In quest of longevity,
a chekava swordsman seeks
the eventual weapon
that is destined to take his life!
Malayalam vern. 2005
copyright. Jose, Navodaya
(the text below, is from the international edition)
Vadakkan Paattukal - The ballads of Malabar, are songs about chekava
swordsmen, their chivalry and exploits. Chekavars were kalarippayattu
warriors who waged ankam (duel to death) on the arena for championships.
The ballads composed from 11th to 18th century, were poems meant for the
illiterate masses and hence till the 20th were never committed to texts.
In oral tradition, sung by the Paanar clan members, they were
handed down from father to son.
This story of ours is dated
circa 12th century A.D.
The Agasthya Myth.
Agasthya Guru - the sage who designed the kalari principles
and the chevaka codes, is also believed to have authored into destiny
the specific weapon by which a swordsman’s life would be taken.
So, it was a belief that there exists somewhere
‘a sword for every chekavar with his name written on it’.
Only that destined weapon could take his life!
(as a character-arc of the protagonist)
Chandu is a young kalari dropout, a chekava renegade, a nobody without anybody in the world.
A major ankam contest is about to take place.
The challenger to the reigning champion, bitten by a serpent on the way, arrives in a palanquin …
and tumbles out dead!
Chandu, a mere spectator, is pushed onto the stage to take his place.
He defeats the champion, chops off his head … and flings it over the cheering crowd.
That was only a beginning.
A series of such stunning victories ensued.
Lauded by illustrious ballads,
The Legend of Chandu Chekavar was born.
In an undefeated reign of 12 years, Chandu’s arrogance grew.
He offended many - the brothel madame, the feudal lords,
the powerful of the land.
Demanding privilege everywhere, even his entourage antagonised the powerless peasants.
Chandu could have had his pick of any female in the land.
Still, his advances were warded off by a beautiful and noble woman.
This made Chandu take a hard look at himself.
He had become opulent, wayward and decadent.
Yes, an unworthy person in the eyes of a chaste woman.
That’s when Chandu accepts one crucial ankam. His opponent is a young chekavar.
Come to avenge his father, it is the son of the champion he had first defeated 12 years ago!
Chandu finds that every townsfolk - the ones he had offended and even his erstwhile entourage,
is arrayed behind his opponent!
Chandu starts preparing with match practices.
Then, a reality slowly set in … . he is beyond the peak of his prowess.
A young opponent would not be a walkover.
Then he has a nightmare …
Waking up, lacking in confidence,
Chandu decides to seek ‘the sword with his name on it’.
If he can get hold of it before the opponent does, he has his destiny safe in his hands!
How Chandu seeks and finds the destined sword, is what the adventure is about.
Whether the destined sword can help him or not in the crucial ankam, is what the climax is about.
Goaded by the home crowd, with wildcat manoeuvres not found in kalarippayattu* palm-leaf texts, our upstart denied the veteran opponent from unfolding the oathiram* moves elucidated in the ballads praising the champion.
Amidst the tumult, his esquire was not sure whether it was a ‘below the belt kick’ that caused the champion unexpectedly lose his footing.
A pounce, a slash and a fling … Chandu’s movements were just a blur. And suddenly Champion Chathunni saw everything go inaudible and …. invisible, as his chopped head flew like a rag ball into the rapturous crowd.
It was the strangest of all nightmares.
Chandu finds himself once again there ... arriving late as a spectator, to that fabled ‘duel of the era’.
The angam had just got over.
Pushing through the cheering crowd to find who the combatants are, he could see in a flash a ‘leopard spotted white dog’ which had ripped out the loser’s private part, making off.
Pushing through the throng further, though he was unable to see the victor, he glimpses the face of the fallen loser. It is himself!
Some in the Chekavar Mahasabha scoffed at Chandu's first victory over the reigning champion.
But before flies descended to swarm over the caked blood on the tamarind planks,
Chandu had won his second ankam.
