Patriots > Cultural Inspiration and Nationalism > Asan,N.Kumaram (Mahakavi)
Asan,N.Kumaram (Mahakavi) (1873-1924)

Kumaran Asan, son of Narayanan and Kali Amma, was born in Kayikara in Trivendrum District on 12 April 1873. His father was a small merchant and theirs was a poor family. They were all Hindus of the Ezhava community. In 1917 Asan married Bhanumathi Amma of Tharkauduyil family to which belonged Rao Bahadur Belayudhan and Dr. Palpu, prominent members of the community. Kumaran Asan had two sons.

In 1880 he began the study of Malayalam and Sanskrit in the village primary school. His uncle Kochu Raman Vaidyan, the village physician, helped him. The example of this parents made him studious, music loving, religious and deeply sympathetic. He continued studies in Sanskrit schools. Later, he was in the Chamarajendra Sanskrit College in Bangalore and after that in a Calcutta college. While in Bangalore, helped by Dr. Palpu and his wife, Asan studied English which he continued in Calcutta. Vivekananda’s writings shaped his interpretation of Hinduism, that religion was social service, helping the helpless.

Tagore’s poems inspired Asan to compose his early romantic poems like ‘Nalini’ (1911) and ‘Leela’ (1914). His spiritual guide was Sri Narayana Guru, the saint, philosopher and social reformer. Sri Narayana Guru was to Asan what Sri Ramakrishna was to Vivekananda, Deeply religious, he was influenced by the Puranas. Among the English books, Sir Edwin Arnold’s ‘Light of Asia’ and Dr. Mackay’s ‘Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry’ showed their impact on Asan.

When aged fourteen, he joined as a teacher in the school where he once studied, but left soon, being too young for regular appointment. Then for a time, he taught Sanskrit to the local people and so came to be known as Asan (preceptor). When he finished his studies in Calcutta, he returned and was with Sri Narayana Guru like a ‘sishya’ at a Gurukula. When the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam was started in 1903, Asan became its Secretary and worked as such till 1919. These were years of very valuable service by Asan. The Ezhavas were then unapproachable, with few privileges of citizens.

Asan started a vigorous campaign in press and platform against caste discrimination. In 1909 he secured representation for the Ezhavas in the Travancore legislative Council and he was elected a member. He got a school for his people in his village, got the roads open for them, as also government schools. Guided by the Guru, Asam spread the Guru’s teaching and, under the auspices of the S.N. D.P. Yogam, established temples and ‘mutts’ in various parts of Kerala for the special benefit of his people.

The Advaitashram as always is an example. The Yogam had its headquarters at Varkala. In 1920, giving up the secretaryship of the Yogam, he became manager of the Yogam and an acknowledged leader of the community.

His crusade for social reform, specially for the removal of the restrictions on the underprivileged, continued with intensity. For this purpose he diverted all his literary talents, specially his poetic genius.

These talents had been proved by his earlier compositions like ‘Veena Poovu’ (1909). The poem sounded a new fascinating lyrical note in Malayalam poetry.

Unlike earlier poets, Asan through a trifling subject, namely, a fallen flower, explains the philosophy of birth, life and death. Death is inevitable, but it is not extinction, only part of a cycle and life is only a fleeting experience. In ‘Chintavishtayaya Seetha’ (Pensive Sita) he surveys various experiences of worldly life, specially of women, perhaps of Indian women.

His later poems show a different purpose, to argue that caste discrimination is meaningless and tragic. This point is powerfully argued in ‘Duravastha’ of 1923. Even earlier, in ‘Ori Thiyakuttiyute Vicharam’ (Thoughts of a Thiya Boy) of 1908 and ‘Simhanadam’ of 1919, Asan had shown how caste discriminations were worrying him. ‘Duravastha’ created a sensation.

Another beautiful and stirring poem ‘Chandala-bikshuki’ also deals with the same theme and shows how love has no caste barriers. His last poem ‘Karuna’ is considered also as his best by many, because, apart from its great poetic charm, it does not suggest so much social propaganda as the other compositions. The theme is not a mere social problem, but the big problem of life.

These poems show also the impact of Buddhism on Asan. This impact is more clearly seen in his five volumes of ‘Buddha Charitam’ begun as a translation of ‘Light of Asia’, but later developing an individuality of its own. Of Asan’s many poems, only the most important and characteristic ones could be mentioned here. They show a superb poetic ability, blending beautifully the realities of life with social consciousness, philosophy and emotional strength. His literary talents are to be seen also in his contributions to the magazines Vivekodayam and Prathibha which he edited for some time.

The significance of his work as a social reformer, scholar and poet has been widely recognized. Besides membership in the Travancore Legislative Assembly, he was on the Government Law Committee and Trivandrum Town Improvement Committee. He was a member of the Travancore Text-Book Committee.

Poems like ‘Swantantragatha’ and ‘Bharatamayuram’ show his national spirit. Political freedom, however, seemed less important to him than social freedom. Social or caste discrimination was his main target of attack. In 1922 the Prince of Wales, visiting India, awarded him the title ‘Mahakavi’ along with a gold bangle and a silk shawl,. He led an ascetic life.

While aged only fifty one years, with many years of valuable service still before him, Asan died in a tragic boat accident on 17 January 192(?). Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer has acclaimed Kumaran Asan as “a leader of his community a pioneer in social reform, and an acknowledged and authentic poet whose output is one of the landmarks of Malayalam poetry.”

Author : T.C.Sankara Menon