The most prolific,prominent and popular Telugu writer.

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Mana Mahaniyulu

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Reference :

Sakshi News Paper – 20-Sep-2009


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September 20, 2009 at 10:44 am

Chilakamarthi – The Blind Bard Of Andhra

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Pothukuchi suryanarayana murthy, Advocate, Rajahmundry

Of all the Telugu writers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the 20th, chilakmarti Lakshmi Narasimham was the most popular and prominent. In his range of literary output he is next only to Veerasalingam whom he revered and followed as an ardent disciple. Though he was composing verses even from his school days, his regular literary career started in 1889 with the writing of Keechakavadha (a play in five acts) at the request of Immaneni Hanumantha Rao Naidu who was running the ‘Rajahmundry Hindu Theatrical Company’ (a dramatic society) of which the leading lights were himself and Tanguturi Prakasam. The play was staged for the first time on the night of 1561889 and it was a thumping success. Many more performance were given.

Exhilarated by the warm appreciation of scholars and the people, Lakshmi Narasimham wrote in quick succession, Draupaid parinayam and Gayaopakhyanam (all of them full length dramas of five acts each)and these were produced on the stage with immediate success. By 1890 though only 22, Lakshmi Narasimham established himself as a seasoned playwright enjoying a countrywide reputation and enhancing the prestige of the Hindu Theatrical Company which coopted him as a member, though he was no actor himself. Pandit Sivanatha Sastri, the Brahmo Samaj leader of Calcutta, when he visited Rajahmundry in the year have heard of Chilakamarti’s attainments in the feld of play writing through Veeresalingam, greeted Lakshmi Narasimham as the ‘local Shakespeare’. All his plays were originally written in prose suit the needs of the stage in the early days, but soon after the emergence of singeractors and owing to the corresponding change in popular taste, verse were introduced. By the end of 1892, Nala Chatitam another play was completed and staged. His Gayaopakhayanam is the only Telugu book that has sold more than a lakh of copies (it still holds the record) and it is the drama that has had the largest number of performance up to date.

The second phase of his literary life dawned in 1894 when he began writing novels on the inspiration derived from reading Veeresalingam’s Rajasekhara Charitra (the first novel in Telugu) on which he modeled his own first novel Ramachandra Vijayam with a social theme. The incentive for novelwriting was popularized by Nyapati Subba Rao pantulu who organized a contest and awarded prizes for the best ones. Chilakamarti bagged the first prize in 1894 for his Ramachandra Vijayam, in 1896 for his historical novel Hemalata and in 1897 for Ahalya Bai. Lakshmi Narasimham’s fame as a novelist soon spread far and wide and his Narasimham’s fame as a novelist soon spread far and wide and his works were most widelyread and enjoyed in those days. His another novel Soundarayatilaka was serialized for two years in 18981900 in the columns of Saraswati, a Telugu literary monthly magazine.

In 1899, he translated into Telugu, Parvati Parinayam a drama from the original Sanskrit. He wrote in 1897 a book of poems entitled Prithvi Rajeeyamu whose manuscript was mistakenly torn up by a niece of his aunt. As there was no other copy of it, it was permanently lost to the public. In 1906 he started a literary monthly entitled Manorama and in the columns of that magazine he first published his Prasanna yadavam, a free Telugu rendering of Todd’s Annales of Rajasthan, Maha Purush Jeevita Charitralu, (biographical accounts of the great men in the three presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras) and ‘Tit Bits’ (humorous skits.)

He translated Ramesh Chandra Dutt’s Lake of Palms into Telugu in two parts and named it Sdha Saratchhandramu. Towards the end of 1909, he started another Telugu magazine, Desamata, a sociopoplitical literary weekly, in the columns of which he published the novels, Krishan Veeni and Manimanjari. The late V. Krishnawsami Lyer of Madras, a sound scholar and patron of letters, had got written the story of Ramayana in 700 Sanskrit slokas called from Valmiki’s original; and this work was translated into Telugu by Chilakamarti under the name Valmiki Ramayana Sangraham. On similar lines, he wrote Bhagavata Katha Manjari, a compendium of the best tales in the BNhagavatam. He has to stop the publication of his two journals by 1919 owing to financial constraints and from then began the slow decline of his literary productions.

Lakshmi Narasimham possessed quick grasping capacity and a phenomenal memory probably a natural compensation for his defective eyssight which deteriorated into nearblindness by the age of 30.

If one’s quality of literary work is to be judged from the popularity his works enjoy, Chalakamarti’s place in literature is right at the top. The reading habit among the Telugu public was inculcated on account of his novels and dramas. It is no wonder that his works continue to be read with interest and profit. Lakshmi Narasimham’s activities were not confined to the literary sphere alone; they extended to the educational, social and political fields as well.

