Krishnamurthy was freedom fighter, social crusader, novelist, short story writer, journalist, humorist, satirist, travel writer, script-writer, poet, critic and connoisseur of the arts - all rolled into one. A prolific writer, he wielded his pen with for ce and tenderness for three decades (1923-1954). He wrote on varied subjects during an eventful period in Indian history. His writings include over 120 short stories, 10 novelettes, five novels, three historical romances, editorial and political writings and hundreds of film and music reviews.
Although there is practically no subject he left untouched and no genre he did not experiment with, he is best known for his historical romances, which are acclaimed as classics and remain popular to this day, nearly five decades after his death.
His historical novels, Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban's Dream), Sivakamiyin Sapatham (Sivakami's Vow) and Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni's Son) - which were first serialised in Kalki, the weekly he edited, and later published as books be tween 1943 and 1951 - attract 20,000 to 25,000 additional readers for the magazine, whenever it re-serialises these stories, according to K. Rajendran, son of Krishnamurthy and the present publisher of the weekly. (Ponniyin Selvan re-appears for a fourth time now.) It is amazing that whereas works of several contemporary writers fail to see even a second edition, each of these novels has been re-published eight times over the past 15 years (1984-1999).
KRISHNAMURTHY was born on September 9, 1899 at Puttaman-galam in the old Thanjavur district in an orthodox, large Brahmin family with limited means. Father Ramaswamy Aiyar was the village karnam (accountant), drawing a monthly salary of Rs.10. With the yield from land, he managed to maintain the family. After primary education in the village, Krishnamurthy joined the National High School at Tiruchi, about 100 km away.
When Mahatma Gandhi launched his Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921, thousands of students gave up their studies to participate in the movement. Krishnamurthy was one among them. With the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination just three m onths away, he left school and joined the Indian National Congress. Gandhi's speech at a public meeting in Tiruchi inspired him.
In 1922, he was awarded a one-year imprisonment for participating in the independence struggle. It was during this period that Krishnamurthy came into contact with two great persons, who were to play a major role all his life - veteran Congress leader C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and T. Sadasivam, who was to become a life-long friend and partner in journalistic ventures.
Krishnamurthy's first attempt at writing fiction also came during that period. In 1923 he joined as a sub-editor in Navasakthi, a Tamil periodical edited by Tamil scholar and freedom fighter V. Kalyanasundaram, popularly known as "Thiru Vi. Ka". Krishnamurthy's first book was published in 1927.
Leaving Navasakthi in 1928, Krishnamurthy stayed with Rajaji at the Gandhi Ashram in Tiruchengode in Salem district and helped him edit Vimochanam, a Tamil journal devoted to propagating prohibition. In 1931, he was again imprisoned for six months.
Next year Krishnamurthy joined Ananda Vikatan, a humour weekly edited and published by S.S. Vasan, as its de facto editor. The magazine soon became a household name in middle class families. Krishnamurthy's witty, incisive comments on polit ics, literature, music and other forms of art were looked forward to with unceasing interest by readers. He wrote under the pen names of "Kalki", "Ra. Ki", "Tamil Theni", "Karnatakam" and so on. Vikatan published many of his short stories and nove ls (as serials).
In 1941 he left Ananda Vikatan and rejoined the freedom struggle and courted arrest. On his release after three months he and Sadasivam started Kalki. He was its editor until his death on December 5, 1954.
THE success that Krishnamurthy attained in the realm of historical fiction is phenomenal. Sixty years ago, at a time when the literacy level was low and when the English-educated Tamils looked down on writings in Tamil, Kalki's circulation touched 71,000 copies - the largest for any weekly in the county then - when it serialised his historical novels.
Noted historian Professor K.V. Rangaswamy Iyengar says that Kalki established his reputation as a novelist with Parthiban Kanavu. In his "introduction" to the novel, Rangaswamy Iyengar describes it as "a star of the first magnitude (that) had appe ared in the firmament of historical fiction." "It was the first attempt, to my knowledge, to utilise the ancient history of a famous South Indian dynasty and region as the background of an attractive story," says Rangaswamy Iyengar.
Describing Sivakamiyin Sapatham as a brilliant piece of writing, Rangaswamy Iyengar says that because of its stylistic qualities, the novel will have a permanent place in Tamil prose. Although Kalki's historical romances captured the hearts of thousands of readers, recreating for them the glorious Tamil life during the periods of Pallavas and Imperial Cholas, critics were divided on their literary merits. One criticism was that Kalki' s novels dwelt rather overmuch on royalty and not enough on common people.
The sudden twists and turns, which characterised serialised stories, made the stories unrealistic. There has, however, been a re-appraisal of Kalki, particularly among Marxist cri tics, in recent years. Semmalar, the monthly organ of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, brought out a special number to commemorate Kalki's birth centenary.
