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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

Review: The Prince by Samhita Arni

The Prince by Samhita Arni attempts to delve into the rage of Kannagi

books Updated: Sep 20, 2019 20:04 IST
Simar Bhasin
Simar Bhasin
Hindustan Times
Women offer prayers at a temporary shrine to Attukal Devi or Goddess Kannaki on the final day of the 10 day-long Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala on February 19, 2019. During this festival women prepare Pongala (rice cooked with jaggery, ghee, coconut) in the open in small pots to please the goddess, who is believed to fulfill the wishes of her devotees and provide prosperity.
Women offer prayers at a temporary shrine to Attukal Devi or Goddess Kannaki on the final day of the 10 day-long Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala on February 19, 2019. During this festival women prepare Pongala (rice cooked with jaggery, ghee, coconut) in the open in small pots to please the goddess, who is believed to fulfill the wishes of her devotees and provide prosperity. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
         
360pp, Rs 449; Juggernaut
360pp, Rs 449; Juggernaut

In her note at the end of The Prince, author Samhita Arni describes how the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape and the fact that India was “seething with unexpressed rage” led her to an appreciation of the contemporary relevance of the Sangam era epic, Silappadikaram, and especially of its story of Kannagi. Arni wished to delve into the legendary figure’s rage. Yet it is not Kannagi’s rage but that of the poet-creator Ilango Adigal, a rage “necessary for justice and transformative change”, that is the central point of this retelling. With its focus on the storyteller, the narrative also becomes an exposition on the meaning of art and its social responsibilities: What should poetry be written about? Who chooses what to chronicle and to what end? These questions recur throughout. In both content and form, The Prince talks about the importance of storytelling.

The story follows the central character, a Chera prince named Uthiyan, whose journey is filled with court intrigues, assassination plots, a mesmerizing dancer, conquest and everything else that keeps the narrative from slouching.

Samhita Arni
Samhita Arni ( Courtesy Juggernaut )

At the beginning, Pranar, a renowned poet, tells the prince and novice poet about the subtleties of the art form. “All art, all dance, all poetry and music seek to breach the boundary between the inner and the outer,” he says adding later that “sometimes, war can be averted with poems.” This concern with the poetic subject is the hub of the narrative in different ways. As we follow Uthiyan from the Chera court to Neduncheliyan’s court at Madurai, his journey (both physical and spiritual) is marked by stories and storytellers: from Kannaki, Vel Pekan’s queen, who tells Uthiyan that what he considers to be poetry is merely a means “to wrangle rich presents from kings and their ilk. But that is not what makes a poem great” to the commoner Kannaki who asks him for a story in return for a song on their way to Madurai. However, while the female characters drive these stories and move Uthiyan to action, aiding him in his quest, they remain at the margins of the narrative.

Read more: Review: A Night in the Hills by Manav Kaul

Fascinating myths and legends abound. When Madhavi, the famed dancer is set to perform at an important procession, which involves her bathing and garlanding the staff of a ceremonial white umbrella, the reader learns of the story behind the ritual. Of how due to Agastya’s curse, the famed apsara Urvashi was to be “reborn as a dancing girl in Kanchi and Jayanta, her lover, as a stalk of bamboo.” The lovers would then meet in spirit “whenever Urvashi danced onstage.” Just like the halls in the palaces visited by Uthiyan, whose pillars recount tales of love and war, myths and stories are sprinkled throughout the novel forming some of its most engrossing aspects.

The Prince is a moving and, in places, a hauntingly written retelling of the Tamil epic. But it falls short of what the author says was meant to be its central concern: rage.

First Published: Sep 20, 2019 20:04 IST

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