In 2006, I had decided to apply for Charles Wallace Translation fellowship, for which I had to submit a Statement of Purpose along with my application, stating what I would work on during the fellowship. Initially, I was planning to translate a Malayalam novel into English.

That same evening, going through the books on my shelf, I chanced upon a collection of poems by Akkitham. I had read very little of his poetry before that. As I went through the book on my desk, I was struck by their quality and depth – so much so that I immediately changed my mind about what to translate during the fellowship.

Thirteen years later, as the news came in about Akkitham’s being selected for the prestigious Jnanpith Award, happy memories were revived from that time. Akkitham is the sixth Malayalam writer to get the Jnanpith award – after G Sankara Kurup, Thakazhi, SK Pottekatt, MT Vasudevan Nair, and ONV Kurup.

Ninety-three-year-old Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, fondly known as Akkitham, is one of the senior-most poets of Kerala. Also a well-known Malayalam essayist and editor, he has won many literary accolades. His repertoire is resplendent with a philosophical strain of work that comes from scholarship and innate poetic brilliance, extending from the pre-independence period to the present day.

Akkitham’s traditional style of poetry, using formal meter, does not drive away a new generation used to free verse; on the contrary, it captivates the readers. Akkitham’s poems focus on society, in the process offering a universal appeal, transcending generations and genres.

Marker of modernism

Some of Akkitham’s early poems, titled “Face to face with an adolescent girl”, “Black market”, and “To the Temple” were much discussed. A keen observer, he looked closely for the magical within the mundane; in his eyes the flower blossoming on the boundary wall too is beautiful, and finds its way naturally into his poems.

In the poem titled “Melshanthi of yesteryears” Akkitham portrays a poverty-stricken Namboodiri family. He is aware of how the illam lost its glory. Mother says:

Hey unni
Its kanji until karkidakam
I don’t know whether you will like it.

One of the “upper castes” of kerala, the Namboodiris, bound as many of them were by rigid customs and rules, often silenced those who opposed them in their quest for wealth and power. Namboodiri women were confined indoors, where they lived in squalor and degradation. Eventually things changed, they lost their power and wealth, and many of the families became poor, even finding it difficult to make ends meet. “Melshanthi of yesteryears” chronicles the decline of a Namboodiri family.

Akkitham shot into fame with his Khandakavya titled Irupatham Nootatinte Ithihasam (Legend of the 20th Century), which went on to bag his first award, the Sanjayan Award, in 1952. This book is a marker of the advent of modernism in Malayalam poetry.

When I shed a drop of tear
soaked in compassion for others
a thousand universes are drawn in my heart.
When I spend a smile from my lips
moistened with my love for others
the gentle, ever pure moonlight fills my heart.
I did not know till then
of this divine rapturous enlightened flow
thinking again and again of this knowledge denied,
Heartbroken, I weep.

The poem “Legend of the 20th Century” speaks of a shocking reality. Man is no more human and has become selfish. With his desires increasing, he is moving away from dharma, and he has no compassion for his fellow beings. He doesn’t want anyone else to be superior. This poem meditates on the great fall.

Flies fall into the 
Fire of the cook’s hearth 
The next day the dead bodies of infants
Are found on narrow roads

Akkitham says that heaven and hell are the two options for a human, and foolishness leads to the latter. He warns future generations:

Unni, light is sorrow
Darkness is comforting

Upending a legend

Another noted work of Akkitham’s is Bali Darshanam, where the legend of Mahabali ­– the Asura emperor who was loved by his subjects and was sent beneath the earth by Vamana – is given a new interpretation. The poem also gives a new dimension to the figure of Shukra Muni, and turns a critical eye on the contemporary human predicament.

The poem is located in the Onam celebrations, the narration beginning with a dream during a post-prandial nap after the feast. Describing the songs, the games, the floral decorations, and more, Akkitham contends that the fervour and charm of earlier celebrations is missing, invoking the Onam festivities in his childhood, whose memories are still strong.

Mahabali appears at the end of the dream, and Akkitham argues that the very powerful king became an icon not for his power and glory but because of his submissive nature. Bali Darshanam is a brilliant poem. Even as he regrets present-day consumerist Onam celebrations, Akkitham changes the traditional narrative.

Akkitham’s poetry is known for its rich intonation as well as precision. His poems embrace a cultural heritage while at the same time portraying a new mentalit. His works are known for their philosophical touch, and his innate ability to combine gravitas with simple language.

A multifaceted writer

Akkitham’s literary oeuvre goes well beyond poetry. His book of criticism titled Cherukatha Innale Innu (The Short Story, Yesterday and Today) won him the Kerala Sahitya Academy award and the SPB Award. His Vivechenam is a resplendent collection of essays on poetry. He has translated Vyasa’s Srimad Bhagavatham into Malayalam, comprising of 14,613 verses. He has also written two books for children, one being a play and the other, a collection of poems.

In his long career Akkitham has published some 50 books, comprising poetry collections, plays, translations and works for children. Among his other notable works are Balidarsanam, Arangettam, Nimisha Kshetram, Idinju Polinja Lokam, Amritaghatika, and Kalikkottilil.

The recipient of many literary awards even before the Jnanpith, Akkitham has been involved with social reforms alongside his poetry. As a member of the Yogakshema Sabha, he played an important part in bringing social reforms to the Namboodiris of Kerala. What shines through Akkitham’s multiple personas of poet, translator, critic, and social activist, is the figure of the humanist poet .

Santosh Alex is the author of 38 books, including poetry, criticism and translations, in three languages.