Real Kerala, imagined Kerala

K V Subbanna

Tourism and media give perverse  shape to human communication, writes Subbanna, in a tribute to the coastal state


Some years ago, I had crossed the Chandragiri river, and toured your charming land, but only up till Kozhikode. I am here for the second time. I could have come several times and toured all of Kerala. This isn't all that far from where I live. Before I can reach Karnataka's northernmost city of Bidar, I can reach your southern city of Thiruvananthapuram. My friends in Kerala have often called me over. When my friend U R Ananthamurthy was the vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, he had asked me over. I couldn't make use of those opportunities for one reason or the other.

I don't regret that I couldn't visit Kerala either. When I say that, I should not be mistaken to be dismissing the many glories of Kerala. I have, of course, seen vignettes of your land in paintings and films. Besides, I have some grasp, from other sources, of both the apparent and hidden riches of your land.

Where else in India would you find such a little paradise in which earth and sea, blue and green, play so intimately with each other?  Where else would you see anything like your sea which takes the form of little brooks, streams and rivers and weaves in and out of your land?  Where else would you find this perennial love play of nature? The green of your land, swaying and peering at itself in the mirror of the canals, enchants the young and the old. Yet, if I have felt no eagerness to visit you, it is because a microstructure of your magic land lives in my consciousness, and the Kerala of my imagination is no less beautiful than the Kerala of your lives.

I cannot describe the Kerala of my imagination as I have described the Kerala land, with its ups and downs, caves and shrubs, and hills and streams. After all, it is an abstract Kerala. I may say that one horizon of my Kerala is illuminated by the brilliance of Acharya Sankara, who hails from your Kaladi. Tradition has it that my caste comes under the discipleship of Sankara. In those days, when India was going through many upheavals because of its rich diversity, it was Sankara who created a new centre of balance that did not reject diversity. The entire sub-continent respected him as a great guru. Yet, the fragrance in his stotras, especially in his great work Soundaryalahari, is the fragrance of Kerala.

Taniyamsam pamsum tavacaranapankeruthbhavam janani
Vinnchihi sancinwan viracayati lokanavikalam
Vahatyenam shorthi kathamapi sahasrena sirsam
Haraha sankhudvainam bhajiti besitoddhulanavidhim

(Mother, Brahma picks up a speak of dust from your lotus feet and creates several beautiful worlds; Visnu manages to carry it on his thousand heads. Siva burns it and completes his ash-wearing ritual.)

This brilliant, complex and panoramic metaphor cannot be from Kashmir, Karnataka or Utkala. It is from Kerala alone. Narayana Guru is one of the main builders of modern Kerala. Isn't he proof enough that Kerala has protected this Sankara stotra for over a thousand years?

Foundation for dharma
Kannada epic poetry makes frequent references to Kerala. Our poet Pampa of the 10th century praises himself as Keralaviti kati sutrarurajana. That is, he had the friendship of maidens from Kerala, Malaya and Andhra. In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, the author of our poetics classic Kavirajamarga, Pampa, and the Sivasaranas built up the Kannada language, its grammar, prosody, mythology and poetry; they truly laid the foundations for the dharma, society and politics of the Kannada people through language.

Around the same time, our sculptors carved Gommata as a grand image for the Kannada mind.  I have not read the poetry of your first poet Ezhutachchan. But I understand that he singlehandedly laid the foundation, in the 17th century, for the Malayalam community and state, much like what our Kannada poets and artistes had done three centuries before his time. By Ezhutachchan's time, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the English had already entered India.

The English reign was a time of great churning, not just of the ancient and the modern but of the East and the West as well. That was a time when our cultural life had become a turbulent ocean. Not losing their sense of direction in such turbulent times, your kings Swati Tirunal and Ravi Varma created a harmonious blend of the East and the West in music and painting.  These became models for the whole country, they became tradition makers.

When we talk of Malayalam literature, the list of writers grows tall—Kumaran Asan, Vallathol, Ullur, Sankara Kurup, Balamaniyamma, Madhaviamma, Potteckat, Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, M T Vasudevan Nair, Aiyyappa Pannikar, Sukumara Azhikode, Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan, Sugata Kumari, Vinayachandra, Satchidanandan, Valaya Vasudevan… These aren't mere names. Although I have not read them all in detail, they appear to me like dear members of the family of Kannada writers. I had seen, and been overwhelmed by, Ramu Kariat's delightfully simple and touching film Chemmeen, produced before the new wave was inaugurated in south Indian cinema, and before the work of Adoor Goplalakrishnan, Aravindan and John Abraham had won national and international acclaim for Malayalam cinema.

