Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, popularly known as Thakazhi, was an Indian novelist and short story writer, who wrote in the Malayalam language. He kept his moniker Thakazhi on the place of his birth. He was also known as the ‘Kerala Maupassant’.
His writings highlighted the social aspects and the struggle of the oppressed classes, while portraying accurately the historic details. He wrote 40 novels and over 600 short stories. His most famous novels are Chemmeen, meaning Prawns (1956), and Kayar, meaning Coir (1978).
Chemmeen fetched him the the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958. For his novel Kayar, he was awarded India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith Award, in 1984.
Pillai was also honored with the third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, by the Government of India.
Brief Bio and Literary Accomplishments
Sivasankara Pillai was born on 17 April 1912 in the village Thakazhi, in Kuttanad, Alappuzha district of Kerala. He belonged to a moderately comfortable farming family. His father would daily read from the the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to his family after supper. This left a lasting impression on Pillai’s mind.
He began writing stories from his schooldays. The school headmaster Kainikkara Kumara Pillai, took interest in his creativity and mentored him. He exposed him to the best of Indian literature.
Debut Novel, Thyagathinte Prathiphalam (1934)
In 1929, Thakazhi’s first short story, The Poor, was published.
In 1934, after several of his short stories were published, he came out with his debut novel, Thyagathinte Prathiphalam or Fruits of Sacrifice, which dealt with social and economic equality while attacking hypocritical sexual taboos of society.
While studying for Law in Tiruvanantapuram, he met the redoubtable intellectual Kesari A. Balakrishna Pillai, who introduced him to modern European literature and thought. He got especially interested in the works of Tolstoy and Maupassant.
During this period he was active in the Progressive Literature Movement, and his early stories and novels had influences of Freud and Marx. His involvement with leftist politics had left its marks on his early novels. Later with the evolution of his perception of society and life, his writing turned towards social realism.
In 1939, after receiving his Law degree, he began practising as a lawyer at the Ambalapuzha mofussil court. He was in contact with the people who were poor fishermen, bonded labourers and rich landlords. He was moved by the plight of the downtrodden and the injustice that were meted out to them. These experiences found space in his writings.
His Literary Contributions – A “Historiography”
He took up journalism and later turned to full-time writing. His works have been called ‘historiography’ as his novels and short stories illustrated the multi-faceted society in Kerala in the early 19th to mid-20th century. His novel Thottiyude Makan (1947) or Scavenger’s Son, is considered a pioneer work in the realism genre of Malayalam literature. The novel chronicles three generations of a family working as scavengers in Alleppey as scavengers. It questioned the caste system which perpetuates a profession based on one’s birth.
His novel Randidangazhi (1948), or Two Measures, is considered a political novel that exposes the evils of the feudal system in Kerala. It was made into a film, the screenplay of which was written by Thakazhi himself. The film was directed and produced by P. Subramaniam, and won an award at the National Film Awards in 1958.
His immensely popular epic novel Chemmeen (1956), or Prawns, unlike his other works, is a tragic love story set in a fishing village in Alappuzha. It got him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958. The film adaptation directed by Ramu Kariat, won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1965. The novel earned him international fame and has been translated into 19 languages and adapted into film in 15 countries.
Besides Chemmeen, his novel Kayar (1978) or Coir, is considered his masterpiece or magnum opus. The novel is of more than 1000 pages, and has hundreds of characters. The story spans over four generations, and is set in the period 1885 to 1971. It portrays feudalism, matriarchy, bonded labour, decolonisation and the industrial revolution of the 1960’s in India.
Another famous novel, Enippadikal (1964) or Rungs of the Ladder, is about an ambitious bureaucrat who has an insatiable lust for power and position. The novel was also adapted into a movie in 1973.
Other Famous Works
Besides those mentioned above, he has a long list of famous novels, a few of which are listed here:
- Thendivargam (1950) – The Beggar Clan
- Ouseppinte Makkal (1959) – The Sons of Ouseph
- Anubhavangal Palichakal (1967) – Experiences and Failures
- Chukku (1973)
- Teranjedutta Kathakal (1965) – Selected Short Stories
- Inquilab (1952)
- Pativrata 91946) – Chaste Wife
- Njan Piranna Nadu (1958) – The Land Where I was Born
- Kure Kathapatrangal (1980) – A Number of Characters
- Oru Kuttanadan Katha (1992) – Story of Kuttanad
- Jeevitathinte Oru Edu (1993) – A Page of Life
He also has three autobiographies to his credit.
He was married in 1936 to Karthyayani Amma, whom he fondly called Katha. The couple had one son and four daughters.
In 1999, he was 87 years old and had been ailing for some time. On April 10th, his condition worsened because of breathing trouble. The doctors’ attempts to revive him failed. He died at his native village, at his Sankaramangalam residence in Thakazhi in Kuttanad taluk of Alappuzha district; a place which he loved and was the backdrop of majority of his novels and stories. While leaving a big void in the Malayalam literary world, he also left a rich legacy that has enriched the language.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah