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MALAYALAM LITERATURE

Text By Dr.K.Ayyappapanicker

Malayalam, the mother tongue of nearly thirty million Malayalis, ninety per cent of whom live in Kerala State in the south-west corner of India, belongs to the Dravidian family of languages. Like the speakers, the languages also has been receptive to influences from abroad and tolerant of elements added from outside. Malayalam literature too reflects this spirit of accommodation and has over the centuries developed a tradition which, even while rooted in the locality, is truly universal in taste. It is remarkably free from the provincialisms and parochial prejudices that have bedevilled the literature of certain other areas. To its basic Dravidian stock have been added elements borrowed or adopted from non-Dravidian literatures such as Sanskrit , Arabic, French, Portuguese and English . The earliest of these associations was inevitably with Tamil. Sanskrit, however, accounts for the largest of the "foreign" influences, followed closely in recent times by English. This broad based cosmopolitanism has indeed become a distinctive features of Malayalam literature.

          According to the most dependable evidence now available to us, Malayalam literature is at least a thousand years old. The language must certainly be older, but linguistic research has yet to discover unmistakable evidence to prove its antiquity. Historical accuracy has often been a problem since the records in most cases show no reference to the exact date of their composition. Legends and folklore have often taken the place of historical facts and chronology has been consciously or unconsciously tampered with. Modern research on scientific lines, however, has gone a long way to explain the origin and early development of the language.

          A comprehensive literary history of Kerala shoud take into account the works produced in the region not only in Malayalam language, but also in Tamil, beginning with the fourth century B.C. and continuing to the end of the first millennium A.D. It should also trace the evolution of the works in Sanskrit produced by writers in Kerala. The contribution of Kerala to Tamil literature which includes Chilappadikaram produced in the 2nd century B.C., should be perhaps find its proper place in the history of Tamil literature just as Kerala's contribution to Sanskrit, which includes the works of Sankaracharya and Kulasekhara Alwar of the early 9th century A.D., should come within a history of Sanskrit literature. The contribution of Kerala writers to English and Hindi in recent years, in the same way is part of the literatures in those languages. Since this article is primarily devoted to the evolution of literature in Malayalam the political history and the history of the language as well as the literature written in other languages are not discussed here in detail.

The poetry of the Earth

 

          It is difficult to provide documentary evidence for the existence of the earliest literary works written in Malayalam. The folk-songs and ballads of popular origin have been orally transmitted from generation to generation, but the forms in which they survive today must be quite different from their original forms. Any sweeping generalizations based on their present day forms are bound to be wrong. However, it would not be wrong to think that in some of them at least one can find evidence of the earliest springs of poetic inspiration in Malayalam. A large number of these folk-songs are associated with various kinds of religious rituals dating back to primitive Dravidian and Pre-Aryan times. Among these are perhaps the songs recited by Pulluvars at the festivals in serpent groves and by Panars when they used to go from house to house waking the people up in the early hours of the morning. The intrusion of Aryan faith even into these primitive rituals has led to their total transformation in theme, diction and imagery. The secular songs for popular entertainment and for agricultural operations have probably survived without serious damage. These are marked by a simplicity of structure and commitment to the problems of every day life. Some of them relate to the tragedy and pathos of the poorer classes; others are marked by a sparkling sense of humour. One of the most widely popular of these tragic songs is in the form of a complaint voiced by the farm labourer who is detained by the landlord for long hours to do all kinds of chores in the manorial household:

The time is gone, the time gone,
the water fowl
is hopping away
behind the screwpine.

When I went there
there was neither this nor that.

When I went there
they made me do the fence which was not there.

When I went there
they made me dig the pond which was not there.

When I went there
they made me thatch the unthatched roof.

For half a pint of toddy
they drive me to death,
for half a green coconut
they drive me to death.

The time is gone, the time is gone
the water fowl
is hopping away
behind the screwpine.

 


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