Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. 6, July 1-15, 2020

Manikkodi – A Magazine Which Brought Many Young Writers to the Fore

by K.R.A. Narasiah

Top row: K. Srinivasan, Va.Ra., T.S. Chokkalingam, Pudumaippiththan (Vridhachalam). Bottom row: C.S. Chellappa, Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan, Chitti Sundararajan and N. Pichamurthy.

The first 12 issues of Manikkodi were published in full newspaper-size (eight pages each) format. From the 13th issue onwards, it was halved into a tabloid size with 20 pages; however, the price remained the same at one anna. The change in size was attributed to complaints by both newsagents and readers that the size was unwieldy.

Initially, Manikkodi was edited by Srinivasan and Va.Ra., with Chockalingam taking a backseat as he was moving to launch a new daily called Dinamani, founded by S. Sadanand. When Va.Ra. and Chockalingam backed out of their ­financial commitments, Manikkodi became the sole financial responsibility of Srinivasan.

Manikkodi was animated by a nationalist idealism that was critical of colonialism and the alien government. Additionally, it was critical of moderates and liberals who did not follow Gandhi’s leadership.

Separate rubrics were devised to further nationalist propaganda: Jana Nadai, Nawab Nadai, Swatantra Pannai, Pazhang Kanakku (old account), Chaturmugam, Sarukkumalai, Gnanadeepam, and Puthu Tharasu. An important rubric was Ilakkiya Cholai, a literary section heralding new writing in Tamil. Pazhang Kanakku invoked history in an impassioned manner to right the colonial wrongs. Chaturmugam compiled news from various sources in an interesting manner. Sarukkumalai put together quotations, usually from political rivals, and commented on them. Manikkodi also published political cartoons regularly.

Manikkodi carried many memorable features. Srinivasan rewrote the Ramayana in the manner of a contemporary reporter filing stories. Inspired by Hilaire Belloc and A.G. Gardiner, Va.Ra. introduced a highly popular series of pen sketches on archetypal characters under the rubric of nadaichithiram. Manikkodi also pioneered verse libre (free verse) in Tamil by publishing the prose poems of Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan. It also published many poems by Bharatidasan, despite his non-Brahmin movement politics being at variance with Manikkodi’s.

Manikkodi was self-conscious about its literary quality, and it gained a reputation for the high standards it maintained. However, its circulation was limited and did not cross 1,000. The most popular journal then was Ananda Vikatan, published by S.S. Vasan (later to be the movie mogul of Gemini Studios) and edited by ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy. An outcome of the rivalry was the bitter polemic in 1934, which followed Ananda Vikatan’s adoption of the new American game of crossword puzzles with tempting prizes; Manikkodi cried foul and decried it as a mercenary ploy.

Manikkodi, Ananda Vikatan and Kalaimagal represented three different trends in the making of modern Tamil literature, as presciently delineated by Ku.Pa. Rajgopalan. While Ananda Vikatan took a superficial view of life, refusing to engage with the complexities of modern living, Kalaimagal took an idealist view of life at the level of high culture. Manikkodi’s credo was rebellion and struggle, and it looked at the underbelly of social life.

In the course of the evolution of modern Tamil literature, while Ananda Vikatan catered to a large reader base hailing from the middle classes, representing commercial writing, Manikkodi was seen as the harbinger of serious writing. ‘The little magazine’ tradition that emerged from the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream commercial journals consciously invoked the name of Manikkodi. This image of Manikkodi was rooted in the form that it took in its second phase.

The second phase

The October 21, 1934 issue carried an editorial announcement taking exception to the press referring to Va.Ra. as editor of Manikkodi. The wording was curt, indicating that the falling out was bitter. It said that there was no connection between Va.Ra. and Manikkodi.

It was then that V. O. Chidambaram Pillai asked Va.Ra. to go to Sri Lanka and take over the editorship of Veera Kesari. With T.S. Chockalingam focused on the new daily Dinamani, Srinivasan was left to fend for himself. As losses mounted, Srinivasan decided to shut shop in February 1935 and left for Bombay to continue his journalistic career in English. During this time, Manikkodi was managed by B.S. Ramaiah (1905-83). He had earlier joined Manikkodi as an agent, collecting advertisements for a commission. A Congressman who had courted arrest in the Civil Disobedience Movement, he also wrote short stories. Pudumaippithan too assisted him in running the journal. Ramaiah offered to take over the journal and a surprised Srinivasan accepted. With this began the second phase of Manikkodi, and when latter generations refer to Manikkodi, it is often this phase that they allude to.

