One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century
Kalki - R.Krishnamurthy
1899 - 1954
"...Kalki Krishnamurthy was a colossus striding the Tamil journalistic field at a
time when much was expected from a new India. Those were euphoric times, though it all
evaporated quickly. I have been and still am his admirer. His
Ponniyin Selvan introduced
the grandiose empire of the Cholas - though it appears somewhat exaggerated when I read it
now. Nevertheless it was a need of the time..." Nominated by
C.Kumarabharathy, New Zealand
"Kalki may be regarded as a pioneer in the field of historical novels in Thamizh
literature. With his inimitable descriptive style reminiscent of the English author,
Walter Scott, Kalki had a tremendous capacity to take the readers back into the
point and time in history when the story is supposed to have taken
place..."Kalki in Thamizh
Literature Through the Ages - Professor C.R.Krishnamurti
"...Using the historical romance as a lens with which to examine
erstwhile formulations of Tamil identity
(Indian nationalist and colonial rhetoric; Dravidian political
separatism and anti-Brahmanism; the
tanitamil (separate Tamil) language purity and suya mariyatei
(self-respect) movements; the resurgence
of Saiva Siddhanta religious tenets; the advent of theosophy in
Tamilnadu; and Tamil marumalarcci or
cultural renaissance), I argue that Krsnamurti’s novelistic writing
sketched a cultural and political canvas
against which competing and complementary ideals of a new
regionalist consciousness could emerge, signalling a new kind of interventionist literature in the Tamil
Dwelling in Futures Past: Place, Region and Tamil Nation in Ra.
Krsnamurti’s Civakamiyin Capatam - Akhila Ramnarayan
"One of the easiest questions in Indian literature would be: Which
is the best historical novel written by an Indian?’ The answer is
Sivakamiyin 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..."A novelist whose genius remains unmatched - V. Gangadhar,
Special Features of Kalki’s Novels
First International Conference
Seminar of Tamil Studies,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1966
Sri R. Krishnamurthi (1899-1954), popularly known as Kalki, is the author
of thirty-five volumes of short stories, novels, essays, travelogues, and
biographies. Though his eminent scholarship was found expressed in all types
of literature still he is recognized and appreciated more as a writer of
social and historical novels.
Novel as a new literary genre in Tamil had its beginning in the later part
of the 19th century and there were a few works of originality and high
quality in that century.
But the dawn of the twentieth century witnessed only poor imitations of
Western detective fiction. It was an era of translated and adapted novels
first from Bengali and then from English and Marathi. The flowers that
blossomed were of foreign origin and did not display the colour and
fragrance of this soil. The novels of J. W. M. Reynolds rambled in the garb
of this country and their influence was so great that even a scholar like
Maraimalai Adigal had adapted a story of Reynolds for his Kumudavalli or
With the appearance of Kalki in the literary scene Tamil novels had
entered another era. His first novel Kalvanin Katali, when serialized in
Ananta Vikatan, stole the hearts of the readers by its features of realism
and description. It echoed the vox populi of this country and blazoned the
colour and quality of this soil. These qualities raised the standard of the
Tamil novel and increased the number of novel readers with literary taste.
Three reasons can be cited for the phenomenal success of Kalki's novels.
First of all, he possessed in abundance the gift of story-telling. Secondly,
he introduced healthy humour in his writings. And lastly, he threw light
upon the cultural and social aspects of this country as well as the current
time. "Like the great European novelists of the 19th century, Kalki was a
master of striking scenes and episodes. With something of the burning
patriotic fervour too of the humour of Dickens and the gift of portraiture
of a Thackeray Kalki spread out his novels in impressive sequence."1
Almost all of Kalki's novels appeared first in the serial form and only then
in the book form. So they had both the advantages and disadvantages of
Thiaga Boomi (1937),
Solaimalai Ilavarasi (1947),
Apalaiyin Kannir (1947)
Alai Osai (1948),
Devakiyin Kanavan (1950),
Parthiban Kanavu (1941-42), and
Amara Valvu are his other novels.
Kalki and Historical Novels
In a broad sense, novels may be classified into historical and social
novels. Historical novels deal with the society of the past while social
novels, with that of the present.
