the historical background of the Moplah Rebellion, but Asan the poet is basically concerned with the establishment of the idea that all men belong to the same caste and same religion, as he was taught by Sri.Narayana Guru. Here is a representative passage from Duravastha which reveals the social reformer and prophet in Asan:
Wake up, O you gardeners,
Wake up and toil, spring is at hand.
In this garden enriched by beautiful blossoms
On high boughs and low,
Remember there is not a single flower
Which does not delight the Lord.
Come forward ---
And replace the laws,
Or else they are sure to displace you.
There is a raging wind
Unceasingly reverberating with this utterance in today’s Kerala.
Time from all the four directions declares the self-same thing
And even the earth beneath your feet resounds with the din of unrest.
Asan as poet was a great synthesizer. He wrote two major poems on Buddhist legends; Chandalabhikshuki and Karuna (Compassion). They were his last works, written before his untimely death in 1924. Love, Freedom and Equality are his basic concerns. The last lines of Karuna sum up all these in concrete, context-based terms:
Salutations to thee, O Upagupta; without getting lost in
‘nirvana’ come back again to serve the world.
Mother Earth today needs more of such sons as you whose compassion reaches the lowliest and lost.
Asan’s career illustrates in full the changes that were taking place in the Malayalam poetry of his time. His earliest works were mainly hymns employing Sanskritized diction and Sanskrit metres. With Veena Poovu (1907) his sensibility registers a change: the diction is simplified, and although Sanskrit metres are used, they have a closeness by now to the easy and flowing Dravidian metres. The pessimistic note is replaced by a more strident note in some of the later poems. The use of a focal character-most of such characters are women like Nalini in Nalini and Sita in the poem named after her-as protagonist helps to dramatize the whole experience of the poem. In the shorter poems and in Prarodanam, an elegy with a splendid and resonant orchestration, the style fluctuates, but in his last three poems Dravidian metres are used, the diction is simple and natural. Karuna is the culminatingpoint of this trend.
Kumaran Asan forms one of the poetic trinity of modern Malayalam literature, along with Ulloor and Vallathol. Unconventional in religion, reformist in social outlook and original in interpretation of philosophical truths in literature, he is sure to inspire and delight generations of readers yet to be born. He has done such work in literature as posterity will not willingly let die except at a very heavy cost to the glory and greatness of its own cultural heritage.
Asan was a revolutionary in poetry, social outlook and religion. His birth in a backward Ezhava family in central Travancore had sealed his social rank and therefore, the doors of religious writings in Sanskrit were shut against him. Neither could time-honoured custom allow, nor would deep-rooted casteism suffer, his thirst to become well-versed in the lore of Hindu religious and philosophical writings to be quenched. To think of it, was a sin and to attempt it, a crime which was visited by severe social persecution. Yet he decided to outstep the barriers of convention and move out of traditional obscurantism into the lime-light of cultural refinement. It was, no doubt, a bold bid to lay siege on the citadels of a caste-ridden social structure which called for a rare calibre of action coupled with an unflinching devotion to the aim in view. And in this, Asan was greatly inspired and encouraged by no less a person than Sri.Narayana Guru, a great sage and visionary of this age.
Asan was born on April 12th 1873 at Kayikkara village, about 30 miles to the north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father was Narayanan whose principal occupation was trading in coir, copra, etc. He was well read in Malayalam and Tamil and was endowed with good taste in music. Asan’s mother Kali Amma was a typical rustic woman with no formal education. But she had cultivated familiarity with puranic stories which she used to narrate to children in the village.
Kumaran (or Kumaru, as he was known in family circles) went to school at the age of 7. After a year’s study there, he became the disciple of the great Sanskrit scholar Kochurama Vaidyan under whom he studied “Sidhanta Kaumudi”, “Amarakosa”, “Sriramodanta”, “Krishna Vilasa” and “Raghuvamsa”, which were customarily the works taught to the young. A year or two later Kumaran joined the primary school started by the Government in the village and continued his studies for three years. He was appointed as a teacher in that school at the age of 14. But he could not continue his services there for official reasons.
