This is an article on Andhra’s Great Reformers and Writers, who were remembered recently on their birth anniversaries, Part-1 focusing on Chilakamarti.
Lakshmi Narasimham,Chilakamarti (26 September 1867- 17 June 1946) was a great writer and social reformer who defied and lampooned brahminical orthodoxy in his writings, set up in 1909 a school for dalits, hosted them, his wife cooked and served them. He along with his four (brahmin-born) friends carried dead bodies, including those of dalits, on their shoulders, when they could not afford costly rituals, and performed their last rites. Post-modernists for the last few decades upheld post-truth by calling Kandukuri Veereshalingam (1846-1919), also born Brahmin, and this great successor of his, as reformers who worked only for their community.
Together with Gurazada (1862-1915), they constituted a trio known to each other, who laid foundations for Renaissance in Andhra society, wrote and worked on issues of medieval orthodoxy, social evils, superstitions, gender injustice, untouchability, dalits education, lampooned and opposed Brahminical deception associated with such malpractices.
Gurazada famously wrote against varna dharma : “There are only two castes – good and bad; if good is Mala (dalit sub-caste), I will be a Mala.” In the master piece of a drama by him, Kanya sulkam, ( Bride Price 1892, later revised by him), he exposed the corruption, (self-) deception and decadence of Brahmin society, and made Madhuravani, a low caste prostitute, the defacto heroine who exposed them all, and helped reforms. It has only an anti-hero, no hero. The drama has characters from lower castes too, presenting a slice of the society. It deals with child marriages wherein aged men purchased brides, widow remarriages, nautch girls (used to buy favors from officials etc), with sidelights on the crisis in education system. Many of his writings are informed by gender justice, opposed national chauvinism (Desa bhakti) and communal bigotry (What is your name, Gods?). (See for more on Gurazada, great writer of Andhra Renaissance, Countercurrents.org 2016, April 2)
Rama Murty, Gidugu (1863-1940) was their contemporary, who heralded a movement to liberate Telugu language from the old bookish (Grandhika) style to lead into a modern spoken (Vyaavaharika) style. That made literature accessible and intelligible to the less educated commoners, including women and dalits. Gurazada gave flesh and blood to that movement by his writings, in which (Kanyasulkam) he also introduced the native dialect, apt to the characters. And he led the fight into the academic bodies for the same cause, by his historic Minute of Dissent (1914) pressing for a change in diction and grammar. Gidugu and Gurazada as Senate Members of the Madras University ( Andhra was governed by it) , fought against traditionalist ( often brahmin) scholars, and succeeded in getting Telugu texts in spoken style prescribed for students.Many classics began tobe re-told in simple modern prose. The modern Telugu used in mass media today is a result of that movement.
Incidentally all these four were born Brahmins, but variously defied, exposed and opposed brahminical orthodoxy (codified by Manu), pleaded and worked for education to all including women and dalits. Many of the post-modernists, blinded by “Constitutional casteism”, and prejudiced scholars resorted to post-truth by calling them as reformers who merely worked for their community.
The trio, in spite of all their limitations, was basically inspired by ideas of renaissance of modern, anti-feudal phase of western societies, while the post-modernists were influenced by the later phase of imperialism. This article views Chilakamarti in such a context.
Chilakamarti’s Role-model was Kandukuri
Born in a Dravida Brahmin family ( of Venkanna and Venkataratnamma) at Khandavalli village, now in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, he had night blindness, was unable to see the numbers written on the blackboard and unable to catch ball while playing. He used to take help from his friends who used to read aloud the school lessons for him.
Chilakamarti was a great successor to Kandukuri, as a writer and reformer too. He emulated Veeresalingam Kandukuri and carried forward his work. It is useful to know about Kandukuri, a contemporary but 20 years older to him, was his role model, from the same town, Rajamundry (RJY), now Rajamahendra varam, its historical name.
Chilakamarti was so inspired that he aptly wrote an elegy on Kandukuri :
He was a very towering poet who gave his all …his body, home, time, money, education …for the welfare of the people of this world.
These lines by him almost equally apply to Chilakamarti himself. Both began careers as teachers, and turned into teachers for the society.
