Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai

17 Apr 1912
10 Apr 1999
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Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (Malayalam: തകഴി ശിവശങ്കര പിള്ള) (17 April 1912 – 10 April 1999) was a novelist and short story writer of Malayalam language. He is popularly known as Thakazhi, after his place of birth. He focused on the oppressed classes as the subject of his works, which are known for their attention to historic detail. He wrote several novels and over 600 short stories. His most famous works are Kayar (Coir, 1978) and Chemmeen (Prawns, 1956). Pillai, a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, was awarded India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith in 1984 for the epic novel Kayar

Born in the village of Thakazhy, in Kuttanad, Alappuzha district of Kerala, he started to write stories when he was a schoolboy. His literary taste was nurtured by his high school headmaster Kainikkara Kumara Pillai (1900–1988) who exposed him to Indian literature. He met Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai (1889–1960) while pursuing his law studies in Tiruvanantapuram. He introduced Thakazhi to modern European literature and thought.

His novels and short stories addressed various facets of society in Kerala in the mid-20th century. His novel Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger’s Son, 1947) is considered a pioneer work in Malayalam realistic novel. The novel portrays three generations of a working class family engaged in Alleppey as scavengers. The novel challenges the rationale of the caste system, that one’s profession should depend on pedigree.

His political novel, Randidangazhi (Two Measures, 1948), projected the evils of the feudal system that prevailed in Kerala then, especially in Kuttanad. The film adaptation, directed and produced by P. Subramaniam from a screenplay by Thakazhi himself, received a certificate of merit at the National Film Awards in 1958.

His love epic Chemmeen (Prawns, 1956), which was a departure from his earlier line of realism, met with immense popularity. It told a tragic love story against the backdrop of a fishing village in Alappuzha. The novel and its film adaptation, also titled Chemmeen (1965), earned him national and international fame. Chemmeen was translated into 19 world languages and adapted into film in 15 countries. Chemmeen won for Thakazhi the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award in 1958. The film adaptation, directed by Ramu Kariat, won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1965.

Despite the popularity of Chemmeen, his novel Kayar (Coir, 1978) is quite widely considered his masterpiece. The novel extends to over 1000 densely printed pages and deals with hundreds of characters over four generations, bringing back to life an axial period (1885–1971) during which feudalism, matriliny, and bonded labour gave way to conjugal life and to universal access to land ownership, and later, to decolonisation and the industrial revolution of the 1960s.

Another famous novel, Enippadikal (Rungs of the Ladder, 1964), traces the careerism of an ambitious bureaucrat whose lust for power and position becomes his own undoing. The novel was adapted into a movie in 1973 by Thoppil Bhasi. He is also known as ‘Kerala Maupassant’.

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