Translating K.M. Vasudevan Namboodiri’s Sketches: The Memoir of an Artist from Malayalam into English presented a challenge of a kind that I had not faced before. The writer’s voice was quite different from any other that I had encountered. In the passages he wrote as commentary to his sketches, Namboodiri employed an informal, conversational tone, the nuances of which were not easy to capture. While the drawings themselves are infinitely more eloquent than words, the text provided much more than context. Through the texts, Namboodiri shares with readers the impression each set of drawing evoked in him and the vivid memories attached to them.
Namboodiri’s voice moves back and forth: from contemplative to light-hearted, from reflections on the past to commentary on the here-and-now, from serious ideas to amusing anecdotes. If the chapter on Ponnani recreates—with scrupulous detail and an unmistakable tinge of nostalgia—the Kerala landscapes of his youth, the section about working on director Aravindan’s film Kanchana Sita takes us to a world outside Kerala, and infuses us with the wonderful spirit of adventure and companionship that inspired the team involved in making the remarkable film.
The author shares with us innumerable memories of individuals he had sketched, all of whom influenced his life and work—the renowned artist K.C.S. Panikker, who was his beloved guru; Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, a legend in the world of Carnatic music; G. Aravindan, the gifted director whose movies remain some of the most memorable in the history of Malayalam cinema; Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, one of Malayalam’s well-known and loved writers and many other such personalities. Namboodiri’s descriptions of interactions with his subjects, and the milieus they moved in, imbues the sketches with wit and emotion and add multiple dimensions to the portraits. Working on these sections of the book was a particularly joyful exercise.
In his preface to the book, author M.T. Vasudevan Nair draws attention to the use of a dialect spoken in the region of Kerala, the Ponnani taluk, where Naboodiri grew up. Needless to say, the nuances of this distinctive dialect are impossible to capture in English — a challenge that sadly remains for most translators, insurmountable. Nair also mentions the sense of humour that “glimmers like gold dust” through Namboodiri’s memoirs, transforming even a simple narration, be it chance happening or a formal event, into a delightful commentary on the tragic-comic vulnerability of the human condition. As this facet of the book grew clearer, it was fascinating to discover how deeply the written word enriches the sketches, how skillfully Namboodiri paints a whole new and colourful background for them. Namboodiri’s life and the story of how he became an artist takes shape as surely from these memoirs as if he actually intended to write an autobiography.
Translating Namboodiri’s book was a voyage of discovery and a learning experience. It revealed bit by bit the portrait of a remarkable artist who used lines and words with equal subtlety and skill.
Gita Krishnankutty is a Sahitya Akademi Award winning translator who translated K.M. Vasudevan Namboodiri’s Sketches (Penguin Random House). She has also been the recipient of the Crossword Award (1999) and two Katha awards (1993, 2000).