Tag Archives: Telugu poets

Atukuri Molla by Nidadavolu Malathi

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 style.  Especially, in describing Saketapuram, Molla shows extraordinary flair in several ways with her use of double entendre and metaphors. Her style is fascinating to all readers because of the sweet resonating words and her imagination. … She is also highly skilled in maintaining propriety.” (Andhra Vanjmaya Charitra. p. 59-60).

Regarding poetic propriety, however, Andra Seshagiri Rao seems to hold a slightly different view. He comments that Molla has followed the tradition of male poets in not only describing women in her kavya but also referring to 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.

Source list:

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

kutilavartanaseshakulamu gaadu

aahavorveejayaharinivaasamu gaani

keesasamutkaraankitamu gaadu

sundarasyandanamandiram bagugaani

santatamanjulaasrayamu gaadu

mohanaganikaasamoohageyamu gaani

yoodhikaanikarasamyutamu gaadu

 gi.  sarasa satpunyajananivaasamu gaani

      kathinanirdayadaityasanghammu gaadu

      kaadu kaadani koniyaada galiginatti

      puravaaragrammu Saketapuravarammu.

[i]  Name of a sage, identifying the family’s lineage.

Nidudavolu Venkatarao: A Walking Encyclopedia by Nidadavolu Malathi

Vidyaratna, Kalaprapoorna Nidudavolu Venkatarao  (3 January 1903 – 15 October 1982) was a poet, scholar, and a literary historian with extraordinary flair. His contemporaries called him jangama vijnana sarvaswamu, a moving encyclopedia because of his extensive knowledge of classics in several languages and exceptional memory power [dharana]. He was able to quote on the spot from any text anytime. He was born on 3 January 1903 in Vizianagaram. He was the fourth child and the first son, and as such, he was raised fondly by his parents, Sundaram Pantulu and Jogamma.

The Nidudavolu lineage was known for rich scholarly tradition. His father, Sundaram Pantulu was a staunch follower of Saivite traditions, avid reader, and collector of classics in Telugu and Sanskrit. Later the collection was donated to Madras University, which was later came to be known as the famous Madras Oriental Library. His mother Jogamma was eloquent storyteller. Anytime someone asked about something, she would go into a torrential narration of stories.

Early in life, Venkatarao had the ideal atmosphere to become well-versed in Telugu and Sanskrit classics. He never read a book just to claim he had read it, and never forgot what he had read. Additionally, he had the extraordinary capability to remember whatever he had read, which was useful in his scholastic pursuits. “There is no book he had not read, and no book he had not read totally immersed in it. He is the global torchlight that could show what is available in any corner (in literature),” commented Tirumala Ramachandra (as quoted by Nistala. Pariseelana. ). His zeal to gather information and record it for posterity set new standards in Telugu literature.

Even in his childhood days, Venkatarao used to compose poetry and sing at meetings and literary gatherings in his enchanting voice. In his later years, he continued to go to meetings, recite the invocation and read his poems. And he always recite the invocation in both Sanskrit and in Telugu. His language skills in English and other Indian languages were remarkable. His English was equally appreciated by the elite in his time.

Venkatarao attended high school and Intermediate (two-year, pre-degree course) in Visakhapatnam. Later he attended Maharaja College in Vizianagaram and obtained his Bachelor’s degree in 1925. Because of financial constraints, he could not pursue further studies. He joined the Imperial Bank (now State Bank of India) as a clerk in 1926, which he held until 1939.

He was married to Jogamma while he was in Kakinada and the couple had five sons and two daughters. His first son, Sundareswara Rao followed his father in scholastic pursuits became a well-respected scholar. Venkatarao’s wife passed away in 1949.

Venkatarao left his job at the Imperial bank in 1940 and went to Madras to obtain his master’s degree. In 1942, he returned to Kakinada where he worked as Telugu lecturer for one year and then went back to Madras University where he started as a junior lecturer at Madras University and continued until he retired as the Head of the Telugu department in 1964. “I had to retire, although I could work five more years,” said Venkatarao, which seems to imply he was forced to retire.

During this period, however, Venkatarao surprised his audience with his scholarship, critical insights, and his unequaled retention power. He was often referred to as ekasanthaagraahi, meaning he could remember anything he had heard just once. At one time, it seems, a friend asked him about a word in vijayavilasam by Chemakura Venkata kavi, and Venkatarao, standing under a tree, recited the entire text. C.S. Rao, writer, actor and movie director called his was a computer brain, and not without merit. ( letter dated 5 January 1985, as quoted by Dr. Nistala.).

Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao studied the works of Nidudavolu Venkatarao for his M.Phil. degree and later Ph.D. He discussed the monumental work of Nidudavolu Venkatarao and his massive contribution to Telugu literature in great detail in his book, Nidudavolu Venkatarao –A Pariseelana. [Nidudavolu Venkatarao – A Study]

A brief note is in order here. Since the names of the two authors—the subject of this article and the researcher are the same and even the initial letter in their surnames is the same, I am referring to the researcher, Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao as Nistala, and Nidudavolu Venkatarao as Venkatarao. And, Nistala’s book as Pariseelana.

Further, my surname is also Nidadavolu. Venkatarao garu and my father were first cousins (children of two brothers). There is however a small difference, a variation in the spellings of the surnames. Venkatarao garu always spelled his surname as Nidudavolu (with ‘u’ in the second syllable) whereas in my family it has always been Nidadavolu. In this article, I kept the spelling Venkatarao had used for his name.

During his job at the Imperial bank, he was invited to work on a dictionary project, which brought his retention skills to light. As the story goes, the Pithapuram Raja Suryarao Bahaddur was reading the Kumarasabhavam kavya and needed the help of a scholar knowledgeable in Saivite literature. Somebody suggested Venkatarao’s name and the Pithapuram Raja sent for him. Eventually, that led Venkatarao to become a compiler of a dictionary to be named after the Raja as Suryarayandhra Nighantuvu. Their friendship turned out to be a blessing for Venkatarao.

Speaking of his job at the bank, Venkatarao quipped, “I have moved from numbers to letters (literature) where as the people at the universities have shifted from letters to numbers [money]. (Pariseelana. Venkatarao in his response to the felicitation by Andhra Vijnana Samiti, Thyagaraja College, Chennai. p. 255).

In 1939, Venkatarao went to Madras, obtained his master’s degree, and returned to Kakinada to work as a lecturer in Kakinada College for a year, 1941-42. In the following year, he became a junior lecturer at Madras University. He got the job on a recommendation from the Pithapuram Raja. In 1947, Venkatarao became a senior lecturer, and later became a reader in 1959. Eventually, he became the Head of the Telugu department, and retired in 1964. Venkatarao stated that he could work for five more years but they made him retire. (Pariseelana. p. 257).

While working as a clerk at the bank, he produced an elaborate preface and annotations for the hitherto unknown book, Tripurantakodaharanam, and published it in 1935. The book won the Telugu Bhasha Samiti award. In his preface, Venkatarao had mentioned that he was instrumental in reviving the two-hundred year-old Udaaharana genre and introducing it to the Telugu people. After he moved to Madras, he wrote its complete, Udaaharana Vanjmaya Charitra [History of Udaaharana literature]. Several reputable scholars like Viswanatha Satyanarayana wrote verses in Udaaharana style after Venkatarao brought the genre to light.

From the very little I have understood, the Udaaharana poetry is a genre of poetry, written in praise of god, using all the seven cases of Telugu grammar. Since all verbs in Dravidian languages include case markings, it is only appropriate that all the case markings be included in praising the lord, Viswanatha Satyanarayana observed. By reviving the two-hundred year-old literary form, and discussing the genre elaborately in his book, Udaaharana vanjmayam, [Udaharana literature], Venkatarao rendered a notable service to Telugu literature in 1954.
He pursued his scholarly work in Saivite literature and produced two more works, which won a significant place in the history of Telugu literature. His major contribution in this volume is recognizing the authors of inscriptions as poets. Nistala commented that up until then, the authors of inscriptions were not taken into account in the annals of literary history. Venkatarao was the first literary historian to give them their due place in the history of Telugu literature (pariseelana. p. 69) and thus laid path to a new trend.

Venkatarao contributed to Telugu literature immensely by reviving, reinterpreting, and providing extensive commentaries on books in Saivaite literature. His major works in this area included editing Panditaraadhya Charitra by Mallikarjuna Panditaradhya, editing, providing elaborate annotations, and a commentary to Basava puranam, and sivatatthava saaram by Manchana. The amount of information he had given in each of these classics set a new record in the field of Telugu literature.

