Nori Narasimha Sastry by Nidadavolu Malathi

Nori Narasimha Sastry (1900-1978) started writing poetry even as a child and produced voluminous amount of literature in almost all genres—poetry, plays, short stories, novels, and literary criticism for over six decades. He received the title kavi samrat [emporer of poets] in 1947. He was an active participant in several literary organizations.

Narasimha Sastry garu was born to the couple Hanumacchastri and Mahalakshmi on June 2, 1900. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1919 and B.L. degree in 1925. He was well-versed in Sanskrit, Telugu, English and Kannada languages. He received the deeksha (a religious ritual) from Sri Kalyanananda Bharatiswamy.

“He was a top-ranking literary persona and his work in all the genres of literature is exemplary,” says his son, Hanumacchastri (Preface to Nori Narasimha Sastri gari sahitya vyasalu [Literary essays by Nori Narasimha Sastry.])

Sastry was nineteen by the time he had published his first anthology of poems. Although he had written excellent poetry, his novels, especially historical novels such as Narayana Bhattu, Rudramadevi, Malla Reddy, earned him fame and fortune. His first novel was vaghira. He wrote three novels depicting the lives of poets, Srinatha  in Sarvabhaumudu, Srinatha and Pothana in kavidwayamu  and Dhurjati in Dhurjati ]. Additionally, he included our famous poets as important characters in other novels such as Rudramadevi, thereby demonstrating his respect for distinguished poets from the past.

Among other works, Devi bhagavatham (3 vols), ­plays, poetic plays, literary essays, reviews and prefaces stand out as evidence of his remarkable scholarship. One of his achievements was to coin a new phrase bhava natikalu [perception-based plays] and add a new angle to plays, wherein perceptions or ideas take precedence over action. These plays contain heavy Sanskrit phraseology. He also wrote short play in poetry and prose, karpoora dwipa yatra, a children’s novel, and Sabdavedhi.    

The fifth volume of his complete literary works is devoted to his literary essays and is available on the internet. This one volume contains over 940 pages and reflects his vast knowledge in several genre of not only literature but also in other subjects such as music, sculpture, art and religion. For instance, in his article on highly regarded lyricist “Subrahmanya kavi“, he discusses the qualities of a great lyricist in general, standards set by lyricists in the past centuries (Sarjnadeva, Kshetrayya,) and modern lyricists such as Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao, Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sarma, and then presents his opinions on the superior talent of Subrahmanya kavi.

Similarly, sculpting does not mean carving a stone but envisioning the form latent in a stone, and removing the parts of stone that envelope the figure inside [parasthalaalu]. The process is very close to envisioning the Brahman, comments Sastri.

While discussing the novel Himabindu by Bapiraju, Sastri explains the depth with which Bapiraju enhanced the novel with his knowledge of music and sculpture. So also, when he writes about the beat in modern poetry, Sastry states how Veena Dhanamma, a famous musician, introduced new trends in raaga prastaaram [elaborating on a single note].

In short, in each article, he points out a new angle regarding a particular writer, poet or the times in which the work has been written.

The range of topics he has discussed in these articles is impressive. They include renowned classics in Sanskrit, Indian history, history of Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu intellectuals, literary criticism, prefaces, reviews, literary movements, modern literature, fiction, humor, and devotional literature.

In these articles, we see the special regard he has for our country and our culture. His comments particularly regarding our history are notable.

Narasimha Sastry states that we have come to accept the divisions of our history enunciated by Europeans and from their perspective, which distorted our perception of ourselves. He suggests strongly that we should study seriously our Maha Bharata and Ramayana from a historical perspective, and study the two perspectives—the Westerners’ and ours—in juxtaposition. Only then we will have a comprehensive well-balanced perspective of our history. He also explains at length the changes our country has undergone as a result of the onset of the Buddhists, the Jains, the Turkish, the Hun and the English (mana desa charitra [History of our country]). In another article, Andhra desa charitra [History of Andhra Pradesh], he points out how our history has been distorted because we have accepted English as model and rejected our own language, Telugu.

