by V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai
Kandathiparambil Paapu Karuppan popularly known as Pandit Karuppan Master or K.P. Karuppan was a crusader against untouchability and other social evils prevalent during his time. For his relentless efforts in uplifting the socially, economically and educationally backward communities, Karuppan Master earned the epithet ‘Lincoln of Kerala’. He became the first human rights activist from the Cochin State. He was also a renowned Sanskrit scholar, poet and dramatist. He used his organizational ability and literary talent to fight against illiteracy, social injustice, casteism and superstitions. Karuppan Master belonged to the Dheevara community of Hindu fishermen.
The Dheevara community rightfully claims that they are the descendents of Satyavathy, the mother of Sage Veda Vyasa and the great grandmother of Pandavas and Kauravas of the mythological Mahabharata. According to the epic, Satyavathy, the attractive daughter of a fisherman, had her son Veda Vyasa from a Brahmin called Sage Parasara. Later when King Shantanu desired to marry Satyavathy, her father agreed on condition that their children should inherit the throne of Hastinapura. Accordingly, after his death of King Shantanu, Satyavathy ruled Hastinapura along with her sons Chitrangadan and Vichitraviryan!.
Karuppan was born to Paappu and Kochupennu on May 24, 1885 in a lower middle class family at Cheranelloor, near Ernakulam. Paappu was proficient in Sanskrit and Ayurveda and was known as Atho Poojari engaged in pujas and other rituals. Karuppan’s childhood name was Sankaran. However, a Tamil Gosai who used to visit his family regularly once predicted that the boy would become a scholar and suggested that he be named Karpan which later became Karuppan. Karpan in Tamil means ‘learnt person’ whereas Karuppan in Malayalam means ‘person of black colour’, though ironically he had a fair complexion!
Karuppan’s formal education commenced at the age of five under Azheekkal Velu Vaidyan. Hadaka Valath Appu Asan taught him basics of Sanskrit such as Amarakosham, Sidhdharoopam and Sreeramodantham. He started reading Puranas and Ithihasas from a very young age. At the age of 12, he wrote a poem titled Lankamardanam which was well appreciated. He studied Sanskrit Kavyas under Mangalappillil Krishnan Asan and Annamanada Rama Pothuval. The upper caste Hindu students did not allow him to sit with them and hence he had to sit separately in a corner.
The significant period of his education was spent at Kodungalloor Kovilakam. The Kodungalloor Thampurans (Rajas) were scholars and poets. Kunhikkuttan Thampuran, known as Kerala Vyasa was prominent among them. Karuppan studied Sanskrit under these stalwarts. Though the Kovilakam was inaccessible to lower caste Hindus, Kunhikkuttan Thampuran encouraged Karuppan to take advantage of the facilities there. It was during this period that he wrote Jaathikkummi which sarcastically criticised the prevailing caste system and untouchability. It was written at the age of 19 in simple folklore form in Malayalam though most of his writings were in Sanskrit.
Kunhikkuttan Thampuran introduced Karuppan to H.H. Ramavarma Raja, the Maharaja of Cochin when he visited Thiruvanchikkulam Siva Temple in Kodungallur. The Maharaja was impressed and he invited Karuppan to his Tripunithura Palace. He made arrangements for Karuppan’s advanced study of Sanskrit under Sahridayathilkan Rama Pisharody. Soon he was appointed Sanskrit Teacher at St. Theresa’s Convent Girls’ High School, Ernakulam, a special institution for the upper caste girls. Though there was protest against the posting from upper caste Hindus, the Maharaja overruled against the objections. Later, he joined the Victoria Girls’ High School, Thrissur and subsequently posted at the Teacher Training School there. He was re-appointed at St. Theresa’s Convent Girls’ High School in 1921. He was nominated as a member of the Cochin Legislative Council to represent the backward classes in 1925. As an MLC, he presented their grievances before the authorities and pleaded for their education, health services and better living conditions. Accordingly, the Department for the Protection of the Depressed Classes was established with Rao Sahib C. Mathai as ex-officio Protector and Karuppan as full-time Assistant Protector.
