How Varavara Rao and Telugu revolutionary poetry influenced each other over six decades: A historical overview
Varavara Rao's poetry, which evolved over six decades, reflects and critiques modern social history, balancing it with a consistent and hopeful quest for freedom.
ప్రజల్ని నేరస్తుల్ని చేసి వేటాడుతుంటే
నోరున్న ప్రతివాడు నేరస్తుడే!
When crime becomes authority
And hunts down people branding them criminals
Everyone with a voice who keeps silent
Becomes a criminal.
‘Whose side are you on?
A group of radical students stormed the 60th birthday celebrations of the celebrated Telugu poet Sri Sri in Visakhapatnam in 1970. The influence of the Naxalbari movement in Bengal crossed the Eastern Ghats and reached Srikakulam in northern Andhra. With agrarian struggles at its center, the Srikakulam Peasant Struggle was born as an opposition to feudal and economic oppression, particularly in the tribal belt across the Eastern Ghats. Rural mobilisation gained momentum as mass organisations, agricultural labour associations and youth fronts cropped up, debating land and water rights.
The Andhra Pradesh state (bifurcated into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh today), however, matched this development with its attempts to repress the movement. The State declared tribal regions from Srikakulam to Adilabad as ‘disturbed areas’ and increased discretionary powers of the police forces, including the power to shoot at sight. The brutality of the police force and ‘encounters’ were to later become synonymous of state policy towards rights movements.
‘Whose side are you on?’
Revolution was around the corner and Telugu progressive writers decided to lend their voices to the people’s movement. By then, in Warangal, poet and Telugu lecturer Varavara Rao established Srjana, a literary and cultural magazine and Tiragabadu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), a collective of poets inspired by peasant struggles in Telangana. Writers who till then associated themselves under similar progressive literary groups including Digambara Kavulu (Naked Poets) came together and formed the Revolutionary Writers Association, also known as Virasam (Vipalava Rachayitala Sangham).
Virasam formed in 1970 with Sri Sri as its founding president, illustrious writers Kutumba Rao and Raavi Sastry, and younger poets like Varavara Rao, Cherabanda Raju, Nikhileswar, Jwalakmukhi, within its executive committee.
‘Whose side are you on?’
For Virasam, the answer was clear: ‘A poet (kavi) is one who stands on each side of the one who toils/ కష్టజీవికి ఇరువైపులా ఉండే వాడే కవి’ (The letters ka and vi are on either side of the word kashtajeevi, meaning toiler.)
They redefined the role of the poet and the purpose of poetry. The personal, the social and the political became the essence of poetry. When two leaders from the Srikakulam peasant movement were sentenced to death, Virasam went a step ahead to advocate for civil liberties. Deeply critical of the government, themes of police brutality, caste based oppression, anti-establishment and influences of Marxism pervaded their poetry.
Coinciding with the Emergency, this marked the beginning of the relentless persecution of dissent and the evolution of a police State. Members of Virasam were labelled ‘literary Naxalites’ even though the organisation repeatedly declared that it had no links to any political party (particularly Maoist groups) but was an independent literary organisation with its own vision and constitution. Their work, meetings and words were met with various levels of persecution. Chief Minister NT Rama Rao declared: Aata, maata, paata bandh! (Cultural performances, speeches and songs no more!) signalling the active repression of the revolutionary literary movement that followed in Andhra Pradesh.
The Poet and The State
నిఘా వేస్తూనే వుండు
కవిత్వం నిప్పయి మండుతూనే వుంటుంది
ప్రభుత్వం చేస్తూనే వుండు
కవిత్వం ప్రజల్ని కలవరిస్తూనే వుంటుంది
మృత్యుగాలం విసిరి కాచుకో
కవిత్వం నీ కళ్లముందే చైతన్యంలో ఈదుతూనే వుంటుంది
Poetry burns quickly
Spreading like a forest fire.
Watch more carefully,
Poetry can stir people.
Fling your deadly bait
And wait and see—
Before your very eyes
It will swim
The river of consciousness.
Varavara Rao remains one of the most persecuted poets in modern Indian history with more than half a dozen cases filed against him by successive governments during the past half century. The octogenarian poet, Telugu lecturer, public intellectual, critic, orator and translator gave his voice to ordinary people from all walks of life. His poetry, which evolved over six decades, reflects and critiques modern social history, balancing it with a consistent and hopeful quest for freedom.