By this time Kumaran had developed a taste for reading, which he satisfied by making use of every opportunity that came his way. His keen desire to continue studies led to his joining a Sanskrit school at the age of 16. From this time onwards he became a serious seeker of knowledge. He composed verses and got them published in local journals and periodicals. After about two years of study which included “Magham”, “Naishadham”, “Sakunthalam” and Kuvalayanandam”, celebrated works on poetics, he left the school for good, at the age of 18.
What marked a turning point in the life of Asan was his coming under the influence of Sri.Narayana Guru, the spiritual leader and social reformer of the socially and educationally backward community, Ezhava. The Guru was so much impressed with the precociousness of Kumaran that he predicted a bright future for his disciple. As a matter of fact the association between Sri.Narayana Guru and Kumaran became mutually beneficial and contributory to the fulfilment of each other’s mission in life.
Kumaran was deeply interested in Tamil and Sanskrit. His poetic sensibilities found expression in a few devotional lyrics in Malayalam, like ‘Subramania Sathakam’ and ‘Bhakthavilapam’. Like every other novice in the art, he too began writing poems on themes of erotic love. Most of those early compositions are today extinct, probably swept away by the tide of time, though some of them still live on the lips of his boyhood contemporaries. The Guru was immensely pleased with his diligent versification and gave him great encouragement to continue his labours in the vineyard of literature. But at the same time he warned Kumaran against the pitfall of choosing erotic themes for his poetry. No wonder the love Asan treated in his major works like “Leela” and “Nalini” has been acclaimed as unadulterated love by Keralapanini and others.
Influence of the Guru
The influence of the Guru had another salutary effect on Kumaran. He turned away from love for the time being and was immersed in bhakti. The result was, there flowed from his pen a large number of devotional lyrics. It led him into acquainting himself with many books in Tamil and Sanskrit on Vedanta so that before long he became a great thinker and an ardent worshipper of nature. It is said that during this period he used to wander lonely over woods and hills for many days together in search of the infinite which was symbolised in nature.
How he-known originally as Kayikkara Kumaru-came to be known as Kumaru Asan or Kumaran Asan, is a simple story. There was a temple dedicated to Lord Subramania in a village near his own. Asan stayed in that temple for a few years, engaged in devotional practices. During this period he received a few boys of the locality for instruction in Sanskrit. Consequently he came to be called ‘Asan’ or teacher, which appellation has ever since remained part of his name. Gradually he became the priest of the temple. His connection with the Guru continued and his frequent visits to him at Aruvippuram strengthened this bond. It provided him with a number of opportunities to accompany the Guru on his tours in the various parts of the State.
Once the Guru invited Kumaran Asan to stay with him in his ashram at Aruvippuram situated near the Neyyar river. Asan accepted the invitation and accompanied the Guru, to spend the next three years at the ashram as his disciple. Both the preceptor and the disciple used to go round the country and educate people on social and spiritual problems. A number of shrines were also established during this period. The association with the Guru (popularly known as Swami) earned for him the popular title of ‘Chinna Swami’ meaning junior swami working under the senior swami who was Sri. Narayana Guru himself.
A story relating to this period of his close association with the Guru is most revealing in the sense that he was dead against caste and other social barriers even from his early days. On a Sivarathri day Asan’s elder brother and uncle visited Aruvippuram ashram. The Guru was sitting in the main hall in meditation and Kumaran squatted by his side. While Kumaran treated the visitors as if they were strangers, the swami behaved towards them in a friendly manner and talked to them. He was told that they had come to take Kumaran home because his father and mother were anxious to see him. The Guru agreed adding that it would be better if Kumaran visited them during the Onam festival. Onam came round and Asan accompanied by a friend of his visited his house. But he would not enter the house. On being asked to explain his conduct he said that he would enter the house only if his friend who belonged to the ‘Kaniyar’ caste could also come in. Permission was readily given and the father had lunch with them.
Asan returned to his Guru after his visit to his parents. He continued his studies in Vedantha and practice in yogic culture. It was during this period that he composed, as a devotee of Lord Siva, ‘Sivastotramala’. His association with the Guru was fruitful in more ways than one. The frequent tours undertaken by the Guru and the disciple enabled the latter to penertrate into the social life of the Ezhavas and form vivid impressions about their social and economic disabilities an experience which stood him in good stead when he set about his missionary work for the upliftment of the community later. It will not be out of taste to say that the association between the two masterminds, Sri.Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan, which was mutually advantageous, was like the meeting of Sri.Ramakrishna and Vivekananda who contributed to the spiritual awakening of India in the early decades of this century.