Though he was born in an orthodox Brahmin family, Kandukuri wrote plays criticizing the attitude of Brahmin priests such as Prahlada (1885), Satya Harischandra (1886). Chilakamarti too wrote, satires etc, lampooning priests, Brahmin vices and cheating by orthodoxy.
The difference was that Chilakamarti owned no home, was a man of limited means. He had left his job, and lived on his books and magazines, in those days of limited literacy and readership.
Kandukuri, a militant reformist, who as a Member of Congress, like MG Ranade, took help from the British for his reform work, and was a builder of institutions. Chilakamarti on the other hand was a fierce nationalist too. Kandukuri became famous more as a reformer than as a writer, while Chilakamarti’s case was vice versa.
“If Veeresalingam was the path-finder in this respect, Chilakamarti was a torch-bearer along the path, as the former went on breaking new grounds. Both were versatile writers in verse and prose, with conspicuously voluminous output. There was practically no genre left untouched by them…” (Wikipedia)
Kandukuri was one of the early social reformers who defied his times, encouraged women’s education, remarriage and rehabilitation of widows, which was bitterly opposed by the society, by the educated too, during his time.He inspired generations of reformers and purposive writers, and continues to do so. So many from Telangana also named him as one who inspired them (Vattikota, Telangana).
Chilakamarti was his mirror image, who too left behind a band of supporters : His 60th Birth day (Shashtipurti) was celebrated in 1928 at RJY ; people like Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao, nationalist and founder of the famous Andhra Patrika, were associated in it. On that occasion, all his writings in 10 volumes were released, a rare thing for a writer, more so in those days of limited literacy and readership. He was asked to write his autobiography, he accepted, but could not take up despite reminders by his friends, who virtually carried him on their shoulders in a palanquin, to felicitate him at 75. They were not like solitary reapers who said let me march alone.
They stood up and helped education of dalits
Veeresalingam awakened Andhras out of their suffocating medieval orthodox customs and superstitions. He established schools, the first in 1874, a girls school at RJY, to encourage women’s education. The Hita karini school that was upgraded by Kandukuri in 1907, was the first co-education school in Andhra.The second feature of this new school was it started admitting children from panchama (SC) communities too. And it was free for them and for girls too.
The co-students were successfully trained to treat them well irrespective of gender and caste. “I was surprised to learn that even in the Christian School , they were not admitting Mala (SC) children if they were not christians, ” wrote Kandukuri in his auto-biography. It had more than 500 students in his life time itself. ( His Biography, NBT 1972). He was the Father of Renaissance Movement in Telugu society and literature. “He wrote and lectured fearlessly and is usually likened to Voltaire,” said Dr. KV Narayana Rao in his authentic work, The Emergence of AP, 1973.
Chilakamarti spent Rs 3000, gave all his energies full time, and started Ram Mohan School, exclusively for Depressed Classes (including dalits), the first such school, in the year 1909. He administered it for 13 years, and left it for others to run it, as he ran into difficulties. British govt was not extending him the benefit of specific schemes, as he openly and increasingly opposed it. “There are 150 students and seven teachers now in 1942, education was free for them there,” he later wrote.
(A well researched 3-part Talk by Kiran Prabha in Kaumudi , Sahitee Chandrika, 2017 July was one of the sources of this article. He based himself extensively on his Auto-biography. )
Pithapuram Raja (PR) was one who helped in such things. PR college (1884) at Kakinada was set up with his help, and it had celebrated its centenary : many dalits who studied in schools set up by the duo were educated there, and became leaders in several fields. Later it became a Govt college. Rajamundry too had a college set up in 1853 by the government, and it had a good library. The town had another Gautami Grandhalyam, a leading library set up in 1898, later it became a govt institution. With so many reform minded and enlightened people around, the area broke the chains of the past, and was coming out of the dying feudal values. Many of the post-modernists, and casteist scholars did not care to study their impact and weaved their own theories.
He also campaigned on issues of child marriages and widow remarriages, social problems. Like Kandukuri he as a member of Brahmo Samaj carried on social reform activities. Both were journalists, who published several magazines.
