Tag Archives: Telugu Folklore

Women in Telugu Folklore by Dr. S. Saratjyothsna Rani

If you say, “I’ll tell you a story,” nobody is going to say “I’ll not listen.” Folktale captivates everybody’s heart. Primordial man contributed to developing the story while sharing his experiences with the people around him. He kept adding minute details to make his experiences more enchanting and thus developed the technique of storytelling. The rustic folks sat in the yard at night and listened to the stories for relaxation after the day’s tough grind. A skillful narrator tells the story in a manner that captivates his audience. For that reason people used to gather around and lsiten to him.

References to aphorisms such as katha kanchiki, manam intiki [The story returns to Kanchi and we to our homes[i]] and kathaki kaallu levu, munthaki chevullevu[ii] [story has no feet, pot has no ears] only reaffirm that story has been around for a very long time.

We may find storytellers and listeners even in the remotest corners of the world. There is not a soul in India who is not interested in stories. For that reason, India is considered the natal home for story. We have evidence of the seeds of story even in the Vedic period. Folktales prevalent among the populace are included contextually in the epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata purana. Pancatantra told by Vishnusarma also includes a few folktales. Bruhatkatha by Gunadhya can be termed an anthology of folktales. Jataka stories of Buddha contains stories of birds and animals. Ancient texts on poetics such as kavyadarsa and sahityadarpanam define story as a fictitious or made up account. Manusmruti defines ‘katha‘ as dialogue.

Evidently, ‘katha‘ meant an account and includes a few real-life incidents. Folktale belongs to the genre of prose. Janapada katha, folktale in English, may be defined as a mode of communication from mouth to mouth, and from one ear to another in a set tradition and down the generations.

Spith Thompson defined the term “folktale” broadly and stated it as tradition-bound, prose narrative. We however need to make a distinction between a folktale as defined above and the folk epics and folk histories (chronicles). When we talk about a folktale, we must seperate these two genres. From the perspective of themes, the three genres appear to be comparable. However, the folk puranas and the chronicles are different from folktales, if we take into account the time, the place, and the individual perspectives of the narrators. Fictional literature features two traditions:

1. that of the elitists, and,

2. that of the folks in general.

In the case of folktales, it is hard to establish the date and the author. The written literature on the other hand is made available necessarily keeping in mind the criteria of its patrons, regardless from which part of the world they came. In that, oral literature has greater freedom than the written literature. For the same reason, oral literature has the capability to obtain the approval of all the people in a given society. They all are in a position to share the same experiences as narrated in those folktales. Folktales are based on the people whose lifestyles also enhance the amount of its freedom and become even more influential in creating that literature. For instance, the day laborers possess economic freedom as well as individual freedom, and freedom to live their lives as they pleased. Their stories reflect that freedom in the expression of their thoughts and mode of thinking.

Story is a mechanism that projects the social set up from the past into the present and from the present into the future. We may classify folk tales into the following categories: epics, chronicles, classics, humor stories, long stories, issue-based stories, stories of crooks, fantasy, parables, and social stories.

The story that grew out of a society is capable of molding that society. Therefore, the individuals in that society, their mentalities, religion, beliefs, customs, and minute details of their daily lives are featured in those stories. For that reason, they would say, “The folklore is a mirror of culture”. Society is the basis for ideal life. Men and women play important roles in the prosperity of that society. And family is the primary basis for individuals. Woman plays a key role in the prosperity of the family. Man participates in social activities while woman is more rooted in family matters.

There is no story without a female character whether it is a folktale or modern day story. Even when the society in general respects women, stories often depict woman as a weak indiviudal. There are also writers who depict woman as an incarnation of sakti while in real life abuse and humiliate them in every possible way. Also we read stories where the message is no woman deserves independence. Today, we still read stories, which emphasize that chastity is important for woman, and chastity is valued higher than beauty. We must admit that these stories are actually undermining woman’s position in our society today.

Netheless, there are a few writers, inspired by the progress taking place in the society, present stories that drum up woman’s greatness.

Woman appears in a variety of forms in folktales. She is portrayed as a mother, daughter, younger sister, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, co-daughter-in-law, co-wife, aunt, niece, cousin, queen, maid, and/or witch. The entire literature of folktales may be divided into three categories:

1. Folktales depicting domineering mother-in-law;

2. Folktales depicting domineering daughter-in-law; and,

3. Folktales depicting woman’s situation at home and in society.


1. Domineering mother-in-law.

In family environment, mother-in-law’s role appears to be an important one. There are numerous folktales depicting mother-in-law’s dominance. Some of them depict the mother-in-law as cruel towards her daughter-in-law while a few other stories show her as kind-hearted. Let us first review the stories, which validate the popular proverb, woman is woman’s enemy. These stories invariably present mother-in-law as domineering and her role as central to the story.

i) Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law stories.

