G. V. Krishna Rao (Review) by Nidadavolu Malathi.

He is considered to have set the standard for Telugu literature. A Literary meet, Sri Aravinda Sahityaseva samiti, Tenali, honored Dr. G. V. Krishna Rao on March 3, 1979. At the ceremony, several writers and critics praised him for his superior quality work in Telugu literature and commented that his work sets standard for Telugu literature.

Krishna Rao was born in 1914 in Kuchipudi village, Tenali taluq, Andhra Pradesh, India. In an autobiographical essay, Dr. Krishna Rao stated that originally he was not very keen on attending school. His parents had no education but wanted him to obtain education. Not much came out of it though. Either he absconded school or when went to class, his mind was elsewhere. Later, his aunt took him to her village and put him through school there.

He was not much of a learner in traditional methods. He says that when he tried to write chepa [fish], it would look like chaapa [mat]. Nevertheless, he wrote a parody and showed it to his friend. That friend showed it to their teacher. The teacher chided him kindly though, “You can’t recite even ten verses and you’re writing poetry?” At the same time, the teacher also gave him a piece of advice, which he says was worth a million. The teacher told him, “It is wrong to write poetry without studying literature on poetics thoroughly. It will let the hell break loose.” At the time, Krishna Rao was in eighth grade. Thenceforth, he started studying classics and ancient grammatical works on his own. He says that study had its negative consequences. For instance, he came to believe that writing meant only writing poetry and that scholarship meant writing complex phrases. In his later years, he understood that prose was more important and put it on a higher pedestal.

In his final year of high school, his teacher, Sastry, corrected his essay and told him, “Writing long, meandering phrases is not good. Beatific meaning is important. Unless there is efficacy, one should not use a word that is not comprehensible instantaneously. A document must always be lucid as like a peeled banana. That is the greatest writing.”

Krishna Rao was well-versed in grammatical texts ever since he was a child. He started creative writing in high school. At the age of 17, he wrote his first novel, and wrote a satakam (a book of 100 verses) at the age of 20. He also wrote a storybook for children and tried to have it prescribed as textbook in schools, but did not succeed though. During the same period, he was upset with one of his teachers and wrote a poem on the blackboard. That resulted in him being transferred to another school. There he met with Tummala Venkatramayya with whom he had forged good friendship. Venkatramayya recounted a couple of interesting incidents from this period. First, Krishna Rao’s name in school records was Gavini Venkatakrishnayya. He researched the origins of his surname, and found out that there was a word Gavaka meaning the entrance to Durgamapuram. In course of time, that the word underwent several variations such as gavanu and gavani. He preferred the name Gavanu. Currently, however his surname is appearing in books as Gavini.

During the same period, he filled the answer papers with his comments on the grammatical errors in the questions given to him, instead of answering the questions. In his school days, parents used to request him to write poems of blessing for their sons and daughters at their weddings.

Krishna Rao performed ashtavadhaanam and sataavadhaanam – a peculiar kind of poetic application where a poet crafts poems, extempore and one line at a time in response to eight or one hundred individuals, called prucchaka [interrogators] in one sitting. This skill is prevalent only in Telugu and Sanskrit to the best of my knowledge. Krishna Rao took it as a challenge and practiced these skills in woods, pretending the trees to be the interrogators, and playing himself both the interrogators and respondent. He would not much give much weight to these early writings. He commented, “It took a long time for me to get rid of the habit which I had gotten used to from this trellis-like poetry.”

While he was studying for his bachelor’s degree, he met Gopichand, a prominent leftist writer of his times, from whom he had acquired a taste in Western literature and literary styles. Krishna Rao studied M.N. Roy’s works and Marxism, which changed his entire perspective. He understood that the use of colloquial language was important for his work. In those days, he also used to meet with traditional writers as well as modern writers like Chakrapani and Kutumba Rao. They all met regularly in some medical store and discussed the characteristics of criticism and short stories.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he tried to get a job but without success. During this period, it became hard for him even to get food to eat which reminded him of an episode describing the anger and frustration of the sage Vyasa in kasikhandam. Inspired by the episode, Krishna Rao wrote a play called bhiksha paatra [Begging bowl]. He says, “It is my first writing that emanated from the bowl filled with experience.” He sent it to several magazines but none of them accepted it for publication. However, the play has received critical acclaim later and been performed in several places numerous times. In this context, the comment made by Kurma Venugopalaswamy, registrar of Andhra University in the fifties and an avid supporter of Telugu stage is worth mentioning. He commented that he had read the play several times and had it performed in the experimental theater of Andhra University, Waltair, Andhra Pradesh. It has been translated into several Indian languages also.

After failing to obtain a job, Krishna Rao went to Benares to study for his master’s degree in English literature. He took a tutoring job to pay his tuition fee. At this time he also pursued his other interests. He studied eminent literary works in Telugu, Sanskrit and English. That part of his studies resulted in a classic work, kavya jagatthu. About this book, Krishna Rao says, “I explained the metamorphoses of theme in a kavya from the perspective of Marxism, quoting various from notable Indian and Western works, from Bharata to Pandita rayalu, and from Plato to Marx.” Further, he added, “I reviewed modern literary movements and their characteristics, and wherefrom they originated, namely, the social conditions and the leaders of those movements.”

