How two celebrated poets have embarrassed the ruling LDF and its cultural wing in Kerala

Comments by well-known poets Balachandran Chullikkad and Sreekumaran Thampi land Kerala's LDF government in a tight spot.

ByK A Shaji

Published Feb 04, 2024 | 1:00 PMUpdatedFeb 04, 2024 | 1:00 PM

Chullikkad and Thampi

Celebrated Malayalam poet Balachandran Chullikkad was one of the key speakers at the just-concluded International Literary Festival of Kerala held in Thrissur under the aegis of Kerala Sahitya Akademi, an offshoot of Department of Cultural Affairs under the LDF government headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Chullikkad’s revelation that the organisers paid him a mere ₹2,400 for delivering a two-hour-long discourse on the aesthetic sensibilities of reformist poet Kumaran Asan’s famous epic Karuna has caused consternation in the state — and landed the state government and its cultural wing in a tight spot.

According to Chullikkad, he spent ₹3,500 to travel from his native Ernakulam to Thrissur — including the driver’s waiting charge, or bata. The poet, a household name in Kerala thanks to widely popular poems like Yathramozhi and Maappusakshi, said he effectively had to dish out ₹1,100 from his own pocket to attend the event.

As the issue reverberated across the state, fellow poet and Akademi President Satchidanandan responded emotionally in a Facebook post, saying he was not expecting such public disclosure from an eminent poet like Chullikkad.

Terming the meagre payment a mistake by the institution’s clerical staff, Satchidanandan said he himself attended many events where he was poorly paid or not paid at all — not even travel expenses.

He also wondered why Chullikkad raised the issue on public platforms, noting that such actions would only help the enemies of the institution.

Satchidanandan had to later withdraw his Facebook post detailing all these points when people began highlighting the contradictions involved in his claim.

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The second poet

However, the development provoked veteran writer, lyricist, and film director Sreekumaran Thampi to also come out against the state government and those who control its Department of Cultural Affairs for forcing him to write a “Kerala Song” and discarding it later, raising arbitrary quality issues.

Thampi penned the song in the backdrop of the Vijayan government’s resolve to have a “Kerala Song” — a state anthem of sorts — to be recited at all public functions, extolling the virtues of the state and its progressive growth over the years.

As part of his criticism of the government, Thampi attacked Culture Minister Saji Cherian, Akademi President Satchidanandan, and its Secretary CP Abubacker.

In a Facebook post, Thampi alleged that the Sahitya Akademi insulted him after asking him to write the Kerala Song for the government to invoke regional pride.

According to Thampi, Satchidanandan and Abubakar approached him with the minister’s request to write the song.

“After I wrote and submitted the song, they asked me to rewrite it, suggesting that it was of poor quality. I made many modifications and submitted it to them again. They have not informed me so far whether the edited song has been accepted or not. Later, I saw an advertisement in television channels inviting Kerala Songs from poets,” Thampi said.

Known for many great songs and compositions in Malayalam, Thampi accused the minister and others of plotting a conspiracy to defame him. He also challenged the government by saying that he would compose and record the song with his own money, making it available to Malayalis worldwide.

Let the people have an unofficial Kerala Song, he said.

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LDF’s dilemma

The two developments have landed the government in a tight spot as Chullikkad remains a fellow traveller of Kerala’s ruling CPI(M). In the case of Thampi, he has never raised his voice against the government.

While explaining the shabby treatment he experienced at the Thrissur festival, Chullikkad thanked Malayalis, who pay tens of thousands to lakhs for mimicry and singing, while fixing his worth at ₹2,400.

“It was on 30 January that I realised the actual worth the people of Kerala have given me. They paid me a pittance despite the high taxi charge,” said Chullikkad.

“Dear enlightened Malayalis, I have never tried to be a member of your Sahitya Academy or bow before ministers to get awards or positions. Never will I do that,” Chullikkad, who had declined the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 2001, said.

“I have one request. Please don’t trouble me with your literary requirements. Please don’t take away whatever time is left in my life. I have other things to do,” he wrote.

With writers in Kerala divided over the controversy, the LDF government’s patronage of those who obey it has come under greater public scrutiny.

Literary critic and translator J Devika wrote on Facebook that Satchidanandan is no longer part of the old revolutionary and progressive segment of writers who considered rebellion and dissent hallmarks of cultural interventions.

He now looks like an obedient fellow-traveller of the state government, she said.

Many other writers have raised concerns over the government’s use of Sahitya Akademi and similar autonomous institutions to further its political agenda. Even the literary festival faces allegations of inviting and honouring those close to the government and keeping dissenting people at bay.