He worked as a teacher and ran schools in Rajahmundry, one of which was later taken over by Veeresalingam and developed into the ‘Veeresalingam Theistic High School’. He was a close associate of Veeresalingam in his social reform movement and was also his tusted lieutenant. He started the first school for workers and poor people and managed them as long as he long as he could financially support them. He was an excellent public speaker enthralling audience with his fluency and thoughtfulness which were the distinguishing features of his orations. He was also an active participant in the affairs of the Indian National Congress. After Veeresalingam left Rajahmundry for Madras, Chilakamarti along with a band of sincere workers continued his master’s work there in the field of social reform and education and kept up his high reputation throughout with a record of glorious achievements. Recognizing his contribution to the society, the Andhra University honoured Chilakamarti Lakshmi Narasimham by conferring on him the title of Kalaprapoorna Chilakamarti was born on 2691867 and lived up to the ripe age of 79 and he died on 1761946s. Chilakamarti was a true patriot & social reformer. Much before even Gandhiji has come from South Africa and name was not known in the country, Chilakamarti started a night school for Harijans with a Brahmin teacher and othodox eyebrows were raised at this ”unholy” act and social obloquy was heaped on him.

But he was undaunted by the taunts of the obscurantists and carried on his oneman campaign for educating neglected in the society . He believed in enlightenment of the masses for national progress and prosperity and did his best in that cause.

When Bipin Chandra Pal , during his hurricane tour of various States trying to inspire the country men on national sovereignty and the struggle for independence, came to Rajahmundry and delivered a moving and inspiring lecture, Chilakamatri translated his speech into an equally inspiring lecture into Telugu for the benefit of the audience. Chilkamarti’s defective vision did not deter him in his literary and other pursuits; not did it obstruct his creative faculties. In fact it served him as a blessing in disguise in concentrating his intellectual energies and maximizing the utilization of his talents.

Chilakamarthi – Trend Setting Nationalist

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– Professor P. RAMALAKSHMI, Dept. of History & Archaeology, Nagarjuna University

Chilakamarthi Lakshmi Narasimham the blind bard of Rajahmundry, was a true symbol of the latter half of 19th Century. His literary accompliments and zeal for social reform involved him in various movements, aimed at improving social life. He was a sympathizer of Brahmo ideals, took active part in spreading literacy especially for girls and downtrodden encouraged widow marriages, condemned nautch parties, fought against the contemporary superstitions, worked for the upliftment of Harijans etc., in all these activities, he continued the work of Veeresalingam and Venkataratnam Naidu. But by championing the cause of freedom movement, he overcome their limitations and became a trendsetter as the poet turned nationalist. He mobilized public towards freedom movement through effective speeches and writings. He responded equally to almost all the phases of national struggle. These services dominate his services in literary and social spheres and contradict the usual reference to him merely as a literary figure and reformer.

C.L.Narasimham was a student of Veeresalingam in School education and a disciple in social reform, it is interesting to find that while Veeresalingam’s literary writings were aimed at social reform alone, those of Narasimham advanced in mobilizing public towards nationalist movement. Besides experimenting with different forms of literature like poetry, prose, novel, drama and humorous skits (Prahasanas) he conscientized the people about the contemporary situation through his monthly magazine “Manorama” and weekly “Desamatha”.


It is supposed that only from the visit of Bipin Chandra Pal to Rajahmundry in 1907 Narasimham began his association with freedom struggle. It was not such a sudden switchover but consistent involvement in the day to day things that made him a prominent figure during Pal’s visit.


As a true disciple of Veeresalingam, Narasimham expressed his loyalty to Queen Victoria in the meetings that were held in 1887 in connection with the golden jubilee celebrations of her coronation. Kandukuri Veeresalingam, Vaddadi Subbarayudu, Vavilala Vasudeva Sastri and Susarla Ananta Rao composed peoms. Narasimham too wrote nine poems but were read in the name of his friend.

A meeting was again held in Rajahmundry in 1897 under the presidentship of the District Collector Brodie in connection with the diamond jubilee celebrations. Nyapathi Subba Rao, Madireddi Venkata Ratnam Naidu and Veeresalingam praised her rule. Narasimham read poems listing out the benefits of British rule like protection to lives and property, improvement in communications, and public works, increasing literacy due to the establishments of schools etc., He concluded with a benediction saying that the queen should rule over this country for thousand more years1. These were published in the Telugu Journal Chintamani.

