(Part 1 Historical Perspective).
2. WOMEN WRITING IN ANDHRA PRADESH: SOCIAL CONDITIONS
Emergence of female fiction writers in the 1960’s.¨¨¨
In my article on women writing through centuries, published in September 2002 issue, I attempted to trace some of the trends in regard to women’s education in upper classes. In this essay, I intend to show the environment both at home and in society that contributed to women writing in post-independent Andhra Pradesh.
Women telling stories in the form of poetry continued into modern times. Women writing fiction started in the second quarter of the 20th century. Kalipatnam Rama Rao, one of the well-established and highly respected writers, summarized the history of 1950’s and 60’s fiction as follows: He opened with an apologetic note.
I am getting old and my memory is failing. I can’t recall all the details, but here is what I usually say in my public speeches:
After achieving independence, the government offered help, under their Five-Year Plans, to start high schools even in the smallest villages, just for the asking. Formal education for girls was already put in place the 1950s. So the girls who were receiving education only up to 5th or 6th grade in the villages advanced to the high school level. By then, the number of high schools in the cities also had increased. It took seven to eight years to reach this level.
A second development was in the area of printing. The government loans and investment opportunities played a key role in increase the number of printing presses. The magazines, in order to recover their investment, started several link magazines in 1960s, for instance Andhra Jyoti started Bala Jyoti for children and Vanita Jyoti for women. Thus, with the proliferation of magazines and link magazines a need to feed them followed. They needed contributions as well as editors. Well-informed persons with a sense of social responsibility became editors which in turn helped social consciousness writers to come into existence. The literary scene led to magazines competing for readership. Amidst this competition, a concern to identify a paradigm to attract the readership became important. The focus became not what was good for the general public but what they wanted to read. That caused a major change in the literary trends of the time.
During this period, women who had received education in the fifties decade have not entered the job market yet. They stayed at home either as housewives or waiting for bridegrooms with qualifications higher than theirs. They started buying and reading magazines as a pastime and then started writing about their experiences and aspirations. Just about that time some writers like Ranganayakamma have already started writing social consciousness fiction. And these educated, unmarried women felt a need to be recognized as persons—something like “notice me, try to understand who I am,” was apparent in their writings. At the same time, they were also putting “the woman at the feet of man [charaNadaasulugaane unDaali].” In other words, the women who had received some education began writing as a diversion and the magazines encouraged them. Their views were in a nascent stage.
The third development in the 1950’s was the change in the climate as a result of the formation of a new leisure class. The government plans, bureaucracy, bribery, etc. helped people to amass wealth. New kitchen gadget created more leisure for women. To make use of this leisure women depended on the magazines.
Eventually, women entered workforce. They were however reading the magazines even at work. They would keep the magazines in the desk drawers and read them. The number of workers was always higher than was necessary because it was a woman’s[Indira Gandhi] regime, and so, the women did not have a problem reading magazines.
Popularity of women writer got to a point, men could not survive as writers unless they also wrote under female pseudonyms. That is my understanding from what I have seen. Editors’ perception follows readers’. Some of the new editors, either scared of the competition or due to their ignorance, committed the most disgraceful crime. Both the parties, readers and the editors should bear the brunt of this failing[to maintain high literary standards?].
Responding to one of my questions, Rama Rao mentioned that Ranganayakamma and Usha Rani Bhatia as writers with social responsibility, and also he has respect for K. Ramalakshmi as a writer. There are not many women writers who are perceptive and or wrote with an awareness of literary values, he added.
The above passage encapsulates a historical perspective of the two decades under reference. In the following few pages, I will try to elaborate on some of the comments, and also adding a few more details.
WOMEN WRITING, SECOND STAGE:
After achieving independence in 1947, India was lulled into silence for a brief period for want of direction. The logical step was to rebuild the country in step with the developing nations, which meant educating the mass, males and females. Mass education and women’s education became a priority for rebuilding the nation. In the post-independent era, an overhaul of traditional values started taking place.
The three major movements, namely, the social reform movement started by Veeresalingam, the independence movement under leadership of Gandhi, and the library movement under the leadership of Ayyanki Venkataramanayya, contributed immensely to popularize female writing and explore female creativity. Just in one decade, in 1930’s, the number of Telugu magazines almost doubled from 136 in 1920 to 240 in 1930. Several of them were caste-oriented reflecting the strong community bond within the castes.
WEEKLY AND MONTHLY MAGAZINES:
While most of the older generation female writers continued to publish in the magazines exclusively for women like Hindusundari and Gruhalakshmi, a new generation of writers started writing fiction and publishing them in the magazines that were not identified as for women only. Popular magazines like Andhra Patrika, Andhra Prabha, Bharati, and Telugu Swatantra welcomed the fiction by female writers zealously. Although they were not exclusively for women, the magazines were markedly instrumental in promoting female writing, especially fiction. Most of these editors and publishers came from earlier independence movement and women’s movement, and as such entertained liberal views. This chapter attempts to establish that these editors and nationalists encouraged women to write and publish.
Andhra Patrika weekly was started by Kasinathuni Nageswara Rao in 1908. The magazine was originally published from Bombay and moved to Madras in 1924. The mission statement of the publishers was, “We hope to provide knowledge relating to our society and the world for all our people.” Significantly the magazine did not identify the females as a separate class in its reference to the public. However Andhra Patrika weekly was one of the magazines that featured female writing extensively. In their target audience, the specific reference to females was conspicuous by its absence. Possibly in the post-independent era identifying female writers as a separate class needing special attention was waning off. Lakshmana Reddy also noted that the magazine enjoyed a subscription of 2000 members at the time.
Among these magazines, Bharati (1923), a monthly, became a milestone for its high literary standards. Although most of the writers/scholars were male, Bharati featured female writers like Kommuri Padmavatidevi, Illindila Saraswatidevi, R. Vasundhara Devi, Dwivedula Visalakshi, and Kalyanasundari Jagannath, Turaga Janakirani, among several other prominent female writers.
