Sunday, July 25, 1999
KALKI (R. Krishnamurthy) is one of the greatest Tamil writers and novelists of the 20th century and the most outstanding historical novelist. He was associated with two leading Tamil magazines, Anandavikatan and Kalki, which he founded and edited. A household name among Tamil-speaking people, Kalki was a noted critic, humorist and a patriot who was jailed thrice by the British. He was influenced by Gandhiji and Rajaji to such an extent that he gave up the prestigious and lucrative post of the editor, Anandavikatan, to plunge directly into the freedom struggle. Kalkis birth centenary celebrations are being held all over India.
ONE of the easiest questions in Indian literature would be: Which is the best historical novel written by an Indian? The answer is ivakamiyin Sabatham (The oath of Sivakami), authored by Kalki Krishnamurthy. Serialised in the magazine founded and named after him, the novel had been praised all over for its authenticity, descriptive power, emotional appeal and characterisation.
Today, as India celebrated the birth centenary of Kalki, his genius as a historical novelist remained unmatched. Millions of Tamilians also remember his social novels, gentle but effective humour, unbiased editorials and brilliant cultural reviews. Presiding over the Kalki centenary celebrations in Mumbai recently, the 92-year old doyen of Carnatic music, Dr Semmangudi Srinivasa lyer, observed: "Kalki made me. His reviews of my concerts right from 1934 were of great value and help to me. But he would never hesitate to pinpoint faults in the performances."
But I would prefer to remember Kalki as a writer of historical romances. My boyhood was full of Walter Scott, Anthony Hope and Alexandre Dumas. But Kalkis Sivakami, Parthipan Kanavu (The Dream of Parthipan) and Ponniyin Selvan (Darling of Ponni) were as good if not better than Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda or the Three Musketeers series. His first historical novel, Parthipan Kanavu was a kind of experiment, dealing with the combined fortunes of the Chola and Pandya kingdoms. With its success, Kalki took on his dream project, Sivakami, which depicted the war between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas. Interwoven into this plot was the moving love story between Narasimha (Mamalla) Pallavar and the dancing girl, Sivakami, daughter of the famous sculptor, Aayanar. Originally designed as a play for AIR, Sivakami turned out to be a full-fledged novel.
More than any other region, the Tamilian is proud of his heritage and ancient language, Tamil. The leaders of the Dravidian movement, themselves brilliant writers and orators in Tamil, whipped up public enthusiasm and earned popularity with their devotion to Tamil. They often pointed out proudly how Tamil kings like the Cholas had defeated powerful kings of the North and built temples for Tamil gods and goddesses.
Kalki seized upon this wonderful past. He portrayed the Pallavas as not only brave, but also promoters of culture. The evidence lay in the wonderful temples and stone carvings of Mahabalipuram which withstood the test of time. His research was impeccable and he spent months in Mahabalipuram and Sri Lanka studying the impact of the Tamil culture. A historical romance is no doubt, fiction, but it must remain true to its time. Walter Scott achieved this in his works. Kalkis sense and feel for history and obsession for facts could not be challenged. Former President R. Venkataraman and the Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, Dr R. Chidambaram, referred to these qualities at the Mumbai function. Said Dr Chidambaram. "People in Tamil Nadu learnt more about their history from the novels of Kalki than the routine history books. Kalki never distorted history. His blend of fact and fiction was first rate".
But mere accurate reproduction of history was not enough for a historical novel. It must have an interesting plot, vivid descriptions, emotions and interesting characters. Kalki achieved all these in his romances, particularly Sivakami. The siege of Kancheepuram by the Chalukya warriors led by their fearsome king, Pulikesi, the batttle scenes, the battle strategy of the Pallavas and their operation of a spy network were brilliantly done. The evil Nahanandi and his supernatural powers kept one in suspense. So did the existence of secret passages, tunnels, disguises and the war preparations.
Yet, all this was secondary to the major theme of the novel, the romance between Mamalla Pallavar and Sivakami. I remember the days when we used to quarrel at home to lay our hands first on the Kalki magazine. My mother, when she read out chapters from Sivakami to father, often wiped her tears. The romance had no future, a mere dancing girl could not aspire to marry a king and ultimately the heroine weds Lord Shiva and becomes his earthly consort. There were hardly any dry eyes in Tamil Nadu homes when the last chapters describing these events were read.
Sivakami, could have been a fictitious character, but her portrayal was remarkable. kalki used all his creativity in making her a natural player among the emperors, kings, princes and courtiers. Our hearts went out to her, when after being captured by Pulakesi, she was made to dance on the streets of Vathapi, the Chalukya capital. In the end, we all knew that her romance with the Pallava prince would end in tragedy, yet, we hoped for a miracle. Kalki true to his form, would not distort history.
Ponniyin Selvan dealt with the fortunes of the Chola empire, and was a much longer novel. I think its serialisation went on for nearly five years and every week, its publication was awaited with great interest. Kalki also published another major social novel, Alai Osai (Noise of the Waves) which dealt with our freedom struggle and the tragedy of partition. It reproduced all the horrors and heartaches of that period.
The realism in Alai Osai was mainly because of Kalkis personal involvement with the freedom struggle. He went to jail when conditions in prisons were far from satisfactory. As a man of principle, he did not expect anything in return. When his mentor Rajaji urged him to participate directly in the freedom struggle, he did so without any hesitation. S.S. Vasan, of Gemini fame who owned Ananda Vikatan, urged Kalki to wage his war against the British through the pages of the magazine he was editing. But Kalki would not listen. His heart was with Rajaji and Gandhiji.
During his stint with the Vikatan, Kalki had acquired a reputation of a brilliant writer, which continued when, along with S.Sadavsiam, he started Kalki. His versatility was admirable. As former President R. Venkataraman pointed out, Kalki was the first writer who modernised Tamil language and made it popular among the masses. His imaginative use of large type forms in Kalki attracted more readers. He was also a brilliant humorist and pioneered several humorous articles. "I would call Kalki, the father of Tamil humour," declared the former president.
Kalki worked at a time
when writing in regional languages was not given much
encouragement. He fully deserved to be nominated for the
literary Nobel Prize. Today there is an urgent need for
the translation of all his works into other Indian
languages. Such an act would be an ideal tribute for the
Kalki birth centenary year.
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