Tag Archives: Indian Literature-History and criticism

Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma by Nidadavolu Malathi.

Kalaprapoorna Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma, (1917-1996) was a rare combination of several talents from reciting poetry extempore in Sanskrit and Telugu to martial arts such as fencing, stick fighting and horse riding.

Lakshmikantamma was born on December 21, 1917, in a sophisticated family of scholars and social activists. Her father Nalam Krishna Rao was a reputable poet, journalist, and active participant in the social reform movements of his time. He was the founder-president of Gautami Granthalayam, one of the oldest and highly acclaimed libraries in the state. Her mother Nalam Suseelamma participated in her husband’s activities and was the founder of Andhra Mahila Gaana sabha [Andhra Music society]. One of her distant aunts, Battula Kamakshamma, was founder of Arya Seva Sadanam, which was converted to Andhra Yuvati Sanskruta Kalasala [Sanskrit College for Women] later. Against this background, it is no surprise that Lakshmikantamma became actively involved in political and social movements at an early age.

In her childhood, she used to play boys’ sports along with her brothers and their friends. At the age of seven, she started learning vocal and veena. By twelve, Lakshmikantamma was already an exhilarating speaker. She used to deliver electrifying speeches and sing patriotic songs. Crowds would hold their breath and listen to her speech or singing.

She was married at thirteen to Utukuri Hayagriva Gupta, a lawyer and six years senior. They had their first child in 1935 but the baby lived only for six months. Of the eleven children the couple had, five children—three boys and two girls—grew up to be well educated and well settled in life.

At eighteen, she graduated from the Sanskrit College run by her aunt Kamakshamma and received the degree, ubhaya bhashaa praveena, an attestation of scholarship in two languages, Sanskrit and Telugu. The same year, she was bestowed with two titles, Telugu molaka [Telugu sprout] and vidwat kavayitri [Poet of excellence]. Lakshmikantamma, who had been named “Sahiti Rudrama” [Queen Rudramadevi in literature] by Devulapalli Ramanuja Rao, President of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, was the proud recipient of ten more titles including kalaprapoorna (awarded by Andhra University, 1976), Andhra saraswati, dharma prachaara bharati, and sangeeta sahitya kalanidhi, in addition to honorary doctorate. Mention must be made of two felicitations, kanakabhishekam [being showered with gold] and gajaarohanam [Elephant ride], which are normally associated with royalty of the past and rather unusual in modern times. To my knowledge, Lakshmikantamma was the only author to be honored with these two felicitations.

She was actively involved in several literary and social organizations such as Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academi, Telugu Bhasha Samiti, Andhra University Senate, Viswa Hindu Parishat, Andhra Pradesh Arya Vysya Sabha, Gautami Granthalayam library in Rajahmundry, Stri Hitaishini Mandali [Women’s Welfare organization in Bapatla], Andhra Yuvati Sanskrit College, Guild of Service, Central Sahitya Academi, and and many more. This list is sufficient to emphasize the wide array of her interests and accomplishments.

Lakshmikantamma possessed a versatile and exhilarating personality. In her autobiography, she stated that she would keep laughing always. Pilaka Ganapati Sastry, who became a famous novelist later, was her teacher for a brief period. At the time, he was still young and shy. Lakshmikantamma was amused while he was teaching Sakuntala, a play, and kept laughing. It was disconcerting to Ganapati Sastry. Later, he told her father, Krishna Rao, that, “I used to pick from her laughter, the in depth meaning and beauty of poetry in Kalidasa’s poetry and bless her in my own mind.” (Sahiti Rudrama, p. 43).

Lakshmikantamma’s father was a follower of Brahma samajam, which rejects polytheism and promotes one god theory. Her mother Suseelamma believed in Hindu tradition. However she changed some of her religious practices to please her husband, she wrote in her article pavitra smruthulu [Pious memories] published in Yugapurushudu Veeresalingam published in Veeresalingam Satajayanti sanchika, Hyderabad.

Ever since she was a teen, Lakshmikantamma had been living active public life. She was attending public forums, literary meets and conferences and delivering stimulating and scholarly speeches. Writing and publishing came much later, early 1950’s to be specific.

