Twentieth-Century Tamil Literature

P S Sri. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.


Subramanya Bhárathi (1882-1921) at once modernized and rejuvenated Tamil poetry by discarding the complex vocabulary and convoluted sentence structure of his nineteenth-century predecessors and by preferring simple words and rhythms drawn from the everyday lives and activities of ordinary people in Tamil Nadu. “Simple terms, simple style, simple meters, popular melodies—the poet who combines these in a modern epic breathes fresh life into our Tamil language,” writes Bhaárathi (quoted by Poo Vannan 1992, 318) in his Preface to his masterpiece of dramatic poetry, Paánchaáliyin Sabadham (Paánchaáli’s Vow). He practices this principle of simplicity in everything he writes. For example, in the central section of the poem that deals with the game of dice between the upright and righteous Yudhishtra and the crooked and cunning Shakuni, Bhaárathi infuses terrific vitality and suspense into the verses describing the treacherous play by adapting the stirring rhythms of Gypsy women hawking multicolored beads and sewing needles down the streets of Tamil Nadu.

Bhaárathi’s fame as a poet rests primarily on his numerous fiery songs of freedom—collected and published under the title Sarva Désa Geethangal (Songs for All Nations)—through which he sought to kindle the flames of patriotism and nationalism in the hearts of his fellow Tamilians. “Tamil,” declared the magazine Chentamizh in 1908, “has innumerable poems, epics and legends focusing on God and divine love. But it lacks nationalistic songs capable of fulfilling our present need to evoke patriotic feelings in people’s hearts. By turning his poetic talents to this high purpose, Bhaárathi has done us all invaluable service” (quoted by Poo Vannan 1992, 322).

Nevertheless, Bhaárathi is justly celebrated not only for the simplicity of his well-crafted poems and the intense national feelings in his songs but also for the novel ideas and techniques in his devotional (bhakthi) lyrics to God. For example, when he prays to Shakti, he is simultaneously yearning for three kinds of freedom: the liberation of his motherland from the British yoke, the emancipation of women from superstition and centuries-old male dominance, and the release of the human soul from the bondage of maya (illusion). When Bhaárathi expresses his rapturous love for Krishna, he does not follow the example of countless azhwars (devotees of Krishna) who adorn the annals of Tamil poetry in the centuries before him and sing of Krishna as mother, father, guru, king, and protector. Instead, Bhaárathi revolutionizes Tamil poetry by imagining Krishna as his servant—one who reforms him through loving and tender service! Again, he feminizes Kannan into Kannamma and pours his love out for her in several beautiful love lyrics that have come to be cherished and adored by all through the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu.

The cool caress of summer breezes, the quiet calm of clear streams, the honeyed sweetness of children’s lisps are all at once experienced in the lyrics of Kavimani Deásika Vinayakam Pillai. They are full of breathtaking beauty, heartwarming love, and endearing, childlike simplicity. Kavimani began writing his lovely little poems for children as early as 1901. All these poems were collected and published by 1941 under the title Ilam Thendral (Gentle Southern Breeze). Later, they became part of his collected poems, Malarum Malaiyum, which included all the mature poems he intended for adults as well. Eventually, his poems for children were republished in a separate volume called Kuzhandai Chelvam (Child’s Treasure) and won the government of Tamil Nadu’s Literary Award for children’s literature.

Kavimani had the rare ability to render foreign classics into Tamil so adeptly that his translations read like original Tamil lyrics. His Asiya Jyothi and Umar Khaiyam Padalgal were exact yet melodious renditions of Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (a poetic depiction of the life of the Buddha) and The Rubiayyat of Omar Khayyam. That incomparable Tamil critic T. K. Chidambara Natha Mudaliyar, known as Rasikamani, has paid a lyrical tribute to Kavimani’s poetic talent. “The songs of Deá-si-ka Vi-na-ya-kam Pil-lai,” he wrote, “are an invaluable legacy to the Tamils. Like a nectar of everlasting sweetness or a lovely bouquet of unfading flowers, they are to be cherished life-long by every Tamil soul” (quoted by Poo Vannan 1992, 325). Those who plunge even briefly into the limpid stream of Kavimani’s poetry will soon realize that these words of appreciation are no exaggeration.

“In all his thoughts, words and deeds, he constantly served his Motherland” (quoted by Poo Vannan, 1992, 325)—such was the praise lavished on V. Ramalingam Pillai of Namakkal, familiarly called Namakkal Kavignar (the poet from Namakkal), even during his lifetime.

