Kelu Nair: The multifaceted freedom fighter who died at 27

P Kelu Nair. Photo: Manorama Archives

Kasaragod: On the night of April 18, 1929, P Kelu Nair put together two benches and readied his deathbed in the middle of the stage. He wrapped himself in the tricolour and used the theatre's curtain as his pillow.

His followers found him in his eternal sleep the next day in Vijnana Dayani National Sanskrit School in Kasaragod's Bellikoth (Vellikoth).

Kelu influenced the Freedom Movement through his many plays and songs long after he was gone, said Rajagopalan, who co-authored the biographical play 'Kelu'. Photo: George Poikayil

He was a poet, playwright, music composer, Carnatic and Hindustani vocalist, stage play director, avid movie buff, relentless fighter against untouchability and caste oppression, Gandhian, polyglot, and freedom fighter. At the time of his death, Kelu Nair was only 27 years nine months 22 days old. "The suicide was the young man's sincere response to society's orthodoxy and dogmas," literary critic E P Rajagopalan wrote in Mathrubhumi weekly to mark Kelu Nair's 94th death anniversary.

On the website of Azadi Ka Mahotsav -- an initiative to celebrate the 75 years of India's Independence -- the Ministry of Culture has a 105-word tribute to Kelu Nair under the head 'Unsung Heroes of India’s freedom struggle'.

Even though he died 18 years before Independence, he had a lasting influence on the Freedom movement and freedom fighters, said Shubha C P, a poet and secretary of Vidwan P Kelu Nair Memorial Trust.

He influenced the Freedom Movement through his many plays and songs long after he was gone, said Rajagopalan, who co-authored the biographical play 'Kelu', with N Sasidharan. His song 'Smarippin Bharatheeyare' from the play 'Kabirdas Charitham' became an anthem for the freedom movement, he said.

On June 13, 1931, two years after Kelu Nair's death, Congress workers staged his play 'Pakkanar' in Kozhikode's Shah Jahan Hall to raise funds to promote alcohol abstinence and work against untouchability.

The theme of 'Pakkanar' was untouchability. After watching the play, freedom fighter K Kelappan, popularly known as 'Kerala Gandhi' wrote: 'Vidwan P Kelu Nair is the agent responsible for the changes happening in Hosdurg. He was not just a political activist or Sanskrit pundit. He was a musician and playwright".

'Mahakavi' P Kunhiraman Nair, known for his poems on nature, described Kelu Nair as an incarnation of Vagdevata in 'Kaviyude Kalpadukal' (The Footprints of a Poet).

The government is investing Rs 5 crore to restore the Govt Vocational Higher Secondary School established by Vidwan P Kelu Nair in Bellikoth near Kanhangad. Photo: George Poikayil

Following Gandhi's footsteps

P Kelu Nair was born on June 27, 1901, in Nileshwar. Later, he moved to Bellikoth village near Kanhangad. At the age of 17, he joined the army in 1918, when the World War was coming to an end. After nearly two years, he lost his job because he fell ill.

The Army's loss was the Indian Freedom movement and theatre's gain. "Everything he did was between 1919 to 1929, a period of his genius," said Shobha.

Inspired by Gandhi's teaching, he established Vijnana Dayani National Sanskrit School in Bellikoth. The school taught self-reliance by skilling students, it taught maths, science, weaving, making roads, and languages, she said. "He was using the school and subjects to expose students to the ideals of Gandhi and the freedom movement," said Shobha, who teaches Malayalam at Durga Higher Secondary School in Kanhangad.

On May 12, 1927, when Gandhi decided to visit Nileshwar, he was at the forefront as an organiser. A C Kannan Nair called a meeting to plan the reception on April 5. Kelu Nair spoke on 'Gandhi and Khadi' in the meeting.

Vijnana Dayani, his school, had children from all communities, a revolution then. Inspired by Gandhi's teaching, he and his students also dug a public well in Bellikoth, encouraging people from all communities to draw water from it. Although dilapidated, the well is still there.

Kelu Nair's musicals and plays were ostensibly based on mythologies but he sneaked in ideas that promoted self-reliance, and communal harmony, and criticised untouchability and caste oppression that prevailed in society. "Untouchability was particularly high in Bellikoth," she said.

In one play, a man from the Pulayar caste, an untouchable community, played the role of the lead woman in Kelu Nair's play. "Kelu Nair is the lead man. He wrote a hugging scene and hugged the Pulayar man. It angered the upper caste people of the area," said Shobha.

Kelu Nair's wife Allathadi Malu Meenakshi Amma and their son Damodaran were taunted and abused by a section of upper caste people because of his revolutionary ideas. "They had to leave the village," she said.

During his short lifetime, Kelu did not have time for his detractors. He was much ahead of his time. He started three permanent theatre stages -- at Nileshwar, Maniyat near Cheruvathur, and Parassinikadavu in Kannur district. "The one at Parassini functioned long years after his death," she said.

Kelu Nair used to religiously maintain a diary, where he wrote his daily activities and happenings. Most of the scripts of his plays and musicals were lost. His diary is now the main source of his life and lifetime," Shobha said.

In the last four to five years before his death, Kelu Nair was particularly taken in by cinema. "When it comes to movies, he was not a Gandhian. Gandhi did not like cinema," said Rajagopalan.

Kelu Nair used to travel to Kannur, Kozhikode, and Mangalore to watch movies. There were a lot of entries of movies in his diary, said Rajagopalan. "Going by his entries, he was more interested in the techniques of acting," the critic said.

Sometimes, he took his wife, and children too. It helped that trains reached Kanhangad in 1901, closing the distances between cities with cinemas.

In the diary, he maintained accounts of the plays, the expenses, the income, how and who he helped with the money, the places he visited, and the money he borrowed to stage plays. "There are entries of him borrowing 25 paise and 5 paise," she said.

His father-in-law used to abuse him for not taking care of his family and spending time at theatres.

A day before his death, his son was hospitalised. "His father was angry that he borrowed money for theatre and play but did not have money to take care of his son," said Shobha.

His last entry in the diary had just one word: Maranam (Death). Vidwan P Kelu Nair was much ahead of his time, said Shobha. Years after his death, when people realised the magnitude of his contribution, there was a debate on whether the Bellikoth government higher secondary school, which shares space with Vijnana Dayani, should be renamed after Vidwan P Kelu Nair. Now it is named in memory of Mahakavi P.

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