One of the 22 official languages of India, Malayalam language is principally used in the state Kerala, the intellectual centers of India and also the state with the highest literacy rate. The language is one of the Dravidian languages and has its roots to the 10th century. Considered as an offshoot of old Tamil, Malayalam remained in the shadows for a long time before gaining independent identity in the 10th century. Malayalam has drawn influence from both Indian and foreign languages, such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Though it had a humble beginning, Malayalam, today, is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism. To know more about the history and literature of Malayalam language, browse through the following lines.
Belonging to the family of southern group of Dravidian languages, it is believed that after the 9th century, the common stock of Tamil and Malayalam diverged ways, which resulted in the emergence of Malayalam, as a language distinct from Proto-Tamil. However, soon after Malayalam gained a distinction of being a sole language, it met with the biggest challenge, Sanskrit. Thanks to the endeavors of the Namboodiris, the powerful feudal aristocrats of Kerala, Aryan Sanskrit had almost replaced Malayalam in its own land.
The Mani-pravalam or ‘ruby and coral style’ was the baby of such a pileup, a style, which meant using as many Sanskrit words as possible. The linguistic result of the two dominions, however, had been a happy one, as the orchestral resources of Malayalam have been infinitely enriched. While Tamil and Sanskrit took turns in stamping their authority, a third kind of Malayalam evolved and survived – the pure Malayalam. This was the folk stream of lullabies, wedding songs and dirges, which flowed through the centuries and became the source of Malayalam literature later. The third kind of Malayalam had traces of Christian and Muslim elements as well.
Malayalam literature took a lazy and winding route till the end of the 14th century, after which the modern period begins. The Ramacharitam (1300AD) is the oldest Malayalam text known. The writings of the first few centuries were mostly in Mani-pravalam or the ‘high style’. This continued, until Cherusseri Namboodiri turned his attention to pure Malayalam and wrote Krishna Gatha in early 15th century, which was again followed by a generation of campu compositions, a mixture of prose and verse with a liberal sprinkling of Sanskrit words. During this phase, the themes chosen were mostly from the great Sanskrit epics and Puranas.
It was only in the 17th century that the first big Malayali poet, Tunchattu Ramanuja Ezhuttachchan adopted the Sanskrit alphabet in place of Malayalam’s incomplete one. A new literary type arose in the 18th century, the Tullal or dance drama, which again gave way for the themes based on the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. Kotungallur (in North Kerala) and Trivandrum (in South Kerala) became the hubs of literary activity in the second half of the 19th century. Volumes of translations were being written – Valiya Koyil Tampuran’s Shakuntala (1881), Kunnikkuttan Tampuran’s Hamlet and Mahabharata, Vallattol Narayana Menon’s Ramayana (1878) and others.
Apart from translations, original works with a flood of essays on historical and literary topics, dramas, novels and poems and literary journals featured during the 19th century. The first original novel in Malayalam was T. M. Appu Netunnati’s Kundalata (1887). However, it was Chantu Menon’s Indulekha published in 1889 that gained immense popularity. Some of the later novelists were Vennayil Kunniraman Nayanar, Appan Tampuran, V. K. Kunnan Menon, Ambati Narayana Potuval and C. P. Achyuta Menon, who grounded the present day Malayalam prose style. Vaikkom Mohammad Bashir is one of the most loved literary figures of Kerala. Some poets of the modern school are Kumaran Ashan, G. Sankara Kurup, K. K. Raja, Channampuzha Krishna Pilla and N. Balamaniyamma.