A historical perspective of Women’s writing in Andhra Pradesh

by Nidadavolu Malathi.
Dog wonderedWhy are there so many poems

About dogs

Pink chalk wondered

Why there are none

About him

Here, pink chalk,

a poem about a dog.


I saw this poem on the sidewalk during my evening walk one day. I stood there memorizing the lines. Next morning I went back to read again. Last night’s rain washed away the poem. For me the pink chalk became a metaphor for women writing.

Here follows my perception of women writing in Andhra Pradesh.




In cultures like India where oral tradition is predominantly a mode of tutelage and dissemination of knowledge, the short story continues to be another important medium.  Colossal works like Katha Sarit Sagaram (The Ocean of Stories) and Panca tantram (The Five Strategies of Polity) are series of never-ending stories with several layers of embedded stories. In books like these, the narrator starts a story, branches off into another story within the story and leaves only to pick it up the following night. The listeners have time to ruminate on the story and make mental notes. Dakshinamurti, a prominent fiction writer stated that, “not only Indians but even foreigners agree that India is the first to explore short fiction. … Our Vedic literature possesses stories in their rudimentary form.” (3).

For centuries, Telugu mothers have been telling stories to children, in the time-honored spirit of oral tradition, while doing chores–stories about handsome princes, wicked witches, and mean step-mothers as well as stories of national heroes. The story of Dudala Salamma of Quila Shapur in Women Writing in India (Tharu and Lalitha 216-224) is an excellent example of stories in oral tradition. The narrative highlights some of the important features of oral tradition: [1] a woman, with no formal education narrated the story. For centuries, while formal education for women was substandard, their lore, cognition and aptitude to tell a story remained unquestionable; [2] It reflects the narrator’s strength of character as an active participant in a people’s movement (Telangana Movement 1946-1951); and, [3] Humility, not showmanship, has been one of the telling virtues of Hindu philosophy, and by extension, that of Indian women. Possibly for the same reason we have no biographical details of the narrator, Salamma. Telugu women had no problem in telling a story. The question of recognition and reward was a moot point even in 1960s.


Oral tradition imparts knowledge. Over the centuries, women have acquired knowledge while staying within the confines of their homes. There is evidence of scholarship among women from upper classes, Brahmin [scholars], Kshatriya [royalty] castes, and other economically advantaged classes.

Utukuri Lakshmikantamma (1917-1997), a highly respected female scholar in Sanskrit and Telugu, poet, and literary historian, listed more than 200 female poets extending over ten centuries in her monumental work, Andhra kavayitrulu [Andhra female authors] (1953)[1]. Some of the acclaimed female authors were Leelavati, 11th century, Tallapaka Timmakka, 12th century, Gangadevi, 13th century, Mohanangi, 15th century, and Muddupalani, 18th century, to name but few.

The females in the upper classes have received support and encouragement from male family members in acquiring knowledge as well as in their literary pursuits. Bhaskaracharyulu, a famous mathematician, 11th century, taught his daughter Leelavati mathematics. Leelavati authored a textbook, Leelavati ganitamu which is considered a valuable contribution (Lakshmikantamma 42-43).

Mohanangi, 16th century, daughter of emperor Krishnadevarayalu, received unequivocal support from her father in her literary venture. Following passage affirms the father-daughter relationship in the medieval period. The original text is in poetic form.

One day Krishnadevarayalu noticed that his daughter was perplexed and asks what was troubling her. Mohanangi replied that she was considering writing not “a few silly lines” but “a kavya [epic] much to the chagrin of those who ridicule female writing.” Krishnadevarayalu expressed immense pleasure at her decision and said, “I have been telling you, and you didn’t listen to me. Please do let me have the pleasure of your poetry.” He also assured her that her scholastic excellence was superior even to male writers (Lakshmikantamma 30-31).

It is evident that female scholarship in royal families existed and male family members were supportive of female scholarship. This tradition of receiving support from family members continued in modern period. The story of Bhandaru Acchamamba’s (1874-  ?) is a classic example of such support. In fact, her story provides arguments on both sides of the question—whether and how the family members responded to females acquiring knowledge. Acchamamba’s brother Komarraju Lakshmana Rao, a famous activist and respected journalist, encouraged her to learn to read. Some members of her family were opposed to the idea. Acchamamba was indifferent at first, and later decided to go along with her brother’s advice. Then she took upon herself to convince the other family members. Eventually she became a scholar not only in Telugu, but also in Sanskrit and English, and authored a book, Abala Saccharitra ratnamala in 3 volumes [1. histories of women in classics, 2. women in history and 3. biographies of foreign women] (Lakshmikantamma. Andhra kavayitrulu, 105).

