Kunchan Nambiar The First Proletarian Among Malalayalam Poets
First time a poet sung in Malayalam the regional language of Kerala in the 18th century.
As Malayalam is a language several centuries old in what language so far the other poets sung is the question that arises. This article is an attempt to explain the same along with a brief description of the biography of one of the greatest poet as well as that of the first proletarian performing art in the history of Kerala.
Kunchan Nambiar (1700 -1770) was born at Kalakkath Tharavad in Killikurisimangalam of Palakkad district in the beginning of the 18th century. (There is no record to prove the exact date of birth of this artist and it is presumed that his birth would have been around 1700 or so). Most part of his life was spent as a poet in the palaces of kings and houses of feudal land lords. Thus Nambiar had lot of exposure to the way day to day affairs of the rich were carried out. Being an observer the corruption, cruelties, fooleries existed there were all studied deeply by this bard who was better known as a satirist.
His creations have dealt severe blows to the Obsolete systems prevailed in those times no wrong doer was left uninjured by this pen wielding one man army. As his attacks were sugar coated with sweet satire even the injured joined among the laughing brigade.
17th and 18th centuries were bad times for Malayalam language as well known writers considered pure Malayalam as an inferior one. Hence they wrote in Sanskrit which was then considered as a divine language. This phenomenon created a wide gap between the learned and the ordinary people. The laymen did not understand what the writers write. And they simply kept away from the literary field.
Major part of Kunjan Nambiar’s life was spent at Ambalapuzha (then capital of Chempakassery kingdom) where he reached from his native land Killikurissimangalam after a short stay at Kottayam. It is while he was staying at Ambalapuzha he created the popular performing art “Thullal”. The story runs like this. In Ambalapuzha temple during festivals as a ritual a performing art by name “Koothu” was conducted. The performer of this art is known as “Chakyar”. Sri Kunjan Nambiar was the player of “Mizhavu” (a local percussion instrument). As the play was going on at night, poor Kunjan Nambiar just dozed off while playing the mizhavu!
The koothu is a program in which the performer narrates the mythological stories and in between talk about social events in satirical style. The dialect used is half prose and half verse. When the chakyar saw Kunjan Nambiar dozing he started telling stories humiliating the dozing Nambiar. And the viewers where enjoying the scene and they were in great applause. Hearing this noise Kunjan Nambiar woke and was ashamed. A great artist of satire became a laughing stock!
Kunchan Nambiar was thinking how to snub this chakyar for what he did last night. Rest of the night and next day he was engaged in giving birth to a new form of performing art which could attract the crowds gathered before the chakyar. Next night when chakyar was performing as usual opposite to that there was commotion people were seen gathered at the center was Nambiar with a strange crown and a colorful skirt decorated with a lace tender leaves. His face was made up with “manayola” (a local coloring material). There were brass rings decorating his hands and neck with big beaded local laces.
His art was simple and the language any laymen, could follow. That was the first time people saw such an art in their life as they were bored of the old rituals playing for generations without any innovations. As the artist stretched his hands on both sides as he sung the songs, people called it thullal (thullal mean jumping, dancing or just shivering! What the people meant is left to guess).
The story was “Kallyana Sougandhikam” an extract from Mahabharata where Lord Bhima travels to collect a rare flower by name kallyana sougandhikam. And see his elder brother Hanuman on the way and got engaged in lengthy conversations as Bhima does not recognizes his brother etc. It was the language people heard for the first time in a performance which had none of the unusual intricacies of Sanskrit. People were thrilled to hear the verses in the plain language they use in their day today life.
Kunchan Nambiar lavishly used the similes to insult the land lords and other so called very reputed personalities of that time as Bhima’s image was pictured like them foolish and arrogant landlord. People were thrilled but the chakyar was not. He went to the king and complained against Nambiar. The king of Chembakassery who knew about the pranks of Kunjan Nambiar and ordered that from that day onwards no “thullal” will be performed in the Ambalapuza temple compound.(even now this order is obeyed by the temple).
But the king did not ban the art as it is in the case of the present ministers. The thullal performances and the lyrics used in it spread like wild fire it became an essential performance in all temple festivals barring the Ambalapuzha temple.
The art of thullal was not created from the vacuum. Kunjan Nambiar adopted much from the existing tribal performances and gave it a great shape adding his sarcastic style of lyrics as an icing on it. He later improved it in to three styles “oattan”, “seethankan”, and “Parayan”, the three had minor changes in its dress and style they were derived from the performances observed by castes like “Kanian, Pulaya and Paraya” respecively.
In thullal the performer himself sings and says the story. The troop which accompanies the main artist repeats the same when each sentence is completed. This gives the people a chance to clearly follow what is said and enjoy the satire to the maximum.
Later when Ambalapuzha was conquered by Travancore, Kunjan Nambiar moved to Thiruvananthapuram, there he happened to meet and befriend with great artists in Malayalam literature like Unnayi Varier and Ramapurathu Varier etc.
Some of his two liners run like this
Embranalpam kattubujichal, (If the chief of the temple steal and eat a little)
Ambalavasikalokke kakkum. (All the dependants of the temple will steal)
Asanaksharamonnu pizhachal (If teacher commits one mistake)
Ambathettu pizhakkum sishyanu. (the student will commit fifty eight mistakes)
It was Sri Mathur Panikker who was the mentor of Kunjan Nambiar and he did great job in getting the various works of Kunchan Nambiar consolidated and made them available to modern world. Nambiar was first introduced to Sri kulasekhar Perumal the king of Chembakassery also was none other than Sri Mathur Panikker.
Sri Kunjan Nambiar has laughed at the cowardice of the “Nayar pada” (army constituted by Nairs) for their cowardice (in his work thottodunna pada = the retreating army). At that time army was lacking modern training and people served it for mere livelihood and deserting the army at time of war was common. His most famous work is Kallyana Sougandhikam Thullal pattu.
Sri Kunjan Nambiar was allowed pension from treasury and enjoyed free meals from the temple. The end of Kunjan Nambiar was not a happy one. It is believed that he was bitten by a mad dog and died of hydrophobia.
It is believed that Kunchan Nambiar has written more than forty works. He has used many old sayings and folklores in his works. His sarcasm did not even spare the Brahmins (at that time Brahmins being of the upper strata nobody dared to insult and humiliate them) Kunchan Nambiar was an exception he laughed at any thing that deserved to be laughed at. Whther it is Pattar (Brahmin) or Nair did not matter.