An in-depth reading of Telugu history reveals the reasons behind the disappearance of Telugu literature from readers’ bookshelves and minds.
Another World beckons!
Fall and Push!
Let us fly higher and higher!
Like many stories this one starts with guilt. As I was leaving home for Mumbai to start life as an aspiring writer and budding stand-up comedian, my father gifted me Mahaprasthanam (The Great Journey to a New World), a collection of poems by the Telugu leftist poet Sri Sri. It was a symbolic gift meant to ensure that while I pursued my dreams, I didn’t forget my roots. The loaded gesture would have been poignant had my Telugu vocabulary not been so abysmal. Almost all the poems flew over my head or were lost in translation as I Googled word after word struggling to just make sense of the words, let alone grasp the romantic revolutionary metaphors.
While growing up, I learned little about the literary stalwarts and milestones of Telugu literature. My deepest involvement with literature ended with the compulsory texts of the ICSE syllabus. But these texts had immensely moralistic and theistic tones (one was a book about miscreant children who escape from the camphor island that Lord Vishnu resided on and the other was a summary of Gandhi’s autobiography using archaic language). When a gruelling board exam that lasted nearly two and a half hours came to an end, so did my engagement with Telugu literature beyond colloquial usage.
I am, sadly, no exception in a generation that has lost touch with Telugu literature. According to the All India Survey On Higher Education, a report published by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of Higher Education for the year 2015-16, says that the total number of enrolments at the PhD level in the discipline of Telugu language and literature is 167 out of the nearly 7,000 enrolments in all the Indian languages (a mere 2%). Tamil had 236 enrolments and Urdu and Sanskrit had 425 and 571 respectively. This, coupled with the fact that the total number of PhDs awarded that year in the discipline of Telugu language and literature stood at a total of only 27 students, gives an insight into the status of engagement with the language.
While the number of PhDs may not accurately reflect the readership, it is indicative of the level of engagement.
I too gave myself as fuel to the world’s fire!
I too shed a teardrop for the stream of the world!
I too lent my crazy yells to the noise in the world!
– Jayabheri (Sounds of the Drums of Victory)
So, while struggling to read Mahaprasthanam, I decided to claw through some history to make sense of this disappearance of Telugu literature from readers’ hands.
Telugu is no nascent language trying to find its feet. Neither is it spoken only by a fast disappearing minority. A significant number of the songs of the Carnatic music tradition are composed in Telugu perhaps because the ease with which syllables can be rolled off the tongue giving it an innate musicality. There are two famous quotes about the Telugu language. One belongs to South Indian emperor Krishna Deva Raya who remarked (in Telugu), “deshabhashalandu telugu lessa” which roughly translates to “Of all the languages in the nation, Telugu is the best”. The emperor himself contributed to the language through his epic poem, Amuktamalyada. Telugu was the language of the court for many successful kingdoms particularly the Vijayanagara Empire, of the Satavahanas and the Kakatheeyas.
The other famous quote is attributed to Italian traveller Niccolo de Conti who, after many of his travels across the southern states, exclaimed that Telugu was the “Italian of the East”. This is owed to the fact that every Telugu word that does not have Sanskritised roots, (‘organic’ to the language) ends with a vowel that leads to the spoken word having a gentle song-like quality. Additionally, many words borrowed from Sanskrit have been vowel-ised to suit the Telugu-speaking tongue. A word like sparsh (touch) becomes sparsha in Telugu. A word like yudh (war) becomes yudhamu.
Recent history too paints a favourable picture of reformers’ attempts to preserve and diffuse Telugu literature (original and translated works) among the masses and the marginalised. The architect of the now largely forgotten Public Library Movement in India was Iyynki Venkata Ramanayya, who, through Herculean efforts, pushed for the establishment of libraries across all districts, talukas and blocks so that spaces of knowledge were available to all (including women, a revolutionary idea at that time) as early as 1919. For this he was awarded the Padma Shri. He set up the country’s first journal on library science in 1916. Other efforts were taken to translate Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore and classics by other writers into the vernacular so that Telugu readers could have access to them. Names like Sharat, Nirmala or the suffix ‘Babu’ at the end of a name are the result of the influx of Bengali texts. George Orwell personally sanctioned the translation of his classic Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale into Telugu by Janamanci Ramakrishna as Pasuvuladivanam: Uhakalpitameinapeddakatha.
And yet, despite the royal patronage and the efforts of reformists from the 19th and 20th centuries, the readership of Telugu literature continues to decline. The Telugu poet Aarudra is supposed to have said, “The oyster doesn’t make the pearls/with the jeweller in mind. The poet doesn’t make poems/ with the reader in mind.” But surely even he would worry a little about the reader who seems to have gone missing.
