At once erudite and riveting, Manoj Kuroor’s Nilam Poothu Malarnna Naal (The day the land bloomed) is considered one of the most important Malayalam novels of this millennium. Set in the Tamil Sangam era, it explores a hitherto uncharted narrative territory in Malayalam or, for that matter, even Tamil. To capture the aesthetic essence of this unique milieu, Manoj deploys a new idiom based exclusively on Malayalam’s Dravidian roots; an idiom devoid of Sanskrit sounds. The result of this linguistic experiment is a reading experience that is as much musical as it is literary.

A Malayalam professor at Pandalam NSS College, Manoj is one of the leading poets of his generation and is known for his long narrative poems. He has published two book-length poems (Coma, Sudoku) and an anthology titled Uthamapurushan Katha Parayumbol (When the first person tells the story). Hailing from a family of Kathakali artists, he began his literary career in his late teens, writing and publishing an Attakatha—Kathakali poetry.

Manoj, who is a performing chenda artist, is also a reputed music critic. His collection of essays on popular music, Nirappakittulla Nrithasangeetham (Colourful Dance Music), is a pioneering work in that genre in Malayalam. His doctoral thesis, Keralathile Thaalangalum Kalakalum (Rhythms and art forms in Kerala) has also been published as a book. The Tamil translation of Nilam Poothu Malarnna Naal has also been widely hailed.

Edited excerpts from an interview.

What were the impulses behind writing a novel on Sangam poets?

At the beginning of the millennium there was a poetry camp at Hoggenakkal under the leadership of Tamil-Malayalam writer Jayamohan. We had an intense debate on the traditions and poetic techniques of Tamil and Malayalam. I suppose it was from that point that I started to seriously engage with the idea of Keralam’s ancient cultural roots, and as a continuation of that engagement started to read the Sangam poets.

The Sangam texts, composed between the second century BCE and fifth century CE, are a collection of more than 40 books, one of the richest sources for the cultural history of south India, a history still mired in a pile of conjecture.

The people we meet in these texts are a group living in the hills and deserts, on grass banks, sea shores and on the banks of rivers. Their lifestyle was dependent on their geography; mostly, they were farmers, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, dacoits, and fishermen. They lived and moved in groups. Among them were soldiers, silk weavers, ornament-makers, cobblers, makers of musical instruments, and those who performed rituals.

They were ruled by kings and chieftains. Most of the kingdoms were small, but some were large. There were groups who made their living singing and dancing for these rulers, and by composing poems in praise of them. These artists lived in wandering groups. It was an era when caste differences were not prominent. And though there were many religions, no one religion could be said to have clear dominance. There were more than 40 women poets in this group.

This culture is a common property of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, it has not been explored or studied in depth in Kerala.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that these texts, till then hidden from the period when the Saiva-Vaishnava movements became strong in south India, were discovered. Tamil Nadu quickly imbibed Sangam poetry as part of their cultural ancestry. Major studies were done on these texts in the Tamil academic world. However, except for those who had read a few obligatory pages about these texts as part of their curriculum on Kerala history and Malayalam literature, Kerala and Malayalam turned an almost blind eye to this heritage. My objective in writing a novel was to address this lacuna, and to make an attempt to bring these texts and their tradition into a wider public domain.

What were your reference points? How did you reconstruct the geography, cultural space and the physicality of that era?

Mostly, the Sangam texts. In addition, I also referred the travelogues of Pliny and Ptolemy for their descriptions of south India. The journey described in the climax is based on these travelogues.

I also borrowed from oral myths. For instance, there is a reference in the texts to a girl murdered by king Nannan. According to myth, it is for this girl that a temple at Anamalai in Pollachi was built. I have used this kind of information, too.

As for geographic detailing, my method was to re-interpret the present geography of the region based on textual references. The terrain of Kerala and Tamil Nadu that we find in these poems is vastly different from what we find today. So I had to travel many times through these regions before coming up with a concrete territory for the narrative to be staged. 

What were the major challenges working on this novel?

