Modern poetry in Malayalam literature
began with the Venmani group. The members of this group started experimenting with new forms and subject matter, abandoning the classicist mode. The started using simple diction and Dravidian meters, and, above all, dared to deal with taboo subjects. Ironically, this was also an era when the literary orthodoxy was the most active in public culture. For instance, the elite Brahmin
poets (with last names like Iyer
, Sharma, Moothathu, Varma, Namboothiri) and Nair poets (Menon, Pillai, Marar, Panicker) frequently indulged in poetic combats such as akshara shloka (recitation) and samasya (poetic riddles). A poetry feud of the period led to the historic "rhyme dispute," during which the entire literary community of Kerala
came to be divided on the question about whether rhyme enhanced or hindered poetry. This kind of a lively literary environment also allowed many new poets to start resisting the orthodoxy to produce un-rhymed verse. This resulted in freeing the language from the traditional epic poetry which was limited to an endless worship of the Hindu Gods
. While on the one hand the older orthodox poets had been indifferent to the social and economic realities that were prevalent in the land, the newer poets on the other hand was boldly seeking out new forms and contents for their poetry.
With the publication of K. C. Kesava Pillai`s Asanna Marana Chinta Satakam (Verses on Imminent Death) and V. C. Balakrishna Panicker`s Oru Vilapam (A Lament, 1909), Malayalam poets began to assert their Romantic aspirations. The revolutionary spirit of the English Romantics appealed to these poets. Panicker`s short life was similar to that of Shelley and Keats. Having established himself as a major poet at the age of 19, he died at the age of 27. The poets of his generation defied mythological subjects and emphasized individual experience, humanity and cultural renaissance, and themes of sacrificial suffering became central poetic images. This late arrival of the romantic spirit quickly transformed Malayalam literature as a whole, and out of the ferment emerged the three poets known as the Great Trio.
Three of the most prolific poets of the first half of the twentieth century, Kumaran Asan (1871-1924), Ullur Parameswara Iyer (1877-1949), and Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958), are collectively known as the Great Trio (mahakavitrayam). Their work provided Malayalam literature with a nationalist spirit, romantic style and modernist outlook. They freed the language from having to depend on the Sanskrit heritage. Together, their works have acquired the status of a "school of poetry," even though each of them was unique and seldom stable in his aesthetics. While the classicism of Cherusseri, Poonthanam, and Ezhuthachan derived mainly out of their allegiance to the Brahmin culture of Ramayana
, the Great Trio produced a massive corpus of literature drawing on the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic, as well as Hindu, traditions, in essence creating a new mythology for the modern age. Much of the poetry and criticism of twentieth-century Malayalam literature is actually an extended response to the work of the Great Trio.
Thus poetry was enjoying its modern golden age. While in the field of prose the novelists were making quick contributions following the romantic tradition of the novel set by Chandu Menon (1847-99) and C. V. Raman Pillai
(1858-1922), the poets, mainly Kumaran Asan (1871-1924) and Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958), produced great masterpieces and set a clearly modernist taste. Their work made a radical break from the mythical and pseudo-philosophical themes that had obsessed the poets of the ruling class up to that point. This kind of an aesthetic shift was a natural extension of the social modernity which had been made possible by reform. Enlightened institutions of education, the law, the press, and several reform movements imbued the people with a strong optimism about the future of Indian society, and this was well-reflected in the poetry of the time.