In his preface to his own work, Southern School of Telugu Literature, Venkatarao stated that the investigation of this subject was in itself new. Venkatarao noticed for the first that Telugu literature had flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries under the non-Telugu speaking Nayaka rulers in the South states of Tanjore, Madhurai, Pudukkotai, and Salem and also under Maratta rulers. It was even more interesting, since the people in these states did not speak Telugu. The rulers were obviously fascinated by the sweetness of the language and encouraged poets to write in Telugu. Venkatarao wrote his preface in English to this volume probably to facilitate reading, at least, the preface by the non-Telugu speaking readers. Not only literature but language also flourished during this period, he added. Some critics had commented on the non-standard usage of the language and said those poets were not knowledgeable in grammar. Venkatarao on the other hand, called it a natural development of the language, and commended those poets for their originality and usage of the native idiom. He also discussed the relationship of Telugu with other south Indian languages such as Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil, and went on to prove that congenial atmosphere between the people in South India during this period.

Another significant work was his history of Telugu poets, Southern School of Telugu Literature. Previously, Manavalli Ramakrishna kavi and Chaganti Seshayya had produced two books on the same subject. However, unlike other historians, Venkatarao included several writers other historians had not taken note of. Among them, the poets who had composed inscriptions were acknowledged as poets for the first time. Additionally, Venkatarao went on to a great length to find all the data for each author—his time, works, different versions of each work, in different languages if any, the origins of the text, and the textual variations, etc.

His work on prose literature, Andhra Vachana Vanjmayam originated from his lectures on prose literature. Sivalenka Sambhuprasad, editor of Bharati monthly, and other friends encouraged Venkatarao to develop his lectures as a book. Sambhuprasad promised to publish it under Andhra granthamala, (a subsidiary company of Bharati monthly magazine) banner.

In this book, Venkatarao, as his wont, had covered all the extant literature in the form of prose from early times to the most recent novels, short stories in the weekly and monthly magazines, radio speeches, etc.

Regarding the short stories in Telugu, Venkatarao wrote: “In Sanskrit literature, stories have a special place. Everybody is familiar with the opening line in Maha Bharata, ‘that story-teller said to other sages such as Saunaka.’ Pancatantra stories belong to Bharatadesam [India]. … All these stories were originally in Sanskrit. There is one special feature here. In Sanskrit, these texts are in the poetic form. There is no equivalent in Sanskrit for the Telugu word vacanam [prose]. They all are in the form of slokas. … thus, the stories in the early days were translations from Sanskrit in the form of poetry (e.g. Harsha charitra, Pancatantram, Kadambari) and were viewed as kavya literature. In Telugu literature, until the advent of modern period, the short story remained poetic in nature,” he said. (Andhra Vacanavanjmayamu pp.127-8).

To give an example of the extent of data he would include, I was surprised to see an explanation as to how the word komma [branch] came to mean “woman”. He said the word referred to a game women used to play in which one woman would attempt to touch other women with a branch and others would try to dodge it. Eventually, the word came to be used as equivalent to woman.

Commenting on modern prose literature, Venkatarao said that women ranked first among writers of fiction in modern times. He named Pulugurta Lakshmi Narasamamba as the first woman writer of fiction. Her novel, yogiswari, was published in 1927 by Andhra Pracharini Granthamala. In this period, Kovvali Lakshmi Narasimha Rao (known as Kovvali) made history by producing a record one thousand novels. “I had the honor of writing preface to his 1000th novel,” said Venkatarao.

In his preface to his own book, Pothana, Venkatarao discussed not only Pothana’s life and times, but also the beauty of the Telugu language, the reasons it had become so popular even among the illiterate, and went on to refute the popular myth that the Saivaites hated Lord Vishnu. He established with apt illustrations that the Saivaites did not reject the existence of Vishnu but portrayed him in their literatures as a devotee of Siva (Pothana. Avatarika, pp. 1-27)

In explaining the progression in Pothana’s life, he said Pothana was a riddle for many as he [Pothana] followed the Vira Maheswara tradition, supported devotion to Lord Vishnu and, in the end, achieved non-dualism for himself.

Venkatarao argued that this confusion was a reflection of the social conditions of his time and, partly, due to its misrepresentation in literature.

He commented Pothana’s Bhagavatam was the most popular classic, and among the scholars as well as the illiterate, there was not a single Telugu person who would not know, at least, a few poems from Bhagavatam. In support of his observation, he recounted the following story:

In a small village, one day the Bhagavatar [narrator] failed to show up on the stage. Then one villager from the audience stood and recited a poem from the Bhagavatam, mispronouncing the words, which changed the meaning.

The original text read, “Manu was the fourth among the kings.”

The text as recited by the villager read, “The man had a tongue that weighed one manugu.”

After that, another villager stood and recited the next line, “Even Kundina king in Vidarbha would have a tongue weighing one manugu”, apparently, continuing the story from the preceding line.

