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VOL. XXIII NO. 18, JANUARY 1-15, 2014
Krishnan and his Tamil writings
(by S. Theodore Baskaran)

When Krishnan began writing in his mid-twenties, he naturally wrote in Tamil. Perunkulam House on Edward Eliot’s Road in Madras, where he grew up, was the meeting point for Tamil literary giants of the day. U.Ve. Swaminatha Ayyer, Kathiresa Chettiar, Rajaji and Ragavaiyangar, to mention only a few luminaries among them, came by to meet and converse with Krishnan’s father, Madhaviah (1872-1925). Madhaviah, a government servant, had taken voluntary retirement at fifty to set up a small press in his house and devote himself wholly to literary pursuits. A pioneer of modern Tamil prose and author of the second published Tamil novel - Padmavathi Charithram (1898) – he edited and published two magazines, Panchamirtham and Thamizhar Nesan. His writings – he wrote prolifically in English and in Tamil – were laced with humour and sarcasm, qualities that were to be a notable feature of Krishnan’s own work in the future. Madhaviah was known for his iconoclastic ideas and strong opposition to orthodoxy. This explains why he and his works have been neglected and allowed to slip into obscurity, but that’s another story. Krishnan grew up in this ambience in his formative years.

At least six of Madhaviah’s children, including Krishnan’s elder brother Ananthanarayanan who retired as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, wrote fiction. I came across a collection, Munnila (1944), which had short stories by all six siblings, including two by Krishnan.

Krishnan (1912-1996) started writing in the 1930s, when he was working in Madras and later at the Durbar of the princely state of Sandur in Karnataka. After Independence, spurning an offer to be inducted into government service, Krishnan decided to make a living through writing and photography. Only then did he switch to writing in English. Several writers of his generation were bilingual, having studied in the Tamil medium, including R.K. Narayan who had also started his writing career in Tamil.

The Tamil journal Silpasri, which boasted of contributions by all the eminent writers of the day – including Vaiyapuri Pillai and Ra. Pi. Sethupillai – provided space for Krishnan’s work. His early attempts at writing were short stories under the name Ma. Krishnan and occasionally under a pseudonym – ‘Kannan’. Krishnan also penned literary essays and an occasional piece on natural history. His short stories of the time transcended the barriers of caste-based culture and had a natural history backdrop, and had much to do with racing pigeons, dogs, and the like. His protagonists were common folk: Kandasamy the washerman, or Fakramid the butcher.

Ki.Va. Jagannathan, the editor of Kalaimagal, a monthly, persuaded Krishnan to write on wildlife in Tamil, and a series of his articles were published. Later, he wrote for the popular Kalki magazine too. Krishnan began to write about conservation and wildlife at a time when there was little awareness on these subjects among readers in India, much less among Tamil readers. For ten years, till 1957, he wrote regularly in Tamil on natural history: birds, animals and natural phenomena such as rain. Each piece was also illustrated with a line drawing by him, which captured the spirit of the subject with a minimum of strokes. Krishnan, who had worked in the School of Arts and Crafts in Madras for some time, was an impressive artist. His drawings also enriched some short stories and articles by other writers, which appeared in Silpasri. He signed them ‘Z’, the pen name he used for his contributions to The Hindu.

M. Krishnan.

That worships, rituals and astrology did not have a place in his scheme of things is clearly evident in Krishnan’s writings. In fact, in a piece describing his trip to Palani hill temple, he declares himself an agnostic. He was a naturalist to the core, who believed that the laws of nature held the universe together. He would have agreed with fellow naturalist David Attenborough who said, “I think the way life on Earth develops is far more wonderful and astonishing than the account given in Genesis.” He once told me that he was more impressed by the quick sprint of a squirrel than a fighter-jet breaking the sound barrier. Krishnan’s approach to the world of nature was shaped by this awe of nature’s richness and variety. One such piece titled ‘Mazhaikalam’ (the Monsoon) stands out in my memory.

One of his best pieces was, by common consensus among his readers, ‘Nayakkancheri Naigal’ (the Dogs of Nayakan Cheri (1950). From the description, the setting appears to be Sandur; Krishnan goes on to describe the behaviour of dogs of this cheri graphically. The style can be compared to James Thurber or P.G. Wodehouse. Krishnan was a PGW aficionado and both authors were fond of dogs. Describing a dog getting ready for a fight, Krishnan writes: “It growled like a rain cloud.”

