There is a little bit of ONV Kurup (1931-2016) in a Malayalee’s life, exactly the way ‘uppu’ (salt) is in every drop of water. We may not always taste it exactly the way salt tastes, but it is there. When we plant a sapling, ONV wrote, we plant a shade for the future generations to rest. ONV was not just a poet who had taken the pen from the pastoral poet, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, and carried on with the same romanticism and lyricism. From the pastoral settings, he moved on to the urban spaces created by the growing industrialization and sang the songs of the workers, tillers and toilers exactly the way his contemporaries such as P. Bhaskaran, Vayalar Ramavarma and Thirunalloor Karunakaran.
There were three things at some point of time in Kerala’s cultural history that touched every Malayalee’s life. One couldn’t have passed a day without looking at the picture of the evergreen hero Prem Nazir, listening to the voice of K.J.Yesudas, and indirectly enjoying the poems of ONV, which were mostly sung by Yesudas. ONV’s romantic imaginations gave wings to the sublime love that remained almost dormant in the Malayalee psyche. Vayalar was celebrating the erotic aspirations of the ‘moral Malayalee’ in nude words slightly veiled by the transparent music. It was ONV who brought Bhakti of Meera and Kama of Radha into his poems. There has always been a question; whether his poems were better or the lyrics. He did answer this question. But he recreated his affinity for the bards, ballads and pastorals in contemporary contexts. The heroes and heroines in his poems transported themselves to the renaissance world of Kalidasa. He could create Ujjain in Thiruvananthapuram.
The modernist/post-modernist poets like M.Govindan, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan and Ayyappa Panicker articulated their allegiance with the subaltern people, environmental politics and the global human resistance in a language that was very contemporary. They were also capable of breaking the conventions. ONV, however, didn't walk away from the poetic traditions; he was a stickler for meters and alliterations. Yet, he expressed the same concerns in much more appealing ways that several of those poems became lyrical slogans of later socio-environmental movements. He borrowed, adopted and got inspired from the vast repository of Indian and European myths, and he could use them as poetic allegories to ideate the global issues through lyrical poetry. He sang of the Sun, Moon, Earth and all the celestial spheres and warned the world of their impending death.
The metaphors that ONV chose to sing were so appealing that once heard, one would never forget them. He imagined the earth, which has been a victim of deforestation, as a ‘raped and tonsured woman’ who staggers away with the bundle of shame on her shoulders. In his highly acclaimed poem on Nelson Mandela, ONV drew similarities between Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela. He wrote: “Our grandfather had started his new war in this land/He devoted two of his front teeth here on this land/In order to recite the songs of freedom for the first time.” ONV, a lover of Sun as the primary source all energies including his poetic prowess, said Mandela was like a black Sun. A village girl, a baul singer, a hunter, a poet, a lover, a singer and an angelic girl who runs around in pure abandonment were his favorite protagonists.
There are four ONVs in a Malayalee’s mind; people hardly remember the first one these days. He was Balamurali when he started writing for films and progressive theatre movements like KPAC. ONV couldn’t have revealed his name, as he was teaching in a college. He was a leftist and a Gandhian, both were not seen in good light by the then authorities. Then ONV, the poet and lyricist. The third ONV is the ONV who came to the people as a real person in the kaviarangu during 1980s. After that it was the days of cassette revolution. For a few years since late 1980s, the people in Kerala reimagined their cultural spaces both in visuals and sounds by playing the poems of ONV, Chullikkadu and later V. Madhusoodanan Nair (who could be called a heir of both Vayalar and ONV) through loud speakers even in marriage halls and political corner meetings.
We grew up seeing ONV in kaviarangu and listening to him repeatedly in the private music systems. Outside, we pretended to love Chullikkadu, Ayyappan and Bob Marley. Inside, we recited the poems of ONV. In December, I thought of the calendar that would vanish from the wall. ONV had written these lines: ‘the calendar that has a red mark on its forehead/with the page December is trying for deliverance from the nail/This year is dead, this is a limb that is severed from our bodies/ a fallen leaf, a useless feather/ they retreat after fulfilling their duty/ but the memories of those are not estranged/they come like the fragrance of the wild flowers/ who is singing there in the wilderness?’ Personally speaking I couldn't have escaped the embrace of ONV’s poems. I stood on the platform of my class in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram in late 1980s, and each time I sang, strangely I felt like a Baul singer, homeless but hopeful; the one I would meet in a train to Santiniketan, decades later