The Venmani School

The third quarter of the nineteenth century bore witness to the rise of a new school of poets devoted to (1) the observation of life around them and (2) the use of pure Malayalam. they aimed at a certain simplicity and directness, preferring words of Dravidian origin and Sanskrit words that would not sound strange or harsh.

They thus achieved a balanced middle style with a slight bias towards the Dravidian elements (although "mahan" pseudo-Sanskrit for Malayalam "makan" does not bear this out.) Euphony was their watchword. An easy flowing diction that creates no problem for loud and relaxed recitation, a smooth and even rhythmic cadence, maximum clarity of meaning and a pervasive sense of humour and light-heartedness: these qualities were inherited from the chambus via the writers of the Muktakas (single independent quatrains making up complete poetic crystals) like Chelapparampu Nambudiri of a generation earlier.
The major poets of the Venmani school were Venmani Acchan Nambudiri (1817-1891), Venmani Mahan Nambudiri (1844-1893), Poonthottam Acchan Nambudiri (1821-1865), Poonthottam Mahan Nambudiri (1857-1896) and the members of the Kodungalloor Kovilakam. The style of these poets became quite popular for a while and influenced even others who were not members of the group like Velutheri Kesavan Vaidyar (1839-1897) and Perunnelli Krishnan Vaidyan (1863-1894). The fact that they represented a kind of a moral decadence is not fully recognized by scholars and critics. The slight realism they resorted to was meant only to highlight the down to earth appeal of their erotic exuberance. They were incapable of moral earnestness or intellectual high seriousness. There is nothing in their writings that remind us of the central tradition of Malayalam poetry, beginning in folk poetry and later Ramacharitam and gradually evolving through the Niranam poets, Cherusseri, Poonthanam, Ezhuthachan and Kunchan Nambiar. It is necessary to point out that Nambiar's humour has a basis in social criticism. The humour of the Venmani poets is an end in itself; it is an indulgence in the ludicrous and ridiculous for its own sake. This explains why they could write Ambopadesams over and over again, in which a grandmother gives instructions to the granddaughter on the art of courtsanship. Venmani Mahan, Cochunni Tampuran ,Naduvath Acchan, Oravankara Neelakantan Nambudiri: each wrote an Ambopadesam on the moder of the old Manipravala classic Vaisika Tantram. They all invariably resorted to Sanskrit metres in these works. Another favourite form of poetic exercise for these poets was to bring together the names of contemporary poets comparing them to various flowers (as in Kavipushpamala, by Venmani Mahan), to different characters in Mahabharata (as in Kavibharatam by Kunjukuttan Tampuran), to characters in Ramayana (as in the later Kaviramayanam by Mooloor S. Padmanabha Panikkar), to animals (as in Kavimrigavali by Oduvil Kunjukrishna Menon) and to birds (as in Kavipakshimala by Koyippalli Paramseswara Kurup).
The most representative poem of the Venmani school is perhaps Pooraprabandam which reveals both the strong and the weak points of the movement. Except for the modernity of the diction and the finish in versification, it is difficult to see any great difference between the descriptive passages in Pooraprabandam and those in the earlier chambus (where also we get realistic descriptions of local people and market places with a touch of pointless humour).
The Kodungalloor school was an offshoot of the Venmani School, but some of the poets like Kunjukuttan Tampuran had a greater seriousness in their vocation. The best evidence for his commitment to his vocation in his magnificent translation of the whole of Vyasa's Mahabharata completed in the course of a few months. But most of the Kodungalloor poets took poetry for a pastime and indulged in versification for want of any other form of entertainment. The neoclassical games of instant poetic composition, verse-making competition, recitation competition, joint composition of poems, samasya or riddle completion, writing to prescriptions and various other kinds of formulaic exercises were their main concern. They have, no doubt, produced a number of quatrains in Sanskrit metres which are pleasant to recite aloud but they give no deep or complex experience to the reader. In their hands poetry became a skill, a game, a performance without any spiritual dimension. The various controversies of the time had nothing to do with the fundamentals of poetic experience or poetic communication. The squabble over the second syllable rhyme is a good example to show how superficial they were in their speculations on poetry. One hand only to look into Kalidasa's Meghadoot (Cloud Messenger) to realize how the music of poetry was different from the concatenation of similar consonants in the different lines of a stanza. But that was perhaps the last breath of the neoclassical trend which ushered in the Romantic Renaissance at the end of the century.