The major challenge, of course, was collecting sufficient historical information and finding a fixed time-period to frame the narrative. It is one thing collecting historical information and quite another using them in a fictional narrative. For that purpose, I had to read the texts over and over again. I had to find specific details about the objects they used in daily life, custom and tradition, their ways and techniques of music and dance, fashion, food culture, basically everything that would give the characters flesh and blood. Otherwise, they would remain dead relics on the pages.

Geographical detailing proved to be even more difficult since travel is the key narrative tool employed in this novel. So if I had to describe a scene where a group travelled from one place to another by foot or horse, I had to first have a clear map of their journey and then based on that idea I had chalk out other details like the time required for such a journey.

And of course, there was the challenge of the right kind of language and tone for a narrative like this. Since I had decided not to use words that came to Tamil and Malayalam from Sanskrit, often I had to search long and hard for an appropriate word. More importantly, I had to make sure that while doing so I did not sacrifice the natural flow of language. Once the first draft was finished, I had to edit and correct it almost 40 times.

Why choose a contemporary and edgy narrative structure, a political thriller, for the novel?

The present form was arrived at after many trials. I only had a loose form to start with. Though I had an idea about the culture and life of that period, it was difficult to find a plot. Most of the Sangam poems were based on abstract themes of love, war and hunger. Yet, on close reading, one could find references to a somewhat mysterious incident—the murder of king Vel Pari. He was treacherously murdered by the Chera-Chola kings, who disguised themselves as beggars and requested Vel Pari, described as benevolent, for his kingdom. Now, my inference was that if Vel Pari had given away his kingdom there would have been no reason for his murder. So based on this incident, I wove a fictional narrative creating imaginary characters that participated in this historical event. I felt that for a novel written in our age and time, this was an appropriate genre.

Though I employed the external form of a thriller, the intention was to build a narrative that focused on how a political event affected and changed the lives of the common people. These people are almost invisible in the Sangam texts, and I felt I should try to imagine their life in my novel.

The novel in that sense follows a three-act thematic structure: 1) the relationship between human beings and nature 2) the relationship among human beings 3) the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

What were the reasons for completely avoiding Sanskritic linguistic references?

Popular and mainstream perceptions of the origins and cultural ancestry of Kerala are still governed by such Sanskritic notions as the stories of Parasuraman, Mahabali and Vamanan. If we look historically, this Sanskritisation of our land is a consequence of the various dimensions of a dominant culture that became strong in the 9th century. As a result, a much more ancient culture was completely blacked out. It became an undisputed fact that Malayalam cannot exist without Sanskrit.

The basis for the language used in this novel is the realisation that even if we avoid Sanskrit altogether, Malayalam still has a unique identity, and that this is distinct from the identity of Tamil. Also, I felt that by avoiding Sanskrit, I would be able to find a continuity of the Sangam era in terms of language and culture.

I also believe that if we are willing to approach our cultural past with a language devoid of its Sanskritic elements, we will be able to imbibe it from a personal and emotional perspective rather than from a dry and academic one.

Does this return to Malayalam’s Tamil roots represent a different kind of revivalism? Is it a continuation from Attoor Ravi Varma and the Puthukavitha movement? How do you, as a scholar/critic and writer, view this?

One thing must be made clear. I am not searching for the roots of present day Tamil in this novel; rather, it is the link between Malayalam and a language that is the common root of both present day Malayalam and Tamil that I am exploring.

Even if we avoid Sanskrit and Tamil, Malayalam still has a link with the Sangam era language. It is this possibility that I have used in the novel. And I don’t see that as an attempt at revivalism. What is the politics of revivalism? It is a means to glorify a past tradition to justify contemporary power relations, right? But that is not how I have used language in my novel. The attempt, rather, is to confront a past tradition that has normalised and fortified contemporary power relations with another marginalised tradition. And even this tradition is not glorified. The past I present is one that has hunger, poverty, treachery, war, ritualised cruelties, etc. The language of that era does not have Sanskrit letters; in that sense, it is as much a fictional device as it is a political statement: after all, even when the theme demands that Sanskrit should be shunned, why should I still pander to a mainstream perception that Malayalam cannot exist without Sanskrit?