Lakshmikantamma cited several instances in her book where the family members have actively supported women’s education and encouraged women writing. It would also appear that by this time the female scholarship extended beyond brahmin and kshatriya castes, to other economically higher classes. Acchamamba belonged to Vaisya caste (business community).


Speaking of the females from lower classes in the previous centuries, Atukuri Molla belonged to potters’ caste/class and is commonly referred to as kummari [potters] Molla. Unlike the female writers from upper classes. One critic raised the question how could Molla, a woman of lower caste, acquire the writing skills (Radhika Gajjala. Personal correspondence). I could only take a wild guess based my limited knowledge of the heirarchy in India. Within each community there is an internal structure. For instance, within the kummari caste, Molla’s father could be the head/chief [kulapedda] in which case she was entitled to the privileges of the higher status women. I remember seeing in my younger days this kind of imitation of the upper class customs in the lower class communities. Yet the question remains how a person from lower classes, male or female, could acquire the reading and writing skills?

Coming back to the known facts, Molla did not hesitate to appear in public or approach the royalty (Further discussion in the later part of this article). Molla was acclaimed for her Ramayanam, written in pure Telugu, brimming with cultural nuance and native idiom, unadulterated with long winding and heavily Sanskritized phraseology. She was the second[2] female poet to write in pure Telugu. Arudra’s comment is pertinent here, “Molla’s Ramayanam enjoys popularity to this day while several other Ramayanams written by highly regarded male scholars of her times were lost in history” (Samagra Andhra Sahityam 8: 110).

Molla belonged to the 14th or 16th century. Lakshmikantamma established authoritatively the dates as 1320-1400 or 1405 (Andhra Kavayitrulu 25) while Arudra determined it to be the 16th century (Samagra Andhra sahityam 8: 114). Let’ note that this kind of discrepancy however is not peculiar to female authors only.

Women started receiving formal education in public schools in the late 19th century.  Kandukuri Veeresalingam (1848-1919), a prominent social reformer and activist, pioneered the women’s movement in Andhra Pradesh, and for that reason earned the title “the father of modern epoch” [yugapurushudu or yugakarta] in Andhra Pradesh.


Kandukuri Veeresalingam took up women’s cause in the late 19th century. Among his major accomplishments, the most notable were women’s education, widow remarriage and eradication of prostitution. Veeresalingam believed strongly that “the country can not prosper unless women are educated.” (Venkatarangayya 37). He started with educating his wife, Rajyalakshmamma who later became an active participant in his reform movements.

An important issue of this period was the controversy among the male elitists regarding female education. While some were supportive of female education, there were other activists who opposed it vehemently. Kokkonda Venkataratnam pantulu (1842-1915) was one of the staunch opponents of education for women. In his magazine Andhra bhasha sanjivani, Venkataratnam pantulu was publishing articles on the negative effects of women’s education at the same time Veeresalingam was striving to advocate the positive factors.

Narla Venkateswararao, better known as V. R. Narla (1908-  ), an eminent journalist and western-educated scholar, reported the debate as follows [original in English] as “The biggest and the most long-drawn-out of his [Veeresalingam’s] battles were for the right of a woman to education and of a widow to remarriage” (36) …  and “In its [his magazine, satihita bodhini] columns, he serialised his stories of Satyavati and Chandramati, his biographical sketches of famous women, Indian and foreign, his popular guide to health, his moral maxims in verse, and his many other writings meant exclusively for women.”(37).

The above passage highlights two points: The controversy surrounding women’s education in Andhra Pradesh was not so much gender-specific as society-specific—meaning the issue was not one of males versus females but between two groups of males, supporters and opponents of education for women. This trend continued well into the modern period.

Secondly, Veeresalingam’s course content for females—what subjects women should be taught—was not as progressive as his views on the need for education. He started the magazine exclusively for women, satihitabodhini, the first of its kind in 1883. His views were made clear in one of his articles entitled “Uneducated women are the enemies of their children,” Veeresalingam wrote, “If women were educated, they will stay away from using foul language, will not get into brawls, and behave sensibly and quietly. We have the proverb, ‘children take after their mother.’[3] If women behave, the children will learn good behavior. … If the mothers were stupid and petulant, the children fail in their studies, become irascible, take to evil ways and hurt others and hurt themselves.” (Quoted in Potturi Venkateswararao. 86). Veeresalingam’s views on female virtue raised some controversy in his later years. This is discussed further on page 8 of this article.


