(The Melody of Malayalam Language)


The word  ‘Gaatha’ superficially means song. ‘Gaatha’   and ‘Gaanam’ are creative works in a language   for singing. There is nothing wrong in thinking that these two words originated from the elementary word  ‘Gaa’ meaning  ‘to sing’. Though Keralites are familiar with and remember the word ‘Gaatha’ through the poetical work  ‘Krishna Gaatha’ in pauranic Malayalam literature, the tradition of ‘Gaatha’ is very significant. In northern Kerala  ‘Krishna Gaatha’ is known as ‘Krishna Paattu’. Apart from these, many of the Vedic songs and folk songs are also named as  ‘Gaatha’.

The author of  ‘Krishna Gaatha’, Cherusseri Namboothiri - is well known to Keralites. It is presumed, hailing from the Namboothiri illam  (residence of Namboothiri community) known as Cherusseri or Punam in Kurumbranaatu Taluk in Northern Kerala, he lived   there sometime around the year 650 in Malayalam calendar (1450 AD). There aren’t much details recorded in history about the life of this poet.  But if his   ‘Krishna Gaatha’   is studied carefully we cannot ignore the fact that Cherusseri was a poet of deep aesthetic sense. More than that, few lines in the opening stanzas clarify that he was a court poet    in the palace of the king Udayavarman, who then ruled the Kolaththiri Dhesam:

“ Paalaazhi maaruthan paalichchu porunna

Kolathu Nathan Udhayavarman

Aajnaye cholliyaal ajnanaayullava njaan

Praajnaayingane bhaavichchappol”.

(When the king who rules the Kolath dhesam commands, the ignorant me pretend to be a talented one…)

Doesn’t these lines proclaim his position as the court poet? Cherusseri Namboothiri’s living period has been decided based on the historical record of King Udayavarman’s   period of reign. Other than ‘Krishna Gaatha’, ‘Bhaaratha Gaatha’ is also considered to be Cherusseri’s composition. ‘Krishna Gaatha’ is written in a melodious metre known as ‘manjari’. As there are lengthy beautiful descriptions with lavish use of adjectives throughout the poetical work, the composition is quite interesting and enjoyable. Feelings of passion, devotion, humor, and warmth are all discovered in a superior level, singly in   natural style and with equal measure. Based on ‘Bhaagavatha Puraana’, it is inexplicable as to how well the entire life of Krishna including his attainment of heaven is discussed with so much devotion in this composition. It was not with as much boldness in language, but with gentleness in language that Cherusseri won the heart of Keralites and    became the pride of the soil of Kerala.

There is absolutely no doubt that ‘Krishna Gaatha’ is a Malayalam composition in which we can take pride.  But was the origin of ‘Gaatha’ from Cherusseri? The answer to that are clear in the research study of old scriptures. It is to be assumed that the poets in Kerala had composed stories for musical renderings much before ‘Krishna Gaatha’. Isn’t the aesthetic description of the heroine in ‘Unnichchirudevi’, much before Cherusseri, in ‘Gaatha’ style?  This composition is a mixture of three old styles of metre and beats. The poetic theme is narration of the beauty of the village belle from Thotuvaypulli. Having heard about the beauty of Unnichchirudevi, Devendra reaches the threshold of her house and becomes unconscious seeing the crowd of her admirers who have reached there before him, to have a glimpse of her.  That is the narrative part of the composition. This composition must have been compared with   ‘Gaatha’ because of its aesthetic description of passionate love and warmth. In the history of language it is recorded that Keralites considered the metre in ‘Gaatha’ in a folklore style before Cherusseri. Isn’t the metre used by Tamil saints in ‘sthothras’ (devotional renderings for Gods) which is close to  “manjari’ style, an example to prove this factor? If  some  of the ‘ Vadakkan Paattu’  are  studied carefully,  this point of  similarity to ‘manjari’ will be  clear ?

It is a significant observation that the tradition of continuing the practice of ‘Gaatha’ style is followed by later generations. Aren’t the charm and sweetness in the poetic compositions of the great poets Vallaththol and Changambuzha illustrative enough to prove this? Vallaththol’s ‘Sathya Gaatha’ and ‘Chakra Gaatha’, Kochchunni Thamburan’s ‘Bhagavatha Gaatha’    enables to segregate them into this branch. In some of Vallaththol’s compositions ‘manjari’ has been referred as ‘maakanda manjari’. On the other hand A. R. Rajaraja Varma explains that  ‘manjari’ has been taken from ‘Kakali’ vruththam (metre) and used as a separate metre. If one understands how Rajaraja Varma explains in his “Vuththa Manjari” about  ‘Kaakali’, it is not difficult to know the deviation of 

‘Manjari’ from ‘Kakali’. Kakali vruththam is explained as a composition of two lines of eight groups   comprising three syllables and five letters.  Of course slight variations are noticeable here and there. In pronunciation some times long letters are shortened and short letters are lengthened, very naturally.

According to A. R. Rajaraja Varma’s explanation, ‘ if the last two letters in the second line in  “Slatha kaakali” are shortened, the metre that forms is “manjari’’. What we understand by the word ‘Kaakali’ is “sweet melody”. It is worth remembering that the sweetness in “kaakali” does not disappear in “manjari”.

Translated by

Lakshmy N