Who's Who in Adyar: Kalki Krishnamurthy

The 9th of September 2011 marked the 112th birth anniversary of ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy, a freedom fighter, social crusader, novelist, short story writer, journalist, humorist, satirist, travel writer, script-writer, poet, critic and connoisseur of the arts. His writings include over 120 short stories, 10 novelettes, five novels, three historical romances, editorial and political writings and hundreds of film and music reviews. He is best known for his historical romances, which are immensely popular and are considered classics in Tamil literature.

R.Krishnamurthy was born on September 9, 1899 at Puttamangalam in a poor Brahmin family. After completing his primary education in the village, Krishnamurthy joined the National High School at Tiruchi. Mahatma Gandhi's speech at a public meeting in Tiruchi, as part of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921, inspired Krishnamurthy. He was one among the thousands of students who gave up their studies to participate in the movement. He left school and joined the Indian National Congress when his Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination was just three months away.

In 1922, he was imprisoned for a year for participating in the independence struggle. While in prison he met veteran Congress leader C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and T. Sadasivam. In 1923 he joined as a sub-editor in Navasakthi, a Tamil periodical edited by Tamil scholar and freedom fighter V. Kalyanasundaram, popularly known as "ThiruViKa". He left Navasakthi in 1928, joined Rajaji at the Gandhi Ashram in Tiruchengode in Salem district and helped him edit Vimochanam, a Tamil journal devoted to propagating prohibition. In 1931, he was again imprisoned for six months. 

In 1929, Krishnamurthy joined Ananda Vikatan, a weekly edited and published by S.S. Vasan, as its de facto editor. He wrote under the pen names of "Kalki", "Ra. Ki", "Tamil Theni", "Karnatakam" and so on. Vikatan published many of his short stories and novels (as serials). In 1941 he left Ananda Vikatan and rejoined the freedom struggle and was incarcerated for three months. On his release he and Sadasivam started Kalki. He was its editor until his death on December 5, 1954. 

His historical novels, Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban's Dream), Sivakamiyin Sapatham (Sivakami's Vow) and Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni's Son) were first serialised in Kalki, and later published as books between 1943 and 1951. These novels were re-published eight times between 1984 and 1999. His Tamil translation of Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, was published as Satya Sothanai. Kalki considered Alai Osai, which won him the Sahitya Akademi award posthumously in 1956, as his best. The novel was serialised in Kalki in 1948-49 and published as a book in 1963. His other social novels include Thyaga Bhoomi (The land of sacrifice) and Kalvanin Kadali (Bandit's sweetheart), both of which have been filmed. Thyaga Bhoomi, serialised in Ananda Vikatan, dealt with women's rights and untouchability. It was made into a film by veteran director, K. Subrahmanyam. But the film was banned, after a successful run for six weeks, by the colonial Government on the grounds that it indirectly aroused the people to fight for freedom. S. Krishnaswamy, film historian and son of Subrahmanyam, made a tele-serial of the story in Hindi. Parthiban Kanavu, Kalvanin Kadali and Poiman Karadu were also filmed. Kalki also made a significant contribution to the cause of Tamil music by leading a movement to convince Carnatic musicians to include more Tamil songs in their concerts.

Kalki, however, did not remain free from criticism and controversies. He was accused of being a propagandist and a supporter of royalty. He was embroiled in controversy when he did not subscribe to an observation by a respectable writer that Subramanya Bharati was a "mahakavi". The writers of his time also accused Kalki of plagiarism. Later, Kalki admitted that the themes of some six or seven were adaptations.

Notwithstanding the accusations, Kalki has gone down in history as a renaissance man whose main concern was to arouse people's consciousness against colonial rule, to remind the people of their cultural heritage, and to instill pride in the greatness of Tamil language, literature, art, and culture.

On 9 September 1999, a postage stamp in honour of Kalki was released as part of his birth centenary celebrations. Semmalar, the monthly organ of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, also brought out a special number to commemorate Kalki's centenary. The celebrations were also marked by the publication of a number of new books, which included Kalki: Selected Stories by Penguin Books and Kalki Kalanjiyam by Vanathi Pathippagam. The book was an English translation of 12 selected short stories of Kalki by his grand-daughter Gowri Ramnarayan. On 6 December 2007 playwright ‘Crazy’ Mohan released two books, “Paalatril Oru Pagarkanavu” and “Kalki Valartha Kalaigal,” which included a collection of music and drama criticism by ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy.

On 9 September 1996, the Kalki Krishnamurth Memorial Trust Award was instituted by the Krishnamurthy Memorial Trust managed by Kalki Krishnamurthy’s son, K.Rajendran. Vijay Siva, one of the foremost vocalists in classical Carnatic Music, was the first recipient of the award. In 2000, flute artist, Sikkil Mala Chandrashekhar was honoured with the Kalki Centenary Award. In 2005, Carnatic vocalist, Sikkil Gurucahran became the youngest to receive the award.

In 2000 the Kalki Sadasivam Memorial Trust Award was instituted to recognize excellence in advertising in Tamil with equal emphasis on social purpose and creativity. The Trust also gives scholarships to top students of advertising, public relations and mass communication. This year the16th Kalki Krishnamurthy Memorial Award was presented to two talented young artists, violinist Nagai Sriram and Carnatic vocalist Saketharaman. The Kalki Krishnamurthy Memorial Trust also increased the total quantum of scholarships to be distributed to brilliant students from economically poor background to 2.85 lakhs this year.

Although, December 5th this year will mark 57 years since Kalki was laid to rest, he will continue to live through his indelible works. He will be remembered forever for his efforts in propagating Khadi, promoting the Swadeshi movement, encouraging the arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu, abolishing untouchability and championing women’s education.

- Vishal Matthew

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