A review of Telugu Women Writers 1950 – 1975 by Malathi Nidadavolu

Telugu Women Writers 1950 – 1975
A Unique Phenomenon in the History of Telugu Fiction

(First Ed. 2008) ISBN: 978-1438264189

By Malathi Nidadavolu

Telugu Women Writers 1950 – 1975
A Unique Phenomenon in
the History of Telugu Fiction

This small book of 150 pages gives a succinct critical narration about a generation of women writers of fiction in Telugu language. They have taken charge and changed the cultural landscape of Andhra Pradesh by their unique contribution to the Telugu literature, but were woefully ignored by the literati. I am sure that parts of this statement at the outset might educe some ridicule even today from some quarters where condescending attitudes thrive and are mistaken for scholarship. Even these people, if they care to read Malathi’s monograph, will not only agree with my assertion, but will go back and read the twenty-five years of fiction she has painstakingly analyzed in this monograph.

The book starts with a crisp foreword. Malathi writes: “ In the past several centuries, women writers were quiet and anchored in religion. Present day writers are highly vocal, and are anchored to ideologies. Historically positioned between these two groups, approximately, one hundred women have created distinctive fiction for a period of two and a half decades. This book is an attempt, however small, to examine their contributions contextually, and demonstrate that they, quiescent on the surface, had raised potent questions, expressed unconventional views powerfully in their fiction.”

In six short chapters Malathi tries to do justice to her chosen agenda. She sets herself to address three issues. Telugu women’s education and scholarship, their status at home and in the society, and their talent as writers during the period 1950-1975. One may ask, why this particular period? Simple. She answers that question elsewhere in the book. First: As a writer Malathi belonged to that generation and is very familiar with the social conditions of that time. She published several short stories during that period. Second: There was a lack of all-encompassing critical work on the fiction by women during this period. And lastly, she was afraid that this whole corpus might disappear if somebody did not bring it to the fore.

As one who belonged to the same generation, I tend to agree with two of her three reasons. One is that she made a name for herself as a short story writer during that period (I have read quite a bit of her fiction from those days), second is that there isn’t much of critical appreciation or analysis of the women’s fiction that was published during that period. I would disagree with her fears that the fiction of that period might disappear and be forgotten in the course of time.

In the first chapter Malathi traces the evolution of women writer from the eleventh to the nineteenth century. She narrates a couple of anecdotes on Molla who has written the tale of Rama in a very simple meter using the simplest possible diction. The treatment meted out to Molla by the traditional classicists because of her caste was well exemplified. At the same time her repartee and wit were cleverly documented. In addition, Malathi clearly identifies how scholars have time and again misinterpreted Molla’s humility as ignorance. She also has recognized the importance of scholars like Utukuri Lakshmikantamma. Malathi boldly, but reasonably raises some relevant questions on the doubts raised by the university-bred research scholars like Nayani Krishnakumari and Malayavaasini, as to the authenticity of a popular “story” in existence regarding a discussion between Mohanamgi and Krishnadevaraya. Mohanamgi was emperor Krishnadevaraya’s daughter. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma (1917-1997), a reputed scholar, in her book Andhra Kavayitrulu, narrated a story that Krishnadevaraya encouraged Mohanamgi to write an epic. Malathi, after reading this story, assumed that female scholarship existed in royal families and the male family members supported women’s writing. The authenticity of this story was questioned by the university scholars. Then, Malathi politely asks: Who made up the story? Under what circumstances? Why then, in the story there was a mention of ‘ridicule of female writing?’

In this chapter Malathi gives a bird’s eye view of the women’s education, the apparent growth of middle class that developed a set of new values changing the scenario dramatically. The evolution of women’s writing from oral tradition to bhakti and to the generation of the 50’s was clearly narrated.

In the next chapter, Malathi tells about the women writers’ education. Some of the popular writers haven’t even finished high school but were able to write excellent fiction. Case in point was Lata (Tenneti Hemalatha Devi). Some of the prolific writers like Sulochana Rani, Malthi Chandur, Koduri Kausalya Devi, etc., have high school education. They have read later on extensively, educated themselves on their own as well as if not better than the college graduates. One of the unique writers in this group is Ranganayakamma who excelled in her craft more than any one else. For some others, in addition to their higher education, their family status, i.e., social status helped them to nurture their craft to become writers of some repute. To name a few, Chaganti Tulasi (daughter of Chaganti Somayajulu, popularly known as Chaso, the famous short story writer), Turaga Janaki Rani ( a relation of Gudipati Venkata Chalam, popularly known as Chalam), and a few others. Literary heritage and the family encouragement have contributed to become writers, but these alone did not make them good writers. Thery have diligently worked at their craft. Malathi narrates very powerfully the reluctance of the Telugu Sahitya Academy to accept, acknowledge and reward these writers for almost three decades. She was genuinely upset at the behavior of the Academy. Here I am tempted to say: So what? When did the Academy try to do the right thing at the right time? Personally, I would ignore it but for reasons of historicity, I agree with her.