Kandukuri’s wife Rajya Lakshmi (1851 November- 1910 August 12), like Savitribai Phule, stood by him in everything as his comrade-in-arms. She was educated and trained by him to be a teacher and writer too. One can see lot of similarities in the lives and work of the Kandukuri couple and Jyotiba (1827-1890), and Savitribai Phule (1840–1890).
Kandukuri had no children. So it was with Chilakamarti, and for both society was their larger family. Chilakamarti’s wife co-operated with him in all his work. He used to regularly help a hostel of Depressed Classes. He was a believer, and preferred like Kandukuri to be in Brahmo Samaj; consciously avoided popular religious cults, Arya Samaj, and Theosophical Society.
“If rich people, instead of spending money on rituals, temples and attached choultries, spend it for the oppressed people of our country, the nation would prosper,” he wrote : “ We never try to improve the conditions of their huts and their dwellings. Malas and Madigas, untouchables, should they live only on outskirts of villages, in miserable conditions?”
We treat depressed classes as untouchables even as we are getting done all kinds of our menial jobs by them. “Animals and dogs are allowed to stay in our houses but not the panchamas… what a pity ?” As menial servants they can graze our cattle but we should not touch them. “Are they not created by God by whom we are created ? Do they not have hunger and thirst, pains and pleasures like us?” His wife shared his empathy for the oppressed and co-operated until she died in 1930. She hosted dalits, cooked and served them, for days together. The couple were excommunicated by his castemen for such activities in violation of all Brahminical practices. How many critics of Brahminism, even today, have the spirit to practise in their homes what he and his wife had then done?
Till she died, there was no photo of her, and the only picture was a painting done by an admirer, but he was toatlly blind by 1910 and so could not see it. His own portrait,an oil painting, was made at the instance of his friend and admirer Nayudu, a Non-Brahmin. He agreed reluctantly to that, and it was put up in RJY Townhall in 1938.
Both Kandukuri and Chilakamarti were a determined lot who influenced the society and times they lived in: They in their life time itself became famous writers, publishers and journalists, who not only wrote but worked for education, enlightenment and welfare of women. By unity of precept and practice in their life, they set an example, and they could, by dint of their work, mobilize hundreds of supporters for their social reform causes from across the caste spectrum, from Brahmins to BCs to dalits, in their area, who stood up and defended them from even physical onslaughts by orthodoxy, and admired them.
Kandukuri had supporters across the castes including Brahmins who opposed orthodoxy. Chilakamarti’s was a similar experience. In Rajamundry (RJY), the latter used to help last rites, including carrying the dead bodies on shoulder, of those who were unable to afford costly rituals and arrangements, including those of abandoned bodies and poor SCs- Madigas ( Chamars). He was helped in it by 3-4 close friends, including Brahmins like Kandukuri’s brother Venkata Ratnam, Cheruvu Somayajulu, Chilukuri Veerabhadra Rao. In 1916, when he went late by 90 minutes to give a lecture in Metcalf hostel RJY, he gave an explanation that he had to perform last rites of a dalit child.
Among Kandukuri’s copious writings are his auto-biography (in Telugu ) in two parts (each around 300 pages). Chilakamarti’s Sweeya Charitramu (Auto-biography), was a little bigger volume, written in one stretch of five months to finish on 12 July 1942. This he did despite his total blindness, assisted by a full time copy-writer, who took dictation. He was urged and he had accepted to write it when he was 60, but could write it only 15 years later, in 1942 when he was aged 75. He took great pains and wrote it: He was fully blind since his early forties, and had no written reference materials like diaries. Still it contained details of incidents, dates and people’s names.He depended on his excellent memory and his publications
Sweeya Charitramu (Autobiography, 1948), of 850 pages, written by Chilakamarti (1867- 1946), was deemed a socio-cultural chronicle of his times. Born a Brahmin in 1867, he defied brahminical orthodoxy,worked for gender justice, set up a school for dalits, hosted them, his wife cooked and served them, he carried their dead bodies on his shoulders. Post-modernists and prejudiced scholars indulged in post-truth by calling Kandukuri and this great successor of his, as reformers who merely worked for their community.