The circumstances surrounding her first book, Andhra kavayitrulu are interesting. In 1953, Telugu Bhasha Samiti [Telugu Literary Guild], Madras, announced a competition and invited writers to write a book on Telugu women poets. Lakshmikantamma’s husband, Mr. Gupta, and several friends suggested she should write the book. Lakshmikantamma however was not interested. She said, “Reputable scholar Veeresalingam compiled the book Telugu kavulu [Telugu poets] in which he had included about six hundred writers. In it, he mentioned only five or six women poets. If you look carefully, you may find only one hundred poets worth mentioning and possibly one of them would be a woman. I do not want to take that one poet and hold up to the world, and thereby expose that we have no women poets worth mentioning.” (sahiti rudrama, p.81.) Then, one of her close friends, Boddupalli Purushottam suggested that she could at least make an effort to see if there were more women poets. Convinced by his argument, she set out to search for women poets. She traveled to famous libraries in other places like Vetapalem, Madras, and Tanjore, and went through thousands of magazines such as gruhalakshmi, Hindusundari and literally unearthed 264 women poets who had produced excellent works. Lakshmikantamma’s very first book was a first prize winner in a competition held by a reputable literary guild, Telugu Bhasha Samiti.

In the history of Telugu literature, this book Andhra Kavayitrulu is the only comprehensive work on women poets to date. This is being used as a valuable reference tool by research scholars. Arudra, an established writer and researcher, used it as a source for writing about women poets Molla and Mohanangi in his samagra Andhra sahityam.

The second edition of Andhra kavayitrulu, published in 1980, included only 86 poets. In her preface to the second edition, some of the comments made by the author are worth quoting. Lakshmikantamma stated that she herself was not sure if she could revive the enthusiasm and the style she had evinced while working on the first edition. She was somewhat disappointed by the prevalent perceptions regarding education, language and scholarship in the country. In the past, scholarship was respected. Now (at the time producing the second edition) the shrinking respect for classical poetry in the face of growing interest in fiction is discouraging. Lakshmikantamma also mentioned the cost of paper and printing. Personally, I am sad that money should play such crucial role in publishing the second edition. The second edition included only 86 poets as opposed to more than 200 poets (I have only the second edition on hand for reference). In any case, I sincerely hope that Andhra Pradesh Akademi or some other literary organization would undertake publication of the full version before it is lost totally. At this writing, the book is out of print. And it is too valuable to neglect.

Having said that, I need to address a couple of other comments on some entries in this work, Andhra kavayitrulu. One of them is the authenticity of the claim that Krishnadeva rayalu had a daughter named Mohanangi and she authored a book, marichi parinayam. Lakshmikantamma devoted six pages to Mohanangi and marichi parinayam in her book.  Arudra took this information and incorporated in his book, samagra Andhra sahityam [Complete History of Andhra Literature]. However, while writing about Mohanangi, Arudra wrote, “They say Mohanangi was daughter of Krishnadeva rayalu.” By shifting the speaker to an unverifiable “they”, it would appear, he was not sure if that was authenticated. He did not clearly contradict Lakshmikantamma’s statement though. In 2002, I met with two reputable scholars, Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari and Dr. Kolavennu Malayavasini. They both stated that there was no verifiable evidence to show that Krishnadeva rayalu had a daughter, and that the authorship of marichi parinayam had not been established unequivocally.

A second comment on Lakshmikantamma’s work was by Sangidasu Srinivas who commented that Lakshmikantamma had not given full credit to a poet named Kuppambika (Andhra Jyothy September 22, 2008 Vividha page).

My position is scholars usually set parameters for themselves and work within those parameters. Lakshmikantamma went to great lengths, researched all the sources available to her at the time and recorded the data. Other researchers may find more information or different perceptions in course of time. That does not mean that the work done by earlier researcher, whether it is Lakshmikantamma or another scholar, is less significant. It is quite normal for latter researchers to find more evidence or lack thereof and add further to the existing data.

Lakshmikantamma’s works fall broadly into four categories. 1. Classical poetry in Telugu and Sanskrit; 2. Modern poetry; 3. Essays and biography, and, 4. Plays.