The prevailing social conditions of women during Veeresalingam’s period are discernable from the story of his wife, Rajyalakshmamma. Kanuparti Varalakshmamma (1896-  )[4], an acclaimed poet, lyricist, and fiction writer, wrote about Rajyalakshmamma as follows:

After her husband [Veeresalingam] started the widow remarriage movement, her relationship with her natal home became a struggle. There was no way she could keep her relationship with the two families—her natal home and the in-laws. … After much thought, she decided to stay with her husband, as was appropriate for an Indian woman. …

Due to their excommunication[5] by the local community, Rajyalakshmamma suffered several hardships. Household help was not available anymore. She had to cook, clean, fetch water from the river Godavari … the list was endless.

For the same reason [excommunication], she was not invited to festivities at her natal home, or by the neighbors … She had to put up with ridicule from the other females silently and with tears welling up in her eyes… In addition, her husband was terribly short-tempered, would not give her the time of the day. If she tried to talk to him, he would say, ‘If you can’t take it, just go back to your home.’ Therefore, she had no other recourse but to keep quiet. God only knows how she had endured such hardships. … (42).

Narla also had expressed similar view in regard to Rajyalakshmamma’s position at home.

In a way, she [Rajyalakshmamma] bore greater burden than he [Veeresalingam]. It was easy for him to offer protection to every child widow that had come to him seeking help. But it was Rajyalakshmamma who had to feed them, clothe them, and take care of them like a mother. …women from different areas, with different backgrounds and personalities. … And she had to deal with several child widows with several heartrending stories. … (Yugapurushudu 17).

For centuries, Hindu philosophy has been preaching one’s duty to family and society, and selfless service. In familial context, compromise is a cultural value. The title of the article, dharmapatni Rajyalakshmamma, reinforces those convictions. Literally, dharmapatni is the woman who carries out her duties, consistent with her husband’s role in society. Rajyalakshmamma lived according to these principles. One example of her fortitude was in regard to the will Veeresalingam had created. While contemplating to donate his entire estate to Hitakarinisamajam [his organization for women’s welfare] he was unsure of the amount he should set aside for his wife. Rajyalakshmamma heard about his dilemma and told him that between the two of them, she would die earlier and so there was no reason for him to worry about her share of the property[6] (Varalakshmamma 44).

The two comments (of Varalakshmamma and Narla) point to the anomaly between Veeresalingam’s preachings and practice. The freedom Veeresalingam was advocating for women had its limitations. However, even in his times, towards the end of his era, women began showing signs of independent thinking.

Two female writers who were children during the last two decades of Veeresalingam throw light on the social change that was taking place almost imperceptibly in the early 20th century. Battula Kamakshamma (1886-   ), a teen child widow at this time gives us a touching account in her autobiographical essay, a short 4-page paper, smruthulu, anubhavamulu [memories and personal experiences] of how women lived with grace under trying social conditions[7]. The gist of it is as follows:

She was a child widow, about 15 years old in 1901-1902, and was living in her relatives’ home. During those days the well-to-do families were observing rigid traditions and customs. Women couldn’t show their faces in public. Kamakshamma was always dedicated to reading books and public service. She was interested in Veeresalingam’s writings and evidently was inspired by his writings. When her family members and other disciples of Veeresalingam tried to encourage her to remarry she resisted. She devoted her life to public service.  ..

Her family members did not object to her reading since she was also reading epics and gathering other women in her neighborhood for religious discourses [emphasis mine]. Evidently she had to circumvent possible opposition to her reading the controversial books (69-72).

To me, the article was interesting since it showed how she had noticed the unfavorable conditions, and circumvented the objections in subtle ways. Her account gives us some of the notable details as to how, during and after Veeresalingam period, women managed to process the information they had received and put it to their best use while keeping good relationship with their families. Wisdom lies in working things out. Kamakshamma was a good example. She decided not to remarry but had no problem in helping other widows who wished to remarry. The hurdles from her family did not prevent her from following her heart—that was reading Veeresalingam’s writings and taking only whatever suited her mental disposition.

Another female writer, Nalam Suseelamma, wife of Nalam Krishna Rao[8], also expressed similar sentiment:

She was not interested in her husband’s activities at first. She was hesitant even to talk to Rajyalakshmamma [Veeresalingam’s wife]. But she was following her husband … only to please her husband but not because she believed in his them. Suseelamma added that she was not ashamed of her lifestyle during those days. ‘I am saying this to point out the hold the traditional values had on us during that period.’ In retrospect she felt there was nothing to be ashamed of, she was only sorry but not ashamed. …

“I could not step outside past the front door in those days. Now I am running this Andhra Mahila gaana sabha [Andhra women music society]. I owe it to the incessant teachings of Veeresalingam garu. ….” (95-96).

