Thakazhi Shivasankara Pillai — Three visionaries

I don’t know how the rest of India think of Kerala, the narrow strip of land at the West coast of South India and where some of India’s greatest minds had come from. Adi Shankara and Narayana Guru are the two most revered names. As for the rest of the secular cultural heritage, be it government service or writers and journalists, you will only only in Kerala there is this exuberance of human talent, in diverse fields. Women education is an envy of other states.

In 1817 education was made free! Women literaracy is equal to men’s, in Bihar it is just 27 per cent.5) newspapers come out in the state! In Thiruvanathapuram, the state capital, you can find in the narrow lanes and crowded towns people, sometimes internationally known film makers, artists, dancers and garrulous political the oreticians, writers and poets jostling shoulder to shoulder, riding the autorickshaws or simply boarding one of the battered state transport buses for a long haul.

Even the well-known and respected politicians or ministers or trade union leaders who could hold the government to ransom, you will find them arriving for some functions even outside the state in some such ordinary transport .You cant simply find in a Malayali’s looks whether he is a rich or a poor man. Simplicity in dress and look is the very defition of a typical Malayalai gentleman. And yet, there is this gross social inequality in this highly educated society. There is filty rich businessman riding his Mercedes Benz and also the most powerful politician riding the state bus! Anyway, I want to recall my own tryst with some of Kerala’s great names. I first met poet Vallathol (Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon) as a student from Santiniketan when I visited his native village of Cheruthuruthy near Shoranur in Kerala. In fact, it is a short drive from my own village across the Tamil Nadu border. But as a student, I think, I travelled from Coimbatore by train to Shoranur. The poet received me and my companion warmly in his home and as he was stone deaf he spoke to us in hand gestures, mudras. I remember he narrating how poet Tagore asked him to send a Kathakali artise and he sent Guru Kunju Kururp. Once Tagore witnessed the Kathakali mudras he fell for the dance form. Since then, there was always a Malayali dancer-teacher in Santiniketan and Tagore’s own style of dace is a mix of many of the traditional Indian dances.

In the mid-Fifties I am talking about, Kerala Kalamandalam, founded by the poet, was just a small place. It was located on the banks of Bharata Puzha river and we have to take a short walk to the premises from the poet’s home. Just opposite his home was located the girls hostel. Nearby was the printing press and the publication wing old his own literary works. Since then, I might have visited Kerala Kalamandalam several times. All those memories rush back and crowd my mind! I remember the big day in the institution’s history would be the visit of Pandit Jwaharlal Nehru (for the silver jubilee).Nehru came all the way and spoke with emotion and concern, typical of the man. He donated Rs. One lakh, a very big sum then, and much more interesting was the fact that when he came he was accompanied by some of the great minds of Kerala. Sardar K.M.Panikkar, a great historian and thinker, K.P.S.Menon, the ICS man and many such names, these Menons were all working with Nehru in Delhi. As typical of the custom, Nehru stretched his legs on the floor as he witnessed the Kathakali performance!

When I founded a secondary school in my village in 1962, I once took my staff to visit Kalamandalam. At that time one Subramania Iyer was the secretary, the poet passed away and it was at this visit I befriended the highly gifted Baharata Natyam teacher, the late AR.R.Bhaskar. He was the disciple of one Kumbakonam nattuvanar (Samantha Pillar?).My friendship with Bhaskar flowered into several interesting projects.

Arts programme in my school
He brought a troupe to my school to perform the Mohini Attam dance. Then, slowly one by one, some of his disciples, boys and girls were given jobs in my school to teach arts. I found that the arts programme in my school slowly developed into a major component, there was also a drawing master from Santiniketan to teach painting and drawing and the village children deprived of the arts, responded to spontaneously. The dance classes produced a mini-social revolution! The girls and boys refused to go home in time and the parents were worried! The otherwise dull, academic teachers were sidelined by the children. They all wanted to participated in dances and one Malayalai male dance teacher arrangted some group dances and when this was staged, there was a stampede in the school when crowds surged to witness the dances from close quarters. One dance and music festival was staged in the remote village and it was a wonder spcial buses were deployed to bring in and empty the crowd that lasted well past midnight! So, I could see the power of creative arts in the growth of the young minds.