As for the novel being a continuation of Puthukavitha’s engagement with Tamil, I think what the movement addressed was a period which came into being after Tamil and Malayalam evolved separately from a common language that was in prominence in the Sangam period. I discussed the novel with Attor Ravi Varma. He says his areas of inquiry are the Vaishnava-Saivite movements, not the Sangam age.

At a time when there is so much emphasis on social realism/narratives of contemporary politics, were you apprehensive about choosing a theme like this?

There is an element of persuasive and demonstrative aspects to literature that emphasises narratives of social realism and contemporary politics. Though I have no disagreement with works that explicitly state their political orientation, that is not my way. I don’t believe that the most important subject of literature is the politics of the society. For me, nothing is more important in literature than the life of individuals and society. If in the process the politics of that individual or society is addressed, well and good.

Most of the Sangam poems were written to praise the kings. Common people have no place in them. They don’t even have names. But the narrators of my novel are people with names of their own. They are the ones who are made pawns in political games in any era. But even when I say this, I cannot forget that the chief instrument of a writer is language. Its world is different.

You started out with writing an Attakatha. Why haven’t you attempted that genre since?

Since my father and grandfather are Kathakali artists, it is an art form I have known for as long as I can remember. Right from a very young age, I used to go with my father to Kathakali shows. I learnt chenda from my father. Malayalam literature and Sanskrit came later. I wrote my first Attakkatha when I was 17. It was also presented at various venues. I then wrote two more works in that genre. But looking back now, I can only see them as expressions of teenage curiosity.

Kathakali is a classical visual art in which there is not much space or scope for experimentation or novelty. I realised this very early and saw no point in continuing to engage with the form of Kathakali poetry. As I grew older, my interest shifted to folk art and musical cultures of different traditions. But I must also say that it is the training in Kathakali that has helped me to understand different art forms within the framework of their specific cultural and technical contexts.

How much of an influence has your training and family background in Kathakali and Chenda been in your literary life? Even in poetry, except for the brilliant ‘Trithala Kesavan’, there are not many instances where the influence of classical arts can be traced.

The distinct characteristic of Kathakali is that it is an art form that combines aspects of various art forms like dance, theatre, music, make-up, etc. But there is a major obstacle. If you are under the influence of a classical art form, you will have a tendency to judge and measure all other art forms on the basis of the parameters you acquire from that art form. For this reason, one must have a critical perspective when one deals with a classical art like Kathakali.

The poem you mentioned, “Thrithala Kesavan”, is based on the life of the Thayambaka artist Thrithala Kesava Poduval. He was someone who subverted the rigid conventional structure of Thayambaka (a solo chenda performance where the main player improvises rhythmically on the beats of half-a-dozen or a few more chenda and ilathalam players) and revelled in wild flights of imagination while performing on stage. He was also someone whose personal life was a massive tragedy. He died at a very young age. The poem was an attempt to explore the complexities of his art and life using the rhythmic structure of Thayambaka as a poetic device. In that sense, it is a poem on all manic artists whose personal lives end up as disasters.

I am of the opinion that knowledge of other art forms will help a writer tremendously. It would help to get a firmer grasp of technical aspects like image deployment and formulation of rhythm structures. At the same time, poetry is a self-sustaining art form, and therefore does not have to be in the shadow of a classical art form. Its forms will vary in accordance with its thematic constraints. I have absolutely no interest in restricting poetry within the frameworks of tradition.

From the start, you were focused more on narrative poetry, a trait at odds with the general traits of the Puthukavitha movement of which you were a part. Could you describe the aesthetic impulses behind this?

It was from the beginning of the Nineties that I became active in poetry. It was a period of transition in Malayalam poetry. The loud and anguished voice of the ‘Adhunikatha’ (modern) poets of the ’70s was on the wane. Those of us who started writing during that period wanted to find a new idiom. Other than this shared ambition of wanting to break away from the influence of Adhunikatha, ours was not a movement as such. If Attor Ravi Varma, one of the senior-most poets in Malayalam, had not edited an anthology titled Puthumozhivazhikal (‘Ways of the New Word’) in 1999, I don’t think this tag of Puthukavitha would have been attached to us.

