Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Venkata Kavi - His Personality and Poetry

By Abburi Ramakrishna Rao

Venkata Kavi: His Personality and Poetry

I still remember my first meeting with the poet. I had not the privilege of being one of his pupils when he was in Masulipatam, but I had a friend who was. I went to see him in his company, and the pretext was that I wanted a copy of his newly-published ‘Guntur Sima.’ Many of the verses in that poem were already known by heart, for it was not properly speaking a poem written but spoken. It centred round a first-rate literary quarrel–a sort of civil war among the Telugu Literati. In its lowest levels it was also a class-war between Niyogis and Vaidikis, two sections of the Telugu Brahmins, roughly corresponding to the laity and the clergy, although no trace of that distinction now exists. We had naturally enough, being in the very orbit of his influence, enlisted ourselves on the side of Venkata Sastri. The poet was seated on a cot cross-legged and was writing verse. For a few moments we were not noticed, but presently he began humming the last lines he had written and peered through his glasses at us and said "what brings you here?" We saluted him and asked for the book. He smiled genially and made us feel at our ease. The talk soon drifted to the topic of the book and he recited or perhaps chanted, as only he can, some fine things from it. That was just what we wanted but dared not ask, for what cutting jokes he might then have made at our expense! But he had an innate and glowing sympathy for the youth and loved them so well that there was an enormous gathering of students to bid him farewell in the local Town Hall on the eve of his retirement. He soon took us into his confidence and narrated some of the thrilling anecdotes of his literary adventures in the courts of the princes and nobles of the Andhra country. Time has blurred the memory of that fine talk, but this sentence I wrote in my diary I still remember. "He is the most remarkable man since Srinadha" –Srinadha who sported with princes and lived in the lap of luxury and who said contemplating his departure from this world:

"Now while Srinadha's soul departs
To the city of the Immortals,
The bard of the Heavens cloth tremble."

An attempt is made in this essay to convey to the non- Telugu readers of ‘Triveni’ the great affection and veneration in which Venkata Sastri, one of the twin-poets, the Tirupati Venkata Kavulu, is held by the Telugus. Tirupati Sastri, whose name is almost always connected with all that is going to be stated here, is however not the subject of my essay. Believing as I do that, of the two poets, Venkata Sastri, by virtue of his dynamic personality, was unique among the leading lights in the new a wakening in Telugu literature, I have dared to separate him from his brother-poet. The friendship that subsisted between them both is un- exampled in the annals of Telugu Literature and is one of the famous literary friendships of the world. They studied together in their youth under the famous savant, Charla Brahmayya Sastri, who was great as a scholar of classic learning and greater as a ‘Grihastha’ the ideal house-holder who fed his pupils at his own expense and taught them each according to his adhikara, or individual bent, the subject he was most fitted for, with affection and devotion. His house was a sort of a residential university where the student's individuality was studied and respected and not as at the present time violently drilled into a regimental standard. It was a heroic experiment carried on with great success at a time when old standards were being pulled down to give place to an alien ideal of education. It was a place where kindred souls full of youth and high ambition gathered in the atmosphere of a refined culture and formed high resolves. And here too Venkata Sastri dreamt of becoming a poet, for already, as he himself has said:

"While yet a naked stripling,
He lisped in numbers ever so charming."

The two poets toured together, visiting the courts of princes and nobles and performing what are known as ‘Satavadhanams’ where verse was made extempore line by line to a hundred different people on a hundred different subjects, and all the verses were repeated at the end. It was a feat of memory and was in great vogue at the time. But the people who gathered there in their hundreds had an additional attraction–and that was what they liked more–in the wonderful recitals of Venkata Sastri of his own poems in the intervals. The performances frequently lasted more than two days, and all the time, whether in formal congregation or in the leisured hours at his residence, crowds of people waited in silence to hear the poet converse and recite his passionate verse. The poet's manner of chanting Telugu verse has almost become classic and is widely followed. It is a naive and subtle manner of interpreting Telugu verse in all its moods and all its movement. The rhythm of the verse receives a delicate emphasis by the method, and the meaning is conveyed in a gentle and pleasing manner. It is said that Dr. Rabindranath Tagore remarked when once he heard a Telugu poem recited, "Why do you sing and not read your verse?" He perhaps did not know that our verse, by virtue of its metrical scheme, is meant to be chanted and not merely read.

The fame of the poets spread throughout the Telugu-speaking world and invitations poured in. Venkata Sastri was at that time a Telugu Pandit in the Hindu High School at Masulipatam and his great popularity enabled him to obtain the necessary leave of absence whenever the call came. The consequent literary a wakening in the country was very great. Poetry, which was till then confined to Sanskrit scholars, found many votaries among the lovers of the Telugu Muse and many among the younger generation displayed great talent in writing dainty and exquisite verse. Two among them may here be mentioned. Pingali Lakshmikantam's verse, although not considerable, has all the lucidity and charm of his master, but lacks passion. Viswanatha Satyanarayana, who is by far the most prolific writer among contemporary Telugu poets, writes with enthusiasm and energy. His language, although needlessly archaic and obscure in places, reaches at times a high musical perfection. His bouquets of poems have few flowers but plenty of foliage. These disciples of the poet are still young and may in good time perfect their instrument to produce a yet nobler harmony.