So, the close links with Kalamandalam grew as years moved on .Bhaskar was always by my side and whenever I visited him in Kalamandalam ,he would take me to see the bigwigs in his area. That is how I became friend of some of the famous names. There is one Poomulli Namboodiri Illam near Cheruthuruthy, the late Raman Namboodiri was a great music lover and I was fortunate to enjoy his friendship till his life time. Also Bhaskar introduced me to another great name, the late M.K.K.Nayar who was at that time Chairman and Managing Director of FACT, the first and great fertiliser giant in the state. Nayar was also became the Chairman of Kamalamandalam and this was the golden years of the institution. Himself a great lover of the art Nayar went on to introduce so many innovations. He also brought an annual publication, a rare collector’s item then .He would often come to Kalamandalam and when ever he came I also got an invitation from Bhaskar. So, I remember the many nights when I was seated by the side of Nayar as he was directing the Kathakali demonstrations. He would instruct to shortern some passages so as to suit the time requirements of the foreign audience. The Kathakali truopes were sent out to several countries and thanks to Nayar”s many innovations watching the art was made easier and also interesting.
May be only in Kalamandalam you will meet youngsters, boys and girls, teachers, so unassuming they would say they have come back from Peking or proceeding to USA!

My visits to Kalamandalam continued. My Santiniketan friends when they came to my home I used to take them there When one Kannampilly was the chairman of Kalamandalam I went there. There were few VIPs and I was introduced to them. One was left out. When I asked who he was, he was duly introduced as a minister in the state government: Shankaranarayanan!

On another occasion I was seated near none other than the late Chief Minister, the much-admired C.Achutha Menon! He had granted Rs.18 lakh to build a Koothambalam. It was the inauguration that took me there. The present expanded campus was also planned by M.K.K.Nayar. Afterwards the institution fell into decay. There was a time when any bigwig visited the state a visit to Kalamandalam marked the height of such visit . Morarji Desai when he was Prime Minister came there. Then, the decline started, though it was a grant-in-aid institution. Now, I read there are efforts to declare it a separate university, it is written, on the lines of Santiniketan. This, as I can say with confidence is a mistaken notion. Santiniketan is a Central University .So, the funding pattern has to be explored in some detail. To affiliate some courses as already done with the Kaladi-based Sankara Sanskrit university is okey but not enough. Given the funds crunch everywhere, it would be better some private consortium of entrepreneurs, Keralaites in Gulf and outside the state to mobilise funds to resurrect a prestigious institution founded by Kerala’s great poet would be a lasting solution. This, the state government or the CPI(M) jointly can undertake. Arts like Kathakali, also Koodiyattam (the Sanskrit drama of yore) and other Kerala traditional arts, architecture can all be profitably brought under one institutional arrangement. Ford Foundation and such bodies can be asked to institute some scholarships for foreign nationals . Only such foreign students can learn these arts and also put to much commercial and other uses when they go back to their respective countries.

Great individuals who started institutions had paid heavy price. In Kerala itself I know the late G.Ramachandran, founder of Gandhigram. In his last years he had to retired to Neyyattinkara and die a sad man. Gandhigram became another bureaucratic entity. The post of Vice-chancellor was sought after by every Tom, Dick and Harry! Near Thiruvanathapuram itself my friend, P.K.Visvanathan, founder of Mitraniketan is carrying on valiantly, not with much mental peace, I would say! I myself had run a school with grant-in-aid for some 15 years. I can now lookback and say to depend on government funds is to live like in hell!