The historical novel is `one in which the characters, setting and events
are drawn from the past".2 It is a hybrid
combination of history and fiction which like opera springs from music and
There are many difficulties in writing a historical novel. As Brander
Mathews says, "a tale of the past is not necessarily a true historical
novel: it is a true historical novel only when the historical events are
woven into a texture of the story."4 It depends
upon the historical personages depicted, its setting, description of the
past and the presentation of historical events,
"In a perfect historical novel nothing should be written against the
facts of history. It should only state what can be proved from history,
though it might also state what cannot be disproved by history."5
The major incidents must be true to history, the life of the major
characters must be agreeable to historians and the novelist has no liberty
either to alter or add events contrary to historical facts. With his
super-abundance of imagination he can only create a few causes for the
events and raise emotions with the literature of the period, inscriptions
and other sources. He has also the freedom to create a few non-historical
characters, but they should not in any way affect the historical facts. So,
the result of the process of history becoming art with the literary and
non-literary sources of the age, is a historical novel. Fact and fiction
intermingle here and the successful outcome lies in dramatization of
As Ernest E. Leisy says in his work, The American Historical Novel, the
historical novel offers instruction in patriotism6
and it "is an excellent introduction to history, biography, and travel. It
is an enrichment of our experience, an enlargement of our interests. We feel at one with all that
Walter Scott, who in theory and practice laid the foundation of the
English historical novel, Kalki laid the foundation for the historical novel
in Tamil. It is true that the Tamil novel had its evolution with
Pillai's Prathapamudaliar Charitram in 1876, but the historical novel
started only with Kalki's
Parthiban Kanavu which appeared on the 16th of
October 1941, Kalki number and ended on the 10th February 1943. With its
appearance `a star of the first magnitude had appeared in the firmament of
historical fiction'. The success of this novel made him write two or more
novels Sivakamiyin Sabadam and
Kalki loved his country, her scenery and her people and this love widened
his imagination of the past. The social set up under the great Cholas and
Pallavas made him admire the past and in his attempt to glorify and
glamorize it, he began to write historial novels. His power of giving life
to historical movements and characters helped him to erect these remarkable
literary monuments. He mingled history with imagination and painted it with
the touch of emotion too.
There are two more reasons for the rise of historical novels during this
period. They are the urge to free the country from foreign bondage and the
literary revival. Through his novels, he instructed that we too had a
historic past and stressed the need for freedom. In short, he taught history
to his countrymen in an entertaining form and prepared the ground for the
Parthiban Kanavu and
Sivakamiyin Sabadam give a picture of the great
Pallava Age of the seventh century A.D., while Ponniyin Selvan paints the
age of the glorious Cholas. Both the periods are a mixture of many aspects
of the history of Tamil Nad such as that of religions, literature, art and
architecture and also of administration. Kalki had been a keen student of
these aspects which he learnt through epigraphic, inscriptional and
numismatic sources and he enriched his novels with all these facts of
Kalki got inspiration to write Parthibara Kanavu and Sivakamiyin Sabadam
on the seashore of Mahabalipuram, when he was accompanied by Rasikamani T.
K. C. and where he saw thousands and thousands of ships and boats carrying
warriors on one side, and other people, architects, Ayanar, Sivakami,
Mahendravarmar and Mamallar on the other side in his mental vision. They
left a deep and lasting impression upon his heart and only after finishing
Sivakamiyin Sabadam, twelve years later, they bade adieu to the novelist.8
Kalki had also the genius to classify the historical and non-historical
events, historical and non-historical characters and how much the novel owes
to history. In his introduction to Sivakamiyin Sabadam and conclusion
to Ponniyin Selvan, he explains the percentage of fact and fiction. Really
speaking, Kalki's interest in history, the features of his historical novels
and the popularity they gained, made others enter this vast and new field
and contribute. works of merit.
Kalki and Social Novels
The great English novelist, Walter Scott, is remembered only for his
historical novels and no novel was written by him with the period in which
he lived, as background. In this respect, Kalki excels him and his social
novels are in a way the social history of his time.
