By Ravi Valluri

‘Language comes first. It’s not that language grows out of consciousness, if you haven’t got language, you can’t be conscious,’ writes the fabled British author Alan Moore.

One can perhaps say prior to the onset of liberalisation and Shri PV Narasimha Rao occupying the exalted position of Prime Minister, every one living south of the Vindhyas was a ‘Madrasi’.

I reckon even today, one would only sporadically be aware that Telugu is a vowel ending language, and is among the four Dravidian languages. This language has been acclaimed as the “Latin of East” for its mellifluous quality and is the second largest spoken language in India after Hindi.

Very few know that Telugu literature has produced two Jnanpith awardees. These are Viswanatha Satyanarayana, who was decorated with the award for his traditional Kavya, ‘Ramayana Kalpavriksham’ in 1970 and Dr C Narayana Reddy for creating a lengthy poem in free verse, ‘Viswambhara’ in the year 1988. These are precious nuggets which ought to be cherished by the people of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and other Telugu speaking people in the country.

Telugu literature or ‘sahityam’ is the body of works written in the Telugu language. It comprises of poems, novels, short stories, dramas, ghazals and puranas. The embellished and ornate corpus of Telugu literature has its roots going to the early 10th century period. The ‘Prabandha Ratnavali’ written in 1918 describes graphically the existence of Jain Telugu literature during 850 – 1000 BC.

In the nascent phase, it was in inscriptions that the language took literary shape. Telugu has been appropriately accorded classical status along with Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada by the Government of India.

As per myths and tradition the first Telugu author was Kannaiah, who lived at the court of Andhiyara. During the reign of that king, Sanskrit was said to have been introduced in the Telugu country and Kannaiah had apparently dealt with Telugu grammar after the methods of Sanskrit philologists. Alas his works are lost in the sands of time.

Three of the earliest prominent writers of Telugu language were Nannaya, Tikkana and Errana. They had translated Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata into Telugu. This work was commenced by Nannaya at the behest of the Chalukya king, Rajaraja Narendra. Nannaya wrote two and half parvas, thereafter Tikkana was to write from the fourth parva till the end and Errana accomplished the onerous task of translating the Aranya portion. The troika are thus referred to as ‘Kavitraya’. Thus, the Mahabharata is the first comprehensive literary text written in Telugu way back in 1053 AD.

One stumbles into the history of the language while studying the trajectory of its growth.

The primary genre from the 11th century to 18th century was essentially – Itihasam, Puranam and Kavyam. Itihasam revolves around the ballads of kings and the myths of Gods and Goddesses. This literature pivots around the quintessential questions of truth and dharma. Puranas focussed on the narrative of the universal creator and his myriad forms, the stories of Avatars, with an intention to inspire devotion and give rise to spiritual pursuit. Kavya is an amalgam of myth and fiction. The pleasing style, the syntax and grammar was to make it popular among the masses.

Apart from the above three were the Sataka, Yakshagana and Padakavita, literary performing arts.

The inspirational troika were to fire the imagination of 12th century poets like Palkuriki Somanatha and Nannechoda and the 14th century prodigious writers like Nachana and Srinatha and Pothana during the next century.

It would be pertinent to mention that the contribution of the troika whetted the appetite of several woman poets to pen their thoughts; these included Tallapaka, Thimmakka, Molla, Rangajamma, Muddu Palani, Ramabhadra Mba and Tarigonda Vengamamba.

Meanwhile Hindu mainstream thoughts and practices were dominated by strands of thoughts emanating from Vaishnavism and Shaivism. These movements influenced the estimable corpus of Telugu literature.

Miles away at Chitrakoot, Goswami Tulsidas, author of the venerable ‘Ramcharitmanas’ was deeply anguished about the rivalry and the resultant bloodshed between the proponents of Vaishnavism and Shaivism. So much so, he beseeched his Ishta Devata, Lord Ram to pay obeisance to Shiva (for peace to prevail). This finds mention in his text through the importance of the religious place Rameswaram. But people, I reckon are ignorant that Tikkana, one of the prominent members of the troika responded to a similar unabated rivalry by declaring his religion as ‘Harihar Adwaita’ (a combination of Shiva and Vishnu).

How history is recorded, written and portrayed indeed shapes our thoughts and vision.

It is a quirk of fate that folklore regales us with numerous Akbar- Birbal encounters; history does not provide the aperture for Krishnadevaraya – Tenali Ramakrishna repartees. This was the golden period of Telugu literature. The Ashtadiggajas (the eight great poets) in Telugu exemplified variety, creativity and diversity in the language.

Krishnadevaraya, synonymous with Vijayanagara Empire, was himself a scholar of immense repute. During his reign, not only did he patronise art forms but over saw the flourishing genres like Kavya, Prabandha, Purana, Yakshagana and prose genre.

The prodigious works of Vemana in the 18th century ushered in satire into Telugu literature.

The story of Telugu literature would be incomplete if Annamacharya’s writings (Padakavita or renditions in praise of Lord Venkateswara, Hanuman and the Narasimha Avatar), Saint Tyagaraja’s Kritis and contribution towards Kuchipudi dance and Saint Ram Dasa’s Dasarathi Satakam and Surabhi theatre are not mentioned.

Life is sssynodic and Telugu literature went into decline for some time. It was revved up with the Bengal Renaissance, the advent of printing press and growth of English education and literature. Around this time Kandukuri Veeresalingam Panthulu emerged as a profound thinker and a colossus of Telugu literature through novels, one-act plays, essays, columns, biographies and autobiography. Alongside emerged Kanyasulkam Gurazada Apparao to write modern plays.

Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats inspired the Romantic Movement in Telugu literature, where there was unalloyed focus on pristine love, dignity of women, spirituality, sentiment where lyricism was the bedrock of all writing and from the penumbra emerged writers like Rayaprolu Subbarao, Devualpally KrishnaShastry, Nayani and Nanduri Subba Rao and Gurram B Joshua. ‘Krishna Paksham’ by Krishna Shastry is a monumental work of this period.

The ever evolving story of Telugu literature wound its way through the nationalist, progressive, revolutionary, feminist and Dalit movements where several writers emerged.

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts,” writes the famous author Patrick Rothfuss.

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