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The following page is copied from http://www.shelterbelt.com/KJ/malayalasahityam.html.
ORIGINS OF THE LANGUAGE
Endless debates about the origins of Malayalam language mark one aspect of the Kerala
public culture. Of the many theories of origin, the most popular ones claim that Malayalam was born out of the confluence of Tamil and Sanskrit, that it originated out of Sanskrit alone, and that both Malayalam and Tamil came out of a single proto-language. In his Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages (1875), Bishop Robert Caldwell argued that Malayalam evolved out of Tamil and that the process took place during the Sangam period (first five centuries of the Common Era) when Kerala belonged to the larger political unit called Tamilakam, the apogee of Dravidian civilization.
After the waning of the Sangam Age, the Kerala region went through a prolonged
"Dark Ages" (500-900 C.E.) when Sanksritization (influx of Aryan culture from the North) of the dialect was completed, which helped the emergence of Manipravalam (a mixture of the local dialect and Sanskrit), which in turn helped the formation of Malayalam as an independent language. Several poetic works written in this mixed-style have survived; highly erotic and decadent in nature, they express the world view of the feudal class that monopolized the Kerala culture until the first decade of the twentieth century.
The first Malayalam prose work, Bhashakautiliyam, a commentary on Kautilya's
Arthasastra was written in the twelfth century. The first Malayalam grammar/literary treatise, Lilathilakam, compiled in the fourteenth century, is considered the culmination of Manipravalam style. While the region continued to produce important works of literature in Sanskrit and Tamil, only by the fifteenth century Malayalam had would produce its first truly classic work--this was Cherusseri's Krishna Gatha--and the sixteenth century became the age of Thunchath Ezhuthachan, the father of modern Malayalam literature, whose renderings of Adhyatma Ramayana and Mahabharata employed the narrative device of kilipattu, Bird Song. Until the end of the eighteenth century, Malayalam Literature was closely allied with Kathakali, a complex operatic dance form dependent on the literary quality of the text. The nexus between Kathakali and poetry helped the growth of literary Malayalam.
Almost exclusively poetic in form, the post-Sangam literature was in the mythical mode
whereas the Sangam literature (35,000 lines of poetry by 400 authors have survived) tended to be realistic portrayals of common people and their domestic and personal experience that we have come to expect from our modern literatures. Only in the eighteenth century, with the work of poets like Kunchan Nambiar, we begin to see the return of such literary expressions of domesticity. A gradual departure from the mythical to a satirical mode, as Northrop Frye would have put it, becomes evident at this juncture. By nineteenth century, prose forms enter the tradition with the translations of the Bible and many works of European prose literature become widely available.
Literary journals like Vidya Vinodini, and Bhasha Poshini (still published by Malayala Manorama group, without question one of the best literary journals in any language in the world) opened up the language for the larger public while several prolific writers and scholars belonging to the different royal families patronized literature. Translations from Sanskrit and English helped the foundation of a broader base for Malayalam writers. This period is marked by the trail- blazing work by the Text Book Committee of Travancore (1866) which functioned like a literary movement. Valiya Koyil Thampuran and A. R. Rajaraja Varma were champions of this movement even though these two royals were basically part of the orthodox literary establishment.
European education and Christian Missions had already created a suitable environment
for journalism, historical writing, and prose in general. The first travelogue (a native Catholic priest named Paremmakal Thoma Kathanar's Journey to Rome) was written as early as 1786. The first history of Kerala was published in 1860, and its author, Pachu Moothathu, also wrote the first autobiography in Malayalam in 1871. The first Malayalam novel was published in 1887, and two years later, one of the greatest contributions to the genre was made by Chandu Menon whose novel Indulekha ushered in the Modern Period of Malayalam Literature.