Evidently the males allowed women to read books but within the norms set by the society. And individual women found ways to circumvent the hurdles. That was and has been the spirit and character of Telugu women. This spirit of compromise or conformation rather than of confrontation has been evident even in the female writers in 1960s. Kamakshamma and Suseelamma reaffirm the evolutionary nature of social values. Change does not happen in one quick move but takes place imperceptibly.


By 1930s, the women’s education movement gained momentum. The nationalist movement needed an educated woman. National leaders found women to be of valuable asset not only for their strength but also in terms of numbers. A little later, Ayyanki Venkataramanayya started the library movement, once again with educating women as one of its primary goals.  As a result of the combined efforts of all these three movements, several women’s magazines came into existence.

Several magazine exclusively for women started appearing soon. Telugu janana was started in 1894 and published from Rajahmundry, the central part of the state with rich literary history. Hindusundari was another magazine for women, started by S. Sitaramayya in 1902. Potturi Venkateswararao quoted the mission statement of the editor:

“Considering that [Telugujanana] is the only magazine currently available for women, and there is no other to compete with, I decided to start this [hindusundari]… hoping to educate women, encouraging to express themselves freely, and without fear. I contacted our sisters who were sending their contributions to my other magazine, desopakari [guardian of our country]. They all expressed great enthusiasm at the prospect, promised to help me to make it a useful magazine for all women. Some of them offered to write and publish themselves, while a few expressed concern. For fear of ridicule by their female neighbors, some of them preferred to use pseudonyms … For all these reasons, we tried to make the women take up writing and running the magazine themselves, but the country has not reached that level yet, I suppose.” (87)

And Venkateswararao commented that,

This rather long editorial is indicative of the educated women’s interest in writing, of their fear of ridicule by female friends, and also, the determination of the publishers and magazine editors to promote the women’s education, to encourage women to act as magazine editors. At the request of Sitaramayya, two women, Mosalikanti Rambayamma and Vempati Santabayamma became editors. In all possibility, these two women were the first female journalists and magazine editors. After a few years, some 7 or 8 years, Madabhushi Chudamma and Kallepalli Venkataramanamma took up the editorial responsibilities of the magazine. It was about this time that the term “sampadakulu” [Telugu term for male editors] came into vogue, and the two women announced themselves “sampaadakuraandru” [female editors]. The magazine was moved to Kakinada in 1917 and later was dissolved.

The first issue of Hindusundari included articles on traditional duties of wives [pativratadharmam], the tenets for married women, skills required in the performance of their daily chores, women’s songs, cosmetics, hygiene, biographies of foreign women, and also fiction for diversion. The stories that were supportive of women’s education and literary interest were given priority (87-88).

Notably women were invited to participate in running the magazine and they responded zealously. Interestingly they had expressed their concern that they might face ridicule from their female cohorts [emphasis mine]! Another noteworthy point was that Hindusundari did not differ in its views from Veeresalingam’s on female education.

Tirumala Ramacandra, (1913- ) mentioned two female writers in his book, Telugu patrikala sahitya seva (1989) –Racamalla Satyavatidevi as the first female editor of a magazine, not for-women-only, Telugu talli, 1938-1944 (61), and Jnanamba as an essayist. Ramacandra quoted almost one page from one of Jnanamba’s article [non-fiction] on the delicious nature of sitaphalam [winter apple] and its benefits for one’s health (44). Potham Janakamma who wrote an article, “videsi yatra” (traveling abroad) in 1874, published in Andhrabhasha sanjivani, could be the first Telugu female essayist (Lakshmana Reddi. Telugulo patrika racana 58).

Significantly, the magazine Andhrabhasha sanjivani was run by Kokkonda Venkataratnam pantulu, who was a staunch opponent of education for women. The magazine was a “platform for the traditionalists of the old school to revive the long-established social norms, and also to oppose all social and cultural reform movements. The magazine was publishing articles opposing widow remarriage and women’s education” (Lakshmana Reddi. Telugulo patrika racana 57-58).

