Putting an end to the boilerplate literary history by kalpana Rentala

(See note at the end.). We have one thousand years of literary history. Up until now, there had been an effort to portray women’s literature only as a part of the mainstream history; women writers were mentioned only sporadically, one Molla or one Timmakka. Our history is a male-dominated record that has been accustomed to record women’s participation only as a measly strand.

Ever since westernization started influencing our culture, women’s awareness also started changing. That is reflected in the fields of literature, science, and sociology. The massive changes, which are taking place in men’s perceptions, are noted; but there has been never a systematic attempt to note the changes that are taking place in the perceptions of women, the mode of development in their participation in the academy, and their mode of thinking.

Today, a concrete attempt to question this boilerplate documentation, and rewrite a different kind history has begun. This is not limited to a handful of persons or books. They are examining the women’s consciousness from several angles and in various fields. Until now, women’s contribution has been recognized only partially, and limiting to a few writers or a specific period. A few responsible writers however departed from this tradition in an attempt to study women’s writings in a larger context. Nidadavolu Malathi is one of them.

In this book, Malathi examines the history of Telugu fiction and women’s fiction from a completely different angle and from the existing records.

In general, whenever women’s fiction is mentioned, the writers are invariably presented either as novelists or feminists, who came to be known in the 1980s. But there has never been a better, comprehensive discussion on the subject. The number of female short story writers was much higher during the time the freedom movement and women’s education movement peaked; but it was not so after the declaration of independence.

This is particularly obvious, when we consider the availability of printing presses, awareness of women’s identity, and other several amenities available for women to write; the number was however much less comparatively speaking. A famous critic, Racapalem Chandrasekhara Reddy raised the question, “Should we attribute this decline in the number of female writers writing short fiction to their preference such as writing novels instead?” (Telugu kathakulu – kathanareetulu, part 3. 111).

Contradicting that stance, Malathi has shown, quoting several examples, that women writers have not written only novels but also several excellent stories; she has also discussed at length their themes and technique. Malathi’s detailed analysis of their themes and technique in this book can be considered a milestone in the literary history of Telugu women.

Malathi did not use the term “feminism”; yet she has pointed out clearly that women’s awareness of identity did not start with the feminists in the eighties; but it was evident even in the nineteen fifties fiction. Her detailed analysis of stories like eduru chuusina muhurtam by P. Saraladevi, depicting women’s awareness of identity enhances our respect for writers of the past.

The history of Telugu fiction, which often quotes diddubaaTu by Gurajada Appa Rao as the first short story in Telugu gave very little importance to women’s writing. The histories speak extensively of Gurajada, Malladi, and Sripada, and very little about Bhandaru Acchamamba, Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, Kommuri Padmavati, Illindala Saraswatidevi, P. Sridevi. Adimadhyam Ramanamma, Sivaraju Subbalakshmi and several others. Nobody discussed the works by these women writers.

As far as the discussion on the fifties writings is concerned, reference to women’s writings appears naamke vaasthe [nominal]. If we see the books and articles written so far on Telugu short story, we find only one or two unqualified sentences limited to three or four women writers and an all-inclusive phrase “and others”. We have no evidence of anybody paying serious attention to these women’s stories, their themes, and techniques; much less critiquing them in detail. On rare occasions, we might find a complete article on women writers. But nowhere have we seen a complete analysis of women writers’ contribution as a part of mainstream literary history. I have no doubt that Gurajada, Malladi and Sripada are great writers. But, my question is: Don’t we have to study the women’s fiction in detail and in the same light in order to assess their works, and to see how they stack up?

When we examine the story, diddubaaTu of Gurajada in juxtaposition with the stories, strividya and khana, written by Bhandaru Acchamamba, we will understand that the latter two stories are in no way inferior to Gurajada’s story. Acchamamba, who had been educated as early as 1900, had written women’s biographies and several stories; yet her writings are ignored. No literary historian of Telugu fiction bothered to make a note of Acchamamba’s stories.

