Memories and Experiences by Battula Kamakshamma

[Translator’s note: Battula Kamakshamma garu (1886 – )was a young widow and avid reader who lived in the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s lifespan. In this autobiographical account, she presents to us rare insights into the times and women’s lives during that period. I was moved by her courage, determination and the strength of her character. This autobiographical account was probably written in late 1950s, at which time she might be in her late 60s. If any reader has any information about Kamakshamma garu and is willing to share with us, please send me an email. – Nidadsvolu Malathi.]

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    I am overwhelmed to hear that the Andhra Pradesh Government is having celebrations commemorating Sri Kandukuri Veeresalingam pantulu garu. He was the driving force behind the progress of our country in so many ways. I am mentioning this since the lifespan of Veeresalingam pantulu garu, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the time of major transformation of India. Think of those times in juxtaposition of the present generation. We cannot emphasize enough of the importance of his contribution to the progress of our nation, especially for us women folks.

Thanks to his undying efforts, our society has opened its eyes and started to free itself from the shackles of the centuries-old, irrational beliefs. Because he laid the path of reform, several females like me were able to participate in the women’s movement and were able to help ourselves. Prior to his movement we could not take the step forward, even though we had the intent, we did not have the courage.

So it is appropriate that we should have celebrations commemorating a person of such historical significance. In this context I thought it is my duty to ruminate on my experiences and memories relating to the social customs and traditions of those times. As a woman who grew up under those influences, I think I am in a good position to relate the social conditions of that era.

I was probably 15 years old at the time. I was living in the home of my uncle (father’s younger brother), Udatthu Kamalanabham garu. During my childhood, around 1901-1902, women in the well-to-do families like ours were required to observe customs strictly. We couldn’t even show our faces in public. It was wrong to talk with male relatives, no matter how closely we were related. It was lot worse in the case of child widows like me. I cannot explain it and so I am leaving it to your imagination.

I am not sure why but the idea of service was deeply rooted in me from my early years. May be because of my kinds acts in my past life. I never liked wasting my time, not even a second. I was secretly entertaining a strong desire to read and share my knowledge with others but was not sure where I could find books to read. Although my uncle was very kind to me, I never had the courage to express my yearning for reading.

It was at this time, I came to know that Nalam Krishna Rao garu (a son of my mother’s brother) opened a library, in deference to his mentor Veeresalingam garu. I also heard that they were sending books to women at home, and conducting competitions to encourage reading by women. For me it was like a beggar stumbling on a goldmine. Then I got the women in the household of Krishna Rao garu convince him to send books for me at home. I was extremely happy that my deep-rooted desire for reading had finally come to be a reality.

I have not met Veeresalingam garu in person, but have heard a lot about his women’s movement, and developed a great interest in his activities. For that reason, if the library courier could not bring the books, I used to send our servant and get at least one book per day, mostly Veeresalingam’s books. I was reading them with great enthusiasm and determination. I was also gathering other women in our neighborhood and reading aloud for them. Most of the adults in our family were against women’s education. However they were kind to me because I was a child widow–they loved me dearly–and also because I was reading other epics like Bharatham and Bhagavatham and conducting religious discourses with other women.

Some of the members on the library committee, our relatives, noticed that I was showing interest in the writings of Veeresalingam garu on women’s reform movement, and tried to delve into my motivation, since I was a child widow, and started sending books on widow remarriage. That threw me off. If my family had come to know that I was getting books on widow remarriage, if my name was shown in the library register as the borrower, I could get into trouble. So I gave strict orders to the courier that he should bring only the titles I have asked for and made sure he understood it. The social conditions in those days were such.

Also during that period, some traditionalists like Kasibhatla Brahmayya Sastri garu opposed women’s education vehemently and were working against the movement of Veeresalingam garu. I used to get all the magazines in those days and was reading avidly.  Although I was reading all the magazines, my heart was leaning towards Pantulu gari reform movement only.

However, I could not do much since the times were not propitious for women to participate in such social movements. But at the same time the seeds were sown in my heart to become a free woman, participate in organizing women’s coalitions and help the needy in any way I can.

Kotikalapudi Sitamma, a disciple of Pantulu garu, heard about my procuring and reading library books. She was enthusiastic about meeting me and so came to my home. I have already read her excellent writings like Ahalyabai, and so my joy knew no bounds at seeing her at our door. She put her arm around my shoulders, drew me close to her, talked to me gently. She asked me to sing poems and sanskrit slokas for her and listened with pleasure. She was very anxious to take me to Veeresalingam pantulu garu and arrange a meeting with him, since he was working for the cause of women’s education. I had a feeling that she was trying to get me interested in widow remarriage.