A great saint endowed with practical wisdom as he was, Sri.Narayana Guru discovered in Asan the right type of man to handle the tremendous work of the Yogam in its bid to ameliorate the guru, accompanied by his disciples, paid a visit to Bangalore. Dr.P.Palpu, an unforgetable personality in the history of the Yogam, was at that time residing there, practising medicine. He accorded a warm welcome to the Guru and his disciples and treated them with princely hospitality. The subject of the discussions between the Guru and Dr.Palpu was naturally that of uplifting the Ezhava community. Their conclusion was that education should be progressively spread among the youths of the community in order to rear up a new generation of leaders of thought and action. Consequently Dr.Palpu agreed to defray the entire expenditure of one promising young man, and the choice clearly felt on Kumaran who was a member of the entourage.
Kumaran started a new life in the house of Dr.Palpu, at the age of 22. At his mentor’s instance he joined a Sanskrit college, where admission was restricted to the caste Hindus of Bangalore, through the good offices of Sir K.Seshadri Iyer, the then Dewan of Mysore. He took up the study of ‘Nyaya’ with logic as his optional subject. At the end of the course he could not appear for the ‘Nyaya Vidwan’ examination, as he was expelled from the college as a result of an agitation by Caste Hindus against his continuance in the college. Needless to say, Kumaran was not a little disappointed; but Dr.Palpu sent him to Madras where he was accepted as an inmate of the house of Dr.Nanjunda Rao, a great friend of the Doctor. But six months later, Dr.Rao sent him to Calcutta on the advice of Dr.Palpu. Joining the Sanskrit college in Calcutta, Kumaran pursued the same subject ‘Nyayasastra’, attending simultaneously lectures in grammar and poetry. During the 3 years he lived there, he used to contribute articles to periodicals in Malayalam under the nom-de-plume of ‘A Bengali’.
It would seem an irony of fate that Kumaran could not succeed in securing a degree in Calcutta too, as the college was closed consequent upon the outbreak of plague in the city. Kumaran was forced to leave for Bangalore, where Dr.Palpu had returned after his foreign tour. Later he went to Trivandrum in the company of Dr.Palpu, after spending five years in Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta to pursue studies in Sanskrit. But those years had a very salutary effect on the mind of Kumaran because of the wonderful opportunities it afforded him to come into contact with the literatures in Kannada, Tamil and Bengali. His stay particularly in Calcutta provided him with the much-needed equipment in English whose literature fascinated him very much. His notes on poems and diary-entries were all in English-a fact which proved his intimate contact with that world language. He must have had a wide range of reading in English literature which covered Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Browning and others.
An interesting aspect of Kumaran’s stay at Calcutta was that he came under the mesmeric spell of the romantic poems of Tagore who was not conversant with Bengali, he could imbibe the spirit and skill of the poems of Tagore through their English renderings. So profound was his admiration for Tagore that he composed a poem entitled “Divyakokilam” (The divine cuckoo) and read it out on the occasion of the visit of the poet to Kerala in 1922 “Swagathapanchagam”, a poem in five stanzas was composed by him when the poet visited the Advaitashram at Alwaye in the course of his Kerala tour.
Another outcome of his stay at Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta is also noteworthy for its impact on him, for he returned home after a lapse of six years a totally different man in 1925 or so. The man that went out as a ‘Bhaktayogi’ returned home as a ‘Karmayogi’ and resumed his labours in the temple at Aruvippuram under the immediate guidance of the Guru. But his Muses were not asleep during this period, for he is credited with having written one or two plays like ‘Vichitravijayam’ and ‘Mrityunjayam’. Earlier, he had translated into Malayalam a celebrated Sanskrit play, “Prabodhachandrodayam”. Among his devotional works may be mentioned “Sankarasatakam” and “Subramanyasatakam” in addition to a good number of religious hymns.
