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....

Telugu Poetry-Vijayanagara and After

K. Lakshmi Ranjanam, M.A.

Telugu Poetry-Vijayanagara

and After

(Lecturer, The Osmania College, Hyderabad-Dn.) 1

With the passing away of Srinadha the age of the Purana is at an end, and a new literary age known as the Prabandha period or the Romantic school in Telugu poetry, is at hand. The Prabandha marks a new era in Telugu literature, like the first Romantic movement in English literature. Englishmen of the Elizabethan age were not entirely satisfied with translations from Italian literature and from the ancient classics. The rising spirit of the age sought expression in new channels, original and indigenous,–something which Englishmen could exhibit to the world as their very own. This called forth the great achievement of Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Bacon, and a host of others. Andhra society also reached its meridian in the days of the Vijayanagara Empire. The Andhra sword overran and ruled the whole of South India. The traditional rivals, the Bahmani kings, were held at bay. Like the Englishmen of the 16th century in their mortal struggle with Spain, the Andhras came off successful in their feuds with their Bahmani rivals. The heroism of the age excited the imagination of the poets, and we have a noble outburst of the poetic genius. Patriotism was the dominant note in the Telugu poetry of the halcyon days of Krishnadeva-Raya, as in the English poetry of the age of Queen Elizabeth. The Prabandha is an original creation of the Telugu people of this age.

The previous age was content with, translations from Sanskrit. Instruction was the aim of the poet. The society was simple and religious minded. It demanded little more than a praise of Dharma and Virtue. The Vijayanagara Empire saw the birth of a Telugu society which enjoyed the life on this green planet for what it was worth. Prosperity and plenty flowed in the wake of a settled government. When people have ease and plenty, they turn their minds towards beauty and art. Sweet thoughts and creations delight them and they chase idle hours in the company of the artist and the musician. The fine arts take the place of simple religion and simple manners. Beauty (Kama) succeeds to the pedestal of Virtue (Dharma).

The Vijayanagara Empire revived Telugu art and music and brought them to the highest pitch. Kings patronised the poets and lavished gifts on them. Emperor Krishnadeva-Raya’s name is immortalised in the annals of Telugu history for the many-sided glory of his reign. He, like Samudra-Gupta, was an invincible conqueror. To glory in the field of battle he combined a love of art and poetry, which can be said of only a few of the rulers of the world. He was himself a poet of eminence. His Amukta Malyada is a model Prabandha. The style of Krishnadeva-Raya was pitched to the tune of the highest scholarship. There is a wealth of local colouring in his work. The dress and manners of the age, the tasty dishes and the elegant home-life, the religious controversies, the hospitality of Vaishnava Bhaktas, all find a faithful expression in his poetry. Emperor as he was, we find Krishnadeva-Raya a close observer of the oddities of the social life around him, and he deemed them fit subjects for his art. His fondness for faithful depiction of social life may be here illustrated. Describing Vishnu-Chitta, the simple-minded Vaishnava devotee, the Emperor-Poet says that he used to store fuel, properly dried, lest his beloved wife should find the kitchen full of smoke issuing from raw wood in the rains, for he could not bear the sight of water in her dark eyes. The exigencies of the busy life of a statesman and ruler did not allow him leisure enough to polish his language, and his thoughts are occasionally obscured by recondite expression and the use of provincialisms. Krishnadeva-Raya as a patron of letters is often compared to Bhoja of Sanskrit literature. His court was adorned by the greatest poets of the Prabandha school, Peddana, Timmana, Dhurjati, Mallana and others. One of them, Peddana, describes how the Emperor honoured poets: "The Emperor would get the elephant to kneel if he met me casually in the way, and lift me up to the howdah with his own hand. He gave me villages in the most fertile of districts. When he accepted the dedication of Manu-charitra, he lifted me in the palanquin and he himself was one of the bearers. He would call me Peddana, the Grandsire of Telugu Poetry."

