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His new style of writing, characterized by unprecedented clarity and romantic rage, cried out for the freedom of the individual

Kumaran Asan: The poet of new humanity

The oldest and the most important member of the Great Trio, Kumaran Asan belonged to the Ezhava caste which was discriminated against by the upper castes that monopolized the literary and cultural life of Kerala throughout history. Influenced by the teachings of the philosopher/cultural activist Narayana Guru, Asan sought to create a new cultural ethos for Malayalam based on English liberal education. Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan also preached an increased adherence to the Sanskrit tradition--this helped them in effectively outwitting the proponents of caste supremacy on every level of culture and politics.

While most of the prominent poets were busy writing classical epics, in the year 1909 Kumaran Asan published his long elegiacal poem Vina Poovu (A Fallen Bloom) and provided a metaphor for the tragedy of human life in modern times. In many ways, much of the poetry of previous generations ignored human life, if they did deal with it at all; those poets seemed to treat everything as an illusion and spoke in the idioms of the Hindu philosophers. Asan's poetry moved away from the glib philosophizations and started to capture the contemporary, the particular. He wrote repeatedly about the dehumanizing experience of the individual who has been deprived of fundamental human dignity. His new style of writing, characterized by unprecedented clarity and romantic rage, cried out for the freedom of the individual. Asan's individualism was not a solipsist, bourgeois ideal like the individualism of the West. A low caste individual's assertion of identity and self-respect was an act of subversion in the eyes of the higher castes who for centuries refused to acknowledge such individuality; Asan's poetry rendered for the first time the essence of the "low-caste" individual who possessed a higher moral authority than the oppressors; in effect, Asan's poetry was affirming the essence of the collectivity which was historically denied.

In conjunction with Asan's nationalist aspirations, his poetry proclaimed freedom from the bondage of ignorance, political and personal silence. He developed a consistent vision which not only included those who were oppressed but also the oppressors. In his Duravastha (The Tragic Plight, 1923), Kumaran Asan exhorted: "Remove the bonds of your effete tradition/ Or it will ruin you within your own selves." Asan's poetry brought into the culture a plea for a revolution of the heart. In Duravastha, his most celebrated khanda kavya (miniature epic), a Brahmin woman named Savithri marries Chathan, an untouchable, after he had given her refuge when her family home was destroyed in the Muslim Revolt of Malabar (1921). This event takes place during a period when many Brahmins still considered lower caste people untouchables. (Most lower caste groups were required to holler as they approached a Brahmin so that the latter could avoid the pollution!) Having accepted the kindness of an untouchable, Savithri reciprocates his generosity by marrying him. This was incendiary material in the eyes of the orthodoxy; even distinguished critics like A. R. Rajaraja Varma, a part of the orthodoxy, sought to chastize Asan's great work for faulty Sanskrit style. But Kumaran Asan's poetry found the right audience among the nationalists and the new educated class.

That Asan was able to create human drama without succumbing to didacticism provided unusual strength to his poetry as well as his romantic vision. Having transformed Malayalam poetry from the stale, stolid cultural environment, Kumaran Asan was able to make his readers experience the horror of bondage, both external and internal; this was also the philosophical strategy of his mentor, Narayana Guru, whose followers became a ready audience for Asan's poetry.

In his miniature epics such as Nalini, Leela, Chandalabhikshshuki, (The Beggar Woman) Chintavishtayaya Sita, (Brooding Sita), Karuna (Mercy), Kumaran Asan sang eloquently about such issues as class oppression, fuedalism, imperialism, materialism, untouchability and unapproachability. Though there existed no gender-based cultural critique at this point, most of his works displayed a great understanding of womanhood. His heroines continue to inhabit the language as if they are actual human beings. His work drew much strength from Buddhism which challenged the iniquities of caste while offering realistic materials suitable to make his romantic art.

For instance, in Chandala Bhikshuki, a low caste woman named Matangi accepts a drink of water from a young Buddhist monk, Ananda, and she undergoes a conversion experience and becomes a Buddhist nun. In Karuna, the courtesan Vasavadatha is attracted to the Buddhist monk Upagupta who keeps telling her that it is not yet time for him to enter her life. After the courtesan had murdered a merchant, she was apprehended and her limbs dismembered in punishment. For Asan, Vasavadatta is a metaphor of alienation and decay, and the poet seems to suggest that her longing for the monk's presence is that of the society's desire for renewal. Upagupta the monk does arrive to comfort her with the compassion of the Buddha.

It is important to note that Kumaran Asan chose a Buddha figure (as a religion Buddhism is almost noexistant in India because of its resistance to caste) instead of a Hindu ascetic (even contemplative life is prohibited for the lower castes) as a harbinger of renewal. The Buddhist conversion rhetoric here is not meant for proselytization at all; the poet uses it as a trope of dissent to all levels of cultural decay characteristic of the Indian society of the times. Of the many poets of this romantic tradition who inovoked the Buddha and Jesus metaphors, the most significant figure was Vallathol, a member of the Great Trio.

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Last Updated: December 11, 1998