Another milestone in Krishna Rao’s life was attending the political conference organized by Radical Democratic Party following the end of Second World War. At the conference, M. N. Roy vehemently criticized the existing political parties and proposed a new humanistic idea that is non-divisive and democratic in principle. That speech stunned Krishna Rao and paved the path for his future literary pursuits. That was the start of his studies in philosophy. Eventually, Krishna Rao worked on Kalapoornodayam for his Ph.D. and received his doctorate.

From his writings, Krishna Rao’s life appears to be one long stretch of endless inquiry, insatiable thirst for knowledge—from meaning of a given word to meaning of life. He has stated that the theme in his novel, keelu bommalu [Puppets] reflects this enquiring mind: “What does freedom mean? How humans are losing it? What is the way to regain it? To what extent, the economic and political matters are influencing human lives? What is the duty of individuals?—inciting this pursuit of knowledge is the goal of keelu bommalu,” he has stated in the preface to the book. Once a reader wrote to Krishna Rao suggesting the novel should have a happy ending. Krishna Rao replied, “Had I given it a happy ending, I wouldn’t have gotten even this note from you.” Apparently, the author was happy his novel provoked the reader to think.

While he was working in a degree college, he studied keenly the grammatical works of Acharya Nagarjuna, vigrahavarthini, Ratanavali and several others and translated them into Telugu poetical works. Unfortunately, his translations were stolen. He said he was able to translate again only one book vigrahavarthini and published it with extensive preface. He also translated Plato’s Republic.

In 1962, he lost his job. Then he started writing another novel, papi kondalu but left it unfinished as he got a job in a radio station. While working at the radio station, he wrote some poetry, translated pratima natakam by Bhasa, and published an anthology of his short stories, udabinduvulu. The author called it an anthology of short stories. However, the copy I had come across includes poetry, plays, and two essays. His last novel papi kondalu was never completed. Krishna Rao died in 1978.

Krishna Rao is one of those rare scholars who had examined the Indian traditional values and ancient works as well as Western philosophies thoroughly, developed his perspective on life and the world and presented his own philosophy. His works such as jegantalu and kavya jagatthu vouch for his standing as a literary persona. He had been persistent in his jignasa [pursuit of knowledge] even from his childhood days.

His opinion regarding the western influence on our (Telugu people’s) mode of thinking speaks of his keen sense of awareness what is wrong with our society at present. He says, “We have acquired modern, scientific and technical knowledge. Rationalism has taken place in our lives. Industries have been set up and wealth has prospered. The appetite to go for it [wealth] one way or another also has increased. We’ve gotten used to materialistic culture and started pursuing physical pleasures. In the process, we are becoming increasingly slaves of material possessions and thought. Ethical values are waning; generosity and appreciation of fine arts are disappearing. We must not ignore economic values, which we have learned from western civilization. But are the economic values the same as all values? Unfortunately, we see them only racing our lives today. What is happening to this society? Are we forgetting gradually the culture that has put dharma on high pedestal and made us visualize Truth, Beatitude and beauty; are we forgetting ourselves?” he questions.

Until recently, I have not heard of any of his works but for the novel keelu bommalu. After receiving the novel from his daughter, Dr. Umadevi, I searched Internet and found several other works. Here are some his works I have found:

Sahiti chaitraratham. This is a commemorative volume, put together in honor of Krishna Rao, his service to Telugu literature and his distinctive personality. The volume includes articles by several prominent writers, critics, and admirers of Telugu literature. It also contains three essays by Dr. Krishna Rao.

In his article on the duty of writer, he comments, “Our writers, being unable to see the world perceptible by the five senses, are commemorating the world of the past. Even those who could see the modern world are unable to comprehend it. Even if comprehended it, they are only playing a game like ring-around circus but unable to resonate with it. A writer may become a poet only when he watches the present day world, comprehend it, ache for it and then proffer his views to the world. If he fails to do so, he becomes simply a seeker of renown.

Jegantalu is a Telugu rendering of Plato’s philosophy. He called it a translation. From what I understood, which, I must admit is very little, the book is a result of his study several books by Plato. At the end, a list of 18 books by Plato and critical works by other writers is given as his sources.

In his essay Kavya jagatthu, the author discusses the essence of kavya from the perspective of Marxism. The book includes extensive discussion of various poetic works in Sanskrit, Telugu and English and the author’s perspective on the themes under discussion. There is a glossary at the end.

Udabinduvulu is an anthology of his poems, stories and plays, including the play, bhiksha patra mentioned earlier.

I have been searching for the novel, keelu bommalu for a long time. Several novels published in the forties and fifties were focused on the struggles of Independence movement and the social conditions following the declaration of independence. Among the very few novels that dealt with human condition and psychological analysis, chivaraku migiledi [that which remains at the end] by Buchibabu, is well-known. I believe, Krishna Rao’s novel keelu bommalu [Puppets] belongs in that category.

