Kalki R. Krishnamurthy
Born on September 9, 1899, in the village Buddhamangalam, in the Thanjavur District, to Ramaswamy Iyer and Thaiyal Nayaki, Krishnamurthy, as he was christened, began his earliest studies in the local school, later pursuing his education in the Hindu Higher secondary school. His thirst for literature became evident at this stage, for he began to write short stories and essays, under the able tutelage of his Thamizh professor, Periyasamy Pillai.
1921 saw the launch of the Non- Cooperation Movement by Mahatma Gandhi, to which Krishnamurthy, like thousands of other students, responded in earnest by giving up his education and participating in the fight for freedom from the British Raj. In 1922, he was awarded the sentence of one year in prison, during which time he met two people who would provide him with encouragement and enthusiasm all his life – T. Sadasivam and C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). It was during his imprisonment that he produced his first novel, ‘Vimala’.
During October, 1923, he ascended to the post of Sub-editor in a Thamizh periodical, ‘Navasakthi’, edited by eminent Thamizh scholar and veteran freedom –fighter, Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram, otherwise known as Thiru. Vi. Ka. The next year saw his marriage to Rukmini, while he translated Gandhiji’s ‘My experiments with Truth’ into the famed ‘Sathya Sothanai.’ He also published his first collection of short stories, titled ‘Sarathaiyin Thanthiram’(Saratha’s Strategy). In 1928, he walked out of Navasakthi, and engaged in the freedom movement in earnest. Living for the next three and a half years in Gandhiji’s Ashram, he was a part of the Magazine ‘Vimochanam’ (Release) edited by Rajaji, and it was from this period that his writing skills began to come to the fore. With Rajaji banished to prison, Krishnamurthy wrote rousing essays and short pieces in the magazine, for which he paid the price- another term of imprisonment for six months in September, 1930. Released on March 19th the next year, he took over the editorship of Ananda Vikatan, a humour weekly which was swiftly ascending to popularity. From this period, his popularity increased phenomenally.
Writing under the pen-names ‘Kalki’, “Thamizh Theni”, “Karnatakam” etc. his humourous, precise and impartial essays attracted readers of all walks. His novels and short stories appeared as serialized versions in the magazine, among them, notably ‘Kalvanin Kadhali’ (The Bandit’s Beloved) in 1937, which happened to be his first novel, followed by ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (The Land of Sacrifice), both of which were made into movies. In 1941, he left Ananda Vikatan to start his own magazine, ‘Kalki’, in which T. Sadasivam was instrumental.
He wrote ‘Parthiban Kanavu’ (Parthiban’s Dream) during this period, one of his first forays into novels based on a historical setting, with members of the Pallava and Chozha Dynasty as its principal characters. In 1944, ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’, one of the best historical novels ever to have been written in Thamizh was produced, for which Kalki (by which name he styled himself) journeyed to Ajantha and Ellora, so as to add the touch of realism and precision. He also wrote the screen-play for the hit-movie “Meera’ starring M.S. Subbulakshmi, the legendary Carnatic singer. 1948 saw the start of ‘Alai Osai; a novel set in the era of freedom-fighters, discussing the then political and social situation, and was considered by Kalki to be his best. It won for him the Sahitya Academy Award, posthumously. In 1950, he journeyed to Sri Lanka, which formed the base for his magnum opus- ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, which, according to many, has none to equal its stature as a superb historical novel till date.
Kalki performed many roles with consummate ease during his lifetime; he wrote stirring novels which explored human relationships and social conditions; subjects which were considered largely taboo in those days, for society was, in general, above criticism and history largely confined to schoolrooms. He was largely responsible for simplifying chaste Thamizh, so it would reach a multitude. He was one of the first writers to add a large humour quotient in his writings – at a time when many authors considered humour beneath their dignity, or were unable to project it into their works, Kalki used humour to deliver his sharpest snubs and most pointed criticisms. The effort, not unnaturally, made friends for him even among those he sought to criticise. At a point when the self-esteem of the Thamizh population was at its lowest ebb and honour, to most, consisted of identification with the British regime, Kalki strove to bring Thamizh Nadu’s rich history and culture into focus- he was largely responsible for tearing away the cloak of convention around Bharathanatyam, and made it accessible to the common public. Until that time, it had largely been left to the devices of courtesans, and learning it was not considered proper by persons other than courtesans. Kalki brought the understanding that the Thamizh population had plenty to be proud of.
Kalki relished travelling – his love for the Thamizh countryside, its people, the language and their customs can be found in abundance in almost all his works. He was one of the first authors to promote research and precision in writing, for he actually visited many of the places mentioned in his novels and short stories.
As a freedom-fighter, he was among the most respected in the country- he did much to rouse the people from their self-imposed lethargy and diffidence. Occasional periods of imprisonment did nothing to extinguish his fervour- he made more friends who were willing to join hands in his quest, and his popularity increased.
Small wonder, then, that he is revered by many to be a veritable Leonardo Da Vinci of Thamizh Nadu – for he managed to accomplish much with little.