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Kunchan Nambiar spent his early childhood at Killikkurussimangalam in Kerala state, south India, his boyhood at Kudamaloor and his youth at Ambalappuzha. Scholars like Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar have the opinion that he and the Sanskrit poet Rama Pānivāda are the same. (Pānivāda means Nambiar in Sanskrit ). In 1748 he moved to Thiruvananthapuram, first to the court of Martanda Varma and later to the court of Kartika Tirunal Rama Varma. He had already written several of his works before leaving Ambalapuzha.
He was the master of satirist poetry. The chief contribution of Nambiar is the invention and popularization of a new performing art known as Thullal. 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 Chakkiyar Koothu, which was the form popular till then. He was to use pure Malayalam as opposed to the stylized and Sanskritized language of Koothu. He also adopted many elements from Padayani or Kolam Thullal 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 Thullal. Kunchan Nambiar possessed this in abundance. Each Thullal composition consists of a Puranic tale retoled in simple rhythmic verse, fit for loud recitation before an audience. There are three kinds of Thullal distinguished on the basis of the performer's costume and the style of rendering, viz., Ottan, Seethankan 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. Vaythari 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 neeyangu maari kida saddha". (In Nambiar's retelling of the Mahabharatham, Bhima tells Hanuman to move from his way, by saying "Go lie elsewhere, you obstinate monkey").
— In one of his poems, "Kaalanillatha Kaalam" (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.
— "Thottodiya Pada" is a poem that describes in witty detail how an army retreats from a losing battle.
Extracts from Kunchan Nambiar's poems/writings
Kunchan Nambiar is believed to have written over forty Thullal composition. Some scholars allot a larger number to his credit. They belong to all the three types: 21 Otttan, 11 Seethankan and 9 Parayan. The most important of Nambiar's Thullals are: Syamantakam, Ghoshayatra, Kiratam, Santanagopalam, Patracharitam, 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 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. In one of his works he says:
- It is impossible to entertain without laughter
- Those soldiers who think they should stay
- If it is a comic tale, or else shouldn't leave the place.
He certainly succeeded in his aim. He is comparable to Chaucer and Rabelais for his boisterous humour and knowledge of contemporary life. Like them, he too borders on the obsence at times, as a matter of concession to the audience or readers. All classes of people and all professions come in for sharp criticism in his compositions: Nambudiris, Tamil Brahmins, Nayars, courtiers, courtesans. Nambiar is undoubtedly the greatest satirist in Malayalam. An example of how he introduced a satire on contemporary life into a text based on a puranic episode may be found in the following passage from Kartavirarjuna Vijayam. Ravana is speaking to Narada about his own prowess that has reduced other kings to utter misery:
- The kingdom of the Gandharaka ruler
- Has turned into a mere desert.
- The land of the Simhala King
- Is now filled with lions and leopards.
- The lord of the Chera people
- Feeds himself on cheap vegetables.
- The Chola King has nothing to eat
- Except the maize of low quality
- The kings of the Kuru house
- Have nothing but jackfruit seeds.
- The lord of the land of Kashmir
- Is busy eating cucumbers.
- The ruler of the Champeya land
- Eats only tubers and broken rice.
- The Konkan prince is about to die
- Thinking of his wives' breasts.
After Ravana reaches Hehaya, his messengers announce that everybody should owe allegiance to him:
- Tributes must be paid from time to time;
- Half the yield should be given to me.
- The whole of pepper yield should be handed over
- Coconut, arecanut, mango, jackfruit:
- All the trees should be confiscated.
- There will be no place in my country
- For the pomp of local barons.
- Double the seed crop should be given
- To me by every houseowner.
- The Tamil Brahmins (Pattars) staying here
- Should also give one fourth to me.
- The Nayars who stay at home
- Should take their bows and spears
- And stay at the residence of Ravana
- And do whatever chores are assigned.
- Nayars who drink toddy
- Would be beaten up, beware!
Nambiar's poetry lacks the high seriousness such as we find in Ezhuthachan. The difference here is significant. The two are complementary. Just as Kilipattu seems to express the total personality of a writer like Ezhuthachan, the Thullal brings out the characteristic features of the personality of Nambiar. Between them they cover the entire spectrum of humanity, the entire gamut of human emotions. No other Kilipattu has come anywhere near Ezhuthachan's Ramayanam and Mahabharatam, no other Thullal composition is ever likely to equal the best of Nambiar's compositions.
- ↑ Biographicon, 'Kalakkaththu Kunchan Nambiar'