The story of Kannagi, a woman who forgave her unfaithful husband and set an entire city ablaze when he was unjustly executed, captivated B. Sivakumar, Tamil writer and director. Her story fuelled his imagination to produce the first Tamil graphic novel, Silapathikaaram , which is scheduled to be launched by the end of January.
Kannagi is believed to have lived many centuries ago and is a character in an ancient Tamil epic of the same name. Originally written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain monk, it has been rewritten by many authors over time. Often read and narrated, the story of Kannagi is celebrated, even worshipped in Tamil Nadu. Now, with the graphic novel, Sivakumar hopes it will reach out to the young.
Myth maker: Sivakumar owns Cord Studios, an animation studio and comic portal. Sharp Image
The story begins at Poombuhar, a small town in Nagapattinam, where Kannagi and her husband Kovalan, a jewel merchant, lived, and ends at Madurai, which Kannagi burnt down. The third major character in this travelogue of an epic is Madhavi, a woman who Kovalan lives with after his marriage with Kannagi sours. But he eventually returns to his wife, who forgives him and embraces him back into her life. But by this time, Kovalan is broke, and Kannagi gives him her anklet to sell, so he can set up a business. Things turn awry when the goldsmith who had stolen the queen’s anklet frames Kovalan as the thief. King Nedunchezhian, descendent of the Pandyas, orders the execution of Kovalan. On receiving news of her husband’s death, an irate Kannagi proves her husband’s innocence and sets the city on fire with “her power of chastity”.
Not exactly a story that resonates with modern times.
But its narrative intricacies convinced Sivakumar. “Silapathikaaram is very rich in details. After I started reading it, I started imagining how it might have been during those times and thought, ‘Why can’t I create images of the story to narrate it?’ So, I decided on the graphic form.” But he didn’t want to break up the story into small images as is done in most comics. Instead, a panel in Sivakumar’s book narrates many incidents.
Sivakumar’s research took him to many people and places. He discussed the epic with his friend Valluvan, another Tamil writer whom Sivakumar describes as “his guide in art”. Both writers agreed that the distinguishing feature of the epic are the detailed descriptions. “In the wedding scene of Kannagi and Kovalan, the length, breadth and height of the stage is described, the things that were placed on the stage are listed, what kind of clothes the people wore are described. It is amazing,” Sivakumar says. His attempt is to visualize these descriptions alongside text in contemporary Tamil.
He travelled with Valluvan from Poombuhar to Madurai, tracking the sites where the incidents in the epic occurred. Six months of rigorous study helped Sivakumar and his team at the Chennai-based Cord Studios—his own animation studio that also manages an online Tamil comic portal—understand the story better. “It was a very important trip in my life,” he says. “I had travelled to these places before, but this time it changed me to a great extent.”
Sivakumar started off as an assistant to directors such as Janaki Viswanathan and Ravi Chandran, and has directed four movies, including Urumattram which won the National Award for Best Environmental Film in 2002. He started writing and reading poetry and non-fiction in his teens, and finally realized that history was what he loved. “History is magical,” he says.
His passion for history guided the way he approached the project. He first questioned the possibility of a woman burning an entire city down, but later concluded that Kannagi was from a family of oil merchants, who might have helped Kannagi do it. “There must have been clashes between the merchants and the ruler, and they were perhaps waiting for an opportunity to rebel.” All these details are not in the original text, but Sivakumar incorporates them in the visuals in his book.
“The graphic form can attract the younger generation to this epic,” Sivakumar says. He has plans to translate it to other languages as well, including English.