Once upon a time there was a mother and a son. The mother got her son married and brought the daughter-in-law home. She was a wicked person. She would give the daughter-in-law only a glass of rice broth for food while she and her son had sumptuous meals everyday.

They had a strip of land on which they were growing eggplant and enjoying the profits from the produce. And also they had an palmyra tree in front of their house, from which they were making arrack[1] and drinking.

One day, the daughter-in-law told the old lady living next door about her hardships. Following the neighbor’s advice, she waited until the next day when the mother-in-law climbed the palmyra tree to extract sap. While the mother-in-law was on the top of the tree, the duaghter-in-law removed the ladder. Then she went inside, helped herself a plate full of rice and eggplant curry, and said three times, taunting, “Attaa, the food, the food.”

The mother-in-law saw the daughter-in-law with the food plate, was upset, and threw down the pot she was holding at her. While doing so, she slipped, fell down and died. The son was sad for his mother’s death. The daugher-in-law was glad, thought that her mother-in-law deserved it for all the suffering she had caused to herself (daughter-in-law).

This story describes the bad things that could happen to mothers-in-law who ill-treat their daughters-in-law. This story is a lesson for every mother-in-law in our society.

ii) The mother-in-law who became a donkey.

There was an old kaapu woman in a village. Her husband died and she was living with her son. She arranged his marriage with a young woman from the next village. After the daughter-in-law moved in, she wanted to get rid of the mother-in-law one way or the other. She told her husband, “Your mother is getting old. She has a good appetite but is no good with the chores around the house. You send her away or else I’ll go back to my mother’s house.”

The son was hurt by his wife’s remarks and he told his mother the entire story. His mother was a smart one. She told him to take her to the forest and leave her there. He found a place by a well, put up a hut for her and left her there. He also gave her provisions enough to last for a while. And then, returned home and told his wife that he had left his mother in the forest. His wife and her mother were happy. They both started ill-treating the son. The son took their abuse without complaint.

A war broke between the three gods, god of rain, god of fire and the god of wind. They were fighting to determine which one of them was the greatest. They saw the old woman in the forest and asked her the same question.

The old woman told them that all the three were very important for the world. They were happy to hear that response, and they blessed her with a life of a twelve-year old girl forever.

The son went to see his mother, found her to be young girl, and conveyed the same news to his wife. His wife wanted her mother also turn into a young girl, and so, asked him to leave her mother also in the forest. He did so.

The three gods came to her (wife’s mother) and asked the same question again. They became angry with her answer and cursed her to turn into a donkey. The son brought the donkey back to their home, and tied her to the pole in front of their house. The villagers suggested that it was appropriate only for washermen to have a donkey in front of their house but not a kaapu person. Then he sold the donkey to a washerman.

The message in this story is that good befalls those people who live examplary lives and uphold the path of truth and dharma. On the other hand, those who follow the path of evil will come to their downfall as is evident from the wife’s greed and the unfounded wish for her mother’s transformation as a young girl, which resulted in the woman turning into a donkey. In this story, the son’s devotion to his mother and the plausible attitude towards his mother are also portrayed well. Some incidents in the story appear to be far-fetched but they are necessary to convey the message of common good. Also, this story includes two mothers-in-law, one portraying the admirable qualities in a woman and the other suggesting that greed is inappropriate for a woman.

iii) Mother-in-law’s statue.

A mother was living with her son in a village. After the son came of age, she married him to a girl from the neighborhood village and brought her home. The daughter-in-law was very obedient, was always seeking her mother-in-law’s permission for everything. After her mother-in-law died, she could not live alone and told her husband so. Her husband made a statue of his mother and gave it to his wife, and told her to consider it as her mother-in-law. The wife was happy. One day, she wanted to go to the village fair in the neighborhood village and as usual she asked the statue for permission. She did not get any response from the wooden statue, and so she took it along with her. On the way, she saw a Hanuman temple. She left the statue by the temple and went to the fair. People passing by saw the statue, mistook it for a goddess, and left gifts by the statue. The daughter-in-law returned from the fair, saw the money, and she returned home with the money cheerfully.

Next day, the entire village came to know that the wooden mother-in-law went to the fair and brought plenty of grains and money.

The next day, the daughter-in-law went to the fair again and did not return until it was very late. Therefore she decided to stay in the temple for the night. That night a few robbers came to the temple for disbursing their loot among themselves. The daughter-in-law was scared and cried and called out for her mother-in-law. The robbers thought that the statue might be sanctified with some mantra and gave it a part of their loot. The woman took the money, came home and told her husband about the money.

Her neighbor heard about it and asked her husband also to make a similar statue for him. Then, she went to the fair, and spent that night on a tree with the statue. She saw the robbers who were sitting under the tree, got scared and dropped the statue. The robbers saw her, became angry for dropping the statue on them, beat her up and robbed her of her possessions.

