BHANDARU ACCHAMAMBA, FIRST TELUGU STORY WRITER by Kondaveeti Satyavati

History of Telugu women writers is filled with numerous gems. If we dig them up and polish all those stones buried in dirt, the present day writings would be pale by comparison. We need to rewrite the current day history with an awareness of feminist perceptions and from women’s perspective. Well-known writer, Gurujada Appa Rao, commented that “Modern day woman will rewrite history.” His comment is significant in that he is credited with being the first story writer in Telugu by famous critcs and the academy. In that sense, he is in competition with the woman who in fact was the first story writer in the entire history of Telugu fiction. I have great respect for Gurajada Appa Rao nevertheless I am going to establish authoritatively that Acchamamba was the first writer to write a modern Telugu story.

Acchamamba’s first story was dhanatrayodasi. It was published in Hindusundari monthly in 1902; it dealt with a modern theme. It was about a poor couple who had no money to light up even little lamps for Deepavali celebration, let alone buy clothes. Husband, out of desperation, thought of stealing money from his boss to buy a saree for his wife. Wife came to know about it and stopped him from committing the felony. At the end, his boss gave him the money for the celebration. The crux of the problem was husband’s attempt to steal from the store and the wife reprimanding him for his ill-advised plan. Gurajada Appa Rao’s story, diddubatu, published in 1910, also dealt with a similar theme–a cheating husband and wife’s plan to bring him to his senses. Appa Rao’s story was idealistic and humorous. Acchamamba’s story was realistic and sombre. Yet our historians shoved her away to the backstage on purpose.

In 1998, bhumika, an alternative magazine and anveshi, a research center for women’s studies, conducted a 3-day workshop on “Social Reform Movement – Women’s stories”. At the workshop, K. Lalitha spoke for the first time about this erroneous record and stated that Acchamamba was not only the first story writer but also first feminist historian.

Critics put forth two arguments for denying Acchamamba’s story the status of the first story in Telugu: They claimed that, first, Acchamamba’s story was in classical Telugu; and second, the story did not contain the elements of a short story. The truth is, Appa Rao’s story was also written originally in classical Telugu and included in the anthology, Animutyaalu, compiled by Avasarala Surya Rao. We have evidence to show that the story was rendered in collloquial Telugu much later.

The second argument that Acchamamba’s story lacked the characteristics of a short story. This question will not arise if we understand the historical background of Acchamamba’s story. The short story in the modern sense came into existence only in the 19th century. It was still in its nascent stage. We have to assess Acchamamba’s work only in that context. Telugu literary hisorians either ignored or refused to accept a woman as the first short story writer in modern times because of her gender. Our critics ignored the historical facts and they dodged the truth by giving untenable reasons.

Several of the renowned critics like Vallampati Venkatasubbayya, Peddibhotla Subbaramayya, Bhamidipati Jagannatha Rao, Singamaneni Narayana and Madhurantakam Rajaram either ignored or made only a passing mention of her. They did not have to accept Acchamamba as the first writer. Should not they be at least doing her the honor of discussing the merits and weaknesses in her stories? Is it not their outright dismissal of Acchamamba’s stories as non-modern that provoked us into thinking of male domination?

Let me discuss the gender awareness in Acchamamba’s writings and prove that she was the first short story writer and first feminist historian.

Acchamamba was born in 1874 in a small village called Penuganjiprolu in Krishna district. Her father died when she was six. She was married at the age of ten. At the time she had no education. She was living with her mother and younger brother. Her family sent younger brother to school but nobody encouraged her to go to school. Acchamamba learned Telugu and Hindi, sitting next to her brother while he was studying. She understood the value of education even at that early age and the gender discrimination. Her brother finished his master’s while she could not learn even the English alphabet. She pointed out this aspect several times in her writing.

Acchamamba wrote in her monumental work, Abala saccharitra ratnamala [History of great women]:

Statements like “women’s brain is slower than men’s, women’s brain is weaker than men’s, and that it weighs less” clearly indicate people’s bias. Instead of saying that women are environmentally dull-witted, one should admit that women became dull-witted because they were not allowed to go to school from the start. During childhood, both girls and boys are equally intelligent. Yet parents encourage boys to study scientific subjects and deprive girls of getting any education. That is the reason for women to be dull-witted. It is the male discrimination that hindered women’s advancement in the areas of education and not any other reason.

In the preface to her book, Abala saccharitra ratnamala, she stated two purposes for writing her book:

  1. People often comment that women are weak, dull-witted, senseless and are the epitome of all evil qualities. My aim in writing this book is, first, to prove that such accusations are untrue, and women were there in the past who were courageous and possessed unparalleled scholarship, and there are such women at present as well.
  2. Second, Some notable men stated that women would take to evil ways, ruin the family unit, humiliate their husbands, if women were educated and given freedom. I am going to prove with examples that those accusations are unfounded, and that education only helps to build one’s character and not the other way round. The country will only benefit from the freedom for women to receive education; it will cause no damage. In fact, women’s education is an absolute necessity.