I liked keelu bommalu better than chivaraku migiledi despite its high acclaim in literary circles. In terms of thems, in the latter novel, the story revolves around one man and his thoughts about himself and the women around him. The entire story is presented only from the protagonist’s perspective. The other characters have no identity except what the protagonist tells us. On the other hand, in Keelu bommalu the author presents a balanced view of all characters. Each character speaks its mind thereby giving the reader a chance to discern his own opinion of those characters. Secondly, in chivaraku migiledi, the story revolves round man-woman relationship. In keelu bommalu the story is anchored in the dharma of individuals. Thus, the topic is broader.

Regarding the title of the book, puppets, the perception usually is that we are puppets in the hands of some unknown force; there is a player who pulls the strings and make us act. Krishna Rao states unequivocally that was not the message in his book. His aim was to illustrate, “A human being must think for himself from the perspective of humanism, and choose his own path of dharma.” In this novel we see how a man thinks when he is faced with a conflict and how he resolves. Apparently, most of the time, he forgets his dharma and resorts to temporary comfort zone.

The protagonist, Pullayya, cosigns a loan for Chandhrasekharam without telling his wife. When the time for repayment is up, Chandrasekharam has no money to settle the debt. Legally and morally, it is Pullayya’s obligation to pay up but he cannot do it. His problem is, if he pays his wife would come to know of cosigning, and he is not prepared for such revelation. That is the crux of the issue in the novel. People in the village start talking about it, expressing opinions on either side. Pullayya’s daughter wants to know the truth. She asks father and he by keeping his mouth shut, leads her to believe that he did not cosign the loan and that Chandrasekharam was spreading rumors. Not only he misleads his daughter and wife but in course of time he convinces himself that he had done nothing wrong. Pullayya did not lie out of ignorance but with the full knowledge of the actual event. He consciously chose to ignore the truth and let the villagers divide into factions and emotions flare up resulting in clashes on the streets, arson and murders. Even when the village is being destroyed systematically, Pullayya remains convinced that he did nothing wrong. He even accepts honors for his generosity. The message is individuals need to reflect and decide what dharma is for them by themselves. It is not something that somebody would provide for them. In that sense, there is no puppeteer. Each person is his own puppeteer. The author has shown extraordinary skill in depicting this angle in the story.

There is another angle to the story, particularly in relation to modern mode of thinking—that the value Pullayya puts on his wife’s status in the family. Back in the fifties, making money is husband’s duty and running the household is wife’s duty. That being the case, he should have told her about the possible expenditure yet he did it without her knowledge. At the time probably, he hoped it would never come to this—his obligation to pay up. Then, modern day question is: Why couldn’t tell her later when it was time for him to pay off the debt? That is the peculiarity in our culture. The incident highlights the way husband and wife respect each other in our culture. Author never vocalizes this aspect; perhaps at the time it was not even a question.

A prominent critic, R.S. Sudarsanam commented, “Krishna Rao gives high importance to an individual and his conscience regarding performing one’s duty. There is a considerable relevance of Freud’s unconsciousness theory in both the incidents—first, Pullayya forgetting his duty and, secondly, Dr. Vasudeva Sastry’s failing in performing his duty.” He continues to add that Pullayya ignored his duty due to his cowardice and selfishness whereas Vasudeva Sastry took responsibility for the mistake and was prepared to correct it socially. I am not convinced of this argument.

First, let me explain the situation. Vasudeva Sastry invited a local teacher Satyanarayana, his wife Padma and their little child into house after their house had been burnt by one of the factions. While staying in his house, Padma goes to Vasudeva Sastry while he was half asleep and had sex with him. Vasudeva Sastry believes it was only a dream and continues to believe so until Padma tells him that she was pregnant with his child. Vasudeva Sastry suggests they elope. Padma refuses to elope with him. Sastry screams that she was a typical Hindu woman; apparently, he was expressing his “righteous” anger.

To me, the entire incident is a bit dramatic. That Vasudeva Sastry, a doctor by profession and rational thinker, would not know whether he had sex in reality is strange. Secondly, after learning that Padma was carrying his child, he suggests a solution without taking into consideration what effect it would have on Padma’s husband and their child. Is that really a socially responsible, rational suggestion?

Sudarsanam suggests that the author made Vasudeva Sastry his mouthpiece in order to express his own opinions. I think Vasudeva Sastry is just one more character in the story. Author has never made any statements to believe otherwise.

In his preface to this novel, author stated that, “I did not write this novel aiming at any one individual, parties, or upcoming elections. Only artistic appreciation is the main basis for this writing. Only when the reader is willing to forget the passion of party politics, and read it, then only he can achieve the right kind of appreciation.”

Krishna Rao was a seeker of Truth, philosophical commentator. He is one of the very few who have continued pursuit of their literary activities, reflecting on one’s dharma, and total commitment.

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A Note: Further discussion of the novel keelu bommalu in audio format, produced by Nidadavolu Malathi and Kalpana Rentala is available on archive.org. Click here.

(Thanks to Dr. Uma Devi, Krishna Rao’s daughter, for kindly sending me a copy of the novel, keelu bommalu.)

(written by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published originally on thulika.net, May 30, 2012)