Ramaswamy Aiyer Krishnamurthy (9 September 1899 – 5 December 1954), better known by his pen name Kalki, was a Tamil writer, journalist, poet, critic and Indian independence activist.
He derived his pen name from the suffixes of his wife name Kalyani and his name Krishnamurthy in Tamil form கல்யாணி and கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி as Kalki(கல்கி) “Kalki avatar”, the tenth and last avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu.His writings includes over 120 short stories, 10 novelettes, five novels, three historical romances, editorial and political writings and hundreds of film and music reviews.
Krishnamurthy’s father was Ramaswamy Aiyar, a poor accountant in Puttamangalam village in the old Tanjore district of erstwhile Madras Presidency. Krishnamurthy began his primary education in his village school and later attended Municipal High School in Mayavaram but quit in 1921, just short of completion of his Senior School Leaving Certificate, in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s 1921 call for non-co-operation joining the Indian National Congress instead.
In 1923 he joined as a sub-editor in Navasakthi, a Tamil periodical edited by Tamil scholar and freedom fighter Thiru. V. Kalyanasundaram, popularly known as “Thiru Vi. Ka”. Krishnamurthy’s first book was published in 1927. Leaving Navasakthi in 1928, Krishnamurthy stayed with C. Rajagopalachari 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. Next year Krishnamurthy joined Ananda Vikatan, a humour weekly edited and published by S. S. Vasan. Krishnamurthy’s witty, incisive comments on politics, literature, music and other forms of art were looked forward to with unceasing interest by readers. 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 courted arrest. On his release after three months he and Sadasivam started Kalki (magazine). He was its editor until his death on 5 December 1954. The success that Krishnamurthy attained in the realm of historical fiction is phenomenal. Sixty years ago, at a time when the literacy level was low and when the English-educated Tamils looked down on writings in Tamil, Kalki’s circulation touched 71,000 copies – the largest for any weekly in the county then – when it serialised his historical novels.
Although Kalki’s historical romances captured the hearts of thousands of readers, recreating for them the glorious Tamil life during the periods of Pallavas and Imperial Cholas, critics were divided on their literary merits. One criticism was that Kalki’ s novels dwelt rather overmuch on royalty and not enough on common people. The sudden twists and turns, which characterised serialised stories, made the stories unrealistic. There has, however, been a re-appraisal of Kalki, particularly among Marxist critics, in recent years. Semmalar, the monthly organ of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, brought out a special number to commemorate Kalki’s birth centenary. Kalki wrote the script and some lyrics for Meera, an M.S. Subbulakshmi starrer.
Kalki’s contribution to the cause of Tamil music is also noteworthy. He spearheaded a movement that wanted Carnatic musicians to include more Tamil songs in their concerts and composed a number of songs. His Tamil translation of Gandhi’s autobiography, “My Experiments with Truth”, was published as Satya Sothanai.
Kalki considered Alai Osai, which was serialised in Kalki in 1948–49 and published as a book in 1963, as his best. The novel won for him the Sahitya Akademi Award posthumously in 1956, it has for its backdrop the freedom struggle and deals with social reforms and politics.
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, which has the salt satyagraha as its backdrop, dealt with women’s rights and untouchability. It was serialised in Ananda Vikatan, which was being filmed at the same time, were used as illustration. After a successful run for six weeks, the film, directed by veteran K. Subramanyam, was banned by the colonial Government on the grounds that it indirectly aroused the people to fight for freedom. Almost all of Kalki’s novels appeared first in the serial form and only then in the book form.
Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sapatham give a picture of the great Pallava Age of the seventh century A.D., while Ponniyin Selvan paints the age of the glorious Cholas. Both the periods are a mixture of many aspects of the history of Tamil Nadu such as that of religions, literature, art and architecture and also of administration. Kalki had been a keen student of these aspects which he learnt through epigraphic, inscriptional and numismatic sources and he enriched his novels with all these facts of history. Kalki got inspiration to write Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sapatham on the seashore of Mahabalipuram, when he was accompanied by Rasikamani T. K. C. and where he saw thousands and thousands of ships and boats carrying warriors on one side, and other people, architects, Ayanar, Sivakami, Mahendravarmar and Mamallar on the other side in his mental vision. They left a deep and lasting impression upon his heart and only after finishing Sivakamiyin Sabadam, twelve years later.
Kalki had also the genius to classify the historical and non-historical events, historical and non-historical characters and how much the novel owes to history. In his introduction to Sivakamiyin Sabadam and conclusion to Ponniyin Selvan, he explains the percentage of fact and fiction. Kalki’s interest in history, the features of his historical novels and the popularity they gained, made others enter this vast and new field and contribute works of merit.