In the third chapter (entitled Themes) Malathi critically analyzes the themes dealt with by these women writers. ‘The multifaceted terrain of contemporary life’ was well narrated in the stories of writers such as Lata, Ranganayakamma, Malathi Chandur, Dwivedula Visalakshi, Vasireddi Sita Devi, Madireddi Sulochana, D. Kameswari, and a few others. Chaganti Tulasi, Kalyana Sundari Jagannath, P. Sarala Devi, R. Vasundhara Devi and Malathi, though wrote fewer short stories than others, yet ‘have a firm grasp on the middle class problems at home, issues they faced in society due to the higher education they received, and the fast changing moral and ethical issues’. In this chapter Malathi analyzes a number of short stories in reference to their themes. A few of these are worth mentioning. For example P. Sarala Devi’s eduru cusina muhurtam, Kalyana Sundari Jagannath’s maadamta mabbu, aartanaadam by Ranganaayakamma, and P. Sridevi’s classic story expressing the shallowness of the middle class life styles and values in vaaLLu paaDina bhoopaaLa raagaM. Bhanumati Ramakrishna has excelled in creating light but cogent delicate humor with the mother-in-law as the main character. Sulochana Rani has been very successful with romantic themes. About a dozen of the stories analyzed in the book are available on www.thulika.com in English translation. Malathi attempts to analyze stories from the fifties and sixties by the women writers that touched topics such as social evils and human conditions, the problems in the home front, identity awareness, and vocalize protests, personal problems facing an educated woman, social evil such as caste, hunger self-awareness of the working class and so on. After reading Malathi’s expose`, on hindsight, one would certainly lament how such a huge canvas was ignored by the contemporary scholars and critics. And, one would be tempted to conclude it was deliberate exclusion.

In the next chapter she discusses at length the craft of making the fiction. The language, the middle class issues the women writers addressed in their fiction have captured the imagination of the readership extremely well. And, in spite of the neglect of the Academy, the readers were looking forward to reading more in the same genre. During this period, the women writers were paid twice as much as their male counterparts. A few male writers used female names to have their stories accepted for publication. Malathi writes that some of the women writers were paid advances even without submitting outlines. Such was the fever in those days. Here I would say one thing Malthi does not know. Almost all college students used to read the fiction by the women writers, and of course, never publicly acknowledged or discussed the fiction. Such was the demand for these writers in those days!

In the following chapter the author discusses humor. One writer stands out, as has been previously mentioned, Bhanumati Ramakrishna. Some writers played on the language, idiom, etc. ‘The humor and sarcasm are built-in tools in our culture, possibly therapeutic. And it is hard to convey these connotations trans-culturally,’ says Malathi. And, one has to agree.

The concluding chapter summarizes and raises a few questions, too. Malathi asserts that ‘the women writers of the period developed a new form that did not lend itself to critical evaluation based on western criteria.’ This might be debatable. The statement that the ‘critics have consciously ignored for reasons only they can explain’ is probably closer to the truth.

The female characters were depicted as shrewd and pragmatic, some in charge of their own destiny, clearly visible as a marked change in the perceptions of the women writers. ‘The women writers of this era were unassuming in real life, cherished traditional values, while registering their dissent,’ says Malathi. I would say that it is true with most of the women writers. There were a few on the fringe. She concludes with her clear understanding of ‘feminism,’ and why she does not care for labeling as such. She says, that ‘ feminism in Andhra Pradesh came to be writing exclusively women’s heart rending status in our society and blaming it entirely on the male population. This kind of lopsided perception hurts creativity.’

The monograph, a labor of love that took several years for Malathi to write, has a very affectionate and heart warming introductory write-up by Sarayu Rao, daughter of Malathi Nidadavolu. It is a delight to read this nice piece from a daughter to the mother. Sarayu is an upcoming television actress and has earned laudable credits as an accomplished actress on stage as well in Shakespearean plays. There is a second foreword by Kalpana Rentala, a well-known Telugu writer. Kalpana raises again the good old question that why the literary critics always fail to put Bhandaru Acchamamba’s story streevidya on par with diddubatu by Gurajada Apparao. A valid question indeed!

Malathi Nidadavolu has worked for over twenty-five years on this monograph. She has interviewed a number of writers, read their works extensively. The rigor with which she pursued the task shows in the book. And it is regrettable that such important work has to be self-published.

Finally, there are a few typographical errors, and in the second edition (hopefully the book will see a second printing!) I would prefer the footnotes be more comprehensive and be moved to the back of the book to an expanded index. I have no hesitation to recommend strongly to our readership to buy the book, read it and enjoy.

Copies can be ordered from : Amazon.com