Author of about 30 volumes of poetry and prose, Namakkal Kavignar was most known for the popular nationalistic songs he wrote about the greatness of freedom during the famous Salt march of Mahatma Gandhi in his satyagraha (nonviolent, truthful aggression) against the British raj. Apart from these passionfired songs of patriotism, Namakkal Kavignar also composed a wonderful lyric called “Avanum Avalum” (He and She), which was extremely well received in his own day.

“The torrential force of a mountain stream, the rapidity of a lightning strike, the vitality of life-giving food, the purity of a dew-drop, the piercing sweetness of honey, the heady fragrance of a jasmine flower, the never-failing sense of humour—the creative combination of all these qualities form the poems of Puratchi Kavignnar (Poet of Revolution) Bhaárathi Dasan,” wrote N. D. Sundara Vadivélu (quoted by Poo Vannan 1992, 327), former vice chancellor of the University of Madras, in praise of the output of the extraordinary poet Bhaárathi Dasan. (We may note the connection of the romantic with the radical.)

Calling himself Bhaárathi Dasan (Disciple of Bhaárathi), he waged a lifelong war of fiery poetry against the evils he saw in Tamil society, such as the divisive caste system, the ruthless exploitation of hardworking laborers, and the conflicts between the haves and the have-nots. At the same time, he experimented with a variety of literary forms and subjects. If his Pandiyan Parisu (Gift of the Pandiyan King) is a historical romance casting a nostalgic look at the glorious past of the Tamils, his Kudumba Vilakku (The Lamp of the Family) is a psychological masterpiece focused on the travails of family life in the average modern Tamilian household. His Azhagin Chirippu (The Smile of Beauty) captures the splendors of nature, while his Tamizh Iyakkam (The Tamil Movement) is a poetic manifesto for the elevation of Tamil language and culture. Because of the sociopolitical-economic relevance of these themes and the captivating rhythms of his verses, Bhaárathi Dasan earned the title Pa Véndar (King of Poetry), and his poems sold in the millions all over Tamil Nadu.

Every hamlet, village, town, and city in Tamil Nadu knows the name of Kanna Dasan, the first Tamil poet to gain immense fame by writing thousands of film songs, which remain popular to this day and are hummed by millions of Tamil-speaking people in India as well as abroad. It is noteworthy that, apart from his well-known film songs, Kanna Dasan wrote a number of poems with a literary flair. These poems have been collected in six parts under the title Kanna Dasan’s Poems. Also, he authored a small epic called Mangkani (Mango Fruit) and a long lyric on two star-crossed lovers called Attanaththi Adimandi.

The term puthuk kavithai (new poetry) was first applied to the works of a particular group of “new poets” who appeared approximately after 1958-59 and whose poems were collected by C. S. Chellappa, who was himself one of the new poets, in October 1962 in a slim, trailblazing volume called Puthuk Kuralkal (New Voices). Besides five poems by the “revolutionary” Pichamurthi and Rajagopalan, the book featured 58 other poems by 22 younger poets—the poems were all written between 1959 and 1962—as well as a very important introduction by Chellappa.

The new poets are markedly different from other “modern poets,” who, despite their sometimes fiery espousal of novel political ideologies and use of contemporary idioms, continue to compose poems in orthodox meters and traditional rhythms. In fact, the new poets are set apart by certain distinct features: first, their poems are, historically speaking, in the “revolutionary” groundbreaking manner and style of the four outstanding poets Subhramanya Bhaárathi, Puthumai Piththan, K. P. Rajagopalan, and Pichamurthi; second, they embody a radical break with the past history and ancient traditions of Tamil Nadu, though they do not deny the richness of the cultural heritage of the Tamils; third, they break free from traditional forms and prosodic structures and delight in innovation; fourth, they experiment with language and form in ways suggestive of an acquaintance with modern trends in French, English, and American poetry; and fifth, they focus on contemporary matters and include hitherto ignored subjects as well as unorthodox treatment of traditional motifs. While the prose poems and vers libre of Bhaárathi and Puthumai Piththan ushered in the new poetry, the decisive turning points in the development of the genre came with Pichamurthi’s poem “Kattu Vaththu” (Wild Duck) in 1959 and the publication of Chellappa’s avant-garde anthology Puthuk Kuralkal in 1962.