K. N. Kesari, a nationalist leader, noted philanthropist and journalist started Gruhalakshmi in 1928 providing a viable platform for women to express themselves. Kesari’s mission was to “improve the health and welfare of women.” Venkateswararao commented that, “although this is intended for women only, the magazine was publishing highly informative articles useful for everybody. There are several articles of lasting value.” Probably this was one of the significant moments when the ‘exclusively for women’ idea started fading. Venkateswararao further elaborated that “Gruhalakshmi provided platform for several female writers… worked for women’s education, women’s voting rights and was keen on encouraging women to work on the spinning wheel at home. Encouraged women to conduct conferences, seminars, etc. and published the news in its pages. In this magazine, the national activist Gummididala Durgabai [later came to be known as Durgabai Deshmukh] published her serial novel, ‘Lakshmi’. The story was about an orphan named Lakshmi who suffers several hardships and later becomes a teacher. At the end of the novel, Durgabai addressed the readers and said, ‘if even one woman learns from this story and improves her life, I will feel blessed.’ … Gruhalakshmi has a special place not only among women’s magazines but all the magazines of that epoch” (P. Venkateswararao 90-91).

In the same context, Lakshmana Reddi observed that, “Several women who had no knowledge of even alphabet, worked hard to improve their reading skills and rose to the level of becoming eminent scholars.” (Telugu journalism 306). … Kanuparti Varalakshmamma ran a column entitled ‘Sarada lekhalu’ [letters from Sarada] in which she discussed important women’s issues like Sharda Act [Government Act prohibiting child marriages] (307).

Kesari also set up an annual award, “Swarna kankanam” (golden bracelet) to honor female writers of eminence, and this award continues to present times.

Pulugurta Lakshmi Narasamamba was also an active contributor to Gruhalakshmi  who later started her own magazine, Savitri in 1904, “challenging Veeresalingam’s position on widow remarriage and declaring war on several other movements of Veeresalingam. Although she opposed widow remarriage, she was a great advocate of women’s education” (Lakshmana Reddi. Telugulo patrika racana. 121). Venkateswararao noted that, “Although it is not clear how long this magazine existed but evidently has published valuable articles. The articles were published later in anthologies” (P. Venkateswararao 90).

I would like to relate an anecdote that adds another dimension to Lakshmi Narasamamba’s character. One of her granddaughters was my friend and classmate in Andhra University, 1956-1959. My friend had mentioned that her grandmother Lakshmi Narasamamba garu was progressive in numerous ways; and, when my friend wanted to marry a man of her choice the family opposed. Her grandmother however supported and encouraged her to follow her heart. Like Kamakshamma (see page 6 of this article), women in those days made choices on a case-by-case basis. Their choices might look like a contradiction on the surface but are indicative of the strength of their characters.

While the movements were focused on “educating women”, women with hardly any schooling were writing and publishing in the 1930s and 1940s. One classic example of their success was a scholarly work by Burra Kamaladevi (1908-  ), Chhandohamsi (A study of meter). The book was prescribed as a textbook for post-graduate students in Telugu Literature and bhashapraveena diploma (attestation of scholarship in Telugu language studies) in schools. The notable factor was that Kamaladevi received no formal education, and that the academy did not consider it an obstacle to consider it a scholarly work.

These magazines for women published poetry and fiction by female writers. Men openly encouraged women to write. There was no stigma in writing. There was no stigma in publishing their writings in their own names. Women writers in Andhra Pradesh did not hide behind pseudonyms to conceal their identity


Veeresalingam had stated his goals of female education in no uncertain terms. After the declaration of independence, there was a shift in the attitudes of males at least on the surface. The ‘magazines exclusively for women’ were replaced by special sections for women in magazines for general public. For instance, Pramadaavanam  in Andhra Prabha, vanitaalokam in Andhra Patrika, and later vanitaajyoti in Andhra Jyoti with female columnists were and have been such replacements. The topics dealt with in these special sections however remained the same—cooking, sewing, female hygiene and beauty tips. Unlike Veeresalingam the social activists in later period did not spell it out though. The attitudes have become much more subtle. There was no movement like that of Kokkonda Venkataratnam opposing female education in public.Yet, the reality women faced in day to day life on the home-front was a different story. The double standard some of the male activists evinced, the contrariety between their preachings and practice also went unrecorded.

The women took it upon themselves to make that shift to social issues that seriously affected women. The dissent started to surface in other ways like movies and in real life situations. This is evident in the 1960s female writing.

Statistically, the names of female writers appeared only sporadically in critical works. Potturi Venkateswararao devoted one chapter, “acchamgaa aadavaallakosam” [exclusively for women] in his book, naati patrikala meti viluvalu (the high standards of the magazines in the past] (86-91) in which he briefly commented on the magazines for women and female writing in the early 20th century. Poranki Dakshinamurti listed over 200 short story writers, as prominent fiction writers between 1910 and 1975 in his book katha vanjmayam [history of short story] and 30 of them were females. Most of these 30 writers were from the 1950s and 1960s decades.