The correct line was “In Vidarbha, there was a combatant named Kundina.”

This narrative captured my attention particularly because of the way it was narrated by Venkatarao. Despite his reputation for being highly critical of errors, in this narration, Venkatarao appeared to be tolerant of mispronunciations and misuse of words [Pothana. Preface. p.3].

A contemporary scholar and friend, Ganti Suryanarayana Sastry, said, “You reside in the town of prefaces”, (Nistala. Pariseelana. p. 242). His scrupulous attention to detail, his ardor to cover a topic from all angles was evident in his prefaces to all the books he had written.

Just to give one example, his book, Sivatatthavasaaramu is 104 pages and Venkatarao’s preface to the book is 91 pages. In his preface, he had discussed the author’s time, social conditions, the main features of Saivite literature, grammar, and prosody in detail.

In his preface to Basava puranam by Palkuriki Somanatha, and his meticulous editing of the preface to Panditaraadhya Charitra, Venkatarao showed as much of his love of Saivite literature as his scholarship in editing and writing information-packed commentaries.

Venkatarao undertook the story of Southern School in Telugu Literature as a research project. In his preface, he stated, “The subject itself is a new field of investigation. The literature, which developed in the southern parts where Tamil is the spoken language. .. … It is a peculiar phenomenon that even the Maratha rulers of Tanjore have patronised [sic.] Telugu, which was neither their mother tongue nor that of the people who were under his sway.” (The original in English. Preface, p.1.)

One of his innovations was to introduce the inscriptions as literature in this volume on Southern School. Second, he quotes the features peculiar to South Andhra Literature as 1. Royal poets and non-Brahmin poets flourished greatly; 2. Female poets obtained special place in literature; 3. dwipada and Yakshagaana performances thrived; 4. Prose literature developed systematically; 5. Lyrics comprised of music and literary qualities received a new impetus; 6. Flaunting of unfettered, promiscuous expression in Prabhandas; 7.
Santvana Kavya rachana
[Appeasing the incensed heroine], 8. Nyakaabhyudaya Rachana [Heroic in praise of the kings]; 9. Udaaharana and historical writings; and, 10. Literatures of scientific disciplines.

Venkatarao added that not only literature but language also flourished during this period. “Some believe that some of these writings included grammatically incorrect words and those writers were not grammarians. In reality, the language in these works has presented itself as dynamic and capable of normal metamorphosis the same way as in the period of Saivite poets. Additionally, the language reflected the subtleties, nuance, and the usage prevalent in those times.”

Venkatarao’s major contributions in Saivaite literature were his exhaustive preface to Basava Puranam by Palkuriki Somanatha, his preface and extensive commentaries to Panditaradhya Charitra. In both the volumes, he discussed at length the Saivaite philosophy, their authorship, textual variations, usage of words, and so on.  

Criticisms and comments on works by other contemporary writers

Venkatarao was passionate about his work as a scholar. In that, he would not hesitate to comment on others’ work, sometimes, harshly, much to the chagrin of those writers. At times, the others did not take his comments too well and retorted in the same tone.

One of the stories caught my attention was an episode involving Venkatarao’s comments on Samagra Andhra Sahityam by Arudra. Personally, I have great regard for both Venkatarao and Arudra.

Nistala mentioned that Venkatarao criticized samagra Andhra sahityam [Comprehensive History of Telugu Literature] by Arudra, but did not give the exact comment. He however added that, “Samagra Andhra Sahityam has been written in simple language for general readers with average knowledge. The author, Arudra, was originally a poet, and later became an ardent researcher. Therefore, it is natural for errors to seep in. Venkatarao was a great scholar from the start. … It would have been better if he (Venkatarao) had given constructive criticism and encouraged the author [Arudra].”

Nistala continued to add that Arudra visited Venkatarao at his home, and Venkatarao said, addressing him [Arudra] as nayanaa amicably, and said, “We old people are silly at times. We may say things. You young people never mind us; you continue your serrvice to literature.” (pariseelana. p. 48).

Venkatarao was harsh in his criticism of others’ works. Dr. Nistala also gave a few other examples of Venkatarao’s abrasive comments and thereby his alienation from his contemporary writers, especially younger generation writers. For instance, Venkatarao, while working on his book, Dakshinandhra Vanjmayam, criticized Radhikasantvanam by S. V. Joga Rao and even forwarded his comments to the Vice Chancellor. Joga Rao, in retaliation, called Venkatarao’s Telugu Kavula Charitra [History of Telugu Poets] as Akhanda Depaaraadhana Kavula Charitra [History of poets like the eternal lamps], referring to a ritual of keeping a lamp alit incessantly. Probably, Joga Rao implied the work was ritualistic rather than scholarly. Additionally, he questioned Venkatarao’s reputation as a scholar and called his work, Daskhinadhra Sahityam, nothing but a “catalogue scholarship”.