Venkata Sastri is a literary Lincoln who has risen from obscurity to fame under extraordinary circumstances. Although Andhra Desa has not lacked patrons of good, and great literature among the general public, really good books did not enjoy the popularity they deserved owing to the lack of a widespread awakening and a sustained interest in literature. Venkata Sastri by his frequent tours brought about such an awakening in an abundant measure and evoked an active interest in the largest section of the literate class. His full-mouthed recitals before huge audiences quickened an interest which no printed page could produce and thereby rescued the public taste from barren sentiment and created a market for high-class writing. The educative value of these recitals cannot be too highly estimated.

Venkata Sastri is the author of a considerable portion of the work that bears the joint authorship of Tirupati Venkata Kavulu to-day; His revelations in his essay ‘Divakara Asthamayam’ written after the death of his collaborator and life-long friend, abundantly prove that Venkata Sastri is the real centre of the enormous enthusiasm roused in the country. Unlike Tirupati's verse which is polished and elegant throughout, Venkata Sastri's work is in places careless and slipshod; but what he has lost in naivette of outward form he gains in power. There is something Byronic in the flow of his verse which succeeds in creating a strong impression. in spite of its carelessness. The pictures of contemporary life that lie scattered among his poems are some of the best examples of realistic portraiture. His self-confidence, not infrequently bordering upon egotism, is also reminiscent of Byron, as for instance when he says in an invocation to Saraswati,

"In triumph did we march on the s of elephants,
And proudly did receive the homage of poets."

I may here be allowed to venture a remark which will perhaps be disputed by the poet himself. I believe that he is the forerunner, in a large and general sense, of the modern movement in Telugu Literature. ‘Nana Raja Sandarsanam,’ a collection of stray poems written in connection with the memorable visits to the members of the Andhra aristocracy who were great patrons of Telugu culture and art; ‘Giratam’–the title being a parody of ‘Bharatam’ the great epic, and the subject matter a quarrel over the discipleship of two other young poets–affording a large variety of topic and situation; and a similar work, ‘Guntur Sima’–all these cannot be classed with the long poems belonging either to the ‘Prabandha’ or any other type. He broke new ground by these productions and flouted successfully most of the conventions that bound Telugu Poetry to the dead past. And more than by his published work, Venkata Sastri has shown the way on to a new movement by his personal influence. Most of the young writers of today had their interest in Telugu literature quickened by coming into contact either with his works or with his personality. These young men have had other sources of inspiration in the English and other European Poets, and Venkata Sastri who does not understand any foreign language could not be said to have been the inspirer of modern Telugu Poetry in all its phases, as it is the result of more than one cultural contact. He is a singular example of native genius essentially untouched by modern culture, almost the last survival of the stalwarts of a previous age. He was by his very nature and equipment, best fitted to work along the paths of Telugu tradition although with a more passionate and less conventional movement and was therefore not guilty of any side-tracting into the vague and ineffectual creations of the new poets. Although the poetry of the present day shows little or no trace of his influence, I firmly believe that one day it will return to him and realize its strength. The weakness of the modern movement is apparent when its wailings over sentimental sorrows are contrasted with the magnificent outbursts of Srinadha which are examples of some of the highest chatu (or the modern Bhava) poetry.

The immense popularity which Venkata Sastri enjoyed and now enjoys to some extent is not due to any of the startling qualities of the ‘best sellers’ of the present day European literature, but to the simplicity of his themes. For the first time in the history of Telugu Literature, a poet had taken up the common things of life as his themes. Even his long poems ‘Panigrihita’ and ‘Sravananandam’ which in their outward structure approximate to the ‘Prabandha’ mould, are really new wine in old bottles. They were love poems of their kind and the love depicted is modern but not the mere modern sentimentality which one now finds masked under a highly ornate and vague verbiage. The Telugu people, long nurtured in the close atmosphere of ‘Prabandha’ poetry, with its mock fights and conventional loves, breathed for the first time in his poetry, a fresh draught of air laden with the fragrance of the joys and sorrows of real life. Poetry was no longer a thing to be wooed by those initiated in the canons of rhetoric, but became an occasion for gathering the kindred souls (‘Sahridayas’) the lovers of beauty into a hearty social embrace.

There is perhaps not much in his work that can take rank beside the highest in poetry, little of deep and abiding value, but there is enough to indicate the genius of the Telugus in the realm of creative art, –a bold and vigorous acceptance of life as it is, and not an escape into the sylvan solitudes of Fairyland where ‘kokils’ sing and no children, cry–a formless void of vague experience. It is on the lines of Venkata Sastri's virile love of life that the Telugu Muse shall progress and not along the moonlit paths of Tagorean mysticism.

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