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ONV Kurup, the celebrated Malayalam poet and lyricist who passed away in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday at the age of 84, was an influential presence in Kerala’s cultural landscape for nearly seven decades. A much-loved and respected teacher of Malayalam literature, he taught two generations of college students in Kerala. As a poet and public figure, he was associated with the political and cultural Left all through his life — he also contested unsuccessfully as the Left Front candidate from the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency in 1989. For decades, he was a dignified presence at cultural evenings in Thiruvananthapuram, the city where he lived, lending his voice to progressive social causes. He received numerous awards for his poetry, including the Sahitya Akademi prize and the Jnanpith, and a dozen Kerala state film awards for lyrics. Critics have been indifferent to his poetry in recent years, but he remained one of the most popular poets in the language.
The poems and film lyrics of ONV, as he was popularly referred to, were representative of the romantic movement ushered in by the seminal poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai in Malayalam in the first half of the 20th century. Kurup, who began writing in the 1940s, was part of a trio of young poets who painted Changampuzha’s romantic tradition red through their association with the communist movement that took roots in Kerala in the 1940s. These poets — P Bhaskaran and Vayalar Rama Varma being the other two — were instrumental in popularising the ideals of communism and the politics of the Communist Party through poems and songs. All three also became popular lyricists for Malayalam cinema. In fact, ONV would describe the craft of writing film lyrics as applied poetry.
Writing in a literary climate deeply influenced by Changampuzha, ONV achieved early success as a poet. The popularity was also due to the songs he wrote for plays staged by KPAC, Kerala’s equivalent of IPTA, in the 1950s. His songs were crucial to the huge success of KPAC’s landmark play, Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me A Communist), which popularised the message of communism in southern Kerala. Ningalenne Communistakki discussed the idea of class struggle and the message of land-to-the-tiller in the form of a proscenium romance. ONV’s songs like Ponnarival ambiliyil kanneriyunnole (The girl glancing at the sickle shaped-moon) were set to music by his close friend G Devarajan and became hugely popular. The KPAC songs have outlived the KPAC plays and remain staple nostalgia for Malayalis to this date. The songs stood out for the use of spoken Malayalam, images drawn from daily life, empathy for the oppressed and Devarajan’s folksy tunes. They made the message of social justice accessible to a large population, which didn’t have access to any kind of literature, including political tracts. However, the romantic idiom in which the message was disseminated also made the Malayali’s engagement with Left politics unduly emotional and uncritical.
In one of his early poems, Naalumanipookkal, ONV wrote: “Oru dukhathin veyilarumen manassilinnoru poo viriyunnoo! peridanariyilla (A flower blossoms in my mind where the sun of a sorrow sets! I don’t know to name it).” This unidentifiable and uncurable sadness he mentions is an ever-present and defining feature of his poems. Despite his political commitment, his finest poems hinted at a deep suspicion of industrial modernity and extreme ideologies. In Valapottukal (Broken Bangles), written in the shadow of the crisis in the communist movement in the early 1960s, he wrote: “I have journeyed to a green island of sorrow, unaccessible to philosophies of destruction/ That hope which sought to marry this virgin land/ You some day had destroyed it.” By the 1970s, he seemed to have come to terms with the great disillusionment and his poetry moved to a different plane where social and environmental concerns become predominantly the subjects and the tone becomes reflective, and, occassionally, philosophical. In the 1980s, his Bhoomikkoru Charamageetham (A requiem for Earth) became an athem for the emerging green movement in Kerala. Inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Kazantzakis’s Odessey: A Modern Sequel, ONV also wrote the critically-acclaimed narrative poem, Ujjaini, on the life of Kalidasa. His poetic voice, however, remained loyal to the romantic tradition.
In the coming years, ONV is more likely to be remembered for his lyrics than his poems. Many of his songs could qualify as standalone romantic or lyrical poems. His collaborations with music directors, Devarajan, Dakshinamoorthy, Salil Choudhary, Ravi and, most importantly, M B Sreenivasan, resulted in the creation of some of Kerala’s finest popular music.
Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory, wrote Shelley. The music in ONV’s works will live long. He once wrote: “In the quest for something, without the search/ Gaining something, missing others/ In the vision of something, blind to the rest/ Singing a few tunes, silent otherwise/ I enjoy this journey.”
It was a journey that enriched Kerala’s public life. The fireflies shall inspire “the glorious moment of resurrection” of the free human spirit.