Venkatarao was equally abrasive of scholarly articles as well in his criticism. His comments on Korlapati Srirama Murthy angered Srirama Murthy. In return, Sri Rama Murthy remarked Venkatarao “was not qualified to be a Head of the Telugu department.”

Probably Viswanatha Satyanarayana put it aptly when he said at a meeting, “God gave him [Venkatarao] infinite scholarship, but not pleasurable speech.” Sundareswara Rao, Venkatarao’s son, was quoted as saying that his father, “stayed so converged on literature as his ultimate goal that he alienated himself from society with his argumentative language in his criticisms.” (pariseelana. p.47).

As Nistala pointed out, Venkatarao did not show the same kind of sophistication in his comments as writing the original prefaces. His comments were not to be dismissed as biased though. Several of his comments had been very useful in revising the texts at the time of reprint, Nistala said.

Venkatarao had written thousands of articles, numerous valuable forewords, and delivered hundreds of speeches both on the air and in person, according to Dr. Nistala.

Venkatarao’s another contribution was in the field of usage of words known as prayogam in literature. The scholars in his day were not always receptive to his theory. Venkatarao insisted that the usage of words by poets should take precedence over grammar rules since it reflected the language of the general population, and thus, deserved to be credited. This was consistent with the vyaavaharika bhashodyamam (Movement to promote colloquial style in writing) and portrayed Venkatarao as a traditionalist, and a modernist, nonetheless. His contributions to Telugu literature went beyond the pale of traditional scholarship and reached out to humanity. Another example of his universal outlook was his enthusiasm to work on Christian literature much the same way as Saivite works and other Hindu texts.

Due to his erudition and nonconforming views, Venkatarao collected an impressive line of titles, some conferred ceremoniously, and others came through casual conversations. (Nistala. p.75-77)

The Vidyaratna award was conferred on him by Andhra Saraswata Parishat, Narasaraopet (date was not given).

Andhra University conferred the prestigious Kalaprapoorna title on him in 1970. The title was created by Dr. C.R. Reddy, Vice Chancellor, in 1927, to honor the scholars who had no formal doctoral degrees, but excelled in scholarship acquired through traditional learning.

1n 1976, he became an honorary member on the Sahitya Akademi Advisory Board.

The title Jangama vijnana sarvasvam [Walking Encyclopedia] was a descriptive phrase used with reference to his scholarship. It seems the term was used in a speech at a small village called Pedapudi, in Tenali taluq, and came to be used as a title in course of time. Notably, the word jangama refers to a section among Saivaites and Venkatarao had been an authority on Saivaite traditions and literature.

Another such title fortuitously acquired by Venkatarao was Prayoga mooshika marjaala, drawing on the imagery of a cat pouncing on the mouse snuck in a corner. It was not clear who used the phrase or when, but it was an apt one for him because of his painstaking effort to find usage of words in the extant texts.

Viswanatha Satyanarayana had great respect for Venkatarao. After he had received the prestigious Jnanapeeth award, he wrote a book, Andhra Dhaatukriya Manideepika [Dictionary of cases in grammar]. In this connection, Viswanatha Satyanarayana said he tried, but could not find the usage for a word manasainadi [‘Setting one’s heart on something’]. Venkatarao said he could show one hundred instances of it. Satyanarayana asked him to show them. Venkatarao quoted a line, nee chakkadanambu chuuda manasainadi nanda nandanaa [my heart is set on watching your beauty], from a book of one hundred verses, entitled Nanda Nandana Satakamu. Satyanarayana was impressed with Venkatarao’s scholarship, and in later years, used to say that Venkatarao was the only qualified person to compile a dictionary. On another occasion, Satyanarayana said Venkatarao was Parisodhana parameswarulu [The Almighty Siva in Research], which came to be used as one of his titles. (pariseelana. p.75).