Asan and the S.N.D.P Yogam
On his return to Kerala from Calcutta, Kumaran went to Aruvippuram Ashram to meet his mentor Sri.Narayana Guru. The awakening that was noticeable among the Ezhavas through the tireless efforts of the Guru had to be harnessed to purposeful objectives of regeneration. Hence it became necessary to register a body that would act as a lighthouse to the community. The result was that in 1902 the S.N.D.P Yogam was registered as a society to guide the social, religious and educational advancement of the Ezhavas, with the Guru as its permanent President, Dr.Palpu as its Vice-President and Kumaran Asan as its General Secretary. This grand trio of stalwarts, predestined to success, became the inspiration as well as the hope of the community. Asan spent all his energies with a deep sense of commitment to the development of the Yogam so that before long it became the beacon-light of social revolution among his fellowmen. Branches of the Yogam came to be started all over Kerala.
The activities of the Yogam centred round the religious and social disabilities of the Ezhavas. Untouchability and unapproachability had to be eradicated. But Dr.Palpu and Asan would not advocate mass conversion into Christianity or Islam to remove those handicaps, because they felt that Ezhavas had every right to remain Ezhavas within the Hindu fold and achieve social and educational progress along with the other castes. The address of Dr.Palpu at the sixth annual conference and the speech made by Asan at its twentieth conference underscored this idea of equality.
Asan had a very busy time as the Yogam’s Secretary going round the entire State and educating the members of the Committee on the ills they were suffering from. The lethargy of the people had to be broken and a passion for enlightenment had to be created among them. All this meant great and unremitting labour on the part of Asan, who rose to the occasion.
Activities of the Yogam were in need of publicity and with this end in view a magazine called “Vivekodayam” was started with Asan as its editor. Soon the journal gained vast popularity and circulation among the members of the Ezhava community. Apart from being the focus of the activities of the S.N.D.P Yogam it served as a forum for Asan’s literary pursuits. Before long it developed into a literary periodical, and all lovers of literature, irrespective of caste or community hailed it as a welcome addition to the group of literary journals that were then in vogue in Malayalam. First published in 1904, its subsequent issues carried educative articles on the social and economic conditions of the Ezhavas and instructions on the organisation of Yogam branches, in addition to a large number of articles of cultural and literary interest. The very name “Vivekodayam”, was believed to have been given to the periodical in appreciation by Asan and other leaders of the Yogam of Swami Vivekananda, who during his visit to Kerala described it as a lunatic asylum as it was bedevilled with caste distinctions and communal discords.
It may be noted in passing that the S.N.D.P Yogam did not concern itself very seriously with the political affairs of the State. The main thrust of its activities was removal of the social and cultural disabilities of the community, free use of all public roads, right of admission to educational institution run with public money, privilege of worship in all Hindu temples, crusade against untouchability and unapproachability – these were among the very many social aims to the pursuit of which the Yogam addressed itself. The growing importance which the Ezhava community achieved in the political and administrative spheres of the State was a later development for which a secure foundation was laid by the Yogam through its consolidation of the Ezhava community.
Asan’s foresight about the economic development based on industrialization is very much in evidence in the two industrial exhibitions he organised in connection with the annual conference of the S.N.D.P Yogam held in 1904 and 1906 at Kollam and Kannoor respectively. The pioneering efforts of Asan in the organization of the exhibition were so commendable that his followers took the cue and went ahead with the schemes of starting new industries throughout the State.
It may be mentioned here that Asan’s poetic talents found creative expression in a variety of ways during the years that followed his return to Kerala from Calcutta. The survey of his work in the next section will give the reader a broad account of the richness and vastness of his literary out-put.