Another magazine among these trendsetters was Andhra Prabha Weekly. Narla Venkateswara Rao, known for his western education, sophistication and several innovations in journalism, was with Andhra Prabha Weekly from its inception in 1938 and became chief editor in 1942 and left in 1959. Under his editorship, the magazine’s circulation went up from 500 in 1942 to 72,000 in 1959. The weekly magazine gave prominence to not only political issues but also to social, economic, industrial, and educational issues and thus laid new grounds for new trends in journalism. One of them, relevant for our discussion, was the introduction of “Pramadaavanam,” in 1956, with Malati Chendur as its columnist. In her interview with Sivasankari, Malati has stated that, “I have dealt with all topics under the sun in a series of articles, in a question and answer format for over 45 years.” The topics ranged from beauty tips to health and family counseling. Malati also published brief introductory articles on foreign female writers in this column. The readership she has gathered for “Pramadaavanam” was remarkable. This feature could be one of many reasons, for the circulation of Andhra Prabha weekly to reach astronomical figures. In my 1983 interview with her, Malati had mentioned that she was taking some of the ideas from foreign magazines like Ladies Home Journal she had been subscribing at the time.
Khasa Subba Rao was the editor of Telugu swatantra. In the 1950’s, Telugu Swatantra was one of the reputable magazines to encourage women writers. K. Ramalakshmi, Turaga Janakirani, P. Saraladevi, and Ranganayakamma are some of the writers who have published their fiction in this biweekly magazine.
Another magazine that made enormous service to female writers was Andhra Jyoti Weekly which was started in July 1960 with Narla Venkateswara Rao as editor. I have no record of the precise date Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma joined the magazine but he was one of the magazine editors who was very supportive of female fiction. [More on this in later paragraphs]
MAGAZINE EDITORS AND CIRCULATION:
In January 1983, I went to Andhra Pradesh and interviewed some female writers. During my interviews, the names of the editors that were mentioned as supportive of their writings in the 1960’s decade were Gora Sastry, Khasa Subba Rao, editors of Telugu Swatantra and Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma, editor of Andhra Jyoti weekly. The other weekly and monthly magazines like Sahiti, Swati, Tharuna, and Jayasri also had been publishing female fiction extensively. Ranganayakamma’s comment in this regard is noteworthy. Ranganayakamma stated that, in the early stage of her writing career, the editors were publishing anything she had sent in. In my recent trip to Andhra Pradesh, I have talked to a few more writers, e.g. Turaga Janakirani, D. Kameswari, P. Satyavati, and they all expressed the same view—that their writings were never rejected. Kameswari said, if one magazine rejected it, she would send to another and got it published. Janakirani stated that the editors’ response to her writing was a matter of pride for her and she felt encouraged. It is safe to assume that the magazine editors were less critical and more supportive of female writing.
My own experience was not very different. My first sketch was published in Telugu Swatantra in 1954. I could say late Khasa Subba Rao encouraged me although I never had the pleasure of meeting him or corresponding with him. My reason for the statement however is similar to that of Ranganayakamma. The second editor to encourage my literary pursuit was late Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma. I would like to relate a couple of anecdotes that could vouch for the editors’ inclination to welcome fiction by female writers. At the time of these anecdotes, I had not met Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma in person. I happened to send a story to Andhra Jyoti, and Subrahmanya Sarma read the story and took it up on himself to include it in the pile for a contest that was announced at the time. Eventually the story was announced winner of first prize. In the following year, I sent another story marking it specifically for the short story contest. The contest announced three prizes. For my story, a special prize [a fourth!] was announced. My point is the magazine editors were inclined to consider fiction from female writers favorably!
By early 1960’s, the female writers reached a status which was impacting magazine circulations. As a result, the magazine editors started to accommodate the demands of the female writers. Higher remuneration, sometimes twice the remuneration as much as male writers, accepting incomplete works, and publishing without editorial intervention– were some of the demands that were happily met by the magazine editors. Magazine editors and publishers signed contracts with women writers, sometimes without even seeing an outline or a draft! In 1982, I picked up a couple of monthly catalogs of publishers where I found the ratio of fiction by female writers to that of male writers was staggering. In one instance the ratio was 120 to 6! In 1983, in response to my questions, two editors of the highly circulated weekly magazines, Andhra Jyoti Weekly (with 100,000 circulation) and Andhra Prabha Weekly (with 80,000 circulation) expressed the view that in sheer numbers the female writers outnumbered male writers, and that the names of women writers were contributing immensely to increasing their readership.
TWO FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THEIR SUCCESS: THEMES AND LANGUAGE:
The two major factors that worked in favor of the female writers were their choice of themes and the use colloquial Telugu. In addition, their style and technique came into the fore like never before.
The themes chosen by the female writers contributed to their success immensely. They chose topics from day to day life of the middle class families –the life they were familiar with and the life the readers were living during the period. After gaining some reputation they went a step farther and took to belligerent writing. Among the writers that captured public attention with their choice of topics, Ranganayakamma and Tenneti Hemalata, better known as Lata, stand foremost. Their success in getting published in all magazines led to publishing books eventually.
Ranganayakamma spared no language in attacking the evils that were chewing up the contemporary society. The outdated caste system, the inequalities and injustices in the society and the malignancies that had arisen from the archaic patriarchal system were her themes most of the time.
Lata hit the nerve by choosing to write about prostitutes. Prior to Lata, both male and female writers were writing about prostitutes and prostitution either as a social evil or as a segment of society meant for recreation. Lata for the first time in the history of fiction dealt with the subject from the perspective of the prostitutes, their miseries, their abuse by men, and the diseases they contract in the process. (more discussion under Academy). [Ref: Kites and Water Bubbles].
In my recent interview with Janakirani , she narrated a theme that was atypical. one of her stories written in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s was about an unwed mother.