One key factor in the decline of literature has been the arrival of cinema, which can be distributed easily to even the illiterate masses of a society. This is a problem innate to all societies which have massive film industries, whose awesome financial power can bulldoze through anything obstructions. The Telugu film industry is a curious one, because for the longest time even after the formation of a separate state (then Andhra Pradesh) its central node remained Chennai till as late as the 90s. And only once it found patrons like Ramoji Rao and A. Nageshwar Rao – a romantic superstar during his heyday – did it shift to Hyderabad.
Many theatre actors and writers were quick to adapt to the medium of cinema. 20th century Telugu cinema employed writers, theatre actors and even used novels and short stories as possible plots for films. N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), who would later go on to serve as chief minister, acted and invested in mythological films, particularly those involving Lord Krishna. The early seeds of ‘method acting’ and the myth of his divinity were planted when people learnt that he would not eat meat while shooting for these films. So great was NTR’s influence on the Telugu imagination that most visual representations of Hindu deities of Rama, Krishna or Vishnu strongly resembled NTR, especially in calendar art.
The power of the stars turned out to be a double-edged sword for writers. Once NTR became a superstar of mythic proportions, writers had to bend to his demands to maintain his image. With NTR’s political role, his power became even more daunting. While Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have a very strong culture of film star-politicians, what sets NTR apart from M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), another superstar-turned chief minister is that while MGR walked into existing political parties with a strong sense of Tamil identity, NTR bought about a sense of Telugu identity into the public sphere, including the disinterested masses and middle class, while setting up his own party that challenged a mammoth national party, the Indian National Congress (INC). Even the characters played by both of them were significantly different – MGR often played the common man who struggled for the upliftment of his fellow men while NTR played Hindu deities.
Once NTR became chief minister of the state, he was forever etched into the public imagination as a saviour; more importantly he set a benchmark for actors who wanted to achieve mega stardom. Thus the films of the 90s played to the new aspirations of actors, as well as expectations from an audience that now expected demigods. This left little room for literature in a field dominated by mythic god-like actors. In the 90s yet another Telugu superstar, Chiranjeevi, tried to emulate the footsteps of NTR in politics, and though he failed, the cultural field has not widened.
And what shall their tired eyes see?
A fallen dream,
A removed heaven!
And what do their scattered hearts feel?
An advancing doom!
–Parajithulu (The Defeated)
State and caste
One can argue that other states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala which also have flourishing film industries with aged superstars who dictate scripts still have thriving literary circuits. And here is where one needs to understand the history of Andhra Pradesh as a political project. The then Andhra Pradesh was a state carved from the Madras Presidency in 1953, after Potti Sreeramulu fasted unto death in Madras. Jawaharlal Nehru then promised to carve a state out of 11 Telugu-speaking districts along the coastal region and the interior districts of Rayalseema. But on November 1 in 1956, the fate of the state was sealed for years to come as the Nizam’s empire was distributed among Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The capital was shifted from Kurnool to the once Nizam-controlled territory of Hyderabad. This meant that the centres of power had shifted from the Telugu-speaking zone of Kurnool to a newly created vacuum in Hyderabad. So, the new state was forced into social cohesion with an administrative capital in Hyderabad, an old-school capital in Kurnool, and literary powerhouses distributed across Vishakapatnam, Vijaywada and Chennai (Madras).
Andhra Pradesh was forcefully fit together, deepening the distrust between Telangana, and the coastal and interior regions of the new state. Telugu literature produced during this period stagnated at upper caste levels. A particular caste-based literary conflict that remains unresolved is the ‘language’ that qualifies as literature itself. The distinction between colloquial and formal literary language is sharp, with the latter marked by stylised grammar, complicated structuring and a heavy dosage of Sanskritisation that is indicative of upper caste roots. As the colloquial language evolved, ‘high literature’ failed to stay contemporaneous. This generated a tug-of-war of sorts between the purists and the ‘philistines’ who used simpler grammar and texture to express stories but whose language was not considered ‘literary’ by critics and connoisseurs.
Moreover the state’s civil space has been divided amongst competing identities, which includes revolutionary literature from the Naxal movement of the 80s, the rise of the Dalit protagonists after that, and now the rise of progressive feminist voices. These activist voices are not considered ‘literature’, unlike other states where Dalit writers like Paul Chirakkarode of Kerala and feminist Dalit voices like Bama from Tamil Nadu found recognition and readers. And more recently, directors like Pa. Ranjith managed to convince the superstar of India, Rajnikanth, to act in Kabali, a movie loaded with Dalit politics.