Such being the great esteem the poets received at the hands of crowned heads, they could pursue their art undisturbed by the struggle for existence. To them life seems to have been one continuous, moonlit, ethereal experience, unruffled by the din and misery of ordinary toiling life. The heroes and heroines of the Prabandha age, with noble exceptions, are all stereo-typed. Love in union is the favourite theme of poets. Starting with an elaborate description of the seat of the king–the hero–the poet leads the hero by any means to the vicinity of the lady-love, who in turn is lusciously described. Then start their amours and temporary separation and feigned grief, on which the poet lavishes much ingenuity of conceits. The final denouement is indeed a foregone conclusion and the lovers are united. The hero is often of the ‘Dhira-Lalita’ type, one who delights in the arts of peace. Thus the artistic taste of the age finds expression in heroes and heroines who lead luxurious and sentimental lives.

That is but one side of the medal. If there is something which is peculiarly the creation of the Andhra people, it is the Prabandha. It is characterised by originality in theme,–of course of the romantic type,–developed into a denouement through the necessary intermediate stages. Pathos is there, in the best of them, naively woven into the texture of the plot. Peddana, for instance, the master-craftsman of the early Prabandha school, created in his Varudhini the type of a progressive woman, whose love for her lover is passionate, and who when disappointment comes weeps bitter tears of anguish that wring the heart of the Sahridaya (the discerning reader). His Manucharitra is the most popular of the Prabandhas, pre-eminent alike in the novelty of the theme and the vigour of style. Peddana is also successful in characterisation, and his Pravara is the type of the orthodox Brahmin to whom penance is everything, and not even opportunity and a pair of dark eyes can shake the steadfastness of his virtue. Nandi Timmana of Parijatapaharana fame is renowned for his mellifluous style and the music of his numbers. He is the best representative of the artistic trend of the age. His Satya, the wife of Lord Krishna, is essentially a Telugu woman in her aristocratic temper. To her the idea of sharing the love of her husband with another woman is highly galling. The word, to Timmana, is as flexible a material as clay to the potter and he makes it yield to the subtleties of his suggestive genius. He is a great success in exploring the passionate soul of a woman and acquaints us with the throbbings of her heart under the effects of jealousy.

Two poets of the later Prabandha period deserve special mention. Pingali Surana and Murty belong to the historic era slightly prior to the battle of Talikota. Since Tikkana, no poet could lay claim to a sustained imagination and high creative genius in the same measure as Surana. He was a profound scholar and an effective wielder of Telugu idiom and Sanskrit phrase. The literary taste of the age was on the decline, and the passion for exploring the subtleties of a word was on the rise. A poet who could successfully use one word to mean several things at one time (slesha) came to be looked upon as an interesting prodigy, and Surana unwittingly attempted this kind of hybrid composition in the beginning, which established his name in the literary world. His patron said to him in the Prologue to Raghava-Pandaviya: "It is indeed a literary feat to compose one full verse capable of yielding a double meaning. I consider it a worthy exercise of your great learning to write a kavya with double meaning from the beginning to the end." Surana, in the earlier stages of his poetic career, seems to have attached importance to the jingling assonance of words and delighted to show off his scholarship. But with maturity of thought he came to dislike slesha and pun. His attention was increasingly set on the essentials of true poetry. Kalapurnodayamu, considered to be his masterpiece, is an illustration of his creative genius. The plot is quite novel and a pure creation of Surana. Plot-weaving seems to be a child’s play with him. There are numberless threads in the canvas of his story which in the hands of a less skilful weaver would have landed the reader in a maze of inconsistencies. But Surana’s plot is so well managed in details and so well-knit that it gives the impression of unity in treatment. Another virtue of our poet is his skill in dramatisation of a story. Since Tikkana, the merits of the dramatic treatment of a theme seem to have been unrealised, He begins the story in quite a dramatic way; two lovers open the scene with a conversation and straightaway the seeds of the plot are sown in their very first utterances. The riddle that he throws out in the opening scenes takes us to the end of the story for its unraveling, and thus he sustains the interest of the reader to the last. Herein lies his art, that unlike in other Prabandhas the ending is a secret of the author and not a foregone conclusion. He alone has the key to it and the reader anxiously waits with bated breath to see how the Poet will solve his problems.

