Literate Kerala took a short break from its daily preoccupation with political theatre during the weekend to celebrate Malayalam poet ONV Kurup winning the prestigious Jnanpith award.
There were good reasons to celebrate. ONV, as he is known, has been a doyen of Malayalam poetry for long. That explains why some writers and politicians described this award as something which was overdue.
Then, again, no Malayalam poet has won this honour since the late G Sankara Kurup was picked for the very first Jnanpith award 45 years ago. Three Malayalam writers won the award during this period. They were novelists and short story writers.
Further, the award comes as a kind of consolation to prize as votaries of Malayalam bemoan the Central government’s failure to grant it the status of classical language. The other major languages of the Dravidian group, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, have won such recognition.
Instituted in 1965 by the Bharatiya Jnanpith, a trust set up by Ms Rama Jain, of the Dalmia-Jain family, owners of the Times of India group of publications, the award is regarded as the country’s most important literary prize, surpassing even the awards given annually by Sahitya Akademi, the state-sponsored literary body.
While the Akademi gives separate prizes for each major language of the country, there is only one Jnanpith award in a year. The cash component of the prize, which was always significantly higher than that of the Akademi awards, now stands at Rs700,000.
Since even scholars have only limited knowledge of literary activity in languages other than their own, the task of the jury constituted to choose the winner, is extremely difficult, howsoever eminent its members maybe.
In the beginning, the award was given to a writer for a specific literary work. In 1982, the trust amended the scheme. Now the award is given to a writer in recognition of the writer’s entire contribution to literature.
In the early years, the award was announced regularly each year. For reasons that are not clear, it has fallen behind schedule since 2005. The awards for 2005 and 2006 were announced together in 2008.
On Friday, again, the trust announced the awards for two years together. ONV Kurup was chosen for the 2007 award and Urdu poet Akhlaq Khan Shahryar for the 2008 award.
At one time, Malayalam and Kannada were leading the Jnanpith tally with three awards each. Now Malayalam, with five awards, shares the third place in the roll of honour with Bangla. Kannada with seven awards and Hindi with six occupy the top spots.
The Jnanpith award comes as a fitting tribute to ONV’s seven decades of service to the Muse. While still a student he had caught the attention of not only scholars but all lovers of poetry. His early poems and the folksy songs he wrote for plays and movies earned popularity for him and helped the Communist movement by spreading the message of change.
While some of his contemporaries experimented with new forms of poetry, ONV made an unostentatious transition from revolutionary romanticism to classicism. In the process he raised himself above most of them.
ONV belongs to the small band of poets who played a major part in arousing environmental consciousness in the state at a time when powerful vested interests embarked upon a destructive course in the name of development.
Emerging as the foremost poet of his generation, he won all major literary prizes, an honorary doctorate and the Padma Shri award given by the president. Also, he endeared himself to generations of college students as a popular teacher and thrilled even more people with his oratory.
All that made ONV a natural choice for Jnanpith in the eyes of the Malayalees and when it came they celebrated it viewing it as an honour as much to themselves as to him and his work.
ONV was in Dubai with his wife to attend Onam celebrations organised by a Kerala group there when Education Minister MA Baby informed him on the telephone about the award. Baby was at the airport with Law Minister M Vijayakumar to receive the poet and escort him home on his return to Thiruvananthapuram.
Baby said the state government would request the Jnanpith authorities to hold the award presentation ceremony in Kerala.
Political and parochial considerations underlying such moves must not cloud the fact that ONV’s award reinforces the place of Malayalam in Indian literature and gives a boost to poetry at a time when misgivings about its future are widespread.