Dalit – and other political – literature produced in Telugu has, instead, been appropriated and reduced to political activism through movements such as the Madiga Dandora movement, which aimed to unify the Madiga caste (the lowest amongst the caste hierarchies). Writer-poets/balladeers like Gaddar occupy a space in the popular imagination as producers of literature and songs for only specific emancipatory purposes and solidify the idea that songs written in the local tongue do not qualify as ‘literature’. In the public sphere of literature consumption, this means that literature by such lower caste writers is meant for certain reader groups only and that these stories will not find publishing space or larger acceptance. Leading Telugu publishing houses have stayed away from publishing ‘activist’ literature, and this kind of work is also neglected by ‘average’ readers.
In any nation’s history
Where is the reason for Pride?
All human history
Is Man Against Man, in search of Glory.
All human history
Is Man oppressing Man;
All human history
Is written in blood on fields of war.
–Desacharithralu (Histories of Nations)
The liberalisation of the early 90s and the creation of Hyderabad as an IT hub by the government of Chandrababu Naidu, also had an impact. An excessive obsession with software engineers who could emigrate to the US meant that people with access to literature and literature capital escaped the state, while the voices that wanted to be heard were left unpublished and relegated to the margins. The other social impact of this ‘dream’ is the IITs and IIT coaching centres with toxic educational conditions for teenagers that have emerged amidst universal demand across the state.
The sudden influx of employment opportunities also started a curious trend in Telugu-speaking states wherein English was and is seen as a skill and means to escape class roots. This mental makeup was aided by the attitude that because Telugu is spoken at home, students are better off pursuing Hindi – an additional language for one’s lingual armoury – or more commonly, Sanskrit because it is easy to score high a percentage in the tenth board exams. The future does not too look too bright as administrations of both the Telugu-speaking states have been aggressive in pushing English as the medium of instruction across all schools. The lack of patronage from the state has only created students who can converse in colloquial Telugu but lack the necessary skills and nuance to appreciate literary texts.
A new trend that has emerged in Telangana is the denouncement of classical Andhra writers to make room for Telangana writers. The political sphere has posited the two as mutually exclusive options, thus justifying the move to eliminate Andhra writers from the state’s syllabi. This has extended to other subjects like social studies and geography, and has been done with encouragement from the Telangana education minister G. Jagadish Reddy and chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao.
A soft ray of hope in all the bleakness is that the non-residential Indian (NRI) Telugu population has been very active in retaining and encouraging Telugu culture – be it in the form of dance, music or the written word. The alienation and disconnect from US pop-culture probably prompts the diaspora to cling to their language. It is ironic to hear Telugu being freely spoken on the streets of Dallas and San Francisco, whereas children in the schools of Hyderabad stutter and struggle through basic comprehension passages. This partial revival of Telugu ‘culture’ through the NRI community also opens up the question of who defines and owns this culture. The demographics of the Telugu diaspora are representative of the caste structure prevalent in the Telugu speaking states. The upper caste bias in that demographic and the quasi-Brahminical tones of the definitions of ‘culture’ continue to be exclusionary and elitist, thus abetting the current crisis.
Is ours a life worth living?
Like dogs, like foxes!
Is ours a life worth living?
Like pigs on the streets
It’s true, it’s true,
What you said is true!
Life is a shadow, Education is a shadow,
Poems are a bitter fruit!
–Chedu Paata (The Bitter Song)
After my complicated journey to find the causes of the problem, I found myself on the phone with current Telugu author Chandralatha who is on a Quioxtic mission to ‘educate’ readers through small posts on social media. By using the medium, she manages to connect to potential readers across the globe but, literally, on her own terms. By using small poems, haikus or paragraphs, she urges all Telugu authors to connect to readers in such a manner. Of course, the internet is yet to become a truly mass phenomenon in the Telugu speaking states but somewhere in that attempt seems to lie an approach that has not been tried in all these decades of decline.
Each generation constructs and reconstructs its idea of culture based on what it receives from the previous generations. It is necessary to understand the dominant media, language and identities of the current generation and zeitgeist in the culture-making process. Be it cinema, social media, the spoken language or the voices of those at the margins – these are all aspects of current society that need to involved in the process of producing literature. Inclusion needs to be the order of the day, shying away from these different aspects of culture and lock up Telugu literature in self-constructed notions of purity and nostalgia won’t do.
Telugu literature’s ‘mahaprasthnam’ or great journey to a new world is a path made up rough terrain that has cinema, caste, politics of state, the nostalgic NRI and the hitherto unknown beast that is social media. Literature lies dormant and unable to reach its reader. The book and the word seem to be slipping away from the hands of the reader. But here, the guiding light can be found no further than the book on my table – Mahaprasthnam, in which Sri Sri exclaims:
A pup, a matchstick, a bar of soap –
Don’t look down on anything!
Everything is worthy of poetry!
Mukesh Manjunath graduated with a masters in Development Studies from IIT-Madras, Chennai. He is a budding stand up comedian and humour writer, who writes for Weirdass Comedy.