Marxist critic Arunan says: "Kalki might not have gone into the inner layers of the social structure of those days, but he did give glimpses of the social life through his descriptions of the experiences and exploits of the royalty" (Semmalar, Sep tember, 1998). "At least, parts of people's history are touched," he says and adds: "Ponniyin Selvan, for instance, gives detailed accounts of the conflicts between Saivites and Vaishnavites and their impact on society."
Analysing the reasons for Kalki's continued relevance, Maran, another critic, says that Kalki, whose main concern was to arouse people's consciousness against colonial rule, sought to remind the people of their cultural heritage. Kalki's writings sought to instil pride in the greatness of Tamil language, literature, art, culture and valour. "Even after Independence, there is still a need to fall back on the cultural heritage. Kalki's works perhaps continue to serve that purpose" (Kanaiyazhi, Augu st, 1999).
Stating that Kalki was a social force, not an ordinary writer, writer D. Jayakanthan says, "In politics, literature, criticism of the arts and Tamil renaissance, no other person has served as much as he did."
One of the criticisms against Kalki's short stories was that they were propagandist, but Kalki, for whom writing was part of political activity, a mobilisation exercise, was unconcerned about such criticism. If writing stories with a purpose was propagan dist, he said, he did not mind being dubbed propagandist.
Inspired by the national movement, he sought to instil patriotism in his readers and his stories did succeed in doing so. "He knew the art of creating interest in and writing convincingly on any s ubject," observed Dr. M. Varadarajan, novelist and literary historian (History of Tamil Literature). "He understood the spirit and force of the spoken language and used it as a powerful medium for his writings."
Se. Ganesalingan, Sri Lankan Tamil writer, says that Kalki "democratised" literature and enabled even the common people to appreciate it. In simple Tamil he judiciously blended humour and satire with real incidents.
In writing historical fiction, Kalki was influenced by English novelists Sir Walter Scott and Lord Lytton and French novelists Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, according to Sunda, Kalki's biographer.
Kalki's early interest in listening to harikathakalakshepam (musical religious discourse) and his acquaintance with the pamphlets of Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu propagandist and scholar, Arumuga Navalar, helped him acquire the skill of story-telling.
Kalki's crusade against drink, untouchability, superstition, oppression of women and many of the decadent practices in Brahmin families of those days is testimony to his progressive thinking. Thiru Vi. Ka., veteran labour leader, and Rajaji (who took cla sses in socialism for jail-mates) imparted in him socialist ideals, according to some critics. Soorya, a character in his novel Alai Osai (The sound of the waves) belongs to the Socialist group in the Congress. "Soorya is none other than the auth or," says Rajendran.
Kalki considered Alai Osai, which was serialised in Kalki in 1948-49 and published as a book in 1963, as his best. The novel won for him the Sahitya Akademi award posthumously in 1956; it has for its backdrop the freedom struggle and deals with social reforms and politics. His other social novels include Thyaga Bhoomi (The land of sacrifice) and Kalvanin Kadali (Bandit's sweetheart), both of which have been filmed. Thyaga Bhoomi, which has the salt satyagraha as its ba ckdrop, dealt with women's rights and untouchability. It was serialised in Ananda Vikatan; stills from the movie, which was being filmed at the same time, were used as illustration. After a successful run for six weeks, the film, directed by veter an K. Subrahmanyam, was banned by the colonial Government on the grounds that it indirectly aroused the people to fight for freedom.
S. Krishnaswamy, film historian and son of Subrahmanyam, told Frontline that the film had a theme that was "extraordinarily revolutionary" for the period it covered; it represented the high water-mark of the liberation of Indian womanhood. "The fi lm combined the spirit of Indian womanhood with the spirit of national freedom," said Krishnaswamy. According to Aranthai Narayanan, film critic, the film ranks on a par with the works of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen in thematic as well as production value s. "Kalki's dialogues were sharp, particularly in the court scene; the heroine's offer to pay alimony to her husband who deserted her long back and wants to rejoin her, was revolutionary," says Aranthai Narayanan. Krishnaswamy has made a teleserial of th e story in Hindi with Bharat Bhushan in the key role.
Parthiban Kanavu, Kalvanin Kadali and Poiman Karadu were also filmed. Kalki wrote the script and some lyrics for Meera, an M.S. Subbulakshmi starrer. Kalki's contribution to the cause of Tamil music is also noteworthy. He spearheaded a movement that wanted Carnatic musicians to include more Tamil songs in their concerts and composed a number of songs. His Tamil translation of Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, was published as Satya Sothanai.
Kalki was in the midst of some controversies. One related to his response to an observation by a respectable writer that Subramanya Bharati was a "mahakavi"; although Kalki was a great admirer of the nationalist poet, he did not agree with this estimatio n. The other related to some contemporary writers' charge of plagiarism against Kalki. Kalki admitted that among his over 120 stories, the themes of some six or seven were adaptations.