While Srinivasan’s name continued to appear as editor, it was Ramaiah who ran the show. To settle some financial matters, T.S. Chockalingam’s Gandhi was also formally amalgamated with Manikkodi.

Under Ramaiah, Manikkodi took on a different avatar. First, he changed the size: from tabloid it was now reduced to royal octavo. In terms of periodicity, it became a fortnightly. Illustrations were introduced with the artist ‘Arya’ (Bashyam) doing many memorable line sketches. But the most important change was in the content. The new Manikkodi eschewed politics and news stories, and converted itself into a literary review. The focus was on the short story, and the very first issue, numbered anew as Volume 3; Number 1 (March 1, 1935), contained no less than 11 stories. In an innovative move, Ramaiah advertised it with a poster as AvvalavumKathaigal (all stories).

Despite these changes, the size of the readership base continued to remain unchanged. Many of the contributors were of the first phase vintage. The best find of Va. Ra. in modern Tamil writing was C. Viruthachalam (1906-1948), who wrote under the pseudonym Pudumaipithan.The most distinguished of the Manikkodi writers, he had written over 30 stories in the first phase. These included searing portraits of city life, including one about low-level prostitution in the streets of Madras – unheard of in Tamil writing at that time. In Ponnagaram, he wrote of a mill worker who sells her body to earn a rupee to save her ailing husband. While these stories shocked contemporary readers, the use of language and narrative technique raised their literary worth.

Even though he wrote less in the second phase, Pudumaippithan’s stories were longer and more mature. In the relaunched Manikkodi, he wrote a three-part short story, Thunba Keni, about the life of indentured labourers set in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. In Sirpiyin Nagaram (A Sculptor’s Nightmare), he wrote about the experience of a sculptor finding his masterpiece consecrated in a dark shrine and devotees worshipping it with closed eyes. Manikkodi’s authors included Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan, Na. Pitchamurthy, N. Chidambara Subramanian, Ci.Su. Chellappa, Ki. Ramachandran, R. Shanmugamsundaram, M. V. Venkatram and Chitti P.G. Sundarajan. An exciting new find was Mauni, (S. Mani Iyer1907-1985), who would later become a popular figure in the history of Tamil fiction. Mauni wrote only 24 stories in his entire career, inventive in form and content; most of them were published in Manikkodi.

Manikkodi also published stories in translation from English, Hindi and Bengali. Some of the Hindi stories were from Premchand’s literary journal Hans. Each issue of Manikkodi was prefaced by an editorial titled Mudal Athiyayam (First Chapter). Though criticised by contemporaries for exaggerated claims about the quality of its contents, the editorial bears testimony to the idealism animating Manikkodi.

Regular book reviews were published and they expressed sharp opinions, unlike the mainstream press whose book reviews were in the nature of notices. Strong opinions elicited stronger reactions, leading to lively debates. An important debate touched on the nature of translation. Until this time, adaptations passed for translation with no established protocols. In this debate, major writers argued a case for faithful translation, and it took root subsequently displacing adaptation, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. Another debate between Pudumaippithan and Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan centered on the theme of eroticism in literature.

Despite its critical success, Manikkodi was never financially viable. The journal pulled along by the idealism and tenacity of Ramaiah and his friends. Money sent by honest newsagents and a paltry advertising revenue, combined with the patience of the printing press, kept the journal going. In a bid to strengthen its finances, Manikkodi was converted into a limited company and a book publishing division was added. The new company was called Navayuga Prachuralayam Ltd., and consisted of a board of directors that included K. Srinivasan, T. S. Chockalingam, A.N. Sivaraman, K. Santhanam, P.S. Sankaran, and S.V. Swami. B. S. Ramaiah, apart from being a director, was now designated managing editor of Manikkodi. The publishing division published a few good books but the arrangement itself did not help in any way to strengthen its finances.

Rather, internal differences, triggered by the restructuring of the ownership proved to be Manikkodi’s undoing. Without any notice, on January 27, 1938, Ramaiah was removed from his managing editorship and Pa. Ramaswamy, a contributor and manager, was put in charge. Evidently, this was at the instance of T.S. Chockalingam. Ramaiah walked out, severing all ties. Manikkodi did not survive for long. It was published intermittently and folded up in early 1939. Though Ramaiah tried to revive it in 1950, he was able to manage just five issues.


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