In Sanskrit, she authored kanyaka parameswari sthavam, extempore, in praise of the goddess Kanyaka. It is being recited as invocation prayer in the morning in several temples of Kanyaka across the state. (Vijnan Kumar. Personal correspondence, dated September 22, 2008). Another work of her in Sanskrit is Devi sthava taraavali in praise of goddess Devi.

In the book, naa Telugu Manchalaa, [My Telugu Manchala], 98 pages, Lakshmikantamma portrays Manchala as a 16-year old, intelligent woman endowed with remarkable beauty and sense of patriotism. The story is popularly known in Andhra Pradesh as that of Balachandrudu, Manchala’s husband.  His mother, Prolama would want her son to go to war and earn her the title hero-mother (veeramaata) on one hand and, on the other, her maternal instinct would want him to stay home. In a strategic move, she sent him to his wife, Manchala, hoping her beauty would prevail and keep him at home. Manchala on the contrary provoked him in a cleverly manipulative language, and sent him to the battlefield. The verses are written in simple Telugu yet powerful in conveying the various rasas as appropriate in different stages. Lakshmikantamma had mentioned in the preface that there might be some stylistic lapses in terms of meter.

Kanthi sikharaalu is a collection of devotional lyrics, imbibing the tenets of Brahma samajam, which she had followed fervently in her teen years. The author stated in her preface that her inspiration for writing these lyrics was the singing by well-known romantic poet, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry. The language is simple and lucid, which appeal to all, scholars and non-scholars alike.

Okka chinna divve [A Small Lamp] is a collection of seventeen long poems, presented as a tribute to Gandhi. In her preface, she stated that she had the opportunity to participate in Gandhi’s non-violence movementi in her teen years (about 13 to 19 years of age), which contributed immensely in defining her values of patriotism and service. Additionally, she chose the title A Small Lamp to accentuate her respect for Gandhi, although not all the lyrics were about Gandhi. It included other topics such as a Telugu New Year day, Diwali, soldiers, and an invitation to youth. Some of them were written in semi-classical style with complex, descriptive phrases, and others in near colloquial style.

To me, this variation in style seems to point to the shift from classical to free verse that has been taking place at the time not only in her writings but in the country in general.

On a slightly different note, I would like to mention Lakshmikantamma’s comments on language as stated in her autobiography. She stated that while she was teaching maha bharata in Bapatla College, prominent linguistics professor, Bhadriraju Krishnamurthy, attended her classes. Impressed by her scholastic excellence, Krishnamurthy invited her to speak at a literary meet in Ongole. There she went out of the way from lecturing on Maha Bharata and introduced a new argument that Telugu language originated from Dravidian languages. Later Professor Krishnamurthy met with her and obtained detailed information about her argument and incorporated in his course content for second year M.A. (Sahiti Rudrama, p. 92-93).

The title of the book, kanyakamma nivaali, literally means a tribute to the goddess Kanyaka. Inside however, it is a collection of short verses, 3 lines and the caption Oh Kanyakamma. Most of the poems are humorous and/or sarcastic comments on contemporary lifestyle and society. A few of them are serious observations. The author writes in her preface that she was inspired by Koonalamma padaalu written by Arudra.

Saraswati samraayja vaibhavam, [23 pages], is a one-act play, which incorporated some well-known poems from the published works. It presents on one platform nine women poets, who lived at different times from 13 to 20th centuries. Additionally, the author introduces two secondary characters partly as comic relief in step with the practice in stage plays. The poets recite poems from their best works both in Telugu and Sanskrit.

Lakshmikantamma’s works of history and literary criticism include Andhra kavayitrulu [Andhra female poets], Akhila Bharata Kavayitrulu [All India female poets], Andhrula keertana kalaa seva [Service of the Andhra people to music], naa videsa paryatana anubhavaalu [My Experiences during my tours to other countries], contributions to Vijnana Sarvasvam [articles in Telugu Encyclopedia], and numerous articles published in reputable journals. Unpublished works as of 1993: Story of Chandramati [Children’s book], Sahitya vyasa manjari [Literary essays], and Rutambari [prose ballad].

She also translated Humayun Kabir’s essays in English (Our country’s history and the lessons learned), and Hindi dohas by Kabir, Tulasi Binda and Rahim. She edited classical works, Molla Ramayanam and Vishnu parijata yakshagaanam. She wrote more than one thousand prefaces to books by other writers.