Asan died on 17th January 1924, at the height of great achievements in literature. His end was tragic. On that ill-fated day, Asan started from Thonnakkal where he lived, to Alwaye where he was to participate in the meeting of a tile factory in which he owned a few shares. In those days the cheapest and most easily available mode of transport was boat. At Kollam he boarded the last boat to Alappuzha on previous day at about 10 ‘O’ clock at night. The boat which was already over crowded at the start took in more and more passengers at every stop, so that when it passed through the turbulent waves of the waterway at Pallana it capsized and got wrecked in a small bay. Asan who was fast asleep in the first class cabin of the boat, clad in a Khadi coat and with a woollen shawl for his headwear, was suffocated to death in its waters at about 5 A.M. His body could be found out only the next day with a wound on the fore-head. It was a curious irony that the boat he was travelling by was named ‘Redeemer’. One might wonder if it was so named as to redeem him from this world for ever. It is conjectured that Asan had a premonition of his end. The two letters he wrote to Mr.Sanku of Kottayam lend credence to it. His mind was clouded with doubt whether he would be able to be present at the literary conference at Kottayam. The fact that he discussed the future of his two sons with his wife before leaving on this ill-fated journey only adds to the grimness of his premonition about his end.
The loss Kerala sustained in his death was irreparable and it was mourned by a grateful people who had the highest reverence and admiration on him and for the great service he had rendered to the cause of Malayalam literature and the uplift of the Ezhava community.
Asan had a sturdy, well-rounded figure of bright brown colour. Short in structure a big head on a stout neck, his curly hair and beaming eyes could easily attract the notice of even the most casual observer. He cultivated his physique by doing manual labour in the garden. He was an introvert, often lost in thoughts. His conduct and behaviour exuded a degree of confidence which was often mistaken for arrogance by those who did not have the chance to know him intimately. Though he appeared to be contemplative in disposition to outsiders, we have it on the authority of Bhanumanthy Amma that he behaved like an innocent child – a rare feature of real greatness.
Asan, though born a Hindu, had great inclination towards the precepts and practices of Buddhism. This is clear from some of his writings. Works like ‘Karuna’ and ‘Buddhacharitam’ are clear indication of his disposition to Buddhism. It is little wonder that he should have been so inclined to Buddhism when it is considered that apart from taking interest in spiritual matters he was the leader of a downtrodden community which seriously considered at one time the proposition to leave the Hindu community with its ugly caste restrictions. In the second decade of this century the leaders of Ezhava community in Kerala advocated wholesale conversion into a religion where barriers of caste did not exist. But the large majority of the community did not, however, favour change of religion. In these circumstances, it was only natural that Asan spoke in terms of continuing in the Hindu fold and striving at the same time, to lead a crusade against the evils of casteism in the religion. Extracted below is a portion of the presidential address of Asan to the annual conference of the S.N.D.P Yogam in 1923.
“The Yogam has now and then considered conversion to another religion to get over the caste restriction. At the present moment Buddhism is in the forefront. The chief advocate of Buddhism is my personal friend and outstanding leader of the community, C.Krishnan, Editor of ‘Mitavadi’. The respect and love we have for him make us think seriously about it. As far as I am concerned it is not a subject which newly enters my mind. For the ‘Dharma’ and ‘Moksha’, I have a high regard. But my humble opinion is that one cannot change the mental approach that one has cultivated for years just as one might change a shirt. That is psychologically untenable. Secondly about its physical benefits I entertain no faith. Thirdly, a community consisting of several lakhs of people with varying mental predilections cannot be converted enmasse into another religion. Such step will be unwise and will lead to disintegration of the community. And more especially it is Swami who should advise us on religious matters. When such a person who has considerable experience and knowledge of religious philosophy is alive, it is an insult to him if we go elsewhere for advice”.
Asan’s attitude to religious questions has often made him appear a complex, even unpredictable, personality to others. He held very strong views about them. While the leaders or the community rebelled for conversion, he advocated sobriety and balanced thinking. While they were content with living on the moorings of birth, he preached the philosophy of revolt against those evils in his major poems. This apparent contradiction is visible in his literary career too. While he was prepared for no compromise on the goal of poetry and the craft to achieve it, he would cling to the values of tradition. In other words, as it happens in the case of all great men, he was a curious blend of antitheses strongly marked and consequently often unpredictable.