Krishnan also had excellent grounding in classical Tamil literature. He would quote with ease from works such as Kalingathuparani or Purananooru. He published a number of essays of literary criticism in Tamil. His translation of a poem from the Sangam anthology (circa 2-4 CE) is evidence of his deep empathy with that genre. The poet is away from home in Madurai; as he sights a pair of white storks flying northwards, he addresses them with a message to his wife. In capturing the spirit of a Sangam poem, Krishnan can be compared only to A.K. Ramanujam. Here it is:

O stork, O stork, O red-legged stork

With coral-red beak, sharp tapered

Like the split tuber of the sprouting palmyra,

Should you and your spouse turn northward

From sojourning at the southern

Waters of Kanyakumari,

Halt at the tank of my village Sathimutham

And there to seek out my wife,

In our wet-walled drip-thatched abode,

Listening to the gecko’s whinnying voice

For augury of my return

and tell her that you saw this wretch in Madurai, city of our Pandya king, Grown thin with no clothes against the north-wind’s bite

Hugging his torso with his arms,

Clasping his body with his upraised legs,

Barely existing, like the snake within its basket.

A King Cobra photographed by M. Krishnan.

Krishnan translated his friend Thi. Janakiraman’s famous novel Amma Vandhal into English under the title Appu’s Mother. It was serialised in The Illustrated Weekly of India and later published in book form. Krishnan wrote poetry though he never published his poems. I came across one of his poems in the Visitor’s Book at Angler’s Hut in Grass Hills, in the Anamalai range of the Western Ghats. The caretaker, Thangavelu, unaware that he was talking to a wildlife expert, had told Krishnan that there were four kinds of tigers in the area and described their distinct patterns of behaviour. This inspired Krishnan to write a Venba, a classical Tamil quatrain.

A large number of magazines and hundreds of books are published every year, but writings on natural history are rare in contemporary Tamil magazines and dailies which publish very little on the subject. Even in the scanty news coverage that appears on wildlife, there is confusion over nomenclature, words and phrases dealing with creatures and habitats. As a special terminology for the subject has not been developed, there is practically no discourse on the concepts and ideas of conservation. ‘Green’ literature is simply absent.

Tamil writings of Krishnan on wildlife should be seen in such a background to appreciate their value. Krishnan drew heavily from the body of traditional knowledge on wildlife. Written in the first person, most of his pieces are based on his own exeriences and observations. He used traditional Tamil names for birds, mammals and plants, which are slipping out of the language due to disuse. The best examples of such writing are the entries on birds with his illustrations for each. He wrote for the Tamil encyclopaedia, the ten-volume Kalaikalanjiyam (1954). Retrieving the traditional nomenclature and phrases relating to wildlife will enrich contemporray Tamil and this should facilitate a much-needed discourse on the whole issue of conservation.

His writings can be classified into three categories – literary essays, fiction, and articles on natural history. Tamil prose style of the 1950s, of which Krishnan’s was one of the best examples, was in many ways much more functional and workmanlike than it is today. The emphasis was on communciation, exact and unambiguous, and on concepts or information. Its beauty and apeal lay in its simplicity and directness. The writer did not project himself, but only the idea being conveyed. This is strikingly evident when you peruse articles on science subjects by Pe.Na. Appusamy, a contemporary of Krishnan. Appusamy did not struggle to explain a scientific concept; he did it with such ease and effect. The period in which Krishnan wrote prolifically in Tamil, the 1940s and 50s, was in many ways the golden era of Tamil prose. Other writers like Narana Duraikannan, Swaminatha Sarma and Pe. Thooran were also active. Krishnan’s own standards in prose were exacting and uncompromising. This was one reason why he took a dim view of Kalki’s work.

In the Tamil literary scene, this was the season of redemption. In the realm of fiction, Pudumaipithan’s writings have been redeemed and his genius is now being recognised. Similarly, the essays of Iyothia Dasar, rationalist and reformist, have been salvaged and published in two volumes. Maylilai Seeni Venkatasami’s contribution to understanding the history of Tamils has been acknowledged and his works have been nationalised recently. Madhaviah has now earned a special place in the social history of the Tamils, thanks to scholars like Raj Gowthaman (see his Aa. Madhaiah 1872-1925 Vazhuvum Padaipum, Tamil, 1999). Krishnan’s writings on natural history, his fiction and literary criticism await their turn. I consider his writings on natural history particularly important because very few write in Tamil on wildlife and nature. In the contemporary Tamil scene the external world seems to go completely unnoticed. Krishnan believed that the identity of a country is not made of just people, but by its mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and all creatures that lie there, and his writings reflected this belief. In his words, this is what constitutes the quiddity of a country.

Krishnan’s last work was a novel in Tamil. Described by him as a thriller, Kathiresan Chettiyarin Kathal was published posthumously in 1996. Krishnan had done the cover illustration himself, a seated man with a Kombai dog by his side.

(I am thankful to Indumathi, wife of Krishnan, for talking to me about Krishnan and his work.)

NOTE: This article first appeared in the now defunct Indian Review of Books, December 2000.

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In this issue

Still waiting for a Tree Act
What does the Metro Plan for RSRM Choultry
Sadir to Bharata Natyam
The Madras Balloon
A Further Look at our Trees
Krishnan and his Tamil Writings
Headlines & Tailpieces

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Madras Eye
Dates for Your Diary


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