The story, “Jaganmatha” [Universal Motherhood] opens with a dialogue between two friends with opposite views on the issue of having a child out of wedlock—a case of a mutual friend of theirs. One friend was against it and hell-bent on reprimanding the mother for stupid decision. The second friend on the other hand was keen on expressing her sympathies and consoling her. Both the friends pay a visit to the unwed mother and leave her without saying a word. Another dialogue follows between the two friends. The first friend says that she, the unwed mother, was so happy with her bundle of joy, it was impossible for the friend to get angry with her. The second friend says the mother did not give her a chance to express her sympathies either.
Janakirani added that one of the editors complimented her profusely on this story and commented that Janakirani had captured the essence of womanhood in this short story while others were wasting their energies on ideology-based, heated discussions.
The second factor was the colloquial language. In this regard, the comment made by M. Ramakoti, a noted writer, at Visakha Sahiti on 13 October 2002 was an apt one. Ramakoti asked her about her superb command of colloquial Telugu. Rangnayakamma replied, “I am not highly educated in English and so I stay with Telugu. Secondly, I talk to lot of people and pay attention to their diction.” That was partly the key to their success. Telugu women writers were good listeners and observers. And most of them took pride in their command of the language. Janakirani who is educated and highly knowledgeable both in English and Telugu said, “The present generation writers are not paying attention to the language. A good story must include good idiom [bhashaa pushti]. I know at the moment I am using English words while talking to you. However, I do make an effort and pay attention to my language when I write fiction.” I think she made a valid point—a story makes a stronger impression when told in the native idiom.
In another interview, Srikanth, a senior editor, Vaartha Newspaper, commented on the sorry state of Telugu language of the current generation youth. He said, “I come from a farmers’ family. Yet my command of Telugu, my agricultural terminology for instance, is not as good as my father’s, and my daughter’s is worse than mine. Telugu language skills are deteriorating. You cannot find a writer like Adivi Bapiraju among current fiction writers.” (See editorial and readers’ comments in Thulika, December 2002).
The 1950’s and 60’s female writers have captured the essence of our culture in depicting their stories in native idiom.
Soon enough, publishers have noticed the marketability of fiction by female writers and started publishing, at first, the novels published as serials in popular magazines and had captured readers’ attention, and later, “direct novels,” meaning not published as serials. Both the kinds of novels brought enormous name and fame to the female writers, and money for publishers. Following the magazines’ philosophy, the commercial publishers were also accommodating the demands of female writers. In this regard, D. Kameswari, a noted writer from the 1960’s decade, has an interesting story regarding how she came to write her first novel, Kottaneeru [Fresh waters].
In 1968, Kameswari was searching for a publisher for her anthology of short stories. K. Ramalakshmi, a contemporary writer, introduced her to M. N. Rao, publisher of EMESCO books. At the time EMESCO was one of the foremost publishers of popular fiction. M. N. Rao told Kameswari that anthologies were not selling well and promised to consider it if she had brought him a novel. Then Ramalakshmi suggested that Kameswari should write a novel to humor the publisher and include her anthology in the negotiations. Kameswari took the hint and wrote her first novel. She also added that she continued to write novels and used them as bargaining chips to publish her short story collections!
A brief note on anthologies. It was the era of novels. There were not many anthologies and if there were, women’s stories were few and far between. At this time, one writer, G.V.S.L. Narasimha Raju, took upon himself and published in 1962 the first anthology of short stories by nine female writers, entitled, Kalpana. It took another 30 years to publish again an anthology of fiction by all female writers!
While the editors, publishers and the public kept evincing interest in the fiction by female writers increasingly, the academy continued to be indifferent. Female writers were conspicuous by their absence in the critical works produced by the academy in the 1960’s but for an occasional reference to one or two writers like Ranganayakamma and Lata. The female writers were hardly featured in literary reviews and critical essays on Telugu fiction. In fact even in the year 2001 the female writers were not featured unless it was specifically a study of female writers. Even female critics from the academy were focused only on male writers of repute.
By late the 1970’s, critical works started paying attention to female writing. Dakshina Murthy, tracing the history of Telugu short story over a period of 65 years, 1910-1975, listed some 200 short fiction writers as notable and among them 30 were females. All but three or four were from the post-independent era. To my knowledge this is about the biggest number in terms of references to female writers in critical works
By 1980’s, the female writers began appearing in the critical works of the academy and also as subjects of doctoral dissertations. Arepalli Vijayalakshmi tracing the history of fiction by female writers noted that, “29 novels were written by females in the first quarter of 20th century … And by the 1960’s the number rose significantly. … Nearly 200 women have produced several thousands of novels … Regarding the female fiction in the post-independent period, [I must say] a peculiar phenomenon occurred. There is a major change [in the history of Telugu fiction].” An established writer and critic, Sriramamurti commented on the same period, the 1960’s decade, as follows: “Currently, women have been writing fiction like never before. The demand for fiction by females has increased tremendously. I think it is perfectly fair to label the present period as ‘navalaa yugam’ [female novelists’ epoch] and I mean it in both the senses.” The term navala has two meanings in Telugu: 1. woman and 2. fiction. Sriramamurti implied that the fiction by female writers was the rule of the day. The two comments, one from a female critic and the second from a male critic, both from the academy, together, sum up the present day perception of female writers in Andhra Pradesh.
To put it another way, the women writers found a strong platform for their writing in popular magazines– giving rise to two powerful but contradictory arguments. On one hand, the scholars and the academy found one more reason to dismiss the female writing as non-literature, and on the other, the publishers found it a major contributory factor for increasing their magazine circulations and sales.
As I mentioned earlier, critiques on female writers started appearing in academic works in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Here are two critiques on Ranganayakamma from the academy. Sriramamurti labeled Ranganayakamma as an “angry [young] woman.” Venkatasubbaiah paid tribute to Ranganayakamma: “Study of women’s issues based on historical and sociological grounds started with Ranganayakamma.” He further commented,
When a woman, who has been oppressed and violated for centuries, questions our fraudulent values, we cannot expect those defiant questions to be in polite language. We must brace ourselves to be hurt. We are not qualified to dismiss those questions as angry outbursts. On the contrary, we must ask ourselves why the voice is so loud and where those ferocious questions are coming from.
