Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
Most of the Malayalam retellings of the Mahabharata are in the form of a song. There aren’t too many drastic variations from Vyas’ Mahabharata, except for very minor addendums.
There is written material available on the internet that highlight these differences. Here is a summary of the Bharatamala by Niranatt Shankara Panikkar
Bharatamala of the poet Sankaran is a summary of Mahabharata in Malayalam dated from the fifteenth century. The narration is in the verse form called Patt (song), each Patt consisting of four lines.
At the very beginning, after paying homage to Vishnu, Ganesa, and Saraswati, the poet states that he is going to recite the story of Narayana, told by Vyasa, …… my sins will be destroyed (Adi Parva, songs 4, 5). He starts the narration in song 6 with the statement, Ugrasravas has arrived in the Naimisha Forest.
Adi Parva (69 songs)
Adi Parva is split in to two, Adi and Sambhava Parvas. A major variation occurs after Vishnu promises the devas that he will take birth as the son of Vasudeva. Out of a total of 69 songs in Adi Parva, 43 songs are devoted to the story of Krishna from Avatara to the war with Bana. The poet has combined stories from Bhagavata Purana and Harivamsa. Four songs are devouted to the episode of stealing of butter by Krishna and the complaints by Vraja women. The number of women kept in captivity by Narakasura is mentioned as 16,100 which agrees with the narration in Harivamsa. Also Krishna’s journey to Kailasa, obtaining boon from Siva and the the killing of Hamsa and Dimbhaka are mentioned.
Sambhava Parva (54 songs)
We find the explicit mention that Aswatthama didn’t have milk to drink… . Jarasandha, Salya, Sisupala and Karna are mentioned among those who failed the test at Pan}cali swayamvara. Citrangada’s name is not mentioned. Instead she is referred to as Pandya’s daughter.
Sabha Parva (135 songs)
Before Rajasuya, when Sahadeva goes to the south and reaches the ocean shore, he sends Ghatotkaca as an emissary to Lanka to meet Vibhisana. As a tribute to Yudhisthira, Vibhisana gives many gifts to Ghatotkaca.
After the abuse of Krishna by Sisupala, Yudhisthira wants to hear Krishnaa’s glory from Bhisma. Bhisma narrates the nine previous avataras of Krishna (9 songs). Again in 8 songs, Krishna’s life story upto war with Bana is narrated by Bhisma. This is followed by the abuse by Sisupala, and the war between Krishna and Sisupalala is narrated in detail in 3 songs at the end of which following the complaint by the charioteer Daruka ( I am tired), Krishna beheads Sisupala with the cakra.
Dice game is described in 10 songs. In the disrobing incident, Draupadi’s call to Krishna is described in 1 1/2 songs. This is followed by the verbal abuse of Draupadi by Karna followed by calls for help by Draupadi addressed to Yama, Indra, Wind, Asvins, Bhisma, Drona, Gandhari and Dhrtarastra.
Aranya Parva (140 songs)
In the encounter between Arjuna and Siva (Kirata episode), there is an explicit mention that Mukasura was sent by Duryodhana.
Nala episode is told in 8 songs. Ramayana (including Uttarakanda is narrated in 64 songs.
Virata Parva (60 songs)
When Kicaka’s death is reported in the court of Hastinapura, elders conclude that Bhima did it; Draupadi might be a cause.
At the battlefield, Uttara tells Arjuna: I want to see my mother; eunuch, don’t delay .
Ugyoga Parva (110 songs)
Duryodhana tells Krishna: I won’t give half of the land to those who were not born of their father. Krishna reminds him: Your father was not born of his father. At the end of the war with words, Duryodhana declares: I won’t give up land even the size of a needle tip.
After the meeting of Krishna with Karna, a meeting between Krishna and Aswatthama is mentioned.
Bhisma Parva (93 songs)
Bhagavadgita episode is summarized in 8 songs.
Drona Parva (208 songs)
After the death of Abhimanyu, Arjuna sees Krishna in a dream. Krishna goes to Kailasa with Arjuna where Siva confirms that Arjuna will be able to overcome enemies with Pasupata weapon.
Karna Parva (146 songs)
At the scene of killing of Dussasana, when Bhima recounts the crimes of Kauravas, disrobing of Draupadi is mentioned.
In 2 songs, There is beutiful descripton of Krishna. It is the poet’s vision I see in my mind .
Salya Parva (120 songs)
Krishna advises Pandvas to kill Duryodhana by deceit: Rama killed Ravana by deceit. Indra killed Vrtra the same way. Kill the illusionist by Maya.
Sauptika (30 songs), Aisika} (15 songs ), Stri (30 songs), Santi (67 songs), Anusasanika (15 songs), Asvamedha} (18 songs), Asramavasika (16 songs), Mausala (25 songs), Mahaprasthanika (6 songs) and Svargarohana (14 songs) do not contain any significant variations.
Suta concludes with the statement what is not here is nowhere else . Concluding verse states that whoever recites the Mahabharata story told by Sankaran will be blessed with infinite bliss.
Among the retellings in Malayalam, Bharatamala by Sankaran is remarkable for poetic beauty, closeness to the Epic and skill in condensation. However, because of the language used, the text is currently known only in academic circles.
Cherusseri’s Bharatham, also known as Bharathagatha is also along the same lines in a song-like fashion.
Many traditional homes in Kerala still practice vaayana or parayanam which means reading of holy books during the evening after the evening lamp has been lit. This is of particular importance in the month of Karkitakam (mid-July to mid-August) which is also known as Ramayana Maasam or the month of Ramayana.
I remember my grandmother reading the Ramayana and it used to be in a sing-song poetic form. We children would have had our evening shower and used to sit by her side as she read out the mesmerizing stories in the form of a poem. The Mahabharata was, however, never read at homes as it was considered to be a harbinger of bad luck. Only The Gita used to be recited in Sanskrit itself at times…but never the Mahabharata.