The early period of Malayalam literature consists of a triple stream.
The first stream consists of ballads and folk-songs, which are difficult to date. Songs connected with religious rites such as ‘Bhadrakali Pattu’, ‘Thiyattupattu’, ‘Sastrakali’, ‘Thottampattu’ and later in point of time, ‘Margamkalipattu’ are important varieties. Then we have festival songs like ‘Onappattu’ and ‘Krishipattu’ and ballads of North Malabar and South Malabar.
In the Tamil stream (pattu school) the most outstanding work is Ramacharitham (12th Century AD) composed in a language which is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. The mixing happens in the area of grammar as well. The author is one Chairman and only ‘Yuddha Kanda’ has been taken up by the poet. After this magnificent long poem, we have the works of Niranam poets, ‘Kannasa Ramayanam’, ‘Bhagavad Gita’ and ‘Bharatamala’. As compared to ‘Ramacharitham’ the Tamil influence in these work is mush less. The Niranam poets (Kannassan group) we great scholars and literary luminaries.
Sanskrit languages and literature had a predominant influence of the native language of Kerala. It has resulted in a peculiar variety of literary dialect called ‘Manipravalm’ and hence this stream is also referred to by this name. ‘Lilatilakam’ 14th century is the earliest book dealing with certain aspects of Malayalam grammar devoting most of its space to the grammar and rhetoric of Manipravala compositions. Such compositions come under two main literary forms, ‘Sandesha Kavyas’ and ‘Champus’.
Among the many ‘Sandesha’ (message) poems, the most outstanding is ‘Unnunili Sandesam’ (14th Century) whose authorship is unknown. The most well known early ‘Champus’ are ‘Unniyaticharitam’ and ‘Unnichirutevi charitham’.
The three streams were influencing each other and by about the 15th century, we have a great poem titled ‘Krishna gatha’ composed in a blended dignified style neither too high-brow nor too low-brow. Cherussery Nambudiri is the author of this long poem of Krishna.
Throughout the whole range of Malayalam literature there is no personality who could come away near Ezhuthachan (16th century) in the grandeur of poetic quality. His ‘Adhyatma Ramayanam’, ‘Bharatham’ and ‘Bhagavatham’ are the greatest classics in the Malayalm language. ‘Kilipattu’ is the name given to the form of verse he has made popular. The ‘Pattu’ of the ‘Kili’ means parrot song and in this literary form Ezhuthachan has made use of a style which has set the standards for all time. His Ramayana and Mahabharatha are great Bhakti poems in the language. Till about 18th cent. ‘Kilipattu’, ‘Champu’ and ‘Sandeshakavya’ compositions had been produced by many a poet in Kerala.
Coming to the 18th Century we have ‘Attakkatha’ and ‘Thullal’ compositions which have enriched Malayalam verse in a significant way. ‘Attakatha’ is the literature form used for the well known ‘Kathakali’ performance. ‘Ramanattam’ by Kottarakara Tampuran is the first full-fledged ‘Attakatha’. The great masters of this literary form are Kottayathu Thampuran (Bakavadham, Kalakeya vadham etc.) Unnayi Variyar (Nalacharitham-four days) and Erayimman Thampi (Uttaraswayamvaram, Dakshayagam etc.)
‘Thullal’ is more popular art form and it has a considerable amount of good literature. This branch of literature is associated with the name of Kunchan Nambiyar who is unrivalled master. He has about 45 ‘Thullal’ pieces to this credit. The puranic theme he selects for his compositions are but pegs to hang his social criticism and his poetry brims with humor and satire. ‘Thullal’ has great mass appeal.
Malayalam can claim to have a fairly long history of prose writings. ‘Anthasastra’ has been adapted into Malayalam prose around 13th cent. Then we have ‘Attaprakaram’, ‘Kramadeepika’ and ‘Dutavakyam’ assigned to the period between 14th and 17th century. ‘Varthamana pusthakam’ by Paremmakal Thoma Kattanar is a travelogue written about a journey to Rome (1776-86) in simple Malayalam. This is said to be the earliest travelogue written in any Indian language.
By mid 19th cent. We have missionaries like Bailey and Gundert compiling dictionaries, writing grammars and arranging translation of the Bible into Malayalam. The missionaries tried to popularize the colloquial idiom. Towards the end century, western impact finds expression in creative writing. While poetry gets a new dimension (Iyrics, odes,etc.) new literary genres get established in prose.
Poets and scholars like Kerala Varma and Rajaraja Varma paved the
way for an abiding renaissance in literature. Chandu Menon’s social novels (Indulekha and Sarada) and C.V. Raman Pillai’s historical novels (Marthanda Varma, Ramaraja bahadur and Dharmaraja) are considered outstanding classics in the language. The contribution of the great-trio Kumaranasan, Vallathol Narayana Menon, and Ullor S. Parameswara Iyer – has enriched Malayalam literature with their writings in verse and prose. This is considered the golden period in modern poetry.
Later there were poets like G. Sankara Kurup, who won the first Gyanpith Award and Changapuzha krishna Pillai, Vailoppilli Sreedhara Menon, N.V. Krishna Warrier, O.N.V.Kurup, Vayalar Rama Varma, etc. as also fiction writers like Kesavadev, Thakazhi (Gyanpith Award), Muhammed Basheer, Ponkunnam Varki, S.K. Pottekkad, (Gyanpith Award), P.C. Kuttikrishnan, Daroor, Kavoor, K.Sundhareshan, Parapurathhu, and M.T. Vasudevan Nair(Gyanapith Award,1996) ; playwrights like E.V. Krishna Pillai, Thoppil Bhasi, N.N. Pillai, T.N. Gopinathan Nair, K.T. Muhammad, C.J. Thomas, G.Sankara Pillai, C.N. Sreekantan Nair and critics like P.K. Narayana Pillai, Kuttikrishna Marar, M.P. Paul, Mundassery, Sukumar Azhikode, M.Govindan, S. Guptan Nair, M.Krishnan Nair, K.P. Appan, M.N. Viyanan and lots of others in all branches of literature too numerous to mention. And when one comes to the recent period, there are many writers who have made worthwhile contributions in all branches of writing.