In this story, one daughter-in-law proved her love for her mother-in-law whereas the second daughter-in-law was greedy, wanted to earn money by unfair means, and lost everything in the process. We also find comparable mother-in-law characters in the stories such as etthuki pai etthu, and illarikam alludu. These stories highlight folk woman’s psychology through the mother-in-law characters.


2. Daughter-in-law in folktales.

Let us review woman’s position as depicted in the daughters-in-law character in folktales.

i.  Smart daughter-in-law.

A father performed his only son’s marriage with a young woman from a neighborhood village. His father however was not happy. He thought that the woman was not taking good care of his son and so decided to test her intentions. The woman failed the test and was sent away to her mother’s home. Now the father and son were alone again. Father decided to teach his son a few tricks of his trade. He gave a sack of sesame seeds and told him to sell in it in the next village fair.

The son asked him, “At what rate?”

Father said, “Use the same measure to sell the sesame seeds as to buy the oil.”

“You mean cup for cup,” he said and went to the fair and sat down to sell his goods.

A smart woman came to him, and used an item as a measure which could hold plenty of sesame seeds but not oil. Father was impressed with her brains and made her his daughter-in-law. After that, he handed over the jewelry business to his son. The son went and gambled away all the jewelry to a woman and became her slave per terms.

His wife came to know about it, put on man’s clothes, hid two rats in her pocket, and went to the other woman’s house and challenged her to gamble with her. While the game was going on, the wife let the rats out slyly. The gambler-woman’s cat ran after the rats creating a commotion. The lamp went off, and the gambler lost in the game. She had to let go of all the men in her custody.

Thus, the wife saved her husband and brought him home. The father was convinced that his daguhter-in-law was smart and capable, and handed over the family matters to them, son and daughter-in-law.

The message in this story is a smart woman is always patient, clever, courageous, and also capable of taking on any challenge. The story also depicts a folk woman as a strong character, despite her lack of education, and capable of running the family; she is up to any challenge.

ii) What kind of authority a daughter-in-law has?

Neelamma was walking on the road hiding her hands behind her saree palloo.

Sangamma saw her and asked her wherefrom she was coming.

Neelamma said, “I am coming from your home to borrow buttermilk.”

Sangamma asked, “What happened there?”

Neelamma said warily, “I don’t know. Your daughter-in-law said it was not ready yet.”

“What right does she have to say that, let’s find out. You come with me,” Sangamma said.

Neelamma followed her to their home. As they approached the house, Neelamma stopped at the porch steps.

Sangamma said, “Come in. Did you bring a dish for the buttermilk?” So saying, she took the dish from Neelamma and went into the kitchen and returned.

Neelamma was about to thank her kindness and say, “May god bless you and your family for umpteen years.”

Before she could open her mouth, Sangamma said, “Here’s your dish. The buttermilk is not ready yet,” and handed her the empty dish.

Neelamma was disappointed and left, telling herself, “I’ve heard it before, that was true.”

Mother-in-law believed that the daughter-in-law had no right to say even the obvious, that the buttermilk was not done yet. This story is realistic and a good example of everyday events in our homes.

iii)  Your actions may not always yield the results you have hoped for.

In the following story, we find a folk woman in the character of a daughter-in-law, who would not accept her mother-in-law’s dominance.

A mother got her son married and brought the daughter-in-law home. From the minute the daughter-in-law set foot in the home, the two women were wrangling with each other. The young woman wanted to get rid her mother-in-law with the help of her husband.

One day her mother came to see her. After supper, they all went to sleep. The mother noticed her daughter-in-law’s evil thoughts and was watching her. The young woman (daughter-in-law) tied a rug to her mother-in-law’s foot, and told her husband to take the woman in the rug and throw her in the river.

In the meantime the mother-in-law untied the rug from her foot and tied it to the foot of the daughter-in-law’s mother. Unaware of this swap, the son wrapped up the woman, from whose foot the rug was hanging, took her out and threw her in the river. Both husband and wife were happy that their problem had been resolved.

They returned home and saw the mother sweeping the front yard. The son was surprised to see his mother. He could not figure out what had happened.

This kind of stories illustrates that if one tries to hurt someone out of malice, he or she could end of losing one of her own. The story also conveys the message that negative thoughts like anger and jealousy, which are so common in women, can be destructive to one’s own life. Mother’s character illustrates qualities like worldly wisdom, cleverness, and timely action in folk women.

iv) Settling the score:

A mother-in-law decided to kill her daughter-in-law and told her son about her plan. The son agreed and told her to carry out the plan herself.

The mother-in-law got angrier and decided to burn the daughter-in-law alive and the son agreed to that too.

