Malayalam Literature



Thunchat Ezhuthachan

Kunchan Nambiar
O. Chandu Menon
Kumaran Asan
Vallathol Narayana Menon
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer
Changampuzha Krishna Pillai
Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai
O. V. Vijayan
T. Padmanabhan
M. T. Vasudevan Nair

Thunchat Ezhuthachan (16th century) is one of the giants among Malayalam poets. Believed to have been born in Trkkantiyur in Malappuram district, Ezhuthachan is considered as the father of modern Malayalam poetry, who gave the language a power not known before. He has also made significant contribution to the spiritual and cultural renaissance of the state. Mahabharatam is the most important among Ezhuthachan's poetical works, the rest being, Adhyatmaramayanam, Irupattinalu Vrttam, Harinamakirttanam, Cintaratnam, Devimahatmyam. His Mahabharatam, the greatest epic poem in Malayalam, though a rendering from the Sanskrit epic by Vyasa, possesses all the necessary attributes of an original work of art.


Kunchan Nambiar (18th century) is considered as the creator of Thullal, a popular performing art of Kerala. Thullal avoids the high-brow rigidities of classical art forms like Kathakali and Koodiyattam, and also steers clear of the pedestrian folk forms such as Padayani. It blends the finer elements of both the genres, in formulating its strategies of performance and narration. Nambiar's Kalyana Saughandikam, (the golden water-lily) is believed to be the first among the forty odd Thullal songs he has composed for the stage. It was while enjoying the patronage of king Devanarayana of Chempakasseri, as a courtier that he composed the aforementioned Thullal song. His songs though dealing with puranic themes, abound in pungent and biting social criticism. Armed with satire and humour, Nambiar ridiculed the failings of his contemporaries and insisted on proper conduct and civilised behaviour from all sections of the society.


O. Chandu Menon (1847-1900), is considered one of the two pioneers of Malayalam fiction (the other being C. V. Raman Pillai). A Munsiff and later Judge at Tellicherry of the erstwhile Malabar, Menon has to his credit two novels Indulekha and Sarada, the latter remaining incomplete. Indulekha occupies a unique niche among Malayalam movels, in that it marked the dawn of modernity in the literature, highlighting the value of English education and the right of women to assert themselves in issues like their marriage and education. Even as a work of art, the novel was a trendsetter in its wonderful delineation of characters.

Kumaran Asan (1873-1924)

is a reputed Malayalam poet. All his major works including Chinthavishtayaya Sita, belong to a certain class of poetic writing, casually mentioned in the texts on Sanskrit poetics as Khanda Kavya. Chinthavishtayaya Sita (Sita in Meditation, 1919) is regarded by many as the masterpiece of Kumaran Asan. It marks the zenith of poetic finesse in the career graph of Asan, wherein the authenticity of his unique vision resulted in the creation of an almost new Sita who could confront Rama without flinching. Veena Poovu (Fallen Flower), Nalini and Leela are some of his other great works.


Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958) - In the early decades of the 20th century, Malayalam poetry, fettered for a time by repetitive neo-classical works, was rejuvenated and liberated by the trio of Kumaran Asan, Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer and Vallathol Narayana Menon. Vallathol, the youngest of the three, knew little English; yet by his intuitive capacity, he imbibed the spirit of romanticism which infused new life in Malayalam literature. A classicist by discipline, Vallathol started composing poems at the age of 13. His mature poems in Sanskrit and in Malayalam appeared only after 1910, and he translated Rigveda into Malayalam at the age of 75. His major works include Magdalana Mariam (1921)- an exquisite narrative poem based on an episode in the life of Christ as depicted in the gospel according to St. Luke. A patron of Kathakali, Vallathol founded the Kalamandalam institute at Cheruthuruthy. When India won freedom, he was made the Poet Laureate of Malayalam Language and Literature.


Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (1908-94) is regarded as one of India's most outstanding writers, on account of his superlative wit and originality. A freedom fighter, Basheer started writing short stories in 1937. Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Friend, 1944), a simple tale of love, friendship and tragedy, earned him a place in Malayalam literature. This was followed by Ntuppuppakkoraanentarnnu (Me Grandad 'ad an Elephant, 1951), the English translation of which, by R. E. Asher of Edinburgh University, won worldwide acclaim. Basheer's major works are peopled with characters drawn from his own Muslim milieu, whom he depicts in a manner that creates a strange combination of laughter and tears within the reader. Mathilukal (Walls, 1955) is another great novella by Basheer which was made into a successful motion picture by the renowned film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Changampuzha Krishna Pillai (1911-48) is one of the most popular poets in Malayalam literature, second only to Kunchan Nambiar in bringing poetry to the common man. If Nambiar is famous for his fine sense of humour, Changampuzha is renowned for his exquisite strain of lyricism. Belonging to the third generation of Romantics in Malayalam, he led pure romanticism to its very zenith. A prolific writer, with a writing career spanning two decades, Changampuzha produced more than 40, 000 lines of verse collected in around 44 volumes; this in addition to more than a dozen works in prose, including a novel, Kalittoli (Girlfriend, 1952) and an essay of literary criticism, Sahityachinthakal (Thoughts on Literature). Immensely well-read in world literature, especially poetry, Changampuzha translated many works into Malayalam.


Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (b. 1912) started off as a small-town lawyer but took to full time writing later and won himself the Sahitya Akademi Award (1957), Soviet Land-Nehru Award (1975) and Jnanpith Award (1984). His Chemmeen (The Shrimps) is one of the few works of fiction in an Indian language to gain worldwide recognition. The novel has been translated in all the major Indian languages and also in quite a few foreign languages. The film version of Chemmeen received the President's Gold Medal in 1966.

O. V. Vijayan (b. 1931) is undoubtedly the pioneer of modern fiction in Malayalam. A cartoonist, novelist and short-story writer, Vijayan has to his credit five novels, including Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Saga of Khasak, 1969), Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri, 1985) and Pravachakante Vazhi (The Way of the Prophet, 1993) besides many collections of short stories and articles and a book on his own masterpiece, Itihasathinte Itihasam (The Story of the Saga). Vijayan who started his career as lecturer in Kerala, soon opted for full-time journalism and making cartoons.

Madhavikutty (b. 1932) is the pen-name adopted by Kamala Das in her Malayalam writings. Though internationally renowned for her spirited poems in English, Kamala Das nee Madhavikutty has penned some brilliant short stories in her mother tongue. Her pseudonym represents the more intense and confessional self of this feminist writer. Her stories first appeared on the Malayalam literary scene in the 1950s, and later more frequently, in the sixties. She unleashed in them the pent-up world of female urges, frustrations and wild sexual fantasies, thus exposing the raw side of human identity. Madhavikutty's focus has always been on the tormented female self craving for love, but doomed to be cheated, exploited and abandoned. She replaced the self-pity that was a staple element of conventional women's stories with a subversive, vengeful imagination that demythified love, sex and even death. Her principal works include Naricheerukal Parakkumbol (When Bats Fly, 1960), Thanuppu (Cold, 1967), Madhavikuttiyude Kathakal (The Short Stories of Madhavikutty, 1982), and Neypayasam (Rice Pudding, 1991) and Ente Katha (My Story).


T. Padmanabhan (b. 1931), a distinguished short-story writer in Malayalam, has been writing since 1948, except for a brief period between 1963 to 1969. He has been credited with bringing the modern Malayalam short story nearer to the subjective intensity of the lyric. Many of his works have been translated into various Indian and foreign languages. It was when the short story reached a saturation point as a result of the repeated depiction of romantic idealism and social commitment that T. Padmanabhan emerged on the scene with a unique and highly individualistic idiom. Among his major works are Prakasam Parathunna Oru Penkutti (A Girl Who Spreads Radiance, 1955), Oru Kathakrittu Kurishil (A Story writer on the Cross, 1956), Makhan Singhinte Maranam (The Death of Makhan Singh, 1958) , Kala Bhairavan and Gouri (1993).

M. T. Vasudevan Nair (b. 1933), the famous Malayalam story-writer, novelist and editor has to his credit a number of fine films as well: he has written the script for a number of outstanding films besides having directed a few. Winner of several awards including the Jnanpith, Vasudevan nair, popularly known as M. T., burst into the literary scene with his maiden work, Nalukettu (the ancestral home of a Nair joint family), followed by Asuravithu (Asuravittu; Demon's seed: the son born to undo the family). The latter novel, written in a prose with poetic quality, bears the stamp of his genius, his mastery in subtle delineation of characters with great psychological insight.

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