Though Sanskrit literature had a distinguished dramatic literature, and the ancient school of Sanskrit plays known as Trivandrum Plays were written by playwrights from different regions of Kerala, theater in modern Malayalam literature did not begin to flourish until late into the nineteenth century.Since the dominant Hindu culture had elaborate traditions of temple theater such as Koodiyattam, Thullal and Kathakali, realistic drama failed to receive respectability or audience. The Portuguese contact had helped the development of a Christian theater and the Christians who lived primarily in central Kerala staged plays on the history of Charlemagne, Jacob of the Old Testament, and on the lives of various saints. Most churches produced passion plays and gospel enactments which went unnoticed by the mainstream culture.

Only after Valia Koyil Thampuran's translation of Kalidasa's Sakuntala (1882) did drama begin to get the proper attention of Malayalam writers. The Kalidasa play set off a stream of translations and borrowings from Sanskrit and English, and following Varghese Mappilai's adaptation in 1893 of Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare plays began to appear. The novelist C. V. Raman Pillai also produced adaptations of English neo-classical dramas of Sheridan and Goldsmith. His Kurupilla Kalari (A Chaotic Place, 1909)) provided a model for the future development of comedy, and E. V. Krishna Pillai's farces filled the lacuna of a dramatic tradition in Malayalam.

At this point, Thottakkat Ikkavamma, the first woman dramatist in Malayalam, introduced her play Subhadrarjunam with a proclamation that it was not to the glory of the Muse that women were incompetent in writing plays. With the rise of Communism, drama became popular as an expression of the revolutionary zeal of the emerging political culture. The Progressive writers were at the vanguard of the new theater movement. With Thoppil Bhasi's socialist realist play Ningalenne Kammunistakki (You Made Me A Communist, 1952) performed by the Kerala People's Arts Club in every village and town in the state, Malayalam theater came of age. And it was C. J. Thomas who ushered in the modernist phase with his Avan Vintum Varunnu! (Behold! He Comes Again, 1949) and Crime 27 (1954). Krishna Pillai's adaptation of Ibsen, especially in his Bhagna Bhavanam (Broken Home) helped the refinement of the theater and led to further adaptations and translations from Continental Drama.

With the enormous success of a dozen plays written and produced by N. N. Pillai (Easwaran Arrestil, God Under Arrest, 1967), the psychological and existential drama became a dominant part of Malayalam literature. With Thoppil Bhasi, N. N. Pillai, and K. T. Muhammad, touring theater companies became a major cultural factor in Kerala, but in the late 60s, the artistic theater declined with the rise of the popular, commercialized theater, performed by groups like Alleppey Theaters and Kalanilayam and by dozens of smaller professional and amateur companies located throughout the state. That most of these performing groups are still patronized by Hindu temples and church organizations explains the general weakness of modern Malayalam drama.

Other important playwrights of the mid-century include Ponkunnam Varkey, C. N. Srikantan Nair, Kainikkara Kumara Pillai, Thikodeeyan, Idassery, T.N. Gopinathan Nair, K. T. Muhammad, P. R. Chandran, C. L. Jose. Though television and the film industry have weakened the theater, a new wave of post-modernist drama has begun to take root rivaling the mainstream theater. Again, like the fiction writers and poets, their formal approach is determined by a new anchoring in pre-colonial cultural forms, reinterpreted for a world that has lost much of the certainties of modernism. This new generation is led by G. Sankara Pillai, Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, Vasu Pradeep, Kadavoor Chandran Pillai, S. Ramesan Nair, Narendra Prasad and Kavalam Narayana Panickar. They have begun to re-link theater with Kerala's ancient traditions of ritual theater.

Theater has been used by promoters of scientific temper, extremist socialist groups, and more importantly by Malayalam speaking people settled elsewhere--the post-modern reality of geopolitical displacement to other parts of India, and in the United States and Arab countries. A fatwa was declared upon an amateur group that performed in Abu Dhabi, for daring to portray Mohammad in a play along with Jesus and Buddha and other religious figures. The entire cast has been jailed; the playwright Vayala Vasudevan Pillai who lives in Kerala has allegedly denied its authorship. In the past decade the state government has banned the production of several plays in Kerala, the most recent one being P. M. Antony's adaptation in 1986 of The Last Temptation of Christ.