She set up the pyre in the graveyard and laid the daughter-in-law on the pyre. She forgot to bring matchbox and so returned home to fetch it. In the meantime, the son felt sorry for his wife, untied her, and told her to climb a tree and abide her time. In her place, she put a rock, and covered it with a sheet. His mother returned with matchbox, set fire to the pyre and, they both left.

A few robbers came there to share their loot and sat under the tree on which the wife was hiding. They heard the rustle from the top of the tree, were scared that it might be a ghost and ran away leaving their stolen goods. The wife came down, took all the money and returned home. Her mother-in-law saw her, was scared at first mistaking her for a ghost. The young woman said that she in fact had died, gone to the heaven and found her father-in-law there. she said he had given her the money and jewelry for their use, and promised more after they had been used up.

The mother-in-law believed her story, decided to go to the heaven herself and bring all the money her husband had. She went to the graveyard, set up a pyre, and set herself afire and died in the flames.

Thus the mother-in-law’s greed led to her own death.


3) Woman in folktales.

In today’s world, women appear on the surface to have achieved progress in all fields, including positions in legislature. Yet several women are being driven to suicides and deaths arising from disagreement over dowry amounts. The reason for such atrocities is woman herself; one woman is the adversary of another. The second reason is in our country we still have parents who consider “being born as a woman” is a curse. I think it is despicable that a mother should despise her own daughter, and set different standards for sons and daughters. It is also reprehensible that, on one hand, woman is respected for all appearances, and at the same time allow the conditions demeaning to women to exist. In today’s society it is a reality, and the same conditions are reflected in folktales as may be seen. The folktales, passed on to us as fiction, do clearly illustrate the dominance of men over women in those days. Let us review some of such stories. Stories such as Mynavati, Abheda, Four daughters, Pativrata Sangamma, and Daughter of a thief are cases in point.

The story of Abheda goes as follows:

A couple had a son and a daughter, Abheda. In those days, religion, devotion, trust, and beliefs were deep-rooted and the folks gave in to those debilitating tenets and lived accordingly. They all believed that there were powers beyond the scope of humans, and people lived their lives anchored around those customs and beliefs.

Abheda’s parents were told that a single daughter would bring bad luck to the family, and so, they left her with a drifter and went away. Abheda grew up, submerged herself in a life filled with pujas and bhajans. This went on for twelve years. The drifter noticed that Abheda’s way of life would do no good to her and so he sent word to her parents.

Her brother came and convinced her to go with him to a forest. In the forest he tried to kill her but could not. He left her there alone and went away.

Abheda stayed under the tree and continued her meditation. In course of time, a sandhill formed around her. A king passing by heard her bhajans and had the sandhill dug up. He found Abheda and married her.

The point is although her parents had left her as an ill-fated woman, she got married to a king because she was blessed.

The next story about a king who was about to beat up his wife:

A king saw a young woman and noticed that she was very smart. He put her to a test. He put a jasmine garland around her neck, told her that that she should dig up a tunnel and a well, grow a garden of coriander and fenugreek. He said all this should be done before he returned and before the garland in her neck withered. The young woman agreed.

She dug up the tunnel and well. And then, she put on man’s clothes and went in to the city. She heard that the princess proclaimed that she would marry a man who could make a horse walk on the water. The woman took up the challenge and succeeded in making the horse walk on water. According to the condition, the princess was supposed to marry the man. However, since the woman was not a man, she got the princess married to a sword, per custom, and returned to the king’s palace. There she danced in the court, and spent two days with the king. She took a ring and a sheet from the king as tokens of her being there and returned to her place.

The king returned to her place and was surprised to see that the woman had completed her assignment. However he was not sure the child was his; he was about to beat her up for lying. The woman produced the ring and the sheet she had obtained from him. The king was impressed with her ingenuity and took her to his palace.

This story once again proves that women in folktales were depicted as intelligent, courageous, and capable of carrying out their mission.

In a vast majority of folktales, we see importance given to woman and her conditions. Some stories depict woman as inferior to man. Folk women, even though illiterate, are portrayed as perceptiive of their social and familial conditions and shared their experiences with each other through stories and songs. Folk women believed in religious traditions, worshipped village goddesses, and were keenly drawn in to irrational beliefs and customs.

In addition, they were also afraid that, if they had not followed tradition, bad luck would befall them. Some of the stories such as maaruti kuuthuru  and Padmavati’s story indicate that not only they showed shrewdness in resolving their problems, but they also showed enormous amount of patience. But for a few stories which depicted women as capable of heroic deeds, most of the stories depicted the woman’s position as inferior to that of man.




(Paper presented at the National Conference on Folk literature at Osmania University, Hyderabad, November 2000, and included in the anthology of essays, Vyasa jyothsna, by Dr. Saratjyothsna Rani, 2002.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and published on thulika.net, October 2006.)


[1] Cheap liquor made of palmyra sap.