Patrons like M.K.K. Nayar could enliven any institution. Such was the exposure he gave to Kathakali in his time. I used to meet Nayar in Udyogamandal where he had his office. Where he also introduced a fine arts section which was next to Kalamandalam only in drawing talents from far and wide. Nayar was a great patron and anyone who sought his help were richly rewarded. I could write a lot about Nayar and what I learnt from him. I met him last time, year later when he was in a downward mood. His enemies were active. He told me:”All this will pass off. Our good deeds would remain”!

Prophetic words. I am particularly grateful to him for some emotional support. I was also in a troubled mood. I was not sure of admitting my son to a good school. When I metnioed this to Nayar, he said instantly:”Admit your son to Lawrence School, Lovedale”. What a coincidence! When he said this, at that very moment I got a call from my wife in Coimbatore.”Kartik got admission to Love dale”! A truly great man was M.K.K.Nayar. There are so many institutions that bear testimony to his public service.

One more great name is Thakazhi Shivasnakaran Pillai, the great writer, the Gnanpith award winner. His classics are too many. His one short story had been translated into Tamil several times. Such is the power of his pen. His “Chemmeen”novel created a revolution. The film was also the first national award winning Malayalam film, the trend setter for many other later-day achievers in this genre. I once invited Tahakazhi to come to Coimbatore to one of my literary meetings. He agreed to come and one day when I went to receive him at the Coimbatore airport, I was to witness a surprise. The plane taxied the tarmac and stopped. From inside there landed a galaxy of Malayalam personalities. Vayalar Ravi, I knew .K.S.Sethumadhavan, the film director I knew. But I didn’t know Thakazi. A lone ,obscure figure in a half tied mundu with a beedi in his hand landed.

Everyone turned towards this figure and greeted him. I suspected he must be Thakazhi. Yes, he was! Such an unassuming personality, an internationally known literary figure and yet a typical Malayali. He spent two days with me in Coimbatore and I learnt a lot from him. He was an Indian version of Tolstoy, so wise and so straight in expounding the truth. He told me so many of his life’s twists and turns, his travels abroad, how once when he found himself in Tokyo, the first Kerala Communist ministry under EMS was taking over. The great Japanese daily newspaper Assai Shimbun, when it found that Thakazhi knew all the Communist ministers, the newspaper asked him to write about all the Communist ministers and paid him very generously. In fact,when the Communists took power, it was almost a flowering of the Malayalam literature and thought. The Communist awakening gave rise to so much progressive elements in arts and letters. The best of modern Malayalam literature, the best of Malayalam writers wrote welcoming this new era of man’s dignity and man’s equality and an end to exploitation of many by man. Only in Malayalam you have so many Mahakavis! Co-operative of writers!

Publisher of high calibre like DC Books. In an industrial and rich city like Coimbatore I cant imagine to buy the sort of literary books as I can in a small town like Palakkad! But alas! Like all Cummunist movements elsewhere in India too the Communists are the big stumbling blocks to further social progress. Thakazhi had one simple formula for good writing.” Write what you feel writing. Don’t bother about the form or some such extraneous thoughts. Just write and leave it at that. You have written the best” When he spoke the next day at my literary meet, he had some causting things to say about the Tamil writers.”In Kerala we writers live and write where we are,in villages or wherever we are. In TN I see if one write writes his first story, he moves to Chennai and there he gets all sorts of artifical notions of being a writer”! Thakazhi was an object lesson for any writer. Thahazhi was a Nobel Prize material. It is because, we don’t have that alertness to take steps to promote our writers, such great writers didn’t get the required attentionand recogntion and the awards. Kerala abounds in human talents. Diverse talents. Just Kerala is a society utterly unlike any other Indian society.

The Communist  awakening gave rise to so much progressive elements in arts and letters. The  best of modern Malayalam literature, the best of Malayalam writers wrote  welcoming this new era of man’s dignity and man’s equality and an end  to exploitation of many by man.

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