The young poets featured in Chellappa’s anthology wanted to dissociate themselves from the hackneyed words, well-worn themes, and all-too-familiar forms of traditional poetry. By eschewing the elaborate diction and expansive imagery of medieval poetry, the new poets were essentially carrying out a “revolt” (puratchi), as Chellappa sees it, and expressing an obsessive concern with everyday realities in forceful language that paradoxically mirrored the unsurpassed brevity, terseness, and directness of the early classical poetry. Indeed, in the writings of the new poets, “a clash between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ takes place in contemporary Tamil literature” (Zvelbil 1973, 318). Still, the basic characteristics of traditional poetry can be discerned even in the avant-garde poems of the most “rebellious” new poets, simply because the new features are intimately connected with the intrinsic rhythms of Tamil language and speech.

Nevertheless, there is a definite break with tradition in the new poetry on two levels. From the bardic poetry of the classical age to the lyrics of Bhaárathi, literature and music have been closely associated, so that Tamil poems have most often been sung with a great deal of emotion, with bhakthi (love of God) predominating; in dramatic contrast, the new poems strive consciously after a unity of meaning (porul) and form (uru) in their patently sincere attempts to map out the contemporary scene of Tamil Nadu.

Three and a half decades have passed since the new poets broke all traditional metrical rules, experimented with free verse, and wrote uninhibitedly about unconventional and even forbidden subjects in an effort to create a fresh and truly modern Tamil idiom in their poetry. Initially, they were shunned by traditionalists and ignored by many Tamil academics; there was also hardly any response from ordinary readers. Today, however, innumerable young poets are exercising their considerable skills in this fresh mode, and almost a hundred New Wave poetic collections are published every year. Among the numerous talents that adorn the fascinating field of New Wave poetry, the names of Vaira Muththu and Mu. Mehta stand out because of their deft use of colloquial speech, arresting imagery, and memorable rhythms. One may justly say, therefore, that Tamil poetry has taken gigantic steps toward modernity and has come to prevail.

Though the tradition of storytelling has prevailed in Tamil literature from time immemorial, the specific forms of the short story and the novel were imported from the West via the English language and its literature.

Short Story

Va. Vé. Su. Iyer (1881-1925) was the earliest writer to introduce the short story in Tamil. In all the short stories in his collection Mangaiyerkkarasiyin Kadal (The Love of Mangaiyerkkarasi, 1910-20), Iyer exploited the now well-known techniques of beginning his narrative in medias res (or of plunging his readers right into the middle of the action) and of offering psychological insights into the actions of his characters in order to infuse feeling and versimilitude into his short stories. Iyer introduced two of the most famous love stories in the world—those of “Laila Majnu” and “Anarkali”—through the medium of the short story to the Tamil-speaking world. Iyer also pioneered the tale of social satire and reform through his short story “Kulaththangkarai Arasa Maram” (The Arasu Tree at the Edge of the Temple Tank).

Following the footsteps of Iyer, Pudumai Piththan (1906-48) wrought a revolution in the world of the Tamil short story. Employing subtle sarcasm and outright mockery, he highlighted the social evils and shortcomings of contemporary Tamil society with such devastating realism that he invited a host of negative criticisms from all and sundry. But even those he outraged by his sympathetic yet convincing depiction of society’s underdogs, such as prostitutes, could never stop reading his short stories! Most notable among his creations are gems such as “Kadavulum Kandasami Pillaiyum” (God and Kandasami Pillai) and “Sabha Vimochanam” (The Curse Repealed).

The short stories of Kalki—pseudonym of R. Krishnamurthi (1809-1954)— captivated all sorts and conditions of people because of their irresistible combination of high ideals and rich humor. A number of his short stories even campaigned effectively against prominent social evils such as drinking and un-touchability. “Kádariyin Amma” (Ké-da-ri’s Ma) and “Thirudan Mahan Thirudan” (Thief’s Son’s a Thief) are two of his outstanding stories.

Among the writers who followed the robust example of Kalki, the most outstanding was Akilan. His short stories such as “Ganga Snanam” (A Dip in the Ganges), “Kuraththi” (Gypsy Woman), and “Kuzhandai Chiriththathu” (The Child Laughed), reinforced the wholesome ideals of the Tamil culture without underplaying the realistic struggles in modern Tamil society.

