Ponniyin Selvan: How The Most Popular Tamil Novel Of Twentieth Century Came To Be
“On the 18th day of the month of Aadi, in the early hours of the evening, a young warrior, mounted on a horse, was riding down the banks of this ocean-like Veera Narayana Lake... Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan was his name...”
These opening lines are nostalgic for most Tamil readers and fans of the epic novel Ponniyin Selvan.
So, this Aadi Perukku, here’s a look at how the magnum opus came to be:
The Aadi month is auspicious in the Tamil region of India. Though many don’t hold weddings during this month, every goddess temple in villages is steeped in celebration complete with fireworks and festivals. Thanjavur marks monsoon with Aadi Perukku, which falls on the eighteenth day of the Aadi month in the Tamil calendar. The day denotes the start of the season of prosperity with waters of river Kaveri (Cauvery) rising during this time.
Tamils welcome the waters like they welcome their daughters.
Aadi Perukku was once as big a festival as Pongal or Diwali. Aadi is important in literary history with the storyline of the most popular novel ever written in Tamil commencing on the Aadi Perukku day. Its author, Kalki, even goes on to describe the celebrations along all water bodies on that day in ancient times.
If a man is not eager for adventure in real life, an able novelist can provide him that experience.
And that’s what Kalki did for the Tamil reades of the 1950s. By weaving an epic tale called Ponniyin Selvan (Kaveri’s son), he kindled the essence of Tamil vanity among the readers. Ponniyin Selvan transmuted Tamil literature thereafter, and the gloom of the twentieth century urban literature was swept away by the powerful pen of Kalki.
In fact, the novel turned many into avid readers and inspired many more historical novels that flooded the market. Historical films became box-office hits after a long lull. Most importantly, curiosity for local history deepened.
Born on the date — 9.9.99 —(1899) Kalki Krishnamurthy wore many hats. A freedom fighter, he lost a lucrative job as deputy editor in Ananda Vikatan because he wished to participate in the Individual Satyagraha of 1941.
Hailing from a small village in the Kaveri basin, fate gave him an unsympathetic upbringing and malnutrition gave him an unassuming appearance. But an early reading habit gave Krishnamurthy a disposition to dream. And that changed Tamil literature forever.
The enticement of literary potential drew Krishnamurthy to Madras (now Chennai) at a time when published Tamil works were known for their rigid and uncompromising qualities. Krishnamurthy, to his sour luck, was offered his first job by the most stringent proponent of unyielding writing — Thiru V Kalyanasundaram. Under his supervision, Krishnamurthy struggled with the idiosyncrasies of an ancient language in modern times. His writing later in life would be the antithesis of his mentor’s, but his long-lasting pen name, Kalki, would get its ‘kal’ from Kalyanasundaram.
After a short stint as an accountant in C Rajagopalachari’s ashram in Tiruchengode, Krishnamurthy joined S S Vasan’s Ananda Vikatan. Kalki was also a poet, screenplay writer, reviewer of movies and Carnatic concerts. His writings give us a fantastic inner ring view of the 1930s and 1940s.
Ananda Vikatan gave him a free hand, but he was often accused of suppressing lateral talent in the magazine by choosing to fill all its pages with his own writing under different pseudonyms. After being unceremoniously sacked from Ananda Vikatan, he landed in jail on charges of sedition. Sitting behind bars, the nationalist in Krishnamurthy thought of starting a magazine of his own, which was was not an easy task with wartime regulations.
But he did start one with the help of singer M S Subbulakshmi and her husband Sadasivam. Subbulakshmi played Narada in a Tamil movie to provide the capital for the fledgling magazine. It was named Kalki, one of his 10 pseudonyms.
Kalki proved to be a forum that allowed the literary flamboyance of its editor to flourish.
Kalki also wrote the screenplay for Meera, which was acclaimed throughout the country and made Subbulakshmi a star. So remarkable was her screen persona in the ‘talkie’ that she called it quits, so as to let that saintly image linger in the minds of the people.
Kalki was also trying his hand at historical fiction. His first major novel Sivagamiyin Sabatham (The oath of Sivagami) was set during the era of the Pallava conflict with Chalukya king, Pulikesi. The novel was depressing and had images depicting mountains of dismembered corpses. It however suited the violent years of the freedom struggle.
With the departure of the colonial rulers, Kalki envisioned the idea of a feel-good novel to reflect the new positivity. He had moved to Madras — far away from the landscape he loved — the Kaveri shores. Perhaps, he looked wistfully at the Adyar River in Madras beside which he lived and dreamt of a novel meandering around river Kaveri. ‘Ponni’ is another name of Kaveri from which Ponniyin Selvan was derived. Though Raja Raja Chola had 64 ceremonial names, notably, Ponniyin Selvan was not one of them. The storyline, which revolves around Raja Raja Chola’s younger years, was fictitious, but ably supplemented by accurate historical details that were recently uncovered.
Ponniyin Selvan was serialised in Kalki magazine and no Tamil novel until then enjoyed such a big reception while being written. For a period of three and a half years, fans stood in pre-dawn queues at railway stations, where bundles of magazines and newspapers were offloaded, to lay their hands on a copy of Kalki magazine. Some houses in rural Tamil Nadu displayed signboards at the gates that said: “Ponniyin Selvan will be read aloud here”. In such households, which could afford to buy a copy, they would have somebody read aloud that week’s episode to a gathering of villagers.
