Vallathol Narayana Menon

(1878 – 1958 / Chenara, Malappuram, Kerala, India)

Biography of Vallathol Narayana Menon

Vallathol Narayana Menon poet

Vallathol Narayana Menon, popularly known as Mahakavi, was a celebrated poet in Malayalam language, which is spoken in the South Indian state of Kerala. Menon was born in Chenara, near Tirur, in Malappuram District of Kerala state, southern India.

Menon is the author of "Sahithya Manjari". He received the title, Mahakavi, for his Mahakaavyam "Chitrayogam". He played a prominent role in setting up the Kerala Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthy, near the banks of Bharathapuzha River. Later this place was renamed Vallathol Nagar. He raised Kathakali as an art form to the level it is at today. He wrote dozens of kavya.

Menon wrote predominantly in Malayalam, and, along with Kumaran Asan and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, was part of a highly creative period in Malayalam literature. Influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, and Karl Marx, as well as by the Sanskrit classics, Menon's poetry evolved from its classical beginnings to increasing expression of nationalist and broadly socialist sentiment.

He wrote in a variety of forms, using both Sanskrit and Dravidian meters. He did not know English. Vallathol's many works include the mahakavya (a form of epic poem), "Chitrayogam" (1914), and the narrative poems "Magdalena Mariyam" (Mary Magdalene, 1921) and "Kochu" Sita (1928), as well as 11 volumes containing his collected romantic poems entitled Sahityamanjari. In addition to subjects from nature and the lives of ordinary people, Vallathol's opposition to the indignities of the caste system and the injustices suffered by the poor form the themes of many of his poems. His own struggle with deafness from his early twenties also features in some works. Vallathol's poetry has been translated into English and Russian as well as Hindi. Kerala Kalamandalam - The temple of classical arts - It is the realisation of a poet's dream, of a life of dedication, of a journey through the agonies of creation, of the ecstasies of fulfillment.

Menon was forty nine years old when the idea struck him. He had been to a friend's house in Kunnamkulam to witness a performance of Kathakali. Several connoisseurs like him were there. They had come with great expectations. The performance was deplorable, shocking. He felt scandalised that this unique art form, well recognised as total theatre, should have fallen to such low depths. He took a silent vow that night. He would dedicate the rest of his life to the resurrection of Kathakali.

The depression that followed some years after the first world war further ruined the classical arts of Kerala. It was only the strength of character and determination of a few dedicated veterans and an occasional shot in the arm by an isolated patron that kept the flame alive. Kathakali and other classical arts could not attract talented youth in numbers as they offered no source of decent livelihood. The artists who performed before the poet at Kunnamkulam shocked him. It was that shock however, that saved Kathakali.

He called together his friends and registered a new society in Calicut in 1927. He christened it the Kerala Kalamandalam. To raise funds for an institution that did not offer a monetary return was not an easy matter. He therefore ventured on a new way of getting money. He secured the Government's approval to start a raffle. It took him and his friends three years to collect a reasonable sum before they could hold the draw at the famous Guruvayur Temple in 1930. The net proceeds of the raffle amounting to Rs. 75,000/ became the capital of Kalamandalam.

The real functioning of the Kalamandalam began in 1930 at the Kakkat Madhom premises at Kunnamkulam. The Mahakavi felt that the institution needed more space and facilities. Manakkulam Mukunda Raja, friend and colleague of the Mahakavi in this venture came forward and offered his premises at Ambalapuram, a few kilometres off Trichur to house the Kalamandalam. When the Kalamandalam was shifted there, the Mahakavi also came and stayed at Ambalapuram so that he could devote his personal attention to the students and teachers. He believed that artists should have a reasonable education and awareness of our classical literature and epics. So he persuaded Kuttikrishna Marar, a scholar of Kerala, to join the institution to teach the students.

By 1936 a reasonably spacious compound was secured on the banks of the Bharathappuzha at Cheruthuruthy and a building put up at considerable expense. The institution was shifted to the new site and started functioning there from 1937. Kalamandalam had established name of its own by then. Students came from different parts of the world to take advantage of the systematic training available there under the direct supervision of the Mahakavi. They included famous danseuse Ragini Devi and the great choreographer and dancer of international renown, Guru Gopinath. The Mahakavi insisted that the teachers of the institution be the very best available. Thus he secured the services of great masters like Guru Kunju Kurup, Pattikkanthodi Ravunni Menon and Kavalappara Narayan Nayar to teach the actor students, Venkatakrishna Bhagavathar to teach music, Moothamana Namboothiripad to teach Chenta and Venkachan Pattar to teach the Maddalam.

In addition to his poetry, Vallathol also translated the Sanskrit Rig Veda and Valmiki's Ramayana into Malayalam verse, as well as producing a prose translation of the Puranas. He was awarded the prestigious honour of Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1955.

Involvement in Nationalist Movement

Menon actively participated in the Nationalist movement. He attended the all India Conferences of the Indian Congress in 1922 and 1927 and rejected a royal honour bestowed upon him by Prince of Wales during his India visit in 1922. Menon remained a great admirer of Mahathma Gandhi and wrote the poem "ente Gurunathan" ("My Great Teacher") in his praise. He wrote several patriotic poems hailing India's nationalist movement.

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