Kochi: On the centenary of his tragic death, Malayalam remembers N Kumaran Asan as a true genius who excelled in many roles. He was one of the greatest poets Kerala has ever produced, a social reformer and a legislator. Not many, however, remember him as an industrialist – a profession which would sound an oxymoron to many when kept alongside a poet.
Three years before a boat accident claimed his life in 1924 at the age of 50, Kumaran Asan had established a tile factory near Aluva in Ernakulam district. Asan started Union Tile Works which manufactured rooftop tiles baked out of clay on the banks of a tributary of the Periyar at Chengamanadu village in 1921 along with five other partners. The factory had three kilns.
Though fate allowed Asan to be at the helm of the factory only for three years, the establishment survived eight decades until it wound up in 2003. After his death, his wife Bhanumathiyamma looked after the business and in the 1960s the Asan family bought all the shares from the other partners. Bhanumathiyamma died in 1974 and in 1977 their grandson Pradeep Kumar took over the firm. He ran it for the next 26 years until he was forced to shut it down due to a dip in the market and a change in rules relating to the mining of clay, the essential material for baking tiles. The land was sold a decade later and it has not left any trace of the poet’s business adventure now.
“Union Tile Works is the second tile factory that came up in Ernakulam district. The first one is the now-defunct Standard Potteries near Aluva. Asan and his partners opened the factory at a golden period of the industry as tiled roofs had only started becoming a trend among affluent families. Two of his partners were from Nagercoil and one each from Kochi, Aluva and Alappuzha,” Asan’s grandson Pradeep Kumar told Onmanorama.
He said he has seen minutes of the company meetings in Asan’s handwriting. “Asan was also the first among the signed partners,” he said.
Asan and his partners had purchased a plot near Aluva on the banks of the Periyar first for setting up the factory. However, the Aluva Palace opposed the plan citing the muddy water from the factory would pollute the river. Asan and his partners then identified the Chengmanadu property. It was on the Aluva property that the famed Advaita Ashram came up later, Pradeep Kumar said.
Writer and columnist Rammohan Paliyath, who has written in detail about Asan’s business acumen, said the great poet must have been influenced by Sree Narayana Guru’s call to promote education and industries as a means for society’s progress. Guru has famously advised his followers to “be enlightened by knowledge, be strengthened by organisation and be prospered by industries.” Asan was one of the early disciples of Guru.
Paliyath said that Asan’s credentials as an industrialist is often not discussed in academic and cultural spheres, apparently due to the prevailing public perception in Kerala that business is inferior to literature and cultural activities.
Pradeep Kumar remembered that Asan’s business interests were not limited to the clay factory alone. “Asan had owned shares of several private limited companies. He also started his own publishing company named Sarada Book Depot,” the grandson said.