Preservative powers
Ancient glories, which have not survived elsewhere in India, live on unspoilt here, thanks to the preservative powers of Kerala's salt crystals. Authentic elements of our ancient theatre live on, nurtured by your koothus, Kudiyattam, Krishnattam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and such other forms. Also, Sanskrit learning and ayurveda have made Kerala a treasure house of ancient knowledge. Kavalam Narayana Pannikar has attracted the attention of all of India by creating a new theatre form from what he found relevant and fascinating among the treasures of the old theatre. The late Sankara Pillai did much to initiate your theatre into modern training methods.

When we talk of the quality of your salt to preserve the old, we cannot forget the breeze that comes from other lands and renews the old.  They say the Christian faith came to your land the very century it was born. Before that, the Jewish faith had entered your shores. By the 5th and 6th centuries, the Arabs had already set foot here. From then till now, several world faiths have come and settled in the cool of your land; they have gradually learnt to live and interact with each other. A place such as this, where the Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions blend harmoniously and live together, is rare in India. Muslims in most places in India, with the exception of Bengal, think of Urdu-Hindustani as their mother tongue. But your Muslims believe Malayalam is their mother tongue.

When we look at your poets, writers, thinkers, politicians and social workers, we see a balance of various religions, castes, sub-castes, and as many women as men: perhaps this is difficult to find in other parts of India. This could explain how coalition governments came to be formed here for the first time in India. They worked well; and co-operative societies have thrived as well.

I have never seen your EMS Namboodiripad. I have read his writing in translation. You must have heard of our extraordinary leader and socialist friend Gopala Gowda; you may also have read Avasthe, a novel by Ananthamurthy which explores a character like him.  Alongside the late Gopala Gowda, I hold EMS dear to my heart. EMS is one of the best leaders of this country. Modern Kerala, influenced equally by spirituality and advaita on the one hand and egalitarianism of the other, has acquired the wisdom to stand in the place of a guru to the other states in India. When I think of modern Kerala, I see both Narayana Guru and Namboodiripad shining in separate brilliance.

Jain families, which have come to your Wayanad and settled here and whose home language is Kannada to this day, have been a bridge between you and us. I am reminded of Veerendra Kumar, a popular member of the Karnataka-Kerala socialist fraternity and now a union minister.

Thirty years ago I built a house. The workers who built it were from Kerala. Many of your craftsmen have come to Karnataka and made a name for themselves. I must also tell you about my own umbilical connection.  One of my uncles started tracing our family origins and discovered that a branch had come down and settled in Kerala. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I had come down, spoken to the family and returned.

Confluence of memories
On the whole, the Kerala of my imagination has been created from a confluence of these memories. I will not go on about them, but will try to look at the strengths of Kerala with the help of some images.

One: The craftsman who bows to the earth, picks up its wood and soil with the familiarity of a son taking things from his mother, and builds comfortable houses.

Two: The Chakyar who sits on the Koothambalam stage with the light of the lamp in his eyes, creating myths, legends and entire worlds.

Three: The Kerala woman in unplaited hair and in white, who, whatever her age, appears like a mother and bride, brimming with affection and charm.

Four: The youthful guru Dakshinamurthy, sitting in silence under a plentiful coconut tree in the midst of old disciples.

And so on.

But why just Kerala, my community has taught me to create, within myself, a whole world, even a universe.

I was born and brought up on the upper fringes of the Western Ghats, in a sparsely populated region with abundant rainfall, lush greenery and hills and mountains everywhere.  Our community is called Havyaka, and we are a brahmin sub-caste.  Now, of course, everything has changed beyond recognition; it has changed so much that it is difficult to believe things were all that different. Our people would find valleys, cultivate arecanut and live in small villages made up of three or four houses. Many of these people lived like frogs in a well, never straying beyond ten or twenty miles of their village. We know of the indigenous people of Africa; these people were just like them. But because they had a remote Vedic background, they had acquired a treasure of remembered knowledge about the Vedas, and history, poetry and the puranas, as also about the seas, rivers, mountains and pilgrim centres of the sub-continent. They could take a simple song of just four lines from this treasure and create an expansively wonderful world for themselves. The Yakshagana theatre was a major medium for such creativity. 