Even as a political prisoner, Varavara Rao never let the weight of state repression affect his hope for freedom, which he once described as ‘an eternal flame of hope flickering constantly in the winds of liberty and yet never for a moment ceasing its vigil’. Class struggles and rights of peasants, tribals and the working class remain significant themes in his poetry. Inspired by Marxist ideology and peoples’ movements even as a child (his elder brother participated in the peasant struggle against the Nizam), Rao has 15 poetry anthologies to his credit apart from actively nurturing cultural and literary activities.
It was only in 1973 that Varavara Rao was first arrested, but his subjection to suppression started much earlier. In 1966, along with a group called Sahiti Mitrulu (friends of literature) in Warangal, Varavara Rao had founded Srjana, a progressive literary and cultural magazine. Srjana was a space for intellectual debates, socio-literary criticism and experimentation. It later became the unofficial platform for Virasam. It carried stories of public struggles, middle class lives, government restraint.
While inspired by the Srikakulam tribal movement, Srjana evolved during the peasant struggles based out of Karimnagar and Adilabad in Telangana. The magazine brought together a creative collective of writers, poets, critics, intellectuals and artists. It also attracted extreme resentment and restrictions imposed by the government. When a senior advocate from Hyderabad was found in Hanumakonda (in Warangal) with a copy of Srjana in his hand, he was taken into police custody for a day under the pretext of assaulting a policeman. Literary freedom of both the writer and reader were challenged.
When forces opposing the people’s movements waited outside his house, armed, Varavara Rao wondered, ‘I am but a poet, a writer who believes in class struggle and spreading revolutionary ideas. Why am I being mistaken for someone involved in the functioning of a particular political movement and targeted?’
His turmoil — both individual and social — is reflected in Samudram, an epic poem in five parts:
స్వేచ్ఛను వెతుక్కొంటున్న నీతిచుక్కను నేను.
I am a drop of water
In the liberty of the sea
In the liberty that is real and true
However, following the murder of a close friend, Varavara Rao left his beloved Warangal fearing for his life and his family’s safety. Even after he moved to Hyderabad, Warangal remained his ‘Premnagar’ which saw his growth as a poet and laid the foundation for his literary growth. He dedicated his poetry collection Aa Rojulu/ Those Days to Warangal.
The Poet and the Prison
When Varavara Rao was arrested during the Emergency, or later in connection with the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case, his writings were deemed the “culprits”. But the consistent persecution by the State could not stop the literary production of Rao, who believed that poetry, love and revolution will lead the fight against institutional inequalities.
During the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case, he was arrested along with other Virasam members like Cherabanda Raju, Jwalamukhi, and Nikhileswar. His poetry collection Bhavishyat Chitrapatam (Picture Frame of the Future) was banned by the Andhra Pradesh government in January 1987. His poetry deals with the themes of police brutality with equal amounts of outrage and sensitivity. An attempt to discredit him as a poet was taken up while simultaneously banning his poetry, as K Balagopal, intellectual and civil liberties activist, observed. Ironically, however, this banned poetry appeared in various forms and manners across literary magazines, newspapers and became part of public debates. Just like Varavara Rao’s major inspirations — Sri Sri, Chalam and Kaloji — his words too reached the masses, even if occasionally as torn and forbidden papers. In Rao’s own words, ‘True history is written in the hearts of the people. [It is] stirring and never erodes.’
Varavara Rao spent 39 months in prison (famously referred to as 1,000 days in jail) under the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case (of which he would be acquitted — just like in every other case against him). During this time, isolated from the outer world and deprived of control over his own self, Rao wrote a series of presumably self-censored articles for Andhra Prabha and Indian Express between 1988 and 1989. Under the vast sky, escaping the confines of prison and the occasional moon stuck between barbed wires, he mulled about plants, trees, birds, letters, freedom, and hopes. The prison reflected the captivity of the world ‘where sweat continues to be transformed into tears, freedom will remain an alien concept’. His abstract musings, prose which easily transcends to lyrical poetry, were later shaped into his prison diary Sahacharulu (Captive Imagination, in English).
“Like the blood which journeys from the heart back to the heart, all my words flow back into my silence. There, they sustain and nourish the health of my body. But that happens only when the body, the mind and the heart are set to work. Now and then, I fear that I might forget words. I wonder if words have grown as dear as gold!”
