No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher—Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Anyone who attempts to delve deep into the poetry of ONV Kurup will encounter this truth: the inspired poet, sustained by his great compassion and humaneness, captures beauty through choicest words and offers deep philosophic insights. The poet always strives to empower poetry, enabling it to attend to the spiritual needs of the succeeding generations of sensitive souls. For this, he takes special care to ensure that each of his poems is an inquiry into new realms of aesthetic experience. ONV (as he is referred to affectionately by poetry-lovers) does not even for a moment forget that his commitment, first and foremost, is to the aesthetic aspect of poetry. If it has to fulfill its various other functions, it has to be perfect in form and content in the first place. Word-music, harmonious rhythmic patterns and brimming poetic truth set ONV’s poetry apart.
Kumaran Asan, Ulloor and Vallathol, the early ‘trinity of poets’— who defined modern Malayalam poetry in the early part of the 20th century—were poet-philosophers whose vision was guided by ancient Indian traditions that uphold eternal values. Whatever evolution or revolution that took place in Malayalam poetry after them, were largely guided by their influence, direct or indirect. Of them, Vallathol enjoyed a dedicated following. Nalappat Narayana Menon, Kuttippurattu Kesavan Nair, G.Sankara Kurup, P.Kunjiraman Nair and Balamani Amma were among the prominent poets who were influenced by Vallathol early in their careers.
Two poets, Edappally Raghavan Pillai and Changampuzha Krishana Pillai, brought a new freshness into the Malayalam poetry of the 1930’s through their romantic effusion. Raghavan Pillai highlighted the subtle undertones that remained muted in the poetry of the Vallathol School. The few pure romantic poems he wrote during his short life bring out the poet’s intimate connection with nature. Raghavan Pillai’s friend Changampuzha took the romantic strain to such fantastic heights during the period between 1935 and his premature death in1948, that Malayalam poetry, which was dominated by Changampuzha at that time, became at one point noted for its tempestuous emotional content without reaching any resolution. Soon, N.V.Krishna Warrier appeared on the scene proscribing romantic poetry; he wrote quite a few long poems, leading Malayalam poetry into the realms of realism and the philosophical stream that gushes from human experience. Some view this as the beginning of modernist poetry in Malayalam, although the majority of critical opinion credits K.Ayyappa Paniker with its ushering in. During the 1950s, titans like G.Sankara Kurup, Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, Edassery Govindan Nair, Akkitham Achuthan Namboodiri and the solitary giant P.Kunjiraman Nair, kept Malayalam poetry on an even keel after the romantic turbulences. P.Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma and ONV.Kurup were young poets who explored their own individual poetic milieus about this time. After a stormy career in romantic-realist poetry for more than a decade, Vayalar concentrated more on film lyric writing. Vayalar met with his premature death while at the pinnacle of his glory as a lyricist. P.Bhaskaran had a few bumper harvests in the field of poetry, but his major contribution was also confined to the field of film lyrics. ONV emerged as a poet of phenomenal strength and accomplishment, to lead the Malayalam poetic sensibility ever since.
ONV. Kurup’s first poem ‘Munnottu!’ (Forward!,1946), was published when he was fifteen. His childhood had been extraordinary in many ways. In a creative discussion with M.T.Vasudevan Nair ONV reminisced about those days: “In early childhood I had–let me describe it thus–the ‘good fortune’ of living in a family atmosphere filled with poetry and music. My father’s interest in poetry and his craze for Kathakali and music had certainly contributed a lot to it. I had the occasion to listen to great musicians who sat in the verandah of our house and sang. Our house in Kollam was a haven for poets and musicians. My father was a member of the Municipal Council and, more importantly, a Member of the Travancore State Assembly founded by Maharaja Sree Moolam Tirunal—indeed a social worker. I had met many great persons thus in my childhood. That has certainly created positive vibrations in my heart…” (Ref)
The sudden death of his father whom he idealised, left a deep scar in his eight-year-old, impressionable mind. ONV says remembering those days: “Poetry was a drop of light that came to me in the dark solitude of my childhood.” As a child, he had witnessed a peaceful agrarian culture in constant confrontation with industrialization, especially in the rare mineral sand sector, in and around his native Chavara. Thus, the eroding virtues of village life and environmental degradation became his prime concerns very early in life, leading ultimately to the writing of masterpieces like “A Requiem to Mother Earth.” In his early poems his personal sorrows got submerged in the freedom struggle and in the resistance of local labourers against oppression. Daahikkunna Paanapaatram, (The Thirsty Chalice), a collection of his early poems written between 1946 and1958, dwell mostly on the ideal of pristine rural life and the threats it faces. His ideological stand identifying himself with the oppressed found utterance in his poems written in fiery youthful vigour. Old-timers recite some of these nostalgically even now.