Solaimalai Ilavarasi needs special reference. It is the
bridge that connects Kalki's social and historical novels. On one side, it
throws light upon his contemporary life and on the other it enlivens the
early nineteenth century. In it, he compares India of 1842 and of 1942 side
by side and explains how the Britishers were able to establish and expand
their rule and the epic struggle for freedom.
Alai Osai also has the
national events as its background and in the preface Kalki states clearly :
". . . The work of the author is to paint the eighteen years of
national history as the background of this story. Between 1930 and 1947
many wonderful incidents happened in the history of our Motherland. The
readers will find them continuing as the background to this `Noise of
Kalki himself was a real patriot. While he was a student in the National
College, Tiruchirappalli, he took part in the non-cooperation movement and
was arrested (1921). Again he was incarcerated twice, in 1931 and in 1940
for participating in the freedom movement. His political experiences during
this period made him portray excellently and thus his novels are true to
Many national and international events are revealed in his masterpiece,
Alai Osai and in other novels. The
Gandhi Irwin Pact
(March 1931), Civil Disobedience Campaign (1929), Salt Satyagraha
(6-4-1930, its failure, and the imprisonment of
Mahathma Gandhi and Nehru,
Congress Party's decision to continue Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha at
Coimbatore (6-6-1931), the `Quit India' movement (1934), the Second World
War (1939-45) and its impact on England, Japan's invasion of Malaya, the
fear of bombardment in the city of Madras, the dropping of atom bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the great August movement of 1942, the
announcement of the Prime Minister of England to send three members of the
cabinet to study the Indian opinion, the formation of Interim Government,
the proceedings of Karachi and Haripura Congresses, the Socialists'
Conference in Lahore, the radio speech of Subash Chandra Bose from Berlin,
the forming of the Indian National Army, the birth of the Muslim League,
India's Independence (15-8-1947), the Independence-day celebrations in
Delhi, the separation of Pakistan, the cruelties of Razakars and Communists
in Hyderabad, the integration of Indian States, the Hindu-Muslim tumult and
Gandhiji's fast to stop it are recorded with rare understanding and skill in
his novels. From the entrance of Gandhiji into the political field to his
tragic end (on 30-1-1948), many important incidents are delineated with
His novels also picture with faith the social life of his time. Love,
marriage, family life, social set-up, administration and even corruption and
the black-market, the act of prohibition are vividly described. In brief,
"the Gandhian Age in our national history has been fittingly described as
our modern Heroic Age and Tamil Nad found in `Kalki' a writer of genius and
fully equal to the task of recording both the outer happenings and the inner
movements of the heart and mind of that Age."9
According to W. H. Hudson, the study of literature is a form of travel in
one way10 and while we glide through Kalki's
novels we become acquainted not only with the great Pallavas and the
glorious Cholas of the middle period but also with the Gandhian era. This
sort of communication of experience is an important characteristic of his
"Structure will simply mean interconnection between elements or
qualities" 11 or it is the "sum total of the
elements that make up a work".12 The way in
which the elements are interwoven is called the structure of a novel.
Story is the fundamental aspect of all prose fiction. As said earlier,
Kalki's novels are based upon the past or contemporary events. The
structures of Kalki's novels, except Ponniyin Selvan, are good because the
stories are under the control of the novelist during construction. In
Ponniyin Selvan, the story is as vast and wide as the Chola Kingdom itself
so that it develops beyond the control of the novelist and seems to be
rather loose in structure.
The beginnings and endings of Kalki's novels reveal some special
features. Besides the conventional beginnings and endings in Alai Osai,
Kalvanin Katali, Sivakamiyin Sabadam and Ponniyin Selvan, some of his novels
begin with a conversation between the author himself and a character of the
novel. Apalaiyin Kannir begins with such a conversation and its ending is
also striking. The hero of the novel, all through his life, fights against
the black-market, but alas! the author makes him buy sugar from a
blackmarketeer in the end. Poiman Karadu also begins with the novelist's
experience at a tea-party. This sort of beginnings and endings provide his
novels with flesh and blood.