In her autobiography, Lakshmikantamma mentioned that at the beginning of her literary career, she published her poems under the pseudonym ‘Krishnakumari’. Soon after, her husband suggested that she should publish her poetry in her own name since they were so good. She did so, although she used yet another pseudonym ‘sukanchana’ for her story, Korala madhya koti swargaalu [Ten million heavens stuck between fangs], included in kathamandaram, an anthology of short stories published in 1968.

I think a brief note on her multifarious involvement in women’s organizations, social movements and public events, is appropriate here. She was a great speaker, fundraiser, organizer of literary meets and associations, active participant in charitable events, and herself a kind and generous individual. She was a driving force in women writers’ conferences at state and national level, had attended international women writers’ conferences, and was a sitting member at legislative council in two universities and various literary organs at the state and national level. She was honored at international women writers meets also. (I had the honor of being on stage with Lakshmikantamma at Andhra Women Writers Conferences in 1968 and 1969 and receive mementoes from her.). Sri Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, produced a documentary on her life. University of Toronto, Canada, collected complete works of Lakshmikantamma. Her work had been research topic for doctoral dessertation.

I would like to go on a limb here and comment on her activities in her community. In an age when “caste” is considered a bad word, it is pleasing to note Lakshmikantamma’s involvement and contribution to Arya Vysya mahasabha [Business community in the scheme of societal breakdown based on Hindu beliefs]. She made no apology for being part of her community, and showed how the community spirit could be instrumental in bringing people together. This is particularly relevant in the context of her growing up with her father, who was a staunch Brahmo samaj follower.

In her autobiography, Lakshmikantamma listed some of her writings as “works unable to succeed”. I went through the list of books Lakshmikantamma had listed as “not successful”.

I am not sure what made her come to that conclusion. For instance, in the same list, she stated that Naa Telugu Manchala had received the Telugu University award and had been prescribed as textbook in St. Teresa’s college, Eluru. Her Sanskrit poem, kanyakaa parameswari suprabhatam is being recited in several temples of Kanyaka as daily morning prayers. That being the case, I must assume she was referring to the success as understood in modern times, which would bring me to comment on the definition of success.

In today’s world, success is correlated to sales. A parallel example would be a critically acclaimed movie failing at box office. Probably it is the same with books. Additionally, in Andhra Pradesh, book sales do not always reflect the actual readership. For one thing, buying books is not common in Andhra Pradesh, possibly because of our belief in free dissemination of knowledge, an idea sustained by oral tradition. Secondly, one book bought by one person is read not just by that one person but by other family members and friends also. Thus the number of books sold does not always reflect the number of readers for that one book.

At the risk of repetition, I would like to add a note on Lakshmikantamma’s major works. The books, Andhra kavayitrulu, first edition featuring pen portraits of more than 200 female poets from 13th to 20th centuries, Andhra sahitya vijnana sarvasam, originally compiled by her father, Krishna Rao, and which she later edited with annotations by her, Akhila Bharata kavayitrulu [All India Women Poets], and sahiti rudruma (Autobiography) remain landmarks in the history of Telugu literature.

This article is not comprehensive but a modest attempt to provide a brief introduction to the accomplishments of a versatile poet of our times. To present a comprehensive analysis of her accomplishments is beyond the scope of this article. My hope is to motivate readers to go to the original sources and learn more about this remarkable woman and poet. Those who are interested in further study of Lakshmikantamma’s multifarious personality and work may find the list attached as an addendum to her autobiography, Sahiti Rudrama useful.

Additionally, I believe that publication of Lakshmikantamma’s complete works with annotations and preserving it for posterity would be a welcome undertaking and service to Telugu literary and cultural service. This is particularly vital in the light of dwindling abilities of the current generation to appreciate classical, semi-classical and modern literature produced by our immediate predecessors.

She had been awarded twelve honorary titles, marking her literary achievements.

Once again, I am thankful to Vijnan Kumar, third son of Lakshmikantamma, for kindly lending me the books, which were immensely helpful in writing this article.

(End)

Source List (Works by Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma, published by author)

Andhra kavayitrulu. 2d ed. 1980.

Kaanti sikharaalu. 1978.

Kanyakamma nivaali. 1978.

