Kerala has an abundant stock of oral poetry. While some of them are entirely Dravidian in diction and other characteristics there are many songs and ballads which show unmistakable signs of "Aryan" influence. Further, there are regional variations in content and form.

The heroic ballads of north Malabar known as vadakkan pattukal and those of south Tiruvithamkur known as tekkan pattukal constitute a well-defined category. The northern ballads relate the exploits of valiant men and women of two clans, viz., Puthooram and Manikkoth. Unniyarcha, Aromal Chekavar and Aromalunni are the towering figures of the former, while Thacholi Othenan is the one dominant figure of the latter. The background of the stories is feudal and medieval. The stories celebrate the valour and fencing skills of the renowned characters. The sacrifices the heores and heroines make in accordance with their code of honour are awesome. The northern ballads show the tragic heights scaled by folk-poetry.

Iravikutti Pillai Poru is the most prominent among the southern ballads. It tells the story of a warrior who wins eternal honour through death in battlefield. This and other southern ballads are Villupattus i.e., sung to the accompaniment of a huge bowfitted with bells. They are also sung in chorus, unlike the northern ballads.

Some of the ballads of the north are primarily stories of love, while some others retell puranic legends. There are also ballads that express fierce protest against social inequalities and injustices. The puranic ballads show the influence of the Sanskrit puranas in their narrative style.

Songs and sayings of folk-origin are countless and of infinite variety in motifs, metrical patterns, tunes and rhythms. They include lullabies and other nursery rhythms, recreational songs, religious hymns, ritualisitc recitatives and work-songs. They are all endowed with simple but bewitching melodies. Folk-plays, proverbs, riddles and absurd jokes are also found in our rich folk-lore.

The narrative poetry, or pattu, of the earliest period may have drawn much from the resources of the tradition of ballads for its metrical and stylistic devices. The art of narration gained perfection, diction became sophisticated and rhetorical figures acquired variety in course of time. However refined the artistry of the poetry of the literate is, its roots are to be sought in the fertile soil of the invaluable rustic lore.

The history of Malayalam poetry begins with Ramacharitham, a pattu. In the preface to his Malayalam-English Dictionary, Dr. Gundert says: "This history i.e., history of Malayalam commences for us (if we accept a few inscriptions on copper and stone) with Ramacharitham, in which we probably have the oldest Malayalam poem still in existence, composed as it was before the introduction of the Sanskrit alphabet and deserving of the particular attention of the scholar, as it exhibits the earliest phase of the language perhaps centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese."

Though there has been much diversity of opinion regarding its language, all agree about the quality of its poetry. The title is rather misleading, because the poet does not tell the whole story of Rama. Ramacharitham confines itself to the Yudhakandas of Valmiki's Ramayana with occasional glances at Kishkindha and Sundara kandas. The name of the poet is Cheeraman. He describes himself as one "whose mind is immersed in Adi Deva". The influence of the bhakti cult of contemporary Tamil poetry is further confirmed by his depiction of Hanuman and Vibheeshana as symbols of devotion. At the conclusion of the poem he has spelt out his aim, which was "to enlighten the common people".

The poet's special interest in the Yudhakanda has prompted some scholars to conclude that the poet must have been a prince. But such a conclusion seems to be unwarranted. We may take it to mean that his intention was to write a puramkavya and not an akamkavya. Tamil poets, we know, divided poetry into these two categories on thematic grounds. He works within the Tamil tradition in another respect as well. The poem is divided into padelams (164 in number) following the custom of the Alwars and Nayanars. The metres he chose are vrittavisheshas, i.e., non Sanskrit (Dravidian) metres, though we come across Sanskrit metres sometimes. Altogether, the work neatly fits into the convention of Tamil poetry and exactly accords with the definition of pattu in Leelathilakam. There is much controversy about the language of the poet. It may be described as a dialect-mix, deliberately elevated from the level of the spoken form of the poet's place and time, a bilingual area in south Tiruvithamkur of the eleventh or twelfth century. In spite of the "southernness" of the language Ramacharitam was popular in the north as well. Ramacharitam is a pattu written in a language intelligible to the common people, in metres familiar to them and in a style pleasing to them, with the noble objective of combining pleasure and profit, observing a well established decorum. Meanwhile, we also find the increasing dominance of Sanskrit, in the school of poetry known as manipravalam. It is an elitist poetry written in a hybrid diction where the native language and Sanskrit are almost imperceptibly combined in a regular manner. The poets of manipravalam were darlings of fortune and minions of Venus. They churned out poem after poem lauding lascivious dancing girls and licentious love. Their poetry is admired for impressive descriptions, rhetorical extravagances and vivacious wit.

