‘Padma Shri’ covets Dr Prakasa Rao Asavadi, a literary prodigy from an SC community

U Atreya Sarma

A teenager took part in a socio-cultural conference – the All India Veera Saiva Mahasabha, Srisailam – in 1963 and he extemporised a metrical poem in Telugu on its chief guest. Impressed by the boy’s poetic prowess, the VVIP chief guest hugged him and gave him the epithet ‘Bala Kavi’ (Lad Poet). That dignitary was the then President of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The boy began writing metrical poetry right from when he was in his 9th class in the high school.

Coming from a lower-middle class family, the boy, despite his forte in Telugu and other subjects, failed in English in his Pre-University Course. Living in a shelter home at Anantapur, he began learning typewriting. Spotting the literary spark in him, Bhogisetti Joogappa, a retired district collector, engaged his services to type letters for him and also go through and correct the articles received for a journal Srisaila Jyoti, and paid him ₹ 60 a month. Retaining just ₹ 20 for his college and other expenses, the boy was remitting the remaining ₹ 40 to his father, an elementary school teacher with a very moderate means.

While studying his BA and coming under the influence of great Telugu faculty members, he contested as secretary of the college’s literary association. His rival was his senior with a rich background who could throw lavish parties to the college mates so as to garner their votes. The only amount the junior had was just nine rupees that his father had sent him for the purpose. The junior got printed 3,000 leaflets and distributed them to the voters. And he won with a handsome majority of 600 and continued as secretary until he left the college on passing his degree. The novel attraction in the leaflet was, the contestant’s appeal was couched in poetry!

Even when he was in his undergraduate studies, ‘Asadi’ Prakasa Rao, was performing Ashtavadhanams. Wowed by his poetic and literary dexterity, the then Telugu professor Dr Nanduri Ramakrishnamacharya advised the boy to change his surname as ‘Asavadi’ (optimist). From then on, the new surname has stuck to him and his family.  And he was the most favourite student of his teachers.

Asavadi later on worked as a Telugu teacher in the Zilla Parishat high schools at various places before doing MA (Telugu) in the SVU PG Centre, Anantapur. All along, he had been active in the literary field as a poet, writer and speaker.

Even as being a well-known poet, writer and speaker, Asavadi became a lecturer in Telugu and taught in the government degree colleges and served as principal for six years before retiring.  His literary distinction won him an honorary D Litt from the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University when he was fifty-six. He is the only one to receive such an honour while being in government service. 

An expert in Ashtavadhanam, he gave as many as 171 performances not only in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but also in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and New Delhi. He is the only Avadhani from the SC community in the entire country.

WHAT IS ASHTAVADHANAM

Avadhanam is a comprehensive and astounding literary acrobatic demanding a high order of erudition both classical/ traditional and modern with a grip over current affairs, simultaneous undivided multi-focus, extemporisation of metrical poetry and its orderly recital with a photographic memory with no aid of pen or paper, extraordinary common-sense, and a keen wit & repartee. Avadhanam literally means undivided attention, and the one who performs it is called Avadhani. Ashtavadhani is one who is engaged or challenged by eight learned scholars simultaneously, and one of them constantly butts in to disturb and detract the Avadhani’s attention. Likewise, there are Avadhanams wherein an Avadhani is engaged by 100 or even 1,000 scholars simultaneously and they are called Satavadhanam and Sahasravadhanam.

Not being content with being an Avadhani himself, he encouraged and trained many a talented youth to practise this amazing literary activity.

FAMILY BACKGROUND

Born on 02 August 1944 in a poor Scheduled Caste (Madiga) family in a remote Peravali village in the Singanamala Mandal of Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh and settled down in the Penukonda town of the same district, Dr Asavadi Prakasa Rao, by dint of his qualities of head and heart, overcame the disadvantages of his origin, and rose to admirable heights in the realms of literature, education and social service with a positive, eclectic, and harmonising attitude. Not one to believe in confrontation or negative rebelliousness, Dr Asavadi has imbibed the age-old and time-tested quintessential Indian cultural ethos aiming at universal peace and harmony. Refusing to be lured away from his original Hindu faith, he continues to propagate and live the Bharatiya Sanskara (Indic culture) through his multifarious activities for over five decades.

Given to a life of simplicity, austerity and humility, he has been utilising his hard earned income and savings to propagate and rejuvenate Telugu and Sanskrit literatures, and popularise classical poetry for a healthy blend of tradition and modernity.

One who believes that literature has a social role to play, Dr Asavadi has been into social service with stress on empathy and harmony in various ways, as under –

He has been extending a helping hand to needy cum meritorious students.

Founding, and helping found, literary associations at a number of places since 1970.

Distributing his own books free among interested with a view to inculcating the reading habit.

Encouraging and honing the literary skills of budding enthusiasts.

Helping old and unrecognised talented scholars get institutional pension or aid.

Publishing, and helping to publish, the books of talented but unrecognised writers by recommending institutional or philanthropic aid to them. Organising book launches for them.

Conducting unique literary plays like Bhuvana Vijayam, a unique and interactive poetic feat inspired by Sri Krishnadeva Raya, the Vijayanagara emperor cum patron of culture.

Through the literary endowment of his family set up in 2009, he has been conferring awards to traditional and modern poets, women writers, and spiritualists irrespective of their caste or creed. (The writer of this article, Atreya Sarma also has contributed his humble mite to it, and he wants to continue it as per the demands of Dr Asavadi.)

