Celebrating Malayalam in Style on Gulf Shores

Celebrated Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy speaking at the Sharjah International Book Fair in this file photo.
Celebrated Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy speaking at the Sharjah International Book Fair in this file photo.


By Malavika Vettath 

SHARJAH, Nov 10 — It is rare to see an Indian language being celebrated by thousands of people on foreign soil. But that’s exactly what happened in Sharjah where Malayalam literary giants came together with over 2,000 Indians to celebrate the language being bestowed classical status.

Malayalam litterateurs like Kavalam Narayana Pannikkar, K. Jayakumar, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Chemmanam Chacko shared the stage at the ongoing Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) at a session late Friday hosted by the India Pavilion titled ‘Celebrating the Proud Status of Malayalam as a Classical Language’. And they all focused on how common Malayalis, whether in India or abroad, could contribute to the growth of their mother tongue.

The evening started on a poetically emotional note with a beautiful rendering by Mohan Kumar, external affairs executive of SIBF, of great Malayalam poet Mahakavi Vallthol’s “Entae Bhasha” (My Language), a string of beautiful similies celebrating Malayalam language.

“This surely must be the first international celebration of Malayalam’s new status and we have to thank the encouragement of Sharjah Ruler His Highness Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi to celebrate the success of another language on its soil,” said Ravi DeeCee, CEO of DC Books, which is coordinating the India Pavilion.

Malayalam was granted classical status by the union cabinet earlier this year. Spoken by over 30 million people, it has a rich heritage of more than 2,300 years.

Noted dramatist Kavalam Narayana Panicker talked language basics and how Malayalam is distinct as a language largely because it has as many as 51 alphabets.

“Malayalam is best known for its ‘akshara shuddhi’ (clarity of speech) thanks to its 51 alphabets as opposed to just 26 of English. That’s how we have alphabets denoting the phonetic sounds “zh” or “ngya”…letters even people from other parts of India cannot pronounce,” said Panicker, who has been vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Poet Chemmanam Chacko, known for using satire in his poems, turned the mood around. “It looks like Ravi DeeCee has created a Kerala out of the sea here in Sharjah,” he said to huge applause.

“Even though I see all of you exuberant about Malayalam’s new status, my poem paints a very different picture,” said Chacko, who was conferred the lifetime achievement award by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi in 2006. The gist of the Malayalam poem he recited titled ‘Mummy’ can be summed up as follows:

“Our grandmother is lying on her deathbed, all her children are away, then her daughter from the Gulf comes in wailing ‘Mummy, Mummy’, and grandchildren join in with ‘grandmummy’…On asked what is her last wish, she replies, ‘I only want to hear the word Amma from your lips daughter’.”

Chacko elaborated, saying: “In actuality, it is none other than our ‘mathrubhasha’ (mother tongue) on her deathbed.”

“The love for our language shouldn’t be reduced to mere symbolism, we should instil the love of our language in the hearts of our children. Teach them to speak, read and write Malayalam fluently.”

He referred to the saying ‘Distance makes the heart grow fonder’ as he concluded: “I now believe that our dear Malayalam is hidden in the Gulf Malayali more than those in Kerala.”

Malayalis form a large chunk of the 1.75 million Indians in the UAE.

Acclaimed filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan stressed on the importance of language and literature in making good cinema.

“Right from my school days, I read a lot of quality books. You feel you have lived 1,000 lives worth of experience through books,” said Gopalakrishnan, alluding to how good literary influences often translate into good scripts.

A recipient of the Dada Saheb Phalke award, Gopalakrishnan also had a bone to pick with new Malayalam filmmakers on the new trend of using English names for their films.

Poet, lyricist and retired senior bureaucrat K. Jayakumar, now vice-chancellor of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, shared ways by which Malayalam could sustain the classical tag.

“The relationship between man and language is multi-faceted as it is inter-twined with his emotions, thought and everyday life. Language is akin to muscles, which weaken if we don’t use them for long..similarly language gets its power and energy from increased usage,” said Jayakumar, who retired as Kerala’s chief secretary in 2012.

Jayakumar said the Malayalam University in Tirur, Kerala, is working on a project to document the diversity of Malayalam dialects from north to south.

Another drawback, he said, was that children are now encouraged to speak a mix of English and Malayalam words, “what is popularly referred to as ‘Manglish’.”

To the delight of expats, Jayakumar said his university would soon go online. “We hope to begin an online course by 2014 for different grades…I hope more Malayalis can savour the great literary works through this.”

Actor and TV anchor V.K. Shriram pointed out that “many writers who lived outside Kerala have enriched Malayalam with their global experiences,” adding that Gulf Malayalis must also contribute in this way.

The evening ended with Chacko administering a public oath in the packed hall to do everything possible to sustain and contribute to the growth of Malayalam.



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