While T. Janaki Raman (1921), author of innovative short stories such as “Chilirppu” (Shiver) and “Sivappu Riksha” (The Red Riksha), was a fine craftsman who was skilled in plumbing the dark depths of the human heart and bringing out hidden feelings to make them glisten like pearls in broad daylight, K. Raja Narayanan was remarkable for his exploitation of colloquial speech rhythms and Tamilian village traditions in his short stories.

No other modern short story writer in Tamil has explored the lives of slum dwellers with such fidelity and sympathy as Jaya Kanthan (1934). To him also belongs the credit of introducing, à la D. H. Lawrence, explicit sex into the world of the Tamil short story, with the ultimate aim of providing psychological insights into some dark corners of the human mind. “Agni Pravésham” (The Test of Fire) and “Suya Darisanam” (Self-Recognition) are among his best short stories.

Among women writers, R. Choodamani is outstanding for the vivid imagery and intuitive delicacy of her short stories, while Siva Sankari is known for her concern with women’s privations and rights.

Today, the short story is a fast-growing phenomenon in Tamil. Many fine male writers, like Chu. Samudiram and Bala Kumaran, as well as female writers, such as Ambai and Vasanthi, are enriching the world of the Tamil short story.

Popular magazines like Ananda Vikatan, Kalki, Kalaimagal, and Kumudam, as well as literary journals like Kanaiyazhi, Chemmalar, and Subha Mangala, provide outlets for writers of every kind, from those promoting lofty ideals to those with crass commercial motives. Short story collections, too, appear regularly and generally sell well.

A nonprofit organization called Ilakkiya Chinthanai even scrutinizes the short stories published in Tamil magazines and selects the best one every month. Next, it sifts the resulting 12 and selects the best short story of the year. Finally, it brings out all 12 short stories in a single volume. Since the organization has brought out these yearly anthologies fom 1970 onward, it is possible to assess the growth and development of the Tamil short story with reasonable accuracy. It is certain that the short story in Tamil has come a long way from its humble beginnings and is now capable of challenging the very best short stories in any of the world’s major literatures. It is also clear that Tamil short stories not only are increasing in numbers every day but also have a bright future ahead of them as a literary form.

The Novel

Like the short story, the novel has been transplanted from the West. In spite of its alien form, though, the novel has taken deep roots in the rich soil of Tamil literature.

The seed was sown by Veáda Nayakam Pillai (1826-89) of Mayavaram, the author of the first Tamil novel, called Pratapa Mudaliyar Chariththiram (The Story of Pratapa Mudaliyar), which was published in 1876. Narrated in the first person by the chief protagonist, Pratapa Mudaliyar, the novel brings to life two unforgettable characters in Pratapa Mudaliyar and his wife, friend, philosopher, guide, and helpmate, Gnanambal.

Since they employ nail-biting suspense and provide thrilling entertainment, detective novels are always popular with most readers. Not surprisingly, detective novels flourished in Tamil from the very beginning. In the early part of the twentieth century, authors like Vaduvur Dorai Swamy Iyengar, Arani Kuppu Swamy Mudaliyar, and K. R. Ranga Raju wrote countless tales of mystery and imagination containing intriguing elements of detection. Sadly, most of them were imitations or adaptations of English detective novels. By the mid-1950s, however, talented writers like Chiranjeevi, Dévan, and Tamizh Vanan began to turn out quality detective fiction in Tamil with originality and sophistication. The 1970s yielded a major writer of spellbinding detective fiction in Sujatha. Freely borrowing and adapting English expressions and motifs in his tales, such as Nylon Kaiyiru (Nylon Rope), Gayathri, and Kanavuth Thozhirtchchalai (Dream Factory), Sujatha managed to infuse a tremendous excitement into his stories. Soon, he became the idol of young readers who liked fast-paced stories that made their flesh creep and kept them on the edge of their seats. He retains that enviable status to this day.

By portraying realistic characters and focusing on their daily problems and conflicts, Tamil novels of social realism create an aura of authenticity and capture their readers’ hearts. Some of these novels are openly didactic, while others are satiric and reformist in content and intention.

Kalki (1899-1954) occupies a unique place in the world of the Tamil novel of social realism. The early decades of the twentieth century come convincingly to life in his masterpieces Thyaga Bhoomi (The Land of Sacrifice, 1938-39) and Alai Osai (The Sound of Waves, 1948-49). The freedom struggle was depicted so graphically in Thyaga Bhoomi that it was banned for its incendiary political ideas by the British raj.