The 1960’s saw the emergence of poets who blazed their own trails, like N.N.Kakkad, Sugathakumari, Satchidanandan, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan and others. ONV had been so well-established by now, that he dealt with political and social themes with an unambiguous voice. In those years of ideological turbulence, ONV began questioning the very nature and purpose of revolution–the dream that sustained him throughout his early youth. He mourns its failure in “Broken Bangles”(1960):
Passion that came to woo
this virgin earth!
How could you
take Indra’s gorgeous bow
and shatter it so!
His disillusionment is manifest in the poem “The Promised Land”(1968) in which he declares:
As the electric shock of a shattered dream
signals the message of death
through the tottering feet, searing soul and limpid eyes,
here, standing in this desert bleak I cry,
“O, tell me where’s that Promised Land?”
From then on, we see the progress of a poet on his own terms, fully engaged with life and public affairs with a sense of urgency–a sense of pursuing an important mission. His travels to different parts of the world reiterated his belief that humanity is the same everywhere, bonded together by common dreams, joy, grief and suffering. His poems are mostly based on these universals.
Asked about his views on poetry, he said once in an interview:
Poetry –it just occurs to me. I fail to understand what prompts it. I don’t believe it is casual thought. There’s an inspiration. We live life intensely; feeling everything intensely. Life itself gives me enough of a kick; it is my inspiration, I don’t have to rely on any other intoxication. Nothing under the sun is alien to poetry. Everything that happens around is a poet’s concern. We sleep with a nightmare hovering above us every night. The felling of a tree or a bomb explosion or a rape, be it of a woman or of Mother Earth, causes a commotion, an upheaval in my mind. Remember that each tragedy carries within it the seeds of another, more fearful one. One tragedy breeds another; it multiplies. If a whole city is consumed by the flames of communal hatred, that too will affect poetry and literature. As I see it, my job is to build a bridge that would link this shore of pain, strife and thralldom to that other one of freedom…. If my song can create some ripple, somewhere, I will feel proud, honoured and privileged. This is my outlook on poetry.
Mayilppeeli (The Peacock’s Feather, 1964) is ONV’s first major collection which featured many poems that dealt with the disillusionments unleashed by the earliest glimpses of the failure of revolution. “Broken Bangles” and “Four O Clock Flowers” in the present collection are taken from it. N.V.Krishna Warrier, revered poet, critic and editor who wrote an introduction for it, describes ONV of that phase, thus:
The pulverised dreams have left behind only ‘a few broken glass bangles’. Yet those too are precious. The melancholy that characterizes human life, in the final analysis, which is discerned only by those who are philosophical by nature, keeps them organically united. This melancholy is not to be given over to music, but to silence. And quite naturally, an ‘anthill of silence’ grows around the poet. The poet who is in deep meditation within it, observes the filigree thread-bridge of imagination that extends by itself like a divine blessing, from the condensed grief within his heart towards the inner truth of life.
Uroob (P.C.Kuttikrishnan), the celebrated Malayalam fiction-writer, says in his Preface to ONV’s collection, Karutha Pakshiyude Paattu: “What the poet did was convert the sorrows of the society into his own pain….Drawing in the breath of the times and internalizing the rhythm of society, ONV accomplished the difficult task of standing up as an individual of that same society and giving expression to the reactions of his heart….” K.Ayyappa Paniker too thinks in the same lines when he says: “There is an old tale which says that the moonlight is the sheen of the grief of the sun that burns during the day. For this poet, poetry …serves to re-establish the modern relevance of that tale.”(Essay in the anthology, ONV Kavitha.)