A loyal reader is the most elusive character, but Kalki sustained the allegiance of millions of them for years with his down-to-earth writing and vivid descriptions, and always ended the weekly episode with some suspense. It appeared that most of the star protagonists of the story were picked out from the teeming streets of then Madras, and the reader identified them as one of their own.
Raja Raja of the Cholas expanded his empire and left behind towering edifices. But little did people know of his early years, for he was not even in the line of succession. His uncle and elder brother were the claimants to the throne. Only by a quirk of fate did Raja Raja, then called Arulmozhi Varman, ascended the Chola throne.
Even Alexander Dumas’ novels were primarily serialised in magazines. And there were tinges of Dumas in scores of places in Ponniyin Selvan as well. One could draw parallels between the exquisite Nandini and Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers. The chivalrous Vanthiyathevan appeared similar to D’artagnan.
But serialisation had its problems too.
When Kalki got facts wrong, he could not go back to the story and edit. For instance, boatman Murugaiyan, introduced as a dumb character, would speak in chapters later in the novel. And in one instance, Kalki mentions the Mughals, who didn’t turn up in history till 400 years later.
However, there was a touch of undeniable genius in the writing. Ponniyin Selvan had many commoners in it, and Kalki sketched mundane civilian life in the Chola days, something no writer had done before. There were flower pickers, boat girls and lighthouse keepers moving along with princes and princesses.
Then there is a group of villains, headed by Ravidasan from the forest, which was always conspiring to kill the Chola royals. Artist Maniam drew realistic portraits to accompany every episode and helped the audience visualise the characters. Kalki magazine sales reached 70,000 copies, putting many competitors out of business.
The title of the novel was deceptive; Raja Raja is not the lead character. Kalki’s masterstroke was his ingenious choice of a commoner, Vanthiyathevan, as the main protagonist (he is featured thrice in the Big Temple edicts). Vanthiyathevan was a typical ‘boy next door’ character who is the prince from a long defunct Bana lineage and visibly disappointed with his lack of personal grandeur. In two instances in the book, he is described by pretty women as an owl or a tail-less monkey. But Vanthiyathevan, to his credit, had a larger female fan following than any other in the Tamil readership.
What crown prince Aditya gave Vanthiyathevan was no dangerous mission. He just had to hand over a message to the emperor and one to princess Kundavai. On the way to Thanjavur, he goes to meet his friend, the Sambuvarayar prince of the Kadambur fortress. Sleeping on the terrace, he overhears the chieftains of the Chola land colluding over who the next Chola king should be. Knowledge of the conspiracy turns his journey into a jolly old adventure where a hero takes his life in one hand and his spear in the other.
He even befriends a spy, who is also a Veera Vaishnava, falls in love with pretty girls, is thrown into a dungeon which tigers guard, and survives drowning incidents and conspiracies. Vanthiyathevan even strides into the Pandya camp, where a man’s life is worth about a few Chola coins. Amidst these conspiracies, there is no shortage of endearing romantic interludes and social messages.
By concluding the book, when a flower boy becomes the Chola emperor and a boat girl his empress, Kalki had announced to the world that democracy had gained a definite currency in India.
In 1954, Kalki did the unthinkable and ended his novel abruptly, leaving all his fans shell-shocked. The characters had by then become almost a part of the family and readers were outraged. Thousands of them did nothing to hide their annoyance and wrote scathing letters to Kalki to resume the story, but he would not budge. It was possibly because of the premonition that Kalki had of his death, for he died within six months after the novel was stopped.
The novel has been printed as a book and is still a best-selling title. Three sequels have appeared in the 60 years since the book was written, on what the characters could possibly have done after the book ended.
It was logical that such a popular book should embrace the main obsession of the Tamil land — cinema. The first attempt was when, fresh from the success of Nadodi Mannan (vagabond king), M G Ramachandran (MGR) was looking for scripts to repeat the victory. It was then that he turned to Ponniyin Selvan. MGR was a co-resident of Kalki in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, and when Kalki died in 1954, he walked along the hearse all the way to the cremation grounds.
MGR obtained the copyright for a limited period from the Kalki family, and the advertisement for the launch of the movie was released in 1959. Casting work commenced and lead actors were chosen for even small roles. But successive box-office hits slowly moved MGR away from his dream. As late as 1964, he is reported to have told the press that location choices were ready and shooting would commence any moment.
But it was not to be, and until his agreement for the copyright lapsed, MGR, who was known to be a go-getter, couldn’t film Ponniyin Selvan.
Actor Kamal Haasan, for a few years, tried to film Ponniyin Selvan. Stage plays and cartoons have been made, but no film has been made till now.
Today, ace director Mani Ratnam is on the job trying to portray Kalki’s magnum opus on screen. So is Soundarya Rajinikanth, who is trying to make a web series out of the novel.
But there is resistance from the market that the film producers refuse to recognise. Most readers have read the novel in an impressionable age and visualised the characters and the imageries in a certain mould, and which have been engraved in their minds. To see an incongruous face in their mental mould is repugnant to many.
Whenever there is an announcement that Ponniyin Selvan would come alive on screen, it creates a distinct unease amongst admirers. By this time, next year, we would know if Kalki’s characters, Vanthiyathevan and Kundavai, seductress Nandini and the boat girl Pungkuzhali, would actually be transposed to the celluloid.
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