Oka chinna divve. 1980

Naa Telugu Manchala. 1981.

Sahiti Rudrama. 1993.

Saraswati saamrayja vaibhavam. 1988.

Other works:

Samsmruti (In her memory). Bapatla: Smaraka samiti, 1997.

Suseelamma, Nalam. Pavitra smruthulu. Yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Kandukuri Veeresalingam smarakotsvamula sangham. n.d. pp. 93-96.

 

Complete list of her works:

Works by Utukuri Lakshmikanthamma.

 

Andhra Kavayitrulu. 1953

Akhila Bharata racayitrulu. Sahitya Akademi, 1963

Andhrula Keertana Kala Seva [Andhra People’s contribution to the art of music]

Sri Kanyaka parameswari Suprabhatam [Sanskrit verses extoling the virtues of the goddess, Kanyaka]

Devi stava taravali [Verses praising Devi]

Jathi pitha [Father of the nation]

Sadukti manjari [Book of good words spoken by Hindi poets, Kabir, Tulsi das, and Vinda Rahim]

Bharatadesa charitra, konni guna paathamulu. [History of India, some lessons learned]

Kanti sikharalu. [Devotional songs]

Mahila ikrama suktam

Mana sahiti madhu bharati [Ballad]

Kanyakamma nivali [Poetry, satiric comments on modern day society]

Okka chinna divve [A Small lamp, poems]

Naa Telugu Manchala [Manchala, My Telugu hero]

Lajja kireety dharini [The Woman, who wore shame as her crown]

Naa videsa paryatana anubhavalu [[My experiences of foreign tours]

 

Articles contributed to Sangraha Andhra Vignana Sarwaswam [Complete Telugu Encyclopedia]

 

Saraswati samrajya vaidbhavam. [One act play]

Sahiti Rudrama [Autobiography]

 

Fiction.

Korala madhyana koti swaragalu

Chikati rajyam.

 

Unpublished books

Story of Chandramati [Children’s book]

Sahitya vyasa manjari [Anthology of literary essays]

Rutambari [Prose ballad]

Edited

Molla Ramayanam

Vishnu parijata yakshaganam

 

Prefaces for over 1000 books

Delivered over 3000 speeches on a wide variety of topics in literature, and Hindu religion.

(This article has been written by Nidadavolu Malathi and published originally on thulika.net, September, 2008.)

Nori Narasimha Sastry’s views on History and Historical Novel

In a couple of essays, Narasimha Sastry discussed history and historical fiction at length. He put forth enormous amount of information in support of his theory that our way of studying our history if faulty. In the process he also defines the correlation between history and historical novel.

In the essay, swatantra bharatamulo charitra rachana (Writing History in independent India), he shows how our mode of thinking had been molded by the methods established by famous western historians such as Gibbon, Carlyle, the lord Prudhoe and Wells. Their works on history are valued as literature; they have shown us that historians are poets in essence.

However, we also need to remember that the British rulers introduced Macaulay Report in schools only to serve their purpose, which is to turn our people into tools for prolonging their rule in our country.

That led to us relying on English books to study our history to a point that we would not read our Telugu and Sanskrit texts unless they are given in English. This craze for English is extended to all the other fields as well—religion, society, politics, literature, science and even into geography.

Currently, the history of India is broken into three periods—the Hindu period, the Mohammedan period and the British period.

Narasihma Sastry goes to elaborate on the problems with this division as follows:

Originally, the Aryans came from outside, assailed the Dravidians and the Dasyulu and promulgated their religion in our country vigorously. Their cultural power however waned due to the hot climate in our country. Internal struggles eroded and some of them turned traitors. After the Aryans, the Mohammedan rulers came in multitudes and took over. They attacked the feeble Hindus. Later, they succumbed to mundane pleasures and lost their power.  When the British came, the country was in shambles. They could easily drive away the Mohammedans and the other white rulers and take over the country. This is the gist of the division of the historical periods.

There is a perception that heat weakens individuals. This is not a proven fact though. Possibly others who are accustomed to cold climate may suffer from the heat in our country and vice versa. However this should not be an argument to let ourselves be slaves to the foreigners. Heat is a geographical issue and irrelevant to one’s strength or weakness. This is a pious land and the place for such sacred activities as bathing three times a day and offering prayers to the Sun god (sandyavandanam).