In fact, Poiman Karadu develops without any major incident. In this
novel, there happens one horrible murder but nobody dies and a fire accident
with nobody injured. Even then the story is interesting and the structure
Kalki has also introduced some psychological effects into his novels.
Sita's hearing of the noise of the waves in Alai Osai is one such. It is an
indicator of the forecoming joy or sorrow and Surya describes it as
a divine power. Alai Osai utilizes this device fully and its influence upon
the author is so great that he names his novel Alai Osai or `Noise of the
Another feature of structure is the novelist's direct intervention into
his novels. When Abirami is waiting for her brother in Kalvanin Katali,
Kalki interferes and comments like this:
"Abirami ! Oh poor Abirami ! Don't think that your brother will
return within a minute. He will not come back. Hereafter God alone is
At times, he leaves his characters at a critical juncture and diverts the
reader's mind for some time. Muttaiyan, in Kalvanin Katali enters Kalyani's
house through the roof in order to take revenge but suddenly and
unexpectedly he meets her there. Kalki leaves them there looking at each
other and goes about explaining some past events. In the same way, he pushes
Magudapathi before Karkkodakkavandar's rifle and turns to describe the
heroine's sorrows leaving them to remain in the same helpless position in
Magudapati. There are many instances in Ponniyin Selvan and Alai Osai where
the novelist enters directly and comments upon the events.
Of all, the structure of Solaimalai Illavarasi is the most complex one.
The author combines two stories, one that happened in the early nineteenth
century and the other in the year 1942 and narrates them side by side
skilfully. The characters of the two stories are the same but with different
names, the incidents are not the same but similar. With these two stories in
one novel, Kalki manages to picture two periods. This type of structure
exhibits Kalki's power in combining two stories of different periods into
The creation of character is the foundation of good fiction and in fact,
the events of a novel flow logically from the nature of the characters.
Kalki's success lies in the creation of impressive characters in his
novels and most of his characters are true to life. In a period where there
were only detectives, his Kalvanin Katali sowed the seed for revolution in
characterization. The hero of the novel is a thief and with unusual
individuality and powerful imagination, he makes the readers sympathize with
the hero. The descriptions of his affection for his sister Abirami and his
love for Kalyani move the readers and compel them to take part in their joys
and sorrows. It is no exaggeration to say that this characterization of a
thief successfully inaugurated the change in the taste of the readers from
detective novels to social novels.
Yet, another feature of charactization is his intermingling of fictional
and non-fictional characters. In his historical novels, there are not only
the great Mahendravarma Pallavar, Narasimhavarma Pallavar, Paran jothi,
Pulikesin, Maravarman of Ceylon, Hieum-t-sang, the poet Bharavi, Raja Cholan,
Rajendra Cholan, Kundavai and Vanama Devi but also Naganandhi, Ayanar,
Nandhini and Sivakami.
All the four non-historical characters figure from the commencement till
the end of the novels. Even in his social novels the imaginary characters
are familiar with Gandhiji's personality, Nethaji's heroism and Nehru's
Another feature is that Kalki makes his imaginary characters take part in
the actual events of the day. Kumaralingam, Magudappathi, Sivaraj, Surya,
Tarini and Pattabi are connected with the political movements of the day and
among them Kumaralingam and Magudapathi participate in the famous August
1942 movement. In Solaimalai Ilavarasi he mixes the experiences of a patriot
with an imaginary prince and paints on the canvas, the political history of
a hundred years in myriad hues and shades.
The other thing to be mentioned is the number of characters in Alai Osai,
which is the story of a generation like Tolstoy's War and Peace
15 and in Ponniyin Selvan. They are several in
number and Kalki gives due importance to all the characters. This feature of
introducing numerous characters is rare in Tamil novels.
In addition, there is more than one heroine in Alai Osai and Kalki leaves to
his readers to decide as to who is the heroine, Sita or Tarini or Lalitha.l6
Like Walter Scott, Kalki is fond of describing his characters in
disguise. The story of The Talisman by Scott, develops upon the disguise of
Sultan Saladin. In the same way, Parthibara Kanavu develops
upon the disguise of Narasimhavarma Pallavan. In fact, the whole interest
lies in the disguise of Narasimhavarman. King Narasimha Pallava also meets
Sivakami at Vatapi in disguise and Surya in Alai Osai escapes from the
police in the disguise of an ascetic.