The book included the biographies of thirty-four women who proved themselves in various fields in India. Acchamamba presented each one of these accounts from the perspective of the two purposes she had stated in her preface. The first story was about a woman named Veeramati. At the beginning of the biography, the author quoted a Sanskrit verse which states, “Women should be educated so that they could carry themselves without fear and with confidence in all matters the same way as men.”

In every one of her writings Acchamamba reminded us constantly and in a timely fashion the importance of women’s education, and the damage lack of education in them causes. She was constantly worried about the way women were ignored or dismissed by family members in our homes. In her book, she wrote that Thoru Dutt’s father raised her as son, and sent her to school as if she was a son. In this regard, Acchamamba wrote, “The sastras state that a daughter must be treated as son. Have we not seen that, at the time of giving his daughter away in marriage, the father says, “this girl was raised by me as son”?

In the same essay, she commented about the families discriminating against girls even from the day they were born. She wrote, “It is extremely painful to watch the amount of humiliation girls are subjected to in contrast to the way boys are raised. Parents lead a life of misery from the day a girl was born. As the girl grows, they raise her not on par with a boy but as an unwelcome responsibility. There is no doubt that 99% of the girls in this country are being raised the way I have mentioned.”

Acchamamba was deeply troubled by this humiliation of girls from parents even from the day they were born. In her essay on Khana, a woman of excellence in Astrology, Acchamamba once again pointed out how women are inherently intelligent, and that the parents ignore them only because of their bias towards male children. She argued that women are not born as unintelligent but become so because of the way they are raised. She contends:

If a boy were dull-witted in his childhood, parents send him to school as soon as he turned five, make sure he was shaken out of his dullness. They make him study several subjects to improve his knowledge. On the other hand, his older sister, a very bright individual, will be left to live a lackluster life for want of proper education. Thus a huge fissure has been created not because of women’s dull wit but because of the discrimination in parenting girls as different from boys.

Acchamamba, who was highly vocal in expressing her views on the suppression of female children at home, repeatedly insisted on the need for women’s education each and every time she had an opportunity to do so. It is amazing that Acchamamba was writing as early as the turn of the nineteenth century how the gender discrimination started, and how women were ignored and dismissed as unintelligent and powerless.

While making powerful arguments for women’s education, Acchamamba also addressed the conjugal relationships and how men shut women up in closed rooms. In her article on Sarasavani, a contemporary of Adi Sankara, and top ranking scholar in nyaya, mimamsa, and vedanta, and who also challenged Adi Sankara with her erudition, Acchamamba raised serious questions in regard to the injustice doled out to women by men.

Instead of giving them [women] the most valuable piece of jewelry, education, men are giving women only metal ornaments, making them puppets and using them for their own pleasures. Instead of treating them as equal partners at home, turning them into maids. In doing so, men are turning not only women as high class idiots but they themselves are making fools of themselves. All this is happening only because of the flaws in men’s attittudes and selfishness; it is not at all women’s fault.

It is strange that nobody ever called Acchamamba a “man-hater” in those days despite her criticism that men were responsible for women’s degrading status and that they kept her as a slave at home. In fact, the one Sanskrit verse Acchamamba quoted at the beginning of her book is sufficient to gauge her views and perspective:

arikshitaa gruhe ruddhah purushai raaptakaarikaaribhih

            aatmaana maatmanaa yaastu raksheyustaassurakshitaah

             Women who are confined in homes by male well-wishers are not safe

Only those who protect themselves are safe.

Here, “male well-wishers” means father, brothers, husband and such. They are well-wishers, no doubt. But they all are anxious to confine women to the homefront. They think that they are protecting women while confining them to the four walls, hindering their progress, and subjecting them to oppression. Acchamamba pointed out that such behavior on the part of men is not protection but suppression and emphasised that women must protect themselves. Acchamamba was direct and articulate in her expression. She was very lucid in her thinking process. Let us review some of her other writings where she encouraged women to be self-reliant.

Most of Acchamamba’s essays, poems and other writings were published in Hindusundari and Saraswati maganizes. In June 1903, her article, “dampathula prathama kalahamu” [The first dispute a Wife {sic}] was published. It was a dispute between a husband and his wife on a small matter. The wife was upset and left for her natal home. In a conversation between the wife and her mother, the author made wife say as follows:

I am a woman married to a man, but I am not his maid. Would I become his servant simply because I married him? Doesn’t he have to respect me, love and treat me like a partner under one roof? On the contrary, if he treats me as a servant, and demands that I should wait on him hand and foot, why would I do so?