From loyalty to the British Raj, he slowly moved towards patriotism and this he overtook Veeresalingam.


Narasimham attended the meetings of National Congress with patriotic zeal. His attendance at the All India National Congress Sessions in 1894, 1898 and 1903 made him an advocate of the ideals of the congress as popularized by Surendranath Benerji, Lal Mohan Ghosh and Firoz Mehta. He became a strong supporter to the cause of swadesi, swaraj and national education


Narasimham participated in almost all the sessions of Godavari District conferences. In the first Godavari District conference, held in Kakinada in June 1895, he composed 14 poems on the plight of the peasants. They reflect the moderate view of reforms within the British rule. 2 Still he presented the dissatisfaction of the people with the British Raj by referring to various taxes like land tax, water tax, water cess, municipal taxes, stamp duties and even salt tax. He gave expression to the aim of the conference also by saying that it should bring the rulers and ruled closer by improving on the limitations of the British rule. 3

He was a support to the successive assemblies. He attended the second in Rajahmundry in 1896, third in Eluru in 1897 and the fourth at Pasalpudi in 1898. There he concluded his poems, written exclusively for this through a more powerful and effective tone.4 Though he did not attend the sixth assembly at penumantra in 1903. He helped in its conduct by sending the needed furniture. Then there was a gap due to the lack of hosts. The Godavari District Conferences were received in 1913 at Kakinada, subsequently followed by that of Rajahmundry in 1914 and the next one took place in Pithapuram in April 1919. Narasimham attended all the three.


Apart from participating in national and Godavari District conferences, he participated in other regional conferences too like the first Krishna District conference in Guntur in 1896, Visakhapatnam District conference in Vizianagaram in 1911, Madras provincial congress meet at Kakinada in June 1902. Krishna District political conference at Tenali in May 1908 etc., Narasimham’s literary and social activities on the one hand and his attendance at the national and regional conferences on the other exerted consistent influence on his increasing patriotic fervor.


On 16th October 1905, Bengal was partitioned against the wishes of the people. With swaraj as a goal and swadesi and national education as the means, Vandemataram movement started gaining momentum. Among the various places in Andhra that came under its grip, Rajahmundry alone provides the example of one with organizational base.

Swadesi meetings

Narasimham participated in all the meetings that were held in the town to protest against the partition of Bengal and the arrest of Surendranath Benerji during 190506. On 25th October 1905, a meeting was held under the presidentship of Mr. Bhaskara Ramaiah to encourage love for swadesi goods. This meeting took place when the Parsee merchants from Bombay were trying to sell their foreign cloth in Rajahmundry. Narasimham spoke in Telugu. The meeting resolved to appoint a committee to take practical stpeps to encourage, local and indigenous arts and industries through the establishment of “Rajahmundry Industrial Institute”. Rajahmundry Industrial Association also conducted frequent meetings. At one of which Narasimham presided and Kowtha Srirama Sastry spoke.

Bala Bharathi Samithi:

Narasimham was closely associated with Balabharathi samithi formed in February 1907. He became its VicePresident while G.Lakshmanna was its President. It consisted of the Youth of the town students and prominent figures. They tried to educated the people and to conscientise the public about the present state of things and political development.

On Sivarathri day in February 1907, Balabharatha Samithi organized an hnprecedented, procession to Kotilingala at the banks of the river Godavari, singing patriotic songs and wearing Vandemataram badges. Leading men like G. Lakshmanna and Narasimham were in the front ranks, followed by the crowd of students. Gadhicherla Hari Sarvottama Rao, student of Training college apprised the crowd about swadesi and boycott. Thus places of socioreligious importance became the nucleus of political awakening as was done in other parts of India.

Pal’s addresses in Rajahmundry April 1924, 1907:

Bipin Chandra Pal visityed Andhra at the invitation of Mutnuri Krishna Rao, the editor of Krishna Patrika. He arrived in Rajahmundry on April 19, 1907. A rousing welcome was given to him by the Rajahmundry public 900 platform tickets were sold on that day besides a huge crowd waiting outside the station. It took two hours for Pal to reach the bunglow from station.

Pal spoke for five days, condemning the British policies. Narasimham who was knownm for his effective style of expression and photographic memory, translated all these five lectures at the end of each into Telugu and conveyed the message in the same emotion. In the last lecture on national education, Pal stated that college discipline was to be super seeded when it clashes with duty to one’s own country. On the last day of the meeting, Narasimham composed a poem depicting the picture of India. Though India is a milch cow, its milk is being robbed away by the British cowherds while the Indian calves are crying for it. This became narasimham as the President of the Dramatic Association, presented Rs.150/ to Bipin Chandra Pal, money derived from the performance of drama ‘Veni Samharam’ to support the cause of swaraj. Thus he strengthened the movement both morally and materially.