Agasthya Guru, the sage who is believed to have formulated
the Kalari principles and the Chevakar codes,
had at one point taken pity on their plight.
For every saga of a victorious Chevakar, there were hundreds of others who in the prime of youth, got killed or maimed on the arena … orphaned their families … their lives never chronicled in the ballads.
For those, Agastya Guru came up with an expiation…
He authored into the Chekava destiny, the specific weapon by which a Chekava’s life would be taken.
Thus came to existence a weapon for every Chekavar with his name written on it. Only that destined one could take his life!
Of course it is a myth.
But it was taboo even to mention the myth in the Chekava gatherings.
Obviously, it was meant for the ones who got defeated and killed.
However, it was not unusual to hear a kalari-aashaan (guru),
exasperated with his disciple, mutter
“You’d better start looking for it … the sword with your name on it … just don’t waste my time”.
Table of Contents
2. Places in the story
4. Captions & Notes
5. Proposed screen treatment for a universal audience
The sword with your name written on it.
എല്ലാ വാളിലും പേരുണ്ടല്ലാളേ!
കൽപ്പിച്ചോരാളുടൻ പേരുണ്ടല്ലാളേ ...
An arrow fired by a medieval archer has a name written on it.
A bullet fired by a quick draw gun has a name written on it.
A bullet fired by a supari hitman has a name written on it.
A missile fired across the globe has many names written on it …
… and, if it carries a nuclear weapon, armed, then it has the collective
names of every living person on earth - yours as well as mine.
ഒരു നാൾ വരും, ഒരു വാൾ വരും ...
ഒരേ ഒരു പേരെഴുതിയ വാളുവരും.
The Paanar-balladeer had seen this 8 centuries ago.
മാനവരാശിയിൻ ഊരും പേരും അത-
ത്രയും യേനതിൽ കാണുന്നല്ലാളേ!
This is an anti-war, anti-weapon statement.
Places in the story
Naadaapuram - The medieval township/ city-state of north malabar.
Subject of many folksongs and ballads, this was where the ankam duels got staged.
Thirunaavaay - An ancient settlement on the shore of Bharathapuzha river.
It was on its sandbanks, once in 12 years, the famous Maamaankom festival was conducted.The dispute for the right to conduct the festival led to the chavear (suicide) squad attacks against the ruling Zamorin king.
During his search for the sword, Chandu has a meeting here with the mystic bladesmith.
Ponnaapuram koatta (fort) - A gambler’s den operated by a famous warlord Kelu Mooppan. Located in a valley of the Vayanad hills, this is where Chandu, once during a bingegambling, had pawned his own sword.
The caves of Hampi - At the outskirts of the famous city, Chandu seeks the sword.
The stone pillars here, when struck by a weapon, could identify the metal by its timbre.
Lanes of Muciripattinam (Muziris) - In this ancient port city of Chera Kings, Chandu meets a reclusive chekavar named Kannappar.
Naanu Paanar, the balladeer
Minstrel to the peasants and publicist to the chekavars -
that is the Paanar profession. Naanu Paanar discharged
this more than well. When the champion’s challenger
arrived dead on the palanquin, finding the situation
slipping out of his hands, it was Naanu who pointed
out Chandu as a likely replacement and goaded him
onto the arena. Striking the hot iron, Naanu took off
with his couplets as with Chandu’s leaps on the
anka-thattu. Though caste-wise he is supposed
to be subservient to the hero on whose praise he
composed poems, shrewd Naanu held the
reins. He was a good organiser and was best
at cutting deals.
One would think that the loyalty of any Paanar was
with the chekavar he lauded.
True … but only till the swordsman remained victorious!
And in Naanu’s case he was more interested in the efficacy of his ballads.
Hence, with the destined weapon in hand, when Chandu tries to forestall his own death in combat, Naanu coaxes Bojamma to walk into his kalari and face a lonely and forlorn Chandu.
