Sa. Kandasamy obituary

Sa. Kandasamy: Profound yet simple

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Sa. Kandasamy. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Saayavanam, Sa. Kandasamy's first novel.

Sa. Kandasamy (1939-2020), an eminent writer and conscientious documentary filmmaker, believed in expressing profound ideas in simple words and was not trapped by labels.

In 1985, at the Weavers Service Centre’s office on Chamiers Road in Chennai, the writer Sa. Kandasamy was in animated conversation about the contribution of visual art to Tamil sensibilities. Artists K.M. Adimoolam and Trotsky Marudu, who, between them, designed and drew for more than 50 per cent of contemporary Tamil literary publications, joined in with the writer. The discussion was about two trajectories of art. One, as propounded by E.B. Havell, the man responsible for the eminence of the Madras Arts School, and the other as advocated by none other than Rabindranath Tagore.

Havell wanted a reform in the art teaching methods and fiercely pushed for “the whole course of instruction, making Indian art the basis of teaching”. On the other hand, Tagore was wary of the nationalist labelling of art. He said: “I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation to produce something that can be labelled as Indian art, according to some old-world mannerism.”

Kandasamy said that A.P. Santhanaraj, one of the finest artists and an inspiring teacher of the Madras School, distilled the sayings of Havell and Tagore and gave a new meaning to the coinage: the “Madras Metaphor”.

Santhanaraj had a yardstick to see whether one had matured into an artist or remained a craftsman. “If one can draw a straight line, then one has bloomed into an artist,” was his refrain.

Kandasamy said that we need to look at simple declarations more carefully. He added: “All profound things are simple. Whether it is Kaniyan Poongkundran’s poem or the Thirukkural or the Athichudi, profound ideas were expressed in simple words. Profundity does not need ornamentation or any external crutches. This applies to the lines of great visual artists too. The one-line observation of Santhanaraj is what they teach for two years at MFA [Master of Fine Arts] at various art institutions.”

We need to locate Kandasamy’s contribution to the world of literature beyond his Sahitya Akademi award for his writings or the first prize he won at the Angino Film Festival in Nicosia, Cyprus, for his documentary filmmaking.

He was a voice who worked on the intersection between literature, visual arts, politics, environment and economy. A couple of years ago, the writer Amitav Ghosh asked “where is the fiction about climate change?” and concluded that “we are living through a crisis of culture, and of the imagination”.

At least three decades before the term “eco fiction” was coined, Kandasamy produced the first ecological novel, Saayavanam, in 1968, which dealt with the extensive clearing of forests to make way for economic gains. He was the youngest writer to be published by the Vasagar Vattam of Lakshmi Krishnamurthy.

Kandasamy realised that profound changes were coming in owing to a shift in the cultivating pattern and in the introduction of cash crops—particularly sugar cane—in areas known for growing either rice or cereals.

“The thrust of cash crops by our own independent governments is a variant of the creation of plantation economy by colonial rule. It not only changes the relationship among humans, but also between the humans and the nature,” said Kandasamy while explaining the rationale behind writing the first ecological novel.

He said: “I do not understand such labels. I write about what I know; about the people I know; in a language I know. The only effort I take is to filter any form of ornamentation that may creep into my prose. Saayavanam was the name of the village in Nagapattinam district, where my family moved from Mayavaram. Since the novel dealt with what was happening in my backyard, I called it Saayavanam.”

Hailing from a humble background, Kandasamy could not pursue a full-time career as a writer. So, he joined the Food Corporation of India. He said: “One thing I was clear was that the job was to feed me and not to reduce me to a mere monthly salary earning machine. It gave me the freedom to choose publications of my choice to express myself. When I moved to Madras, I was moved by the sheer simplicity and the depth created by the lines of Adimoolam and the wisdom of Gnanakoothan in his elegant poems. They also saw something worthwhile in my writings.”

He added: “It was they who invited me to join an ‘informal group’ of people who were driven by a thirst for books and ideas. S. Ramakrishnan, who was in the advertising field at that time, and artists R.B. Baskaran also joined us. Our evening discussions led to the birth of the magazine Ka Sa Da Tha Pa Ra. It was, as critic Ka.Na. Subramaniam once said, “powerful, noisy and catalytic” during the 36 months that it ran. When Ramakrishnan decided to quit advertising, he launched his avant garde publishing house Cre-A, with a collection of my short stories called Thakkaiyin Meethu Naangu Kangal.”

Kandasamy wrote six novels—Suriya Vamsam, Visaranai Commission (which fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Award), Avan Aanathu, Tholaindhu Ponavargal, Perum Mazhai Natkal and Neelavan—and over 300 short stories. But his interest in locating the present within the larger sociopolitical and historical context made him an important non-fiction writer too. He has extensively written about visual arts, sociology and the history of writing itself.

His short introduction of Tamil autobiographies, starting from Anandarangam Pillai Diary, which begins on September 6, 1736, to former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s Nenjuku Neethi for the Sahitya Akademi, helps not only understand those personalities but Kandasamy too. “Autobiographies are only partly about the personality who wrote it. It is also a documentation of the society at a given period,” said Kandasamy.

As M. Rajendran, former Vice Chancellor of the Tamil University, said, Kandasamy wrote Tholaindhu Ponavargal (Those who are lost) only to remind us that he will never be lost in the pantheon of Tamil literature.

As a film-maker

Kandasamy’s abiding interest in visual arts brought him close to filmmaking. His close association with the legendary sculptor S. Dhanapal and Adimoolam led him into the history of the visual heritage of Tamil Nadu. He felt there was huge conceptual gap in the understanding of our lineage.

“Some talk about the Pallava period sculpting and the Chola period bronze and then quickly shift to near modern developments like the murals created during the Maratha rule in Thanjavur, which was early 18th century, and then seamlessly talk about the modern idioms of Roy Chowdry and his students. There was an important link that connects early Pallava aesthetics with the metal sculptures of C. Dhakshinamoorthy. It was our terracotta tradition. My first film, Kaval Deivangal, was the celebration of burnt earth, in which not only our collective memory but also our collective skills are captured for the coming generations,” he said.

He felt that it is important to a create vibrant archives about the people who pushed the envelope in the creative world. Explaining his film-making process, he said: “We need to know why they produced what they produced and how they produced them. Their creative work only offers a hint about the process. How to understand the different approaches S. Dhanapal adopted to different materials he used, pen, ink, colour, oil, stone and metal? On what basis did Jayakanthan decide to expand a story to a novel or restrict it to a short story? How did the film production houses became a backdrop in Ashokamitran's work? These questions, my quest to know, led me to make films on them as some of these slivers of life could not be captured in other forms.”