Deepti Singh, Independent Writer
Devaki Nandan Khatri (1861-1913), popularly known as Babu Devakinandan Khatri, is one of the earliest writers in Hindi. Best known for his novel Chandrakanta (1888), that spawned various sequels by the author and two Television series, Khatri is also known for starting the Lahiri Printing Press. His other novels include Kajar ki Kothari, Kusum Kumari, and the sequels to Chandrakanta – Chandrakanta Santati, Veerandra Veer and Bhootnath.
Generally considered to be the first prose work in Hindi, Chandrakanta is undoubtedly one of the most popular novels in Hindi. First published in serial form between 1888 and 1891, the popularity of the novel can be gauged by the fact that several people actually learnt Hindi to be able to read it. Hence, the novel is instrumental in the popularity of Hindi language as well. The inspiration for the novel is said to be the forests near Varanasi, where Khatri was employed with the Raja of Benaras, including the fort of Chunar, which, renamed as Chunargarh, forms a significant part of the novel.
Chandrakanta can be categorized broadly as a romance and a suspense thriller. Kumar Virendrasingh, the crown prince of Naugadh is desperately in love with the breathtakingly beautiful Chandrakanta – princess of Vijaygadh. The friendship between their respective fathers cements their bond right from childhood. However, fate has other plans. Vijaygadh’s minister Kroorsingh has his evil eye on the beautiful princess, and to achieve this end, he foments hostility between the two friendly kings. Thwarted in this attempt by Kumar Virendra and his faithful ayyars Tejsingh and Devisingh, the relentless Kroor now joins hands with the powerful king Shivduttsingh. Shivdutt’s ayyars manage to abduct Chandrakanta, and although Kumar Virendra out-battles Shivdutt in the ensuing strife, fate intervenes again. From Shivdutt’s prison, Chandrakanta accidentally sets foot into a tilism – a fanciful maze from which it seems impossible to escape. The only way out is for Kumar Virendra to crack open the tilism and set his ladylove free.
In Virendrasingh and Chandrakanta one can visualize the quintessential hero and heroine. Kroorsingh and Shivduttsingh together form the darker side of the drama. Tejsingh and Chapala furnish the sub-plot. A plethora of other characters presenting varying shades of valour, loyalty, camaraderie and devotion serve to make Chandrakanta an absorbing read indeed.
The anti-Muslim note in some sections and the lack of dramatic build-up in a few key scenes may serve as the poor villains in Chandrakanta’s plot. For instance, one would rightly expect Kroorsingh’s final elimination at the hands of Kumar Virendrasingh – but it is Chapala, disguised as Vankanya’s ‘Friend in Red’ who brings about the villain’s end. The bald manner in which Kroor is described to have done away with his father sets a slightly jarring note, too. One may also rue the relatively little attention paid to Devisingh’s romance with the gutsy Champa. However, like all quintessential happy-ending tales – the hero decimates the villain into nothingness. And here, too, the combined splendor of ayyari and tilism (concepts we will deal with later) win over such minor plot hiccups.
For one of the sub-plots one may outline the exemplary scientific outlook of the first-time author that is mirrored in the tale – remember, Khatri penned Chandrakanta during the illiteracy and superstition-ridden late 19th century India. For him to have negated magic, tantra and ghosts and attribute all seemingly inexplicable oddities to science and Ayyari and Tilism was commendable. Some extraordinary twists and turns in the plots furnished by the authors’ imaginative brain must also be accentuated as one of the highlights of Chandrakanta. In fact, Khatri’s ingenious creativity brought artifacts like face-masks and robot-like statues to the readers’ notice long before they were popularized by western fiction.
The light in which Khatri portrays his female cast is worth mentioning as well. Kumari Chandrakanta is no down-trodden little woman looking up to the males in her family – she has a will and plenty of pluck, and finally marries the man of her choice. In fact, in the plot, she is also shown cracking a small tilism herself, albeit with the assistance of Surendra Singh. Chapala and Champa – her two ayyaras also have minds of their own. They are intrepid, fiercely independent and deft in the art of ayyari, at times even outclassing their male counterparts. While Chapala, disguised as Rambha, helps rescue Tejsingh from Shivdutt’s prison, Champa’s bravery has been portrayed in the way she outwits the slave-traders and even Shivdutt’s ayyars. Thus, Chandrakanta, on the surface, seems to be a perfect romance, with the hero and the heroine being helped by friendly forces to be united.
