Kumaran Asan, one of the famous triumvirate poets of Kerala in the first half of the twentieth century, (others being, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer), was a beacon-light to the downtrodden and depressed classes of Travancore State. He was a poet, philosopher and a great social activist.
Born in a backward Ezhava family in the year 1873 in Kayikkara village, a little north of Thiruvananthapuram, Kumaran was the second son in a family of nine children born to Narayanan Perungudi. His father was well versed in both Malayalam and Tamil and Kumaran Asan inherited his taste for Kathakali and Classical music. Kumaran also had a passion for Sanskrit. Even though he got a job as a primary school teacher at the young age of 14, he left it to pursue higher studies in Sanskrit. He also wanted to learn Yoga and Tantra so he worked as an apprentice in a local Muruga temple at Vakkom. It has been reported that the Muse of Poetry blessed him during this time and he began to compose a few devotional songs for the benefit of regular worshippers at this temple.
When he was eighteen, Sree Narayana Guru visited his house at the request of his father. Kumaran was bedridden at that time. The great saint suggested that Kumaran should stay with him and become his disciple. The little boy found the invitation irresistible. Thus began a new phase of life for the young lad.
Kumaran’s meeting with Sree Narayana Guru can be compared to the meeting of Narendran with Sri Ramakrishna. These are significant events, in the mysterious and inexorable ways of destiny. While Narendran became a full fledged Swami, Kumaran continued as a lay disciple of Narayana Guru and made substantial contributions in the fields of poetry, literature and social renaissance, which Kerala witnessed during the early part of this century.
Swami took the fledgling devotee under his mighty wings and he was sent to Bangalore in 1895 for higher studies in Sanskrit, at the Sree Chamarajendra Sanskrit College for 3 years. He specialized in “Tarka” sastra. Unfortunately he could not take the final exam, following some allegations, that he was only a low caste Hindu. Leaving Bangalore he came to madras and after a brief stay, left for Calcutta to join the Sanskrit College. His teacher was the renowned Mahamahopadhyaya Kamakhya Nath who encouraged the poetic talents of his student and prophesized that he would one day become a famous poet.
Bengal was in the throes of renaissance at the end of the 19th century. The ideals of Brahma Samaj, nurtured by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Devendranath Tagore, inspired Kumaran to a great extent. The literary works of young Rabindranath Tagore published in “Bharathi” magazine also influenced him. Tagore had great fascination for Lord Buddha and composed many dramas centering on Lord Buddha, which had wide-ranging social connotations, in terms of caste and creed, domination of the upper castes and clergy, and religious practices, some of which were bordering on superstitions. Kumaran fully imbibed the lofty ideals of Tagore, which later on, he tried to translate in his native tongue. His fascination for Buddha was depicted in two of his famous poems, “Karuna” and “Chandala Bhikshuki”, which depict epochs from the life of Buddha.
The poet in Kumaran emerged during this period and he began to contribute poems in Sanskrit and Malayalam to several periodicals in Kerala. The literary elite of Travancore was referring him to as Kumaran Asan. But Asan was not content to be just a bard, writing of the imaginary and ethereal regions of the literary firmament. He was not a dreamer as most poets are, but a hardboiled realist. He wanted to find answers to several problems of his native State. He returned from Bengal and joined his Guru at Aruvippuram where the Swami had established his ashram. During his stay here he composed two dramas “Mrithhyunjayam” and “Vichithravijayam”.
The year 1903 witnessed the founding of the S.N.D.P in which Kumaran Asan assumed the position of secretary under the life Presidency of Sree Narayana Guru. For the next several years, Asan had to skillfully combine the dual roles of poet and social reformer. He started a magazine “Vivekodayam”, an obvious reference to his regard for Swami Vivekananda, to highlight the social and organizational aspects of his community. He was a relentless fighter for social justice. The caste system in Kerala during this time was rigid and heartless and Asan in his impeccable style wielded his mighty pen to highlight the myths and distortions of society. In this, he was ably assisted by other stalwarts like Dr. Palpu, C.V. Kunjuraman and T.K. Madhavan, to name a few. Of course, the guiding light of Sree Narayana Guru was always there to comfort, assist and encourage him in all his endeavors.
Some of the earlier works of the poet include Subramanya Sathakam and Sankara Sathakam, wherein Asan voiced his devotional aspirations. His short poem “Veena Poovu””(fallen flower) is a literary classic and this paved the way for a new trend in Malayalam literature. His elegy “Prarodanam” mourning the death of his contemporary poet and friend A.R. Rajaraja Varma, the famous Grammarian, is a masterpiece. “Khanda Kavyas” (mini poems) like Nalini, Leela, Karuna and Chandala bhikshuki, were great hits and many students could be seen chanting a line or two of these famous poems, while in school or elsewhere. In “Chintavishtayaya Seetha” (mournfully remembering Seetha) he displayed his poetic artistry, while in Duravastha, he patiently and skillfully tears down the barriers of feudalism, orthodoxy and casteism and consummates the dictum of the Guru, “One Caste, One Religion, One God for man”.
The crowning achievement of Kumaran Asan was his “Buddha Charitha” in 5 volumes, for which he got inspiration from Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia”. This Mahakavya earned for him the title “Mahakavi (great poet) and he was ranked equally with his illustrious contemporaries, Vallathol and Ulloor. While in “Duravastha”, he revealed his revolutionary zeal for fighting caste distinctions; a few other poetic works had a distinct Buddhist slant. Probably Asan felt that Buddhism or Neo-Buddhism held great appeal to the people of the lower strata and in this Asan might have been indirectly inspired by reformers and intellectuals like Gandhiji, Periyar and Baba Saheb Ambedkar.
The Mahakavi lived only for fifty years. His life was tragically cut short by a boat accident in January 1924. But the trail he blazed in the literary and social firmament of Kerala is enough inspiration for any student of contemporary history. Asan was also the inspiration for large-scale political and social changes in Kerala, long before of any other State in India.