It is interesting to note the difference in attitude of Narasimham and Veeresalingam towards the rusticated students of Rajahmundry colleges. There was open defiance by the students of arts and Training college to principal mark Hunter in 1907. Students shouted the slogan of barred 130 students. While Veeresalingam looked at these rusticated students with disfavour, charging them as indisciplined, Narasimham had admiration for them for taking up the bold step of risking their careers. Veeresalingam though agreed earlier to give sundaramma, and educated widow to Kamaraju Hanumanth Rao, imposed conditions later, since he disliked the idea of giving her to an indisciplined one. Narasimham and others could succeed finally in getting the marriage performed after great difficulty.

Narasimham was sympathetic to Ravuri Rama Krishnayya, another rusticated student who sold khadi for several months in the mofussil and introduced swadesi loom priced at Rs.7/.


Narasimham was a prolific writer and mobilized public towards national movement, the poems that he composed condemning Lala Lajpati Roy’s arrest reveal his understanding of the situation. He stated that India itself was a prison with Indians as captives and hence the political arrests were nothing but shifting the captives from one prison to another.

Narasimham along with Attili suryanarayana contributed a number of articles to Satyavolu Gunneswara Rao’s weekly “Andhra Kesari” which was full of news regarding swadesi, boycott of foreign goods, swaraj and national education.

Publisher and editor:

Besides being a contributor, Narasimham founded “Manorama”, a monthly magazine in January 1906 and a weekly paper “Desamatha” “Manorama magazine conscientised its readers about the contemporary developments and instilled in them sense of responsibility and service to the nation. It encouraged the swadesi spirit in two ways: a) by focusing attention on those who came up in lives through selfeffort by giving biographies of Indians like Sir Jemshadji Tata, thus transmitting the idea that independent profession was preferable to the official one and b) publishing information on indigeneous crafts. In this context, the poems of Achanta Suryavanarayana Raju on the crafts exhibhition at Narasapur deserve mention. In one of them the poet presented the contemporary plight of the loss of skills in manufacturing articles, paving the way for the drain of Indian wealth. He asked the crafts men to rebegin their work and revive the old glory.

‘Manorama’ also published articles on the reasons for Indian poverty and thus conscientised the people on the drain of Indian wealth. Attili Suryanarayana traced Indian poverty to the advent of the British. This article was highly educative since it was based on the writings of Naoroji, William Digby, Ramesh Chandra Dutt and Subrahmanya lyer.

‘Manorama’ familiarized its readers about the social reformers and nationalists by serializing the biographical sketches of personalities like Ram Mohan Roy, Ewara Chandra Vidyasagar, Kesavachandra Sen, Rama Krishna Paramahamsa, Bamkimchandra chetterji etc., Sketches of Bengali leaders ended with the 12th volume and those of the Marathas started.

Book Reviews published in Manorama editions were informative and inspiring. Gadicherla Harisarvottama Rao’s “Abraham Lincoln” was reviewed in vol. II No.3 with the message that he was against the concept of racial inequality;” “Upanyasa Manjari” consisting of Telugu Translations of the speeches of nationalist leaders like Naojoji, Gokhale, Surendranath Banerji, Tilak etc., was reviewed in May June 1907. Mangipudi Venkatasarma’s “Vandemataram”, presenting the old glory and contemporary plight was reviewed in the same book. K.V.Lakshmana Rao’s “Hindu Desa Katha Samgraham” was reviewed in Vol. II, October 1907. Unnava Lakshminarayana and J. Gurunatham’s book” India Rajya Tantram” containing British policies, diplomacy, different forms of drain of wealth, famines, native organizations etc. was also reviewed.

It is no wonder that Manorama, even during the first year itself could get four patrons and roughly 450 subscribers.

C. L.Narasimham started “Desamatha”, weekly paper, in 1910. Though the paper continued only for a very short period i.e. till 1919, it did focus on the regional issues and contribute to the growing Nationalism. The tough attitude of the European lady teacher Peddy in the Girls Training school became object of criticism and the lady was transferred as a consequence. Rajahmundry Municipality was also criticized.

From July 1911, complaints had gone to the District Collector than the paper Desamatha was bent on publishing anitBritish articles alone. Narasimham displayed his adherence to the patriotic ideals by not compromising them with personal benefits. He refused to make his Desamatha into a subsidized one since one of the conditions of subsidy was to publish articles always in support of the government. He believed that taking subsidy meant nothing but selling one’s own soul to the British. He wished to run the paper independently, even at a higher cost, so as to have the liberty to criticiese the government the government whenever necessary.