One of her stories, khana, for instance, narrates the social conditions of her time and her ill-fated life. Khana was wife of Mihira, an astrologer in king Vikramaditya’s court. The story vouches for the women’s awareness of their conditions as early as 1900s.

Yet another example is the story kuteera Lakshmi by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma. The story depicts the aftermath of the Great War, the manner in which large-scale industries such as the Manchester Company caused the ruination of the local handloom industries, and the significance of our nationalist movement. Once again, very few literary historians made a note of this story.

It sounds harsh but the reality is throughout the history from the earliest to date, the literary historians stated women’s writings as “by women and for women only” but made no serious attempt to give it its due place in history and examine it as an intrinsic part of the mainstream literature.

Women have always been perceived as a part of the movements—women’s, social and education—but there is no other attempt to place them contextually. History made a special note of women’s education only for the purpose of women’s role at home, for their contribution to the family’s well-being, but not for assimilating them into the mainstream. The social reformers intended women’s education only to make her a better housewife. There is no evidence to show that they wanted women to become better persons. Malathi pointed out this biased view of the reformers in her book.

The period immediately following the achievement of independence, namely 1950-1975, was a significant period. That was the time when major changes were taking place in all the fields—political, sociological, and literary. And most of the literary historians dismissed that significant period, labeling it the age of novels or romance fiction.

During that period, several significant novels have been written. Several novels have illustrated sensitive issues relating to man-woman relationships, and important familial issues.

Yet even a senior critic like Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma could not make a valid comment on this fiction. In his article, “telugu katha, samaajika spruha” [Telugu story and social consciousness], he wrote, “Many women writers were able to depict a woman’s life to the extent it was correlated to a man’s life. However, one can see from their writings that women knew absolutely nothing about the man’s world. There is no brainpower. They are hopelessly poor in their command of language. They do not read at all. They are lifeless cutouts submerged in self-aggrandizement, slandering others, and egos. This confounding state, which the women have created, pulled down the level of Telugu readers, and turned the clock back to fifty-years.” (Telugu katha: vimarsanaatmaka vyaasa sampuTi). Strangely, the same Subrahmanya Sarma registered his protest in 1976, when Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi eliminated the fiction category from their list of various genres for presenting awards.

On the same lines, a famous fiction writer and notable critic, Kethu Viswanatha Reddy commented, “Women writers did not care about short story as much as novels. … Even writers like Sridevi, Saraladevi, Turaga Janakirani, Kalyanasundari Jagannath, Vasireddy Sitadevi, Achanta Sarada Devi, Pavani Nirmala Prabhavati, Nidadavolu Malathi, Ranganayakamma, have not developed any notable technique in short story writing, the reason being women are still lagging behind in their perception of the modern day consciousness. And what is even worse misfortune is they cannot write even in simple Telugu [bhashaa saaralyam kuda ledu].” (Viswanatha Reddy. p. 73).

These few examples should suffice to show how the criticism in the field of Telugu fiction has been changing, based on the perceptions of individuals during different periods. Up until now, Telugu people have gotten used to seeing only this kind of literary criticism, which is subjective.

Malathi’s book, for a change, takes up a significant part of the contributions made by Telugu women in the field of fiction for a period of twenty-five years and presents it from a refreshingly new angle. Malathi, positioning them in their social and historical context, analyzed the themes, genres and their technique effectively.

I have no doubt that this book will be a valuable contribution to the true history of Telugu literature.

Kalpana Rentala

September 27, 2004

Madison, Wisconsin.

Editor’s Note:

This is foreword by Kalpana Rentala for the book, Telugu Women Writers, 1950-1975, a critical study. published by Malathi Nidadavolu, author in 2006. Later this book has been published by Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, under the title, Quiet and Quaint, Telugu women writers, in 2010. – Nidadavolu Malathi

The book may be downloaded for personal use only. Click on Telugu Women Writers, 1950-1975