On either side of the Karl Marx road in Vijayawada are multiple Telugu book houses, including Visalandhra Book House — a major publishing house closely associated with Communism. An interesting trait common across these Telugu book houses is a distinct ‘red corner’ with a collection of Marxist readings, a remnant of their once strong Communist influence in the Telugu states and an indication of how the Telugu literary world once went hand in hand with the political struggles. Nothing signifies this trend more than Maha Prasthanam (The Great Journey), a collection of still-popular leftist poetry written by Srirangam Srinivasarao.
మరో ప్రపంచం పిలిచింది!
పోదాం, పోదాం పైపైకి!
Another World is Calling
Let’s surge, ahead and ahead
— Excerpts from Maro Prapancham
Srirangam Srinivasarao, popularly known as Sri Sri, needed no introduction in Telugu households until a generation ago. Famously called Mahakavi (The Great Poet), he enjoys a reputation like no other Telugu poet. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Telugu youth was captivated by a new voice: A voice that resonated their anger and frustration. Sri Sri’s call to march towards ‘another world’, an egalitarian world free of exploitation and deprivation, inspired young men and women who were swept by a wave of Communism. His journey as a poet and later as a strong supporter of leftist politics documents the political and cultural shifts in Telugu society in the 20th century.
Sri Sri was born in 1910 in Visakhapatnam, at the time when there existed huge differences between the ways of the past and the modern world. The age-old Hindu society and its customs were actively being attacked by the modernists and social reformers of the era. In the literary world, the use of archaic and Sanskritised Telugu found an opponent in a new wave of Bhavakavita (romanticism) movement led by young Telugu poets. One school of thought was led by Viswanatha Satyanarayana, a staunch supporter of Brahmin supremacy and Sanskrit and another was led by Devullapalli Krishna Sastry, a romantic poet of Bhavakavita movement. Sri Sri was influenced by both.
However, around the same time, there was an increase in the unrest amongst the middle-class society. Questions around the relevance of ideas of aristocracy and zamindari system began to rise across the country.
offered a firewood
to the world’s fire
provided a tear
to the world’ rain
వెర్రిగొంతుక విచ్చి మ్రోశాను!
gave a cry
to the world’s roar
— Excerpts from Jayabheri
In the 1930s and ‘40s, the politics of the world completely changed. Known as the Hungry Thirties, the Great Depression in America was spreading to other parts of the world (except Soviet Russia). The failure of the capitalist societies and the relative economic stability of the Communist societies was stark. This led to an increase in the influence of Marxism across India including the Indian Progressive Writers who released their manifesto in England. Closer home, the disparity between the reality of society and its struggles did not match the sensibilities of Telugu poetry of that time which revolved around love, nature or God.
Around this time, the influence of world politics and issues of feudal oppression, economic inequality and social injustice was dawning on Sri Sri. He rejected the existing traditional themes and ways in Telugu poetry. In 1933, Sri Sri wrote ‘Jayabheri’, a promise to rise to change the world. In the following years, his poetry became his reaction to the struggles he saw in society and a revolt against the existing rotten feudalistic society. He took to the cause of the class struggle and his writings were deeply charged with social concern. His poetry was published in literary journals and was read out aloud among large groups and gatherings. By the time the collection of these poems was published in 1950 as Maha Prasthanam, his magnum opus, he became a household name.
His poetry is revolutionary not only because he wrote about the struggles of the working class and peasants but also because he shook the complacent Telugu bourgeois by freeing the language from the shackles of prosodic rules.
Moving away from the pre-existing classicism prevalent in Telugu literature, Sri Sri led the wave of progressive poets who formed the Progressive Writers Association (Abhyudaya Rachayitala Sangham also known as Arasam), writing about the downtrodden and the working class. He wrote in free verse rooted in colloquial alliterations and rhythms. Progressive Telugu poetry took a definitive form in his hands. The poetry found its purpose during the Independence struggle, and the Telangana Peasant Struggle against the Nizam rule and the oppressive feudal system parallelly.