[i] The proverb appears to have its origins in dasakumara charitra. Since most of the stories had originated in the town of Kanchi, it had become common to end the story with the line that it went back to Kanchi. Possibly, it was also the time when poeple would gather under a tree and listern to the stories and then return homes..

[ii] A proverb implying stories are not often logical.

Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari: A Distinguished Scholar by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the post-colonial Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari stands out as an exceptional scholar, poet, researcher, speaker, and academic. There are very few women who have attained the stature of scholarship as Krishnakumari in modern day Andhra Pradesh.

Nayani Krishnakumari was born in Guntur in 1930. She is the eldest daughter of Nayani Subba Rao, a reputed poet and historian, and mother Hanumayamma. She has four siblings (one brother and three sisters. The brother passed away in 1968).

Krishnakumari did most of her schooling in Narasaraopet except the one year in Srikakulam. In Guntur, she finished Intermediate in flying colors. Originally she thought of going into medicine but did not pursue though. Instead, she went to Andhra University, Visakhapatnam in pursuit of Telugu literature studies.

The three years, 1948-51, in Visakhapatnam, played a decisive role in her life and literary pursuits. There, she met several writers, poets and scholars, and participated actively in many literary and cultural events. She was the first woman in Andhra University to act and direct a play in 1948, wrote his close friend Antati Narasimham, whom Krishnakumari addresses fondly as annayya [older brother]. During that time, Narasimham and a few other students were running a hand-written monthly magazine called azad hind. Narasimham saw one of Krishnakumari’s early poems, brundagaanam [group song], was impressed by the poem and her handwriting, and invited Krishnakumari to be the scribe for the magazine. Her poem, visakha naa neccheli [Visakha, my Best Friend], written in 1977, speaks of the special place she holds in her heart for the city.

Krishnakumari married Canakapalli Madhusudana Rao, a distant relative and polite young man and choice bridegroom of both the families. He is a lawyer by profession. They have three children—one daughter and two sons. Regarding her marriage, her friend Narasimham has an interesting story to tell. Being a vocal advocate of inter-caste marriages, he told Krishnakumari to have an inter-caste marriage. Krishnakumari replied that she would not mind but she preferred to marry per wishes of her and the young man’s family.

Narasimham has mentioned in the same article that Krishnakumari believes that the caste system is vocation-based, despite her education. Regarding he personality, Narasimham writes that she is good-natured, respects all–young and old, the famous and the ordinary alike. She has taken after her father as much in character as in physical traits.

Krishnakumari’s father, Nayani Subba Rao, was an esteemed poet and historian, which might have contributed to her interest in the cultural and literary history of Telugu people. While she was studying B.A. (Honors.), she took a course on the History of Andhra Pradesh and she noted down the lessons after each class. These notes were published as a series of articles in a popular magazine, Andhra Prabha, and later as a book entitled Andhrula katha [The Andhra People’s story]. The book was prescribed as a textbook in schools—an attestation of her writing skills. She was just 18 years-old at the time.

Krishnakumari has always been surrounded by caring family members and literary stalwarts of her time. Impressed by her poetry written at a very early age, Jnanapeeth awardee, Kavisamrat Viswanatha Satyanarayana nurtured her as he would his own daughter. She used to call him as pedananna [father’s older brother.

Krishnakumari originally began working on Tikkana’s use of language for her Ph.D. dissertation but never finished it. Later, with a little nudge from her husband Madhusudana Rao and friend Antati Narasimham, she worked on the ballads in folklore and received her Ph.D. in 1970. She also has master’s degree in Sanskrit.

In 1951, Krishnakumari started her teaching career as Lecturer in Ethiraja College in Madras. The following year, in 1952, she moved to Osmania University Women’s College in Hyderabad, where she started as Lecturer, became Reader in 1967, and later Professor in 1983. She served as Principal of Padmavathi Mahila University, Tirupati, for one year, 1983-84, and returned to Osmania University as Head of the Department of Telugu. She retired in 1990 after serving as Chair of the Board of Studies in Osmania University for three years. Krishnakumari served as Vice Chancellor of Sri Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, from 1996 to 1999. Currently, she is professor emeritus at Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University.

Marking her sixtieth birthday and retirement, several scholars and the elite in Andhra Pradesh honored Krishnakumari as an esteemed scholar in modern Telugu literature. The festschriften volume, vidushi, features several articles from eminent scholars. (It has been a useful source fir this article).

Krishnakumari has participated in numerous conferences, seminars, organized writers’ conferences and traveled extensively in India and abroad. She has served on reputable literary and progressive organizations in various capacities. By 1990, the list of her accomplishments extending over a period of 38 years is six-page long according to the festschriften volume. (Email me for a copy of the list).

Krishnakumari is a recipient of several prestigious awards such as Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam, Best Woman Writer of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, Best Writer from Telugu University, and Telugu University Award in the best Literature produced by women.