In fact, Kalki has, with great dexterity, woven into the very texture of his social novels a number of historic events connected with the Indian struggle for independence, such as the Sepoy mutiny (1857), the noncooperation movement (1929), the Salt satyagraha (1930), the Gandhi-Irwin Pact (1931), the Second Roundtable Conference (1931), the arrest of Gandhi and Nehru (1931), the Quit India movement (1942), the Independence Day celebrations (1947), the Hindu- Muslim conflict subsequent to partition (1947-48), and the assassination of Gandhi (1948).

Among the novelists who captivated the reading public in the postindepen-dence era, Akilan stands foremost. Novel after novel of Akilan won a prestigious award. Penn (Woman) won the Narayana Swamy Iyer Prize, and Nenjin Alaigal (The Waves of the Mind) won the Tamil Valarchi Kazhagam’s Prize. Chith-thirap Pavai (The Picturesque Woman) obtained the Gnana Peedam Prize, while Pavai Vilakku (The Lamp of the Lady) gained national recognition by securing the Sahithya Academy Award. The secret of Akilan’s continued success was simple: he paid scrupulous attention to the creation of arresting characters and gripping plots, used a straightforward yet enchanting style, and instilled lofty ideals into his narratives without compromising their realism.

Na. Partha Sarathy’s Kurinchi Malar (The Rarest Flower) and Indira Partha Sarathy’s Kurudhip Punal (Blood Stream) are two postindependence novels memorable for their characterization and plot. Among recent novelists, Balakumaran is noteworthy. Serialized simultaneously in several popular Tamil magazines, his novels, such as Irandavathu Suryan (The Second Sun), Payanikal Gavanickavum (Travelers, Watch Out!), and Thoppul Kodi (Umbilical Cord), have become immensely popular.

Among the novels that concentrate on a particular region of Tamil Nadu and bring its speech and culture lovingly to life, Koththa Mangalam Subbu’s masterpiece Thillana Mohanambal (Mohanambal the Unique Dancer of Thillana) and K. Raja Narayanan’s magnum opus Gopalla Puraththu Makkal (The People of Gopalla Puram) are outstanding and have carved themselves a permanent niche in Tamilian hearts worldwide. While Subbu’s novel captures with affectionate care the picturesque lifestyle that prevailed in the preindependence Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, Raja Narayanan’s saga relates the deprivations and fulfillments of ordinary villagers in the dry districts of present-day Tamil Nadu. Among contemporary works, Jayamohan’s novel Rubber, which won the Akilan Memorial Prize in 1990, is outstanding for its graphic depiction of the agrarian community in south India. When the community abandons its long-standing traditional crop of plantains and cultivates rubber trees, unsuited to the climate and environment, disaster follows. The novel thus underscores the importance of living in tune with nature.

Several women writers, too, are contributing to the growth of the Tamil novel. The works of Anuththama, such as Oru Veedu (A Home), Kétta Varam (The Sought-After Boon), and Manal Veedu (House of Sand), and of Lakshmi, such as Penn Manam (Woman’s Heart), Kanchanaiyin Kanavu (Kanchanai’s Dream), and Aththai (Aunt), revolve around domestic problems and emphasize values of love and self-sacrifice as means of resolution. Rajam Krishnan’s novels often explore uncharted sections of Tamil society. For instance, her Kurinchith Thé n (The Rarest Honey) focuses on an aboriginal tribe of Tamil Nadu and deals with the conflicts they experience between their age-old traditions and modern innovations. Siva Sankari is another unusual novelist who handles controversial yet timely ideas in her works. For example, her novel Avan Aval Adhu (He She It) deals with artificial insemination and shows how it plays havoc with the peace and harmony of a typical south Indian family.

No other writer of historical novels in Tamil handled famous characters and poignant themes from the rich Tamilian cultural heritage so brilliantly and movingly as Kalki. His epic delineations of the great Mahéndra Varma Pallava and his illustrious son Narasimha Varma Pallava in Sivakamiyin Sabadam (Sivakami’s Vow—4 parts, 1944-46) and Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban’s Dream, 1941-43), as well as his monumental odyssey of the young Raja Raja to the Chozha throne in Ponniyin Chelvan (The Beloved Offspring of the River Ponni, 1950-54), are enduring historical romances that bring to life the splendor of the Pallava and Chozha kingdoms of bygone ages and have thus come to dominate the Tamilian imagination. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that Kalki not only created among the Tamils a taste for history but also satisfied it with a superb feast of historical novels.

