Book Chat: Remembering Kerala’s Greatest Lyricist

Biju Parameswaran, a much traveled literary and movie enthusiast writes:

G. Ramavarma Thirumulpad who came to be known as Vayalar Ramavarma or simply Vayalar was the greatest lyricist to come out of Kerala. Equally renowned as a poet, he was deeply grounded in Sanskrit and exposed to world literature. He is considered as a revolutionary poet since he believed that Art is for Life’s sake and sought social transformation through poetry and song. Five slim books concerning this eternal lamp of the Malayalam cinema tharavad are:

  1. Vayalar                                                     – Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan
  2. Indradhanussin Theerath               – Bharathi Thampuratti
  3. Antharjanathinu Snehapoorvam  – Vayalar
  4. Purushantharangalliloode              – Vayalar
  5. Oru Kaviyude Diary                             – Vayalar

Gopalakrishnan was a film critic and a close associate of Vayalar for four decades. He explodes many myths about the great man in his memoirs. Firstly Vayalar was not a reckless alcoholic like we tend to believe. He did love his booze. But we are told of instances where the responsible professional in him refused invites to evening drinks by film colleagues because he had to go back and finish song assignments. Vayalar who was Kuttan to those close to him, was born to his parents fifteen years into their marriage. Before he was three, he lost his father Vellarapalli Keralavarma. The mother Ambalika Thampuratti’s attachment to this only child was an extreme form of possessiveness that stayed throughout his life.  Vayalar married Chandramathi Amma and when they were issueless for six years, broke up and married her sister Bharathi. That union produced a son, today’s lyricist Vayalar Sarath Chandra Varma and three daughters. The village of Vayalar shot to fame first in 1946 after an uprising there and in nearby Punnapra against the Travancore Diwan created hundreds of martyrs. The poet was 18 at that time. He was led on to the leftist path by C.K. Kumara Panicker who was known as Vayalar Stalin. His son is the present CPI State Secretary C.K. Chandrappan. After the communist split in ’64, Vayalar naturally joined ranks with CPI. Despite his upper caste origins, Vayalar questioned and rebelled against the injustices of society and championed the oppressed classes.  ‘Snehickayilla njan novumatmavine/ Snehichidathoru thatvasastratheyum’ – these lines from his poem Maa Nishada sum up his life’s philosophy. When he first went to Udaya studio seeking work, he was shown the door by the mighty Kunchacko. Years later the same Kunchacko was to accord him a hero’s welcome when he brought home the national award. This was in ’73 for the song ‘Manushyan mathangalle srishtichu’ in the movie Achanum Baappayum. Gopalakrishnan wanted to give a grand felicitation for his friend and invited a hundred people from the industry. A mere half a dozen attended. In spite of personal reminders, big stars like Nasir and Ummar scooted it. Ummar inaugurated a radio shop at a stone’s throwaway distance on the same day! This is an indicator of the jealousy Vayalar’s genius sparked in his peers. The association of Vayalar and music composer Paravoor Devarajan which has given Malayalam some of its best loved songs till date was divinely ordained. Vayalar was haunted by a bad liver. When the end came in ’75 he was just 47. Had he been alive today he would have been 83, still five summers younger to a sprightly comrade called V.S. Achuthanandan. It is a cruel irony that for his funeral the who’s who of literature, cinema and politics of the land except our topmost actors and singers were present. Was it the short temper of a man in creative trance that must have rubbed these so-called stars’ egos the wrong way when he was alive? Malayatoor, a dear friend, wanted to set up a fund in his memory and the first person he approached was Yesudas who shockingly turned it down. The gandhavaran comes for special flak in Bharathi Thampuratti’s book for what she terms ingratitude to the man and his family. But the biggest revelation is her life’s travails. Her dominating mother-in-law had made a mental slave of the son so much to the effect that Vayalar would write letters from his Madras stay to his mom and not wife. The poet had a narrow escape after Naxals decided to burn down his Raghava Paramb Kovilakam. Vayalar ‘adopted’ the writer Lalithambika Antharjanam as his own sister and communicated steadily with her. A glimpse of that most beautiful friendship is the collection of letters brought out by the dame’s grand-daughter Thanuja S. Bhattathiri. We get to see only one side of the communication though. Antharjanam who was sticking to short stories wrote a reformist novel called Agnisakshi at the coercion of Vayalar. After the latter’s death when the government instituted the state’s biggest literary honor in his name, she it was who became its first recipient, in ‘77! Purushantharangalliloode is Vayalar’s account of a Delhi trip in ’56 to attend an Asian Writers’ Conference. We can marvel Vayalar’s sense of history and mythology. The Diary has jottings on topics like visiting Kumaran Asan’s widow Bhanumathi, a lament over people falling for tricksters in religious garb and sadness at seeing Sree Narayana Guru’s message going unheard among people who purport to be his followers. He talks excitedly about the writing of the Japanese Yasunari Kawabatta who had just become the first Asian in 55 years since Tagore to win the literary Nobel Prize. Lastly there is tribute to Sinclair and Steinbeck, two then recently deceased writers who had had an influence on him. Contrary to what many people believe Vayalar was not an atheist. The writer of ‘Nitya visudhayam kanya  mariyame’ and ‘Chethi Mandaram Thulasi’ was a true man of religion who took after Sankara’s non-dualism school. He loved life passionately, was ahead of his times and soared in the highest planes of thought. Interestingly Vayalar takes a veiled dig at S.K. Pottekkatt who was ‘oblivious of the issues in his immediate surroundings, produced intellectual exercises of world travelogues and drew from original works penned by abler men in different climes’.

Happy Reading!

Biju Parameswaran  (

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