N.Krishna Pillai, celebrated playwright and critic, who was ONV’s teacher, writes about his poetry in the Introduction to Sarngakappakshikal,one of his collections:
“ONV’s poetry has a rare grandeur and it is richly polyphonic. All the images he employs, with their multi-pointed effulgence, project auras wherever they turn to. The music becomes solely that of the soul. The throbs of the world’s conscience synchronise with the beats of the poet’s heart. What we see here is the controlled and sublime expressions and soul-stirrings of an egalitarian, universal human being…. Having drunk the bitter potion of solicitousness about the perilous life modern man leads, a subliminal anxiety about his selfhood surrounds ONV’s poems.”
The sweetness of ONV’s poetry derives mainly from his poetic diction that drew deeply from the fountain of folk-songs; the poet is at times seen straining to rein in the free flow of mellifluous words, as it were. He is gifted like a Gandharva in this respect. Perhaps there is no other poet in Malayalam after Changampuzha, to whom the boon of felicitous versification was granted so unconditionally. Sukumar Azhikode, the veteran critic, gives an account of his experience of ONV’s poetry in his Preface to the collection, Uppu. He says that it is like a honeybee repeatedly trying to imbibe honey from a flower, that he approaches ONV’s poetry.
However, the same poet has, from time to time, swung to the other extreme and accomplished something extra-ordinary in the area of prose-poems written sporadically and collected in his Tonnyaksharangal(1989). These poems are modernist and at times post-modernist, in outlook and form, though ONV has never had the need to subscribe to any movement, as his was poetry that transcended movements and definitions. R.Viswanathan describes ONV as a poet with his own well-developed philosophy.
The next decade saw the poet straightening himself to full stature, through collections like Oru Thulli Velichham (A Drop of Light, 1966), Agnisalabhangal (Fireflies,1971), from which “The Promised Land” in the present volume is taken. Aksharam(1974) was the next important collection. Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, the leading light of the later trinity of poets–the others being Edassery Govindan Nair and P.Kunjiraman Nair–in his Introduction says: “It is doubtful whether there is another consciousness (other than this poet’s) so enriched by the sensory perceptions of colour, music, taste, and smell, active in the sphere of Malayalam poetry now. Likewise, one feels like gazing with the eyes of a lover–to use an expression of Keats– his flower-studded imagination and language with the vigour of fresh shoots….” Many believe that Vyloppilli considered ONV as his poetic successor; only that here we observe the curious instance of the senior poet being inspired by the younger poet! Aksharam contains noted poems like “The Phoenix” and “Michelangelo Pardon.”
The publication of four major collections followed during the next ten years–Karutha Pakshiyude Paattu (The Song of the Blackbird,1977), from which “Amla Fruits”, “A Symphony”, “My Old Schoolteacher”, Valappottukal(Broken Glass Bangles, 1980), from which “How I Wish”, Uppu(Salt,1980) from which “Fire”, “Dove Orchid”, “O! Dark Ferryman”, “Those Who Have Lost the Nectar”, “The Lagoon”, “Saviour”, “Salt”, “Yasnaya Polyana”, “Stones” and “Tanya’s Diary” and Bhoomikku Oru Charamageetam (A Requiem to Mother Earth,1984), from which “A Requiem to Mother Earth”, “A Hymn to the Sun”, “In the Night Train”, and “I Haven’t Loved Them Enough” are selected for the present collection.
In “A Requiem to Mother Earth” and “ A Hymn to the Sun” in which he has reached heights hitherto not scaled, ONV breaks the mould of his usual style and employs shocking, angry, and pathetic images that strike directly at the root of one’s consciousness. Analysing the two poems and their inter-relatedness in an essay in the collection, Phoenixnte Sangeetam, K.Jayakumar, noted poet, establishes the fact that ONV had accomplished the task of creating a new language and of using it to reflect contemporary realities in a supreme poetic manner; where modernists failed, this poet, through his integrity towards the poetic art, gave birth to a new kind of poetry that responded to the times. He says that it is not entirely unexpected in a poet– who is an honest and an inveterate practitioner of the art—for an emotional issue to be developed gradually into an ideology and then into an entire philosophy. The above two poems prove that ONV attained such a holistic vision. As his love for human beings is developed into humaneness, and his patriotism into universal love, the awareness about his own past and his love and concern for nature combine to evolve into a haunting vision of a bleak future for the earth, which is systematically degraded by rapacious humans. Though the “Save Silent Valley” campaign by environmental protection activists of Kerala in the late seventies and early eighties drew, for the first time, poets into their ranks including ONV, unlike most other poets, ONV visualized the possibilities of irreparable damage to the delicate balance between ecosystems and the various forces that sustain the earth as a hospitable planet within the solar system. This kind of intensity is made possible only by the poet’s filial affection for Mother Earth. The poet says: “My poetry aspires to see the morning sun’s kumkum on the earth’s hair-parting.”