There were other instances where he was prepared to forego the positions and privilies whenever they clashed with those of national interests.

1) He resigned his membership in the governing body of the Hitakarini High school when he was told that his membership was coming in the way of the school getting government grants. It was due to his association with the Vandemataram movement. In fact, the school was the same Hindu, Lower secondary school started by Narasimham and taken over by Veerasalingam. Still his love for the school did not obstruct his adherence to nationalism.

2) He refused to write Telugu Readers for Forms IV and V to the English company on the ground that the profits would go to the foreigners. His argument was interesting: he said that the British were keen not to leave the profits from even Telugu books to the natives. He finally stated that he would give the books to a native company if such offer comes or he would publish them himself. He firmly stated that he would not allow the foreign company to take away the profits on the publication of Telugu books atleast.

Narasimham’s exemplary nature was revealed from the following incident also: when Mrs. Besant was interned in 1917, several meetings took place. The Godavari District collector Beckett warned him not to canvass for national movement since he was known to be an effective speaker and writer and was known for mobilizing public. He warned him to be cautious in his speeches and writings. The reaction for this was that Narasimham spoke in as much emotion as possible at a meeting on the same day. Even during the non co operation movement, Narasimham spoke several times exhorting the people to do their best. He lamented that his blindness came in the way of courting arrests.

Thus, Chilakamrthi Lakshmi Narasimham was not merely an ordinary literacy figure or a mere social reformer. Even as a literary figure, he was the trend setter in Telugu nationalist writings. From being an ordinary supporter of British Raj, he moved towards nationalism and became its strong advocate. Through exemplary life, he displayed how national interests cold have precedence over personal interests. He was one of the earliest advocates of economic nationalism and therefore, deserves a premier position among nationalists too. Though he was shot into prominence during Pal’s visit as translator of hi 5 day speeches, he was closely associated with the movement even before and after his visit. He had all the qualities necessary to become a national leader commitment, self sacrificing nature, association with leaders, ability to converse with nonTelugus (Command of English) etc. Yet he remained a Regional Nationalist Leader mainly because of his physical handicap blindness which made him a dependent on others even for routine things.

Chilakamarthi – My Father’s Mentor

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-Andavilli Satyanarayana, Journalist, Vijayawada

It is a matter of great pride for our family that my revered father Dr.Andavilli Narasimham had the good fortune of receiving in good measure the love and affection of one of the greatest literary figures of Andhra, Sri Chilakamarthi Lakshmi Narasimham. Whatever I record here is only from hearsay as the great pioneer of humour in Telugu passed away long before I was born. But, my childhood days were spent in Rajahmundry and Sri Chilakamarthi’s name was heard quite often in our family circles. Though this was not quite in connection with his novels and writing which even by then were highly acclaimed. It was certainly much more than that. It was on a personal level of my father being very closely connected to him. Their relationship was that of a guardian and his ward.

My father hails from a very well-known place with historical importance, Kumara Devam, near Kovvur in West Godavari District on the other side of Rajahmundry. He lost his fathere when he was very young and his mother brought her only son to Rajahmundry for education. He had some landed property in the village which was looked after by his cousin Pedda Narasimham. She took a small portion in Sri Chilakamarthi’s house. It was during that period, my father came very close to him who treated him very affectionately as he had no children. My father married when he was only twelve and my mother ten. When he was studying F.A. (now intermediate) in Arts college, the great congress leader Bipin Chandrapal came to Rajahmundry and exhorted the youth to participate in the freedom movement. A number of students came out of the classes and hoisted the congress flag, shouting ‘Vandemataram’ opposite the college gate. The Principal Mr.Hunter an Englishman, rusticated all of them for one or two years and my father was one of them. During the period, Chilakamarthi was his mantor and guided him in all matters. After he completed his study there, and wanted to pursue further studies, his mother requested Chilakamarthi to send him away from there as he was slowly getting deeper into the freedom movement which was gaining momentum in those parts after the visit of Bipinchandra Paul and other leaders. As he passed his F.A.Creditably, Chilakamarthi garu sent him to the Raja of Pithapuram with a letter to help him secure a seat in Madras Medical College as he was quite brilliant in studies. As the Raja had high regard for Chilakamarthi garu, he sent him to Madras with his letter to some very important person and thus he secured a seat in the prestigious Madras Medical College. During his study there, he was staying with his mother and wife and by the time he came out of the college, he has four children. Whenever my mother came to Rajahmundry, she used to take the the children to Chilakamarthi garu for this blessings. As he could not see, he used to recognize her by her steps and say, ‘Seetamma, Vacchava’.