Karuppan Master was instrumental in initiating many reforms including the commencement of schools and establishment of colonies. He convinced the Government for providing scholarships and concession in fees. In order to create awareness against superstitions, he wrote Aacharabhooshanam which was printed by the Government and distributed to the public. The Depressed Classes Department was subsequently renamed as the Harijan Welfare Department. Under the re-organised Fisheries Department, fisheries schools were started. While serving as a Director of the Cochin Central Co-operative Bank, he appealed to fishermen and agricultural labourers to form co-operatives in order to make them self-reliant.
When Karuppan Master was nominated for a second term as MLC, he requested the Dewan to give the post to another member of the backward classes. Accordingly, the Government appointed P.C. Chanchen, a Pulaya leader as MLC and Karuppan tendered his resignation. He was then appointed as Secretary to the Elementary Education Committee and the Bhashaparishkarana Committee. In 1931, he was appointed as Superintendent of Vernacular Education of the erstwhile Cochin State and four years later, appointed as Malayalam Lecturer in the Maharaja’s College. He also served as Chairman of the Board of Examiners of the Madras University and as Member of the Municipal Council, Ernakulam.
On the eve of the Shashtipoorthi celebrations of the Maharaja of Cochin in 1919, a drama script competition was organized. Karuppan’s script dedicated to the Maharaja was adjudged the best. The drama titled Baalakalesam discussed the progress achieved during the 16-year rule of the Maharaja but also criticized the atrocities suffered by the poor people in the name of caste. The drama was first staged in Maharaja’s College and his upper caste Hindu friend provided financial assistance for printing the book. The scholars of the time discussed and appreciated the book. The Maharaja honoured him with the title Kavithilakan. After reading the drama's script, H.H. Sree Moolam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore presented him a nine-jewelled (Navaratna) ring. As per Karuppan Master’s request, the Maharaja sanctioned half-fee concession to all students of Dheevara community in Travancore. Keralavarma Valiakoithampuran, known among the literary circle as Kerala Kalidasan conferred on him the title of Vidwan.
In order to find more time for social service, he relinquished his teaching job. He started organizing the people of Dheevara community into regional groups called Sabhās. The main agenda was to persuade people to fight against illiteracy and superstitions in Cochin State. He also formulated the Pulaya Maha Sabhā for the uplift of the Pulaya community. In due course, he persuaded other backward communities like Velas, Sambhavas, Ulladas, Kudumbis etc., to form similar Sabhās to give fillip to their fight against social injustice. He also secured the right to walk on public roads for the Pulayas and other depressed classes.
Pandit Karuppan Master was an accomplished poet and dramatist and his works are: Achara Bhooshanam, Arayaprasasthi, Baalakalesam, Baalodyanam, Bhaasha Bhaimeeparinayam, Bhanjithavimanam, Chanjenkutty, Chithralekha, Dheevara Tharuniyude Vilapam, Dhruvacharitham, Edward Vijayam, Jaathikkummi, Kairaleekouthukam, Kattile Jyeshtan, Lalithopaharam, Lankamardanam, Mahasamadhi, Mangalamala, Panchavadi, Sakunthalam Vanchippattu, Sangeetha Naishadham, Soudamini, Sree Budhan, Sree Ramavarma, Sugathasooktham, Thirunalkkummi, Udyanavirunnu, Ulukopakhyanam, and Vallorkkavitha. His Sakunthalam, Baalodyanam and Kairaleekouthukam were prescribed text books in Cochin State. Bhaasha Bhaimeeparinayam was a Malayalam text book for the F.A.Examination of the Madras University.
Pandit Karuppan Master was married to Kunhamma and had a daughter Parvathy. He died at the age of 53 due to pleurisy on March 23, 1938. The Pandit Karuppan Smaraka Grameena Vayanasala is a library founded in 1953 in his native village of Cheranelloor and A. K. Velappan, his nephew was instrumental in setting it up. The 50th anniversary meeting of the Pandit Karuppan Memorial Club (PKMC) at Udayamperoor was held on August 31, 2011. The Club organised its golden jubilee with a year-long programme. Dr. Gopinath Panangad is the present Chairman of Pandit Karuppan Foundation. Karuppan Master will be long remembered for his fight against social evils in Kerala.
(Author is Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting, a PR consulting firm. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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