Here, Bojamma convinces Chandu that a Chekavar’s immortality is not in living a long life ... but as a hero to make a mark and leave the world quickly.
Naanu thus sells Chandu an atrocious idea … to hand over the destined, mythical weapon onto to his opponent’s hand … or better still, launching it against himself at the threshold of victory.
That would be a fitting finale to Chandu’s life! And Naanu would ensure that the ballad on Chandu, by becoming an epic, would make Chandu immortal!
Other characters in the story
This is the first among the balladeer's dual narratives at the climax of the story.
Bojamma, the brothel madame
Once a young woman of Koorg, the lady assumed the name Bojamma on becoming
the concubine of the Mukheli (ruler) of Muddukeri - a township in Konganadu.
Ousted in a family coup, Mukheli with his harem fled to the nearby Naadapuram and
For sustenance, Bojamma did a makeover of the harem to a brothel.
At Chandu’s win at his kanni-ankam (first duel), the greatest victory parade
Naadaapuram township had ever known went around with Chandu on their shoulders.
Witness differ on what happened towards sundown when the cavalcade reached the
Some say the madame extended her hospitality to his entourage.
It could be that Chandu invited himself and walked into her abode.
What Naanu Paanar’s ballad doesn’t mention, yet known by all townsfolk, is the
altercation regarding payment terms that occurred on the morning thereafter at the
brothel’s padippura (gate).
At the refusal of Chandu’s cortege to compensate for their services, with a litany of choicest expletives, the inmates were heard abusing their clients for the night.
Sticking to the claim that it was an invitation, with a newfound
bravado Chandru bragged -
“Write down on your padippura that Chandu was here.
The fame alone would prove more than a compensation”.
A piqued madame booted everyone out. It is said that she sent placations to Chandu
after his stature rose further … and further.
Chandu didn’t relent.
That snub, Bojamma never forgave.
Mukheli, the once and the aspirant king
Ousted from his kingdom, the petty ruler took refuge in the neighbouring.
Here he found himself manning the front-desk of his harem, now a house of ill-repute.
His aspiration to return to his erstwhile throne caused Mukheli many P.R. blunders; one
of which was the invitation of Chandu and entourage to share his harem.
It was Unichaara.
At an hour when he is forsaken by all, she has come to Chandu … out of compassion for him.
It was she who broke the long uncomfortable silence.
She said -
“… seems nobody here to attend the kitchen …”
(looking around) “… or even the household …. Well; …”
(with uncertainty) “… shall I take care…?”
So she said - “ … you need prepare for the ankam ! … where is your pizhichil masseur?
Well; I can do that …” (blushing) “… if you would allow me …”
Again she spoke -
“ … Oh! you have no sparring partner? … “
(confidently) “Well; I can be that”
It was Unichaara’s martial arts skills that surprised Chandu the most.
She may not have been trained a chevaka girl, … but her knowledge and abilities were top class … better than any trainer a duelist could wish for.
While sparring, Chandu was amazed in hearing her instruct -
“No! ... not to step back … swing right foot forward … as in your first ankam”.
“Backward flip! ... the one with which you had surprised every opponent!”
“… Feign now! You have never lost step whenever you feigned!”
Chandu was shocked.
The woman … she knew by-heart every duel, every manoeuvre of his!
It would seem that she had witnessed every one his event … that’s being more ardent than anyone in his entourage!
Unichaara, the chaste
Unichaara was an epitome of chastity.
Born of a noble and affluent family, many men coveted her. But she conducted herself very gracefully and nobody even gossiped about her.
Though he was hero to the masses, Chandu’s overture to the lady was met with a response consistent with Unichaara’s character - absolutely passive, stoic.
This news falling on Bojamma’s ears incensed the madame. It was pure jealousy.
The madame found her placations to the local hero spurned … while a girl due to her virtue had won his admiration!