After the first world war over in 1918, my father returned to Rajahmundry after working in places like Beemunipatnam and Palakonda and set up private practice. He used to go to Chilakamarthi’s house to treat his wife who was a diabetic and later developed a Carbuncle. His niece, Ravuri Subbamma was very close to our family.

I have written so elaborately about my father only to point out that my father’s childhood, education and later career were all so closely linked to the great writer as he exerted a lot of influence on him. My father was endowed with a melodious voice and he used to regale the listeners with poems from Chilakamarthi’s dramas and also Potana’s Bhagavatam which Chilakamarthi used to appreciate very much. My second sister Sakuntala who is happily in our midst at her 85th years has supplied me with all these details.

I still remember what my father told us several times regarding one of the greatest gifts of Chilakamarthi, his prodigious memory. Normally God compensates those to whom he has denied certain faculties like sight. In his case, Chilakamarthi was richly compensated by a powerful memory. He used to translate the speeches of great leaders who visited Rajahmundry in those days. Bipinchandra Paul was a very powerful orator, whose flow of words was torrential. So, he did not like the interruption of translation as it would break his thought process affecting his vibrant delivery. He always spoke for one or one and half hours at a stretch, casting a spell on the audience on Sraddhanada ghat, on the banks of the Godavari. After listening to the whole speech, from memory, Chilakamarthi would translate into beautiful Telugu, taking an equal time. Normally, those who followed the speaker would leave the moment translation commenced. But, when Chilakamarthi was doing it, not a soul stirred from the seats. This was a remarkable feat from a person who was denied God’s most precious gift of vision. My father used to say that Bipinchandra Pal also was mesmerized by Chilakamarthi’s sweet Telugu and remarked that he has never come across such a phenomenon in any other place in the Country which he toured extensively carrying the message of ‘Vandemataram’ to every look and corner.

More competent persons who had read his works will be able to write the high quality and subtlety of his humour and versatility of his writings. I may be permitted the pardonable vanity, if I say that I read his ‘Ganapati’ and ‘Prahasanams’ as a school boy and some of it is still fresh in memory which I quote here and there giving them a false impression of my extensive study of that great and wonderful genious in the real sense of the term. It is my good fortune that I am given this opportunity undeservedly to pay my humble mead of tribute to the great son of Andhra.

Written by chilakamarthi

April 13, 2009 at 7:56 pm


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C.Vijaya Sri & G.K. Subbarayudu

Dept. of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century may be described as a period that the battle between grandhik and vyavaharik language was decisively clinched in favour of the latter; mythological themes gave way to secular ones; literature left the corridors of scholars to reach out to the common folk. This transition was not achieved by any single writer; it did not happen all of a sudden in a single text, although in many ways Kanyasulkam is hailed is as the harbinger of modern Telugu literature. This transition was a gradual process; changes occurred in phases and many writers of the time either directly or indirectly became a part of the transitional developments. Chilakamarthi’s Gayopakhyanam reflects the essential spirit of this phase and may be described as a twilight piece.

Chilakamarthi’s role in the transitional period is that of an intellectual who is yet to overcome the emotional allegiance to a strong inherited tradition, a sanskrithi whose hold few may learn to break. Chilakamarthi was an active participant and leader of significant movements. He was a leading light of the grandhalaya movement which promoted literacy and education in the Andhra region. He was among those who promoted journalism in Telugu as a vehicle of nationalism and ran three periodicals at different times. He started a school for socially backward people in the year 1909 and administered it for 13 years. He also campaigned for widow remarriages, a social problem and a taboo at that time. He participated in social reformation activities as a member of Brahmo Samaj and Hitakarani, and was actively associated with the social movement for the abolition of untouchability. He was a staunch nationalist and did not baulk at expressing his views through his prahasanas, and poetry – few Telugu people exist who are not acquainted with his famous lines… ‘ Bharathakandambu chakkani paadiyaavu/Hinduvulu legadoodalayi yedchuchinda/ Thellavaaralu gadusari gollavaaru/ Pithukchunnaaru moothulu bigiyagatti ‘Bharatha Khanda is a fine milk-cow Hidoos, newborn calves that cry, The white ones, cunning cattle herds, Milk them, nuzzling the calves’ mouths (Our translation)