Dr. Nistala observed Venkatarao’s service to Telugu literature is comparable to the service of Sir C.P. Brown. Both were interested in reviving the literature ignored by other scholars in their day, both devoted themselves to bracing the Saivite literature, and both believed in altering the prevalent notion that Saivite literature was not worthy of scholars’ attention. Both understood that the social conditions and the lives of the ordinary people were reflected best in the Saivite literature. According to the two scholars, the Saivaites were staunch believers in bringing literature to the ordinary people. Ironically, in some instances, both Venkatarao and Brown adhered to the specifics, equally.

Venkatarao was a staunch devotee of Siva and Anjaneya. He started his day with a visit to the Anjaneya temple and performed Siva puja every Monday. Possibly, his rigorous religious practices gave him the discipline necessary to excel in his scholarly pursuits. Whatever he undertook, he completed with unusual zest and flair and with extraordinary success.

Despite his complex scholarship, life had been a struggle for him financially. After his retirement in 1964, he moved to Hyderabad, and was appointed as a professor at Osmania university, under a UGC project created for retired professors. Venkatarao held the position from 1964-1968.

In 1974, the government of Andhra Pradesh and the Sahitya Akademi granted him one hundred rupees per month each. The government of Andhra Pradesh raised their grant to five hundred rupees in 1982.

Referring to his financial conditions, Tirumala Ramachandra, a notable critic and scholar, said to Venkatarao, “Had you continued in your job at the Imperial Bank, you would have earned three thousand a month.” Venkatarao replied, “I know one of my colleagues at the bank is making two thousand and five hundred a month now. However, if I had continued in the bank and pursued my scholarly activities, I would not have had the same content as I am enjoying now by rendering service to literature.”

On October 15, 1982, he passed away at midnight on the Sivaratri day, which is a highly coveted form of death in the Saivaite tradition.

In summary, the enormous contributions of Nidudavolu Venkatarao to Telugu literature in terms of rewriting the literary history, acknowledging the hitherto little known or unknown poets, compiling dictionaries, reviving the Saivaite classics and reinterpreting them put him in the rank and file of eminent scholars. His work in Udaaharana literature, and acknowledging the composers of inscriptions [Sasana kavulu] as notable poets is considered remarkable.

Once again, I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to Dr. Nistala Venkatarao, whose work has been of immenset help in writing this article. For complete list of Nidudavolu Venkatarao’s works, please refer to Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao’s book, Nidudavolu Venkatarao Gari Rachanalu: Pariseelana, p. 190-225.


The article has been published on thulika.net, December 2009.

 Partial List of the works by Nidudavolu Venkatarao.

Cinnayasuri jeevitamu: Paravastu Chinnayasuri krutha Hindu dhramasastra sangrahamu sahitamugaa, 1962

Dakshinadeseeyandhra vanjmayamu, The Southern School of Telugu Literature. (With preface in English) 1954

Kopparapu sodarakavula charitra. 1973.

Nannechodunu kavitaavaibhavamu: Nannechoduni padyaalaku ruchira vyakhyaanamu.. 1976.

Potana. 1962.

Telugu kavula charitra. 1956.

Udaaharana vanjmaya charitra. 1968

Vijayanagara samsthaanamu: Andhra vanjmaya poshana. 1965.

Andhra vachana vanjmayamu. 1977.

Andhra vachana vanjmayamu: pracheena kalamu nundi 1900 A.D. varaku. 1954

Bhamaakalaapamu, edited by P. Jayamma. 1999

 Prefaces and commentaries.

Sri Nachana Somanathuni hamsaadibakopakhyanamu (uttara harivamsamu, chaturtha aswaasamu. Commentary by Nidudavolu Venkatarao. 1972.

Editions and revisions by Nidudavolu Venkatarao.

Sivatatthva saaramu by Mallikarjuna Panditaaraadhyulu. Edited with extensive annotations by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, 1968.

Prabodha chandrodayamu by Nandi Mallaya. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, 1976.

Sabdaratnakaram by Bahujanapalli Sitaramacharyulu (1827-1891). Revised by Nidudavolu Venkatarao. 1969.


Sakalanitisaaramu, by Madiki Singana. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao and Ponangi Srirama Apparao. 1970.

Manavalli rachanalu. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao and Ponangi Srirama Apparao. 1972.

Telugu Kannadamula samskrutika sambandhaalu, by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, et. Al. 1974.

Telugu, Kannada, Tamila, Malayala bhashalalo saati samethalu, compiled by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, et. al., 1961.

On Nidudavolu Venkatarao and his works.

Nistala Venkata Rao. Nidudavolu Venkatarao: Pariseelana. 1984. Available on the internet. This book has provided complete list of all the works and speeches in 35 pages and organized according to topics.

(© Nidadavolu Malathi)