The first time I saw Ayyappa Paniker (1930-2006), he was holding an international audience spellbound at a conference on Translation Studies at the Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi in 1980. He was delivering an academic paper but enhancing it with gestures of the hand and expressions as eloquent as that of a kathakali performer, and interspersing it with sonorous quotations from Malayalam poetry which he recited melodically. He was “a poet/ reading chanting enchanting,” as he himself put it in another context in one of his best-known poems, Passage to America.
He was then dressed in a blue suit, for he was yet to adopt the signature dress which he later sported at conferences in India, of a plain T-shirt (or white shirt) on top and a veshti below. This cosmopolitan sartorial fusion aptly embodied the two parts of his unified sensibility — of the anglophone West superimposed on the vital, vernacular East. And one of the last times I saw him, he took me on a walk arm-in-arm on his home turf, Thiruvananthapuram, except that we were stopped every ten steps by young admirers paying shy, silent obeisance and old admirers delighted to exchange a sentence or two with the great man.
Paniker served as professor of English at the University of Kerala, after he had — in 1971 — obtained his PhD from Indiana University at Bloomington, USA (as had AK Ramanujan a little earlier). He had already published in 1960, when he was 30, the long poem Kurukshetram for which he is acclaimed as the iconic modernist poet in Malayalam. Later in his distinguished twinned career as a poet and a scholar, Paniker translated many Western and Indian works into Malayalam including the Guru Granth Sahib, that composite scripture that is also effectively an anthology of bhakti poetry, and Cane, a novel depicting the life of the blacks in the American South by Jean Toomer, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance.
Paniker also edited anthologies of Indian literature in English translation, wrote a history of Malayalam literature, and explored diverse comparative themes in literature and aesthetics. In his last grand enterprise, he commissioned and edited fresh Malayalam translations of the complete works of Shakespeare, an achievement that no other Indian language can match. Paniker thus stood facing both East and West, and contradicting Kipling, the twain did meet harmoniously in him.
His critical writings are, therefore, only a part of his larger oeuvre — but they are as representative of his sensibility as anything else. In his Introduction to this volume, K Satchidanandan, an eminent successor of Paniker both as an English teacher and a Malayalam poet, states that Paniker was “essentially a Malayalam critic writing about Malayalam literature”, but takes care to compensate for this natural proclivity by giving his selection a broader range. Only six of the 21 essays here are exclusively on Malayalam writers and themes such as, Kumaran Asan, Thakazhi or kathakali.
Three other essays are of a comparative nature, such as a close reading of a Malayalam historical novel, Marthandavarma by CV Raman Pillai, placed alongside Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini — in both works, a Hindu warrior on being captured is lovingly nursed by a Muslim young lady, but must eventually return to marry a Hindu bride. Far wider in scope and radical in argument is an essay on ‘The Western Epic Tradition and Ezhuthachan’s Epics’ in which Paniker concludes that Indian epics are best compared with their Indian sources and analogues, and Western epics among themselves, for a superficial and forced yoking together of different and distant literary traditions can only give Comparative Literature a bad name.
This did not prevent Paniker from writing an essay titled ‘Negative Capability and Emptiness: Keats and Nagarjuna’ (not included here) but his focus in it is largely philosophical and aesthetic. Aesthetics in fact was a constant preoccupation of Paniker’s; the term (or its near synonym “poetics”) occurs in the title of five of the essays here. In one of them, Paniker looks for an “alternative aesthetics” for our times, coins the abbreviation “D/f/b” for “Dalit/folk/black,” and observes that this writing comes more from the perspiration of bodily toil than from any inner inspiration.
The longest essay here, placed in the centre of the book, is titled ‘Medieval Indian Literature,’ a body of mainly bhakti literature at which some anthologists of Indian literature have snootily turned up their anglophone, uber-secular noses. It was (as not indicated here) first published not in Malayalam but originally in English in 1999 by the Sahitya Akademi as the Introduction to a four-volume 4,000-page anthology of medieval Indian literature in English translation under Paniker’s general editorship. He says that to regard the medieval period as “The Dark Ages” is a “superstitious assumption” that we have taken over from the West, which is as baseless as our own belief in kaliyuga. It was, instead, an age in which, as a result of continual invasions and migrations, India was turned into a “smouldering, if not melting, pot.” This eventually led to a “religious and cultural synthesis” which constitutes our enduring foundation. “In a certain sense… a large part of India still lives in the Middle Ages,” said Paniker, not at all disparagingly, but with a realistic sense of positive historical continuity. “Medieval India is the foundation on which Modern India stands.”
As may be apparent, Paniker knew his own language Malayalam, English and Sanskrit intimately well, and thus belonged to what is already a desperately endangered species of trilingual Indian scholars who can, with ease, access both classical and modern literatures. Further, he had a broad and liberal pan-Indian outlook. He readily recognised that Malayalam was “a Dravidian language living in full harmony with Sanskrit,” unlike another Dravidian language one could name. He noted that bhakti poets from several other languages also wrote in Hindi, so that the “national or supra-regional character” of Hindi and its “centrality” were already well established by the 17th century. But he was also witty and irreverent enough to suggest that the four-fold caste system possibly had something to do with the Sanskrit proclivity for four-line verse metres.