Atukuri Molla, author of Molla Ramayanam, has come to be known as Kummara (potter) Molla. Besides Muddupalani, author of Radhikasantvanam¸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 believe that she lived in the late fifteenth century.
From the avatarika [preamble] to her Ramayanam, we gather that Kesaya Setty was her father, she was a boon from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa of Gopavaram, Nellore District, Andhra Pradesh, India. Kesaya Setty was a great devotee of Srikantha Malleesa, a notable scholar, and a highly regarded man of honor 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 as well. 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 specifically stated that she intended not to write in the highbrow language of the Sanskrit scholar,s 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 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 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 by any count, especially, when it comes to poetics. I just want to put in my two cents’ worth because 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 was fascinated by its charming diction. In this article, I will only point out 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.
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, the 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; therefore, Molla was considered a prostitute. Some scholars went so far as to say that Molla might have been one of the mistresses of Srikrishnadeva Rayalu. However, Seshagiri Rao and another prominent scholar, Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, established with certainty, that Molla was not a prostitute.
The preamble to her Ramayanam is also a concrete source for establishing the time Molla was alive. Deducing from the names of poets to whom she paid tribute in her preamble, and the poets she had not mentioned, her time was determined as the end of 15th century. I am not sure if any other poet in the post-Molla period had made any references to her work. Andra Seshagiri Rao quoted one instance but he also expressed his doubts about the reference.
Her scholarship is undoubtedly of superior quality despite her modest claim that she had no formal education except 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 stated that she was not knowledgeable in native diction, grammatical forms, poetic peculiarities, phrases, inner meanings, distinctiveness in expression, idiosyncrasies in kavya tradition, etc. and that she learned to write poetry through the blessings of the Lord 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, must have come from her modesty, a cultural characteristic in our country.
Additionally, she stated that if a work was filled with words that reader could not understand right away, it would be like a dialogue between persons of hearing and speech impaired. 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 it 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 used double entendres, to explain 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 enlightened female entertainers, who could sing beautifull,y 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. He comments, “While several Ramayanams written by male writers were lost in the folds of history, Molla Ramayanam remains 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 I found this great work fascinating, as claimed by her in the avatarika.
Herein, I venture to note a few peculiarities that captivated my attention.
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), 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] where warriors fight with each other, repeating the blows, naturally. While the entire Ramayanam was written in six cantos, the war section took three of them. And Molla shows unusual acumen in describing the war. As Prof. K. Malayavasini puts it, Molla must have either witnessed a war in person, or read extensively about it. These descriptions ascertain Molla’s scholarship despite her modest claim that she was 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 whether 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 Saumitri 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 during her times 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 reputable 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
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 physical attrbutes 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 has become popular and 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 female 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 on its own merit.
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