Kalki and Devan

CONTEMPORARIES: Kalki Krishnamurthy



Around 70 years ago, Kalki and Devan together played a crucial role in popularising magazines among the Tamils.

A TRUST has been formed in Chennai in memory of the Tamil writer R. Mahadevan (1913-1957), also known as Devan. Devan was the executive editor of Ananda Vikatan, a Tamil journal that is more than 75 years old. Devan succeeded a well-known and colourful personality, Kalki (R. Krishnamurthy) in 1941 when the latter left Ananda Vikatan to found his own journal Kalki. On the occasion of the forming of the Devan Trust, two letters from Kalki were read out. The first one was written in 1933, as the executive editor of Ananda Vikatan, appreciating an unsolicited article sent by Devan. (Soon after, Devan joined Ananda Vikatan as an editorial assistant.) The second wasn't exactly a letter. It was a testimonial recommending Devan for a position in the All-India Radio. Soon after writing the testimonial in 1940, Kalki himself left Ananda Vikatan.

Crucial role

Around 70 years ago, Kalki and Devan together played a crucial role in popularising magazines among the Tamils. S.S. Vasan, the boss of Ananda Vikatan, didn't depend just on fiction. He published interviews with celebrities, their response to the issue or event of the week, an open letter to a leading personality, news of the world and the World War II, short stories, one or two serial stories, a woman's page, editorials mostly on politics, political cartoons, a contemporary commentary on a Tamil classic, and jokes and humorous snippets. There was also an occasional intellectual debate. He presented a variety of reading material of such consistent quality that the legendary Tamil scholar U.Ve. Swaminatha Aiyar agreed to have his autobiography serialised in the magazine. Vasan had a well-educated, eager team of editorial associates. He had a nose for talented men and the trouble was not all could be given adequate space in his publication. Kalki, as the executive editor, had the painful task of determining what went into the magazine. Quite a few of his juniors nursed a grievance that he was the stumbling block in their path to immortal literary glory. In fact, that could have been one of the reasons for Devan trying for a job in All India Radio. There was also the fact that, in the then-restricted field of journalism, a smart young man could upstage his superior a threat that loomed large over Kalki and later Devan too. Not many paper bosses were regular paymasters like Vasan. So if one managed to get into an organisation like Ananda Vikatan, it was in his interest to adopt an attitude of total subservience to his superiors. There was a tiny thing called self-respect, but that may not have got him a comparable position elsewhere. Stalwarts like Savi, Nadodi, Kadir, and a few others did leave the organisation only to return embarrassedly a little later.In 1940 the Congress, after relinquishing power, launched individual satyagraha, as an expression of dissatisfaction with British policies, especially with respect to India's position in the World War. One had to obtain Gandhiji's permission to be a satyagrahi and Kalki had got it. A day before he was to offer satyagraha he was certain of being jailed for an unspecified period he informed Vasan. Vasan was ready with his response: "Resign and go."

Without Kalki

After Kalki quit Ananda Vikatan, Vasan was under pressure to prove his magazine could be as good, if not better, without Kalki. Actually, the best years of the magazine had begun and went on till the 1950s. As long as Kalki had been at the helm of affairs, Devan hadn't done a serial. Many of his pieces had been rejected or had been published without a byline. Now, things changed and Devan worked like a man possessed. Kalki was at home writing fiction, offering analyses of national and regional politics, reviewing movies and theatrical performances, cutting up or offering applause to senior musicians and so on. He could move on equal terms with the high and mighty of all fields of human activity. His self-assurance was remarkable. But he was also a man of strong likes and dislikes. Loyalty to a person or a cause needn't always lead to right action. There was nothing wrong in being loyal to Rajaji but Rajaji also erred on occasion. Kalki's justification of Rajaji's every action often generated weariness and animosity.Despite being the virtual owner of a new periodical soon after his release, Kalki began a campaign of ridiculing Vasan. He ran down Ananda Vikatan's editorials, cartoons and, worst of all, Vasan's expensive movie efforts. Kalki did not have much faith in Vasan's style of working through trusted lieutenants. Kalki was started during World War II but there was not a trace of the horrendous events in the occupied territories in several issues of the periodical. Kalki ran one historical serial after another. It is true they are being read today and might be read by many more generations. Even today, Kalki is the only Tamil periodical to have consolidated itself solely on its editor's romances. Kalki developed his fiction through sudden events and dramatic twists. His characters could be categorised as simplistic stereotypes. Though Kalki undoubtedly stood for noble goals and values, his characters were like playthings. Though Sir Walter Scott was the role model for many Indian writers of that time, Kalki followed Alexander Dumas.

Realistic portrayals

Devan, despite being Kalki's contemporary, was a man of the next generation. He sought to portray the world and its inhabitants in a realistic manner. He created characters who had distinct and different characteristics. Judging by literary standards, Devan was easily the better of the two. His current affairs' round up, especially his weekly reports on the World War, was comparable with the best in contemporary journalism. Though Devan was not as popular as Kalki, he possessed a small band of devoted admirers. Reading Kalki's fiction, many writers assumed pseudonyms such as Sivakami, Vikraman, Nandini, Naganandi all Kalki's characters from his serials. But none seemed to have come forward to assume names such as Sambu, Chandru, Jagannathan or Sudarsanan, all popular characters from Devan's works. That way Devan resembled Charles Dickens.Both Kalki and Devan were also popular as humorists. Kalki was satirical but Devan depended on irony. There is no doubt both (as well as a number of their contemporaries) liberally took inspiration from popular Western journals such as Strand, Argosy, New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. Not all the material that appeared in these magazines could be transplanted in Tamil. O' Henry came in handy. Dozens of variations of `The Gift of the Magi' appeared in a number of Indian languages. Maupassant was another useful source. The more resourceful of the Indian writers successfully `Indianised' the plots and characters. But all their skill and subterfuge could not save them from nitpickers.

In the movies

Though Kalki wrote carpingly about the Tamil movies of his times, he wanted to be in the movies himself. His first serial novel in Ananda Vikatan ("Kalvanin Kathali") was designed to be a screen story. The respected pioneer of Tamil movies, K. Subramanyam, made a film based on Kalki's novel, Thyaga Bhoomi. It wasn't a bad effort but the Tamil press treated the film with some of Kalki's own medicine. By then the British government thought the film not too safe, especially with the War in a critical phase, and banned the film. Kalki's stories "Poyman Karadu", "Kalvanin Kathali" and "Parthiban Kanavu" were made into films after his death. All proved that his popular stories weren't ideal material for movies. On the other hand, only one novel of Devan was made into a film: "Gomathiyin Kathalan". Another very popular creation of Devan was made into a television serial. It is difficult to say whether it made an appreciable impact on the viewers.Forty years have passed since the death of the two writers. They are remembered fondly at least by a few and their anniversaries celebrated in a quiet manner. Kalki's novels have appeared as serials and reprints. The Tamil Nadu Government placed his works in the public domain and all the leading Tamil publishers brought out editions of his works. Devan has not been that fortunate. One novel, Justice Jagannathan, recently appeared in a competent English translation. Kalki's granddaughter brought out a selection of his short stories in English. One novel needed five volumes to be rendered in English. The response of the press to all these efforts was polite. (Translated by T. Ramakrishnan, with a few modifications, from the original Tamil article written in 1997)
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