Like Alexander Dumas, Kalki utilized the device of creating original and
duplicate in his novels. Naganandhi - Pulikesin in Sivakamiyin Sabadam.
Maduranthakar - Sendan Amudan in Ponniyin Selvan and Tarini - Sita in Alai
Osai exhibit the success of this device.
Another feature is that Kalki's villains in the sociological novels are
not so clever and charming as his villains in the historical novels. The
creations of Naganandhi Adigal and Nandhini are in no way inferior to other
villains of the world whereas the villains of his sociological novels are
dull and drab. The freedom in creating characters in social novels is more
restricted than in historical novels and this may be the reason for this
Some of his characters are created in such a way that they live for ever
in the hearts of the readers. Naganandhi, 5ivakami, Sita, Rashia Beham,
Sundara Cholan, Raja Raja Cholan, Mahendravarman, Mamallan and Nandhini have
the unique charm of literary immortality.
Kalki introduced healthy humour as against the dull and the vulgar. His
humour does not hurt anybody and so makes everybody laugh. "A story is
considered poor if it makes some person blush with embarassment, if it
makes something sacred appear common if it makes a man's weakness the cause
for laughter, if it has to have profanity or vulgarity to be funny, or if
everyone cannot join in the enjoyment of the joke."17
Kalki's humour is free from all these maladies. Sengodan's first experience
in seeing a cinema in Poiman Karadu, Alwarkkadiyan's witty utterances in
Ponniyin Selvan and the humorous disputes between Rao Bahadur Padmalochana
Sastrigal and Professor Pavi Rajaka Sarma in Alai Osai will be ever
remembered by the seekers of wit and humour.
These are the special features found in Kalki's novels in their
background, theme, subject matter, structure and characterization and these
features certainly pushed the Tamil novel forward. These features also
weaned the readers from detective novels to sociological and historical
novels and gained more readers for literary novels. In fact, a new era is
ushered in with Ka1ki's Kalvanin Katali in the history of Tamil novel, and
Parthiban Kanavu heralds the birth of a p_ asture new, the historical novel,
Srinivasa Iyangar, "Kalki", The Indian PEN, vol. xxi no. 3, Bombay,
March, 1965, p. 78
2 Joseph T.Shipley, ed., Dictionary of World
Literature, Criticism - Forms - Technique, The Philosophical Library,
New York, 1943, pp. 407-8.
3 Ernest E.Leisy, The American Historical Novel,
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1950, p. 5.
4 Brander Mathews, The Historical Novel, Charles
Scibner's Sons, New York. 1914, p. 21.
5 K. V.Rangaswamy Iyangar, Introduction, Sivakamiyin
Sabadam, Mangala Noolakam, Madras, 1951, p.iii.
6 Ernest E.Leisy, Introduction, The American Historical
Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, November, 1950, p. vii.
7 Ibid., p. 4.
8 Kalki, Introduction, Sivakamiyin Sabadam, Kalki
Publications, Madras, 1948, pp. 2-3.
9 K.R. Srinivasa Iyangar, "Kalki", The Indian PEN, vol.
xxi, no. 3, Bombay, March, 1965, p. 78.
10 William Henry Hudson, An Introduction to the Study
of Literature, Harraps, London, March, 1960, p. 10.
11 Brent Stirbing, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy,
Columbia University Press, New York, 1957, p. 3.
12 Joseph T.Shipley ed., Dictionary of World
Literature, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1943, p. 553.
13 Kalki, Kalvanin Katali, p. 52.
14 Arnold Bennet, quoted in Dictionary of World
Literature, ed. by Joseph T. Shipley, The Philosophical Library, New
York, 1943, p. 89.
15 T. P. Meenakshisundaram, A History of Tamil
Literature, Annamalai University Publications, p. 182, Annamalai Nagar,
16 Alaiosai - Kalki, A note to readers, Kalki, vol. 7,
no. 33. (14-3-1948.)
17 M. Jacob Brande, The World Book Encyclopaedia, vol.
VIII, Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1960, p. 389.