Ponniyin Selvan or The Son of Ponni is colossal novel of 2400 pages written by the legendary Tamil journalist and author Kalki Krishnamurthy in the first years of the 1950s.
Serialised week after week in Krishnamurthy’s own Tamil journal, Kalki, from October 1950 to May 1954, Ponniyin Selvan helped the magazine to reach a staggering weekly circulation figure of 71,366 copies – no mean achievement in a newly independent India where literacy was abysmally low. Men and women would wait outside roadside stalls for copies of Kalki magazine, with the latest chapter of Ponniyin Selvan, to arrive.
Those who were educated, I am told, would read out Krishnamurthy’s weekly episode to the rapt attention of the unlettered. The Chief Political Cartoonist of The Indian Express, EP Unny, tells me that as a child his grandmother used to read out Ponniyin Selvan from Kalki. The literary work thus became an integral part of Tamil folklore.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the theatre group, Magic Lantern, is all set to stage an adaptation of Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus– condensed into a 210 minute play -- from June 8 to 14 at Chennai’s Music Academy. Although ticket prices range from Rs 3000 to Rs 100, most of them have been sold out for most of the seven nights.
The play was last staged in Chennai in 1999 (the birth centenary year of Krishnamurthy), and even then, it ran to packed houses for several days. That edition was over four hours, and stayed close to the original plot.
The latest version is tighter with some of the parts having been excised. It is also linear – which will allow easy understanding of an otherwise deeply layered story with tens of characters. The original novel was written in the flashback, flash-forward format. And standardised Tamil has been used in the play.
All Photos by: Gautaman Bhaskaran
So, even those not familiar with the storyline would not find it hard to follow Ponniyin Selvan as it trails its many characters who travel to different parts of Tamil Nadu and to even Sri Lanka.
Even without the cuts, Ponniyin Selvan could have been greatly appealing. The director of the play, Pravin, tells me just before the second rehearsal of the day begins that despite the variety of entertainment forms available today (television with tens of channels, cinema, internet and so on), Ponniyin Selvan has not lost its attraction. "Amazingly even those who are in their thirties and forties love Ponniyin Selvan and can relate to its intricate plot with its huge number of characters (the current edition of the play has over 55 members in the cast)."
One reason for this popularity is that Krishnamurthy can be compared with the French literary giant, Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After), who’s historical novels of romantic adventure have held eternal fascination. So too Ponniyin Selvan and the other works of Krishnamurthy like, for instance, Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban’s Dream) and Sivagamiyin Sapatham (Sivagami’s Vow) – which are rich in romance and royal escapades.
Also, Ponniyin Selvan is absolutely relevant to this day and age. Apart from the romance, it is peppered with political intrigue, conspiracy, rivalry and other forms of treachery that are common in India. Each member of the ruling family in the play, including the protagonist, Ponniyin Selvan, is ready to give up the throne for the good of the kingdom.
There can also be no denying that "people are now nostalgic about theatre, and there is an emotional bonding with tales like Ponniyin Selvan", Pravin feels.
He contends that "when we announced the play some months ago and held a workshop to discover talent and help us with our casting, the response was overwhelming. Right down to the youngest member of our troupe, who is a 10-year-old boy".
So, Chennai gets set for its date with a literary giant, whose gripping book has also been translated into English among other languages.