[INDOLOGY] Poṉṉiyiṉ Celvaṉ

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan palaniappa at aol.com
Mon Dec 13 23:18:03 UTC 2021

Dear Herman,


Here is the Wikipedia article on the Poṉṉiyin celvaṉ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponniyin_Selvan. Although the title refers to Rajaraja I, most people consider Vantiyattēvaṉ, the real historical husband of Kuntavai to be the hero of the novel. I am giving below what Kamil Zvelebil wrote about the historical novels of Kalki.


“His three great historical novels are Pārttipan kaṉavu 'Parttiban's Dream' (Madras 1941-43) dealing with the 7th century Pallava period, Poṉṉiyin celvaṉ 'The Treasure of Poṉṉi' in 5 volumes (Madras 1955) on 10th century Chola history, and Civakāmiyiṉ capatam 'The Vow of Sivakami' (Madras 1948) returning again to the 7th century Pallavas. In these historical novels, Kalki has no doubt created a few very impressive characters, e.g. Naganadi of the last novel; while some of his major heroes are failures (e.g. Sivakami herself), he deals rather skilfully with the minor characters. His cliches become tiresome: like A. Dumas, he used the device of creating the original and its duplicate (typical are Naganandi and Pulikeśin in Civakāmi); like Walter Scott, he hides his characters in disguise (e.g. king Mahendravarman in Civakami). Social history escaped him. He did not picture the life of the people, and in this feature he was not like W. Scott who gave a total picture of Scotland in his Waverly novels. He reads more like A. Dumas—only the French writer used better constructed plots and his characterisation is sometimes great.” Source: Kamil Zvelebil (1974). Tamil Literature. Otto Harassowitz, Wiesbaden, p. 275.


Earlier in his ‘The Smile of Murugan,’ Zvelebil (1973) wrote (p. 290-91):

“Kalki was the most influential and prolific journalist of the day, and he dominated the literary scene from the middle thirties to the early fifties. His fame and reputation rest on his voluminous novels. The best-or rather the most successful-of them are historical romances like the Chola Poṉṉiyin celvaṉ or the Pallava Civakāmiyiṉ capatam. Both these, and more so his writings based on contemporary life like Alai Ōcai are just crammed with sentimentalism, melodrama, false romanticism, and tediously long descriptions of love-birds in their love-nests. It is all very sweet, or, rather, sugared. His characterisations are weak and shallow, his dialogues lively but often naive, the descriptions of sculptures or dancing very detailed but very trivial. His style is "fluent but colourless, clear but has no individuality". He was a great adaptor: in his humorous writings of his earlier period, Kalki based his stuff on the works of Mark Twain, Jerome Klapka Jerome, and other authors, almost unknown to the unsophisticated Tamil reader, the situations and characters of his historical novels come mainly from Alexander Dumas, Lord Lytton and Sir Walter Scott. 


“In spite of all this-or probably because of all this-his appeal to the masses of readers was extremely powerful. Why? Because the average Tamil reader, who was rather "weak-minded" (to quote K. N. Subrahmanyam), was not prepared for anything else. The way in which Kalki plays upon the responsiveness to the sensational and to seemingly well-built and complicated plots is truly admirable. No matter that some of his plots are quite unreal or plainly impossible; he is always able to excite. He also responds masterfully to the sentimentality of his readers, chiefly frustrated women. His social and historical fiction was written week after week (in Āṉantavikataṉ, and later in his own journal Kalki) "with just that element of mystery and suspense that are necessary for the serial reader in Tamil" (K. N. Subrahmanyam). 


“To be just, in Kalki's writings there also are some praiseworthy features; he almost always succeeds to work up an atmosphere in his historical romances, so that the dead past comes back to life in truly vivid colour. He never wrote a line without a careful study of the history of the particular period with which he was dealing, and often he went painstakingly directly to the sources, to inscriptions and ancient texts. His impersonal and colourless style is, on the other hand, smooth and polished and reads well. It is easy to read Kalki, even for a beginning student of Tamil. And, naturally, the Tamil reader needs minimum effort to understand his writings. This was in fact considered Kalki's greatest virtue: that he did not burden and fatigue his readers. He also has a kind humour, which is never loud or vulgar; his prose may be probably in one short phrase evaluated as innocent entertainment, though, of course, its innocence is questionable if one agrees (as I do) with Subrahmanyam's strict pronouncement that "Kalki's Alai Ōcai, the Sahitya Akademi winning novel, is still unrivalled in the number of words used to square inch of sentimentality on the human scene". 


But, whatever literary critics might say, this novel is considered the magnum opus of Kalki and it has had a lasting impact on generations of Tamils. It has generated interest in the study of history, study of inscriptions, as well as preservation of heritage sites. (See https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/a-movement-for-history/article1038620.ece.) I read the novel when I was in my 7th grade and would say that it played a major role in kindling my interest in history. Here is an example of its enduring impact.


There was a Poṉṉiyin Celvaṉ Yahoo Group founded around 2002, and a current FaceBook group called Ponniyin Selvan Varalaatru Peravai with over 20000 members. Some members of the Yahoo Group were instrumental in bringing out Airāvati, the felicitation volume for Mr. Iravatham Mahadevan’s Golden Jubilee year in Indological research in 2008. (I am not a member of any of the groups.)


Hope this helps.






From: INDOLOGY <indology-bounces at list.indology.info> on behalf of Indology List <indology at list.indology.info>
Reply-To: "Tieken, H.J.H. (Herman)" <H.J.H.Tieken at hum.leidenuniv.nl>
Date: Monday, December 13, 2021 at 3:40 AM
To: Indology List <indology at list.indology.info>
Subject: [INDOLOGY] Poṉṉiyiṉ Celvaṉ


Dear List members,


a colleague of the South-East Asian department asked me for information about Kalki's epic novel Poṉṉiyiṉ Celvaṉ, or, apart from an English translation, if there exists an analysis or synopsis of the epic in English or any other West-european language. Unfortunately, I cannot help him – I do not know much about modern Tamil literature.  I hope someone on the list knows more about Kalki‘s epic novel.


With kind regards, Herman’


Herman Tieken

Stationsweg 58

2515 BP Den Haag

The Netherlands

00 31 (0)70 2208127

website: hermantieken.com

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