After the marriage has been performed, we are entitled to the status of an arthaangi[1], not paid servants. Women like us will never tolerate the egotistic mentalities of men.

Without proper understanding of the relationship between husband and wife, the inequality between men and women and the egocentricity in men, one cannot write this kind of sentences. Unless we are aware of the social conditions of her times, we cannot appreciate the level of her identity awareness.

In another article, vidyaavantulagu yuvatulakoka vinnapamu [An appeal to educated women], she described the importance of education for women, and what the parents should do to educate women. She also stated that women should have respect for themselves. She believed that the reason for women’s lack of education was male teachers. Therefore there should be more female teachers in schools.

As a solution for encouraging women to learn to read and write, she wrote:

Women should form a group, open a school in one of their homes, and conduct a school. If one runs into a problem, others should take turns and help out. That is the only way to contribute towards improving women’s education and have a purpose for their own lives.

Acchamamba urged that the educated women should establish schools in villages and share their education. The entire essay is charged with her deep concern for the lack of education in women.

In her article, strividyaa prabhaavam, [the power of women’s education], she wrote about an imaginary but powerful world, which was almost impossible to imagine by an ordinary brain. Her creativity is beyond one’s imagination.

In a country called Iceland, all men and women receive education equally. They all have equal rights in politics. A woman is in charge of the department of education. Since the security is supervised by women only, there are no prisons and no police officers, and no courthouses. Is it not all due to women’s education? We can find such examples in other countries, but in our country, people are still arguing whether education for women is necessary or not.[2]

I think Acchamamba created this imaginary world in order to emphasise how important it is for the country to have women educated. I am saying this because there is really no country in the world where there are no jails and no police force. We must interpret this account only as an illustration of Acchamamba’s creative skills.

I can write at length about Acchamamba’s writings and it can become a huge volume. Her works deserve to be collected, studied in depth and analysed systermatically.

Utukuri Lakshmikantamma wrote about Acchamamba in her book, Andhra Kavayitrulu, as follows:

Although she [Acchamamba] was not educated in her childhood, she learned to read on her own and acquired the skill to understand and interpret sastras, Sanskrit kavyas, and even religious treatises such as Sruti and Smruti. She became a scholar in Marati and English as well.

Writing history is hard even for men. Acchamamba was admired for undertaking such humongous task and doing an excellent job at that. She is acknowledged as the first historian among women.

Acchamamba was credited with starting a woman’s organization, Brundavana strila samajam, in Machilipatnam in 1902, along with Oruganti Sundari Ratnamamba. She traveled statewide and helped others to establish several women’s organizations. She used to take in destitute children and educate them also. She had five or six children in her home always.

Acchamamba passed away at an early age of 30, on January 18, 1905. Then popular magazine, Hindusundari paid a 5-page tribute to her and wrote under the title, “keertiseshuraalagu srimati Bhandaru Acchamamba garu” [Acchamamba who lives in our memory for ever] that “This woman was born only to serve others” and “Hindusundari magazine lost mother.”

Bhandaru Acchamamba earned a permanent place in the hitory of modern of Telugu literature. Although she was not educated in her childhood, she acquired scholarship in several languages on her own. She was not disheartened by the devastating personal loss in her life. She was acutely hurt by the loss of her son and daughter at an early age. Even as she was heartbroken by grief, she continued her life’s mission with determination and produced a remarkable book, Abalaa saccharitra ratnamala. In 1903, she traveled around widely, spoke with several scholars and elitists and gathered enormous amount of information about women from the earliest times. She used her writings as her medium to disseminate her views on the importance of education for women and to promote women’s movement.

If we were to look for the first example of women’s writing for our inspiration, Acchamamba would top the list. Acchamamba wrote the first short story in Telugu and was first feminist historian. She produced progressive writings with feminist awareness even one hundred years ago.

It is sad that Acchamamba’s life should end so early in life. Had she lived a full life, she would have written several more invaluable books. Maybe the feminist movement would have taken roots even with her at that time itself.

In 1974, the women’s movement erupted to enormous heights yet we did not celebrate the centenary of Acchamamba who was born precisely one hundred years ago. I am saddened and yet proud to pay a tribute to that examplary woman in my own humble way today as I conclude this article.

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(Abridged and rendered into English by Malathi Nidadavolu, and published on thulika.net, March 2010)

 (Full text in Telugu was published in Bhumika and Sujanaranjani, March 2004)

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[1] Literally, one half of one person. Implicitly, husband and wife together make up one person

[2] Hindusundari, August 1902.