Sixty Years of Telugu Poetry : A telugu retrospective

The British colonial occupation of India was not an unmitigated catastrophe, as is generally believed. It threw open our doors and windows to the outside world. Fresh breezes blew across the country from the European fields of thought and creativity and swept away the cobwebs of Indian orthodoxy and antiquated thought processes. The acquaintance with English literature, especially Shakespeare and the romantic poets brought home to our young spirits the primacy of the individual in society and the concept of freedom. This revolutionized the thinking of Indian intellectuals. It manifested itself simultaneously in the field of religion and social reform and in the efflorescence of romantic poetry and the novel. Bengal was in the vanguard of the Indian romantic movement with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjea and Rabindra Nath Tagore as the torch – bearers.

The reformist aspect of the Indian romantic movement in Andhra was championed by Viresalingam pantulu, while the creative aspect was splendidly moulded by Gurazada Apparao. The latter reacted against the classical mould of Telugu poetry. He brought about a change both in theme and diction. The classical grandhika vocabulary was jettisoned in favor of spoken Telugu. The rigid classical metres were replaced by the mellifluent native rhythms. As for the themes he picked up, they were as fresh as the dew on the early morning grass. Thus he showed the way to successive generations of Telugu poets.

Among the Telugu romantics Krishna Sastri (Krishna Paksham) stands out, embodying in himself a fine sensibility and genuine passion. His sensibility permeates both his art and life, erasing the boundary between the two. For him the poem was a vital experience, and life acquired the intensity of poetry. His Urvasi(1928) is a quest for the ideal beloved, whom he at last discovers in his creative self. She reconciles for him the contradictions of life, like love and desire, separation and unity, pain and pleasure.

Telugu romantics celebrated frustated love of the Petrarchan kind. For them beloved is a dream-figure for ever unattainable, and only to be worshipped from afar. Among the noted Telugu romantic poets are Rayaprolu subbarao, Abburi Ramakrishnarao, Nanduri Subbarao, Vedula Satyanarayana Sastri and Nayani Subbarao.

In the 1930s there came the inevitable reaction against romantic poetry. At its vanguard was the dramic personality of Srirangam Srinivasarao (Sri Sri). As soon as an art reaches the limits of its idiom, it is doomed to become moribund and hamper creative work. Sri Sri started writing in the romantic style, but soon realized that his earlier manner was inadequate to what he now had to say, for the reason that it had been invented by men, whose creative experiences and ambitions were quite different from his own. So, the entire poetic diction had to undergo a sea change to express his psychological and social experience. He was attracted to both surrealism and communism, and after making a few experiments in the surrealist method, abandoned it and dedicated his creative talent in the service of the communist movement. His best work was written in the 30s and the 40s, after which his political obsession smothered his poetic spark. His Maha Prasthaanam, containing his best poems, was published in 1948.

Another poet of the same era, who made splendid use of the reservoir of imagery thrown open by surrealism, was Narayana Babu.

The 1950s witnessed the high tide of the communist movement in Andhra, spewing out a spate of versifiers committed to communist ideology. They banded together under the name and style of ‘Progressive writers’ and deluged the country with pale and stale imitations of Sri Sri. They so successfully browbeat the intelligentia into accepting their view of poetic commitment that for two decades, the 50s and 60s, no poetry worth the name sprouted on Andhra soil.

The time was ripe for reaction, but what ensued was something more violent and rabid. The Digambara poets aim was to shock their readers into an awareness of their social apathy and personal degradation. They employed violent and abusive language and partly succede in achieving their purpose. Their poetry is but a part of a comprehensive show or happening, comprising, among other publicity gimmicks, demonstrations and getting their book inaugurated by a rikshaw puller. Only two out of the six Digambara poets stand out for their creative contribution, Mahasvapna and Nagnamuni.

Some poets who were not part of the mainstream must be mentioned here. Visvanatha Satyanarayana, though he trod the romantic path in his early days, was not a romantic by temperament. He was a classicist, who by dint of erudition and craftsmanship, attracted a large following.

