The many ideas behind the birth of poetry that floats like a butterfly; and stings like a bee - Hindustan Times
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The many ideas behind the birth of poetry that floats like a butterfly; and stings like a bee

ByRamu Ramanathan
Sep 07, 2023 12:38 AM IST

The turning point of Telugu literary history is 3 and 4 July of 1970. Poets who were invited to speak at the seminar/ poets who were not invited to the seminar/ poets who were going to be felicitated/ poets who were expelled/ poets who were going to boycott/ poets who were to be a member of the executive committee/ poets of all ideologies and -isms

MUMBAI I am hugely pessimistic about most things on this planet. But literature makes me optimistic. Let me explain why. Last week, an economic advisor to the PMO and part of the nation’s think-tank spoke about how India has doubled its infrastructure prowess in the past decade as compared to the previous 67 years. More than 2,000 delegates (owners of SME and MSME) were present in the audience, and they concurred.

Telugu poet Varavara Rao, and writer and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde at the launch of Rao’s book in the city last weekend. (Anshuman Poyrekar/ HT Photo)
Telugu poet Varavara Rao, and writer and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde at the launch of Rao’s book in the city last weekend. (Anshuman Poyrekar/ HT Photo)

In a way it was the election bugle for 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

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Thankfully, in India whatever one says, the contrary also holds true. In such times, Varavara Rao’s (VVR) new collection of poems, ‘A Life in Poetry’ -- the first ever English translation of his poems serves an antidote.

I met a friend who was a student in the late seventies in Warangal. He made me familiar with the work of Nikhileshwar, Jwalamukhi and Cherabanda Raju – the dangerous poets and “verbal naxals”. Those days, a poet could be jailed for “a literary crime”.

Against this backdrop, I heard my friend reciting VVR’s poems. Three things struck me when the Telanganite read the poems in Telugu. The poems were loud. In fact VERY LOUD! Suddenly, the mild-mannered man in front of me had transformed into an angry young thing. The recitation reminded me of a dhabb dhabba (Marathi word for waterfall). And like a dhabb dhabba, the poems were unruly, chaotic, badly behaved and yet, all of a sudden, pristine and pretty.

And this is the interesting thing about VVR’s words in ‘A Life in Poetry’. The poems are not the thing. Like a good play, the text doffs its hat to events that are transpiring offstage.

Point 1: The historical

Every good poet is part of a literary gharana. And VVR’s gharana is Virasam (1970).

Virasam’s antecedents can be traced to the Digambara movement. The Digambara poets along with the poets from Warangal were called Tirugubadu (poets of revolt). KM George, captures the essence of this movement: “After Independence, several problems — price rise, unemployment and so on led to deep dissatisfaction among different sections. This dissatisfaction prompted six angry young poets to publish a collection of their poems in 1965. Calling themselves the Digambara Kavulu (naked poets), they revolted against everything related to the past and thus startled society with naked truths. Though their language was less polished and often vulgar, they succeeded in shocking the readers, making them realise the ills of present-day society.”

The turning point of Telugu literary history is 3 and 4 July of 1970. Poets who were invited to speak at the seminar/ poets who were not invited to the seminar/ poets who were going to be felicitated/ poets who were expelled/ poets who were going to boycott/ poets who were to be a member of the executive committee/ poets of all ideologies and -isms.

The stage was set. The cast: The players from Digambara Kavulu and Tirugabadu Kavulu. A high and mighty complex plot. The subtext: idealism versus worldliness.

On 3 and 4 July of 1970 the deliberations led to the formation of Viplava Rachayitala Sangham – Virasam (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), with Sri as president and four Digambara poets as members on the executive committee.

Those were the days: a good poet had to be a poet. More importantly, a poet had to be a reasonably good revolutionary too. The pen had to be wielded like a sledgehammer.

Point 2: The political

How does the 53-year-old history connect with the here-and-now.

The Virasam publishing cell produced 20-30 books per annum. In the last 53 years, there might be about a thousand books. If you look at the list of contemporary writers from the delta (the districts of Premchand’s , Krishna delta) and the writers from Rayalaseema and Srikakulam in the north to Nellore in the south, the results are an eye opener. A newer generation, especially Dalit students have been joining Virasam. Also stories and essays penned by women like Shahida, Midko, Nitya and Myna.

Consider: Nitya. She wrote a criticism of Premchand’s writings from a Left perspective. Nitya is the pen name used by U Krishna Kumari (Nirmala) who helmed the DK movement as Narmadakka (Saibaba case). She was diagnosed with advanced cancer and released for treatment. On cue, she was arrested in Hyderabad along with her partner. She was in Byculla jail for two years undergoing cancer treatment and finally sent to a centre in Bandra where she passed away last year. Besides being a writer (short stories, literary criticism, analytical essays), Nitya was a great organiser.

And that’s the thing about Virasam. It is not merely a movement about words. It’s also about the omnicompetent organisation abilities of poets. And that’s how an entire generation of poets like Pani, Rivera, Arasavilli Krishna, KKK Verma and Kenari have dared dare to pen poems about the Green Hunt operations, Janatana Sarkars and DK movement.

The group prints 1000 copies, which are dispatched to bookstores and book stalls. During meetings, these books are placed in stalls. And this is the legacy of VVR, who in addition to being a wordsmith is also an organiser and motivator of young men and women.

Point 3 - Allegorical

The late Shamsur Rahman Faruqi used to say, in India, the rupak is the reality (the myth is real).

His favourite fable: If you consider the Triveni in Allahabad, everybody talks about the Triveni Sangam; the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna. Nobody has seen the third river. This myth is an integral part of our reality.

Let me share another type of rupak.

Cut to 2014: On 21 September, the state government cancelled a meeting in Sundarayya Vignan Bhavan. This is the property of CPI (M) which had built a six-meeting hall complex named after P Sundarayya.

The police arrested 700 people. And after that, denied permission for a students’ meeting of Telangana Vidyardhi Vedika. The reason: the group was challenging the industrial policies and if you allow these meetings, it will dissuade corporate investments.

And so, the meeting was cancelled - and the park in front of the Sunder Vigyaan Bhavan was transformed into an open jail. Meanwhile, 43 people were placed in the police station. Coincidence: it was the same place where Sri (the epoch-making poet) was arrested in 1975.

A day after the incident, the secretary, Varalaxmi, penned an article for a Telugu daily saying, “Who said the meeting has not taken place?”

And this is the rupak! Since all the karyakartas were in prison, they could conduct their meeting peacefully - and without any disturbance.

And this is the context in which you must read VVR’s poems in ‘A life in poetry’.

It’s poetry that floats like a butterfly; and stings like a bee!

(Ramu Ramanathan is a journalist, playwright and poet. At the launch of the ‘Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry’ in the city last week, the writer spoke about the eco-system that birthed VVR’s thoughts.)

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