ONV rode the crest of his poetic career ever since. The decade that ended in 1994 saw six of his works, most of them landmark ones, published: Sarngakappakshikal(Sarngaka Birds 1987) from which “Houses”, “Rails”, “Sorrow of the Village Bard” “April, You are Gentle”, “An Ode to Solomon” and “To Whom Shall I Bid Farewell”, Mrugaya (The Royal Hunt,1989) from which “Mrugaya”and “Mother”, Tonnyaksharangal (Prose Poems,1989),from which “On Africa” and the series “Stray Clouds”, Aparahnam (Afternoon,1991), from which “Sister”, “An Interior Monologue”, “O Black Sun,” “Tree of Life,” “Disease”, Veruthe (For Nothing,1994) from which “A Hymn”, “Death and After” and Ujjayini (A Fiction – Poem,1994) from which an excerpt, are included in the present volume.
“Mrugaya”, (The Royal Hunt), a long poem of more than 430 lines, is prophetic in the sense that it is a warning to the society about the wanton violence directed against nature’s most powerful force, the erotic drive( at first, Pandu, out on a royal hunt in the forest, unwittingly kills the sage Kindaman in the act of copulation in the guise of a deer, with a doe; then, the curse-ridden Pandu suppresses his lust fearing death and imposes abstinence on his wives too—subsequent violence towards oneself and the wives); at the same time, it extols the feminine, the wifely, ever ready to bear the consequences of a husband’s thoughtless action. Madri was fortunate in that she died along with Pandu. What Kunti had to live through before she perished in a forest fire (note the metaphor of a forest, and an all-consuming fire, like lust) constitutes the elemental violence governing the Mahabharata. All unleashed by Pandu’s killing of a mating deer. It is also relevant to remember here that the Ramayana was the end result of Valmiki being moved to pity at the sight of the male of a love-pair of krouncha birds shot to death by a hunter.
Ujjayini is a fiction-poem running into more than 4450 lines, depicting the life of Kalidasa, the traces of which the poet gleans from his great ancestor’s works. Shaping them in his creative mould to produce an astounding word-sculpture, has resulted in a landmark achievement in ONV’s poetic career. ONV has recreated another Kalidasa in this poem. The popular legends depicting the ancient poet in a poor light are bunked in this re-reading. ONV succeeds in superimposing the artistic personality of the poet upon the mutilated image recovered from legends. Running through it is a tender love-story that lends it a spiritual grandeur; at the same time, in its treatment of Kalidasa in relation with Vikramaditya and his court, Ujjayini is a vehement poetic indictment of the evils of power. My English translation of Ujjayini has been reaching ONV to non-Malayalee readers, over the last decade. The excerpt appearing in this collection is noted for its high poetic range.
In a discussion among M.T.Vasuddevan Nair, N.P.Muhammad, M.M.Basheer and ONV about Ujjayini, excerpted below, many aspects about the writing of the poem are unravelled:
N.P: In your brief preface to Ujjayini you have listed three or four reasons for your writing the poem. But what was the inner inspiration to write such a fiction-poem?
ONV: I felt that the image of Kalidasa that formed in my mind while studying and teaching the poet’s works, and the image of him that emerged from popular legends didn’t tally. That led to the feeling that the real Kalidasa should be searched for in his works. I got the feeling that many of those legends about him were patent lies….
M.T.: Stories like that of the idiot hacking away at the base of the branch he sits on, have great currency even now.
ONV: What is Kalidasa’s concept of man-woman relationship and love? Parvati and Parameswara are complementary and supplementary to each other like word and meaning. For the doe that rubs its eye-corner on the antler-point of its mate, love is the zenith of trust! To the poet who created a tender virgin who performed penance in the midst of Panchangni (The Five Fires) to induce love in an ascetic, and an apsara who fell in love with a human being, these legends attributed a dissolute life and an untimely death in a brothel….