Character study is another interesting feature of the art of Surana. The artistic nature of the age is seen in the great care taken by Prabandha Poets in depicting heroines. Mani-kundala and Nalakubara, two divine men, shared the love of Kala-Bhashini. Manikundala loved her and she loved the two in turn. Her love was impossible of attainment and she roams the world to achieve her object. She puts her precious life in danger for the sake of love. In the moment of highest ecstacy she learns that she fell into the right hands though unwittingly. Self-respecting and proud lady that she was, Kala-Bhashini protests her love to Manikundala though he may not be convinced of it. Her fear was, lest he should think of her as a common woman. In yet another Pair of strange lovers, Sugatri and her husband Shalina, Surana attempts the portrayal of home-life in its simplicity and beauty. The simple-minded Brahmin youth, Shalina, is so blunt that he cannot appreciate the charms of his young love when she approaches him gaily be-decked in ornaments. She is after his heart only when she is free of this load and toils in the garden at digging and watering, with her transparent body bespattered with particles of mud. The Poet gives us the suggestion that art in simplicity is more charming than art in gaudiness and artificiality.

Surana also had a keen sense of humour which is rather seldom met with in Telugu Poetry. He created a set of characters in the same strain as in The Comedy of Errors of Shakespeare. The same comic effect is produced in the scene where we have two Rambhas and two Nalakubaras who look alike, and the characters are represented as blundering. This humorous creation is altogether rare in Telugu Poetry and is a proof of the originality of Surana. In Prabhavati-Pradyumnam Pingali Surana is on the heights. He seems to have withdrawn into himself. This he dedicated to the memory of his father, and the exigencies of writing to the approval of a patron did not arise. He was above all a true artist and poet, and these qualities are best illustrated in Prabhavati. His creations are ever new and charming. Suchimukhi, a swan, plays the great part of a statesman and ambassador and holds the strings of action. Surana’s attention in his later days turned away from the externals of poetry. Puns and double meanings and other verbal juggleries are given up once for all. Surana says in Prabhavati: "It is indeed a divine blessing to be able to write in a way that words are not out of place, that they are well-knit and suggest a wealth of meaning, that the thoughts of the poet are easily apprehended. There should be no repetition of thoughts and the poet must avoid digression. He must lay stress on the matter in hand and keep an eye on the mutual relation of incidents so that there is no incongruity in their sequence."

Bhattu Murty is the last of the great poets of the Prabandha age. Great as he is, the beginnings of the decline of the Romantic school of poetry are marked in him. Like Alexander Pope, Murty was a great versifier and scholar. His verse is highly polished and rhythmical. We are obliged to him for exploring the musical possibilities of the Telugu language and his diction is attuned to music. He had the title of ‘the ocean of secrets of the art of music’ conferred on him. He richly deserved this sonorous decoration. Any verse from his Vasu-Charitra chosen casually will illustrate the strength and weakness of Murty at once. One is struck by the unbridgeable flow of it and one’s ear is feasted by the jingling assonance of similar sounds. Sometimes the diction rolls down in a torrent of resonant Sanskrit compounds. Elsewhere it glides on inaudibly with the silent music of the rivulet, on the bed of supple and smooth words. Master of language and diction Murty was undoubtedly. He has a passion for slesha (double meanIngs) and yamaka (alliteration). They came to him without any effort, and were as natural with him as the breath at the nostrils. He said about himself that he knew many languages, was capable of pouring forth hundreds of verses in an hour, and was well skilled in Asu, i. e. ‘unpremeditated verse’. Milton alone among English poets claimed this virtue and Murty’s composition attains to the heights of Milton’s verse in its quality and sonorousness. In short, Murty holds the palm in Telugu poetry, if language alone can make true poetry.