Krishnakumari is a pioneer in the fields of Folklore and women’s literature. She entered the field at a time when even male scholars were scarce in the study of folklore. Only a few names such as Biruduraju Ramaraju, Nedunuri Gangadharam and Hari Adiseshu were known at the time.

While she was professor, Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Krishnakumari prepared the syllabus for M.A. in folklore. It was later published as telugu janapada vijnanam: samaajam, samskruti, sahityam. The book includes several chapters by several scholars in folklore with topics for discussion and further research. It could serve as a model or a valuable tool for students looking for guidance in the field.

Under her guidance, a total of twenty students worked for their M.Phil. and Doctoral degrees. One of her students, Pulikonda Subbachari, mentioned that, “students consider it a blessing to have her as their guide. … With her dissertation, the scientific study of Telugu folklore took a new turn. The elite agree that she broke the ground and laid the path by shifting the research methodology from the descriptive mode to the analytical mode.” It would appear that the research in folklore has been conducted in three phases: In the first phase, the characteristics of a specific aspect of the folklore are identified and defined; In the second phase, scholars accepted it as literature only half-heartedly or condescendingly; and, in the third phase, scholars started to recognize it as a form of literature that needs to be studied with a different set of rules. Krishnakumari laid the path for this third phase. In her own research, she adopted the same method she had established as the best for our folklore, which belongs to anthropological school.

In fieldwork, she welcomes the methodology of the western scholars but does not encourage accepting it in its entirety or without questioning. She differs especially in regard to the contextual data collection. In collecting and presenting data, Krishnakumari says that the scholars must make a distinction between the material needed for native scholars and the western scholars. Presumably, there are details that need to be furnished to those who are not familiar with our culture.

Krishnakumari puts greater emphasis on field work as opposed to reading published works, “armchair research” as she puts it. In gathering data, advises students to focus on meta-folklore—the concepts underlying the words the folks speak. It is important for the researcher to ask questions tactfully and draw the causal beliefs and convictions of the subjects.

Her students speak fondly of her. She is not just a guide who walks them through to their degrees but is also a good friend and mentor.

One of her students, Ravi Premalatha, commented that, “Usually researchers pick one topic from several established categories such as collecting data, classification, analysis, comparative studies, and construction for their study but Krishnakumari has worked in all these areas and proved her multifarious talent.” (vidushi. p.25.).

Premalatha continued to say that Krishnakumari applied the straight line equation from mathematics to the storytelling methods in folklore and proved her unparallel talent. This is a new experiment in the studies of folklore in Telugu literature and a mark of Krishnakumari’s knowledge of mathematics and her erudition in research methodologies.

Krishnakumari’s articles on Telugu people’s customs, lifestyles, and culture also attest to her comprehension and knowledge in the areas in question.

Krishnakumari publications include two anthologies of her poetry Agniputri [Daughter of Fire, 1978] and Em cheppanu nestam! [What Can I Say, My Friend!, 1988]; history books: Andhrula katha [The Story of Andhra People], and telugu bhasha charitra [History of Telugu language], ; two collections of short stories: Ayaatha (A Collection of short stories), Gautami (novel), manamuu, mana puurvulu [We and Our Ancestors], Aparajita (A collaborative novel with three other writers), pariseelana [An Anthology of reviews], parisodhana [A Collection of research papers], kashmira deepakalika (A travelogue, recounting her experiences of a tour in Kashmir with a group of students), and Telugu Janapada geya gaathalu (Ph.D. dissertation on ballads in Telugu folklore) and several others. To date, she has published about 20 books.

Krishnakumari’s publications do not speak sufficiently of her erudition. And that does not bother her. Mr. Narasimham mentioned a brief conversation he had with her regarding the paucity of her publications and suggested that she should spend less time on speeches in schools and colleges and more on writing and publishing. Krishnakumari replied, “These students spend so much time and energy on organizing these events. It is not fair for us to take a ‘high and mighty’ attitude and snub them.”

Her views on poetry are well recorded in her foreword to her book, agniputri. Therein, Krishnakumari stated not only her reasons for writing poetry but also for writing her own preface. Krishnakumari believes that works by a writer possess insights only the writer can explain. As an example, she remembers her own study of Tikkana’s usage of language and the moments she wished the poet was here to explain. It is not uncommon for a critic to misconstrue or misinterpret the original author’s message, she adds.

Krishnakumari believes that it is important that the reader be aware of the author’s echelon of the psyche, confidence, empathy, and discipline. Readers’ awareness of the measures the author uses for evaluating the good and the bad, the light and the shadows and the author’s perceptions through his experiences– they all contribute towards the reader’s appreciation of the poetry on hand.  She speaks from the heart and in no uncertain terms. For her, poetry is a means to express oneself, it must be sincere. In her preface, she took a jab at the writers who just in a corner in their rooms and write provocatively. She is a person of action.