N.P.: Anyone who attentively follows the Kalidasa of the legends and the poetic personality who emerges from his works, would observe the striking contradiction in the depiction of the poet’s character in the legends.
ONV: It is this contradiction that led me in search of the truth about Kalidasa.
Basheer: Is there anything peculiar you observe about having so many legends that tarnish Kalidasa’s reputation?
ONV: A great poet earns, along with fame, innumerable foes who are intolerant of his success; he earns their jealousy too.
ONV: Kalidasa was said to be included in the Nine Jewels of Vikramaditya’s court. But, Kalidasa was not a mere court poet who sang paeans of the emperor.
Basheer: Can you show any evidence for this from Kalidasa’s texts?
ONV: The fisherman in Shakuntalam tells the powers that be, who deride him on account of his trade, that however much they laughed at it, it was his traditional occupation. He then proceeds to point out the case of the Vaidic Brahmin who kills animals for the sake of a yaga. Likewise, the disciples of Kanva, seeing Dushyanta’s palace for the first time, says it is like a house on fire. Further, at the end of the First Act of Malavikagnimitram, the queen Dharini, observing her husband the king’s ruse to bring his sweetheart Malavika scantily clad in front of him so that he could feast his eyes on her naked beauty, remarks: ‘How wonderful it would have been if Your Majesty had similar bright ideas in running the kingdom as well…!’ That too, face to face with the king! In fact, isn’t it Kalidasa who says these things to the king, to his face, in the court? Would a mere court poet have exhibited such subtle courage? There are innumerable meanings like these, between the lines, in his works.
MT: You depict Ujjayini as the place where power is concentrated….
NP: It is an eternal truth that power and poetry never go together….
ONV: And yet the poet creates an empire of his own….
MT: …which excels any republic on the globe….
M.T.: What I find as most heartening in Ujjayini is the characterisation of Kalidasa. Casting aside insinuations against him — such as, Kalidasa was an idiot, he was a shepherd boy who began writing poetry owing to a boon granted by Kali — Kalidasa has been presented here as a rustic youth who carries in his heart the turbulence of poetry. He is compelled to write verses, not at someone’s bidding, but for his own satisfaction. Then he recites them aloud, all by himself. His interest is ignited when he senses that the girl who listens to him is fascinated—the ecstasy of the bird that sings aiming the sky—the serene, tranquil countryside….
From 1995 to the present, ONV brought out four poetry books, Swayamvaram (A long narrative based on an episode in the Mahabharat,1995) from which an excerpt, Bhairavante Tudi (Bhairav’s Little Drum,1998) from which “Bhairav’s Little Drum,” “The Expatriate,” “In the Woods”, Ee Puratana Kinnaram,(This Ancient Lyre, 2000) from which, “This Ancient Lyre,” “We Are Ancients,” “Raindrops” and Kshanikam, Pakshe…(Momentary, though…2000) from which “Kabul,” “Spasiba”, “This Tulip, My Heart,” “To Yevtushenko, with Love,” “The Lord of the Pigeons”, “The Last Bird,” “Cold,” and “Momentary, though….”find a place in the present collection. These volumes contain the most recent of ONV’s poems which exhibit how abreast of the times he is–the ever alert poet. Especially the poems that have a bearing on the latest developments in Afghanistan, Russia, the decline of communism, the scare of fundamentalism, the threat of environment destruction, the burning issue of women’s sufferings at the hands of patriarchy and others.
The epic poem Swayamvaram of more than 2450 lines, is about how the Indian woman, though claimed to be worshipped as Devi, is in actual fact playthings in the hands of patriarchy. ONV dedicates the poem, “ To the Indian womanhood of yesterday and today which has been deceived with praises such as: ‘Where you worship woman, there reside the gods’.” Though several illustrious writers had dealt with the theme of the fate of Madhavi, daughter of Yayati, as described in the Mahabharata—like Balamani Amma’s poem that extols the sacrifice of Madhavi, Bhisham Sahni’s play that brings out the suffering of the heroine in the modern context, Anupama Niranjana’s novel that gives new insights into the whole question of choice and obedience—ONV’s poem is noted for its treatment of it metaphorically as a women’s issue of current significance. Madhavi’s departure for the woods in the end, throwing off the shackles of patriarchy, is a definitely feminist gesture of prophetic import. For ONV, denial of dignity to women and the denudation of the earth become synonymous. Woman is the repository of culture, according to him. ONV’s images and metaphors involving women conform to this principle. Degrading women is tantamount to degradation of culture. Swayamvaram is a forceful affirmation of this vision.