In his forced silence in jail, where words are limited to daily necessities, Rao longed to recover from what he felt was like suspended breath and speech.
మరచిపోయిన వానాకాలాన్ని ఆకాశం
మళ్ళీ చదువుకుంటే ఎంత బాగుంటుందో
నా కట్లా శబ్దమయ ప్రపంచంలో
నేలమీద మొలకెత్తాలని వున్నది
నాకు మళ్ళీ మాటలు నేర్చుకోవాలని వున్నది
చరిత్ర ప్రతి నాగేటి చాలులోంచీ-
నాకు మాతలు ఏరుకోవాలని వున్నది
Like the forgetful sky
Learning afresh the meaning of rain,
I long to be drenched
In a sound-filled universe.
Sprouting again from the earth,
I want to learn words
To pick words
Each single furrow of history.
The Poet and His Politics
“Land to the tiller/Dunne vaaride bhoomi” became the universal slogan of peasant struggles in the Telugu states, wherever and whenever the revolution sowed its seeds into the soil. Though the peasant struggle in Srikakulam initiated Varavara Rao’s deep engagement with movements, closer home he was surrounded by multiple stages of the Telangana Peasant Struggle. In Telangana, the peasant struggle during the ‘40s mobilised poor and landless peasants against the ‘doras’, feudal landlords, jagirdars and deshmukhs characteristic of the region, and the system of ‘vetti’, unpaid extraction of labour and services. When the revolution sprang up again in the ‘70s, the fight against feudal lords extended to become a fight against residual feudal practices.
When met with frequent ‘encounters’ by the State, the peasant movement in its later stages forcibly shifted towards an armed rebellion, a major shift away from its strategy of popular mobilisation. It also came to be known as the Maoist movement, People’s War, and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Violence and counter-violence became the only language that both groups spoke. As the situation worsened, Varavara Rao along with Gaddar played an emissary in the ‘peace talks’ between the State and the Maoists — an association multiple outlets have used to target him repeatedly.
It may not be surprising that his poetry, particularly post-Virasam, carried ideas of revolution, class struggles and peasant rights and a critique of the state and its forces. The voices and stories of the people at the forefront of class struggle linger in the imagery he paints. What remains consistent is the sensitivity and warmth brimming over his outrage, across his poetry. When dealing with the grim realities surrounding him, he is a poet waiting for another sunrise even within a dark prison cell. Unlike many poets preceding him or his contemporaries, Rao’s poetry carries a delicate lyrical quality, of soft alliterations instead of the thunderings characteristic of Telugu revolutionary poetry. One could argue that writing for his people in a language which freely flows on the streets is among the most dangerous elements of Rao’s poetry for the insecure and paranoid forces in power that feature in his portrayals.
భయం ప్రచారం చేసీ చేసీ
వాడు భయానికి భయపడ్డాడు
ఊళ్ళను చూసి భయపడ్డాడు
స్కూళ్ళను చూసి భయపడ్డాడు
నీళ్ళను చూసి భయపడ్డాడు
నీడను చూసి భయపడ్డాడు
వాళ్ళ ఊహలకు భయపడ్డాడు
స్వెచ్చను బంధించి చివరకు
సంకెలల సవ్వడికి భయపడ్డాడు
Heaping threats upon threats
Spreading fear upon fear
He himself got scared
He got scared of habitations
He got scared of water
He got scared of schools
He got scared of shadows
He shackled liberty
But when the hand-cuffs moved
He got scared at the sound.
At 80, Varavara Rao is in his ninth year in police custody under a case without a charge, trial or bail; concerns around his health mount. For five decades, he has been the target of repression with at least 25 cases filed against him, in all of which he was either acquitted or discharged, or the case itself was withdrawn. While his perspectives have attracted polar views from sections of intellectual society, his persecution brings to the fore the role of dissent in a democracy and the many questions that surround it.
As Justice Madhav Reddy noted in the first-ever case against Varavara Rao, “Every idea is an incitement and the propagation of every such idea cannot, in my opinion, be termed seditious.”
Sahacharulu/ Captive Imagination by Varavara Rao
Samudram by Varavara Rao
Varavara Rao Kavitvam (1957-2017)
Rupam and Saaram: Sahityam Pai Balagopal
Wages of Impunity by KG Kannabiran
Varavara Rao Interview with TV10, TV9 and others
Srjana magazine, 1966-68
Prison Writing in India by CN Srinath
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