Both the observations have some element of truth. Another noted scholar from the academy, Ramapati Rao [Manjusri, pseud.] stated, “Srimati Muppalla Ranganayakamma is an excellent writer. She has sharp imagination and brisk style. Although she has vigorous imagination, fierce ingenuity, and inspirational style, she could not become a writer of the caliber of Premchand, Sarat and Tagore because of her fixated enthusiasm on her ideology [ativada dhorani] and subsequent lack of understanding of the existing social structure.”
Among the writers that were most unpopular with the academy Lata comes next to Sulochana Rani. Lata was criticized for exposing the heartrending stories of the streetwalkers in scathing terms. Both Lata and Sulochana Rani were accused of presenting negative or unrealistic images and misguiding the impressionable youth. The publishers and the magazine editors ignored this academic perspective and focused only on the readership and the circulation numbers.
Lata’s first novel, entitled Gali padagalu – Neeti budagalu [Kites and Water bubbles] was published in 1951. The book became a sensation for two reasons: first, the fact that it was written by a woman, and secondly, for its theme, prostitution. Lata was eloquent in describing the pain and suffering inflicted by men on prostitutes. The book offended the middle class Victorian sensibilities and the academic scholars alike. The book was not officially banned but there was a social taboo. It was rarely seen in the living rooms of respectable families or in the hands of youth in the presence of adults. The elite dismissed it as a cheap attempt by a woman writer to sell her book. Nevertheless, the book sold well and went into reprints within a short period. The immediate reaction from the establishment was one of self-righteous indignation. The self-righteous scholars raised three questions: (1) “How could a woman write like this?” (2) Why did she write it at all?” and (3) “How did she knew about these things?” Probably for the first time in the history of Telugu literature, the question of writer’s gender became a moot point. Lata’s response was that the writer depicts whatever he or she sees using the pen as a brush. “The artist paints whatever he sees. There is no sex for literature. It just mirrors life. Why am I attacked?” was her rebuttal.
Although the female fiction was generally ignored in critical works, their existence was acknowledged in a different manner. Here are some of the comments I have heard in the living rooms of the elitists: “Malati Chendur is uneducated,” “Bhanumati is an actor among writers and a writer among actors,” “Sulochana Rani is writing escapist fiction,” and “Lata is writing cheap sex.” These are not the comments one would find in critical works but often heard in coffee table conversations. Even female writers in the academy have expressed similar views.
FEMALE CRITICISM IN THE ACADEMY:
Contemporary female writers from the academy subscribed to the same view. For instance, Sulochana Rani is criticized for writing escapist fiction. A common comment is that Sulochana Rani’s fiction was doing more harm than good to the society. The academic perception seems to be the same even after nearly two decades. C. Anandaramam, a noted writer and professor, wrote in 1987 commented on the fiction of the 1970’s and 1980’s as follows:
The readers are doused in an illusory world filled with six feet tall heroes, fancy foreign cars, colossal mansions surrounded by lawns and water fountains. Since this [kind of] uninterrupted happiness gets boring, they [the characters] are depicted as suffering from some imaginary hardships due to misunderstandings and spilling tears…
Because of the change that has taken place in the economic and social disposition of women in society, [these] two decades have come to be known as the era of female fiction writers…
In this comment, the fact that Sulochana Rani was writing romance fiction was ignored. The world literatures have accepted romance fiction as a genre. It stands to reason that her work must be evaluated within the context of that genre. On the other hand, if Anandaramam is implying that the romance fiction should be dismissed as commercial literature, it is reasonable to accept that Sulochana Rani’s fiction has been a commercial success. The society welcomed Sulochana Rani’s literature with great enthusiasm. Ironically, the major part of the feminists’ contention is that, those women were not able to publish! Understandably Sulochana Rani is able to write novels that editors and publishers would kill for!
One of the harshest statements leveled against Sulochana Rani is that her fiction is misleading and corrupting the impressionable youth. While there is no recorded foundation for this charge, the comment made in a different context by Kutumba Rao (1909-1980), renowned for his critical analysis, is noteworthy. Kutumba Rao stated that the books themselves do not make people good or bad, but only serve as an affirmation for those who are looking for a validation of their own actions or decisions. I am inclined to agree with Kutumba Rao.
The point is while the academy is dismissing some of the writers as non-productive and their writings as ‘non-literature,’ the public have embraced them with unprecedented zeal thereby giving rise to the question which one is acceptable as a genre and which is not. Sulochana Rani did not receive validation from the academy in the 1960’s and probably not in the 1970’s. However, she is one of the foremost writers in terms of readership and financial success.
Further discussion on criticism on female writing will appear in future articles.
SERIOUS READERS OUTSIDE THE ACADEMY
By the mid-1960’s, Lata gained respect among fellow writers, male and female. Anjaneya Sarma, a civil engineer by profession, quoted numerous letters, addressed to Lata from male writers and enthusiastic readers, in his critical work, sahitilata. For instance, late Bucchibabu, an eminent writer of psychoanalytical fiction, wrote [original in English]:
There is a social consciousness in your writings. Probably Chalam, Alberto Moravio, [and] lawrence [sic.] wrote not without a reason. I feel proud without reservation that we all are probing the same truth. Maybe you had read their writings. We all are exploring the same home called social values and each of us opening a different window, and thereby making the home livable. No one writer can accomplish a literary tradition single-handedly. Several persons have to make a combined effort. Your book is supporting that effort .
Toleti Kanakaraju, a well-known physician and scholar wrote in English:
…I found you depicting ‘provoking incidents’ but in the latest work of yours you could really picture ‘thought provoking’ incidents and thoughts which really transcended mundane measurements…
Hats off to you. I wonder whether you can produce a better work of psychological excellence than this…
My wife Srimathi Toleti Seshamma garu also shares the above thoughts. (Quoted in Anjaneya Sarma 88-89).