However, my contention is that the novel is much more than a simple romance. The hero and heroine of the novel are not Virendrasingh and Chandrakanta, as generally assumed. A closer look shall reveal that the real hero of Chandrakanta is Ayyari and the heroine is Tilism. Khatri introduced these concepts for the first time in Hindi literature. Borrowed from Urdu and Persian dastans, these novel elements proved to be the enduring factors of the novel. Surely, the courage, positivity and nobility displayed by the cult of ayyari is indeed the bravest and most active role in the tale of Chandrakanta – a hero’s role. The cult of ayyari, as detailed by Khatri, is awe-inspiring. An ayyar (male) or an ayyara (female) is in essence a spy. He or she is the epitome of human efficiency, courage and finesse. Ayyars are experts at impersonation – which implies they possess the dual qualities of being consummate actors and are adept at make-up. They have immense confidence, owing to which they fearlessly go behind the enemy lines and accomplish staggering feats. They are physically strong, can handle all weapons, can sing, dance and play all musical instruments. An army of half-a-thousand men is but nothing to one dauntless ayyar. There are many ayyars in the novel – Tej Singh, Jeet Singh and Devi Singh on Virendrasingh’s side, Nazim and Ahmad on Krur Singh’s side, Pandit Jagannath, Pandit Badrinath, Chunnilal and others on the side of Shivdutt, and Chandrakanta’s ayyaras – Chapla and Champa.
Ayyars are never without their kamand, the purse of ayyari -related articles, drugging salts and lakhlakha. Their athletic prowess is such that no ayyar in Chandrakanta ever rides a horse – he runs behind and matches the pace of those ridden by their royal patrons. The loyalty of an ayyar to his or her throne is indestructible and an ayyar who changes sides is never considered worth his salt – though Pundit Jagannath is a notable exception to this rule. The cult of ayyari is so sturdy that it treads over even the formidable caste-system of that age –Pundit Jagannath is permitted to fight in the battle of Chunar despite being a non-Rajput because he is a member of the ayyar fraternity. Ayyars, when captured by the foes, are never tortured or executed. Womenfolk of the royal families do not wear purdah in the company of ayyars. Ayyars are expert chemists too and create the most baffling mixtures and pastes.
The ayyar is, as contended before, the real hero of the novel because he is shown to be far more superior than the prince Virendrasingh, traditionally considered as the hero of the novel. Virendrasingh can achieve hardly anything without the ayyar.
A tilism, on the other hand, has all the qualities of a heroine. With all the allure and magnetism of a beauteous damsel, a tilism beckons all and sundry towards itself. Full of profound, unfathomable mysteries, it enthralls and captivates. And in the end, it is won over by the tricks of ayyari, yielding in return, its secret cache of wealth and treasures.
A tilism is more or less the product of three A’s – ayyari, astrology and architecture. An issue-less king, who had much to bequest but none to bequeath it to, used to consult astrologers to ascertain if someone worth all the treasure would ever be born in his dynasty. The astrologers would predict the name and physical attributes of this worthy future legatee. The king then invited the best ayyars, astrologers, ramal-throwers, medicine men, craftsmen, artisans and mechanics of his kingdom. His treasure would be buried and a large mansion full of gardens and pavilions, cellars and corridors, verandahs and halls, hidden doors and secret passages, traps and mazes and tricks and trappings would be set-up over it. All these snares were set in such a way that if anyone other than the intended legatee entered the tilism he was soon ensnared and imprisoned. Though none would be killed – whenever the rightful owner came, he or she would crack the tilism, eventually freeing all prisoners and collecting the legacy.
These tilisms become key elements in the novel. The various maneuvers that the adventurer undertakes in order to unearth the secret of the tilism, the snares that he encounters in the way, all form an interesting and essential part of Chandrakanta. The nuances of both the tilisms in the novel – one of buildings and the other of gardens are both equally well-described. Hence, the mystery, beauty, and complicated nature of the tilism make it an ideal heroine, more than Chandrakanta, who is, of course, beautiful and resourceful, but loses out to the tilism when it comes to the importance attached to it. In fact, the efforts to get to Chandrakanta are only efforts to unearth the secrets of the heroine, the tilism.
Such is the tale of Chandrakanta – there is true love vis-à-vis the rocks strewn in its path. There is the loyalty of friends juxtaposed with evil and villainy. There is battlefield valour in the face of pusillanimous skullduggery. And finally, there is the cracking of a cunningly laid tilism by some sharp ayyari tricks.
Khatri, Devakinandan. Chandrakanta. 1888. New Delhi: Penguin, 2008.
Deepti Singh (PhD) is an environmentalist with a passion for literature. Her hobbies include dabbling in crime fiction and translation. Currently, she is in deliberations with a publisher with regard to her English translation of Khatri’s Chandrakanta.