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Sunday, October 20, 2013

V.C. - Calicut's own Keats

This blog usually tries to put at least one picture of its subject. But today we are breaking that tradition because, sadly, there is no photograph our subject, the young poet V.C. Balakrishna Panicker (1889 - 1912) who died this day, a hundred and one years ago at the very young age of 23. Yet during this brief life he produced numerous poems, slokas, plays, articles and translations, some of which like An Elegy and Viswaroopam have made him immortal among lovers of Malayalam poetry.

VC belonged to the erstwhile Calicut district, parts of which are now in Malappuram district. He was born on 1st March 1889 at Oorakam-Keezhmuri near Vengara. His family name was Vellaatt Chembalancheri. He would have lived (perhaps a little longer) and died incognito as a farmer or a school teacher but for the literary patronage provided by  a member of the Zamorin family of Calicut during those days - the legendary Vidwan Ettan Raja.

It was a fortuitous meeting during a train journey with the leading literary figure,  Kavikulaguru P.V. Krishna Warrier that led the 12 year old village boy to Calicut and to the patronage of Vidwan Ettan Raja. Krishna Warrier saw potential in the precocious child and advised his father to take the boy to Calicut and seek to get into the inner circle presided over by the Kerala Bhoja, as Vidwan Ettan Raja was described for his generous support and encouragement of men of letters. (More on Vidwan Ettan Raja and the literary world around him in another post.)

It was the period of four years spent in the heady company of literary giants in the Mankavu Palace in Calicut that moulded the young VC into a romantic poet and a self-confident person. He honed his skill in classical versifying with the  a translation of Ettan Thampuran's Sookhtimukhtamanimala and a hagiographical work entitled Manavikrameeyam. He also contributed articles to periodicals like Manorama (Calicut), Rasikaranjini and Bhashaposhini. He was introduced to the best of English pre-romantic and romantic poets and became an ardent admirer of Wordsworth and Thomas Gray.

V.C. is now remembered mainly for his two long poems, Oru Vilapam (A Lament) and Viswaroopam. The influence of Gray's Elegy is evident in V.C.'s Oru Vilapam. The description of nature in Viswaroopam is more mature and restrained.

 In his A Lament he draws heavily on Gray's Elegy as in the following stanza:
 Many are the priceless splendid jewels /that lie deep down in the dark caverns of the sea; /Many, the flowers too that waste/ Their fragrance in the whirlwind /arising in the intractable forests; /Of these, one and only one perchance /ever becomes known once on a blue moon.

 Similarly, his other famous poem, Viswaroopam is suffused with Wordworthian pantheism as when, standing on the seashore at dusk, the poet becomes one with the natural phenomena- the waves, the stars and the moon.

Mystery surrounds the sudden disappearance of V.C. from Mankavu Palace after a stay of four years. He just disappeared without any clue. The generally accepted explanation is that he fell for the charms of a young princess of the Palace and when the liaison was detected he was advised by an elderly well-wisher to flee to safety to avoid danger to his person. Unfortunately, there are no records in the Zamorin archives about the stay of V.C. or even the reasons for his flight. This is understandable as the episode happened long before Vidwan Ettan Raja had become the ruling Zamorin. It was not the usual practice to keep the chronicles of junior Princes, as the records were kept centrally at Thirvachira where the Zamorin's office was located.

There was no news of V.C. for the next one year. However, during this period he had written the long poem Meenakshi which is a conventional description of the heroine in the Venmani School style of soft eroticism. It is said that the poem was written by the 16 year old adolescent describing his love for the young princess which had led to his running away from Mankavu.

V.C. was also an accomplished prose writer. He was editor of journals such as Kerala Chinthamani (Trichur), Malabari (Tirur) and Chakravarthi (Kochi). He is today remembered for his bold editorial which he wrote on 26th October 1910 against the externment of Swadeshabhimani editor Sri K. Ramakrishna Pillai from Travancore. He accuses the courtiers of the Travancore palace, Saravana and Sankaran Thampi of having conspired to charge Pillai with treason after he had attacked their rapacity. The 21-something Editor makes a prophetic statement : ' Posterity will acclaim Mr. Pillai as a great hero of Travancore'. He argued convincingly that Travancore had externed not Mr. Pillai the individual, but the Editor of Swadeshabhimani. The Editor is a representative of the public and therefore, externing him without notice or a trial is against public interest.

V.C. showed remarkable understanding of the political undercurrents in Travancore and Cochin and expressed his views boldly through his editorial. He would have matured into a powerful political commentator at a time when India's freedom struggle was about to be unfolded with Gandhi's return to India from South Africa in 1915. But that was  not to be. V.C. who was 20 years junior to Gandhi passed away three years before the Gandhi era was to begin.

On the occasion of his 101st death anniversary (he died on 20th October 1912) Calicut Heritage salutes this great son of Calicut who died of tuberculosis at the age of 23.


  1. Greatly appreciate the blog for refreshing the memory of this bygone poet

  2. thanks CHF
    for remiding us about VC.
    That reminds me, I am yet to complete an article about Ettan Thampuran...
    By the way there are some sketches/portarit of VC
    here is the link, see second last row.
    Also this book cover has a picture of him and provides a bio..

  3. Many thanks, Maddy, for the sketches and portrait of V.C. However, we are not persuaded that the portrait bears much resemblance to the person. His biographer-editor, Prof.K. Gopalakrishnan has stated that VC has not left behind any photo/portrait. On some speculation that VC was one of the members of a group photo in a special edition of some journal, the Sahitya Academy had issued a statement requesting for any such photo/portrait, but this did not elicit any response.
    The pictures in the links provided by you are more or less the same. There is a striking resemblance to the Bollywood actor, Hritik Roshan! In fact, according to the biographer, VC was not very handsome. He also quotes K.K. Raja who had described the poet from his memory: ' After 5 o'clock in the evening, a lean young fellow of not more than 20 years could be seen lying down on the bare ground in Thekkinkad maidan to the north east of the eastern gopuram of Thrissur Vadakkunnathan Temple. Dark and of medium height, he was totally careless about his dress. He would wear only a banian. Occasionally, he would put a thorthumundu on his left shoulder. He was usually found alone.'

  4. Thanks CH for bringing VC' s name to our memory.It is the contradiction of life that " Of these, one and only one perchance /ever becomes known once on a blue moon" . I wonder whether enough recognition of VC's works is extended by today's Malayali.


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