Amidst the fertile fields that girdle the large Veeranam Lake in Cuddalore rode a lone messenger on his trusted stallion. Wearing amulets of iron and a spear in his belt, Vandiyathevan was travelling to Chola Kingdom’s capital Thanjavur, carrying a message for the king from his friend, the crown prince Aditya Karikalan.
The adventures of the brave and witty Vandiyathevan are chronicled in the Tamil historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, set in the 10th century Chola Kingdom. The story, which has inspired theatre and movie adaptations over the decades, has been revisited again, albeit this time in comic book form.
The comic begins with a sketch of Kalki Krishnamurthy, the author of the 1950 novel, greeting the reader: “Let me take you back a thousand years. How is that possible, you may wonder? I am going to take the help of some of my artists...”
Making the 2,500-page Tamil text comprehensible for readers above the age of twelve was a daunting task – one that Nila Comics, a publishing house in Chennai, decided to take on.
“I have always liked this story very much since I was a child,” said P Saravanaraja, the managing director of Nila Comics. “We thought to ourselves, if we get into comics 2D animation production, why not try working on something very big?”
Eight years ago, Saravanaraja and his team decided to make a 2D animated film on Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni’s son). The company, PSN Entertainment Private Limited, was engaged in animation training and also worked on visual effects outsourced by Hollywood movies. As the animated film made progress, it struck Saravanaraja that they also had enough material to flesh out an entire comic series. A rare, original Tamil comic emerged.
With the first comic book covering the first two chapters of Ponniyin Selvan, Nila Comics plans to bring out a new sequel every two weeks. They have not yet finished writing the script and drawing illustrations for all five volumes, said Saravanaraja – it is a challenge to simplify the storyline, without losing its core essence.
“Though this project is aimed at introducing children to the novel, we expect that adults will actually be our main readers,” he said. “The ardent lovers of Ponniyan Selvan would feel cheated if we made too many changes.”
The project is headed by M Karthikeyan, a bright-eyed, middle-aged artist. Though a 20-year veteran of the animation industry, Karthikeyan fell back on the storytelling experiences gained growing up in a family of dramatists and working as a theatre actor to script panels from Ponniyin Selvan. It was not easy – unpacking a tome heaving with characters and events for a comic required some skills.
Another major challenge Karthikeyan and his team faced was imagining the landscape a thousand years ago. Karthikeyan was determined to depict the scene in as authentic a manner as possible. “Right from the clothing and jewellery, to the wooden gates along lake beds that arrest water, we had to draw everything as it would have been,” said Karthikeyan.
A team of 30 animators and artists worked on the project. While senior artists worked on the characterisation of people, the next level of artists designed the landscapes, and the junior artists did the colouring.
The features and expressions of the characters, especially Vanthiyadevan, share a likeness with the animations of Disney movie characters. Karthikeyan conceded that in the beginning, most illustrators and animators were inspired by Disney’s creations. “But as we grow as artists, we begin to develop our own style,” he said. “Tamil Nadu’s native Tanjore paintings and the sculptures in our temples also inspire our drawings.”
Little space for Tamil comics
Apart from Amar Chitra Katha and Lion-Muthu comics, which translates comics from Europe and the United States, there are very few comic books published in Tamil. Among these, original works are even rarer.
In a state that lives and breathes cinema, little attention is paid to drawing and cartooning, said Saravanaraja. “All those who are trained in different art forms inevitably move towards cinema,” he said with a laugh. According to him, the business model of the movie industry, where returns can be earned in as short a time as six months is far more attractive than the time-consuming world of comic books and animation.
There is not even enough importance given to drawing and art in schools, said Karthikeyan. “Only through drawing will children develop their observations and take note of minute details,” he added.
It is the same attention to detail that Nila Comics attempts to give to the novel, out of respect to the writer.
“Kalki makes us visualise the historic setting with just his words,” said Saravanaraja. “So the job is made easy for anyone who wants to produce a movie or drama on it. The strength of his words help us to recreate the Chola kingdom.”