In a recent dialogue with some rouge Malayali poets (yes, I like to use the word ‘rogue’ for them) in the social media they severely attacked me using the worst language possible and then some of them declared that I am old school in poetry and they belong to the new age and their ideals are so and so. One of them put the names down in the comment box and I found most of the names belong to a social media coterie; the members of it stick together, publish free verses both in the new as well as in the traditional media often without much editorial interventions. There is a club mentality and also they are driven by a sort of mob psychology; anybody who critiques their kind of poetry would be severely attacked in a planned move. I do not like much of social media poetry though I do write poems in the social media. Each poet in the social media believes that he/she is sacrificing his/her life for the welfare of the literary genre, new age poetry. In the discussion I politely told them that I belong to the old school, perhaps this old school was ‘the modern’ poetry for almost eight decades of the last century. Calling this modern poetry, which is excellent in form, theme, allusions, metaphors, meter, aesthetical vibrancy and all encompassing including environmental concerns much more than that new age poetry claims to address, deal with and celebrate, ‘old’ is a sort of anachronism but those people who try for eternity through free verse think that calling this something old would naturally make them new. It is as good as erasing the edges of a long line in order to make it small rather than drawing a longer line above it. And when I told them that I belong to the old school of poetry, I had clearly spelt the name of the poet whose poems have been an inspiration ever since I understood poetry as a literary form; and it remains to be so even today. The name of that poet is Kumaran Asan.
Whenever I think about the great personalities whose contributions send a shiver through my spine not because of the fear that they induce in me but because of the sheer excellence and genius that they have shown in their works, I think of their age and just make a mental comparison of my own age. Kumaran Asan born in 1873 started writing serious poetry when he was around twenty years old and it was the turn of the new century; the transition from 19th century to 20th century though was not spectacular for a rural poet he understood the under currents of such transition with all its socio-political and economic implications that naturally led him to ideate the issues of the ‘modern world’ and an evolving world which had then started formulating the ideas against colonialism, class and caste hierarchies all over the world. Mystics, social reformers, spiritualists and atheists were coming from the lower strata of the society and Kumaran Asan had developed the right kind of political as well as aesthetical antennas so that he could capture the frequencies not only using his brain power but also with his spiritual power which was traced and whetted by none other than Sree Narayana Guru. With such a personality I stand no comparison. But I do dare to compare his age with mine. Kumaran Asan died in a boat accident in 1924 in Pallana near Alappuzha. He was just fifty one years old. This is where the comparison comes. By the time he was prematurely taken away from this world by fate, Kumaran Asan had accomplished quite a few social roles such as an accomplished poet who was awarded by the Prince of Wales, a Sanskrit scholar, an indisputable disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, therefore a social reformer, a member of the legislative assembly and the first Secretary of the SNDP, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham, an organization established by Guru himself at Aruvippuram in 1904. What have I done by this age? The more I think about it, the more I feel that I have done nothing. However, that realization is something that goads me towards action because like Guru and Kumaran Asan, I believe that a right mixture of Jnana yoga and Karma yoga is needed, aided by true Bhakti yoga would automatically take me to the Ananda yoga. Perhaps, one does not do things mechanically (a bit from each category) or so consciously in order to achieve bliss. But the awareness of this mixture would work as sweetness in milk and each gulp of it makes one to taste the sweetness without really thinking about which part of it is milk and which part constitutes sweetness.