But like Pope, Murty fails when we examine him from the human interest in his verse. It fills the ear but starves the heart. The intellect in Murty took supreme control of the heart in him. He is striking but unconvincing. A glance at his previous achievements will be enough to make us appreciate why his masterpiece Vasu-Charitra is what it is. Starting as a poet in the time of the great Ramaraya of Vijayanagara, he earned for himself the title of ‘Rama-Raja-Bhushana’–the gem of the court of Rama Raja. His first known work is a manual of Telugu Rhetoric on the lines of Sanskrit works of Alamkara. He, being skilled in feats of memory, must have performed many such ‘Avadhanas,’ wherein the poet gives out unpremeditated verse on miscellaneous subjects at the choice of the audience. In these tricks of memory, the word and not the soul of poetry comes to prominence, He thus perfected himself in word-painting and imported this vicious predilection into the field of high poetry. Rasa, or the emotional thrill in poetry, his verse does not excite. No doubt in individual verses he manages to depict all the stages necessary to call forth Rasa, but the whole effect of his Kavya is one of appeal to the intellect rather than to the heart of the reader. Murty’s failure as a true poet lay in the limitations of his subject-matter, the Vastu of his Kavya. The plot is the animated body of a composition into which the poet breathes life by his divine imagination. The Prabandha school is known for its originality in plot-weaving, and Peddana and Surana are the best examples of poets with story interest. Murty in the opening verses of his Vasu-Charitra lays down the dictum about plot: "Stories evolved purely out of the imagination of the poet are fictitious and are like false gems. Stories of Puranic origin are like unkempt diamonds fresh from the mine. Historic stories, dressed by the high imagination of great poets, are true, polished stones." Therefore his work will be a compromise between the two, a via media. In the first category he evidently has a fling at Surana and his Kala-Purnodaya. By all accounts, Murty was a contemporary of Surana. Now by the test of ‘a true stone’ Murty’s plot has all the externals of a great plot required by rhetorical manuals. But the soul in it, which he is expected to instill, is only of the intellectual type. He adorns this wooden frame by the best conceits of his scholarly imagination and tries to stir the feelings, but alas, the patient reader strikes his head against the wall of slesha and yamaka and comes empty as ever. Murty would have succeeded if he had the poetic heart. If he lived a poem, he would have written one. He was a panegyrist from the beginning and a reveller in the outer zone of poetry. By birth he belonged to that extraordinary class of traditional panegyrists who to this day are not a rare sight at the courts of Rajahs.

Murty fails to stir our feelings by the absence of the pathetic element in his best work. Pathos, according to the canons of the West and the East, is admitted to be an indispensable element of all high poetry. The feelings of the reader are stirred and ‘purged’ according to Aristotle, ‘through pity and fear.’ Where this life-giving sentiment is absent, the poem falls flat. The master-minds of India, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, are immortalised by Shakuntala and Sita, the women of love and pity. Amongst Prabandha heroines, Varudhini of Peddana and Kala-Bhashini of Surana live by the sentiments of Sringara (Erotic) and Karuna (Pathos) which they evoke in the reader. The hero and heroine of Vasu-Charitra, Vasu and Girika, are thoroughly sentimental and no pity is excited by the lovelorn condition of either. Consequently there is no rejoicing at the fruition of their love. As Kalidasa puts it, "One scorched by the Sun is alone capable of appreciating the joy of a shady tree." Similarly love shines serene through tears. Love at first sight is purged and chastened by pity into the pure and divine sentiment.

Unfortunately age did not mean wisdom with poet Murty. His insatiable greed for the pun and double meaning word was ever on the increase. He looked out for fresh fields of investment for his boundless scholarship. Surana, his contemporary, wrote a Kavya with the stories of Rama and the Pandavas combined into one. So Murty rushed into this sort of double-meaning poetry, and chose a more difficult combination as a test of his scholarly talent. He brought forth Harischandra-Nalopakhyanamu, the stories of two great Emperors of Puranic India woven together into one Kavya. Each verse of the book yields, by different breaking up of words, the story of Harischandra and Nala in turn. Admirable feat indeed! A true touch-stone of mastery over language. The verses too do not lose their music. Such is the unerring musical ear of Murty. The descriptions of Nature too are more realistic and original and less scholarly and artificial than in Vasu-Charitra. But the whole deserved a better conception of the functions of true poetry. It is not the battle-ground for contending scholarship but the ever-green pasture where the ‘Sahridaya’ is feasted. But with Murty poetry is the close preserve of the poet.

