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Guardian of Tamil oral tradition falls silent

“I know only about my land and my people. The only purpose behind my writing is to penpicture them to the Tamil world. I take all efforts to do it meticulously with no exaggeration. That is because I love my land and my people more than myself. They are the heroes of my works,” Ki Rajanarayanan had told me when I interviewed him for the final issue of the ‘Gentleman’ magazine in January 1995.

It is the Karisal (black soil) region he has celebrated in his works. What Wessex was to Thomas Hardy, the Karisal was to Ki Ra. At the southernmost corner of India lies Idai Seval in Tuticorin district, an obscure hamlet comprising just 250 houses. Since the land around is arid and infertile the inhabitants, most of them descendants of Telugu and Kannadiga immigrants, tend to cattle and grow cotton, ragi, and maize for a living. Branded “black desert”, the district is said to register the lowest rainfall in India. It was here that veteran freedom fighters like Veerapandiya Kattabomman, V O Chidambaram Pillai and K Kamaraj and eminent poets such as Andal, Periyazhwar, Subramania Bharathi were born. Two of the major contributors to the field of Tamil fiction — Ku Azhagirisamy and Ki Rajanarayanan — also emerged from this region.


Rayangala Shri Krishna Raja Narayana Perumal Ramanujan was too long for the writer’s taste and became Ki Ra for his readers. Starting out as a short story writer, he went on to explore the genres of essays, novels and folk tales. With his death on Monday night, the region lost its most eminent voice.

Ki Ra began writing at the age of 30. An eighth standard school dropout, he had no intention of wading into the world of words. “It was purely accidental. I used to write to my friends very personal letters. When I look back, I almost think that these letters alone have been the cause of my further venture into writing,” said Ki Ra while accepting his Sahitya Akademi award in 1991. A gifted raconteur in the true Indian tradition his letters too read like well-told stories.

He confessed that as a schoolboy he entered the classroom only when it was raining outside, and once inside when his classmates were attentively listening to the teacher, Ki Ra spent his time ‘usefully’ by looking through the window at the heavenly beauty descending on the earth. “There is nothing one can learn in schools. The first 25 years is the most precious period of life. It is a crime to waste it in classrooms,” he once said to me. An avid reader, he read a lot of the Russian works, translated to Tamil. To say that his literary yearnings had acquired a quality of richness and blossomed by encounters with world classics in Tamil translation is no exaggeration.

Till he left Idaiseval to join the Folktales Documentation and Survey Centre in Pondicherry University as its director (1988-89), he was an agriculturist and wrote during his leisure hours. After finding a foothold in Pondicherry, he became a more prolific writer. Though Telugu was Ki Ra’s mother-tongue, he could read and write only in Tamil.

What makes his works quite interesting is his narrative style, which imparted charm to every piece he penned. He wrote just what he knew and the way he knew it. Ki Ra preferred the colloquial style to the formal one because he believed, “…language preserves its sanctity, its reach, only in the spoken form. Speech is the pulse of writing which must be in close harmony with the spoken language. It has more force, depth and solidarity than the written form of any language. The spoken form is soul-related.”

Famous as a laographer (a collector of folk tales), he has several collections of folktales that he retold in the language of the people. In fact, one volume from this genre kicked up a great fuss when it was serialised in a weekly for the tales were erotic in nature. In his writings, nothing was too profane to be left unwritten, for instance, in ‘Maraivaai Sonna Kadhaigal’ (Tales told in secrecy), a compilation of folktales on sex and sexuality, he delves into ideas of propriety and fidelity, and shows how blurred they are.

In spite of the serious objections raised by Tamil purists and pundits to his employing the spoken idiom in his writings, Ki Ra continued to write in the language he was familiar with, breaking fresh ground in contemporary Tami writing and enriching the language. “Tamils have not known this world, these rustic people, innocent, colourful, uninhibited, smelling of their earth,” he would say. Perhaps it is for this purpose he prepared a lexicon ‘Vattara Vazhakku Chollakarati’ (1982) and popularised several usages and proverbs typical of karisal region, thus emphasising on the importance of oral tradition.

By his adamant refusal to look beyond his territorial circle of his land and his people, Ki Ra had carved for himself a niche in the history of modern Tamil literature. And writers of this region desiring to get into the limelight follow in his footsteps. One wonders if there is any other soil or community of people more known to the Tamil world than the Karisal region. The credit goes to the pioneer Ki Rajanarayanan for this school of writers and this branch of fiction.

(The author is a bilingual creative writer and literary historian)



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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