Akilan was second only to Kalki. His gripping evocation of the times of that incomparable conqueror and administrator Rajendra Chozha in Véngaiyin Maindan (The Tiger’s Son) garnered him the Sahitya Academy Award. The magnificence of the Vijaya Nagara Empire comes thrillingly to life in another of his novels called Vetrith Thiru Nagar (Vijaya Nagara, the City of Victory).

Among contemporary historical novels, Prapanjan’s award-winning Manutam Vellum (Humankind Will Triumph) is a notable achievement. Based on the diaries of Anandarangam Pillai, a translator in Pondicherry under General Dupleix, governor of French colonial possessions, the novel depicts in fascinating detail the daily vicissitudes of living in eighteenthcentury India.

That the alien imported form of the novel has become an integral part of Tamil culture goes without saying. The fact that it has sprouted forth from its obscure origins and branched out so rapidly in several distinctly different directions suggests that there are greater things in store.


The dramatic tradition in Tamil literature is as old as the language itself. In fact, drama is so integral to the tradition that Tamil is often spoken of as mutthamizh (threefold Tamil) in which poetry, drama, and music are inseparably interwoven. Not surprisingly, there are references to drama even in Thol Kappiyum (Oldest Commentary), the first and most ancient treatise on grammar in Tamil. In the great Silappadikaram (The Tale of the Anklet)—often called a dramatic epic—there are detailed descriptions of the setting of the stage as well as expositions of the role of music and dance on the stage. Only after the eighteenth century did prose slowly begin to make inroads into drama. Nevertheless, folk poetic drama such as Kutrala Kuravanchi (Gypsy Dance of Kutralam) and Rama Natakam (The Drama of Rama’s Life) reigned. Even during the nineteenth century, hundreds of verse plays drawing upon the stories in the great national epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha made their appearance. The most notable of these were Madurai Veeran Vilasam (The Saga of Madurai Veeran) and Sita Kalyanam (The Wedding of Sita). Muslim and Christian traditions, too, found outlets in verse plays such as Ali Padusha and Gnana Soundari Ammal. Perhaps the most outstanding historical play of this period was Sundaram Pillai’s Manonmaniam.

The transformation of traditional poetic drama into modern prose drama was eventually accomplished in the early twentieth century by stalwarts such as Sankaradas Swamigal, Nawab Govindasamy Rao, and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliyar. Since then, Tamil drama has proliferated in various genres.

Mythological Plays

In the first half of the twentieth century, pioneers such as Kannaiya Naidu and Nawab Raja Manickkam Pillai staged countless plays based on age-old Hindu myths and epics and stimulated bhakti in the hearts of those who witnessed them. In fact, it was quite common for people to pay respect with folded hands to the “gods” whenever they appeared on stage during performances of Dasavatharam (Ten Avataras of Vishnu), Iyappan (Lord Iyappan), Sampoorna Ramayanam (The Complete and Wholesome Ramayana), Bhagavat Gitai (The Bhagavad Gita), and Rama Das (Saint Rama Das). It was also not unusual to see the audience in tears over the trials of Karna or the privations of Panchali (from the Mahabharatha) when they were movingly depicted by the veteran director-actor S. V. Sahasranamam, in his performance of P. S. Ramaiah’s Therotti Makan (The Charioteer’s Son) or Bharathi’s poetic drama Panchaliyin Sabadam. The mythicepic trend is still very much alive in Tamil drama. For the past two decades, R. S. Manohar has been staging extremely popular and critically acclaimed plays such as Ilankeswaran (Lord of Lanka), Surapadman (Demon Sura), and Viswamithra (Sage Viswamithra).

Historical Plays

Staging historical plays in Tamil is a costly and daunting proposition, for the background scenery, costumes, events, and dialogues have to be accurate and authentic. Nevertheless, the challenge has been courageously met time and again. In the 1950s and 1960s, the well-known T.K.S. brothers staged immensely popular historical plays such as Raja Raja Chola (The Great Chola King Raja Raja) and Kappalottiya Tamizhan (The Tamilian Who Plied Ships), a play based on the life and achievements of V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, who fought for freedom from British rule during the 1930s and became famous throughout the country as the first Tamilian to challenge the British merchant navy on the high seas. The T.K.S. brothers were not totally alone in launching historical plays. The famous cinema actor Sivaji Ganesan brought the heroic life of a pioneer freedom fighter to the stage and into the hearts of the Tamil people in Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman.