Moreover being the mere inspiration, Kumaran Asan is my neighbor. I have walked the same road where his footsteps had fallen. I have run through the same sea shore where he used to run. I have sat under the same chempaka tree where he had sat reading books. I have stood at the veranda of the same school where he had taught for some time. I had stood before the same idol in a Subrahmanyan temple (Velayudhan Nada at Vakkom) where Asan was the assistant priest for some time. Above all, I have read all his poems. Kumaran Asan was born in Kaikkara, the next village which is in a ferry distance, which I used to take for going to my pre-university college. In five minutes’ walk from home we reach the ferry and it takes another five minutes to cross the backwaters which flows into the sea a few kilometers ahead where you would find the historical Anjengo Fort, the first sea port and fort of the British East India Company. A few minutes’ walk from there we reach the shore of the Arabian Sea, along which there is a road that takes us to Varkala where Sivagiri, the Samadhi of Sree Narayana Guru is located besides the college where I had done my pre-university studies. Many years before the college days when I was seven or eight years old even before Guru came into my life Asan became an integral part of my life. The beginning was painful for I had to learn his poems by heart in order to recite there during Asan’s birth day celebrations.
Asan’s birthday falls on the Chithra Pournami day of April (12th April 1873). That day is a great festival for all the neighboring villages including Anjego, Vakkom, Nedunganda, Cherunniyoor, Vettoor, Varkala and so on. Though we were separated from the village Kaikkara where Kumaran Asan was born, by a ferry, the birthday celebrations were our right too not just because Asan had been a priest in one of the temples here in Vakkom but also because most of the people who had an inclination for literature from our village were a part of the Asan celebration committee. For almost a week, the birth day celebrations of a poet used to be the mainstay of all the people in and around Kaikkara. Major literary figures came to this sea shore from all over Kerala. In 1980s an Asan World Prize was constituted by the Asan Memorial Committee and the first Asan Prize was given to Sedar Sengor from Senegal. This was one of the biggest literary congregations that I have ever visited in my life. For us, the children from these villages had to participate in various competitions including elocution, poetry recital, story/poetry writing and painting. Though I used to participate in all these items my mainstay was poetry writing and poetry recital. Depending on the age group they used to give us themes to write stories and poems and I remember getting prizes every year and most of the awards came in the form of Asan’s books which gave me an impetus to read them all in a tender age itself. For poetry recitation, they gave us particular portions from Asan’s poems and we had to learn them by heart. With such memorizing practice many of Asan poems are still etched in my mind. I remember an embarrassing incident; I had learnt a particular portion by heart and set to tune by a local musician. On the stage I simply forgot the tune and stood like a stupid at the mike till the audience gave me friendly cat calls and applause (for the regular fixtures of the audience we, the participants were also familiar figures) until my mother recited the poem in tune from the audience as the last resort to save my grace.
Kumaran Asan is a great poet. He is also known as Mahakavi, that means the great poet. But Asan perhaps is the only one modern poet who is called a Mahakavi without writing longer verses. The degree of Mahakavi is given only to those poets who write poems of epic length. Asan did not write any such poems. His were smaller poems that ran a few pages with less than five hundred verses or so. They were Khanda Kavyas; Poetic Pieces. Asan did not write many abstract poems; set to the classical standards they were narrative poems that dealt with social as well as spiritual themes. The only abstract poem and perhaps the most popular poem of Asan is Veenapoovu (The Fallen Flower) in which he speaks of the impermanency of life looking at a fallen flower. Hailing from the Ezhava community and also becoming a part of Guru’s life, Asan was politically inclined to the society and stood for the reformative acts and for socio-economic uplifting of the downtrodden people. Hence he wrote poems like Duravastha (Bad Situation) where an upper caste woman is married to a lower caste man. Basing his poetic thematic on the ‘Light of Asia’ written by Edwin Arnold on the life and philosophy of the Buddha, Asan wrote ‘Buddhacharitam’. He derived themes from Buddhist lore and before Ambedkar thought of Buddhism as an alternative, one could say that Kumaran Asan knew that to counter the Brahminical Hinduism, Buddhism was the only religion which had all the goodness of Hinduism and hailed the decimation of desire and practice of love and tolerance as the pivotal driving force of life. Asan was a revolutionary as he poetically re-read the Ramayana and his ‘Chinthavishtayaya Sita’ (Thoughtful Sita) is hailed to be a staunch critique of Ramayana’s ideal from a feminist point of view. A small chapter like this is not enough to talk about all his works.