Shrine in the heart 
I have been observing the possibilities of creating Ayodhyas, Hastinapuras and Nandagokulas in our places and communities and even in the backyards of our homes.  Our Mookambike of Kollur is the favourite deity of several people in Kerala. Similarly, your god Anantasayana was a favourite of an old woman in our village. She had no inkling of geography, she knew nothing about where the temple was located or how to get there. She would get someone to read the panchanga and tell her when the Anantasayana lamp festival would be held. She would fast on that day and create the shrine in the heart of her home.

Not just my community, but communities at all times and in all places have created their own emotional outlines of the world and thrived on its richness. By doing so, they have transcended their little physical boundaries and reached the home of humaneness.  Contrastingly, modern civilization, which has grown in the West in recent centuries and has now come into our lives, seems to have set out with the stubborn conviction that human proximity can be achieved on the physical level alone.

It is against this background that we attach so much significance to the media, tourism and such other realms. The yearning to fix wheels to our feet, fasten wings to our bodies, and fly across vast distances to visit every corner of the world, is growing among us. We believe means of communication must grow and grow and make the entire globe a little village, hoping that then all of humanity will live in love and intimacy like a village community.

It would become clear, if we looked back at the history of modern civilisation, that this is just an illusion. In Europe, where communication media grew amazingly, two great wars were fought within just 25 years, and for the first time in world history.

I look at myself. Given my limited life span, and the limitations of my time, ability and resources, how much would I be able to travel? How much would I be able to comprehend with the help of the media? How much would I smell, touch and wear in my hair? To what extent would I want to widen my knowledge this way? To this day I don't know what is in which box in our kitchen. It is no great loss that I don't either. What do I achieve by cramming all the particulars of the world in my head?

Kalidasa's brilliance
Somerset Maugham once hired a plane, flew down to India, conducted a study and a survey at a place in Kerala, and wrote a novel.  Maugham's novel did not become a great work. Similarly, news journals, which we read once and put aside, take great pains and collect information from the spot.

As a contrast, I think of Meghadoota. Kalidasa's Yaksha, cursed, comes tumbling down from the heights of the Himalayas to the foot of Ramagiri in the Vindhyas.  How could he have noticed what was on the way when he was in that sorrowful, anxious and forgetful rush? For about a year he remains "in waters in which Janaka's daughter bathed, in cool shaded courtyards/ in the punyashramas of Ramagiri", and recreates the long, beautiful 'Alaka route' which weaves through Ujjaini. The fire of love awakens memories within him, and through it he becomes a citizen of the world, a lover of the world.  Doesn't Meghamarga, the route among the clouds—which he conjured up, and with the help of which he brilliantly created an India of the imagination—invigorate our minds 1,500 years after he wrote his play? We are unlikely to get such an intense experience even if we travel all the way from Ramagiri to the Himalayas and back.

Buddha lived in a little province of the Sakya kingdom 2,500 years ago.  At that time, Magadha was trying to gobble up the smaller states in its neighbourhood and planning to establish a huge empire. Buddha was in favour of the little republics; he was, in all likelihood, opposed to imperial expansion. Yet he had created a universe for himself in his imagination and lived in it.

On the one hand is the friendly, understanding view that we live here by breathing in the world and breathing out what is within us. On the other is the belligerent view that we must attack everything different and bring it under our ownership. It is because of modern civilisation's belligerent view that we have fallen victim to such travel mania, publicity mania and megalomania. It is certainly impossible to achieve human bonding with such an attitude. Here, travel is reduced to promiscuity. Communication results in invasion and dominance.

Futility of 'mega' culture 
We must think about the relations among our linguistic communities against these divergent points of view. Our artistes, writers and thinkers are saying today, in enthusiasm and excitement, that the relations among our linguistic states, and between our languages, theatres and art forms, should grow at a faster pace. They feel writers and artistes should travel extensively in other states and improve their contacts, that works in our languages must be translated extensively, and that a huge battalion of translators should be trained in each state to take up huge projects. But I fear and suspect this excessive enthusiasm for fast, big-scale activity could have emerged from the intoxication brought about by modern civilisation.