Lata’s writings have been compared to several famous writers from all over the world. Anjaneya Sarma writes:
Resemblance is seen between the characters in Saptaswaraalu and those in Man and Superman of Shaw. We see the same kind of sharp wit of Shaw in Lata also. The views expressed in Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde are evident in Lata’s Jeevana Sravanti. We see some shades of the characters of Dostoyevsky in Patha viheena, and a semblance of Dorian of Somerset Maugham in Saptaswaraalu. Similarly, we can see Rahul Sankrityayan, Annamacharyulu, and Malladi Ramakrishna Sastri in her other works. Also in Gali padagalu- Neeti budagalu, we see a shade of Jean Paul Sartre. But, in the midst these writers, Lata maintains her own style.
The difference in the perceptions of the academy and the general readers is significant. While the academy examines, meticulously looking for underlying meanings, figures of speech, and unique qualities, the general readers read either for pastime or for solutions to their own problems. In the latter case, they identify themselves with the characters and get involved emotionally.
The general Telugu readers are no exception to this rule of identifying with the characters. Here is an account offered by Vasundhara Devi, a writer and critic, in her article, neti katha-teeru tennulu [The trends in modern day fiction]. A reader diagnosed with tuberculosis happened to read three stories [one of them authored by Vasundharadevi]. In all the three stories the patient/protagonist died at the end. The stories were no consolation to the reader who was desperately hanging on to life, his wife and child. He asked Vasundharadevi, “Do all the tuberculosis patients die? Is there no hope for them?” The stories in effect robbed him of his faith and hope.
Vasundharadevi wrote that she felt guilty, apologized to reader on behalf of all the writers, said some comforting words but could never really get over it. “I still see him in front of my face,” she added. Vasireddy Sitadevi also mentioned similar experiences—readers approaching or writing to her that her stories played a decisive role in their lives.
Writers are divided in regard to the propriety of offering solutions in their writings. Dwivedula Visalakshi says that she does not believe in providing solutions. Evidently individual writers are taking a stand of their own.
Sahitya Academy is a literary organization created by Andhra Pradesh State Government Organization created in the mid-1960’s. Part of their mission is to honor writers in each genre annually. In 1976 the Academy announced awards for various literary genre as usual but excluded fiction from the list of categories. Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma, editor of Andhra Jyoti Weekly, took exception to their decision, and published a letter condemning the Academy’s action. The letter read as follows:
On October 31, Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy published several categories for awards… Left out the genre of novel. The novels that received the same award in the past may not be of inferior quality. But the ones that are being published are not of any lesser quality compared to those that have received the awards in the past …For instance, Madireddy Sulochana has written excellent fiction depicting Telangana life–among the titles worth mentioning are Tharam marindi [new generations], Pula manasulu [tender hearts], and Mathamu-manishi [Religion and man]. So also Andhra people’s favorite writer Sulochana Rani whose novels include Jeevana tharangalu [The waves of life], Bandi [the prisoner], Premalekhalu [love letters] etc… Any one of these novels is sure to meet the criteria for an award. Several Telugu women writers like Parimala Someswar, D. Kameswari, and I.V.S. Atchyutavalli have written several great novels. Publishers have published a record number of 300 new novels and that is unheard of in the past.
It is significant that all the novels mentioned in the above letter were authored by female writers. Later Subrahmanya Sarma came to Madison and I asked him if his letter could be construed as his assessment of female writing. He replied that he was speaking in comparative terms—in terms of the quality of the novels that had received awards in the past.
Sahitya Academy did not seem to have acted on his letter. But the public responded. The readers and the elite alike poured letters poured into the Andhra Jyoti office, some supporting and some ridiculing the women writers. Some letters stated that the women writers were writing trash containing cheap sentiment and empty dreams while others maintained that the female writers had been doing an amazing service. In this heated debate, the comments made by two highly reputed male literary critics, Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao and Addepalli Rammohan Rao are noteworthy. Kutumba Rao stated that the writings should not be judged on the basis of writer’s gender. Rammohan Rao stated that the critics must at least give credit to the women writers for what they have accomplished so far.
These accounts vouch for the attention the female writers were getting in the 1970s decade. With the extraordinary attention came ridicule.
WOMEN WRITERS AS A TARGET OF RIDICULE:
As mentioned in my article on Female Writing in September 2002 issue, sarcasm and ridicule have been part of Telugu humor for centuries. At Visakha Sahiti meeting, several writers and scholars gave numerous examples of such practice that has been in place for centuries. One of the examples given by Malayavasini, Telugu professor and scholar, is a poem written to ridicule women writing. Here is her narration:
A woman named Koonalamma wrote poems, with her name at the end of each verse, like a caption. Another male writer wrote the following poem, imitating Koonalamma:
aaDuvaare streelu O koonalammaa!
In this poem, the first set of words in colloquial Telugu, ‘kunDalu’ [clay pots], ‘kukkalu’ [dogs], and ‘aaDuvaaru’ [women] are equated with Sanskrit terms ‘bhaanDammulu,’ ‘sunakammulu’ and ‘streelu’ implying an elevation of status. Malayavasini commented that replacing an erudite term for the colloquial (e.g. damsel for woman) might appear complimentary but in reality meant to ridicule the female author, Koonalamma.
A second example Malayavasini gave us was from a weekly magazine. She referred to a set of photographs of women writers published in Andhra Jyoti Weekly in 1982 under the caption, “racayitrula bommalakoluvu,” [a show of dolls]. Let me explain the connotation for those who are not familiar with the tradition of ‘bommalakoluvu.’ In Andhra Pradesh we have a festival called Dasara, usually celebrated in October. As a part of the celebration, young girls arrange dolls and other items—they can be very creative—and invite each other to visit their decorations, something like Christmas tree decorations. The reference of the women writers’ photographs on a page as “bommala koluvu” is hardly a compliment to their creative skills. Malayavasini pointed out that ridicule has always been there, and probably, we would have more female writers if this kind of ridicule and humiliation were not prevalent, but the fact remains women have been writing and publishing.