In charitraka navala, he elaborates on how literature flourished in the historical context. He contends that classics like Maha Bharata and Ramayana have been written to provoke people into thinking and action and reexamine their views of their dharma at a time when the morale of the country took a turn for the worse. He highlights the close, inexplicable rapport between history and historical novel. Authors may take real life incidents but it is not necessary to record them precisely the way it had happened. A poet has the right to make necessary changes to the story in order to produce a kavya. As an example, Sastry says he has compressed six years of Rudramadevi’s rule into six months in his novel by the same name. However, the author also has the responsibility to examine the history under reference carefully, understand it thoroughly and then only he can write a successful novel. He says he has researched his materials always before writing his novels.

The two articles swatantra bharatamulo charitra rachana [Writing history in the independent India] and Andhra bhashalo charitraka navala [Historical novel in Telugu] provide us with excellent background information. They would be particularly helpful for those interested in writing historical novels in my opinion.

The three articles are listed under “humor writing“—failing exam, celebrating the 60th birthday called shashtipurti utsavam, and mushti kavitvam [poetry besought]. The first one, “failing exams” [pareeksha tappadam] is somewhat flat. In the second article, the 60th birthday celebration, Sastry explains how the celebration originated. Actually, it is not a celebration, Sastry comments. According to the legend, death appears in the form a human, Ugraratha and destroys the person his family on that specific day. And the person in order to avoid such calamity performs a ritual pacifying Ugraratha. In mushti kavitvam¸is a satire poking fun at the poets, who, motivated by politicians, party bosses and by their own greed for fame and fortune, are writing second rate poetry.

Narasimha Sastry strongly believes that poets should have the same qualities as rishis—being focused on dharma, inquiry of truth, commitment, and temperance. Even when they take lust, anger and spite as their subjects, they still should write with self-control, in the footsteps of the rishis in the past. The poets of the past, even when they depended on the kings for their livelihood, they still wrote freely unfettered by their obligations to the royalty. In modern times, the critics should take the responsibility of preventing writers from falling prey to these politically motivated “-isms”   

The second book I have read by Narasimha Sastry is the historical novel, Rudramadevi, depicting the political turmoil of the times under Rudramadevi and her successful victory over rebellious yadava, chola and chalukya kings in the south and Maharashtra kings in mid thirteenth century. Her husband Veerabhadrudu, a Chalukya king, becomes her enemy because Rudramadevi’s father refused to annoint his son by another queen as emporer and instead annoints Rudramadevi as empress. Veerabhadrudu provokes other minor kings to attack Kakateeya kingdom. Rudramadevi found herself in a conflict between her duty to the empire and personal interests, which was to save her marriage. She decided to put her duty to the kingdom ahead of her personal choices. Her husband prods naïve Jains to rebel. Rudramadevi pardons the Jains and punishes Veerabhadrudu for his transgressions, regardless his status as her husband.

Into this political story, the lifestyles of all strata of society are woven skillfully, I might add. Tikkana Somayaji’s character as a detached poet with a flair for politics has been depicted beautifully. Similarly, Koppera jingadu (also known as Rajasimhudu), a Kadava (Kerala) king, crosses the Godavari river and while his ships were attacking Andhra warriors, sets up his tent on the shores and arranges for a performance of uurubhangam [Breaking Duryodhana’s thighs in the Maha Bharata war] attesting to his superior taste in literature.

The author succeeded in giving us a piece of literature with a right mix of history and fiction. The characters in this story come alive and it includes enormous amount of the lifestyle of the queen’s times. Rudramadevi is one of our best novels of all times in modern Telugu literature.

Narasimha Sastry’s views on history and historical novel are recounted in the next article. Click here.

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This article has been published originally on thulika.net, June 2011.