For the delay in writing his Auto-biography, he belatedly explained reasons, a problem of limited means: He resigned his job as a teacher when he was 32, to devote full time for his activities. In RJY, he lived in a rented house as he owned none: It was rare for he was a prolific writer and journalist until 1922, for almost 25 years, he published 3 literary magazines, and ran a printing press for some time.
He had income from his writings but spent much of it for his social reform work. He spent Rs 3000 to set up a school for the depressed classes. He used to liberally support to dalit students – in their education, supplied food and clothes to them – for whom the Pithapuram Raja set up two exclusive hostels. He modestly added he was not a great man who needed to write an Auto-biography. He had no children to support him, so shifted to his nephew’s village, Kakaraparru near Tanuku around 1942, War period. He had no means to run his extended family that depended on him. He needed a paid full time copy-writer as he was blind. He was given Rs.30 per month by the Pithapuram Raja, a scholar (lexicographer) cum philanthropist himself. But that was not sufficient. Then, his supporters arranged an equal amount (Rs.30) per month that enabled him to finish the massive work.
Both books of Auto-biography were deemed socio-cultural chronicles of their times. Both were first published and reprinted several times by communist publishers, Prajashakti (1948) and Vishala Andhra. Both had biographies about them published by all India agencies like NBT and Sahitya Acdemy.
See for more : Kandukuri, a great reformer, remembered on his death centenary, May 27, 2019, in /countercurrents.org.
Chilakamarti, prolific writer and journalist
The works of Chilkamarti can be broadly classified into verses, plays, Prahasanas, novels, long stories and biographies of great men and autobiography.
He wrote about 15 Novels, including four original social novels. He was called Walter Scott of Andhra. Some were translations or adaptations from English, two of them by Bengali RC Dutt. Chilakamarti wrote stories based on the lives of 48 great people Chamatkara Manjari : It included interesting incidents from lives of great people, historical and social. Hasya Latalu (creepers of humour) in the magazines run by him were possibly fore-runners like the current day tit bits, cartoons and jokes.
He wrote short biopics, Mahapurushula Jeevitha Charitralu (Lives of Great men) during 1906–08. He described the lives of thirty seven great men, past and contemporary, from Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
He published three magazines, all literary magazines, between 1898 and 1916. They were “Saraswathi”, “Manorama” and “Desamatha”. They had high standards, contained novels as serials, unpublished books, critical literary discussions, satires, nationalistic writings.
Desamatha faced problems after sometime due to the new rule by the British that nothing against British should be published. The British used to monitor the magazine and its subscriptions. But Chilakamarti did not like the magazine to be a subsidised paper. He thought that running the magazine according to the rules of British is equivalent to the selling of one’s own soul, and closed it. He had to close down a school when he was denied permissions to upgrade it by the British for unknown reasons.
Known as Andhra’s Shakespeare, he wrote about 12 plays, plus as many incomplete plays: social, mythological and historical in themes. Some were originals, though adapted from mythology, and some were free translations from Sanskrit. The earliest work Keechaka vadha, a stage play, was written in 1889; the last on poet Bammera Potana, written in 1946, incomplete as he died, as was the case with Harischandra. But his best-known play was Gayopakhyanam (18901909), of which one lakh copies were printed in several editions in those days of limited literacy and readership, perhaps a record for any book; a revised and condensed edition was printed in 1909; it was staged hundreds of times. His other famous work was Ganapati (1920), a social comedy and satire, very famous as a radio play.
Gayopakhyanam, popular stage drama that had a record of one lakh copies printed
Gayopakhyanam (the story of Gaya, a Gandharva king) is about a war between Krishna and Arjuna, was more like a socio-political drama, than devotional. He was a trend-setter who demystified and reduced the mythological characters into earthly social beings. Gaya flying in a pushpaka vimanam (aeroplane), spit from the sky and that fell into the palms of Krishna, who was engaged in his rituals standing in a river. An angry Krishna vowed to punish the culprit, who ran for his safety from his powerful pursuer. Mythological sage Narada, known for his creating quarrels and wars between big guns, advised Gaya to approach Arjuna for help, but without prior information about Krishna, because both were closely related, and Arjuna was a devotee of Krishna. Arjuna vowed to secure Gaya at any cost, but he was shocked to learn later that his adversary would be Krishna, whose own sister Subhadra he married! There was no peaceful accord possible as both were adamant, and a holocaust of a war ensued. Finally, all three major gods (Trimurtis) intervened, brokered peace, and averted war.
