Kalki’s trailblazing historical novels Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Parthiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan were not pioneering efforts. They were role models and seasoned works of literature, vivified by a brand new style and originality. But you can see in them the impact of Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. Moreover, in his childhood, Kalki had devoured historical romances by any number of writers. His own historical fiction was the result of his desire to present as they had done, the wonder and glory of his own country through works of literature. Both opportunity and assistance were provided for this endeavour because authentic books on South Indian history had been published in his time.
KA Nilakantha Sastri’s The Colas (English), and Sadasiva Pandarathar’s The History of the Later Cholas (Tamil), may be cited as books of immense value to Kalki. The first of these appearing in two parts in 1935 and 1937 were generally useful for all the historical novels of Kalki. The second book, appearing in 1949, was particularly important for Ponniyin Selvan. Other books consulted by Kalki were Rajaraja Chola — A. Balasundaram; The History of the Pallavas — Ma Rajamanickam Pillai; Pallavas of Kanchi — R. Gopalan; The Pallavas — Prof Dubreil, Pallava Architecture — A.H. Longhurst; Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas — Dr. C Meenakshi; The Sangam Age — T.G. Aravamuthan; and Ancient India — Dr. S Krishnaswami Iyengar.
Kalki’s son disclosed that his father had stored some important books providing historical evidence and authentic information in an old steel trunk. As he was writing the serial novel Ponniyin Selvan (1950-54), Kalki kept this old trunk beside his big, gleaming desk. When in doubt, or in need of more accurate information, he opened the trunk, pulled out a book and looked at the pages he needed to consult.
Remember the old box of the astrologer in Ponniyin Selvan, where the horoscopes of several members of royal families were stored? Historical information about the people to whom those horoscopes belonged, and notes about innumerable persons connected to those people, were stored in Kalki’s old trunk!
Only a few of those volumes are available now. One of them is Sadasiva Pandarathar’s book. The profound concentration and utilitarian approach with which Kalki had read the book are obvious on its pages filled with question marks and exclamation marks, underlined sentences, and brief margin notes in English and Tamil: ‘Useful information’, ‘Matter suitable for the novel’, ‘Mere guesswork’, ‘This is my inference’.
The 75th page of this book contains these words: “Princess Kundavai was given in marriage to Vallavaraiyan Vandiyatevan. He must have belonged to the dynasty of the southern Chalukyas in the Vengi realm.”
Rejecting the second fact, Kalki wrote in the margin, “Vallavaraiyan could have been a prince of the Vaanan tribe.” Confirming this fact later — the source and nature of this evidence remain unknown — he turns Vandiyatevan into the protagonist who strides through the novel from start to finish as a gallant warrior, friend, and lover. Kalki has given him space and status equal to Arulmozhi Varman, whose name gives the novel its title. Shaping Vandiyatevan with great ardour, and with all his literary skills, Kalki ends his novel by wishing him, “May your name last forever!” And through that same novel, he makes his own wish come true.
When Kalki decided that this warrior belonged to the Vaanan clan, he recalled how (scholar-aesthete) T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (TKC) had sung a few venba verses about the great king who had founded the Vaanan dynasty. He wrote to TKC at once, requesting him to mail those and all other similar poems. Reading the verses that arrived by the very next post with exclamations of “Bale! Bale!,” Kalki stored them carefully in the steel trunk, now his encyclopedia.
We can also name a few literary works that Kalki had undoubtedly read and found useful in writing his historical narratives: Pura Nanooru, Silappadikaram, Kalingathu Parani, Nandi Kalambakam, Periya Puranam, the poetry of the great poets of Saiva and Vaishnava canons.
Kalki’s novels were enhanced by his familiarity with the visual settings of his novels. As he was writing Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Kalki undertook a long trip to see Ajanta and Ellora. For Ponniyin Selvan, he travelled even more widely across Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. His accounts of those tours were collected and published as the travelogue Nam Tanthaiyar Seida Vindaigal, marvels wrought by our ancestors.
Artist Maniam travelled with Kalki on those trips. His illustrations accompanied Kalki’s words, making readers relish the joys of the visual along with the word.
This is an extract from Gowri Ramnarayan’s ‘Kalki Krishnamurthy: His Life and Times’, a translation of ‘Ponniyin Pudhalvar’ by M.R.M. Sundaram