It will be futile to group the several hundreds of this prolific poet’s poems, contained in 23 collections over the last six decades, in their bewildering variety of style and mode, under any particular pattern. However, with a given set of translations, which is but a sampling of the daunting corpus of ONV’s works, one is tempted, nevertheless, to weave a pattern. The different sections of this collection indicate a kind of loose thematic division. At best, they may remind the reader of the different directions the poet’s genius follows at different times. This arrangement has, however, disturbed the chronological order of the poems. Therefore, the dates of first publication of the poems are given at the end of each poem.
In Part I ‘Heart-strings,’ poems with lyrical elements are arranged. Most of them are simple lyrics, a sampling of the poet’s favourites. The short poems arranged under the title “Stray Clouds” are from a collection of mostly prose-poems titled Tonnyaksharangal (Inspired Verses). But the poems “We Are Ancients” and “This Ancient Lyre”, in spite of their lyrical fervour, are philosophical ruminations on the human state, the individual in relation to the society, the poet’s function and so on.
Part II has two poems, “A Requiem to Mother Earth” and “A Hymn to the Sun.” These long poems are landmarks in ONV’s poetic career, bearing witness to the heights his poetic vision has reached. “A Requiem….” was written about the time when the Silent Valley controversy raged in 1983. Kerala was rocked by a dilemma posed by the proposed building of a dam across the Kunti River in the Silent Valley evergreen forest patch near Palakkad. Poets, writers, artists, filmmakers and conscientious citizens got together to protect the land from further denudation and formed the Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti. ONV was one of the group and, as part of its activities, he and other poets recited poems on nature to large audiences throughout Kerala. This poem was the star attraction in the campaign. “A Hymn to the Sun” is a sort of sequel to “A Requiem….”
Part III contains poems mostly engaging the world outside India, although “The Lord of the Pigeons” dealing with fundamentalism and terrorism, and “The Last Bird” which portends total annihilation owing to ecological degradation, are also included here as they have an explicitly universal application.
Part IV has the largest number—poems that carry subjective experiences, musings, meditative lines, prophetic visions: in short, a slice of ONV’s forte.
Part V carries “Mrgaya,” a full-length poem based on an episode in the Mahabharata, excerpts from Ujjayini, a fiction-poem based on the life of Kalidasa, excerpts from Swayamvaram, an epic poem based, once again, on an episode in the Mahabharata, and “Mother,” a ballad based on a Macedonian myth.
The excerpt from Ujjayini places Kalidasa, the hero, at the height of his integrity as an individual, even at the risk of enraging his patron, the Emperor Vikramaditya. In his early youth, Kalidasa, who used to recite aloud the poems he scribbled, sitting at the base of the peepul tree by the river of his Malwa village, had attracted the attention of a maiden. Word had reached the royal ears in Ujjayini extolling her exquisite beauty, and the emperor, sent his soldiers to take her away to his harem. Kalidasa, whose aroused interest in that girl had been abruptly thwarted so, decided to go on an extended journey all over Bharatvarsh. By the time he returned, he had become a famous poet. This time too, Ujjayini, the “Ratnahaari” (jewel thief), wanted the illustrious poet added to its treasure chest; once again the emperor sent his soldiers to fetch Kalidasa. The poet sent the soldiers away telling them that he preferred his own time to visit the emperor. But visit he did. The memory of the maiden of Malwa acted as additional motivation. And the emperor heaped honours upon him when he finally arrived at the court. Living in the royal palace, he wrote his famous plays. During the course of the staging of one of those, he saw the maiden of his dreams—now a full-blown celestial beauty, an accomplished dancer and an adept at all other performing arts. Soon, they began to meet clandestinely, with the help of Pallava, Kalidasa’s manservant. The news reached the emperor, who was busy making preparations for his own marriage with that maiden. The emperor was in a dilemma—how to let go of his prized treasure, the beauty of Malwa; and how could he discard the most illustrious of his Nine Jewels, Kalidasa? The emperor decided to employ the classical chaturupaayas (the four-pronged strategy); saama, daana, bheda, and danda(gentle persuasion, followed by a gift to entice him away from his obsession, torture, if necessary, and finally drastic, severe, punishment of long duration, like imprisonment). The excerpt included here portrays the saama and daana parts, and the poet’s rejection of the enticing gift of the emperor’s most favourite courtesan, and along with it, that of the royal power that restricted his freedom of action. The poet who doesn’t budge is however, spared bheda as he opts to go on exile. Returning after an year of exile in the far-off Ramagiri, reminiscent of the banishment of the Yaksha of Meghdoot, the poet is told by Pallava that the maiden, whom the emperor’s grandson took a fancy to, was gifted to him by his grandfather, and the girl, who pined for Kalidasa, fasted unto death during her journey to the prince’s native kingdom in the south. What Kalidasa finds is a mandap built in the royal garden in Ujjayini in her memory, where the palanquin she rode last was kept.