In the war of words that preceded the actual war, both accuse and abuse each other, forgetting their close kinship, and common cause upholding dharma. Arjuna’s wife Subhadra goes to plead with her brother Krishna, and the peace mission fails. Krishna blames his sister that women forget their own mother’s family after marriage. The two contenders go to the lowest levels in abuse: Krishna was accused of his thefts ( of butter, as a child ), an amorous fellow and womanizer who stole the clothes of women bathing in a river etc. Arjuna was accused of his beggarly activities, timidity in countering Duryodhna who got disrobed his wife Draupadi etc. This dialog of abuse between Godly figures for all their follies was the most spicy part of the drama enjoyed by lakhs of audiences and readers for generations. It is still staged and enjoyed 110 years later, was also made into a full length popular cinema, Sri Krishna Arjuna Yuddham (war),1963,with two topmost heroes of the time (NTR and ANR).
It became popular in Telugu people also for its contemporary interpretation given by Jwalamukhi (1938-2008), revolutionary writer and a stirring speaker who was imprisoned for his speeches, who in scores of his public speeches compared it to the conflict between India and China. Dalai Lama was the Gaya, the culprit, sheltered by an adamant India. And America was the Narada, egging on both sides into war. He was an all India leader of India China Friendship Association (ICFA).
Satire that lampooned Social and Brahminical vices, superstitions
Prahasanam (Sanskrit)meaning loud laughter, was a form of literature, farce or satire, (a device used by Voltaitre Morliere in the West) used by Kandukuri, and more by Chilakamarti who wrote around 80 such pieces.
Chilakamarti wrote almost half of his prahasanas with specific aim of conveying a message. The second category is purely for the sake of farce. The third category is much like an essay through which comment and caustic criticism is offered on the evils prevailing in the society. (Dr. V.V.L. Narasimha Rao. Makers of Indian Literature: Chilakamarti Lakshmi Narasimham, Kendra Sahitya Academy)
Themes included socio-cultural vices including gender issues like dowry including Virgin (Bride) Price (Kanya sulkam) , title of a master piece of a Drama by Gurazada, written in 1892, later revised by him ), on child marriages wherein aged men purchased brides, widow marriages, nautch girls (used to buy favors from officials etc).
One prahasana about a young man who opposes “entertainment” by dancing nautch girls, (Bhogam aata).The irony was his mother insists on it, saying marriage is a celebration, not an ascetic activity; that was so common in marriage functions by the middle and upper classes.
He wrote on vices of modern democracy too, (Votla kai Tiruguta, Vote hunting) when elections had already arrived with unethical practices like buying and selling votes. 1937 witnessed Provincial elections and provisional Ministries in India, and there were Municipal elections in big towns.
Kacheri (The Court) of Yama dharma raja, (the God of death, who gives verdicts and punishments committed by people while living) was one such, where Yama asks his Assistant Chitragupta to provide for new and bigger prison facilities in hell to accommodate such culprits buying and selling votes. He cites a case where a voter was taken away, paid to vote, and kept overnight in a locked room to avoid rival candidates.The voter pleads guilty : he voted in the name of a person who had died 10 years earlier. One can see the farce of electoral democracy in India since inception. His magazine Desa maata (Motherland) attracted troublesome litigation for his writings on municipalities and editors.
Dowry to Grooms (Vara Dakshina), Grooms’ Prices (Pendli kodukula dharalu), Medicines’ Ads (Oushadha prakatanalu), The Great Physician (Goppa vaidyudu), Mendicants’ Tricks (Gosaayi chitkaalu), Deceitful Swamiji or Ascetic (Dambha Sanyasi), The Four Deaf persons (Badhira chatushtayam), Balavantha Brahmanartham (Forced Brahminship), are some farces that indicate his subjects, all of them ring contemporary.