ఏ దేశచరిత్ర చూచినా
నరజాతి చరిత్ర సమస్తం
Whichever country’s history you see
What reason is there to be proud?
Entire history of human race
Is exploitation of others
ఈ రాణీ ప్రేమపురాణం,
ఆ ముట్టడికైన ఖర్చులూ,
ఇవి కవోయ్ చరిత్రసారం
This queen’s love affairs
The expenses of that invasion
Schemes and accounts
These are not the essence of history.
In the civilisation on the banks of Nile
What was the life of the common man?
In building the Taj Mahal
Who were the labourers who lifted the rocks?
— Excerpts from Desacharitralu
Interestingly, though his poetry gave voice to the nationalist movement in an early Independent India, Sri Sri saw the people’s movement as an international phenomenon.
Tryst with Left Politics
Sri Sri remained closely associated with leftist politics till the end of his life. In 1955, he was the only member of the Progressive Writers Union who supported the Communist Party of India contesting against Congress. His campaign for the CPI made him the subject of ugly, maligning campaigns. During an election campaign in Gudur, the gathering was attacked by stone pelting as volunteers tried to control the situation. His mental health took a toll when he saw a bleeding volunteer attacked. He recollects in his autobiography that he lost consciousness for five to six weeks and had no recollection of how he reached Madras where he was admitted in a hospital for treatment.
Post the Indo-China War (1962), the Indian Government indiscriminately arrested Communists, and suppressed anyone who dared to dissent against the way India functioned during the War. Sri Sri who was then heading the Human Rights Commission in Andhra Pradesh worked to inculcate public sentiment against the ways of the state.
In 1970, Sri Sri’s 60th birthday celebrations were in full swing in every city in Andhra Pradesh. By then most members of Progressive Writers Union slowly disassociated themselves from the leftist movements when the Naxalbari movement was spreading in Srikakulam. Students who were associated with the Srikakulam Tribal Struggle at the time, gave an ultimatum to Sri Sri and his ilk, whether they would be on the side of the struggle or those backing away. Sri Sri and a handful of other poets chose the side with the tribal struggles and formed the Revolutionary Writers Association (Viplava Rachayitala Sangham, also known as Virasam). Sri Sri remained a member of Virasam till his death. In his later years, he adapted himself, taking a cue from younger poets after him. When a Naxalbari activist Nagabhushan Patnaik was sentenced to death, he wrote:
తెల్లవాడు నాడు భగత్సింగు అన్నాదు
నల్లవాడు నువ్వు నేడు నక్సలైటువన్నాడు
ఎల్లవారు నిన్ను రేపు వేగుజుక్క అంటారు
ఇంక్విలాబ్ ఇంక్విలాబ్ ఇంక్విలాబ్ జిందాబాద్
That day, the white man called you Bhagat Singh
Today, the brown man calls you a Naxalite
Tomorrow, everyone will call you the Morning Star
Inquilab Inquilab Inquilab Zindabad.
When the Andhra government arrested three Virasam poets, he wrote an angry letter to the then Home Minister and signed his address as ‘c/o Nagabhushan Patnaik, wherever he is’.
Sri Sri claimed to be ‘an extremist in his poetry, and a modernist in his politics’. He repeatedly stumbled, misspoke, and corrected his stances. Belonging to a generation which saw hope in Communism and the Red Army, he was consistent in his anti-establishment stand and support for leftist politics. His influence in the literary and political landscape was unparalleled and he welcomed anyone breaking away from the status quo. Following his lead, the next generation of poets formed similar groups replicating his sense and style to an extent (of which digambara poets, nayagara poets are examples). Oppression, inequality and injustice became common subjects of new poetry and his writings remain as relevant and inspirational as ever.
Maha Prasthanam by Srirangam Srinivasa Rao
Sahityam Pai Balagopal published by Hyderabad Book Trust
Anantam (autobiographical essays) by Sri Sri published by Virasam
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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2020 10:52:47 IST