Look at our history of two thousand years. Our provinces always had a healthy give and take in philosophy, language, poetry and the arts. Our religions, philosophies, thoughts, cultures and the arts had not remained closed, as many think.  Rather, they have travelled across the subcontinent, and given and received. The techniques and styles of Ajanta Ellora are found again in Mamallapuram. The uniqueness of the prosody and rhythm of south India find expert use in poet Jayadeva of the north. When the pundits of poetics were discussing dhawani in Kashmir, our Kavirajamarga poet was enthusiastically recording his views on it. The Kannada Sivasaranas lived like one family, but if you look at their roots, you will find some who came from the Saiva sects of Tamil Nadu and Kashmir and the tantric sects of middle India. Acharya Sankara's great journey across India is well known. Besides, our mainstream religions have gone to the little communities in all nooks and corners of the country, confronted native beliefs, influenced them and been influenced by them.  On the whole, no community in any corner of this country has remained untouched by other communities.

You have just watched our Ninasam troupe's play Hosa Samsara (New family). The man who wrote it is our great poet Ambikatanayadatta (Da Ra Bendre). He strove to build a new Karnataka family—a new Karnataka of the imagination—by blending various epochs, religions, and castes; he was a true state builder.  Such building of human relations comes with perseverance and compassion, with contemplation and mutual understanding, and not with the big racket of global travel and public relations.

I don't believe in projects that involve travel by thousands of writers and artists, and translation of thousands of books. I would think of them as a huge waste of money. Moreover, when we think we are creating a free, big highway, it soon gets transformed into an open route to the oppression of minority languages by the majority ones, to enslave, hegemonise and exploit. In the beginning of this century, when a similar—but less intense— zeal was seen, Hindi established its hegemony over many languages and dialects such as Rajasthani; Bengali established its authority over Assamese, Manipuri, Oriya and many other languages in the region. 

Modern-day confusion 
Our thinkers and writers denounce neo-colonialism, commercial invasion, consumer culture and environmental degradation in one voice. But like awestruck boys they endorse, at another level, all the dangerous beliefs of modern civilisation which lie at the root of all this. This is neither muddled thinking nor clever insincerity.  Modern education has prepared our minds like that.

In the course of my speech, you may have felt that I have been ignoring the advances of modern civilisation and spoken like an old-timer. That's because I am aware that the seeds of tragedy sown by modern civilisation in India, in Karnataka and Kerala— in Kerala more than in Karnataka—are sprouting.

Six or eight years ago I visited Manipur. If yours is a south-western little heaven, Manipur is a north-eastern one. Although at first it seems that the people and their ways are very different from ours, we gradually feel they are exactly like us. They don't have streams and oceans as you do. They have hills, mountains, clouds and rains, as we do. I was astonished and delighted to see the way they served food: a heap of rice on a banana leaf, with our own kesuvina palya and kalile pickle. I watched their Ras dance in a temple courtyard. I noticed college students in the audience shed their fears as they watched the Radha-Krishna episodes. A friend of ours in Manipur has a son of their age. The poor boy was enmeshed in some international drug smuggling network. He was in jail, and our friend was disturbed.

When I look at the dangerous face of modernism, I am not overwhelmed by the cataclysmic fear that the world is coming to an end. I have the confidence that we can avert destruction even if we retain a drop of the primordial human essence. That is why my attention is focused more on the primordial essence that can save humankind than on the tragedy confronting us. I give a small, light, comic example for what I call the primordial essence.

Primordial spirit
Last year (1996), the central Sahitya Akademi had organised a symposium in Bangalore. Our chief minister J H Patel was hosting a dinner at the Windsor Manor for writers who had arrived from all over India. Writers who came to the lounge that evening soon started withering under the pressure of five-star etiquette, feeling more and more dwarfed and thinking all this had to be endured as a matter of duty. There was total, hideous silence, but for some whispers and distant, false smiles. It was then that your M T Vasudevan Nair made his entry. As soon as he came into the lounge he lifted and tied up his dhoti, pulled out a beedi from his pocket and lit it up.  Saying "Hyalo" to everyone he sat comfortably on the edge of the elegant sofa, as though he were sitting on a plank at home. In a moment the unhealthy assembly returned to natural health and became a truly human meeting.  In a single moment, the corpse-like burden of the arrogantly formal and destructive five-star culture had crashed to the ground and shattered into fragments.

Friends, I feel very happy to be standing here in your little heaven, chatting with you. But I don't feel a great desire to return again and again and be with you. I cannot forget the distance to Kerala and my own limitations. I have my house built by your mestri Chellappan and carpenter Govindan. At times, when I open and shut the door, I hear whispers in Malayalam. Whenever I feel like seeing you, I will conjure you up before my eyes and continue talking to you. Namaskara.

(Transcript of talks at Trishoor and Kottayam, April 1997)

Translated from the Kannada by S R Ramakrishna