Kesari Balakrishna Pillai

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Kesari Balakrishna Pillai (1889–1960) was a Malayalam writer, art and literary critic, journalist, thinker and visionary.

Kesari Balakrishna Pillai was known by the name of the newspaper he ran, Kesari. He was also a literary critic, essayist and translated literary works form French and other languages into Malayalam. Kesari is the most influential figure in modern Kerala's intellectual life.[citation needed] M. N. Vijayan has compiled many of Kesari's works with the title Kesariyude Lokangal.[1] He was a mentor to many writers. The Trivandrum Kesari Memorial Hall is named after him. When the rulers of Travancore banned his newspaper, he left Trivandrum and the rest of his life was spent at Paravoor.

Family and early life[edit]

Kesari was born in 1889 to Akathoot Damodaran Kartha and Parvathy Amma. Pillai belonged to the Pulickal Mele Veedu family of Thampanoor, Trivandrum.[2]

His father was a scholar of some repute. Later his father divorced his mother. Pillai had his primary education in Trivandrum and Quilon. He took his B.A in history from Maharaja's College, Trivandrum with distinction. He taught in Women's College, Trivandrum and Trivandrum Maharaja's College for some time. Kesari took his law degree while working. As he was not very successful as a lawyer, he took up a career in journalism.[3] He died on 18 December 1960.

Contribution to literature, studies of art[edit]

Pillai contributed to Malayalam literary criticism through his innovative, interdisciplinary approach, and his writings on art, particularly painting, are regarded as masterpieces.[4][5] He was a source of inspiration for writers such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, S. K. Pottekkatt, Vaikom Muhammed Bashir, Kesava Dev and others.[6] Balakrishna Pillai wrote extensively on movements in contemporary European literature. He advocated the use of other disciplines like sociology and psychology in literary criticism. He helped to transform Kerala society with his "Futuristic" visions about a "New World". Pillai helped young writers to familiarize themselves with German, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Greek and American literature. He translated Mauppasant, Balzac, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin, among others. He wrote articles about socialist views and Marxist principles.[7] He prepared the youth to step over the barriers of language, nations, and religion and created a new style of life.[8]

Progressive Arts and Letters Movement[edit]

By the 1930s the "Jeevat Sahitya Prasthanam" was inaugurated in Malayalam literature by a group of Marxist ideologists and some progressive writers including Pillai, Mundassery and M. P. Paul. Progressive writers tried to give new direction to Malayalam literature. In an era of Western literary and cultural paradigms, they emphasized the importance of prose fiction in Malayalam and also advocated for realism in literature. Jeevat Sahitya Prasthanam was later known as "Purogamana Sahitya Prasthanam". (Progressive Association for Arts and Letters).[9][10]

Alternative methods of history[edit]

Pillai helped to solve many puzzles of ancient history.[11] Though many of his theories were rejected during his times by academic intellectuals, his findings about the connection between the present day inhabitants of India with that of Western Asia are acknowledged by the modern history.[citation needed] Though the first Harappan excavations were done during the 1920s, only by the later part of the century did convincing evidence about Aryans migrating to India from Iran and nearby places emerge. However, with his penetrating analyzes, Kesari was able to present this theory decades earlier.

Notable personalities like E. M. S. Namboodiripad and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai admitted later that they failed to fully understand Kesari's writing on history when he was alive and acknowledged that they could understand it only decades later. Many other notable personalities thought Kesari was "eccentric" partly because it was too incomprehensible for them to take,[citation needed] and also because he used unconventional methods for understanding history. P. Govinda Pillai commented that Kesari, who otherwise traversed through the blistering spheres of modern thoughts, often aberrated into frivolous anarchism and childishly immature illusions.[12] Academic scholars often failed to take note that, when he actually tried to explore the pre-historical times, there were not enough archaeological evidences unearthed as it is the case today, which could help to throw light on the subject. Some of the modern historians[who?] points out today that, though one has to be careful while taking clues from myths, historians can not totally ignore the indications given by the myths and legends.

Pillai emphasized the importance of using alternative methods to understand pre-historic times and pointed out that comparable legends and myths obtaining in the regions concerned are more useful than archaeological, epigraphical, and literary sources.

Pillai said that ‘Yudhishtira' in Hindu mythology was the same as the Sumerian ‘Udultur' and identified the ‘Prachinabarhis' of the Puranas with ‘Erystheus' of the Greek legend; he was convinced that ‘Cakshusha Manu' was the same as the Greek Danaus of Argos and the Utnapishtim of Babylon. For him, the "protohistoric Olympiad era can be identified with the Kali or Agasthya era" and "Hercules was the Narasimha incarnation of Vishnu." If the chronology of all civilisations in the Old World had the same basis, their historical geography, too, rested on the same foundations. So also, in speaking about the "protohistoric" states, the author believes that the ancestors of "the Greeks and the Romans, of the Indians and Persians, of the Chinese and Tibetans, and of the Malays and Polynesians" were the same. Dvaraka was the same as Athens, Kosala was Kish, Mithila was Corinth, and Magadha was Nineveh.[citation needed]


Pillai first worked as an editor of Samadarshi and later started his own journal, Prabodhakan, by collecting funds from within and outside of India. When Prabodhakan was banned, he founded and published Kesari, an important weekly discussing politics and literature. Through the columns of Kesari, he fought against the formidable autocracy of the Dewan of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. Kesari was also banned by the government because of its unrelenting criticisms against the misdeeds of Government.[13]

Published books[edit]

  • Kesariyude Lokangal - Edited by M.N. Vijayan.
  • Navalokam (The New World)
  • Outlines of the Proto-Historic Chronology of Western Asia.
  • Sankethika Nirupanangal Sahitya Nirupanangal
  • Rupamanjari.

E.M.S Namboodiripad and Pillai[edit]

Kesari was considered to be one of the visionaries of the Progressive Movement of Arts and Letters of Kerala. However, later serious differences of opinion emerged between full-time Communist Party activists and other personalities, namely Kesari and Joseph Mundassery. In this context, E. M. S. Namboodiripad called Kesari a "Petit-Bourgeois intellectual", which later he corrected. It was Prof. T.P.Sukumaran who wrote letter to Namboodiripad requesting that he re-consider his views about Kesari and his intellectual positions. Namboodiripad replied back saying he had to once again read old writings before stating anything on that subject. Later Namboodiripad publicly acknowledged the failure of Communist Party leadership in Kerala in rightly understanding the greatness of Kesari.[citation needed] Namboodiripad also acknowledged some of the earlier misconceptions of the Communist Party with respect to the Progressive Literature and Arts movement.

50th anniversary of death[edit]

The government of Kerala proposed the erection of a statue of Pillai in Thiruvananthapuram to mark the 50th anniversary of his death,[14] but this was not completed by the anniversary.

A seminar took place at the Kesari Memorial Hall on the anniversary, and two books were published to mark it: Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai - Karmaveeryathinte Sooryasobha, and a collection of his writings, compiled by M. N. Vijayan.[15][16] Another seminar, entitled Kesariyude Lokam, was organised by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi in Trissur.[17]


Further reading[edit]

  • "Kesari Balakrishna Pillai" by K. M. George, Sahitya Akademi,1990.
  • "Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai - Karmaveeryathinte Sooryasobha" by Information and Public Relations Department

Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar was another Malayalam writer who was known by the pseudonym "Kesari".