Arudra showed a great promise in his earlier poems (Paila pacchisu) but later his talents were divereted into the dreary sands of historical scholarship. Another remarkable poet was Bairagi, whose poems expressed existential angst.

Two poets of eminence who made a mark on the literary scene must be mentioned here. Balagangadhara Tilak embodied in himself both the romantic spirit and the disposition for social concern, and produced mellifluous and free-flowing verse that endeared him to a large readership. The other is Ajanta, whose poems flash violent images of alienation existential absurdity.

Tow poets who have achieved renown, especially in academic circles, are Narayana Reddy and Dasarathi, who combined classical ease and clarity with romantic harmony. Here I must mention Kundurti and Bapu Reddy, both gifted poets, the former a champion of verse libre.

In the 60s the communist party split, giving rise to fissures in the political writers camp. Those of the deeper hue banded together with Sri Sri at the head and formed the ‘Revolutionary Writers Association’. However, this did not improve the quality of their verse, the only thing that distinguished them from the progressive writers being their strident tone and advocacy of violence. The only meritorious poets who stand out among these are Siva Reddi and Sivasagar. The former, mainly influenced by Pablo Neruda, employed vivid imagery to convey his burning emotions. The latter made use of popular folk modes to weave stirring songs about the hill people.

A wholesome reaction to three decades of inane and repetitious political poetry came at last at the end of 60s with what was at first facetiously called anubhuti Kavitvam or poetry of experience. Srikanta Sarma, Mohan Prasad and Ismail were in the vanguard of this movement, which strictly speaking was not a movement, but parallel progression on diverse paths. For them the poem is a crucible of emotion and intellect, striving to close the gap between words and experience. Srikanta Sarma, a student of Sanskrit studies, combined modern sensibility with classical poise. Mohan Prasad vibrates with the fine feeling to the variegated impressions of the world. A shade of existential melancholy pervades his poems. His later poetry tends to be more and more self-involving, making deep dives into the sub-conscious. Ismail aims at an expression of the most personal kind of experience, an authentic statement of what he sees and knows, suffers and loves, his responses to the things, relationships and heightened instances of his life. He takes some object of everyday nature – a tree, a bird or a flower – as the central image around which to organize a poem meant to illustrate some fact of human experience.

Another poet who made a mark in the 70s is Seshendra Sarma who interfused classical learning with a fine talent for inventing symbols to convey his personal as well as social consciousness.

Here mention must be made of another strand in the modern Telugu poetic fabric. This is the Hindu consciousness and traditionalism which was championed by Visvanatha Satyanarayana in 20s and the 30s. This was carried on in the 70s and the 80s by two competent poets, Suprasannachayra and Janaganatham.

With 1980s came a fresh flood of sparkling poetry, that had three undercurrents. One is the sense of frustration and disorder conveyed by Ajanta, the second is the inwardness and melancholy of Mohan Prasad, the third is the fusion of feeling and image, leading to the closure of the gap between words and experience is Ismail’s poetry. The three strands may be found entwined in different measures and patters in each poet’s work.

Here I may list some competent young poets. ‘Smile’ combines fine sensibility with a sense of wonder. Godavari Sarma is a dexterous craftsman with an ebullient sense of life, Raoof and Sikhamani are two promising poets with finely honed perceptivity. So also are Vasira and Nasara Reddi. China VeerabhadruDu’s poems are pervaded with existential angst. Afsar, Srinivas, Yakoob and Penna have already made a mark, and they have a long and bright future before them. Two vivacious poets with feministic susceptibility are the two Nirmalas, Kondepudi and Ghantasala. Another poet with a finely tuned antenna is Patanjali Sastri. Much is expected of Chandan Rao, Kandalai, Uday Bhaskar and Gudihalam

It is indeed time to rejoice that Telugu poetry has come out of the miasma of communist propagandist fatuities into the fresh and exhilating air of free thought and imagination.