The Nationalists around the turn of the century were divided into two ideological camps; those who promoted the agenda of ‘progress’ and urged modernization; and those who were committed to the continuation of ‘tradition’ and advocated a retrieval of the lost glory of the past. Chilakamarthi belonged to the second category. He remained loyal to the tradition in matters of language, literary form and his thematic choices. The language he preferred for literary expression was grandhik and he maintained that the language of literature should be different from the language of communicative interaction. The Maharaja of Pithapuram sent Chilakamarthi to Visakhapatnam to defend the grandhik against the vyavaharik in a debate. Chilakamarthi noted his satisfaction with his own spirited defence of the grandhik in his Sweeyacharitra(492). While Gidugu Rammoorthy and Gaurazada Apparao were advocating the use of a vyavaharika language. Chilakamarthi openly declared his preference for the continuation of the grandhik form. His reason was that ‘common language’ or gramya – lingua vulgare – was being passed off as vyavaharic, and that literature ought not to admit such vulgarization of language. Ennobling literature required a noble language for its vehicle.

In his choice of literary forms too Chilakamarthi appers to have prefereed the traditional forms and observed faithfully the conventions of various genres. He wrote his verse in metrical forms, and observed the rules of rhetoric of poetry. Drama was his forte and verse drama his specialty. In fact he is most remembered for his poems in his plays. He also popularized ‘Prahasanam’, a traditional form of a comic, satiric sketch. He also tired his hand successfully at newer forms of literary expression such as novel and biography but he appropriated these forms to reconstruct the history of Andhra or to record the lives of cultural heroes such as Guru Nank, Guru Govind, Samartha Ramdas, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa etc.,

For his themes, Chilakamarthi often turned to mythological stories of the past. Rewriting puranic stories has always been an important aspect of the literary and cultural productions of Telugus. But it acquired a special significance in the context of rising nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when it constituted a part of nation building. Retrieval of tradition as a part of nation building figures prominently in anti-colonial agenda. It is useful to recall here Ernest Renan’s 1882 essay. “What is a Nation?” where he argues that evocation of a national, memory through myths and legends of the past is a necessary step in consolidating a sense of ‘nationhood’. “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,” Renan says, and of all its cults “that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory… this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea.” (1990:19) Chilakamarthi chose episodes, sections or upaakhyanams from epics and rewrote them as verse dramas adapting them for stage productions. Some of his successful productions include: Harischandropakhyanam, Prasanna Yadavam (1906) Gayopakhyanam (1909), Prahladacharitam(1927) etc., In all these plays, Chilakamarthi invokes the cultural ideals of the mythic past and evokes a sense of cultural collectivity. A quick analysis of Chilakamarthi’s positions in matters of literary language, form and thematic choinces mark him out as a revivalist with a strong allegiance to tradition. But a closer scrutiny of his work reveals that Chilakamarthi locates his work in a middle space between tradition and modernity and confronts squarely the conflicts and ambivalences arising out of such a positioning. This paper demonstrates how Chilakamarthi’s work reflects this complex process of contesting as well as appropriating contemporary forces of modernity through a close reading of his play – Gayopakhyanam.

Gayopakhayanam, first scripted and performed in 1890, was printed as late as 1909 but has sold over one lakh copies thus claiming a place for itself among the all time best sellers of Telugu Literature. In the last hundred years the play went through a several successful performances and some of the verses from this play have become a part of common conversation among Telugus. Available printed text appears to be a modified version of the staged play (Muktevi 33), with deletions and incorporations made as deemed suitable by Chilakamarthi – the original was written at the behest of immaneni Hanumantha Rao for a cast which had only one actor capable of signing poems as per contemporary conventions. It is now believed that the poet gave much more poetry to the characters in the printed form, unfettered by the limitations of a particular cast. This extant text is the sole ground of most critical evaluation. And it provides sufficient evidence as to Chilakamarthi’s literary and intellectual bent.

The storyline of Gayopakhayanam is from the puranic domain of the Bhagavatham and was generally known as the Krishnarjuna Samvaadam. The stories from the puranas have been so fascinating that they have attracted readership and viewership in successive generations. Poets have rewritten or adapted these stories in verse or play forms, in Harikathas and forms of dance – drama in each new generation with immense popularity and success – the stories of Prahlada, Gajendra, Paarijathapaharanam, Sundarakaanda have from time to time been retold as verse kavyas, prose narratives, plays and cinema. Gayopakhayanam is one such enduring story. Before Chilakamarthi’s dramatization the story existed as the verse narrative Krishnarjuna Samvaadam, in dwipada (couplet) form. Critical evidence points to the existence of yet another verse text by the same title. As against the existing tradition, Chilakamarthi preferred to call his play, Gayopakhyanam shifting the focus of the narrative to Gaya, the victim figure in this story. This thematic fronting of Gaya brings to the fore the helplessness of common man caught in the crossfire between powerful figures. Gaya may be a Gandharva king, but here he is a helpless victim. For an offence committed inadvertently, he incurs the wrath of Sri Krishna the Lord of Lords and his desperate efforts at self – preservation constitute the main stay of the play. Gaya’s fate suspended between hope and despair comes close to the existential struggles of everyman.