Knowledge of post-modern theoretical frameworks helped us introduce aspects of parody and pastiche into Malayalam poetry. Dalit and feminist poets developed their own ways. And every poet tried to device stylistically unique forms of expression based on their aesthetic and sociological circumstances.

There was a general trend to reject grand narratives and focus on subtleties. This lent itself to a way of poetic thought that placed the greatest importance on the image, that identified itself with a form that was minimal and abstract in its expression. I was sceptical about this. My point of view was that image is just one of the many poetic devices at a poet’s disposal.

Naturally, my orientation was towards narrative poetry. It was a form that helped me address both the concrete and abstract aspects of contemporary life. Also, it is a form that is viable for formal experimentation. Coma and Sudoku were poems written with this perspective.

You were a performing chenda artist. To what extent has it influenced  your literary life?

As I told you already, I started learning chenda at a very young age. I was a professional artist right from my teenage years. It has helped a great deal in both life and literature. For starters, I could earn my own money for my education.

It proved to be of great help in my doctoral thesis: ‘Rhythms in Kerala’s folk arts and modern Malayalam poetry’. Had it not been for my training in chenda, I don’t think I would have been able to link folk rhythms and modern poetry.

Interestingly, while I was working on the novel, the experience of carrying the chenda on my shoulders and travelling from stage to stage on buses for shows that provided scant remuneration, helped me a great deal in understanding the lives of the Sangam era artists who were essentially wandering minstrels. If you look carefully, you can see that the prose of the novel follows a pattern of rhythm that starts off at a slow pace, then tightens up before ending with a bang, just like a typical chenda performance does.

You are also a noted lyricist in Malayalam film industry. As a poet, what are the particular aesthetic challenges that a lyricist has to face?

It was never a conscious decision to become a lyricist. I first wrote songs for Shaji N. Karun’s award-winning film Vanaprastham in 1997. The heroine composes an Attakatha in contemporary language, and I was asked to pen the lyrics for that situation.

After that, though I was approached by many, I never felt an urge to return. I came back to the genre only a few years, again for Shaji N. Karun. I wrote the songs for his film Swapanam which had a chenda artist and a dancer as the hero and the heroine. One of the songs was written in the folk rhythm Kundanachi.

Great writers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley long ago proved that song writing is not an inferior art. In India the situation is different. Popular music is synonymous with film music. And film music is a collaborative art form that involves the lyricist, music director, film director, singer, etc. It is this collaborative aspect that I feel is the most enjoyable part of being a lyricist. But it’s a job that places quite a few restrictions on the lyricist. You have to choose words that fit the music. Sometimes, even certain letters may be not appropriate for the tune. When you listen to some songs you feel that there was no need for a lyricist here. When such offers come to me, I have never hesitated to say no.

You have often talked about the conflict you faced in MG University when you were exposed to western theoretical frameworks. Can you elaborate?

It was in the early 1990s when I was studying literature in MG University that western cultural studies theories became popular in Kerala. I was attracted to them. But for some reason, I found myself totally distanced from poetry and art in general. I was doubtful about everything. I looked at everything with the eyes that these theories gave me. I didn’t write a single poem for almost five years. Whenever I tried something, the language of theory defeated me.

While knowing these theories are extremely helpful in forming a deeper sense of cultural and political understanding of art and society, I feel that to write literature it is more important to be trained in aesthetic theories. It was with this conviction that I moved away from theory and returned to the world of creative literature. From this point I started writing again. I still follow the theoretical space. But I am much more interested in literature.

Even as a music critic you have focused more on western musicians rather than on traditional classical forms? Can you explain the thought process behind this decision?

While my training in classical music started at home, it was in school that I was exposed to pop music, especially to bands like Boney M and the Beatles. Later I was attracted to Bob Marly and Michael Jackson. During the initial years of Internet in Kerala, I used it to study African drums and piano. Gradually, the interest shifted to critical studies of music and musicians. And I came to the conclusion that the pop music of Kerala is still very much under the influence of melody and that all it does is to recycle the traditional streams of classical music. Music critics still follow these classical paradigms.  For experiments to take place in our music culture, we need to explore the possibilities of independent popular music. It was this thought that drove me to take up music criticism. My objective was to introduce in Malayalam the pop music traditions of various cultures.