I decided to go with Sitamma garu to the prayer hall and meet with Veeresalingam pantulu garu, because he was a great man, social reformer, and champion of women’s cause. I considered it a blessing to be able to see him. I was not sure though how our family would react if I went alone to meet Pantulu garu. So I encouraged other women from my religious discourses group. I told them that Pantulu garu has arranged to have gramaphone records played at the prayer hall and got them follow me there. Sitamma garu pressured me in to meeting with Pantulu garu. I was afraid that I might get into trouble with my family if they had come to know that I talked with Pantulu garu. So I told Sitamma garu that I was shy, paid my respects to Pantulu garu only from distance and quickly left the place. Thus I satisfied my curiosity to meet with him, only partially, but I was happy. I was eighteen at the time.

After that, I went to Madras and lived in the house of my uncle[1], Nalam Lakshmikantam garu for 14 years. There also I was able to continue my reading without interruption. I was becoming increasingly interested and was grappling with my desire to start a women’s organization and do public service in some way. Then I decided that the only way I could have my wish fulfilled was to move to Rajahmundry, the stronghold of women’s movement. At the same time, I was also afraid that if I express my intentions of service, I might face opposition from my family. So, under the pretext of wanting a holy dip in the river Godavari–the time being auspicious Kartika month–I went to Rajahmundry.

While in Rajahmundry, I went on a pilgrimage with Nalam Ramalingayya garu. On that trip, I heard about the home for widows in Pune founded by Karve. I wanted to stay in Pune and help the women in the widow’s home. Ramalingayya garu heard about my intention and dropped the idea of taking me to Pune, sent me home and he went alone to see the widow’s home in Pune.

After he returned home, Ramalingayya garu said that he was interested in opening a home for destitute women in Rajahmundry and asked me if I wanted to help him in his project. He assured me that he would start working on the project provided I would go along with the idea. I was so touched by the way the God Almighty has arranged to fulfill my long-time dream. I promised him my whole-hearted support. We have succeeded in opening a women’s home (Striseva sadanam) in Rajahmundry within a short period.

Thus by 1920, with the ideals of Pantulu garu inculcated in me, I was able to organize the Striseva sadanam. Pantulu garu passed away in 1918. At that time I was so disappointed that I did not get a chance to have him visit my Striseva sadanam and receive his blessings. Eventually I met Kandukuru Venkataratnam Pantulu garu, one of his close friends. He told me in great detail the kind of fierce struggle Veeresalingam Pantulu garu had to put up, in order to have widow remarriages performed, to eradicate the idiotic, centuries old customs, and the humiliations he had face in the process. I was amazed. My heart was filled with gratitude. After 10 or 12 years, I also had the privilege of becoming the administrator of Hitakarini samajam (orphanage), which Veeresalingam garu started. There was a time when the home could not provide food and education for even 16 women for lack of sufficient funds. At that time, Women’s Welfare Center (an organ of the government) approached us with a request for space in our building. They were going to start a cooperative for one hundred women. Hitkarinisamajam refused their request on the grounds that Pantulu garu was aiming at widow remarriage and only widow remarriage. Then I intervened and argued with our committee members that the goals of Pantulu garu included all kinds of help, and not limited only to widow remarrriage. I also mentioned that we were helping only 16 women whereas the Cooperative was offering to help one hundred women. The committee accepted my arguments and we let them work out of our building.

In this manner, thanks to that august person, numerous organizations were put in place and have been offering a great service to women ever since. We all know that the schools started out as separate schools for girls are still operating, known as Veeresalingam Schools to help all the children even today.

I am grateful to Avula Sambasiva Rao garu for giving me this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude through this special commemoration volume.

Excerpts from my editorial:

I came across the autobiographical essay of Battula Kamakshamma garu (b. 1886- ) while researching for another paper. I was moved in as much by her candid portrayal of herself and the social conditions of her time as her fortitude, determination and courage to bring about change. It is significant in that she represents the changing times during and immediately after Veeresalingam period. See my article on female writers in this issue for further explanation.

For those of you who are not familiar with the times here is a brief note: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kandukuri Veeresalingam has launched several movements, and the women’s movement was the most significant one. With unprecedented dynamism, he set out to initiate programs for women’s education, widow remarriage, and eradication of prostitution. Battula Kamakshamma was a young teen widow during the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s life. In that sense, I could see her as a link representing the social changes that were taking place at the time. Her fortitude, determination and enthusiasm come through in this short, 4-page article against the backdrop of her seeming conformation to family values. I could visualize her as one definitive Telugu female character.

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My comments from my article:

This account gives us some of the notable details as to how, during and after Veeresalingam period, women managed to process the information they had received and convert it to their advantage while keeping good relationship with their families. Wisdom lies in working things out. Kamakshamma was a good example. She decided not to remarry but had no problem in helping other widows who wished to remarry. The little hurdles from her family did not prevent her from following her heart—reading Veeresalingam’s writings and taking only whatever suited her mental disposition.

[1] Nalam Lakshmikantam was her mother’s brother and father of Nalam Krishna Rao.

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