Chilakamarthi adapts the puranic tale to dramatize the predicament of a common man caught in the power struggle of the mighty and the heroic. At one point, Gaya questions the ethic of the strong victimizing the meek and the helpless. He asks:

The strong persecute and kill the week, but alas !

Who ever follows the path of dharma ? (20)

When god himself doesn’t who will? Krishna victimizing Gaya is only one such instance; this was done in the earlier avatars of Sri Krishna too. What harm did Bali do to Vishnu? What offence was committed by Vali to Sri Rama? The meek and the innocent get affected by the logic of greater battles fought in the name of dharma. Gaya’s predicament thus becomes the context wherein the ways of gods / kings / rulers are subjected to a critical interrogation from the perspective of an average actual man. The effect of such dramatization in the early days of the Indian freedom movement cannot be undervalued – subtle, even unconscious subversion of traditionally valued ideas of duty and loyalty to king, hero-worship and subversion adherence to the command of the ruler are now beginning to be scrutinized in terms of justice and human rights. Here is an instance of contemporization of a puranic tale !

The Characters and incidents are divine / mythological; but the treatment is human and work – a – day in nature. Episodes that figure Gaya and his wife are of-course cast in ways familiar and come close to common human experience. But even the conversations between Sri Krishna and his consorts – Rukmini and Satyabhama, Kausika’s humorous interventions, Subhadra’s attempts at peace – making, the verbal duel between Sri Krishna and Arjuna do not seem to occur in any rarefied realm but reflect the emotions and sentiments of everyday life. As for the distinction between the sacred and the profane, we scarcely admit that the anthropomorphic nature of our divine and mythic figures always tilts our ‘sacred’ concepts into profane ones; once we see that the profane is a false category we have constructed to regulate social behavior, we will readily agree that our divine figures are just as sacred or as profane as we are. Chilakamarthi demonstrates this with the great aplomb that a dramatist of his scholarship alone can muster, lesser men would hesitate to treat Gods and mythic heores with the common word that Chilakamarthi uses to humanize them. The exchanges between Arjuna and Subhadra, Krishna and Subhadra, Krishna and Arjuna among others, could be the common places of human relationships any corner of the world. For instance, when Arjuna blames his wife for her filial loyalty and says: “women carry away gifts of saris, jewels and valuables / emptying their parental homes of all riches / but eventually take sides with their husbands” (65) they speak not like mythological heroes or divine figures but like ordinary men swayed by common passions, emotions and prejudices. One cannot miss the process off demythification at work here.

The play is written in a mix of prose and verse. The verse is in language that is accessible to most Telugu – knowing audiences / readers not the tough grandhik nor the colloquial idiom that the authors believered unsuitable, but a middle path that avoided extremes idiomatic and lexical choices; the style mediates between the complexity of the classical syntax and the emergent new ‘language of the people’. The prose is often common enough to accommodate contemporary expressions of abuse, invective, humour, sarcasm and platitude. When we become conscious of the extent to which we barely notice, or remark, we realize the extent to which Chilakamarthi was erasing the distinction between the sacred and the secular without actually accepting and using the vyvaharik idiom

Chilakamarthi, thus, locates his work in a twilight zone negotiating the boundaries between tradition and reform, the sacred and the profane, the grandhik and the vyavaharik, continuity and change. Chilakamarthi’s contribution to Telugu Literature, spanning about 50 years of prolific writing from 1890 – 1940 is therefore of momentous significance. It both shapes and is shaped by the historical context of that period. And Gayopakhyanam is a twilight piece that both participates and breaks free of the literary traditions then prevalent in telugu. In its breaking with tradition the play transcends even its twilight – role, and survives well into the next century, sustaining literary interest by its flow of some resonant Telugu verse.


Chilakamathi, Lakshmi Narasimham (1909). Gayopakhyanam, Rajahmundry : Kandavalli Publishers, 1989.

Chilakamarthi, Lakshmi Narasimham (1942) Sweeyacharitra. Rajahmundry: Kalachakram prachuranalu, 1968.

Muktevi, Bharathi. Chilakamarthi Sahitya Seva. Hyderabad: Telugu parisodana Prachuranalu, 1988.

Renan E. ‘What is a Nation? ‘ trans. M.Thom, in H.K.Bhabha, ed. Nation and Narration London and Newyork: Routledge, 1990