It would appear from modern day criticism that the two important questions regarding women writing are recognition and reward. Attempting to put these two questions in a social context in India is a complex task. The complexities arise from the caste-oriented social hierarchy as well as multi-layered familial relationships. My intent is to show, not how women were ridiculed and spurned, but how they handled themselves in literature and in society. Human nature being what it is, there is always room for conflicts and confrontation. Wisdom lies in dealing with the conflicts, and, I think, Telugu female writers handled themselves beautifully.

Let’s first examine the aspect of recognition. Historically, women writers were not appearing in public. Several biographies in Lakshmikantamma’s Andhra Kavayitrulu included comments on the extraordinary talent of female authors, but did not refer to their reception by the public. This custom of not seeking recognition was evident even in the 1960s, to a much lesser degree though.

Women in upper classes have written but did not seem to have sought royal patronage like male writers. During Veeresalingam’s period females began showing interest in publishing articles in the women’s magazines as well as books. This could be considered the first departure from tradition. Lakshmikantamma has stated that she owed her interest in the female writing of the past to Veeresalingam’s works (98). The content and the views expressed in these writings however remained the same as in the past. The works by these female writers carried Veeresalingam’s philosophy—Ahalayabai [story of Ahalya, a chaste woman in mythology], bhaktimargam [the rules of devotion], satidharmamulu [the duties of wife], and such.

Among those who deviated from this norm, Molla was prominently featured in the history of Telugu literature. Molla did not hesitate to go to the court despite her caste status. The following passage from Pratapacaritra by Ekamranatha, an early historian throws light on Molla’s stature in society [translation mine]:

Molla offered to dedicate her work Ramayanam to king Prataparudra. The scholars present in the court objected, calling it sudrakavitvam [poetry of a lower class person] and so was inappropriate. The king, in deference to their objection, invited the male brahmin scholars to write Ramayanam. Molla came to the court and read verses from her Ramayanam. The king, being knowledgeable, and appreciative of her [Molla’s] talent, yet afraid he might offend the brahmin scholars, rewarded her appropriately and sent her to the queen’s palace… (quoted in Samagra Andhra Sahityam 8: 113-114).

This account raises questions like how could Molla, a woman from lower class, gain access to the royal court in the first place? How could she read her poetry if her writing were considered objectionable? Why did the poets in the court waited until Molla recited her poetry, and then raised their objections? What prevented the King from overruling the objections of the poets in his court? To me, it appears the issue here is more than male versus female.

On the same lines, I would like to discuss another story about Molla, prevalent in Andhra Pradesh. A word of caution is needed here. Both Lakshmikantamma (Andhra kavayitrulu 19) and Arudra (Samagra Andhra Sahityam 8: 113) made brief references to the story but would not go into details. Lakshmikantamma dismissed it as irrelevant. I am, however, inclined to give here one story, for a couple of reasons. I will get to my reasons after giving the story.

One day Molla was returning from the market carrying a chicken and a puppy in her arms, and ran in toTenali Ramakrishna, a contemporary poet and prankster. Ramakrishna saw Molla, and as was his custom, saw an opportunity for a good laugh. He asked Molla if she would let him have the chicken or the puppy for a rupee. The question was a double entendre. At one level, it was a simple, straightforward question—whether she would sell the chicken or puppy to him for a rupee; and, at the other level, it was an obscenity.

Molla saw where he was going with his question, and replied that she would not sell him anything at any cost. Her response was also a double entendre matching his wits—at one level, her response was a straightforward answer—that she simply would not sell anything to him, and at the other level, her response meant, ‘Whatever your intentions are, you know I am like a mother to you’. The story continues to state that, then on Ramakrishna treated her with respect, like a mother.

The story raises several questions in regard to the status of women in society, in general, and of women poets, in particular. Was this a story of humiliation or success? How could a lower caste woman claim to be a mother-like figure of a brahmin? Wouldn’t that be preposterous? Does this story mean that women poets were subjected to ridicule? Or did it intend to show that women equaled men in a battle of wits? Ramakrishna was known to pull pranks on his male contemporariesll as we, and at times, ended up at the receiving end himself. In that sense, could we say that he treated Molla like he would any other poet, irrespective of gender? In my teen years, I read this story as an example of battle of wits.

