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More than a century ago, during their daily chats at the Malayala Manorama office in Kottayam, Kottarathil Sankunni used to narrate Kerala folktales, legends and myths to the founder-editor. The anecdotes from the poetry editor sounded so interesting to Kandathil Varughese Mapilla that he suggested they should not be allowed to vanish into thin air as “words, words and words”. This was great encouragement for Sankunni — a man of letters and a leading 19th-century poet belonging to the Venmani school that heralded the historic renaissance in Malayalam poetry.
So the hearsay stories of Sankunni (1855-1937) began appearing in the newspaper, but paucity of space made them look abridged if not truncated. The editor sympathised with the situation: “Sankunni, the tales should read free and natural. If needed, we can print longer stories in instalments. And publish them as a book one day.”
The stories soon began appearing in the Manorama group’s literary magazine, Bhashaposhini. The publication of the first few tales evoked great appreciation, especially for their simplicity and natural narrative style — something rare those days. Sankunni — helped by Kunhikuttan Thampuran (1864-1913) who had toured Kerala to collect material ahead of translating the Mahabharata into Malayalam — could inject fresh life and flavour to all the age-old characters and plots, lending a new experience to the readers.
In 1909, the first volume of Aithihyamaala was published. The subsequent material came out in seven volumes — from 1914 to ’34. The monumental work has since gone into several editions; it’s reportedly one Malayalam book that has achieved record sales.
But until recently the Katha Sarit Sagaram of Kerala had been accessible only to Malayalis. Today, that barrier has been dismantled. Lore and Legends of Kerala is a lovely English translation, a compendium of 48 judiciously selected stories from the 126 entries in Aithihyamaala. The rendition by T C Narayan reads just like the original. The English version not only conveys the meaning of the stories, but also the spirit of the Malayalam narrative — preserving even the simplicity of style, felicity of expression and easy flow of the narration.
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