On a day of the village fair, Bojamma the madame and Unichaara the chaste
found themselves face to face. The former slandered the latter’s
chastity in public. The madame recited a list of Unichaara’s
paramours and challenged her to prove her virginity.
In such situations, an archaic village practice was to
dip one’s finger in a cauldron of oil boiling in front
of the female deity.
Unichaara, as if accepting the challenge,
did so and emerged unblemished.
But the vile Madame wouldn’t let go.
She crowed -
“ Cheat! … the girl applied python-tallow on her finger
just before the dip … ”.
An adivasi hunter vouched what the Madame said as true.
Hence the slur on Unichaara’s character remained.
That’s when Chandu came to her rescue.
He made her a proposal in secret -
”Allow me to defend your character …
I’ll fight an ankam against all your detractors …
In return, you need consent to yield to me.”
To this, a response did come.
“If I accept to yield to you, I’ve already become blemished.
The divinity above may justly let you lose the ankam.
You may dare to take that chance …. But I cannot.
For, I care for your life”.
With this very intelligent reply, she had
deftly parried his approach.
Chandu realised that there do exist
true gems among womanhood.
This is the second among the balladeer's dual narratives at the climax of the story. Here Unichaara re-enters the story at the juncture Chandu finds himself abandoned by all.
Chandu is sitting alone, dejected having lost his destined sword and facing a crucial duel.
Unichaara takes over his kalari and household and prepares him for the event.
Chandu’s gratification is in finding that he has become a worthy person in Unichaara’s eyes.
Feudal lords Kanaran and Thampan
Kanaran’s prized bull, the one dedicated to the temple endowments,
encroached into Thampan’s stable and violated the latter’s cows.
A furious Thampan had the bull caught and castrated.
Hearing this, an enraged Kanaran lead a posse against Thampan’s bastion.
Forewarned, Thampan mobilised his horde and met the attackers halfway.
Out on a journey along with handful of his soldiers, the king suddenly found himself caught unawares between the two groups. Since swordstrength was not in his favour, the petty king advised an ankam to resolve the dispute … and had the adversaries placated and
Kanaran arrived grandiosely at Chandu’s palatial kalari with offer to sponsor an ankam
by which he could salvage his pride.
He asked -
“Would Chandu Chekavar endorse my cause? If so, quote your price!”
The benefactor laid out bundles of gold coins to meet Chandu’s market price … and
had come prepared even to double it.
Chandu said nonchalantly -
“Ten thousand gold coins … nothing less!”
Kanaran was stunned.
Even Chandu’s bystander, pouring buttermilk for the guest, spilt the drink.
Lord Kanaran’s net worth wasn’t anywhere around it. His shock soon turned to amusement
and he gently walked out.
It was no surprise to Kanaaran that his adversary Thampan was waiting outside,
obviously to meet Chandu for the same reason.
Kanaran waited to see the outcome …
and there came Thampan rushing out faster than he went in.
Belittled by the egoist Chandu, Lord Kanaran and Chieftain Thampan stared at each other. Bemused, they laughed at each other’s predicament, shook hands, made peace and left.
Chandu had not only priced himself out of the ankam events ...
but also antagonised two powerful men.
Kannappar, the reclusive Chekavar
Kannappar was once a star swordsman who at the prime of his life had disappeared into oblivion.
While searching for the sword, Chandu finds him in Miciripattinam living as a recluse. Suspecting the obvious, Chandu dare ask the man
who was now at the dusk of his life -
“Oh gurukkal … have you come in possession …
… of the sword with your name on it?”
The man evades the question, but uncovers an unknown facet about the myth -
“When you seek the sword with your name on it …
…. the sword starts seeking you!”
As if oblivious of Chandu's presence, the hermit Chekavar voices out a predicament ... his as well as of others like him ...
" ... do they ever think what they shall do with the thing once it is at hand? ...
bury, burn or brandish? ....
Even with it safely tucked under your pillow, can one even doze for an instant, peacefully?"