Manipravalam, in its early days, was not merely a matter of linguistic peculiarity or dictional individuality, as the Leelathilakam _ an early work on grammar, rhetoric, etc. which was in circulation by the end of the fourteenth century, that is, two or three centuries after the beginning of this kind of poetry-suggests. According to Leelathilakam this was expected to exhibit certain specific features distinguishing it from pattu; one, blending native and Sanskrit vocabulary; two, using Sanskrit words as tatsamas, i.e., without dravidianizing them; three, using Sanskrit inflexional endings for Sanskrit words invariably and for native words occasionally; four, confining to Sanskrit metres. Incidentally, Tholan's parodies of manipravalam verses are famous. P. Sankaran Nambiyar explains the developing of such a direction by the Namboodiris thus: "They were presumably more interested in leading by the hand the other less learned classes on to the fair fields of classical literature. Sanskrit vocabulary and grammar, administered in short and sweet doses, would be taken in by the average reader without much effort. He would thus be initiated into the intricacies of Sanskrit grammar in the course of his joyous poetical studies, almost without his own knowledge.However, the average reader must have found himself led up "the primrose path of dalliance" to a haven of concupiscence. The Namboodiri poets and others who imitated them were singing paeans to concubines and courtesans "in full throated ease". What they flaunted was an affluent class-hedonism, with special emphasis on erotic scenes and sentiments. The manipravalam poets presented decadent stuff in classical forms. Their works were steeped in rank sensuality.

Vaisikatantram, of about eleventh century, reminiscent of Damodaragupta's Kuttanimatham, is one of the earliest works in manipravalam. It is a hand-book for prostitutes, in the form of an experienced mother's advice to her daughter initiated into the profession. The other important works of this school are three champus, a Sandesa Kavya (message poem) and a verse-narrative. The Champus - compositions mixing verse and rhythmic prose; a genre transplanted from Sanskrit - are Unniyachi Charitham, Unnichiruthevi Charitam (thirteenth century) and Unniyati Charitham (fourteenth century). There was also a plethora of message-poems. The most outstanding of them is Unnuneeli Sandesam (1350 - 1365), renowned for its descriptive passages, where the beauty of nature comes alive, with felicitious phrasing and mellifluous versification supposedly modelled on Kalidasa's Meghadoota, this, as well as the umpteen other Sandesas, is but a glorified travelogue in verse. The triumphant culmination of the manipravala style we find in Chandrotsavam (fifteenth - sixteenth century), a flimsy story in splendid verse.

Dr. K.M. George comments: manipravala poems give us a general idea of the social background of the higher castes of Kerala in those days. Namboodiris and their satellites drank deep at the fountain of life and the moral standards they set are, we think, rather loose. Chastity was of no account and the institution of prostitutes was accepted as sacred, particularly for devadasis. Poets found it worth while to sing glories of those women. No poet of significance missed this opportunity as they were products, or perhaps the victims, of the prevailing social conditions and modes."

In the midst of all this revelry we hear the mighty strains of a lofty lay rising above the salacious warblings of manipravalam, ramakathappattu to rise above the better known poems of the period. It is "deep, majestic, smooth and strong". Dr. P.K. Narayana Pillai, who published the full text of the work for the first time in 1970 attributes it to Ayyapilla Asan and places it in the bardic tradition. It is a pattu believed to have been composed towards the end of the fourteenth century, and used to be sung until recently to the accompaniment of a musical instrument called chandravalayam. Ayyapilla Asan has deviated boldly from the rules and regulations proposed by the Leelathilakam for pattu. Thus he is a rebel. He is the first poet to render the whole story of Valmiki's Ramayanam in Malayalam. Thus he is a pioneer too. The poet has cleverly condensed the story by selecting episodes judiciously. Nevertheless, the poem is of considerable magnitude. It is an important landmark in Malayalam poetry and the precursor of later Rama-stories in the language. ( Contd...)