Narasimha Sastry continues to observe that since creation of the universe, 195 crore 85 lakhs and 550 years have passed. In this long span of the history of mankind, the British ruled our country for 190 years, the Moghuls for 181 years, the Lodis for 75 years, Sayyads for 37 years, Tughlaks for 94 years, and Khiljis 30 years.

Among the Indians, the Gupta period runs for 500 years and that is considered golden age. We read that the Satavahanas ruled for 464 years and no other reign had sway for a period that long. And the Kushans seemed to have ruled for 230 years, the Mauryans for 160 years, and the Nandas for 74 years. Also the Bimbisara and others ruled for over 200 years.

Thus, it is evident that the current history as we study in our books gives more importance to the time we had been under foreign rule. We should rewrite our history books expanding the times we had been free and proud, and delimit the period we had been subjected to slavery.

No doubt the British have ruled our country for about 200 years. There were some local rulers called Zamindaris but they existed only with the blessings from the British. Mohammedans stayed mostly in the north. Attempts of Tuglak and Aurangazeb to take over the southern part of India failed. At the time, the Kakateeya kings in the south were powerful. After that Vijayanagara kings prevailed in the south for one hundred years more. Thus, the label for these periods should be Kakatiya period, Vijayanagara period and so on. In the 18th century, the Maharashtra rulers were strong all the way from the southern end, the Sethu, to Himachal. Indian culture has flourished in the north for sometime and later the south enjoyed superiority. There were times when the Chola, Chalukya and Pallava kingdoms and Kancheepuram were at the peak. There is no reason to accept the labels given foreign rulers who ruled only the northern part of the country.

Other facts to note are: During 550-330 B.C., Persian kings ruled Punjab and Gandharam (current Nepal?). Later Greeks ruled over the same land for 150 years (200-20 B.C.). Kushans prevailed for sometime. There is also a misconception that all Mohammedans are the same. In reality, some of them were Shiites and others Sunnis. In the north, Persian culture was prominent while the Absenian culture prevailed in the south. The difference between these two is no less than the difference between the Greeks, Patheons, Sakuns, and Kushans. That being the case, it is unfair to lump them all together as one race.

Against this background, Narasimha Sastry suggests labels such as the Turkish threat, the Moghal menace, the Sunny hazzard, Shiaite turmoil, and the British tempest for periods our history. Also there are only two races—Aryans and non-Aryans, and one is productive and the other destructive, like any other living organism in the world.

It is important to note that the Aryans regard the land as their motherland and fatherland. For them, the land gives them birth, entertains them, and comforts them. It is karmabhumi [place of action], tapobhumi [place of contemplation], and punyabhumi [pious land]. For them, the entire India is one country and the Vedas and the Vedangas are the paradigms to live by. Sanskrit is the language of the polite society. The non-Aryans on the other hand are engrossed in self-promotion, their physical image, and abandonment.

The detailed discussions of dates for a given king are not important. The Puranas have recorded the history of the kings who reinstated the Aryan dharma following political and social turmoil. They should be the paradigms for us but not the texts written by foreigners such as the Greek travelers in Alexander’s time, Megasthanese during Chandragupta’s rule, the Chinese traveler Huen Tsang, and so on. We should read our history based on the data available in our texts produced by our poets. The texts by foreigners may be used as secondary texts. Historians should sift the falsehood propagated by foreign historians.

Let’s not forget that regardless of their affinity to the kings of their times, Valmiki and Vyasa maintained their stance as poets in their own status quo.

By the time Vyasa wrote Maha Bharata, 193 crores, 83 lakhs of years passed. He was fair in depicting the histories of the two dynasties, including the violations of Dharma by the Pandavas. The pundits who question Maha Bharata’s integrity need to separate the later interpolations and study the original carefully.

The historians should help us to revive the spirit of unity, nationalism. Valmiki and Veda Vyasa should be viewed as the archetypes, the protectors of dharma; they are historians and poets in true spirit.

Historical novel

The term “historical” implies narration of truth without fluff. On the other hand, novel requires invention specifically.

