KV Manalikkara: The priest who translated Gorky’s ‘Mother’ | Kv translator manalikkara | Malayali translator kv manalikkara
The post-war period of the 1950s was a turbulent one that saw rapid changes in the way society articulated around the values of democracy and social hegemony. It was also the period that saw global supremacy shift from war-torn Britain and Germany to the United States on one side and the Soviet bloc on the other. This has led several countries to join one or the other of these forces in politics, commerce and even in the conduct of day-to-day operations.
Inspired by the success of Soviet economic plans and massive industrialization, Jawaharlal Nehru devised the five-year plan, starting in the 1950s, to massively develop India socially and economically. This proximity to the Soviet bloc has enabled the two countries to mutually share values and culture. By the time Bollywood actor Raj Kapoor became a household name in Soviet Russia, Marxist writings from Russia were already taking a large place in India, especially Kerala.
Literary awareness and taste for Marxist thought in Kerala first germinated in 1912 when Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai wrote a biography of Karl Marx. The years that followed saw the notion of revolution, socialism and communism slowly gain wide acceptance among a younger generation, which sought to break free from the orthodoxy of age-old traditions and beliefs.
Several books published during the period deal directly with Marxist thoughts and their impact on society as a whole. The eminent novelist P. Kesavadev, as editor, translated and published some chapters of ‘Das Kapital’ in the magazine ‘Thozhilali’ in the early thirties. Beyond these political reflections, the Malayalés got to know the giants of the Russian literary world, from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky to Sholokhov and Maxim Gorky, through novels, poems and even travelogues.
Translators played a key role in this regard, bringing Malayan readers closer to a new form of writing, different from what they had experienced before. KV Manalikkara was an example of a translator, who played a pivotal role in influencing a generation of readers through his impeccable translations of world-famous classics.
Keshavaru Vasudevaru Manalikkara, or simply known as KV Manalikkara, was the first to translate Maxim Gorky’s iconic novel, “Mother” into Malayalam. Manalikkara entered the literary world at a young age as a translator and has also been an editor, poet, painter and author of several short stories. Over the years he had translated over 80 literary works, conveying thoughts and aspirations across a wide variety of literary genres that questioned and criticized all aspects of socialist life and its applicability. Yet its legacy has slowly faded with the passage of time unnoticed and forgotten by today’s literary sphere.
KVM was born in 1925 at the old Manalikkara Math in Kanyakumari in a traditional family. It was here that Manalikkara learned traditional Vedic education from his grandfather Kesavaru Kesavaru at a very young age. Even though the priesthood was his notable occupation, he always found free time to immerse himself in the vast amount of literature from around the world. His knowledge of Hindi and English and his vast knowledge of Kalidasa’s works brought him closer to the world of literature.
At the age of 19, Marxist thoughts began to question his customs and beliefs. However, he was not ready to shed his religious origins, but instead sought a happy medium between the two. He was used to the idea that Marxism had to evolve depending on how it was interpreted and applied in personal life. As a result, he adhered to his religion and never discredited its traditions and morals. His admiration for socialism and the success of the Russian Revolution brought him closer to Soviet literature. In the years that followed, he translated various literary works such as “Mother” by Maxim Gorky, “Her Lover”, short stories by Anton Chekhov, short stories by Kishan Chand, “Charumitra”, “Chitrangada”, “Stray Birds ”and“ Silver Box ”by famous English novelist John Galsworthy,“ Kamala ”and“ Javani ”by Uday Shankar Bhatt and many more in Malayalam. KVM, who adored Victor Hugo and Kumaranasan, had good relations with his contemporaries and literary clairvoyants like Vallathol Narayana Menon, Kesavadev and many others.
Manalikkara strongly advocated that the translation required an effort equal to or greater than that of writing the original. Manalikkara’s son Narayanaru recalls his father once explaining to him that if an original literary creation is a line drawn on a piece of white paper, then its translation is an attempt to redraw a line on it exactly the same manner. He believed that a good translation could only be achieved if the thoughts and aspirations of the author were truly understood by a translator. He also rejected word-for-word translations and followed a path to uncover the underlying connotations in the works he performed.
Although he had good relations with communist leaders like EMS Namboodiripad, he always stayed away from political literary forums and popular debates. While communism faced massive rejuvenation nationally and internationally in the ensuing period, KVM adhered to the underlying principles initially put forward by Karl Marx. However, throughout his life he was a strong advocate of socialism and sought to extend socialist ideas through his writings.
In 1955 he founded KV Press in Thiruvananthapuram, which used modern printing press technologies. Later, he also had plans to expand the printing press by creating small units and thus provide more jobs for people and increase the reading habit of people. His son Narayanaru recalls that KV Press also printed the Addoor Gopalakrishnan play “Vaiki Vanna Velicham” (The Light That Came Late) during the period.
But later, in 1969, the press was forced to shut down due to mismanagement and irregularities caused by some people. A few years later, KVM cedes the press to Vellanad Mitraniketan and withdraws completely into the world of translation. Meanwhile, KVM has translated Rahul Sankrityayan’s popular works “Samoohika Rekha”, “Vishwarekha” and “Sastriya Bhauthika Rekha” into Malayalam. These translations proved to be an excellent spokesperson for Communists to prosper in Kerala and to bring philosophical buy-in to the way communism was interpreted.
Although he praised the Soviet Union, its left-wing thoughts and aspirations, KVM also criticized the cruelty of Stalin’s iron fist in translating the Tajik work “Dakhunda”, written by Sadiriddin Ayni, the national poet of Tajikistan of a translation from Hindi to Malayalam. Interestingly, this review was published at a time when Stalin was still alive and the atrocities of Soviet Russia were still hidden from the mainstream.
Apart from these hard-line supporters, KVM has also translated many short stories, non-fiction and poetry into Malayalam. He has also written several Kathakali plays, such as Kiratatmajam, which tells a tribal story and has been performed twice at VJT Hall. He also wrote many other Kathakali plays like Karnaparvam, Vilvamangalam and Kiratatmajam during this period.
In 1969 he wrote the smallest Sanskrit poem, “Rasarasika”, which was released as an album sung by P. Leela and composed by the legendary Carnatic musician V Dakshinamoorthy. Rasarasika is also known to be the smallest book ever published in India and this twenty-five page book was also printed in Japan.
Narayanaaru recalls that compiling a Hindi Malayalam Sanskrit dictionary was a dream his father pursued in his later years. He passed away while working in his residential office in September 2009. Most of the books he translated are not available today.
There is no recorded life story that could shed more light on the life and work of such a prominent literary figure. Today, the story of one of Malayalam’s most iconic translators resides only in the memories of KVM’s youngest son, Narayanaru.