Thursday 4 August 2011

Tola, The Poet

Poet Tola was a Malayali Brahmin (Namboothiri).
There is no authentic documentation to trace his roots, his real name or the period of his lifetime.
   But there is invalidated evidence that strongly points out that he was the close confidante and associate of Kulashekhara Varma, the Cheraman Perumal, the emperor of Kerala, centuries ago, the  capital of which was Tiruvanchikkulam.
The emperor himself had authored plays like Abhishekam, Tapatisamvaranam and Subhadradhananjayam. He had also compiled Ashchariamanjari, a literary composition.
Historians  believe that poet Tola and Kulashekara Varma were contemporaries. However, it is certain that he had no progeny.  A rough sketch  of Tola’s life goes as follows:
Tola was a brahmachari (a Brahmin novice taking to the study of the Vedas after Upanayanam, the investing of the Brahminical thread) when he lost his father.
After completing his studies, Tola lived with his widowed mother at his Illom. He was not keen on marriage. So with him, the family became extinct.  He was a quick-witted man right from his childhood, very sharp and famous for his logical deductions.
One day, he was having lunch in the kitchen adjacent to the nalukkettu (a quadrangular building with inner courtyard) while his mother attended on him. Chakki, the maid, taking advantage of the situation, sneaked into the pathayam (the granary attached to the nalukkettu), to steal paddy.
Tola saw this, but did not react because there was an unwritten rule among Namboothiris that prevented brahmacharis from talking during meals. But they were permitted to talk in Sanskrit in an emergency. Tola was not well versed in Sanskrit.
But his quick wit enabled him to coin a phrase, which went as follows: ‘Panasi Dasaayam Paasi’ (Panasam means jackfruit, which is called ‘Chakka’ in Malayalam; Dasa means ten which is ‘pathu’ in Malayalam, and paasam means rope or ‘kayaru’ in Malayalam). Its literal translation in Malayalam read as ‘Chakki pathayathil kayari’, which meant that Chakki has sneaked into the granary.
His mother, who was as sharp as her son, got the message and she quickly rushed to the pathayam. Chakki was caught red-handed.
But she did not dismiss the maid from service. Instead she admonished her and allowed Chakki to continue working in the house.
But the watchful eyes of Tola and his mother were always after her. So Chakki was not able to steal anything from the house thereafter.
“Unless I lure him and get him on my side, I will not be able to steal from here,” thought Chakki. She then went on to try and seduce him and before long Tola became her slave. His relation with Chakki leaked out and he became an object of ridicule.
Since his father was no more, there was no one to come to his rescue. He had already earned a lot of enemies among his relatives as a result of his sharp wit and caustic tongue. 
All of them convened a meeting to declare him an outcaste. But Tola was the least bothered. He discarded the Tol/Krishnajinam (the skin or hide of the black antelope worn by Brahmin boys during Upanayanam, which is to be discarded at the time of samavarthanam and announced his own samavarthanam. From then on he earned the name Tolan. His original name was forgotten, in time.
Since he was an outcaste, he was unable to marry a woman from his own clan. But he was happy with Chakki.
He then went on to complete his education. He became a favourite of Goddess Saraswathy (the Goddess of learning).  He composed a number of shlokas in praise of Chakki and also composed many shlokas in praise of Lord Siva.  He was a master of satire and literary criticism.
Before long, even his enemies recognised him as a gifted poet.  They called him Tolakavi (Tola the poet) in recognition of his talents.
Tola and Kulashekhara Varma: Kulashekhara Varma, Tola’s royal friend, wrote  a few Sanskrit plays and was making arrangements to stage them with the Chakiars enacting the roles of  main characters (Chakiars is a  community of professional and traditional expounders of the epics. Their stage performance is known as Chakiar koothu). The first attempt was to stage Saakunthalam.
The Chakiar who was supposed to play the role of sootha (the compere  of the prologue in a drama, who initiates the audience into a preliminary study of the details of the drama) suddenly became blind and the play was cancelled.
“It looks like someone has cast an evil eye on the play. I will write a new one”, decided the King and wrote not one but three plays, namely, Abhishekam, Tapateesamvaranam and Subhadradhananjayam.
 Of  the three plays, the King had a special affinity towards Subhadradhananjayam. So he planned for the debut of the play.  “Before staging the play, I shall get the approval of learned men,” decided the King and summoned a group of scholars. Tolakavi was one among them.
Kulashekhara Varma began to read out the script before the scholars. When he was reading out the second chapter, Tolakavi sprang up from the seat guffawing loudly.  
“Unbearable! Unbearable!”   Bewildered, the others asked him for  his identity. 
“I am the author of Saakuntalam! What the King has read out is copied from my script. How can I bear it?” Tolakavi blurted out.
The scholars were quick to grasp that he was making fun of the King. Some of them could not help laughing at Tola’s words. A few others suppressed their laughs. The King was dejected by the turns of events. He got up from his throne and retired to his chamber.
The King spent a sleepless night. He had always nourished an ardent wish to popularise his plays. Suddenly an idea flashed across his mind.
He immediately had Tolakavi summoned secretly to his royal chamber for a discussion. Accordingly Tola systematised the different aspects of staging the play.
He introduced certain improvisations in the script written by the King by adding a few shlokas in Manipravalam (a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam).  The King was highly impressed and he showered Tolakavi with praises.
Thereafter, the King staged his plays one after the other with the support and assistance of Tola. 
He won great applause from an appreciative audience. The King was very happy. He rewarded Tola  handsomely and accommodated him in a house adjacent to his palace at Tiruvanchikkulam.
In due course, King Kulashekhara Varma requested Tola  to compose improvisations of his plays Naganandam, Aashchariachoodamani and Kalianasougandhikam. The performance of the Chakiars was termed ‘Koodiyattom’ by the Perumal (the King).
Later, it became known as ‘koothu.’  “Those who have a pleasing personality, an expressive face and a sense of rhythm will present the lead role. Those who have the power of imagination and speech will present the role of the Vidooshaka (the speaker who leads the audience to the play),” the King suggested, and the Chakiars happily accepted the suggestion.
According to tradition, Koothu is presented before a lamp for which coconut oil is used.
The Chakiars wear garlands made of Chrysanthemum flowers and white costume washed by ‘Veluthedans’ (a class of washermen.)
“A day will come, when you will have to make do with inferior quality of oil, flowers and costume and then you
shall submit your outfits
at the mandapam of Thiruvanchikkulam temple and leave on a pilgrimage,” the Cheraman Perumal had given his command to the Chakiars.
Tolakavi then went on to compose shlokas to provide playback music for Koorappadhakom, a folk art of the Ambalavasis (a community of helpers in temple).
Apart from these, he composed shlokas that are popularly used in koothappadhakom (another folk art form staged in the temples of Kerala.)
Many of his shlokas underline his aversion for Chakki and women in general. 
It was Tolakavi who used Sanskrit participles along with Malayalam words, for the first time.  We come across examples of this in many of his compositions.
Article by : Sreekumari Ramachandran
Source: Bhavan's Journal 15 November 2009
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