KAVANA Sarma, a writer known for his humor and satire, referred to the Telugu family tradition in his speech at the same Visakha Sahiti meeting and said kidding around and picking on each other among family members like brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, husband and wife are part of our tradition. “I poke fun at my wife and she pokes fun at me. It is in our culture.” I agree that in day-to-day life in Andhra homes, witticisms and poking fun at each other are quite common. No offense intended, none taken.
By the 1970’s the tradition of making fun of women found their way into magazines. Cartoons and jokes on female writers have become a regular feature in magazines. Here are some examples:
One mother said to a fifth grade teacher, “You just teach my daughter the alphabet and she will write novels and make her living. She is not going for a job or anything.”
Apparently the mother believes that one can be a writer if knows the alphabet.
Another cartoon by Bapu, top-ranking cartooninst, is about a father lamenting about his children’s future.
The father said to a friend, “I have four daughters and one son. I am not worried about my daughters. They can write fiction and make a living. I am only worried how my son is going to survive.”
Andhra families usually worry about their daughters’ futures. The joke implies that parents do not have to worry about girls anymore because the prospect of becoming a writer is at their fingertips.
A publisher: Madam, for some reason your novel did not sell well this time.
Female writer: Of course it wouldn’t. I told you to print my name on each page. You didn’t listen!
The unusual angle to this clever remark is–this is supposed to be a joke on the ego trip of the women writers in the 1970’s decade. However, I happened to notice that several Telugu books, not necessarily by female writers, carried author’s name on each page.
Following quip is a comment on the ignorance of female writers.
Did you know that Viswanatha Satyanarayana wrote veyipadagalu?
The female writer: I don’t understand this. People asked me the same question when I wrote Veeravalladu.
The female writer obviously was unaware of the existence of a renowned writer named Viswanatha Satyanarayana and of his works, the two titles under reference.
In short, making fun of each other is a two-way street in Andhra homes. This kind of ridicule did not stop females from writing. They came to a point they could ridicule those who were ridiculing them. Bomma Hemadevi, a prolific writer during the period under discussion said, “Sometimes my husband gives me some money out of the goodness of his heart and tells me to go out and buy something for myself.” Knowing what I know of Telugu families, I would not take this as a comment from a suppressed or oppressed woman. A suppressed or oppressed would not dare make a public statement like that. In my opinion, she was in fact ridiculing the others who were complaining about lack of economic freedom.
It would appear that against the complex cultural background and tradition of Andhras, it is not easy to identify how far this practice of ridicule impacted the creativity of women. In Andhra Pradesh, support and ridicule existed in juxtaposition. I will come to the support of family members a little later.
USE OF PSEUDONYMS:
Use of pseudonyms is a factor that needs special mention. Unlike in the States and Great Britain, Telugu women writers did not use male pseudonyms. An interesting and unique phenomenon of this period is the use of female pseudonyms by male writers. While few women writers did use pseudonyms they picked only female names. For example Aravinda (A.S. Mani); Syamalarani (Akella Kamala Vijayalakshmi); and Sarvani (Nilarambham Saradamma). The only woman to write under a male pseudonym is Vacaspati. I could not find her real name nor her reasons for choosing a male name. One interesting aspect to this, however, is Vacaspati literally means Brahma, the husband of Goddess of learning [Saraswati] and the two names interstingly are onomatopoeic.
In this context, I refer to speakers at Visakha Sahiti once again. Malayavasini said that the idea of males using female pseudonyms started in the 1940’s when women’s magazines proliferated and the editors could not find that many female contributors to fill the pages. Ganapatiraju Atchyutarama Raju also gave one more example—a famous poet, Setti Lakshminarasimham translated the Hounds of Baskerville under the title jaagilamu and published it under his sister’s name, Seeram Subhadramba.
In the 1960’s, some of the famous male writers like Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry (1922-1993) , Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma (1929-1996) (Puranam Sita), Akkiraju Ramapati Rao (Manjusri), and Natarajan (Sarada) have used female pseudonyms. Some writers openly admitted that they were using female pseudonyms in order to get their writings published.
Discussion on pseudonyms is not complete without reference to Beenadevi, a name that is still under fire. Beenadevi has been writing since the 1960’s. In public sources the actual writer is given as B. Balatripurasundaramma, wife of B. Narasinga Rao. In the 60’s decade, the rumor was Narasinga Rao, a judge by profession, was using his wife’s name to circumvent some of the government rules in place at the time. Ganapatiraju Atchyutaramaraju at Visakha Sahiti Sadassu mentioned that there was even another rumor that Viswanatha Sastry himself was writing under the pseudonym, Beenadevi. At this point the only fact I am aware of is—both Narasinga Rao and Viswanatha sastry passed away, and Beenadevi is writing and publishing. A few years back she received Racakonda Viswanatha Sastry award—an award instituted to honor writers who write in Ravi Sastry style. To me this looks like a validation of Beenadevi being a writer in her own status quo.
FEMALE WRITERS AT HOME:
There was no question that the female writers were recognized by the public. At home they did not face any objection. Before I proceed to what the writers have said about their families’ responses to their writing, let me state briefly their educational qualifications and marital status..
In the 1950’s and the 1960’s the level of women’s formal education varied from elementary school to college degrees and a few university degrees. Even in families where the adults were opposed to female education, there was no opposition to women studying at home. This practice has been a norm for centuries [see the article on women writing in the September issue]. In course of time, women in the middle class families, owing to favorable social conditions, continued to educate themselves, beyond the scope of formal education. Lata had schooling only up to the fifth grade level but was very knowledgeable in Sanskrit and Telugu classics. Her command of Telugu was remarkable. Sulochana Rani, who nearly attained the status of Romance queen and is often compared to Barbara Cartland and Denise Robbins, had only high school diploma. Malati Chendur received high school diploma and later improved her knowledge through self-education. Ranganayakamma finished high school and later studied other literatures, including Marxist literature and became an avowed Marxist.