Asan and his literary Contributions
As stated earlier, Asan was not only a revolutionary in life, religion and literature but also great prophet. The great call that he addressed to the people to change, the laws of social life lest the laws themselves should change them is a trumpet – call of prophecy which lives down to this day. An ever-grateful people and the Government of Kerala have come forward in a big way to recognize and honour the greatness of Asan. Various academies and schools for the promotion of literature and learning have been started in various places in Kerala as well as in other parts of the country in memory of this great poet. The greatest monument, however will ever be his own works of immortal literary value ande xcellence. Asan’s blossoming into literature was rather late. The main reason for this was that he was deeply involved in religious and social services under the inspiring leadership of Sri.Narayana Guru, on his return from Calcutta at the age of 27. In other words, it was only at the age of 35 that the first creative work which ushered in the renaissance in Malayalam poetry was published under the title “Veenapoovu” in 1907. But it should not be thought that his muses were till then dormant, for during the period preceding 1907 he was labouring in the vineyard of literature as a votary of classical models. His translation of “Soundaryalahari” had appeared in 1901. The original devotional Lyric named “Sivastotramala”, “Vichitravijayam”, a drama modelled on Sanskrit plays and “Prabodha Chandrodayam”, another translation from Sanskrit were all products of his literary labours which came out in 1902. His early works, either original or translation, have a spiritual or moral or religious ring about them. The play “Vichitravijayam” brings out the influence of conventional Sanskrit themes and metres on the poet.
What simultaneously heralded the dawn of a new era in Malayalam literature and the rise of Asan to literary immorality was the publication of “Veenapoovu” (The Fallen Flower) which came out in 1907 with a flutter in the dovecots of traditionalism. It is a spontaneous outflow of philosophical reflections recollected in tranquility about a lovely flower which fades and falls from its pristine glory. Its originality and its beauty lay in the fact that it established the truth that poetry is not what is said in material form but how something is said with emotional appeal. It heralded the dawn of vernal bloom of romantic revival in modern Malayalam poetry. Its message about the mutability of earthly things is sent out in the last stanza as follows:
“O eye ! withdraw thyself ; this flower will
Wither, dissolve into dust and be forgotten soon;
Know that this is the fate of everything here;
What avail are tears? lo!earthly life is but a dream”
Composed by the poet in a mood of poignant agony caused by the critical condition in which Sri.Narayana Guru lay in a private hospital at Palakkad, the poem is a general elegy on the transitoriness of human life, based on the fate of fallen flower. It contains clearly audible echoes of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Mahakavi Ulloor, a great contemporary of Asan, has made the following remarks on the poem: -
“The path chalked out by “Veenapoovu” in the field of Malayalam literature is something special. There were many poets before, who were fully conversant with western literature; but it was Asan who first introduced the western style of introducing the subject and description. In the literary firmament “Veenapoovu” introduces a star which is exceptionally bright”.
It was, however “Nalini” (1911), hailed universally as a path finder in Malayalam poetry that added lusture to Asan’s literary immortality. As in the case of anything new that arrests public attention, the publication of this poem opened the floodgates of criticism from conventional critics and tradition-bound literary judges. The hounds of reaction opened in full cry against him and dubbed him as a literary plagiarist who had borrowed the theme from Bengali literature. But this storm blew over after some time and Asan continued his labours in the field of literature with unabated zeal. A poem of true love, “Nalini” carried forward the tradition set up by “The Fallen Flower” and handed it over to “Leela”, a work equality throbbing with the rich pulsations of an unfulfilled love which reunites two lovers in the watery grave of Reva. ‘Leela’ (1914) is a tragedy of love in which the poet has opened up a new path of unconventional, but real, love which is intensified by separation and made poignant by the final tragedy in which the reunion of the lovers, Leela and Madanan, takes place. The truth that love is immortal and independent of physical existence is brought out in the lines: -
“Dear Friend, none doth wholly go
away from here, on shuffling moral coil
Nor doth the bond of soul with the
body snap, so long as it is bound by love;
Enough is thy grieving, my dear; and
may you live long devoid of grief :
Meet we shall again, for the cycle of
life has not yet come to a halt”.
A comparative estimate of the two pieces will lead us to the conclusion that while ‘Nalini’ is an expression of the mental conflict in Asan between the natural instincts of a youth and the spiritual urges of a disciple of Sri.Narayana Guru, “Leela” is a frank exposition of the earthly quality of love yearning in vain for consummation in real life. “Nalini” is a lotus with mild fragrance, tame colour and sedate appearance, while “Leela” is a Champak flower with strong scent, riotous colour and bright look.
