KUNCHAN NAMBIAR-MALAYALAM POET
Kuncan Nambyar) (1705–1770) was an early Malayalam languaqge poet, performer, satirist and the inventor of Ottamtullal, a local art form, from present day Kerala State State .Kunchan Nambiar spent his early childhood at Killikushimangalam.He was the master of satirist poetry. The chief contribution of Nambiar is the invention and popularization of a new performing art known as Tullal . The word literally means "dance", but under this name Nambiar devised a new style of verse narration with a little background music and dance-like swinging movement to wean the people away from the Cayar Kuttu, which was the form popular till then. He was to use pure Malayalam as opposed to the stylized and Sankskritized language of Koottu. He also adopted many elements from Padayani or Kolam Tullal and certain other folk arts. It is reasonable to assume that he was himself a performer. The firsthand knowledge of the various thalas and ragas and even the practices of drummers is a pre-requisite for the writing of a Tullal. Kunchan Nambiar possessed this in abundance.
Each Tullal composition consists of a local Puranic tale retold in simple rhythmic verse, fit for loud recitation before an audience. There are three kinds of Tullal distinguished on the basis of the performer's costume and the style of rendering, viz., Ottan, Sitankan and Parayan. Dravidian metres are used throughout although there is nothing to prevent the insertion of a quatrain in a Sanskrit metre. Nambiar also developed new metres (e.g. Vaytari metres) based on the vocal notation for various talas. The language also is predominantly Malayalam with a large admixture of colloquial and dialectal forms. Humour is invariably the dominant mood: other bhavas are brought in for variety and to suit the situation. One of the oft-quoted lines from his poems is "Nokkeda nammude margey kidakkunna markada niyangu mari kida saddha" (in Nambiar's retelling of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharatha, Prince Bhima of the Pandavas tells half-brother monkey god Hanuman to move from his way, by saying "Go lie elsewhere, you obstinate monkey “)
In one of his poems, "Kalanillatta Kalam" (roughly translated as 'Time Without Any Death'), Nambiar wonders how life would be if there were no death. He sees homes crowded with ever-shrinking aged ancestors."Tottodiya Pada" is a poem that describes in witty detail how an army retreats from a losing battle.
Kunchan Nambiar is believed to have written over forty Tullal composition. Some scholars allot a larger number to his credit. They belong to all the three types: 21 Otttan, 11 Sitankan and 9 Parayan. The most important of Nambiar's Thullals are: Syamantakam, Ghoshayatra, Kiratam, Santanagopalam, Patracaritam, Kartaviryarijunavijam, Bakavadham, Kalyana Saugandhikam, Hariniswayamvaram, Tripuradakanam and Sabha Pravesam. Nambiar was an extrovert and observed the life around very closely. He was also very critical of the social evils he saw around him. Thus even when the main story is from the Hindu Puranas, he would introduce digressions in plenty and use such occasions to comment on life in his own time. He did not worry about the charge of anachronism. He knew his audience very well: not scholars and poets, but laymen, especially soldiers, barely literate. “Thullal” is a type of performing art from Kerala and have a poem composition as its script. Ottanthullal is one among the three types of this category of poems. It is more famous than its other two categories Seethankan and Parayan. Kunchan Nambiar’s famous thullals are: Kalyana Saugandhikam, Hariniswayamvaram, Syamantakam, Ghoshayatra, Kiratam, Santanagopalam, Patracharitam, Kartaviryarijunavijam, Bakavadham, Tripuradakanam and Sabha Pravesam.
Each of Kunchan Nambiar’s thullal had a message and he was very critical to point out social evils that he saw around him during his life period. Kunchan Nambiar was a true poet in all sense and never ever bothered about the charge of anachronism. It is heard Kunchan Nambiar started to compose these poems for the poorer section of society who loved literature, during that era. This was the time when caste discretions were severe and the higher caste restricted the lower class to listen to poems and enjoy performing arts such as Kathakali. It is during this time Kunchan Nambiar decided that he should take a step forward to extend his new form of art to all art lovers and not to just higher casts. Kunchan Nambiar performed outdoors most of the time and his language was simple and straight, though a great scholar and by birth belonged to a scholar higher cast family. Not much ware about of this poet is known to the recent world but some say he had an unfortunate death by Rabies disease. This disease had no cure and bitten by rabies infected dog those days meant certain death. Some scholars have found evidence that he even created humour poem on the disease and mocked his near death circumstance.
Kunchan Nambiar believed that entertainment without humour was useless. The preface of most of his Ottanthullal clearly communicated to abandon his show to those who did not like comic and humour. The popularity of Kunchan Nambiar’s Ottanthullal affirms this vision. Kunchan Nambiar can be compared to Chaucer and Rabelais for his boisterous humour and knowledge of contemporary life. Kunchan’s Ottanthullals had set no limits to obscenity as per rules of his living era, often this came to sharp criticism from Nambudiris, Tamil Brahmins, Nayars, courtiers, courtesans who were authority to literature during those time. Kunchan Nambiar often induced his own version humour tales into the main stream story without altering its subject. Kunchan Nambiar transformed the major holy books of Hindus and popular tales to “thullal”. The war of Ramayana is a holy tale of Lord Sri Rama conquering the demon king Ravana and eradicating the evil. This war is believed to be fought at today’s Sri Lanka years back.