In road to Kaikkara from the ferry hits at a junction which is known for Kumaran Asan. The place is called Asan Nagar. There used to be an old auditorium with a lot of ventilation for the sea breeze to come in. Apart from a beautiful oil portrait of Kumaran Asan wearing the Shawl and Bangle awarded to him by the Prince of Wales, there were two paintings depicting two pivotal scenes from his poems Karuna and Chandala Bhikshuki. In the first painting on the left we see a beautiful but lower caste girl giving water to a Buddhist monk and in the other painting there is the depiction of the courtesan, Vasavadatta sitting in all her glory, attended by a maiden. These two paintings actually laid foundations for my visual thinking. Each time I sat in the auditorium, my attention was on these paintings. I do not know where those paintings have gone. Now the auditorium is broken down. And in its place a well designed open air auditorium and a commemorative tower are built. On the road side in the same campus there is a reading room and a multi-purpose hall. The school where once Kumaran Asan had taught for a while is now very colorful; the old building has gone. In this new colorful building one could see a huge board saying, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education for All Movement), apparently a central government project. Next to it I see another building which is devoted as an office of the Asan Memorial. The small temple where the Champaka tree is there is now hidden away by these buildings. However, from the road side itself I could see the tree laden with flowers. It was under this tree Kumaran Asan used to spend his boyhood days. The small house on the sea shore where Asan was born is no longer there. Back in the memorial stupa and auditorium, a flight steps lead to the beach. The blueness of the sky is so captivating. I look at myself. I am no longer the same boy who stood there wondering at those paintings. I have become something else but what I have not lost is the love for Kumaran Asan; I feel reassured.
Kumaran Asan had lived in Bangalore and Kolkata as a part of his Sanskrit education. But he did not live in those places for long. He came back and started living in Thonnakkal, seven kilometers to South from Attingal and around thirty kilometers to north from Trivandrum city. Thonnakkal is now turned into the Asan National Research Centre and Memorial with beautiful buildings and a few sculptures by Kanai Kunhiraman. The Government of Kerala took over the old houses and its premises from the family and made into a memorial of the poet in 1958. In successive years many additions were done. Today, Thonnakkal stands for Asan Memorial. It has taken over the glory of Kaikkara, which is definitely trying its level best to bring the old glory back with the new memorial set up which I have seen now. The Thonnakkal Asan Memorial Gate is conspicuous by its art works and a closer look reveal that it is done by none other than Kanai Kunhiraman, the most of famous sculptor in Kerala. The works at the gate remind one of the Mukkola Perumal done in front of the Kochi Corporation Building. Just inside, on the left side there is an abstract composite sculpture that represents the social ills and the indomitable energy of human beings to come out of all those clutches as rendered by Kumaran Asan. On the right there is a huge lawn with undulating landscapes, medicinal and flower plants. Though it is not a full fledged garden there is sense of garden in the landscaping. Right in the middle of it there is a huge sculpture, a reclining nude woman by Kanai, representing not only Vasavadatta of Karuna but also the beauty of all the revolutionary heroines of Asan.
The first building that we see as the museum of Asan is nothing but a sheer waste of space. Though it is meant as a museum the pillared foyer is of no use. There are double corridors around the building and the whole of the building has a twenty by twelve hall which houses some photographs and manuscripts of Kumaran Asan. There are attempts to make reliefs on the walls that line the corridor but it looks like as if those relief works were forced on to your nose; they are too close to see any image in them. Most of the Kerala museums and public buildings are sheer waste of money, energy, resources and aesthetics. They lack in aesthetics and planning. Kerala seems to be interested in external beauty. The buildings are beautiful to look at from outside. The moment you get inside, you feel claustrophobic and feel that the spaces are wasted. Thank god, the old house and small out house where Asan used to sit and write his poems are preserved as they are (luckily no canopy contributed here by any liquor baron). The very presence of these small homes would rush all those old memories related to the poet. Perhaps that is the only soothing experience that you have in Thonnakkal. As the whole campus is on the western side, by afternoon you see everything in a silhouette. If you are interested to do some photography here, come before noon with the eastern light falling on the facades sharply. On the far right hand corner there is another huge building which is a mural gallery.
