Theatre Review

Ponniyin Selvan play

Any Tamil reader above 30s would have certainly read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvam. A whole generation was mesmerized by this novel that came out in 1950s, many families named their new born after characters that came in the novel.

Wikipedia quotes “Ponniyin Selvan” as “பொன்னியின் செல்வன் (The Son of River Ponni) is a 2400-page 20th-century Tamil historical novel written by Kalki Krishnamurthy. Written in five volumes, this narrates the story of Arulmozhivarman (later crowned as Rajaraja Chola I), one of the kings of the Chola Dynasty during the 10th and 11th centuries”.

Rajaraja Chola I was the king who built the historic Tanjore Big Temple – Brihadisvara Temple which is still standing majestically even after 1000 years. The novel  “Ponniyin Selvan” was based on major real incidents and few of the characters for which we have records. To Kalki’s imagination goes the credit for the hundreds of characters that come in the story. The novel was attempted by many stalwards of Tamil Film and Theatre people to be made into Movie or Plays, till recently no one succeeded on it. The theatre group Magic Lantern with its co-founder Actor Kumaravel finally have managed to convert the mega novel into a 4 hour stage play. Hat’s off to him and rest of the crew.


I was born in 1970s so I was not there when the novel originally came in magazines, but whenever I have seen the book in some friends place I have tried reading it. My sister has shared the story outline and the characters, and any Tamil literary discussion always brings up Ponniyin Selvan. Wanting to read the full novel, early this year I bought the 5 volume set from Ananda Vikatan stall.


So when I read about the novel being staged as a play for this week in Chennai,  I immediately wanted tickets for it . When I tried to buy tickets unfortunately I couldn’t find any online. Going in person to the venue (Music Academy) on 1st June, I managed to get 3 tickets for today’s show.


About today’s play I should first appreciate the organizers for arranging parking at the opposite school with valet parking (parking is limited to few cars in the Music Academy venue) and for starting the play on time (in fact 2 minutes early at 5:58PM), which is a rarity here. The play got over at 10:05PM, nearly 4 hours with a brief 5 minutes break.

All the actors on stage performed their roles perfectly. I liked the efficiency of Director Pravin and of the stage sets by Tamil Film fame Thotta Tharani. The Director has not wasted time by changing the background set on stage for every scene, instead he had used a single backdrop for the whole length of the play. The entire play across Ocean, City, Town, Fort, Palace, Temple all happens on a single fort backdrop but the actors smartly use and change it with the help of props they bring in and take back. Actors after entering the stage don’t wait for the full stage to setup as well, they start the dialogues and before you notice everything is in place. To the credit of the actors on stage and for the story play these doesn’t affect your visualisation of the period or the enjoyment of the story. The dialogues are kept short, simple and in current day spoken Tamil form rather than being from Historic Time or with Poetic nuances. This simplicity makes us connect with the characters and enjoy more.

The play (as with the original novel) ends with Arulmozhivarman giving up the throne, leaving us with lots of questions. How does he then become the great Chola Emperor of all times the Raja Raja Chola and what happens to the Pandya conspirators?. The answers to these can be had by reading the epilogue written by Kalki in the book.

  1. Uthama chola dies after becoming king in about 15 years making way for Arulmozhi to become Raja Raja Chola
  2. Kundavai and Vanthiyathevan get married and happily live ever after
  3. The Pandya conspirators are arrested by Chola empire after the death of Nandhini

A Tamil Play you must watch when you get the chance. I wish the organizers release it online soon for free and with English captions for enjoyment of wider worlds. And for me I have to now read the entire volume.