Swayamvaram depicts how Yayati gave his daughter Madhavi to Galava, who took her along and offered her to three kings and a sage, who kept her as wife for a year each and produced sons in her, and at the end of it all how she rejected the world of men and entered the forest. Galava, the son of sage Visvamitra, was his disciple too. At the completion of his education, Galava wanted to give his guru, a gurudakshina as was customary; Visvamitra told Galava to give him whatever was within his capacity. But Galava importuned the sage to spell it out. The irritated Visvamitra asked him to bring eight hundred steeds with one ear black. Galava was in a fix. He consulted Garauda, the vehicle of Vishnu. Garuda took him to Yayati, who took pity on him and gifted his daughter Madhavi to Galava, suggesting that if he could marry Madhavi off to a king who can provide him with the eight hundred horses, his task would be over. Galava took her first to Haryashva, King of Ayodhya. But he had only two hundred horses matching the description. Madhavi told Galava that through a divine boon she would remain a virgin even after delivering a child, and that he could take her to more kings who would provide him with the necessary number of horses. So, Galava gave her to Divodasa, the king of Kashi and then to the Bhoja king Useenara, who had a son each in her and supplied Galava with four hundred more horses. Still, he was short of two hundred horses. Garuda at this point advised him to offer Madhavi to Visvamitra, along with the six hundred horses. Absolving Galava of his duty of gurudakshina, having been satisfied with the offering, Visvamitra accepted her and produced a son in her, named Ashtaka. Finally, upon being returned to her father, Yayati arranged a “swayamvaram” for her in which three of the above worthies, the kings, men who used her, participated. She walked away rebelling against her father and the other males and wedded the woods. The excerpt included here, the last chapter of the kavya, depicts the swayamvaram and Madhavi’s rebellion.
The task of putting together these poems has had a checkered history. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1986, from the time V.Sreekumar, then Editor in Kerala Bhasha Institute (we had not yet met then), on the strength of our common friendship with the late V.Sadasivan, persuaded me to undertake this mission, it got postponed for one reason or another. It was a small bunch then. The work got delayed and was later set aside during the translation of Ujjayini. In the meanwhile, the process of translation of the poems continued. After resuming the compilation and additional translation in late 2002, the translations grew in number covering the latest output of the poet’s work. The major part of the work got completed during this period. It is hoped that, with all the limitations anticipated of poetry in translation, this collection will hold the reader’s interest.
My sincere thanks are due to the translators. Of them, K.Sreedharan Nair is the earliest translator of ONV’s poems. He devoted himself to the task on his own, out of his long friendship with the poet since the days they were studying together in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram. “He wanted my poems to transcend the barriers of language even in those early days,” reminisces ONV. Two of the translators—S.Velayudhan and R.Visvanathan—have left this world. S.Velayudhan had taken the initiative to translate and publish many of ONV’s important poems in several journals outside Kerala, early on. ONV remembers that the last poem he translated was “Mrugaya” and that when the translation reached the poet by post, the sad news of S.Velayudhan’s premature demise also followed. R.Visvanathan, poet, translator and eminent academic who passed away recently, was also an incisive critic whose evaluation of ONV’s poetry is noteworthy. He also had deep appreciation for my efforts in the fields of academic work, creative writing and translation. I remember him with gratitude