This mural gallery, though the murals are good enough, is again a waste of time and space. With that amount of money and design one could have created an architectural wonder. The murals depict the thematic core of Asan’s Khanda Kavyas. ‘Pookalam’ and ‘Karuna’ are done by Basant Peringode, ‘Chandalabhikshuki’ is by Saju Thurthil, ‘Karshakante Karachil’ by P.K.Sadanandan, ‘Duravastha’ by Krishnan Mallissery, ‘Veenapuvu’ by Suresh K.Nair, ‘Leela’ by Suresh Muthukulam, ‘Nalini’ by Krishnakumar, ‘Chinthavishtayaya Sita’ by Gopi Chevayoor- All accomplished mural artists from Kerala and elsewhere. The more I look at these works, the more I think about those old paintings that I had seen in Kaikkara in my boyhood days. They were not given any museum space. Here we have a set of good mural works but they are not given any due exhibition. As they are painted on the walls directly, with no conservation efforts, slowly they would fade as there is no temperature or light control in them. Besides, in the whole design of the building, there is no sense of exhibition. These artists should have been given a hall with precise space for each of them, instead of forcing them to do their works as if in a single strip. The other lack is that there is no wall writing or literature regarding these works of art or artists for a visitor. I take a lot of pain to look for the signature of the artists. I am happy that I know most of them personally. A museum should have literature regarding the major attractions. This building also doubles up as a book stall and sales counter. Though there is a lot of Kumaran Asan related literature on display they do not look like really attractive. There are two shelves of inside where the old publications of Kumaran Asan’s works brought out by now defunct publishers. But no light is given on them and apart from some uniformed sweepers nobody is seen around to ask questions. Just outside this building there is another sculpture by Kanai that looks like a take on Duravastha where the upper caste woman comes out due to social changes (read unrest). In the museum there are some manuscripts in the original handwriting of Asan but you could say that the lighting is either not working or is non-existent.
In Kerala, I believe that the authorities should consult the concerned experts before they go in for making any kind of museums or public buildings. Though there are allocation of funds for beautification and art making in the state, most of it is channelized through various government organizations like the Public Works Department that with no idea about the changes that have happened in the world keeps doing things which eventually make a very bad impression about the state of Kerala which is hundred per cent literate and has a state funded biennale to boast off. Kerala is now gunning for a 360 tourism and it has recently invited thirty travel bloggers from thirty different countries and give them a free tour in Kerala in order to spread the word. In another program, the Tourism Department went ahead in doing road shows in European countries to promote Biennale that the state government believes that has given a shot in the arm as far as tourism is concerned. But I would say the government giving no attention to the existing museums and making them world class would eventually would bring bad name to the state than getting more tourists. Today, the state should understand that the tourists come for two things, beaches and Ayurveda. A mammoth portion of Kerala’s tourism possibility remains unexplored due to lack of vision. Museum such as Thonnakkal Asan Memorial is a classical example. If tourists come here, they would laugh off their chairs. It is so primary and juvenile and we need better planning and better promotion. What saves grace as far as the Thonnakkal is concerned is the old home of Kumaran Asan. Even the works of Kanai looks like abandoned with the water bodies around it dried up and the edges frayed and broken. If Kumaran Asan sees it now he would say but a tinge of irony in his voice, “Sree Bhoovil asthira-asamshayam, Innu ninte abhoothiyengu punerengu, kidappithorthaal’ (Prosperity is temporary on the face of the earth/Think of it, your present state, where were you and where are you today)- from Veenapoovu.