His two volume work of skits, Navvula gani ,( Mine of laughter) is another: In it, for example, he defines and categorises fools: Quarter fool who heckles others without knowing his own inability, half fool does not know his own foolishness, Perfect fool believes everybody except himself is a fool. When does a man become younger? When he (the widower) is trying for a new wife or a Govt job.
“Alas, the Whole Country is a Big Prison House!”
It appears as if those lines are about contemporary India. But that was what he wrote and recited in British India.
The patriot in Chilkamarti came out into public realm in 1895 District Conference of Nationalists ( held in Kakinada, for three days). He wrote and recited 14 verses on Day 3 that elicited great public response and attracted publicity in the freedom movement. He resigned his job as a teacher soon after that to devote full time to his activities.
Every evening, Chilakamarti, the writer-journalist, used to go to a park in RJY and speak on issues of literature, culture and society. It was like Bernard Shah in Hyde Park. He was popular as a dramatist too. RJY those days was famous for stage dramas : Even Shakespeare’s English dramas were staged there, wrote Tanguturi Prakasam, Andhra’s top leader and later Chief Minister (1953), who said Chilakamarti wrote plays for his circle and he acted in them.
He soon became a powerful orator, and increasingly spoke against the British. He was an invited speaker who travelled to places, even to Odisha (Jayapur) and Hyderabad, where he shared platform with Sarojini Naidu in the historic Sri Krishna Devaraya Andhra Bhasha Nilayam, still going on.
When Bipin Chandra Pal visited Rajamandry and gave lectures in English on five days, as part of his Swadeshi (1905) rallies, Chilakamarti, almost fully blind by then, came to the rescue of organizers to be an impromptu translator, who on the last day recited extempore a poem he wrote :
Mother India is a good milch cow,
While Indians like calves were crying for milk,
The wily cowherds called white-men
Having tied the calves’ mouths were milking the cow.
It was a historic poem that gained instant applause and continued appreciation.
In 1907, in the Provincial Political Conference held at Visakhapatnam, a Resolution was passed condemning the imprisonment of Lala Lajpat Rai in Burma. Chilakamarti gave a stirring speech that moved the audience. He the recited a poem, still relevant in India :
To a true devotee of the sacred mother land
Prisons become palatial buildings
Fetters become flower garlands
Gruel becomes a Royal dish
Rough woolen rugs become dazzling silk garments…
At present our pious mother land is like a big prison House
Even if a prisoner is transferred from one place to another
It is only shifting him from one room to another in the prison House
Alas, the whole country is a big prison House !
Towards the end of his Autobiography, he stressed on Unity in Diversity
Towards the end of his Autobiography, he wrote : ( paraphrased from V.V.L. Narasimha Rao. Makers of Indian Literature: Chilakamarti Lakshmi Narasimham, Sahitya Academy.)
Tenets of all religions are noble and lofty. But their followers paved the way for differences among Hindus Muslims Christians; between Brahmins, non-Brahmins and Depressed classes etc…Since thousands of years, they were born here, brought up here, under the same sky, on the same sacred soil, breathing the same air, drinking the same milk from the breast of their motherland. Is it not ruinous for their sacred motherland to hate one another? …
Who is Rama, Vishwamitra, Vyaasa (born of a fisher woman) we adore ? They were not Brahmins. We respect Vedas, Brahma sutras, Puranas, Mahabharat, Maha Bhagavatam, etc written by Vyaasa etc …but why we do not respect today those of lower communities? So also we must respect Holy works of other religions by great souls…A sense of common brotherhood is the need of the day…This whole world is one family at heart…
Is it not our duty to protect this sacred land of ours from the dangers of enmity and hatred with ourselves?
If we beat and bite each other like animals and street dogs, what is the difference between them and human beings?
Unity in Diversity alone is the solution for all the problems…Let us therefore unite and live like human beings under the same canopy of this happy universe…
Thus he wrote towards the end of his autobiogrphy.
The author was a media person.