History of Malayalam Literature

The oldest written document in Malayalam literature is dated back to 13th century. The earliest written record of Malayalam is the vazhappalli inscription (ca. 830 AD). The early literature of Malayalam comprises of three types of composition:

  • The folk song rich in native elements
  • Classical songs known as /pATTu/ of the Tamil tradition
  • /maNipravALam/ of the Sanskrit tradition, which permitted a generous interspersing of Sanskrit with Malayalam

The earlier periods comprised of indigenous ballads and folk songs, mainly sung by Panans, a rustic class of people who moved from place to place singing such songs. Bhadrakalippattu, Theeyattupattu, Margamkalippattu, Onappattu etc... are the main compositions of the period. Many of them were related with religious rituals.
After this came the period of classical songs known as 'Pattu', which was influenced by Tamil. The oldest example of pattu is the Ramacharitham from the 12th century, which is a blend of Malayalam and Tamil languages. The Ramacharitham was composed by Chiramon. Thereafter came the period of the Niranam Poets( Niranam Kavikal ). The important works of the period were Kannassharamayanam, Bhagavathgita, Bharathamala etc... Compared to Ramacharitham, these were less influenced by Tamil.
Malayalam was greatly influenced by Sanskrit and a new dialect developed during the period known as 'Manipravalam',was a blend of these languages. Oldest example of manipravalam is the Vaishikatantram which is also from the twelfth century. Malayalam poetry to the late twentieth century betrays varying degrees of the fusion of the three different strands.

 A Kathakali artist - Kathakali was an important medium of expression of literature, till the end of the eighteenth century

The 18th century saw the emergence of dance drama compositions like Aattakkatha and Thullalkkatha, which greatly enriched Malayalam literature. The pantomime dance drama Kathakali is based on Aattakatha. Kottarakara Thampuran's Ramanattam is the first comprehensive Aattakkatha in Malayalam. Ottanthullal, another form of the dance drama, composed by Kunjan Nambiar was based on Thullal composition. All these compositions were based on the Puranas (mythological treatises). Till the end of the eighteenth century, Kathakali was an important medium of expression of literature.

The earliest extant prose work in the language is a commentary in simple Malayalam, Bhashakautaliyam (12th century) on Chanakya's Arthasastra. The first book to mention on Malayalam grammar is the Leelathilakom from the 14th century. Krishnaghatha, composed by Cherussery was an important work of the 15 th century. 'Varthamanapustakam' a travelog about his visit to Rome (1776-86) by Paaremaakkal Thoma Kattanar is believed to be the first travelog to be written in any Indian language. In 1889, O. Chandu Menon's Indulekha , the first complete Malayalam novel, was published. Malayalam prose of different periods exhibit various levels of influence on different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Modern literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism. Tamil and Sanskrit highly influenced the development of Malayalam literature in its early stages.

The Great Trio of Malayalam Literature

Kumaranasan - One of 'The Great Trios of modern malayalam literature'Kumaranasan

Thunchath Ezhuthachchan is considered as the 'Father of Malayalam Literature'. His works like the Adhyathmaramayanam, Bhagavatham, Ramayanam etc... remain as the classics of Malayalam literature. The style of poetry which he popularised is known as 'Kilippattu'. Ezhuthachan along with Kunjan Nambiyar and Cherussery were the most influential poets of the past. Three of them collectively is known as 'The Great Trio (mahakavitrayam)' of the past (earlier period). Their contribution to the development of the language is incomparable and will be long cherished. Many of the literary works of the time still remain unrivaled and will remain so.

Vallathol Narayana Menon - Another major controbuter to the growth of malayalam literatureVallathol

Because many of the rulers of the period were patrons of art and literature, literary and artistic works were always appreciated and rewarded. A number of poets adorned the courts of these rulers. Irayimman Thampi's 'Omana thinkal kidavo.... ' is one of the best lullabies ever created. N. Kumaranaasan, Vallathol Narayana Menon and S. Parameswara Iyer are together known as 'The Great Trio' of the modern (later) period. They revitalise and further enriched Malayalam literature with their contributions. G Shankarakkurup is the first recepient of the Gyanpith Award, one of the highest recognitions for literary work in India. He was followed by Thakazhi, S. K. Pottekkad and M.T. Vasudevan Nair to win this honor.

With the advent of the Europeans, Malayalam literature saw colossal changes, both in its style and language. It was greatly influenced by western literature. By the mid 19th century christian missionaries like Benjamin Bailey and Herman Gundert published dictionaries and grammer books. Gundert setup the first printing press in Kerala at Kottayam. The improvement in printed media helped the literary works reach the comman man and hence popularising it.

Modern Malayalam Literature

Under the benison of a resourceful array of poets and authors, the modern Malayalam literature is fast ahead in its class, style and quality, than any other Indian language. Poets of the modern time include Changumpuzha Krishnapilla, Vyiloppilly Sridhara Menon, O.N.V. Kurup, N.V Krishan Warrier, Vayalar Rama Varma etc... Apart from them authors like Kesavadev, Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai, Vaikom Muhammad Bashir, Ponkunnam Varkey, M.T Vasudavan Nair, O.V Vijayan, S.K. Pottakkad, P.C. Kuttikrishnan and dramatists like E.V. Krishna Pillai, Thoppil Bhasi, T.N Gopinathan Nair, K.T Muhammad etc... have made valuable contributions to the enrichment of literature. In addition to them, critics like P.K. Narayana Pillai, Kuttikrisha Marar, M.V. Paul, S. Guptan Nair, Joseph Mundassery, and authors from various other branches futher enriched the Malayalam Literature.