Swordsmith/ Agasthya Guru
While in search of the destined sword, under mystic circumstances (a la 3 witches, Macbeth) Chandu came across an old bladesmith who looked sagely as Agasthya Guru.
At Thirunaavaay a battle was ranging outside.
The said man was pouring over an astral chart with every martial-arts weapon in the universe listed in it.
When Chandu looked over his shoulder, the old man stated in a husky voice -
“The weapon you seek, is yet to be forged”.
Seeing Chandu surprised and disappointed, the man quizzed him -
“The sword with your name on it … how would you like to wield it, …
if it were in your possession?”
Chandu found himself giving a strange answer
“No! I would guard it…”
(having second thoughts, on seeing a chavear charge coming up, he says quickly)
“… but, … I may launch it … if … a horde is arrayed against me …
… to go slice and sever their heads …… ”
Retorted the archaic man -
“Hmmm … like the mythological Kalki ? …So be it …”
“But then, mind you … it could come around as a boomerang …
for your own head”
No sooner he said that, the scene got run over by the charging chavear soldiers.
Much later, Chandu sees a blacksmith’s smithy.
Inside, he meets the swordsmith again.
On seeing Chandu the swordsmith puts aside the blade he was sharpening, and said -
“Your weapon, it has been ready for sometime”.
Wrapped in coarse cotton, a warm piece of metal is handed over to Chandu.
On leaving, Chandu turned around … and found the smithy no longer there.
Cheerakaadan Chathunni and sons
Upstart Chandu’s first clash was with the then champion Cheerakaadan.
Years later, Chathunni’s son Kunjikannan had come to avenge his father.
Facing him on the anka-thattu, Chandu sprung his famous kick.
He rose up in the airand somersaulted to the rear of Kunjikannan, much
to the of the amazement of the young challenger.
Though stunned initially, he recovered and swung
around with a dazzling swordplay.
But then Chandu came up with an unexpected trick.
He again kicked and launched himself high into the
air once again. Anticipating the somersault towards
his rear, Kunjikannan turned around. But the shrewd
Chandu did not somersault … he came down to the
original spot. Before Kunjikannan realised the mistake
and turned around, Chandu’s sword-handle came
crashing on his back and he fell.
Suddenly, two younger brothers of Kunjikannan jumped on to the anga-thattu.
Here when Chandu faced two ferocious adversaries, the question was "who among the two held the purloined sword with his name written on it?" wondered Chandu.
King, the petty local ruler
When Naanu Paanar’s ballad about Chandu’s exploits echoed over the countryside,
its melody rejuvenated the scorched tillers in the fields.To its beat the harvesters scythed
in unison, the threshers found their bruised feet hurt no longer.
The lords found their granaries filled and overflowing.
The ruler was happy due to the revenue from the land.
Chandu’s duels, to which the cheering masses flocked, were sold-out events.
Craftsmen, cattle traders, potters, weavers, punters and even harlots …
everyone filled up their purse if they could set up shop around Chandu’s anka-thattu.
The king was content at the windfall of taxes.
By pricing himself out of the market with an atrocious fees,
Chandu jeopardised his as well as everybody’s life.
For him, it meant no more income.
For the townsfolk, no new ankam …
no new ballads for Naanu Paanar…
no exciting event or business at the town centre …
no tax revenue for the king!
Captions & Notes research papers, Jose Punnoose, 2001
Chekavars were warriors trained in the kalaris of Malabar where kalarippayattu - the ancient Kerala martial arts, was taught. Disputes, in those times, were settled by duels. A Chekavar’s profession was to duel to death on the arena against another Chevakar - for a price. It was a Chekavar’s dharma to accept a sponsor’s commission and step onto the arena to use his prowess against another chekava clansman for winning his sponsor’s cause. By defeating the one opposing him, a victorious Chevakar affirmed the dispute in favour of his sponsor … and thrashed the one who endorsed his opponent. What were the disputes? Family feuds, sibling rivalry, inheritance brawls, … a slandered damsel asserting her chastity to her detractors, etc.