Vasireddy Sitadevi possesses Master’s degree in Social Work and also Sahitya Ratna diploma in Hindi. She has stated that the adults in her home opposed her attending public school but did not oppose her studying at home. They even have brought a proctor from Madras (overnight trip by train) to facilitate the completion of the required testing for her high school diploma.
Most of the women writers in Andhra Pradesh had no problem in improving their knowledge through reading books at home. Some of them continued to write and publish fiction. By the 1980’s, the academy began acknowledging female writers by conferring honorary doctoral degrees on them. For instance, an honorary Doctorate and a Kala Prapoorna title were conferred on Lata who had hardly finished grade school; honorary Doctorate on Bhanumati Ramakrishna, who had attended first year college. Vasireddy Sitadevi has a Master’s degree and received an honorary Doctorate. In other words, the female writers of the 1960’s era began receiving validation from the academy. In almost all the cases, the female writers were exposed to extant literature. Their family members, whether at natal home or in-law’s did not stand in their way to improve their knowledge. It would be interesting to examine why the universities chose to confer honorary Doctoral degrees on female writers while denying them a proportionate place in anthologies and critical works.
Some writers like Nayani Krishnakumari, C. Anandaramam, Mannem Sarada, and P. Sridevi have completed university education and hold jobs in the academy as college professors, engineers and medical doctors. Among these writers, Anandaramam and Sarada are writing fiction. Krishnakumari is well known for her poetry, critical and scholarly works. She has done considerable work in the genre of oral literature.
All these writers showed remarkable talent in their chosen genre. The difference in their academic qualifications is apparent in their works to some extent. Those who are associated with the academy have published critical works in accordance with prevalent methodologies.
From the information given in the Who’s Who of Telugu Women Writers, even those women who had no formal education have read world literatures in Indian languages, Sanskrit and English. Among the foreign writers quoted as their favorite writers by some of these female writers are Tolstoy, Hardy, Pearl Buck, Cronin, Oscar Wilde, Steinbeck, Maupassant, O’Henry, and Marie Corelli.
Among the famous writers of other Indian languages Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali writers) and Kalki (Tamil writer) are mentioned frequently. One of the female writers of this generation, Sarvani has translated several works of Triveni from Kannada into Telugu. Among the Indian writers, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee remains the most popular writer, possibly because translations of his works are available in Telugu extensively. It is important to remember that Bengal stood foremost in the Indian Freedom movement and women’s movement in the late 19th century.
Malati Chendur married her maternal uncle at the age of 16. Responding to a question by Sivasankari if her husband had helped her in her literary career, Malati Chendur amusingly said, “If Chendur had not married me, his life would have progressed along different lines. He would have had seven or eight children and would be roaming around on a cycle with vegetable baskets.” In June 2001, I wrote to her asking for clarification. I asked her if her comment meant that she was the intelligent one between the two. Her husband, N. R. Chendur responded on her behalf and said, “Malati was being frivolous.” He quoted another incident where she was quoted as saying, “People refer to me as Saraswati [Goddess of Learning], and I’d say he [husband] is the Brahma [the creator and husband of Saraswati] who made me Saraswati” These comments exemplify the complementary conjugal relationships in India. It is very common for Indians to be casual, humorous and exchange witty remarks. Ramalakshmi made a similar remark in regard to her relationship with her husband, famous writer and critic, Arudra. Ramalakshmi said their first encounter was when Ramalakshmi asked Arudra to write a preface for her anthology, vidadeese railuballu [the trains that separate people]. She added that he wrote the preface and after that Arudra never read her writings.
In regard to their marriages, most of these writers have shown some kind of independent thinking. If it were an arranged marriage, they worked out their marriages into a relationship of mutual respect and complementary nature. In the cases where it did not work, they took it upon themselves to find a solution.
Vasireddy Sitadevi resisted the attempts of her parents to arrange her marriage and left home. Ranganayakamma had an arranged marriage at the age of 20, was separated in 1973 and was divorced in 1979. She later married a person, B. R. Bapuji, who introduced her to Marxist literature and their friendship eventually led to their marriage. What is obvious is the little importance they have attached to the fact whether their marriage was arranged or otherwise.
Sometimes literary heritage also has been a contributory factor in their self-expression. In a recent interview, Turaga Janakirani stated that not only her mother and aunt were writers but she was also related, on her mother’s side, to a reputed and highly controversial writer, Chalam (1894-1979). Chaganti Tulasi is a daughter of an esteemed writer, Chaganti Somayajulu (1915-1994), a renowned progressive writer. Usharani Bhatia is daughter of Kommuri Padmavatidevi who had published extensively in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
I just came across an account by another writer, Kalyanasundari Jagannath, who passed away last year. In her article, “kathalu raayadam elaa?” [How to write stories?], she stated that Mallampalli Somasekhara Sarma, a reputed writer, used to visit their house and kept telling her to write a story. Then she wrote a story and showed it to him. He took it to the famous literary magazine, Bharati and it was published under the title “anamika.” Kalyanasundari also mentioned that Somasekhara Sarma commented that, “I thought you could write but didn’t think that you could write so beautifully.” Another comment she had received was from the most famous poet of our times, Sri Sri. She wrote that Sri Sri told her he would translate her story into English, and also suggested that, “In future try to write tragedies without killing your heroes. …” (8).
A significant factor is none of the writers said that their families discouraged them from writing or forced them to hide their writings for fear of ridicule. During my interviews in 1982-83, one husband was answering our questions. The writer did not talk much. Later I found out that there was a tragedy in the family, and he was helping her cope with the loss. In another case the husband served us coffee and snacks while we were talking. Sometimes the husbands were present only as audience. In some families brothers did some writing but that did not hinder the women’s writing. Sulochana Rani said she used to fair copy her brother’s fiction and that was how she has learned to write. I did not come across her brother’s fiction though.
INCOME FROM WRITINGS: DID IT MATTER?