The year 1920 saw Asan publish his well-known “Chinthavishtayaya Sita” Sita in Meditation a work which is unique in a number of ways. What with its philosophical reflections, emotional content and conceptional originality, the poem has few equals and none to excel it. Its uniqueness is in its conception of Sita, abandoned by Sree Rama, bewailing her lot and exploding into righteous indignation against her lord’s uncharitable disposition and ultimately reconciling herself to it. Asan appears here as a stout champion of the truthful cause of faultless womanhood unmeritedly subjected to needless punishment. It is a monologue in which Sita is presented in a new light as an aggrieved women who puts Sree Rama in the dock and assails him in strong but decent terms for the treatment meted out to her. Ultimately the ill-feeling vanishes from her and she becomes cleansed and purified in mind to make a re-assessment of the whole situation. The poem has been rated as the masterpiece of Asan by many critics.
“His ‘Duravastha’ and ‘Chandalabhikshuki’ are purposeful pieces of a clarion-call for social reform. While the former evoked a furious storm of protest from caste Hindus and Muslims, it themed on an incident during the Mopla Rebellion of Malabar in 1923, the latter is based on a Buddhist legend which services to bring out the absurdity and hollowness of casteism. ‘Duravastha’ describes the story of Savithri, a Nambudiri lady, who ran away from hearth and home, sought refuge in the hut of a pulaya, Chathan by name and finally married him. The purpose obviously was to bring out the hollowness and ridiculousness of casteism by uniting a highborn maiden and a low-born man in happy wedlock. But its literary merits are not of a high order. ‘Chandalabhishuki’ is a sister piece whose aim is also to preach against caste. But the difference is that a low-caste woman, Matangi, falls in love with a Buddhist mendicant, Ananda and is ultimately accepted by Lord Buddha as a disciple, realising the purity of her love. The love affair is, however, left undeveloped, presumably because of the change in Matangi. There is however, a passage on the sacredness of love which is note worthy: -
“The world rises from love
And attains progress with love,
Love is itself the power of the world,
Love brings happiness to all;
Love is life itself, sir,
And Love’s absence is death”.
Among the shorter poems mention has to be made of an allegorical piece entitled “Oru Udbodhanam” (A Call), wherein he calls upon his countrymen to unite to win freedom, for
“Freedom alone is nectar divine;
Freedom is life itself;
To a self-respecting people
Slavery is more terrible than death”.
The short piece “The Child and the Mother” is an exquisite lullaby very popular among little children.
“Karuna” is Asan’s swan-song, which depicts the story of a courtesan, Vasavadatha, who attains salvation through repentance. It is taken from “The Gospel of the Buddha” and composed to the tune of boat-song (Vanchipattu). Upagupta, who rejects Vasavadatta’s solicitations of love, consoles her in the end when she becomes mentally ripe for spiritual enlightenment, in the following words: -
“Weep not, my sister:
Abandon thy fear’
Peace will embrace thee;
Let me stroke thy forehead gently
With this hand that has washed for long
The holy lotus-feet of the Lord of the Eight-fold Path”.
Two celebrated poems also deserve a passing notice in this context. One is “Prarodanam”, which is an elegy written on the death of A.R Rajaraja Varma, a great scholar among princes and a great prince among scholars. After paying warm tributes to the dear departed, the poet goes on to reflect on life and death as well as on heaven, hell and rebirth. It is a novel experiment in elegiac literature in Malayalam, influenced in content, but not in form, by English elegies.
Asan, like many other great poets, was also a great critic. His essays containing appraisals and reviews of literary works were published in the “Vivekodayam” and “Prathibha”. Among the criticisms he wrote was his downright condemnation of Vallathol’s “Chitrayogam” which provoked a furious storm of protest from many quarters and which ultimately led up to an unhealthy controversy with communal overtones.
Asan has enriched Malayalam literature with a few translations too. ‘Buddhacharitam” is an elegant, free translation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s “The light of Asia”. “Rajayogam” is another piece which is Swami Vivekananada’s work on the subject rendered into Malayalam under the same title. “Maitreyi” is yet another work, in addition to a few others like “Soundaryalahari” and “Prabodhachandrodayam”, done by him during the early period of his literary career.