Ankam & Ankathattu (The Duel & the Stage)
Since the dawn of times, feuds leading to skirmishes leading to war, was the norm in all tribal settlements. As elsewhere in the world, this was true in Malabar also … till wisemen wanted to do something about it. When two mighty egos clash and the sword slashes spill-over onto the streets, it envelops not just the two prestige at stake … but also lives in a community as men rally towards the feuding camps … and a cycle of bloody wars of vendetta ensues. In hindsight, the wise saw a never ending trail of blood … some stretching over so many generations, that the combatants of a latter date became ignorant as to what the dispute is about!
So sometime during the turn of the first millennium, the wise village chieftains of Malabar found a practical way out. It was called the ankam (duel to death). If at all two individuals or clans had an issue to be settled, they could sponsor two swordsmen - as proxy. These swordsmen would fight a duel on an arena in front of the spectators (and the clan’s terraphims) till one was bloodied and fell down dead. Such clash of swords always happened on a stage erected in the temple courtyard - right under the eyes of the village deity to ensure that the outcome is divinely ordained and the righteous side emerge victorious.
That verdict would seal the dispute!
The pool of blood spilled on the stage, a few limbs strewn around the arena, a family orphaned … all these seemed to appease the gods! Well, if not gods, at least an audience cheering the bloodsport … also the gratified Paanan (bard) who composed a new ballad on one more heroic exploit of his Chekava champion … and then the hordes in the paddy fields for whom the Panan’s new ballad is a solace from the heat, dust and wariness. All it took was two trained swordsmen, who had nothing against each other, fighting somebody’s cause for a fee, while a horde out on festivity cheered and jeered. Crowds thronged to the event where peddler of goods, soothsayers and harlots opened shops around the arena. The ruler benefitted by taxing such services and sales.
This bloody sport of ankam was staged on a specially made elevated stage called ankathattu which was of a
prescribed size, made out of Tamarind planks and propped up on logs.
It was with the ankams that a professional clan of swordsmen of Chevakars evolved. As in the Indian caste system, Chevakar clan remained a family custom where the tradition was handed from the patriarch to his descendants. In the ancient lores there are stories of father vs son, uncle vs nephew pitted against each other on the ankathattu. For, it was against the dharma of the Chevakar to refuse a sponsor once he met the Chekavar’s market price.
Chevakar Mahasabha (Guild)
There evolved a Guild or Sabha which set code of conduct, standards, rules and practices. The chevaka apex body was Chekavar Mahasabha. They awarded the license ‘ankathali’ - a talisman, to those sword fighters - graduates from the Kalari schools, who qualified in the annual competitions. The Mahasabha had a mediation committee and even a panel of umpires to supervise the ankams.
Kalaris were not just martial schools, it way a way of life in ancient Kerala. The Kalari Guru or Aashaan was not just a teacher of self defence. The master was a go for person for anything, a spiritual counsellor, one who treated injuries or mended broken limbs, also prescribed herbs or potions for physical ailments.
The Kalari rules had evolved over centuries, they had a prescribed school calendar, specified size for the practice yard, well defined rules of initiation and graduation, etc. Kids of 7 years of age - both boys and girls, were enrolled in Kalari schools. The initial years were spend in training and toning the body with physical exercises, the movements and exercises were accompanied by the recitation of litanies.
Vadakkan Pattukal - Ballads of Northern Kerala (Malabar)
The Chevakars were the celebrities of the era. Ballads of Northern Kerala are folk songs or Veera Gathas of the Chevakars. The Malabar coast is awash with songs and stories of several such bloody battles which has soaked and suffused it’s soil. Even the lashing monsoon rains over centuries was not able to remove the blood stain from the laterite soil of Malabar.
