When Mankulam G Keshavan Namboodiri was growing up in 1970s Kerala near the coastal town of Kayamkulam, he, like many boys at school, had dreams that varied every day. On some days, he wanted to be a policeman. On others, a driver. Becoming a poet or a teacher was never in the mix. He was an average student and by his own admission, an uzhappan (slacker).
One day, when he was in Class VII, his mathematics teacher launched himself impromptu into a rendition of the well-known Malayalam poem Veena poovu (fallen flower), regarded as a cult piece of literature written in 1907 by N Kumaran Asan.
“Even though Sukumaran Sir was a strict teacher whom we all feared, he was deeply attached to Malayalam literature. Often during class, he would recite shlokas and poems,” says Namboodiri, 60, sitting at his home in Kandallur village in Alappuzha district. That day at school, Asan’s mastery over the Malayalam language and the poem’s philosophical perspective ignited a love for the language in Namboodiri. At 18, Namboodiri published his first book of 17 poems, titled Vibhatha Geetham. Over time, he completed his BA and MA in Malayalam, following it up with B.Ed and M.Ed to enable him to teach in school. At 32, he got a government teaching job. Having imbibed the strains of music from his mother, who used to sing devotional songs at home, Namboodiri often “sang” poems in his classes, instead of reciting them.
“Initially, when kids would ask me to teach them songs, I would angrily tell them that I teach literature, not songs. But when I thought more about what they said, I realised that the earliest variants of Malayalam literature were all referred to as forms of pattu (song). For example, kili pattu (a form of poetry where the narrator is a bird), naadan pattu (folk poetry) or vanchi pattu (boat poetry),” says Namboodiri.
The idea of popularising Malayalam poetry among students with the help of music inspired Namboodiri to embark upon the project that he titled “Malayala Madhuri”. In the mid-1990s, it began in the form of informal lectures and poetry readings at schools and colleges through a network of fellow teachers. Without any jargon, Namboodiri would launch himself describing the evolution of Malayalam literature, flipping through the works of greats like Kalidasan, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer. In between, he would hum film songs and parodies that fit into specific genres like lullabies and folklore.
In the early 2000s, the project took off when Namboodiri’s wife Sreekumari, a gifted singer, and his son Harigovind, also a singer, came onboard. “Both of them sing well and I decided to make use of their talent. In short, it became a family project. We also added a tabla player and a keyboardist for background effect,” says Namboodiri.
Over the last 25 years, Namboodiri, alone and together with his family, claims to have performed at over 1,000 locations, mostly at government and private schools, cultural associations and literary gatherings. Each of these performances, that lasts nearly three hours, are modelled on Kathaprasangam, Kerala’s unique art of lyrical storytelling. It begins with a paean to Malayalam language, written by Namboodiri himself, and goes on to travel through the different eras of Malayalam poetry and its genres.
For Namboodiri, now retired from government service, engaging with more school students to teach them about the charm of their ‘mathrubhasha’ through ‘Malayala Madhuri’ remains his sole pursuit. “When we started out, we never thought it would grow so big. We have to create more awareness for our language,” he signs off.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘For years now, a schoolteacher in Kerala has been using music to draw students to Malayalam poetry’