A novel may not contain even one page of authentic history in a 304 page book. Yet it may provide details about the political atmosphere, social customs, manners, travel amenities, and other facilities of its time without contradicting historical facts.

A novelist takes bits of history, “dry as dust” in Carlyle’s words, brings them together, adds other parts and grows into a big tree, sprays heavenly nectar on it and brings it to fruition.

Westerners store dead bodies in graveyards. They save important and unimportant incidents alike. The historians cull through these bits of data and elaborate on the past history. Because of this custom to save all the items, the historians are able to tell the stories of their people—poets, sculptors, lyricists, kings, ministers, their kept women, businessmen, priests, actors and actresses, soldiers, and beautiful women. The books, diaries, magazines, letters, inscriptions, and memorials carved on the graves—all these are available to their writers. However, despite the availability of all this information, the established theories are getting thrown out by new revelations. While interpretation of history keeps changing, great novels are being produced in the west.

We do not have the amenities to write historical fiction or biographical fiction the same way the westerners do. Nevertheless, we have produced great novels such as Bhagavan Parasuramudu by K. M. Munshi and Simha Senapathi by Rahul Sankrutyayan. The first one attempted to recreate the Vedic and the Pauranic works from the perspective of national spirit. The second one took the Vedic literature with Buddhist tradition as supreme ideal, and attempted to promote the current communist ideology. Both the works as great examples of our historical fiction.

In a country’s or even world’s history, what has happened is important. The dates and the names of individuals are like the body. The incidents are the life force behind these works. Beyond these two elements, there is also the Atman which is the dominant force in our lives. A historian must not forget the soul. From this perspective, we need to examine whether our historians have understood the supreme truth about our nation as much as the authors of our puranas.

Numerous plots and subplots embedded in the Ramayana and Maha Bharata appear to have happened actually. They might not have happened in that particular time and in that particular place but they seemed to carry certain authenticity about them. And they contain lessons for us. To collect such stories and record them is the primary responsibility of our historians.

The authors of our puranas had a great sense of the timelessness of history and what must be recorded. We fail to appreciate their philosophy only because of our self-indulgence and our ignorance.

Greek historian Herodotus had written several fantasy stories in the name of history and we regard him as the king among historians. The Chinese travelers wrote history, depicting their own importance and we have accepted them as standard the same way as the histories written by Christians. The stories in their books are fabricated much the same way as the stories in our puranas. It is the same with personal letters, diaries and other writings.

The genre of novel may have been born in Italy or France but there is no clear-cut definition yet. It has been taking various forms in different times and different places, which is its distinctive nature.

A novel could be rendered in the form a play, story, biography, letters, diaries or a combination of several forms. It can be short like a little pond or like a great sea, a combination of several features.

We may create suitable platform and call works like Dasakumara charitra, Simhasana dwatrimsati, Bhoja charitra, pancatantra, Hitopadesa, neeti chadrika novels. Our critics called kalaa purnodayam a novel, although it is written in the form of poetry.

That being the case, it is a mistake to consider only the form set by westerners as the only standard form for a novel. We may even stay as far away as possible from the western mode of thinking and create much better novels.

Narasimha Sastry also points out that writing novel is a profession for westerners. And marketing it requires novelty constantly. In his opinion, they are short-lived for that reason. On the other hand, we consider novel as a literary genre, and thus maintain its quality.

Novelist has a wide range of opportunities. A novel is not a short story and in that, there is no holding back. It is not a miniature painting; it does not have to flow in a monotonous manner as in a big story. Unlike a play, the novel does not rely on theaters, the vagaries of actors and actresses, and insensitive audience.

However, as in a drama, the writer may take the uniqueness of dialogues and incidents—the intrinsic qualities of a play, and incorporate poetic merit and musical quality in his novel. He may include his entire knowledge in it. A novel has the ability to reflect numerous varieties of literary genre in numerous ways. Novel is the supreme genre among the entire literary genre so far we have gotten. The proverb, naatakantam sahityam may be rewritten as navaalanatham sahityam.

The novel that contains history with the traits noted above may be called historical novel. When we study novel from that perspective, we find no contradiction between the noun “novel” and the adjective “historical”. On the other hand, the elite may even find a close affinity between the two terms.

It is common knowledge among intellectuals that it is hard to evaluate contemporary works, regardless how capable we are and how unbiased we are.