A literate upper class had dismissed these folk songs of the peasants as ‘cacophony of the lower class’ and never took any effort to scribe it on palm-leaf. During the 18th century Hermann Gundert - a pastor turned linguist from Europe, and in the 19th century Mr Percy MacQueen I.C.S. who served in the Madras Presidency, both
understanding the collective native wisdom, had the ballads written down. The first publication of Ballads of North Malabar was done by Madras University in the year 1935 when Mr Percy Mac Queen was the Collector of Madras & Chingleput Districts and Chelanat Achutha Menon headed the Malayalam department in the Madras University.
Paanar - the balladeer
Mentioned in ancient Tamil literature, the Paanar or balladeer is a caste of professional singers found in South India. In the Malabar part of Northern Kerala, apart from serving their customary role of a minstrel in the countryside, Paanan also played as personal publicist of a Chevakar. The songs he sang about the brave Chevakars, were about their skills and exploits off and on the arena - at times chivalrous and at times amorous.
Modern day Kalaripayattu - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalaripayattu
The widespread practice and prevalence of Kalaripayattu in Kerala began to decline in the 17th century, when the usage of guns and cannons became widespread. This also coincided with the European invasions into Kerala, after which, firearms began to surpass the usage of traditional weaponry such as swords and spears. In 1804, the British banned Kalaripayattu in Kerala in response to the Kottayathu War, a rebellion against British rule lead by the Keralite king Pazhassi Raja. The ban came into effect shortly after Pazhassi Raja's deathon November 30th, 1805, resulting in the closure of most of the major kalari training grounds in Kerala. Many Keralite gurukkals of Kalaripayattu resisted the ban and continued to teach Kalaripayattu to their students in secret and preserved the martial art for posterity. They were responsible for preserving Kalaripayattu into the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as sparking the revival of Kalaripayattu in Kerala in the 1920s.
posted above is the substance of the story and its research sources - by the author (2005)
onto a film adaptation, given below is the first stage of development - april 2022.
Screen Treatment (for a young global audience)
The Legend of Chandu Chekavar
with suggestions and contributions from
B R Prasad, Josey Joseph, Geo Kuttappan, Suresh Kanthan, Rajeevkumar, RK, K Sheker, Prakash Moorthy, Samhita Arni, C.V Sarathy, Dharani, Jayendra, P.C. Sriram, ....
The legend of Chandu Chekavar of 12th century A.D. is revealed in segments.
The narrative takes place in the year 1920, when balladeer Naanu Paanar is about to go to the gallows.
Naanu sings it out, and Percy McQueen* - the jailor at Vellore, writes it down. *based on the author's notes.
HISTORY - The ballads of malabar are songs about chekava swordsmen, their chivalry and exploits. Chekavar were kalarippayattu warriors who waged ankam (duel to death) on the arena for championship. The poems were meant for the illiterate masses and hence till the 20th century they never got committed to texts. In oral tradition, sung by the Paanar clan members, they were handed down from father to son. This story of ours is dated circa 12th century A.D. Literate upper class had dismissed these folk songs of the peasants as ‘cacophony of the lower class’ and never inscribed them on palm leaf parchments.
However, there came eminent foreigners, who understood the collective native wisdom and had these ballads written down. In the 18th century, it was Hermann Gundert - a pastor turned linguist from Germany who codified the first Malayalam language Dictionary. In the 19th century, William Logan - the Scottish officer of Madras Civil service, as collector of malabar he was conversant in all South Indian languages. In the 20th century, Irishman Percy MacQueen of Indian Civil Service who was conversant in Malayalam and served as the collector of Malabar in the Madras Presidency.
The first publication of Ballads of North Malabar was done by Madras University in the year 1935 when Mr Percy Mac Queen was the Collector of Madras & Chingleput District and it was Chelanat Achutha Menon who headed the Malayalam department in the Madras University.
The song segments do not always come out in their chronological order.
Hence the narrative is non-linear.
