The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

Studying the political consciousness of Telugu poetry
Akshaya Kumar

Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry: An Anthology
edited and translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Delhi. OUP. Pages 345. Rs 595

Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry: An AnthologyENCOUNTERS with colonialism have generated all kinds of responses from downright self-deprecation to rabid self-righteousness. Telugu poetry in the twentieth century hinges more or less on these two extreme responses. On the one hand, there are poets who still swear by old classical virtues of artistic finesse, refined idiom and sacred sentiments; on the other, there are poets who sing in coarse colloquial language with overtly irreverent tones.

In the anthology under review, one finds a clear divide, almost a running feud, among twentieth century Telugu poets over the issue of what constitutes the right stuff for poetry. First there is a war of words between Venkata Sastri and Apparao. The former sought to establish the literary glory that Telugu poetry had enjoyed until the end of the eighteenth century; the latter tried to hammer a new Telugu idiom suitable for the modern world. For Venkata Sastri, poetry is an ontological truth of life: "All my fortune comes from poetry/ I've conquered death, and I'll defeat old age." For Apparao, poetry is a measured, qualified and rational response to reality: "What is the point in thinking/ that this comet causes evil?/ I believe it actually is a harbinger of change." The impact of English education and various social reform movements is clearly visible in these lines.


After the Sastri-Apparao rivalry, a new school called Bhavakavitam (poetry of feeling), spearheaded by Rayaprolu Subbarao and D. Krishna Sastri, held sway for quite a while. With their accent on secular, non-sexual love, the poets of this school tried to parody the erotic and sensuous poetry of their Sanskrit and Telugu predecessors. But very soon this school, for its lack of social and political consciousness, came under fierce attack from the Marxists. The soft imagery of moonlight, jasmine flowers, cool breeze, etc., was soon replaced by the stark and jarring images of violence, excreta and anarchy. Pathabi Rama Reddy, a poet of this raw new sensibility, writes: "Sorry moon. What can I say?/ No one even mistakes you for a lost rupee coin/ Really you are not wanted here."

From the 1950s onward, it was the progressive poets who ruled the roost in Telugu poetry. The Abhyudaya Racayitala Sangham (Progressive Writer's Association) followed by another association, the Virasam (Revolutionary Writers' Movement), along with many local Naxalite and Maoist associations, have dominated the Telugu literary scene. The poet who emerged almost as an icon was Sri Sri who, much like Paash in Panjabi, created a powerful anti-establishment, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist sentiment among the public at the grassroots level. In a poem entitled Myth of Myself, the poet imagines himself to be a Naxalite who transforms himself into a pumpkin after being killed by the police in a false encounter. When the pumpkin is swallowed by a cow, even resting in the intestines of a cow is a luxury: "Aha! Moving about in the belly of the cow/ is like staying in a five-star hotel." The poet as rebel wants to "return through cow's excrement" so that he is ready for another round of armed combat with the power-structures. Sri Sri wants to lend "his voice" to "the roar of the world," offer his "tear" to "the rain of the world."

Sri Sri, Gaddar, Najar, Prasadarao, Subbarao Panigriha, etc., are some of the revolutionary poets of Andhra Pradesh who continuously feed the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh through their soul-stirring songs. These songs may not have an artistic tone, but written in dialects used by low castes, these songs go well with the masses in the countryside. Most of the songs border on plain political rhetoric and even sloganeering, but perhaps this is what the political and social reality of Andhra-region calls for. Satyanarayana did try to revive the old patterns of sophisticated poetry, but his space is limited to elite Telugu circles. The Satya-narayana-Sri Sri feud is paradigmatic to the entire Telugu poetry and confirms the fact that this poetry is divided into two broad streams one of the chaste Sanskrit and classical idiom, another of rugged and rustic native values. But it is in its acute political consciousness that Telugu poetry outscores poetry in other Indian languages. It is so political, that politics seems to be a part of its unconscious.

The anthology gives ample space to upcoming women and Dalit poets. The long afterword is, indeed, informative and gives to the non-Telugu readers a quick survey of broad literary trends and movements in Telugu poetry during the twentieth century. The book is a significant sequel to V. Narayan Rao and David Shulman's earlier anthology of classical Telugu poetry. Good quality translations, a wide range, an extended afterword, and brief biographical sketches of the poets included in the anthology make it extremely saleable in the international market.