N. Kumaran Asan (also known as Mahakavi Kumaran Asan, the name prefix Mahakavi meaning Great poet and the suffix Asan meaning Scholar or Teacher). He was a poet, philosopher and a great social activist.
Kumaran Asan initiated the poetic revolution in the first quarter of the 20th century, to transform Malayalam poetry from metaphysical to lyrical. Deep moral and spiritual commitment was part of Asan's personality. Asan's works are eloquent testimony of his poetic concentration and dramatic contextualization. Kumaran Asan was one of the famous triumvirate poets of Kerala in the first half of the twentieth century.
Asan was one of the great-trio of Malayalam literature (others being Ulloor and Vallathol) who enriched Malayalam literature with his writings in verse and prose. This is considered the golden period in modern malayalam poetry. His major works include 'Veenapoovu', 'Nalini', 'Leela', 'Chintavishtayaya Sita', 'Duravasta', 'Chandala bhikshuki', and 'Karuna'. Born in a backward Ezhava family in the year 1873 in Kayikkara village, a little north of Thiruvananthapuram, Kumaran was the second son in a family of nine children born to Narayanan Perungudi. His father was well versed in both Malayalam and Tamil and Kumaran Asan inherited his taste for Kathakali and classical music. Kumaran also had a passion for Sanskrit. Even though he got a job as a primary school teacher at the young age of 14, he left it to pursue higher studies in Sanskrit. As he also wished to learn Yoga and Tantra, he worked as an apprentice in a local Muruga temple at Vakkom. It is said that the Muse of Poetry blessed him during this time and he began to compose a few devotional songs for the benefit of regular worshippers at this temple.
Kumaran was dogged by ill-health right through his early life. When he was eighteen, Sree Narayana Guru visited his house at the request of his father. Kumaran was bedridden at that time. The great saint suggested that Kumaran should stay with him and become his disciple. The little boy found the invitation irresistible. Thus began a new phase of life for the young lad.
Kumaran?s meeting with Sree Narayana Guru can be compared to the meeting of Naren with Sri Ramakrishna. These are significant events, in the mysterious and inexorable ways of destiny. While Naren became a full fledged Swami, Kumaran continued as a lay disciple of Narayana Guru and made substantial contributions in the fields of poetry, literature and social renaissance, which Kerala witnessed during the early part of this century.
Swamy took the fledgling devotee under his mighty wings and in 1895 Kumaran was sent to Bangalore for 3 years for higher studies in Sanskrit, at the Sree Chamarajendra Sanskrit College. He specialized in ?Tarka? sastra. Unfortunately he could not take the final exam, following some allegations, that he was only a low caste Hindu. Leaving Bangalore he came to Madras and after a brief stay, left for Calcutta to join the Sanskrit College. His teacher was the renowned Mahamahopadhyaya Kamakhya Nath who encouraged the poetic talents of his student and prophesized that he would one day become a famous poet.
Some of the earlier works of the poet include Subramanya Sathakam and Sankara Sathakam, wherein Asan voiced his devotional aspirations. His short poem ?Veena Poovu"?(fallen flower) is a literary classic and this paved the way for a new trend in Malayalam literature. His elegy ?Prarodanam? mourning the death of his contemporary poet and friend A.R. Rajaraja Varma, the famous Grammarian, is a masterpiece. ?Khanda Kavyas? (mini poems) like Nalini, Leela, Karuna and Chandala bhikshuki, were great hits and many students could be seen chanting a line or two of these famous poems, while in school or elsewhere. In ?Chintavishtayaya Seetha? (mournfully remembering Seetha) he displayed his poetic artistry, while in Duravastha, he patiently and skillfully tears down the barriers of feudalism, orthodoxy and casteism and consummates the dictum of the Guru, ?One Caste, One Religion, One God for man?.
The crowning achievement of Kumaran Asan was his ?Buddha Charitha? in 5 volumes, for which he got inspiration from Edwin Arnold?s ?Light of Asia?. This Mahakavya earned for him the title ?Mahakavi (great poet) and he was ranked equally with his illustrious contemporaries, Vallathol and Ulloor. While in ?Duravastha?, he revealed his revolutionary zeal for fighting caste distinctions; a few other poetic works had a distinct Buddhist slant. Probably Asan felt that Buddhism or Neo-Buddhism held great appeal to the people of the lower strata and in this Asan might have been indirectly inspired by reformers and intellectuals like Gandhiji, Periyar and Baba Saheb Ambedkar.
The Mahakavi lived only for fifty years. His life was tragically cut short by a boat accident in January 1924. But the trail he blazed in the literary and social firmament of Kerala is enough inspiration for any student of contemporary history. Asan was also the inspiration for large-scale political and social changes in Kerala, long before of any other State in India