My reasons for quoting the story are: In Telugu literature, there is a genre called tittu kavitvam [poetry of slander]. For centuries, it has been common practice for Telugu folks to ridicule each other. Personal attacks and defamation of character have been national characteristics. What would be considered an offense in the west would be a trivial matter for Telugu folks. Comments like “scribbling women” (Lawrence), or comparing women writing to “a dog walking on his hind legs” (Johnson) are easily forgiven or brushed off in our culture. Regarding the outrageous attacks and insults Venkataratnam Pantulu and Veeresalingam poured on each other in the late 19th centuries, Krishnakumari, a respected scholar and critic commented that only persons of their stature [Veeresalingam and Venkataratnam pantulu] could entertain such ferocious personal attacks (Yugapurushudu 173). This trend of personal attacks is widespread in Andhra Pradesh and continued in to 1960s and 1970s. Such sarcasm did not stand in the way for women to write and publish.

The second female writer to make history in the past was Muddupalani (1730-1790). Muddupalani was the first female writer, I think, to cause the scholars raise gender related questions. While Molla’s story was often quoted as an example of battle of wits, Muddupalani’s work was associated with her caste, courtesans.

Muddupalani was a granddaughter of Tanjanayaki, a courtesan in Tanjore court during Pratapasimha rule (1730-1763) (Arudra Samagra Andhra Sahityam 12: 172). Muddu Palani  wrote Radhikasantvanam, a poetic narrative of how Krishna set out to pacify incensed Radhika. She included several intimate details and erotic notes on woman’s modus operandi of satisfying a man in the process.

From the recorded history it would appear that questions regarding the authorship of radhikasantvanam were raised and dismissed (Samagra Andhra Sahityam. 12: 171-176), but the details are not relevant for the purpose of this book. What is relevant was the controversy surrounding its publication a century later. In 1910, when Bangalore Nagaratnamma, a scholar and poet in her own right, attempted to publish the book, met with strong opposition. The opposition and banning of the book came from the British government.

Among the Indians, Veeresalingam, a champion of women’s movement was one of her harshest critics. He condemned Muddupalani’s descriptions of love-making. Here is the account of Veeresalingam’s objections and Nagaratnamma’s rebuttal:

Veeresalingam commented on Radhikasantvanam as follows: “Several references in the book are disgraceful and inappropriate for women to hear or write about.”

Bangalore Nagaratnamma questioned Veeresalingam’s integrity: “Does the question of propriety and embarrassment arise only in the case of women, and not of men? Is he [Veeresalingam] implying that it is acceptable for this author [Muddupalani] to write about conjugal pleasures in minute detail and without reservation because she was a courtesan, but it would not be so for respectable men? Then my question is: Are the obscenities in this book [radhikasantvanam] worse than the obscenities in vaijayantivilasam, a book which pantulu garu [Veeresalingam] personally reviewed and approved for publication? And what about the obscenities in his own work, rasikajanamanobhiranjanam?” (Quoted in Arudra. preface. xx).

Apparently, women did not hesitate to rise to the occasion and register their protest when the occasion called for it. Radhikasantvanam was eventually published, as a result of an appeal to the government by some male scholars. They claimed that, “It is unfair to ban the entire book simply because it contains a few, some two dozen, objectionable verses.” The ban was not lifted until after the British rule ended though.

Some of the Andhra elite considered the book deserved to be published and got it published. Yet the stigma continues to this day, as is evident in some of the comments in the 20th and 21st centuries. Lakshmikantamma paid a remarkable tribute to Muddupalani’s poetic excellence and her command of language, and then said in her final note, “With her explicit descriptions of sexual acts, however, she [Muddupalani] made it impossible for scholarly discussion of her work in respectable company. … However, we should not put the blame entirely on Muddupalani for her explicit descriptions [pacci srungaram]. … The country was under military rule. It was a chaotic period.” (Andhra Kavayitrulu 67). Another comment posted on the Internet, as recently as July 2001 is equally subjective: “She [Muddupalani] wrote “Radhika Santvanamu” to prove that women can write lust and sex as well as or even better than men! Being a Vesya (concubine or prostitute) it was not difficult for her to write about lust and sex.”[9] (Vepachedu Srinivasarao Homepage)[Original in English] . There is however a noticeable difference in these two comments. Lakshmikantamma stayed with her subject while Srinivasarao took a jab at the author’s profession and personal life!


In summary, historically education was available to women in upper and middle class families. Questions like how and why this happened, and whether it was selective are open for debate. After declaration of independence, and the abolition of zamindaries and princely states, the middle class came into prominence with renewed vigor. Women from royal/ruling class became part of the middle class. Almost all the female writers in post-independent Andhra Pradesh belonged to middle class in terms of social strata. Their values represented the values of the new emerging middle class. The women started writing about the values of the middle class families, which were changing dramatically because of the social and political changes in the country.

