The enduring popularity of Tamil novel Ponniyan Selvan, now adapted for big screen by Mani Ratnam

Movie enthusiasts and critics are eagerly awaiting the release of the Ponniyin Selvan-I, the first edition of a two-part film franchise inspired by an immensely popular work of historical fiction – Ponniyin Selvam – by author Kalki Krishnamurthy (1899-1954). The novel’s enduring popularity stems from its connect with Tamil Nadu’s culture and heritage through a narrative woven around the Chola rule.

The novel

Ponniyan Selvan means the son of Ponni (the Cauvery River). The novel was penned by author and freedom fighter Kalki Krishnamurthy, and serialized from 1950-54 on a weekly basis in Tamil magazine ‘Kalki’. It was later published in form of a book in 1955. It tells the story of early days of Rajaraja I, born Arunmozhi Varman and considered the greatest of all Chola rulers.

In world history, the Cholas are among the longest recorded dynasties with their reign peaking in the ninth and tenth centuries. During this period, the entire area south of the Tungabhadra River was brought together as a single unit under the Cholas.

Archeometallurgist Sharada Srinivasan had earlier told The Indian Express that “in terms of the scale of accomplishments in art and architecture and the wealth of writing and epigraphic records, the Cholas would come across as one of the richest dynasties in South Indian history”.

While the novel is work of fiction, it draws heavily on the events and involves characters from the Chola dynasty.

Author Venkatesh Ramakrishnan who wrote a sequel to Ponniyan Selvan titled Cauvery Mainthan around a decade ago, says: “No one can deny the fact that it’s the best book to enlighten people about the history of Tami Nadu and people who read the book would make efforts to read up about the culture and history of our state.”

He, however, pointed out that the novel has faced a lot of criticism for ignoring the malpractices during the 10th century Chola rule.

Calling it a novel that ‘grips the reader’ with its the storyline, he said that this is the reason that it has been the best-selling novel in Tamil even today after so many years.

Professor Kandan, who works at the Department of Sculptures at Tanjavur’s Tamil University, said, “As I read through the pages of the book, I could connect well with an English novel called Cholas written by K A Nilakantan Sastri. The book is all about what happened during the Cholas rule in Southern India. I am sure, Kalki Krishnamurthi too had read the book as part of the research for the Ponniyan Selvan. Even today the Cholas book is like a bible to authors and researchers.”

The author

Born in 1899, R Krishnamurthi was a writer and freedom fighter, who authored several short stories, novels, essays, travelogues, and biographies. He wrote under his pen name, Kalki, and also ran a weekly Tamil magazine by under the same title.

Most of Kalki’s novels were a success for his story-telling skills, and humour in his writings. Most of his work revolved around cultural and social aspects of India, particularly Tamil Nadu.

Several of his creations have already been adapted for the small screen and now Ponniyan Selvan is a movie slated for September 30 release.

Some of Kalki’s famous novels, other than Ponniyan Selvan, are Thiaga Boomi (1937), Solaimalai Ilavarasi (1947), Magudapathi (1942), Apalaiyin Kannir (1947) Alai Osai (1948), Devakiyin Kanavan (1950), Poiman Karadu (1950), Punnaivanattupuli (1952), Parthiban Kanavu (1941-42), among others.

He died in 1954 due to tuberculosis.

Enduring popularity

Ponniyan Selvan is one of the best-selling novels in Tamil, and it continues to sell even 72 years after its publication. According to some estimates, its annual sales even now continue to be around 1,00,000 copies. Not only it continues to acquire new readers, it also feted for sparking people’s interest in Tamil history and culture.

Pushpalatha, a Chennai-based IT employee, recently read the book and said, “Author Kalki Krishnamurthy has taken excerpts from the history, visited places that were ruled by the Cholas, and spun the story with his own imagination…. In one of the chapters, he says, Kundavai, elder sister of Rajaraja Cholan (Arunmozhi Varman), believed in charity and had superior administrative skills and she also built many Vaidhiyasalai (hospitals/medical facilities). Even today we can see them in Thanjavur.”

Another reader Chiththartha, who is from Thanjavur, read the book nearly seven years ago, said: “I have lived in Thanjavur all my life, but when I visited the Brihadeshwar temple, built by the Cholas after I read the book, I could look at the temple with pride and in a totally different light as explained by the author.”

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