But R. S. Manohar must be credited with the establishment of historical plays on rock-hard foundations of historical research and realistic dramatization over the past 25 years. By combining split-second timing, dazzling special effects, moving dialogues, and powerful acting, Manohar mesmerized audiences by recreating famous and even controversial historical figures in Chanakya Sabadam and Malik Kafoor, so that Chanakya and Malik Kafoor imprinted themselves indelibly in Tamilian minds. Manohar’s dramatic productivity shows no signs of abatement. Even today, his latest play Thirunavukku Arasar (Saint Thirunavukku Arasar)—a dramatization of the life of the Saivite saint Appar, who came into conflict with, and triumphed over, Mahendra Varma Pallava—thrills audiences all over Tamil Nadu and Southeast Asia.

Plays of Social Realism

Though Tamil prose plays that dealt convincingly with the ups and downs in the life of ordinary people began to be written and produced as early as the last decades of the nineteenth century, not till the mid-twentieth century did social realism come into its own domain. Again, the T.K.S. brothers and S. V. Sahasranamam did yeomanly service to the Tamil stage by dramatizing classic novels by literary greats such as Kalki, Akilan, and T. Janakiraman. Thus, literary works such as Kalki’s Kalvanin Kadali (The Thief’s Beloved), Akilan’s Vazhvil Inbam (Happiness and Life), and Janakiraman’s Vadivelu Vaddhiyar (Vadivelu Teacher) and Nalu Veli Nilam (Four Acres of Ground) came to the stage and captured a permanent place for themselves in the Tamilian imagination. At the same time, plays by C. N. Annadurai—who led the anti-Brahminical DMK movement and eventually became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu—also came to the fore. Annadurai’s plays, such as Velaik Kari (Servant Maid), Or Iravu (One Night), and Needhi Devan Mayakkam (The God of Justice’s Bewilderment), forcefully attacked social evils such as bribery and casteism and unmasked the hypocrisies of the powerful. In the 1960s and 1970s, K. Balachandar’s extremely well received plays such as Malliyam Mangalam (Mangalam of Malliyam) riveted the attention of theatergoers by zeroing in on the problems, dilemmas, bonds, and affections that beset ordinary, middle-class households in Tamil Nadu. When Balachandar went over to cinema and became a famous director of box office hits, the Tamil stage lost a fine and extraordinary talent.


The pioneer Sambanda Mudaliyar first invoked laughter onto the Tamil stage through his full-length humorous play Sabhapathi. Following his footsteps, De-van created humorous masterpieces such as Thuppariyum Sambu (Detective Sambu) in the 1950s. A decade later, K. Balachandar made Tamilians laugh, made them think, and made them cry through his mildly satiric plays such as Server Sundaram (Waiter Sundaram) and Edhir Neechal (Swimming against the Current). Meanwhile, Cho’s polemical plays were not only providing sidesplitting theatrical entertainment to the Tamil public but also provoking them to subject self-serving politicians to relentless scrutiny and scathing criticism. Cho’s play Mohammed Bin Tughlak, for example, received rave reviews and played to packed audiences all over Tamil Nadu. It is probably one of the finest political satires in modern Tamil drama. Recently, however, the trend on the Tamil stage is toward plays that are merely absurd and invite the belly laugh. Dramatists like Crazy Mohan, S. V. Sekhar, and Mouli are busy churning out such “entertainers.”

Clearly, Tamil drama has made, and is making, tremendous strides in several directions. There is no doubt that its future looks promising. However, the sad fact is that Tamil plays seldom appear in print in paperbacks or anthologies. In the absence of such “literary” backup, it is quite possible that even masterpieces such as Raja Raja Chola might be permanently lost to Tamil literature.

To sum up, modern Tamil literature has evolved so rapidly in the past 100 years and shows such vitality and vibrancy that it is clear it will go from strength to strength in the coming century. One cannot do better than to pray to whatever powers there be to send the “roots” of modern Tamil literature “rain” so that its various forms continue to thrive, grow, and come to fruition.