Ravana is considered as a brutal ancient King who ruled Sri Lanka before 3500 years. Ravana had only one obsession; “war”. He attacked most of the neighbouring states and kings and brought misery to the people there. Ravana was so evil that he used his magical powers given by GODs against GODs itself. Ramayana war is depicted by Kunchan Nambiar in one of the Ottanthullal “Kartavirarjuna Vijayam”. I am going to explain how Kunchan Nambiar has depicted the mental attitude of Ravana and his brutality. The composition thus communicates the sadist mind of Ravana and also humorously narrates it to his unscholarly audience. Ravana is depicted boasting his own powers to his fellow army men. The names of the Kingdoms mentioned in the following lines are ancient and cannot be compared to modern countries/cities. It is mere translations from Kunjan Nambiar’s Ottanthullal.
Kunchan Nambiar was born at Kalakkath Tharavad in Killikurisimangalam of Palakkad district in the beginning of the 18th century. (There is no record to prove the exact date of birth of this artist and it is presumed that his birth would have been around 1700 or so). Most part of his life was spent as a poet in the palaces of kings and houses of feudal land lords. Thus Nambiar had lot of exposure to the way day to day affairs of the rich were carried out. Being an observer the corruption, cruelties, fooleries existed there were all studied deeply by this bard who was better known as a satirist. His creations have dealt severe blows to the Obsolete systems prevailed in those timesno wrong doer was left uninjured by this pen wielding one man army. As his attacks were sugar coated with sweet satire even the injured joined among the laughing brigade.
17th and 18th centuries were bad times for Malayalam language as well known writers considered pure Malayalam as an inferior one. Hence they wrote in Sanskrit which was then considered as a divine language. This phenomenon created a wide gap between the learned and the ordinary people. The laymen did not understand what the writers write. And they simply kept away from the literary field. Major part of Kunjan Nambiar’s life was spent at Ambalapuzha (then capital of Chempakassery kingdom) where he reached from his native land Killikurissimangalam after a short stay at Kottayam. It is while he was staying at Ambalapuzha he created the popular performing art “Thullal”. The story runs like this. In Ambalapuzha temple during festivals as a ritual a performing art by name “Koothu” was conducted. The performer of this art is known as “Chakyar”. Sri Kunjan Nambiar was the player of “Mizhavu” (a local percussion instrument). As the play was going on at night, poor Kunjan Nambiar just dozed off while playing the mizhavu!
The koothu is a program in which the performer narrates the mythological stories and in between talk about social events in satirical style. The dialect used is half prose and half verse. When the chakyar saw Kunjan Nambiar dozing he started telling stories humiliating the dozing Nambiar. And the viewers where enjoying the scene and they were in great applause. Hearing this noise Kunjan Nambiar woke and was ashamed. A great artist of satire became a laughing stock! Kunchan Nambiar was thinking how to snub this chakyar for what he did last night. Rest of the night and next day he was engaged in giving birth to a new form of performing art which could attract the crowds gathered before the chakyar. Next night when chakyar was performing as usual opposite to that there was commotion people were seen gathered at the center was Nambiar with a strange crown and a colorful skirt decorated with a lace tender leaves. His face was made up with “manayola” (a local coloring material). There were brass rings decorating his hands and neck with big beaded local laces.
His art was simple and the language any laymen, could follow. That was the first time people saw such an art in their life as they were bored of the old rituals playing for generations without any innovations. As the artist stretched his hands on both sides as he sung the songs, people called it thullal (thullal mean jumping, dancing or just shivering! What the people meant is left to guess). The story was “Kallyana Sougandhikam” an extract from Mahabharata where Lord Bhima travels to collect a rare flower by name kallyana sougandhikam. And see his elder brother Hanuman on the way and got engaged in lengthy conversations as Bhima does not recognizes his brother etc. It was the language people heard for the first time in a performance which had none of the unusual intricacies of Sanskrit. People were thrilled to hear the verses in the plain language they use in their day today life. Kunchan Nambiar lavishly used the similes to insult the land lords and other so called very reputed personalities of that time as Bhima’s image was pictured like them foolish and arrogant landlord. People were thrilled but the chakyar was not. He went to the king and complained against Nambiar. The king of Chembakassery who knew about the pranks of Kunjan Nambiar and ordered that from that day onwards no “thullal” will be performed in the Ambalapuza temple compound.(even now this order is obeyed by the temple). But the king did not ban the art as it is in the case of the present ministers. The thullal performances and the lyrics used in it spread like wild fire it became an essential performance in all temple festivals barring the Ambalapuzha temple.
The art of thullal was not created from the vacuum. Kunjan Nambiar adopted much from the existing tribal performances and gave it a great shape adding his sarcastic style of lyrics as an icing on it. He later improved it in to three styles “oattan”, “seethankan”, and “Parayan”, the three had minor changes in its dress and style they were derived from the performances observed by castes like “Kanian, Pulaya and Paraya” respecively. In thullal the performer himself sings and says the story. The troop which accompanies the main artist repeats the same when each sentence is completed. This gives the people a chance to clearly follow what is said and enjoy the satire to the maximum.Later when Ambalapuzha was conquered by Travancore, Kunjan Nambiar moved to Thiruvananthapuram, there he happened to meet and befriend with great artists in Malayalam literature like Unnayi Varier and Ramapurathu Varier.
Prof. John Kurakar