graphic novels

A new Tamil comic book series set in the Chola period brings a literary classic to life

Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 2,500-page historical novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has now been adapted into a graphic novel.

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?”

Historic comic

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.”

Credit: Nila Comics
Credit: Nila Comics

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.”

Credit: Nila Comics
Credit: Nila Comics

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.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.