Poetry may be the essence of a language, but prose is its main body. Since the Sangam period, Tamil has had an unbalanced affinity with poetry. The twentieth century and especially Madras broke this noose and gave prose a chance to proliferate. The growth of prose was astronomical and for the first time attracted scholars into any family. You could even say that Tamil poetry seemed stuck in the corner of movie songs.
A major renaissance movement in the 1930s called the Manikodi Movement can be directly held responsible for the proliferation of the two prose writers. This movement only lasted six years and had an impact on the future that has left historians in wonder.
The first Tamil novel came out in 1879 and became the dominant form of reading. Disturbing historical events like the World War, the Depression, and the civil disobedience movement against the ruler have changed the sensitivity of readers. The imitation novels were not enough to satisfy the curiosities and growing interests of readers. It was then that the Tamil news that would not test the reader’s limited patience became the dominant force. Short stories were much harder to put on limited space for writers who could ramble on endlessly earlier. It was an experiment for an area in desperate need of reform, but were there enough labs to continue this trial?
Manikodi was one of them. It was a 60-page magazine supporting succinct writing – short stories and essays. The name on the masthead was a description of the national flag in a recent fiery poem by Bharathi Thayin Manikodi roughly meaning “the jeweled flag of our mothers”. Coincidentally, Kamban also mentions a Manikodi as the first thing Rama sees flying above Mithila, where the lovely Janaki was waiting for her garland.
In September 1933, the first issue of Manikodi was released. The three men who founded the magazine could not have been more different from each other. However, Chokkalingam, Srinivasan, and Ramasamy had a common bonding force: patriotism in an era of divided loyalties.
Srinivasan had worked as a Sunday Watcher in London. Chockalingam had worked in the Tamil press. Ramasamy had the gift of having been initiated into Tamil literature by Bharathi himself.
Ramasamy was a talent scout especially for writers with simple styles and was said to publish his edition, the story could be understood by rickshaw pullers in George Town. In this shadow of minimalism, writers like Mowni and Pudhumaipithan have captivated the Tamil world with realistic writing.
Ramasamy encouraged a shift to social themes by arguing that literature cannot just be a vehicle for entertainment. It should also be one for social change and upliftment. His writers took this principle to heart, and his rival Kalki even ridiculed the writers of Manikodi for taking literature too seriously.
The early years had essays espousing nationalism (political cartoons, quotes, and short stories) and an occasional short story. The early issues even had Ramayana recounted from a journalist’s pen. But with the arrival of BS Ramaiah as editor, a flood of news turned Manikodi into a literary magazine. BS Ramaiah started out as a waiter in a Madras hotel and met the founders in prison. Soon he eclipsed them all and changed Manikodi to the format he remembers today. Later, in 1982, Ramaiah received the Sahitya Academy Award for a book on the Manikodi years.
By 1935, over 100 short stories were published each year, and the Manikodi looked to the international market to choose stories to translate as well. It was as if Manikodi was responding to an audience’s insatiable thirst for prose.
Ramaiah’s legion of writers were different in their writing but socially cloned. Most had similar backgrounds and were born in the 20th century. Their camaraderie was remarkable. They forgot that they were rivals competing for the same space in history and spent time in literary discussions late into the night. They helped the magazine with the layout, and even lent a hand to the printer to pull the pedal and some even stood on street corners to sell the copies. For them, literature was a passion, and it was this collective fervor that sparked the Manikodi Movement.
It is not without controversy that this cohesive group has been able to progress. They united to fight Kalki when the latter declared that Bharathi was not a Mahakavi. Soon the debate turned into denigration. The Manikodi group questioned the authorship of Kalki’s books, accusing him of plagiarism. But it was a typical David and Goliath tale. The Manikodi struggled to sell 1,000 copies. The Anandavikadan led by Kalki easily sold 50,000.
But dreams don’t last forever. Somehow, the enthusiasm of running an upstart magazine has waned. Financial viability eluded him and soon management struggles led to Ramiah’s sacking. The closure of Manikodi was imminent. Looking back, the writers of Manikodi did not scatter like withered leaves in an autumn wind. Like life in the seeds of a pod shattering in the summer rain, they have planted themselves in every corner of the print world and enriched the literary landscape of Madras.
– The writer is a historian and author