Krishnakumari also says she is not writing for fame or fortune. She writes only when she is inspired. Speaking of inspiration, mention must be made of two poems, intensely personal. First one was written when her mother had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Sridevi, a good of friend of Krishnakumari, saved her mother’s life. Second was the title of her second book, em cheppanu nestam. which was written at the time when the same friend, Sridevi passed away. The two poems are even more touching for the fact that one incident brought them together and the second tore them apart. Krishnakumari was shaken both times. The two poems eloquently describe the heartrending pain she had sustained.

Krishnakumari is a protester without labels. She welcomes change but not like a militant rebel. She believes in the kind of change which penetrates deep into the lives of people unobtrusively. She likens the change to a seasoned housewife who defies the world without a bang and takes care of her family with inimitable dexterity.

Krishnakumari wrote only about a dozen or so. Some of them were published as a collection entitled ayatha.[1]  The stories reflect her personality and attitude towards family and society. In stories like ayatha, kavigari bharya, pushpalata tecchina kakarakaayalu, the author illustrates the endearing relationship between a husband and his wife. The stories also identify the finer details in the interaction between cousins[2] (children of a brother and sister.). In kavigari bharya, the wife addresses husband as nuvvu [informal singular] when she feels close to him and meeru [formal, respectful] when she is displeased.

In literature, her travelogue, kashmira deepakalika, is unique for its style. It is an account of her experiences, her response to the beauty of nature in the Kashmir valley, during a tour she had undertaken with a group of her students. Chekuri Rama Rao, a reputable critic and scholar, stated that the book, unlike usual travelogues, is a literary masterpiece brimming with poetry.[3] (See the article on Krishna Kumari’s poetry by Vaidehi Sasidhar).

Krishnakumari traces the history of oral literature in her book, janapada vanjmayam. Some of the premises in the book are:

1. The oral tradition existed from times immemorial. Rhythm is inherent along with sound in all the entities in nature. In course of time, man might have developed the dance technique in an attempt to give form to the sound and rhythm. It is hard to establish when the story element was woven into the folk art.

2. There are no definitive answers for questions such as “What did he accomplish by incorporating storyline into his singing and dancing. Psychologists profess that man’s unfulfilled desires manifest themselves as fulfilled dreams in art. For instance, a poor man may write about riches, and a feeble person may write stories about courageous heroes. In every art form, we can see the elements of lifestyles of the primitive man. Probably this is one of instances of the level of sophistication of the primitive man.

3. In this [folk] literature, music was secondary; the general populace enjoyed the presentation by watching the physical gestures, facial expressions, and the skilful rendering. Probably, it was the dramatization and musical quality that shaped into an attractive art form.

4. The masses appreciated this form for their own reasons. But there is a need for scholars to study it for a different reason. It is not fair to dismiss this art as free verse, some cock-and-bull stories fabricated by simple folks, and they are devoid of linguistic merit. This literature, studied in the appropriate manner, will no doubt reveal numerous aspects that could contribute to the understanding of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, ethnology, and mythology.

5. It is also important to evaluate the variance between the folk literature and the traditional [elitist] literature.

6. The characteristics of folk literature are: 1. Unknown authorship; 2. Untraceable timeline; 3. Spontaneous evolution from circumstances and out of necessity; 4. Most of it has musical quality and lends itself to gestures; 5. It is not correlated to contemporary scholarship and its conventions; and, 6. It is disseminated exclusively orally and would accept changes and additions freely.

7. The folk literature can be divided into two groups as [1]1 with and [2] without storyline. From a different perspective it can also be classified as melodic or pure text without melody. In all these cases, the folk literature includes children’s stories usually told by grandmas at home—tales of puranas handed down from generation to generation, parables, moral stories, fantasies and ballads singing praise of national heroes. Riddles also fall into this category not because there is a story but they are interesting for the charming imagination that is spread around in a question-answer format.

8. The melody-based folk literature is classified in several ways such as caste-basted, calling-based, or deep-rooted in religion.

9. The religion of the simple folks seems to have evolved from the values dictated by ancient matriarchal society. Various Mother Goddesses in villages were the source of power for people’s religious beliefs. They were also the springboard for practices like self-immolation, sacrifice, and sorcery. So also the women’s traditions in which women wielded powers, sacrificed their lives and became minor goddesses [perantrandru]. In course of time, the women’s songs at weddings and other rituals also became important parts of the same oral tradition.

I quoted the text at length in order to emphasize the work of Krishnakumari in the field of Folk Literature. Krishnakumari devoted major part of her literary career to collecting the material and studying, organizing the data and publishing them.

