Samhita Arni Spins a Gripping Tale About the Narrator of the Silappadikaram

Thursday, May 13, 2021

As children growing up in Bangalore between the late sixties and mid-eighties, we encountered the Mahabharata and Ramayana in various forms. In tales narrated by parents and aunts, in Amar Chitra Katha comics, in the more intricate versions penned by C. Rajagopalchari, in school textbooks and plays. Then, in the Doordarshan dramas that burst into our Sunday mornings in a blaze of sound and giddying colour. Surprisingly, for being a Tamilian household, we had little or no exposure to the Silappadikaram, which I am embarrassed to note with the fervor of a latecomer, is an equally arresting epic, with its values and sensibilities possibly as interleaved into the Deccan region, as the two more widely-known tales.

The epic Tamil poem might have stayed unexplored, if I hadn’t encountered Samhita Arni’s The Prince, a riveting, fictional recounting of the life of Ilango Adigal, the presumed author of the Silappadikaram. And though penned by a Chera prince (who turned into a Jain ascetic), the story revolves around commoners, unlike the two more-famous epics that dwell largely on royals.

For those of you who are not yet conversant with the Tamil tale, let me start with a Wiki-type rehash. The narrative depicts a couple, Kannaki and Kovalan, whose happily-married beginning portends ominous shifts. Kovalan is a prosperous merchant, and Kannaki, a doting wife. Soon enough, the temptress arrives in the form of a courtesan, Madhavi. Even as Kovalan is ensnared by her charms, his fortunes plunge. Later, a repentant and penurious Kovalan returns to the ever-faithful Kannaki. They decide to head out to Madurai and start afresh.

At the Pandya capital (Madurai), Kannaki hands over her anklet to her husband, to sell at a jeweler’s. The jeweler had earlier stolen the Queen’s anklet, and he pins the blame on Kovalan. Without ascertaining the facts, the impetuous King has Kovalan executed. An enraged Kannaki, unclasps her other anklet in the King’s presence, to prove her dead husband’s innocence. Moreover, she rips off her breast and chars the palace and city in vengeful flames. Her unshackled anger at the end is reminiscent of Sita’s outrage, when Rama heeds his doubting citizens rather than his wife, or of Draupadi’s flashing fury, when Yudhishtra ‘loses’ her, like a tradeable object, to his scheming cousins.

Arni, herself, who is half-Tamilian, was persuaded to explore the epic and its depiction of a woman’s rage, after Nirbhaya, the horrific 2012 gang rape and murder that incited the nation’s women to stream into its streets. As a writer she had always explored the paradoxes and unheeded voices in Indian epics and myths in her previous works – starting with The Mahabharata: A Child’s View, an internationally lauded version that she penned, astonishingly enough, as a mere 12-year-old. In that unorthodox retelling, Arni questions the very idea of war, with a clarity and penetration that few adults possess. The book sold more than 50,000 copies, in seven languages. Later, she brought her offbeat insights to Sita’s Ramayana, a graphic novel (illustrated by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar) that featured on The New York Times bestseller list in 2011. The Missing Queen, her third book, contemporizes the Ramayana in a speculative thriller that also dwells on the losses unleashed by modernity and development.

In The Prince, her deft manipulation of a historic epic results in a page-turning literary thriller. The chapters are short but dense, and her descriptions shimmer. For instance, when Uthiyan, (the name she chooses for Ilango Adigal), the protagonist and Chera prince, dwells on his mother’s Silver Palace, his thoughts meander to the “waterfalls that flashed like spun gold in the summer sun,” or to “groves filled with the sound of his mother’s handmaidens, shrieking as they chased the green parrots that were forever escaping the finely wrought, impractical silver cages.” Arni also depicts the tightening, winding, coiling nature of desire, of its capacities to snare and then callously withdraw, or flit to new targets.

Refracting the Silappadikaram, but also steering the tale in new, imaginative directions, she builds a vivid portrait of Tamilaham, of the Chera, Pandya and Chola kingdoms that had spawned a distinct literary and artistic culture. Of the lean and agile Kalabhras, a tribe that might have originated in the whereabouts of Karnataka, who ushered a period of civil turmoil and cultural churn.

She brings to our notice a story that precedes the ascent of poetry in the Sangam period, inside many-pillared halls where poets were accorded the status of ministers or military generals. Apparently Brahma had cursed the Goddess Saraswati, and she was condemned to shatter into as many pieces as there were letters of the alphabet. So breaking into 48 fragments, she entered the tongues of 48 different poets belonging to various castes and communities. Their poetry emerged in a grand pattimandapam that was constructed at Madurai, where apparently, Shiva himself, was supposed to have assumed human form and occupied one of the seats, as the 49th poet.

By centering her narrative on the princely bard, Arni often dwells on why stories and poems need to be written at all. One of the Kannakis (there are two) in her account, tells Ilango that poems are meant to make kings feel sympathy and love, so that they are filled with valor and will take the right actions. But perhaps, she wonders, poets do not just change kingly minds. But also, that of common people: “We move hearts and through moving hearts, we can change minds.”

She was drawn to write this story, and in this particular way, because she was compelled by the juxtaposition of opposites: “A Jain monk who wrote an erotic epic.” But more intriguingly, of “[a] man who wrote an epic poem of a woman’s quest for justice.” Such paradoxes and contrasts also shape the book. Like the two brothers, Uthiyan and Shenguttuvan, born of different mothers, and bearing opposite traits. One a romantic and sensitive poet, the other pragmatic and muscular. Of the seductress Madhavi, whose signs of an aging body vanished from the onlooker’s gaze, “the glow of the setting sun transmuting her into a spinning, twirling, red-gold flame.”

The book required extensive research, including traveling into spaces, where particular records or works were stored. For instance, she encountered the translation of the Silappadikaram, at the home of the Indologist Alain Danielou, while on a residency at Italy. The Tamil classic had, in fact, been translated by Danielou himself. Moreover, he had also translated its offshoot, Manimekalai, which is perceived as a Buddhist story. Since the progenitor, Silappadikaram is considered a Jain story, it’s also fascinating for us contemporaries, to understand the rich, syncretic intermingling between religions and belief systems in the region.

And like in most accounts of memorable creative works, it wasn’t Arni who chased the story, as much as the story chased her: “I dived into the Silappadikaram. It began to possess me.” But the eventual narrative of Ilango Adigal, hadn’t been the one she started out to write. At first, she was seized by the story of Kannaki, who is mythologized across Tamil Nadu, worshipped as a goddess in some parts, or seen as a champion for justice, her 10-foot bronze statue looming over the Marina Beach. Interestingly, the other Tamil epics, including Manimekalai, Kundalakesi and Neelakesi center around women. They challenge, by their very presence, the cliched male quests and conquests, that shape the popular versions of other epics. In finding herself drawn to Ilango’s story, Arni sensed that her own emotional vistas had been widened by occupying this unusual man’s perspective.

Filled with betrayals and prophecies, ruthless battles and lovers’ sighs, seductive dancers and missed assassinations, treachery inside palaces and perilous treks through forests, The Prince is a beguiling voyage into a fascinating historic period.


Arni, Samhita, The Prince, Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2019

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