The economic status did not play a crucial role in women writing in the early 1960’s. As in the past, it was never a woman’s role to support the family and whether they had money or not did not figure into their creative expression. This situation has changed considerably after women entered the workforce. The question became not of economic freedom but of economic status. In general, even those women who were earning, I mean not the writers specifically but women in general, were not always in a position to spend their earnings as they pleased. This aspect has been depicted extensively in the female fiction of the 1960’s. The new economic status they had achieved hardly worked to their advantage. The educated woman was caught up in a double-bind. The writers I spoke to clearly stated that economics was not their motivation to write, nor that of their families.
One of the contentions of the critics in the West was that women did not succeed in literature due to lack of economic freedom. This argument was repeated by famous Indian writers like Kamala Das and Anita Desai but does not seem to be the case in Andhra Pradesh. Koganti Vijayalakshmi emphasized this point at Visakha Sahiti Sadassu [12 October 2002]. She said that Telugu women never wrote in the past nor in the present to make a living. They wrote only to gratify their urge to express their responsibility toward society, she emphasized.
Some of the writers referred to some sort of economic constraints at home during their childhood. Malati Chendur mentioned that she was a baby when her father died and her mother took care of the family. Ranganayakamma mentioned about financial constraints in her younger days. However, in both the cases, the family’s low economic status did not curb their creativity. None of them mentioned that their families discouraged them from writing for any reason, economic or otherwise.
Ranganayakamma mentioned about her financial hardships after separation from her first husband. She said she moved to Hyderabad for her eye surgery, and stayed with her friends—her ardent readers and supporters. Referring to their kindness, she quoted a popular Telugu proverb which roughly translates as “I can’t settle their debt even if I give my skin to make sandals for them.” Interestingly, while attacking the male domination and female oppression vehemently in her writings, she also gathered a large circle of male friends.
Probably it is appropriate to add a note here regarding income from writings. In the preceding centuries, the financial aspect was not a concern. With the advent of modern civilization in the post-independent period, the power of currency also started figuring in. The magazines started offering remuneration for fiction. Not all of them but most popular magazines like Andhra Patrika and Andhra Prabha were offering substantial amounts as remuneration. Some reputed magazines like Telugu swatantra and Bharati offered no financial reward to my knowledge. In a recent interview, a well-known humor writer, Bharago, however mentioned that he insisted on getting paid and got paid by Telugu Swatantra. I am not sure if any female writers got paid by this magazine. In the 1950’s, the female fiction writers like R. Vasundharadevi, Dwivedula Visalakshi, and Abburi Chaya Devi found their way into literary circles through Bharati. In a way it was recognition in kind if not in cash.
In summary, Telugu women writers received support from their families, publishers, magazines and the readers while expressing themselves in writing fiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
WOMEN WRITERS IN THEIR OWN WORDS:
At the outset, I would like to make a note about what is customary in our families, at least in my day and the way I knew it. In my home, nobody appeared thrilled that I was writing and publishing. To me it was part of the day to day activity. Now, looking back, I could recall couple of incidents that could be construed as their encouragement. On one occasion, my father took me [a two-hour trip by bus] to the Andhra Prabha weekly office. My sister subscribed to Readers Digest in my name during my teen years. My mother would suggest reading stories of Hindu saints. I am not sure whether it was supposed to be my religious training or writing career, but in my mind, the stories helped me to think about stories. My uncle, father’s youngest brother and writer, Nidadavolu Lingamurti once critiqued a story I wrote for Chandamama, a popular children’s magazine. Like most of the women of my time, I was reading whatever I could find. Nobody in my family objected to my reading Lata or Chalam [both unacceptable by the standards of some moralists]. Nobody in my family ever said anything that could dampen my spirits. In recent years, my second brother, N. S. Rao’s involvement in my literary activities is something I would cherish as very special.
In support of my perception, I am including the comments of two acclaimed writers, Turaga Janakirani, highly educated and with rich literary heritage, and D. Kameswari, a housewife and equally prominent writer. Both Janakirani and Kameswari are straight forward in stating their position, no beating around the bush, no fluff.
Turaga Janakirani said that her mother was niece of Chalam, a renowned and controversial writer of the 1930’s. Janakirani said writing came naturally to her. In response to my question whether her family members encouraged her, she said, “If you are asking me, if any of them came to me with a pen and paper and told me to sit down and write, the answer is no. I wrote whenever and whatever I felt like writing. I am not a prolific writer. I will write only when something touches me. And the publishers were very encouraging. Actually I was even proud since whatever I wrote was getting published right away. Sometimes they write back to me, critiquing my story. Gora Sastri, editor of Telugu Swatantra was one such editor.
I know Chalam has excellent philosophy but it is not all-inclusive. His vision is partial at best. And I was not afraid to tell him so. I have written all that in this book, “maa taatayya Chalam,” [my grandfather Chalam]. We had wonderful conversations. He liked me a lot. That does not mean I have to agree with everything he had said.”
D. Kameswari said she started writing after her marriage. She was a voracious reader, used to read anything and everything she could lay hands on and sometimes secretly. “I have read Chalam and Kovvali novels also, sneaking behind my parents back,” she said. Chalam and Kovvali novels were viewed as objectionable for their sexual content by many parents in those days. “I am not highly educated, just a housewife. I started writing after my marriage, and my three children were born. Nobody said anything one way or the other in regard to my writing. Occasionally, my husband would read and say something if he feels like it. But there were never occasions when I felt sneered at for writing. Money was never a motivation. I admit it feels good to see a few rupees as my own. It was not much but it was fun. But clearly it was not a motivation for writing.”
The two comments summarize the positive climate Telugu women writers enjoyed at home. From my personal experience and knowledge, I can safely state that in the middle class families of Andhra Pradesh, women enjoyed the freedom to express themselves in their writings. There was no taboo in writing and/or publishing. The negative response and ridicule in public started in the late 1970’s when they reached the height of their success and probably it will always be there since it is part of our culture.
Published on thulika.net, March 2003.