An ode to Kalki – A reconstructor of ancient Tamil culture

S Raghavan pays homage to R Krishnamurthy “Kalki”, a noted writer of Tamil historical fiction.

S Raghavan pays homage to R Krishnamurthy “Kalki”, a noted writer of Tamil historical fiction.

I remember, with fond memories, those far away days when my sister and I used to fight no-holds barred war every week to be the first to read the Sunday Tamil magazine called Kalki. What instigated us to spoil an otherwise cordial relationship was the irresistible serial story Ponniyin Selvan, the centerpiece of the magazine. The story was serialized over a period of three and a half years, with every week’s session ending in a gripping suspense that kept the readers guessing for a whole week. It was a monumental historical work, one that I would rate several notches above the historical novels of Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott.

Kalki (1899-1954) stands like a huge banyan tree in Tamil literature, rooted deeply in the psyche of the Tamil people, serving as a perennial source of flowers and fruits of engaging fiction for the common man. As the tree grew in stature and spread its prop roots over the entire spectrum of Tamil literature, several budding authors benefited from it as creepers would from an expansive tree.

Kalki was the pen name of R. Krishnamurthy. He was a Tamil writer, film & music critic, freedom fighter and journalist from Tamil Nadu.

During the non-cooperation movement in 1921, thousands of students gave up their studies to participate; Krishnamurthy was among them.

Kalki had a compelling passion to do away with backward customs and meaningless practices. Perhaps it was this thirst for doing away with the old and making the new sprout and blossom that made him adopt the pen name of Kalki, the tenth Avatar of Vishnu, whose mission was to end the Kali Yuga and initiate a new era of righteousness.

His historical and social novels and short stories brought about a sea change in the way Tamilians looked at their cultural and historical past. The colonial past and Euro-centric thought hung as a heavy pall of smoke in Tamil literature and thought, hiding the richness of the Tamil heritage.

Kalki’s works, a seamless blend of historical truths and scintillating imagery, stirred the Tamil people out of their ignorance and awakened their love and respect for their language and culture.

Kalki’s simple style and profound humour helped him to imprint strong messages in the minds of the Tamil people, messages that reinforced a belief in justice and forthrightness. His novels had no need to take recourse to sensationalism or vulgarity. They enveloped the reader like a gentle breeze, mesmerising both the young and old. Just as Bharathiyar’s poems ignited patriotism in the hearts of the Tamil people, Kalki’s prose fanned the flames further.

A good part of my knowledge of Tamil history was acquired through reading Kalki’s novels. Parthibhan Kanavu (The dream of Parthibhan) and Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Ponni) took me through an expedition through Chola statecraft from the 7th to the 10th centuries. For a reader with a bent of mind for history, those novels were a treasure trove. They revealed fascinating facets and diversity of our art, culture, tradition, and religion. And all of them dramatised and personified in larger than life characters that only Kalki could weave out of thin air.

Ponniyin Selvan is a 2400 page historical novel, in 5 volumes. It is a gripping narration of the life of Arulmozhivarman (later crowned as Rajaraja Chola I), one of the greatest kings of the Chola Dynasty of the 10th-11th century. He established the Chola Empire by conquering the kingdoms of southern India, expanding the Chola Empire as far as Sri Lanka in the south, and Kalinga (Orissa) in the northeast. He fought many battles with the Chalukyas in the north and the Pandyas in the south. He streamlined the administrative system with the division of the land into various districts and by standardizing revenue collection through systematic land surveys. Being an ardent devotee of Shiva, he built the magnificent Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur.

There are controversies around his invasion of Sri Lanka. Based on extensive research, and relying on stone inscriptions, copper plates and other sources, Kalki portrays Rajaraja as a compassionate King, tolerant of varied religious and political views, and extremely popular among the people as the son of Ponni, the river Kaveri. Kalki describes how he rebuilt the city of Anuradhapura and hundreds of Buddhist shrines destroyed in the war with the Sinhala King, Mahinda. There are moving instances in the novel about how he faced flak from his opponents for refusing to force the Sri Lankan people feed his army and instead brought food from his own granary. There are also gripping accounts of his constructive engagement with Buddhist monks and his effort to hand over the supervision of conquered territories to them.

Another magnum opus, Sivagamiyin Sabadham (the vow of Sivagami), was a tribute to the great Pallava Empire and Mahendravarman I, the Pallava emperor and his son Narasimhavarman, the future monarch. The plot revolves around the historical events of the Chalukya king, Pulakesi II laying a siege of Kanchi, the capital of the empire, and Narasimhavarman avenging this by attacking Vatapi, the capital of the Chalukyas.

I have visited Mamallapuram (popularly known as Mahabalipuram, the city of Mahabali, or the city of the undefeatable wrestler – Mamallan) several times and endlessly admired the huge monolithic stone frescos and the genius who created them. In Kalki’s novel, set in the 7th century, this genius, Narasimhavarman comes alive, falls in love with a sculptor’s daughter and expands his empire even farther than what his father attempted. Father and son were great connoisseurs of art. Kalki portrays the father as adept at disguising, a compassionate king who was easily accessible and who sought and got advice from his courtiers. Though he gets converted from Jainism to Shaivism, he remains tolerant of other religions and respects their practices. He dreams of a day when peace reigns and kings do not have to fight wars with each other.

Humour and story narration support each other as closely as the warp and weft in a fabric, in Kalki’s novels. And the humour will always have the double aim of entertaining the reader along with poking fun at backward customs, religious intolerance and superstitions. There is really no single comedian in his novels. Humour finds voice and effect through various characters and incidents. In Ponniyin Selvan, one comes across a debate between Saivites, Vaishnavites and Advaitists.

I will take a little bit liberty here and involve our readers in this never-resolved debate. Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, one of the central characters in Ponniyin Selvan and a staunch Vaishnavite is challenged by a group of equally fanatic Saivites. They demand, “Oh, Nambi! Are you aware that Brahma tried to find Siva’s head and Vishnu His feet and both failed ignominiously and surrendered at the feet of Siva? The how can you pretend that Vishnu is greater than Siva?”

To which Nambi replies vehemently, “You stupid Veerasaivite saint smeared with dirt from Veerasaivite feet! Your Siva foolishly gave several boons to the ten-headed Ravana, but our Sri Rama made mincemeat of him”.

Now in this debate intervenes an Advaita sanyasin who adds fuel to the fire? “Why are you wasting your time in useless arguments? You can never find out who is greater, Siva or Vishnu. The answer lies in Vedanta and you inferior bhaktas will never reach the stage of gnasa (logic) where there is neither Siva nor Vishnu, but only Brahman. The debate continues nevertheless, until the Advaitin announces, “Appane! Don’t hit me with your staff. Even if you hit me, I won’t get upset or quarrel with you, because if Brahman hits Brahman, it’s Brahman itself that gets hit”.

The debate goes on quite a while and we get several glimpses of the Vedanta and all other sacred books of the Saivites and Vaishnavites.

Nambi brings the debate to a hilarious climax saying, “Watch me all of you. Brahman is going to be hit by Para Brahman, the greatest of the Brahman. I am going to hit myself with my staff!”

Kalki stands out like a beacon in Tamil literature and his works will engage, educate, inspire and entertain several generations to come.

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