Tamil Literature



Ilanko Adigal

Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai
Subramania Bharati
Bharati Dasan
R. Krishnamurthi 'Kalki'
C.S. Chellappa
R. Shanmugasundaram
Rajam Krishnan
Indira Parthasarathy
Sa. Kandasamy

Ilanko Adigal (9th century AD) is the author of one of the five great epics of ancient Tamil literature, Chilappatikaram, the other four being, Manimekalai, Chivaka Chintamani, Valayapati and Kundalakesi. The epic has been a great inspiration for Tamil literature and culture for ages. The celebrated Tamil poet, Subramania Bharati, extolled the work as 'the jewelled necklace called Chilappatikaram of Tamil Nadu that ravishes the listener's heart'. Prince Ilanko of Chera country (present-day Kerala) is believed to have renounced the world at an early age and retired to a monastery at Thirukunavayil. He was joined by his friend, the poet Chattanar who had already penned the epic, Manimekalai. Chattanar narrated the story of Kovalan and Kannaki to Ilanko and urged him to write on the subject which involved the three royal houses of Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. Powerful and realistic depiction of the characters, and a strong secular element where several religions live in harmony were key factors in the immense popularity of the epic.

Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-89) came in the public spotlight in the late 19th century Tamil Nadu. A gifted composer of Tamil lyrics, some of his songs in classical carnatic tunes are quite popular. With Western literature behind him, Vedanayakam Pillai was eager to introduce the new literary form 'novel' in Tamil. As the first Tamil novel, his Pratapa Mudaliar Charittiram (The Story of Pratapa Mudaliar, 1879) remains a landmark in Tamil literature to this day. With this novel Vedanayakam Pillai broke fresh ground in Tamil prose literature, employing simple and serviceable prose which went on to inspire other writers.

Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) was decidedly the most prominent Tamil writer of the early twentieth century. His active role in freedom struggle shot him to fame, as also his popular patriotic lyrics, which were sung and danced to all over the state of Tamil Nadu. He was an awesome champion not only of the country's independence, but also of women's rights. Among his works, the poem Kuyil Pattu (The Song of the Cuckoo, 1912), stands out as a great, if lengthy, work of art.


Bharati Dasan (1891-1964)

who was known as the 'revolutionary poet' of Tamil Nadu, claimed to be a disciple of the great poet Subramania Bharati. Though his lietrary career commenced in the traditional mode, he emerged as a romantic poet and became an active partner in Tamil Renaissance. Later, he joined the Rationalist Movement of Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker and his poems revolved around social reform and revolution. One of his great poems is Kudumba Vilakku (The Light of the Home, 1942-50), where Dasan firmly reiterates his dictum that the key to a successful family life is the emancipated woman. Apart from being an author of numerous volumes of poetry, Bharati Dasan was a playwright, lyricist, screenplay writer and also the editor of a poetry journal Kuyil (The Cuckoo).

R. Krishnamurthi (1899-1954) famous as 'Kalki', his pseudonym, is regarded as one of the pioneers who brought the Tamil novel to the common man and also popularised it. The freedom movement and Gandhian principles like Harijan emancipation find place in the novel. Kalki's Thyaga Bhoomi (Holy Land) (1941) was an immensely popular work, second only to K. S. Venkat Ramani's Desabhaktan Kanthan (Kanthan, the Patriot, 1932). In this work, Harijan upliftment and equality of women take centre-stage. A later novel of his, Alai Osai (Sound of Waves, 1950), focuses on the freedom struggle.


C.S. Chellappa (b. 1912) earned a niche for himself in the galaxy of modern Tamil writers through his crisp short stories. He brought a new dynamism to the entire genre of fiction, a deeper identification with the native milieu, a language closer to the people's tongue and hence rooted in their very own world. His concern and compassion for human predicaments is a hallmark of all his creative writings. Vadivasal (The Arena, 1959) remains one of Chellappa's famous novelettes. Using the motif of jallikattu, a native form of bullfight, the author takes the reader through the ups and downs of several conflicts (between man and man, and also man and beast).

R. Shanmugasundaram (1918-77) belonged to the Manikkodi group of writers who ushered in the modern era in Tamil fiction. But unlike the other writers in the group who specialised in the short story genre, Shanmugasundaram distinguished himself in the novel genre. Nagammal (1941) is his first novel and also the first realistic novel in Tamil, a novel acclaimed for its artistic rendering and mastery in craftsmanship. It pays testimony to Shanmugasundaram's native genius for he has no knowledge of the English language and its literature which was the role model for his predecessors. Nagammal is perhaps the only novel that revolves around a character that is almost totally negative except for some phases of goodness cropping up occasionally. Another first for the novel lies in the fact, that it was the harbinger of the so-called Vattara Ilakkiam (Regional Literature) genre in the Tamil novel. The novel deals with the poor, farming classes and possesses a distinct flavour of the soil.


Rajam Krishnan (b. 1925) is an eminent author of many Tamil novels, which are genuine and hard-hitting pictures of life in different parts of the country. When she writes about the life of a certain people, she makes sure of gaining a first-hand knowledge by observing them at close quarters. Her novels are vigorous pleas for the immediate emancipation of the oppressed as well as for the cause of women. Rajam's Verukku Nir (Water for the Roots, 1972) won her the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1973. The novel's brilliance lies in its realistic and objective portrayal of the socio-political realities of India in the late 1960s.

Indira Parthasarathy (b. 1930) is one of the brilliant writers of modern fiction in Tamil (his real name is Parthasarthy, the first name being his wife's which he uses as his pseudonym). He has written over fifteen novels, five novelettes, four volumes of short stories, nine plays and a biography. Unconventional in approach, Parthasarthy's works deal with different aspects of social existence in the North as well as the South. Among his great novels is Kuruthi Punal (The River of Blood, 1975), which focuses on the savage burning of Dalit farm labourers. The novel is outstanding in its realistic portrayal of the rural scenario with all its petty rivalries, casteism and vested interests.

Sa. Kandasamy (b. 1940) was one of the avant-garde young writers who experimented with Tamil fiction in offbeat directions in the 1960s. Sa. Kandasamy has to his credit three novels and a few short-story collections which are quite remarkable in themselves. The novel Sayavanam (1969), which he penned at the age of 20, is regarded as an ecological novel with a solid sociological background. It is based on the rich natural environment of the Kaveri delta on the brink of a great change in the early decades of the twentieth century.


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