After Murty, Telugu literature fell on evil days. With the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, there was no home where true genius could be nursed. And genius too ‘fled to brutish beasts.’ Later poets lacked the divine purpose of Tikkana and the artistic soul of the Prabandha age. They aimed at imitation and perfecting their models. Unluckily the model that appealed to them was Murty’s Vasu-Charitra. They were fitted to produce only hybrid imitations of Vasu-Charitra and delighted to call them ‘Pilla Vasu-Charitra’ ‘Vasu in miniature.’ Naturally the poetry was only second rate and third rate. It was the ambition of each one of them to vie with Surana and Murty in the Kavya of double meanings. Some went to the extent of producing triple meaning Kavyas and occasionally with four-fold meanings. The word and not its meaning counted with them. It is also to their credit that they exhausted all the metrical devices which involved laborious, thinking and where the arrangement of words was more arithmetical than poetical.

In this general decline stood out two little havens where small vessels could still unload their cargo. The court of the Nayakas at Tanjore was one of the last asylums of Telugu poets. Here flourished poet Chemakura Venkata Kavi who produced his Vijaya Vilasa in the Prabandha style. He is a highly musical and deft poet, but the dictum of Murty that the plot must be a ‘mixed one’ held all later poets in its octopus hands, and stamped out originality in theme and treatment. The primary aim of the poet was to excel Vasu-Charitra in the oddity of conceits and subtle expression. Telugu language and literature found their last trenches in the noble court of the Kutub-Shahi Sultans of Golconda. Those wonderful princes laid the Telugu people under a deep debt of gratitude both by their tolerant rule and by unstinted patronage of their language. To them belongs high praise for continuing the dim flicker of the Telugu lamp, and all honour to them. History does not think highly of them, but they will live as long as Telugu literature lives. One of them, Sultan Ibrahim Shah, was the patron of a poet named Ponnaganti Telagana who dedicated to the King his work Yayati Charitra. Now this poem is more than of ordinary interest to Telugu literature. For the first time an attempt was made to write a whole poem in what we call ‘pure Telugu’ or ‘Accha Telugu.’ Till now no poet had the vision to make purely native words, to the entire exclusion of Tatsama and Tadbhava (words of Sanskrit origin) answer the needs of diverse expression required in a Kavya. It was certainly a very bold experiment and Telagana carried it out successfully.

But it is open to q4estion whether ‘Accha Telugu’ is capable of expressing a multitude of meanings and shades of thought. Sanskrit words became such an integral part of Telugu even in the days of Nannaya that it would be difficult to dislodge them without leaving vacant niches, and the holes will be so numerous that we cannot hope to refill them by equivalent words of purely native origin. Hence, interesting as the experiment of Telangana and the Sultan Ibrahim Shah was, it is only a passing phase in our literature. By the exclusion of Sanskritic words, the poet’s compass of vocabulary is so narrowed down that he has to move stiffly, and the genius of a Telagana alone can avoid obscurity and grotesqueness in such atmosphere. To attempt a Kavya in pure, native Telugu will be like writing a poem in English purged of the Latin and other elements of vocabulary, in words of purely Anglo-Saxon origin. Even if it were possible, no great poet can so shackle himself with regard to expression and yet succeed in delighting. Telangana had his own followers in the purist school which he fathered. Another poet, Timma of Pithapur, wrote the story of Ramayana in ‘Accha Telugu’ and it is also popular.

The splendid example of the King encouraged nobles to patronise Telugu literature. One such nobleman of the court of Golconda was Yamin Khan, who accepted the dedication of ‘Tapati-Samvaran-Opakhyanamu’ of Addanki Gangadhara Kavi.

With the fall of Golconda fell the cause of Telugu literature. In the general confusion, that prevailed in the 18th century, Telugu did not produce any masters nor any experiments worthy of notice. We have to wait for the advent of British rule, for the establishment of settled conditions in which alone art and literature can flourish. The story of the modern achievement in Telugu is vast and full of interest. The activity is many-sided, the themes are new, the idealism peculiar to the age. Patriotism and the deification of Nature are the dominant notes of modern poetry. And there is a full outburst of prose writing which is a creation of the modern age in its present form. The drama and the novel, the short-story and the short-poem, are all in their full swing and merit a separate treatment. Suffice it to say that the noble banner of Nannaya and Tikkana is held aloft by modern Telugu poets, and ere long they may re-incarnate themselves, as a Hindu believes!

1 The two previous articles appeared in Triveni for April and June, 1937.

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