N. Kumaran Asan was one of the makers of modern Kerala. Along with Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer and Vallathol Narayana Menon, he belong to the Trinity of the Romantic Revival in Malayalam poetry. But he was something more than an original poet who rebelled against outmoded literary conventions. Born in, a community condemned for centuries to untouchability, he fought against the inequalities of our caste – ridden society and passionately sang of individual dignity, social freedom and the brotherhood of man. The first great creative genius to come from the socially backward classes in modern Kerala, he unconsciously asserted, by his very emergence as a major poet, the cultural equality which was due to the downtrodden sections of our society. Thus he was, in more ways than one, a symbol of the consciousness of modern Kerala.
Kumaran, as he was called in his early years, was born on the 12th of April 1873 at Kayikkara, a small coastal village some 40 KMs to the north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father was a petty trader by profession, but was in his own way a cultivated man who enjoyed some social position in the locality. Kumaran received little formal schooling. He had his first lessons in Malayalam and Sanskrit under village schoolmasters. This was followed by a few years’ study at a Malayalam school. He was for a few months a schoolmaster and for two years a trader’s clerk. After this interval he pursued his study of Sanskrit for another year.
It was in his 17th year that he came into contact with Sree Narayana Guru, the greatest social reformer of modern Kerala. Sree. Narayana, who belonged like Asan to the large and industrious but socially backward Eazhava community, was then in the initial stages of his epoch-making career. Asan, who was of a religious bent of mind, was fascinated by the emerging spiritual leader of his community and he spent two years in close association with Sree Narayana. These were years of an intensive study of Hindu religious philosophy.
Sree Narayana Guru recognised the rare intellectual and spiritual gifts of his young disciple and decided to give him ample opportunities for development. Accordingly he was sent to Bangalore where a highly talented member of the community, Dr.Palpu, occupied a high position in the Mysore Government service. Asan was a student of the Sanskrit College in Bangalore, owing to the outbreak of an epidemic in the city, from there he went to Madras and then to Calcutta where he spent two years. The five years he spent outside Kerala were of the greatest significance in the development of Asan’s prsonality. These were years of strenuous study of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit literature. It was at this time that he was also introduced to English language and literature with which he became closely acquainted. The wider horizons in the big cities must have extended his personality, and, in particular, the two years he spent in the heart of renascent Bengal must have enriched his inner life in an indefinable way.
In 1900 Asan returned to Kerala. He stayed with the Guru at his headquarters at Aruvippuram, a village to the south at Thiruvananthapuram, giving lessons in Sanskrit and lending a helping hand in the conduct of the affairs of the temple there. In 1903 the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (S.N.D.P. Yogam) was started for the all-round uplift of the Eazhava community. The Yogam was to play a great role in the social life of the State. Asan was its first General Secretary and he shouldered this heavy burden for 16 long years. To organise a socially, economically and educationally backward community of millions with a view to fighting for elementary human rights suppressed by age-old conventions was no easy task. The intellectual and spiritual gifts and the sheer physical energy needed for such an endeavour could not be expected from an average man. Asan’s superhuman efforts in this direction paid rich dividends to the community. By the time he gave up his Secretaryship (1919), his community was well-knit and set firmly on the road to advancement. Asan was also the Editor of the Yogam journal Vivekodayam during his Secretaryship and he represented the community in the Travancore State Legislature as a nominated member for many years from 1913. He followed the moderation of a Liberal in his activities for social reform and he had little interest in the purely political aspects of the resurgence of India.
From his early youth Asan lived away from home, at first pursuing scholarship and then devoting himself to social work. Hence many members of the community expected him to become a monk and be the Guru’s spiritual successor. But he disappointed them. For in his early forties he fell in love with an accomplished girl whom he eventually married. It was in his fortyfifth year (1918) that Asan married Smt. Bhanumathi Amma. Two sons were born to the couple. Marriage and parenthood made him turn his attention to the material basis of life.
He bought a piece of land in the village of Thonnakkal, fifteen miles to the north of Thiruvananthapuram on the Kollam road, and built a small house there. It is here that the Government of Kerala has built a memorial to Asan.
Asan was snatched away from us when he was still in the prime of life. He died at the age of fiftyone in a boat accident, the wreck of the Redeemer, at a place called Pallana near Alappuzha on the 17th of January 1924. His mortal remains were buried near the site of the tragedy and the spot is known as Kumarakoti. Kayikkara, Thonnakkal and Pallana are three places of pilgrimage for the lovers of Malayalam poetry and for those who cherish humanistic values in life.
