Atukuri Molla, author of Molla Ramayanam, has come to be known as Kummara (potter) Molla, identified by her caste. Besides Muddupalani, author of Radhikasvantanam¸ Molla is the only female poet from ancient times to receive so much attention from English-speaking scholars. The precise date is not known but scholars opine that she belonged in the sixteenth century.
From the avatarika [preamble] to her Ramayanam, we gather that Kesaya Setty was her father, a boon from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa in Gopavaram, Nellore District, Andhra Pradesh, India. Kesaya Setty was a great devotee of Srikantha Malleesa, a notable scholar, and well-respected in his community.
Ramayanam appears to be the only extant text authored by Molla. There is no tangible evidence pointing to other works, if any, by her. Nevertheless, Molla has been noted by scholars outside Telugu-speaking community. My first encounter was with an article from a Bengali scholar, Naboneetha dev Sen, published in Manushi. After that, I found another reference to Molla in Women Writing, 600 B.C. to the Present by Lalita K, and Tharu, Susie. Apart from their comments on Molla’s work, the fact that they would mention the poems as slokas was odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, a sloka is a Sanskrit verse form. Telugu poem is referred to as padyam. Besides, Molla Ramayanam contains not only verses but also prose, which is referred to as gadya in Telugu. Since Molla made specifically a point that she intended not to write in the highbrow language of the Sanskrit scholars but wished to write in mellifluous Telugu, it would only be appropriate to call her poems only as poems or verses but not as slokas. Possibly, the scholars called the poems as slokas in order to give a higher status to Molla as a scholar, which again she did not seek.
Apparently, there are several versions of Molla Ramayanam. Arudra, a well-known scholar and researcher, stated that the text contained 871 poems and prose pieces altogether. (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v.2.). In the text I have come across, the publishers counted both verse and prose pieces in one sequence and put the total at 880, spread over six kandas (sections). Among them, 208 items are prose pieces. Some of them contain only one or two words while others are one-page long.
Before I go further, I must admit that I am no scholar of any consequence especially when it comes to poetics. Nevertheless, Molla’s Ramayanam has been praised for its ease of diction and native flavor. Keeping that in mind, I have read the text and to my surprise, I found myself enamored by its charm. In this article, I will only point a few aspects that captured my imagination and raise a few questions that occurred to me.
First, let me explain the popular name of the poet as Kummara Molla, referring to her caste. To the best of my knowledge, no other writer, male or female, has come to be known by his or her caste or vocation. Molla herself did not state her caste in her work, not even with reference to her father. She has described him in so many ways but his caste or vocation is not one of them.
I am aware that it is common for authors in ancient times to state their caste, gotra[i] and lineage. Molla has stated in her preamble that she was the daughter of Kesaya Setty, who was “devoted to worshipping Guru Linga, a cohort of the devotees of Siva, and a good friend to all relatives.” There is no reference to his caste or vocation. In all, I would have to assume that the title kummara has been given by the editors and publishers of Molla Ramayanam after the printing came into vogue.
The second question is about her caste per se. Some scholars it seems attempted to determine Molla’s caste based on her name. Andra Seshagiri Rao discussed this aspect extensively in his book Andhra Vidushimanulu (Telugu female scholars). The gist of it is, Molla is a flower belonging to the family of jasmine flowers and in those days only prostitutes were named after flowers, and for that reason, Molla should have been a prostitute. Some scholars went so far as to say that Molla might have been one of concubines of Srikrishnadeva Rayalu. However, Seshagiri Rao and another prominent scholar, Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, established with certainty that Molla was not a prostitute.
The preamble to the Ramayanam is also a concrete source for establishing the time Molla could have been alive. Deducing from the names of poets to whom she paid tribute in her preamble, and the poets she had not mentioned, her time has been determined as the end of 15th century. I was wondering however if any other poet in the post-Molla period had made any references to her work. Andra Seshagiri Rao quoted one instance but he was quick to express his own suspicions that the reference might not be correct.
Her scholarship is undoubtedly of superior quality despite her modest claim that she had no formal education but for the blessings from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa. Her scholarship is evident in her command of diction, figures of speech, and quotes from the other famous kavyas and prabandhas. In her preamble, she states that she is not knowledgeable in native diction, grammatical forms, poetic peculiarities, phrases, inner meanings, distinctiveness in expression, idiosyncrasies in kavya tradition, etc. and that she had learned to write poetry through the blessings she had received from the god Malleesa in Gopavaram. The fact that she was able to give us such a large list of the characteristics of scholarly works vouches for her scholarship. The statement that she was no scholar, as I see it, comes from modesty, a cultural characteristic in our country.
Additionally, she states that if a work is filled with words that reader cannot understand instantaneously, it would be like a dialogue between a deaf person and a dumb person. In other words, poetry should be intelligible to the reader as he reads along and without referring to dictionaries and/or consulting scholars. According to Molla, poetry should be like honey on the tongue—one should feel it as soon as the honey hits tongue.
Several critics have attested to her claim as valid. Her Ramayanam has been quoted as a work filled with native flavor, ease of diction and appealing to ordinary readers. For instance, she describes the city Saketapuram in terms of what it is and what it is not. I sought the help of Bhairavabhatla Kameswara Rao, (telugupadyam blogger) to interpret this poem. He pointed out that the author has used double entendre, which is to use the same word with two meanings, thereby explaining what is and what is not. I am grateful to Kameswara Rao for his explanation. (the Telugu original is given at the end of this article.)
The nagas in Saketapuram are magnificent elephants but not mean serpents;
The haris are the horses which returned from wars victoriously but not a gang of monkeys;
The syandanas are beautiful chariots but not meager fountainheads;
The ganikas in Saketapuram are cultured female entertainers, who could sing beautifully but not wild forest flowers;
The scholars are compassionate intellectuals with a sense of aesthetics but not harsh, cruel demons;
Saketapuram is a city of superior order, which may be described by saying what it is not.