We discussed the influence of criticism and aesthetic theory (M. P. Paul, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai and Joseph Muntasseri) upon modern writers who came to be known as the Progessives. Critical activity at the turn of the twentieth century was limited to delineations of two primary Indian classical notions of rasa (mood, aesthetic pleasure, reader response) and dhvani (suggestion, tone, intentionality) and their variants anumanam, riti, alamkaram, gunam, ouchityam, and vakrokthi codified in classical Sanskrit texts composed between sixth and seventeenth centuries.

Even after the flood of European criticism, a small group of critics has continued to write primarily on the basis of Indian literary theories. The best example of such an approach is Kuttikrishna Marar whose classical scholarship and dense Sanskritized prose performance, notably in his 1950 classic Bharatha Paryadanam (A Journey Through Mahabharatha) dazzled readers and elevated the status of critical writing. His works such as Sahitya Vidya (on literary technique), Hasasahityam (on humor), and his selected critical essays Kala Jeevithan Thanne (on the purpose of literature) have enabled Malayalam literature to keep itself grounded in the Indian traditions. A writer with greater range in both Indian and European traditions is Nityachaitanya Yati. Among his dozens of philosophical works, his two critiques of Kumaran Asan's poetry, Nalini Enna Kavya Shilpam and Duravastha: Oru Patanam demonstrate the continuing relevance of the Indian aesthetic approach.

As a continuation of the legacy of both the critical traditions, a new generation of younger critics capable of developing a postmodern critical practice seem to be emerging. They seem to be attempting to harmonize the Western avant-garde criticism and the Indian traditional aesthetics to create a new critical methodology. Notable among this group is Asha Menon. And, a few new critics like R. Vishwanathan, V.C.Sreejan, P. P. Ravindran, and V.C. Harris have begun to explore our literature and culture in the context of postmodernist, post-colonial world writing.

Major Critics and Prose Writers

A survey of a century of critical prose in Malayalam should at least name the following writers and the areas they have enriched: Sardar K. M. Panikker's work in politics and the history of Western dominance is internationally known. The prolific historical and philosophical output of the Marxist leader E.M.S. Namboothiripad and K. Damodaran will continue to have national relevance. The Montaignesque essays of Sanjayan and E.V.Krishna Pillai will go down in literary history as the best prose works of the century. Kottarathil Sankunni's eight-volume work on Kerala mythology and Vettom Mani's voluminous philological and lexicographical works will be difficult to replace. The philosophical work of Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swamikal, and Nityachaitanya Yati will become part of our great tradition. Among those who made lasting contributions to criticism and prose writings, the following writers deserve mention: P.K. Parameswaran Nair's biographies of Gandhi and Voltaire, I. C. Chacko's work on linguistics, K. P. Kesava Menon's life of Christ, Mathew Kuzhiveli's work on children's literature, Dr. K. Raghavan Pillai's work on existentialism, M. Achuthan's monumental studies in the Western literary theory and the history of the short story in Malayalam, Prof. K. M. Tharakan's work on the novel, M. Mukundan's essays on modernism, K. T. Rama Varma's historical survey of Western Art, Ayyappa Paniker's collections of essays on English and Malayalam literature, Sukumar Azhikode's work on literature and Vedanta, Dr. S. K. Nair's literary memoirs, Dr. K. M. George's philological studies and comparativist approach to Indian regional literatures, Sebastian Kappen's seminal book on liberation theology for the Indian context, K. Venu's theoretical speculations on a Marxist-Leninist revolution for the Kerala working class, Ajitha's memoir about her failed experiments with that revolution, K. P. Appan's provocative essays on European modernist writers, P. K. Balakrishnan's critical works on Western novel and Kerala historiography, Ponjikkara Rafi and Sabina Rafi's reflections on counterculture, Chummar Chundal's work on folklore, Krishna Chaitanya's monumental literary histories and cultural critiques, the psychological criticism of M. Lilavathy, Satchidanadan's essays on neo-Marxist aesthetics and modern literary and cultural theory, and of course, the personality of Prof. M. Krishnan Nair, the columnist who has been publishing a weekly almanac of the literary world for over a quarter of century. He has been provoking writers and entertaining readers by writing off the week's literary output after comparing them with his usual touchstones: Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Foucault, and Carl Jung. Though he is an enemy of every writer in the land, his column, albeit its glibness, has brought Malayalam readers and writers closer to an awareness of our existence as part of two larger categories, Indian Literature and World Literature.