Unless we examine them from a distance, we cannot recognize their authentic value; the incidents do not rise to the level appropriate for plots of kavyas. This is the reason many poets in all countries at all times choose the stories related to their heroes and events from the past. That does not mean writers should not write about contemporary occurrences.

Critics sometimes comment that authors of historical fiction, being unable to face the modern day society and issues, choose incidents or people from the past and write about them. Their ignorance regarding the characteristics of kavya is evident in this kind of comments.

A novel may achieve the status of kavya even when it does not depict contemporary life? And that is so even when it does not aim to solve the current society’s problems. For instance, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace based on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Even as our rishis would, Tolstoy did not rely only on the history written by historians but conducted intense search for historical facts and thus was able to produce a unique work. Same thing can be said of Faust by Goethe, Paradise Lost by Milton, and so on.

Thus it is evident that poet, even when writing about the current events, can produce a high quality work only when he has the ability to look back in to the past. In support of this argument, He quotes an example from his own experience after China attacked India:

He says, “I was furious. I wanted to take over the entire nation of China in retaliation. I was irate that our government pledged to fight for the land up to McMohan line only. What about our ‌Manasa sarovaram, Kailasam that is the abode of Lord Siva, and the land that conjoined the sites where the two rivers Brahmaputra and Sindhu originated? I was so irate yet not a single poem came out of my mouth. So many people have written kavyas and sang songs. None of them appealed to me, when I try to read them as kavyas.

Secondly, dragon China’s national symbol. I searched hard for an quivalent term for dragon in Sanskrit. “Sarabham” or “Sarabhasaluvu” could be but did not sound right. In Rg veda, “ahi” had been mentioned. Some scholars used dragon for Ahi in their translation of Vedas into English. I remembered the verse in the vedas which described Indra at the time he killed Vritrasura. To my knowledge, nobody else thought of it yet even I could not view it in the form of a kavya. My heart has been sullied with my hatred for the Chinese. It will not reach the kavya level unless and until the hatred in my heart has been washed up.

If we think on these lines, the scholars who study the philosophy of kavyas may note that among all the genres of kavyas, the novel and among all varieties of novels the historical fiction is the highest.

Basically the Maha Bharata has been identified as history (ithihasa) and Ramayana as a purana (mythology). From the standpoint of tradition, both the works had been written by the writers who had lived in those times. Yet they became great works for the following reasons. Valmiki was a tapasvi (introspect). He was capable of distancing himself from contemporary life and observing it with uncontaminated eyes. Similarly, Vyasa was a rishi who could stay detached despite his kinship with all the characters in the story. He could stay in his hermitage quietly, contemplate and reflect on the story in his heart.

Some scholars accept that these two authors simply collected several stories told by several individuals and had them recorded by a few or several other individuals. There is no doubt that the incidents in these stories had been based on actual occurrences.

As is evident, the social, political, and dharma-related systems, the war strategies, philosophic reflections are narrated in these works focusing identifying the ultimate truth. No other work has that much influence on Indian culture. Despite the fact that these two works are based on Vedas, they have exerted more influence on our culture than the Vedas themselves. Without these two classic works, it is hard to imagine how far our culture could have deteriorated. This is deductible from the history of other countries where there is no such impact.

However, the Ramayana text and most of the Maha Bharata text are rendered in the form of poetry. It is not filled with difficult Sanskrit phraseology but written in a form that is close to modern prose. We can call them historical kavyas or historical novels written in the form of poetry. The difference is only in terminology but not in essence.

One of them is a great river flowing with zest like the River Ganges. The second one is the milky ocean encompassing several great rivers. Today’s historical novelist is a follower of those great authors, Valmiki and Vyasa.

They are not performers of death rituals who collect pieces of history. They are the visionaries who have attempted to identify the historical truths.

Modern day historians should search their souls and find to what extent they have understood these tenets and adapted them.

End.

(Translations of excerpts from two articles by Nori Narasimha Sastry. I am grateful to the writer and publishers of the volume Nori Narasimha Sastry. V. 5  Sahitya vyasaalu.

 Originally published on thulika.net, June, 2011.)

 

Nori Narasimha Sastry by Nidadavolu Malathi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End

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