There are not many Tamil novels that have swept the popular imagination and captivated readers as Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Ponni) did. It was in October 1950, this widely read historical fiction first appeared in the pages of the Tamil magazine Kalki. Since then it has grown in fame and even after sixty years its aura is only intact.
“After the serialisation of Ponniyin Selvan commenced, the circulation of the magazine increased significantly and reached 75,000 copies. As a result, Kalki magazine went on to become the second most widely circulated magazine in the country. Ponniyin Selvan was later re-serialised for three more times, and every time it was published, the circulation jumped by 20,000 copies” recalled K. Rajendran, son of R. Krishnamurthy aka Kalki, the author of Ponniyin Selvan.
Though the promos preceding the commencement of Ponniyin Selvan described it as a fictional account of the early life of Rajaraja, the Chola emperor of the 10th century, the cover of the first issue and its brief explanation indicated that it was a romantic story at the core.
If Kalki Krishnamurthy's lucid writing cast a spell, T.V. Subramaniam alias Maniam's unique illustrations that accompanied etched the characters. “Kalki paid careful attention to the illustrations and my father measured up to the rich descriptions of the novel,” described T.S. Loganathan alias Maniam Selvan, the renowned artist and son of Maniam. However, Maniam was not the first choice of Kalki. “It was the magazine's other artist, Chandra's turn to do the illustration, but Maniam insisted that he must be given the opportunity and got Kalki's approval,” recalled Rajendran.
Words and pictures enthralled the readers. “I named my daughter Punguzhali after reading the novel” said T.S. Balasubramanian who is a regular contributor to the magazine Kalki since 1974. He was not alone. Many have named their children as Arunmozhi, Kundavai and Vanathi after the characters of the novel. Blogs dedicated to this work still discuss the characters and fan the historical interest it created.
“It was a coincidence that I was born on October 27, 1950, a few days before the novel commenced. My father [Maniam] had the advance copy of the magazine with illustrations he had drawn for Ponniyin Selvan on the day I was born. Later, when I began my art career, he named me as Ma.Se [Maniam Selvan - son of Maniam]” recalled Mr. Loganathan
A blend of medieval intrigue, conspiracies and romance made this fiction an ideal candidate for theatrical and film adoption. But its large canvas and immense popularity was intimidating. While other Kalki's historical novels such as Parthiban Kanvu were quickly made into movies, three attempts to film Ponniyin Selvan were aborted.
M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was the first to announce in 1958 that he would produce Ponniyin Selvan as a film. “MGR paid Rs. 10,000 towards the film rights of the novel. I had requested that a time limit be made part of the agreement, which he consented to. For various reasons he could not produce the film, but renewed the agreement after four years,” remembered Mr. Rajendran. Later Kamal Hasan and recently Mani Ratnam tried to take up the project only to drop it. It is only in the recent past, the novel was staged as a play.
Krishnamurthi died on December 5, 1954, six months after finishing Ponniyin Selvan. His authorised biography, written later, was named as Ponnyin Puthalvar also meaning son of Ponni.