A trailblazer

Print edition : February 02, 2002
T.M. Chidambara Ragunathan, 1923-2001.

FEW modern Tamil writers have excelled in literary criticism, still an evolving genre in the language. T.M. Chidambara Ragunathan, who died at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu on December 31, 2001 was one of them. Yet, he was also a creator with deep insight and progressive perspective, a trailblazer of the progressive literary movement in Tamil. Short-story writer, novelist, poet, biographer, translator, journalist, researcher and literary activist, Ragunathan excelled in all that he touched.


In six decades of literary pursuit, Ragunathan brought out four anthologies of short fiction, three novels, three collections of poems, two plays and one biography, besides research and critical works.

He began his writing career in 1941 as a teenager with a short story in Prasanda Vikatan and kept on writing until his death at the age of 78. His last published work was Pudumaippithan kathaigal: sila vimarsanangalum vishamangalum (August 1999, "Pudumaippithan's stories: some criticisms and mischievous readings"), a book in defence of his mentor and friend, Pudumaippithan (1906-1948), who is hailed as the greatest of Tamil short story writers.

Some of Ragunathan's writings were pioneering efforts in Tamil - Ilakkia vimarsanam (1948, "Literary criticism") in aesthetics, Panchum pasiyum (1953, "Cotton and hunger") in the Marxist concept (of the Stalin era) of socialist realism; and Bharatiyum Shelliyum ("Bharati and Shelley") in comparative literature.

Ragunathan won not less than 10 awards. While Bharati kaalamum karuthum (1982, "Bharati's time and ideas") won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983, his translation in Tamil (Thai) of Maxim Gorky's Mother and his Lenin kavithaanjali ("A poetic homage to Lenin"), a Tamil rendering of Soviet poet Mayakovsky's elegy on Lenin, brought to him the Soviet Land Nehru Award twice, in 1965 and 1970. Other honours include the Tamil Annai Prize from the Tamil University, Thanjavur.

RAGUNATHAN was born in Tirunelveli on October 20, 1923. His grandfather is credited with having written Nellai Pallu, a poetic drama in the folk tradition. His brother, T.M. Bhaskara Thondaman, who was in the civil service, authored several books on South Indian sculpture and Tamil literature. Thondaman was one of the close associates of scholar and critic T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, who inspired many writers of his time. While at college Ragunathan had as his mentor Professor A. Srinivasa-ragavan, a scholar in both Tamil and English (who himself won the Sahitya Akademi award).

Ragunathan joined the freedom struggle in 1942 and was imprisoned. Out of college, his interest turned to writing. He wrote stories, poems and articles for magazines. In 1944, he joined Dinamani, the Chennai-based Tamil daily, as sub-editor. Two years later he joined Mullai, a literary monthly, and after brief stints with some other magazines returned to Tirunelveli in 1954. He launched a progressive literary monthly, Shanthi, which during its two-year existence (1954-56) became a launching pad for many spirited youth, who later grew into eminent writers - D. Jayakanthan, Ki. Rajanarayanan, Sundara Ramasami and D. Selvaraj, to mention a few.

After freelancing for over a decade, Ragunathan returned to Chennai in the mid-1960s to join Soviet Land Publications. Until he retired from service in 1988, he was engaged in translating and editing Russian works, besides continuing his literary activities.

It was during this period that he brought out two of his massive research works - Ilango Adigal Yaar? (1985, "Who is Ilango?"), an acclaimed socio-historical study of Tamil epic Cilappathikaaram and the award-winning Bharati kaalamum karuthum. Post retirement, Ragunathan spent much of his time reading, doing research and participating in the activities of Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkia Perumandram, a mass literary organisation of the Communist Party of India, of which he was founder vice-president (and president later).

Much of Ragunathan's creative writing came in the first two decades of his literary activity (1942-62). Panchum pasiyum gave a moving account of the plight of the handloom workers of Tamil Nadu. The novel spoke of the sufferings of the weavers and explained how their class consciousness was aroused and how they were united to fight for their survival. The novel was the first one in Tamil to be translated into the Czech language and the translated work proved an instant success with 50,000 copies being sold out within weeks. His stories, most of which were about the problems of the working people and the middle class, reflected Ragunathan's understanding of the lives of ordinary people. The writer's skill in weaving local colour into fiction was also evidenced by these stories.

It was in the beginning of his writing career that Ragunathan became a close associate of Pudumaippithan, who was 17 years older than him, inspired by his powerful narrative. After Pudumaippithan died, Ragunathan arranged for the publication of his stories and poems. In 1951, he came out with a biography of his writer-friend and mentor, which read like an engrossing novel. Ragunathan's last work, Pudumaippithan kathaigal: sila vimarsanangalum and vishamathanangalum published about 50 years after that writer's death can be seen as an extension of this biography. In his foreword, Ragunathan explained that the book sought to demolish attempts by certain critics, including some of his contemporaries, to malign him. Besides denying the detractors' charge that many of Pudumaippithan's stories were adaptations, Ragunathan made a comprehensive survey of the literary scene spanning four decades.

As an admirer of poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharati, Ragunathan undertook serious research on the various aspects of his literary and political activities. Bharati kaalamum karuthum sought to establish that the poet had links with the revolutionaries of his time. Apart from Bharati and Pudumaippithan, other influences on Ragunathan included Communist leader and Tamil Scholar P. Jeevanandam and critic N. Vaanamamalai.

Many recall how Ragunathan regaled thousands of people with his satirical poems in poets' sessions (kavi arangam) organised frequently by All India Radio and at literary conferences in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another notable contribution of Ragunathan was that he introduced to Tamil readers some socially relevant, but less-noticed literary works of the three earlier centuries. His Samuthaya Ilakkiam (1964) contains articles on five such works. Interestingly two of these, "Gandhimathi Anthathi" and "Panjalakshana Thirumuga Vilasam", are of immense literary and historical value. The long poems give a passionate account of the travails of the victims of the worst-ever famine conditions in 1877 in the then Madras Presidency, particularly in the southern districts, which took a toll of 50 lakhs (in South India).

IN the opinion of some Tamil scholars and writers Ragunathan's monumental study Ilango Adigal Yaar? was the best of his works. This socio-historical study gave a Marxist interpretation to the story. The book also sought to explode many of the myths around the epic.

Noted Sri Lankan Tamil writer Se. Ganesalingan said that Ragunathan's greatest contribution to Tamil literature was in the realm of critical appreciation - of both ancient and modern literature. His observations on contemporary literature were analytical and sharp, said Ganesalingan, who maintained correspondence with Ragunathan until a few months ago. He recalled how Ragunathan always encouraged writers like him.

Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkia Perumandram general secretary Ponneelan said: "Ragunathan will be remembered for his Himalayan achievements in the fields of literary criticism, comparative literature and Bharati studies."

"Many progressive writers were inspired by Ragunathan," said S. Senthilnathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, and added, "His death has created a void in the field of Marxist literary criticism."