It is primarily as a poet of genius that Asan will be remembered by posterity. He began to scribble verses when he was still in his teens and he continued his devoted worship of the muse upto the last moment of his life. His early poetry showed only a competent versifier in the neo-classical tradition. It was his later poetry, the poetry of his mature years, that brought out his originality and won for him an abiding place among the very highest in the line of poets who have enriched Malayalam literature.
In addition to a few dozen shorter pieces collected under the titles The Garden (Pushpavati) A Chain of Gems (Manimala) and A Garland of Wild Flowers (Vanamala) and a free rendering of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia’ under the title Shri Buddhacharitham, Asan’s mature works include the ode The Fallen Flower (Veena Poovu –1907), the monologue The Meditations of Seetha (Chinthavishtayaya Seetha – 1919), and the narrative poems Nalini (1911), Leela (1914), The Tragic Plight (Duravastha – 1923), The Outcaste Nun (Chandalabhikshuki-1923) and Compassion (Karuna-1924).
The Fallen Flower is a landmark in the development of Malayalam poetry. The first significant Malayalam poem in the new romantic strain, it delineates, under the symbolism of a flower, the vicissitudes of human life and the essential tragedy at the core of existence. In The Meditations of Seetha, the poet probes the depths of the consciousness of Seetha as she reviews her past in the solitude occasioned by the departure of her sons to Ayoddhya with Valmiki in order to participate in Shri.Rama’s ‘Aswamedhayaga’. With luminous insight the poet explores the whole gamut of her emotions – wounded pride, resentment, love for her husband, solicitude for his welfare and philosophical detachment which enables her to view steadily the pageant of life with its chequered pattern of light and shade. In The Lament the poet mourns the death of A.R Raja Raja Varma, one of the great builders of modern Malayalam literature.
Nalini and Leela which are named after the heroines are dramatic narratives dealing with the tragedy of young love. In the former the heroine’s love is frustrated because the hero, who is inspired by a divine discontent, renounces the world. The heroine loses all interests in life and wanders into the forest where she is saved from suicide by a ‘yogini’. She leads an ascetic life with ‘yogini’, but accidentally meets her lover and dies in the rapture of reunion. In the latter, the lovers are separated because the heroine is married to another young man against her will. She is unable to forget her lover, and, when freed by the unexpected death of her husband, she wanders along with a friend in search of her lover. At last she meets him, but he is now a madman. She embraces him, but he escapes and jumps into a river and she follows him.
The Outcast Nun and Compassion have Buddhist legends for their themes. In the former an outcaste girl who falls in love with Ananda, one of Buddha’s disciples, goes in search of him to the great Master’s presence and is converted by him to the way of spiritual love. The poet makes use of the opportunity provided by the story to condemn social inequality and to glorify love. In the latter, a fascinating courtesan, Vasavadatha, falls in love with Upaguptha, one of the disciples of Buddha and invites him to her house; but the young ascetic refuses to come to her until she is spiritually prepared to receive him. He meets her at last at the burial ground where she awaits death, her beautiful body mutilated by the executioner’s axe as a punishment for a crime committed by her in the course of her over-amorous life. Upaguptha administers to her the message of Buddha, the message of ‘Nirvana’ and gives her his love, the highest love being compassion.
The Tragic Plight is the only narrative poem in which the poet chooses a contemporary setting. Here a Brahmin girl, Savithri, who providentially escapes the holocaust of the Moplah Mutiny in Malabar, takes refuge in the hut of an untouchable of the lowest class, a Pulaya, and finally invites him to share her life. This poem contains much of Asan’s Overt criticism of untouchability and caste and is rated high by the champions of progressive literature.
It was in the longer poems that Asan’s genius found its fullest expression. But his shorter pieces are of no inferior order. They include charming children’s poems, profound hymns of universal appeal, vivid descriptions of nature and moving reflections on social evils. Some of the shorter poems are occasional verses, but even these are generally of high literary merit.
Asan was the foremost among the Malayalam poets of the Indian Renaissance. Steeped in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist lore of India, he came under the influence of European culture which spurred him on to explore the essence of Indian thought. Thus he came to his own vision of life, a vision which is essentially tragic. Life is transient and darkened by man’s cruelty to man; but life at its best is irradiated with love even under the shadow of sorrow and death; in fact love is the primal force that animates the whole universe. This vision he embodied in forms of rare freshness and genuineness. In the face of the imitative stuff of the neo-classical poets, he asserted the primacy of individual imagination. Thus he created a new movement in Malayalam poetry.