An important work of Krishnakumari is her Ph.D. dissertation Telugu Janapada Geya gaathalu, [Telugu ballads]. In this dissertation, published in 1977, Krishnakumari discussed elaborately the origin and the development of Telugu ballads in the context of Telugu folk literature. She identified the folk literature as a separate and valuable part of our literatures, compared it to similar literatures in other cultures and countries, and produced a systematic classification chart of ethnology, ethnography and sociology. Further, she has shown how other branches such as songs and stories included physical gestures and other theatrical paraphernalia in course of time. In this, she also noted that the inclusion of terminology from other languages happened with educated singers of the ballads.

Other chapters include the story elements in the folk songs and ballads, hero-worship, and the linguistic aspects. About seventy ballads she had collected across Andhra Pradesh, from Visakhapatnam to Nellore and Kurnool, vouch for her hard work, particularly when we remember that it was a time when the tape recorders had not come into vogue yet. The glossary at the end of the chapter must be valuable for researchers in the field of folklore.

Krishnakumari believes that the folklore must not be dismissed as the creation of a group of primitive people and thus lacks the skills of the elite. She has postulated powerfully that their folk songs and performances provide us with insights into the civilization of ancient times, a great tool for understanding the evolution of our customs, traditions, and immensely useful in the studies of ethnology, ethnography, religion and sociology.

In her article on the construction of idiom in folklore, Krishnakumari discusses the metamorphosis of language in folklore and the logic underlying such metamorphosis. Incidentally, she discusses the growth of Telugu language as a result of acquiring words from other languages and normalizing into Telugu vocabulary. She adds that Telugu is basically descriptive language. Arguably, we may obtain words from other languages because of the expansion of knowledge base, yet it is equally viable to coin new words from the available vocabulary we have, she insists. For example, aayakaram or varumaanam may be used for income tax and aDDu or taakaTTu for mortgage and so on. Krishnakumari insists that we must stop promoting the argument that we do not have correct words in our language. Developing a comprehensive dictionary of the entire literature of Telugu folklore must be undertaken first, she proposes.[4]

In an interview with Vanita monthly, Krishnakumari expressed her opinions on current day writing by women. In response to the question that most of today’s women writers are being criticized as “not reflecting reality, and advocating escapism,” Krishnakumari remarked, “That criticism is not too far from truth. For women writers, social consciousness is important. Whatever issue they choose write about, they should first think well, examine it from a scientific perspective, and write the story using their imagination and tell it in a captivating manner. To be able to do that, one must have detailed and scrutinizing outlook, real life experience, and creative skill. When those are in short supply, every small thing becomes an issue and a theme for the story. Many women writers are writing stories, with only numbers in mind, and, without a proper understanding of life, without thinking ‘what issue is and what is not’. They are writing without the logical basis of ‘how that issue had taken shape and what solution could be offered’. That is what rendering their writings poor and themselves the target for such criticism. Those writings only hurt the society, not help.”[5]

Basically, Krishnakumari believes that the feminists at present are not delving deep into the underlying problems of the society. They need to scrutinize the issues and find solutions; there is no point in blaming individuals.

A critical review of Dr. Nayani Krishnakurmari’s poetry by Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar, is available at https://thulika.net/2008June/nkkpoetry.html.


Published originally on thulika.net, April 2008.

Source List:

Krishnakumari, Nayani. agniputri. Hyderabad: Author. 1978

ayaathaa. A Collection of short stories.

em cheppanu nestam. Hyderabad: Author. 1988

pariseelana. Hyderabd: Author, 1977

parisodhana. Hyderabad: Andhra Saraswata parishad, 1979.

telugu janapada vijnanam: society, culture and literature. Hyderabad: Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, 2000

Krishnakumari, Nayani. Ed.  jaanapada saraswati. Hyderabad: janapada sahitya parishat, 1996.

Narasimham, Antati. “vinaya vijnana seeli Krishnakumari”. Hyderabad: Nayani Krishnakumari Sanmana sanchika. 1990. pp.12-24.

Ramaraju, Biruduraju. and Krishnakumari, Nayani. Eds. janapada vanjmaya charitra.

Vidushi: Nayani Krishnakumari sanmaana sanchika. Ed. Chekuri Rama Rao. Hyderabad. 1990.


[1] I translated one of her stories, cheemalu [Ants], which is not from either of the anthologies, and included in my anthology, A Spectrum of My People, published by Jaico, 2006.

[2] In Andhra Pradesh, marriage between children of different genders—a brother and a sister—is permissible while between children of the same gender (brothers or sisters) is not.

[3] Rama Rao, Chekuri. “kashmira deepakalika yaatraacaritra kaadu: vachana kavitvaaniki rasagulika..” vishushi. pp. 55-56.

[4] janapadabhasha – padanirmaanam. janapada Saraswati. pp.1-8.

[5] vidushi. goshti with vanita monthly. p.31.


(© Nidadavolu Malathi, originally a shorter version has been published on  this article in www.museindia.com, and this comprehensive version has been published on thulika.net, April 2008).