Molla’s poetry oozes with the native flavor of Telugu. We find metaphors like “Is this a bow or a mountain?” and people “ran into the side roads” (sandu gondulu) profusely through out the text.
One of the poems describing the beauty of the evening shows her keen sense of poetry in every day life. “The soft evening hue commingled with the onset of darkness parallels a view of rubies and blue stones set in the sky.”
A statement by a veteran research scholar, Arudra, summarizes Molla’s status in the history of Telugu literature. Arudra comments, “while several Ramayanams written by male writers have been lost in the folds of history, the Ramayana written by Molla remained popular even to this day.” (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v. 2).
I have no knowledge of poetics and barely enough to appreciate good poetry. However, I would not hesitate to admit that I found this great work fascinating, which is the purpose of the author, as claims in the avatarika. With that in mind, I venture to note a few peculiarities that are fascinating to me.
One such element is the way she repeats a word to drive a point home—a common usage in colloquial speech. In Aranya kanda (Canto 2. The Forest section), while Rama was wandering in the forest searching for Sita, he asks and asks each animal if it has seen the lady (Sita), asks and asks every bird whether it has seen the lady in several ways, … having failed to find her, he swelters and swelters because of the separation from Sita. This kind of repetition is used even more effectively in the Yuddha kanda [Cantos 4, 5, and 6. The War section] where warriors fight with each other, repeating the blows, naturally. While the entire Ramayanam is written in six cantos, the war section takes three of them. And Molla shows unusual acumen in describing the war. As Prof. Malayavasini put it, it looks as if Molla has either witnessed a war face-to-face or read extensively about war. These descriptions vouch for Molla’s scholarship despite her modest claim that she is not well-read.
Another instance where Molla shows her singular talent is when she describes Rama and Lakshmana for Sita in Lanka. Sita suspects Hanuman if he is one more illusion of the demons in Lanka, and asks him to describe her husband and his brother for her. In response, Hanuman describes Rama in a poem that has become common knowledge in Telugu homes. It has been part of the grade school textbooks in Andhra Pradesh. Hanuman says,
His complexion is dark as cloud
His eyes are white as lotuses
His neck parallels the conch
His ankles are beautiful
The arms are straight and long*
His voice resonates like a drum
He has lotus lines in his feet*
He has beautiful chest
He knows no treachery but to speak the truth.
Lady! Rama possesses meritorious qualities.
Brother Saumitry possesses all these qualities
And he is of golden complexion.
[* befitting royal persona]
The poet, by thus summing up Lakshmana’s qualities in one line, has shown her skill in her ability to use words economically, comments Dr. Malayavasini.
To my knowledge, other poets in her time or immediately after might not have mentioned her as a poet of excellence. Nevertheless, in the modern period, there is no dearth of scholars, both male and female, for paying tribute to her poetic excellence.
A veteran scholar, Divakarla Venkatavadhani, states, “Although Molla has said she is not educated, we find no scholastic flaws in her kavya. Her descriptions are sophisticated and conform to the prabandha style. Especially, in describing Saketapuram, Molla shows extraordinary flair in several ways with her use of double entendre and metaphors. Her style is fascinating to all readers because of the sweet resonating words and her imagination. … She is also highly skilled in maintaining propriety.” (Andhra vanjmaya charitra. 59-60).
Regarding poetic propriety, however, Andra Seshagiri Rao seems to hold a slightly different view. He comments that Molla has followed the tradition of male poets in not only describing women in her kavya but also referring to female body parts in her metaphors. In a three-page-long comment, he quotes several instances where Molla has not maintained the kind of propriety befitting female writers.
As stated earlier, very little is known about Molla’s life. A fictional account of her life story has been written by Inturi Venkateswara Rao, under the title Kummara Molla, published in 1969. Based on this novel, another writer Sunkara Satyanarayana wrote a ballad, which became very became and has been sung all over Andhra Pradesh, he claims. The story has been made into a movie in 1971, under the title kathanayika Molla (Molla, the hero).
Since most of the incidents both in the novel and the movie are fictional, there is very little I can say about them with reference to Molla Ramayanam, a literary masterpiece in its own status quo.
Published on thulika.net, September 2010.
Arudra. Samagra Andhra sahityam. V.2. Hyderabad: Telugu Sahitya Academy, 2005.
Malayavasini, Kolavennu. Telugu kavayitrulu. Waltair: Andhra University, 1979.
Molla, Atukuri. Molla Ramayanam. Eluru: Rama & Co., 1937.
Lakshmikantamma, Utukuri. Andhra kavayitrulu. 2nd ed. 1980.
Venkateswara Rao, Inturi. Kummara Molla. Madras: Andhra Films Publications, 3rd imprint. 1969.
Satyanarayana, Sunkara. Kummari Molla. (Burra katha, ballad). Vijayawada: Visalandhra Prachuranaalayam, 1963. (Note: The author states that, although it was published in 1963, it had been written in 1951 and being performed in Andhra Pradesh ever since.)
Venkatavadhani, Divakarla. Andhra vanjmaya charitramu. Hyderabad: Andhra Saraswata parishattu, 1961.
Seshagiri Rao, Andra. Andhra vidushimanulu. Author, 1995.
Lalita, K. and Tharu, Susie. Eds. Women Writing in India. 600 B.C. to the Present. V.1. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991. pp. 95-96.
Si. madanaagayuudhasamagra desamu gaani
gi. sarasa satpunyajananivaasamu gaani
kaadu kaadani koniyaada galiginatti
[i] Name of a sage, identifying the family’s lineage..