Prologue - 1920. Irishman Percy ICS is temporarily filling in as the jailor at the prison inside the Vellore Fort - where, a century ago, the British had imprisoned Tippu Sultan’s family. For the past few nights Percy had been hearing somebody singing a lament which he understood as a ballad from Malabar. Then a prison guard comes to him with a request. A young man of the Paanar caste, who is about to be hung in a week’s time, wants an audience with the jailor.
“What for?” asks Percy.
“He has come to know that you were in Malabar and you are conversant in his native tongue Malayalam and hence would like to speak to you …. Please sir, it is his last wish”.
Percy sees in front of him the man condemned to the gallows.
The jailor by then had read from the prison records and understood that as a balladeer the man during daytime scouted affluent houses, and resorted to burglary during the nights. One of those attempts saw him committing a murder when he got caught. Hence the judge had him condemned to be hung.
Naanu requests the white man … “Sire, given by my father, there is one ballad in my repertoire that is yet to be handed down to the next generation before I die. I have sent messages to my kith and kin to come and take it down from me before I am hung next week. None has come .. apparently, due to the disgrace. Can you write it down … as I sing? … If these segments are lost to posterity, … my father, my grandfather, his father … the souls of all of them in my lineage who passed the ballad to me, shall be cursed”
Percy starts writing down as Naanu sings … it continues with some interruptions during the ensuing days.
The screen-narrative starts when Chandu Chekavar, at the peak of his unbeaten reign, seeks the weapon that is destined to take his life. The events of his life is told against the backdrop of Chandu’s quest for the sword which (mystically speaking) has his name written on it.
At some point during the transcription of Naanu’s songs about Chandu Chekavar, it is revealed that this particular story is a ‘forbidden ballad’ *. Because, forestalling one’s death - as Chandu Chekavar is attempting in the story, is a violation of Chekava Dharma … a cowardice. Hence a ballad that do not inspire chivalry, should not be propagated. That is a Paanar (balladeer) Dharma. Percy realises this when Naanu hides a true segment and sings the alternative ‘official version’ meant for public consumption. Reprimanded by an angry Percy, Naanu sings the ‘true version’ also, anyway. *based on the author's notes.
There is a duality in the climax story ending.
The first is Chandu’s heroic end in the final duel. Apparently, it is false*. It was a song tailored by Naanu Paanar (the present Naanu’s 12th century ancestor) so that the story of Chandu, and Naanu’s ballad about him, would become an epic in posterity.
*The shrewd Naanu (of 12th century) was a good organiser who was best at cutting deals. Naanu was more interested in the efficacy of his ballads than his hero’s well-being. Hence when Chandu tries to forestall his death in the oncoming combat, Naanu through Bojamma convinces him that a Chekavar’s immortality is not in living a long life … but to make a mark as a hero, and leave the world quickly.
He sells Chandu an atrocious idea … to hand over the mystical weapon onto to his opponent’s hand … or better still, launching it against himself at the threshold of victory. That would be a fitting finale to Chandu’s life, and Naanu would see to that the ballads become an epic and make Chandu immortal!
This is the first ending. In this, Chandu dies a hero in the eyes of the public … story-wise everything is neatly tied up.
Percy accompanies Naanu (of 20th Century) as he walks to the gallows.
That is when it strikes Percy that there could be another segment - a true ending.
Because there seems to be something missing … oh yes, the heroine!
“What happened to the chaste lady?”
Naanu peevishly admits. Yes, there is a real version - not very heroic though.
Now it is a race against time as Percy stalls the hangman’s noose and implores Naanu to sing the crucial ‘forbidden segment’.
He screams at the condemned man
“No! not the Chekava dharma or your blasted Balladeer dharma… The real dharma … which means … truth, truth, … The Truth! Damn you, Sing it out!!”
With noose around his neck, Naanu sings out the true ending … the plank about to fall from below his feet.
It is in the second version that the chaste lady Unichaara re-enters Chandu’s life and makes him live … a hero in her eyes.