BY G. VENKATACHALAM
Let me begin this short sketch of Vallathol with a confession!
I am not a Kerala Putra and do not understand a word of Malayalam. And yet I am venturing to write about one of Kerala’s great men of letters! I am grateful for having been asked to share with the readers some personal reminiscences of the poet. But perhaps there is an element of joke in this request!
Usually scholars and men of ripe wisdom are invited to pay tributes to a great man. I do not pretend to be either of these. I am no scholar and do not particularly esteem scholarship. Scholarship for its own sake is a good for nothing, achievement. Ripe wisdom is a myth; senility is the only reality age knows. Those who ever said anything great did that before they arrived at the age of forty, that deceptive age to which is given the subtle epithet, "still young."
I am not old enough to be taken for granted; and, though beyond forty, I have no achievements worth the name to my credit either in letters or in life. But the request came with such a persuasive tone, almost amounting to a command, that I said to myself in flattery: "Methinks there is some method in their madness!" It is so easy to be flattered, so easy to fall a victim to the subtle snares of self-importance!
I spotted Vallathol even before I met him face to face or was introduced to him. He was coming, in the company of several of his friends and fellow workers, along a shady avenue of his village at Mullakunnathukavu, to an evening class of the Kalamandalam. He towered, in mere physical stature, above them all; and there was something arresting about his stately walk, like that of the lordly lion in his lonely forest. He strode, that wet evening, with a long pole in hand, a la Vivekananda, and was clad all white in pure khadi, a half-sleeve shirt, a loosely tucked dhoti hardly reaching to the ankles and a towel carelessly thrown over his head. A pair of wooden sandals broke the monotony of their silent walk; and the setting sun was painting the clouds in soft pastels. That was my first "long-shot" view of the Mahakavi.
A "close-up" view revealed many startling facts. I had imagined him to be slender, almost frail, as I had associated him with dance-art, a delicate dandy with chiselled features, tapering fingers, floating curly hair, flowing robes–the conventional figure of an oriental poet we fancy in our minds! I noticed, to my surprise, that he was a well-built man with magnificent physique, long limbs, broad shoulders, a massive head and a powerful body built on a generous chassis.
I noticed also that this rugged rustic poet had all the charm and naturalness of a country squire. His big broad face was ever filigreed with smiles, as artless and appealing as those of a little child. His laughter was free and loud, and his mannerisms as polished and perfect as those of a born courtier. His generous impulses were as exuberant as the very nature that surrounded him, and he seemed to be so much in tune with his environment.
There was nothing artificial or showy about the man, and none of the Poses, airs, conceits of the half-baked artist. He was nature’s grand gentleman, and withal a great poet. He had a frank face, a pair of gentle eyes, which revealed his inner sweet, simple nature, and a large store of expressive gestures which he used freely to communicate his ideas more eloquently than by words. To me Vallathol’s attraction was not in his physical features but in the qualities of his mind and his heart and in his poetic genius. His disabilities of deafness and slight stammering only enhanced the greatness of his personality, by the triumph of mind over body, the victory of spirit over environment.
All great poets are men of moods; but moods, like the ripples on the surface of water, come and go. I have been quite fortunate in meeting Vallathol–and I have met him a number of times–in his best moods, in moods when he was happy, gay and care-free. The worst luck any one could have is to meet an artist in his creative mood. Then the man is irritatingly selfish, cruel, rude and careless, lost in a world of own and altogether an impossible person to deal with.
But there are moods when an artist is just happy, light-hearted, light-headed, full of fun and frolic, and often saying and doing the silliest and stupidest things with a smile. That is the mood in which the artist is better appreciated as man, as friend, as a healthy simple creature. It was my luck to have seen and known Vallathol in such fine moods.
Vallathol’s family life has all the simple charm and confusion of an ideal Hindu home. Surrounded by children and grand-children, he lives the ordinary life of a Grahastha. His devoted daughter, a dark-eyed girl with raven-hair and champak-complexion, attends to his creature comforts. The apple of his eye, however, is his grand-daughter, Kamala, the child with the fairy-like face, elfin-like in mischief. No luxuries surround his daily life, and nowhere about him is any sign of wasted wealth. His is a glorified peasant’s life.
Mahakavi Vallathol is no product of modern education. He has never been anywhere near the portals of a University, nor is he a very widely traveled man. His cultural contacts are few and limited. It was only recently that he undertook an extensive tour of India, in the interests of the Kalamandalam, and the few foreigners he ever meets are students who come to his institution for learning Kathakali. His knowledge of English is almost next to nothing, and he is not much of a voracious reader either.
And yet it is amazing how well he keeps himself informed about the world’s affairs, how sound his judgments are on most things, and what a clever critic he is of some of the English poets! His poetic version of ‘Mariam’ (Mary Magdalene) is considered a classic in Malayalam literature. His favourite English poets are Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Keats and Oscar Wilde; and he is also a great admirer of Victor Hugo. Among the living modern poets he occupies a distinct and foremost place in India. His ‘Ramayana’ is compared with the Ramayana of Tulsi Das in its power of diction and grandeur of style, Competent critics say that he is most unquestionably the greatest of the modern poets in Malayalam and one of the best in the world. He has been proudly acclaimed as Kerala’s Mahakavi, as Tagore is acclaimed as Asia’s great poet.
Great as is his place as poet, and unique his contribution to Malayalam literature, it is not for these he is widely known and admired, but for his special services rendered to the Indian renaissance by reviving and revitalising an almost forgotten cultural heritage. He is better known, outside Kerala, as the founder of the Kerala Kalamandalam and the modern inspirer of the dance-art known as Kathakali. His efforts to popularise this art in India, and even outside India, are too well known. It was no easy task, this resuscitation of a long-neglected classical art, and the odds he had to contend against were great.
To start with, the apathy and indifference of the people of Kerala (though they are all enthusiastic and loud about it today) were great. There was very little moral sympathy or material support for his cause. The poet was not well known outside Malabar, and he was always appreciative of any encouragement he got from anywhere. A few Europeans like Mrs. Stan-Harding, Miss Alice Bonner and Dr. Cousins cheered him by their appreciation of his work; and dancers like Uday Shanker, Shrimati Hutheesing, Ragini Devi and Ram Gopal popularised the name of his institution through their interpretations of Kathakali; and the students of the Kalamandalam itself, like Gopinath, Madhavan and Thankamani, have revealed the splendid possibilities of the poet’s dream.
Vallathol was lucky to have as his collabarator and trusted lieutenant a man of equally unselfish nature, a man of genial and unostentatious character, Mr. Mukunda Raja. While the poet is the inspiring genius, he is the skilful organiser, and between them both they have shared the joys and troubles of running the Kalamandalam. As one who has seen the institution and its working at close quarters, and as an art enthusiast who has done his little bit to make this wonderful art of Kathakali more widely known, I wish to pay my meed of tribute to these two men for their selfless, silent pioneering work. I wish them the speedy realisation of their dreams–and more power to their elbows.