Secondly, the controversies surrounding women’s education was not gender-specific. The dissent was between two groups, each group consisting of males and females, rather than separate groups of males and females. And strangely, the division continues to prevail even in modern times.

A third distinction was between the academy and the public–a modern concept. With the popularization of adult and women’s education, the non-scholar readership has increased exponentially, and it was responding to fiction with enthusiasm, irrespective of academic assessment of women writing.

Final note:  I am examining Telugu female writers of 1960s era against this background. I am looking forward to readers’ comments, suggestions, and stories. I am inviting readers to share their comments and stories that have a direct bearing on this topic. You may email your comments to me or mail to my contact in India. I am planning to visit India briefly and will be happy to meet with readers and writers.


(Originally published on thulika.net, September 2002. The suggestions and comments from Radhika Yelkur, India, and Radhika Gajjala, US, are gratefully acknowledged. – Nidadavolu Malathi.)

The complete book for personal use may be downloaded. Click on Telugu Women Writers, 1950-1975: Analytical study of women’s writing in Andhra Pradesh.


Arudra [pseud]. See Sankarasastry, Bhagavatula.

Dakshinamurti, Poranki. Kathanika vanjmayam. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy, 1975.

Kamakshamma, Battula. “Smruthulu, anubhavamu [Memories and experiences].” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 69-72.

Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham. Yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d.

Lakshmana Reddi, V. telugulo patrika rachana. Vijayawada: Lakshmi Publications, 1988.

—   telugu journalism. Vijayawada: Gopichand Publications, 1985.

Lakshmikantamma, Utukuri. Andhra kavayitrulu. Hyderabad: Author, 1953.

—    “Naati Vidusheemanulu.” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 97-102.

Narla, V. R. See Venkateswararao, Narla.

Ramachandra, Tirumala. telugu patrikala sahitya seva. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1989.

Ramalashmi, K. Comp. Andhra racayitrula samacara sucika Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, 1968.

Sankarasastry, Bhagavatula. [Arudra, pseud.] Samagra Andhra Sahityam.V.8. Madras: Seshachalam &Co., 1965. 110-118.

—        Samagra Andhra Sahityam, V. 12, Madras: Seshachalam &Co., 1968 168-176.

—      “pravesika [preface]” Muddupalani. Radhikasantvanam.  Madras: EMESCO Books, 1972, xi-xxiv

Salamma, Dudala. “Dudala Salamma of Quila Shapur.” Tharu, Susie and Lalitha, K. ed.: Women Writing in India, V.2.  New York: East-West Books, 1998. 216-224

Suseelamma, Nalam. “Pavitra smruthulu [Ennobling memories].” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 93-96.

Varalakshmamma, Kanuparti. “Dharmapatni Rajyalakshmamma.” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 41-44.

Venkateswararao, Narla. Veeresalingam [English]. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1968.

—      “Yugapurushudu.” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 11-18

Venkateswararao, Potturi. nati patrikala meti viluvalu. Hyderabad: Rachana Journalism Kalasala, 2000.

Venkatarangayya, Mamidipudi. “sarvotomukha sanghasamskarta.” Kandukuri Veeresalingam Smarakostavamula Sangham:  yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Author, n.d. 33-40.

Vijayalakshmi, Arepudi. navala racayitrulu-navalaa udyamaalu. Hyderabad: author, 1996.

[Internet sources]

Vepachedu, Srinivasa Rao  Home page. 7 July 2001 <http://members.iquest.net/-vepachedu/Women.html>.

[1] The book received Madras Government Literary Award in 1953, and went into several reprints. To this day it remains a valuable research tool.

[2] Tallapaka Timmakka was the first female poet to write in pure Telugu.

[3] Telugu original: talli chaalu pillalaku vacchunu.

[4] Swarnakankanam recipient in 1934, the best female writer award of Sahitya Akademi in 1966 (Ramalakshmi n.pag.)

[5] Due to Veeresalingam’s movement for widow remarriage, they were treated as outcastes..

[6] Rajyalakshmamma died nine years earlier than Veeresalingam She died in her sleep, painlessly (Varalakshmamma 44).

[7] Translation of complete article is available on my web site, Thulika (http://www.thulika.net/), September 2002.

[8] Kamakshamma’s uncle’s son, she had mentioned earlier.

[9] http://members.iquest.net/-vepachedu/Women.html.