As Principal of the government colleges, he implemented the government schemes concerned, in letter and spirit. And organised meetings to create awareness among the students about them.

Erected the statue of Padma Shri recipient Puttaparti Narayanacharya, and helped install statues of Sri Krishnadeva Raya and Ambedkar.

Set up a library at his home with free board and lodge for researchers.

Addressed hundreds of important events like Independence Day, Republic Day, Teachers Day, AP Formation Day, Commemorations of preeminent personalities.

Actively took part in social service programmes and created awareness on various fronts like Atmospheric Pollution, Free Homoeo Treatment Camps, Service to Old Age Homes, Welfare of Differently Abled, Awakening Women on their Issues, Communal Harmony,  AIDS, Protection of Forests and Wild Life, Temple Culture, Visit to Hostels and Interaction with the Resident Students, Conducting Educational and Scientific Tours, Water Management, Child Labour, Prohibition of Alcoholic Drinks, Family Welfare, Elimination of Untouchability, Savings Habit, Ban of Cow Slaughter, Personality Development.

Scripted and exhibited a play Ananda Jyoti, with inter-caste marriages as theme, winning a district level award.

As a social figure with goodwill, he has performed social marriages as a conflict resolution measure.

Mediated and resolved personal and domestic conflicts of many individuals in the society.

Striven for social harmony with a focus on Hindu Dalits and other downtrodden as State level office-bearer of Samajika Samarasata Foundation.

ARTICLE IN SETU

For an idea of Dr Asavadi’s perspective on social harmony, visit his article “The How of Social Harmony: A Dalit’s Viewpoint” in the Feature ‘India @ 70’ (Setu, Aug 2017). Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/16A7GEyh9oce66cFEcT15CW1-A8NUwFL2/view

FINALLY, THE DUE RECOGNITION – PADMA SHRI

I happened to meet Dr Asavadi Prakasa Rao about six years ago, though I had known about his activities much earlier, and my respectful friendship with him has continued ever since. As his sincere & humble fan, I have been helping him by nominating him in his as well as my name every year for the honour of Padma Shri ever since 2017, and finally, it has fructified now. Earlier, the AP government had recommended his name for Padma Shri in 2012, 2014 and 2015. This is in no way to claim any credit for myself, for my role is only drafting, formatting, uploading, etc. Seeing that despite his literary and other distinctions, he was not being selected, some good souls must have duly put in a word about him to the selection committee. Also, the Narendra Modi-led government of India deserves applause for having made the nomination process online and amenable to the commoners. The conferment of Padma Shri for the year 2021 on Dr Prakasa Rao Asavadi in the field of Literature & Education is certainly a befitting honour to a really deserving person.

Dr Asavadi dedicates the honour to the glory and beauty of Telugu language and the exquisite creativity of its metrical poetry. His book Telugu Padya Kavita Prasthanam on poetic craft published by Telugu Akademi for 4th World Telugu Conference in 2012 is a standard tome on the subject.

MODERN FREE VERSE

Yet, he is not opposed to the modern free verse. He is, in fact, equally comfortable in writing modern non-metrical free verse. His Antaranga Tarangalu (Waves of Soul) is a collection of free verse, and two critiquing works have come out on it. It has been translated into English by Dr Chintalapudi Venkateswarlu, Ph.D. (Telugu), an enthusiast cum fan of Dr Asavadi. The foreword to the book is by Atreya Sarma U, the writer of this article, and it observes –

 “Dr Asavadi’s poetry resonates with weight of meaning, intensity of feeling, richness of imagination, novelty and felicity of expression, and euphony of the word. A striking example is his Antaranga Tarangalu, a collection of free verse on a cross-section of contemporary issues that have actively churned and stirred his soul. His poems are marked by righteous anger and angst, leading him not to a counterproductive revolt or undoing anarchy but to a sense of responsibility and optimism. Anyone who reads through the 72 soul-stirring poems embodying this collection, would certainly find their own souls astir.”

Here is a representative free verse full of angst and poignant imagery. The poet Prakasa Rao takes a dig at the hypocrisy and the disparities weakening our social fabric, as under –

Already reserved…

Friend, it’s full of famine here…

There is no kerosene to light the lantern –

The mother-in-law has already reserved it

To dispatch the daughter-in-law to another world

For she had come unaccompanied by any dowry.

There is no diesel to run the engine to water the fields –

The arsonists have already reserved it

To inflame the deadly communal holocausts.

There is no candle to kindle

At least until I nibble a few handfuls –

The well-off have already reserved them

To celebrate their birthdays in pomp and luxury.

When does this plague of reservations come to an end?

When will the really needy receive the succour?

When will merit pure and simple be recognised?

The Telugu title of the poem is “eppuDu?” (When?).

(Translated into English by Atreya Sarma U, and published in The Hans India daily, 26 Jun 2015)

A TEACHER WITH A BIG FAN FOLLOWING

Dr Asavadi influenced his students in an affectionate and positive manner which is why his disciples of various batches come together periodically and organise meetings about his life and oeuvre and offer their rich tributes to him. One such happened on 29 January 2017 at Guntakal town where to commemorate his 70th birth anniversary, his disciples brought out a festschrift, Prakasa Pradeepanam. And I was privileged to chair its launching session. A magnanimous personality, he dedicated his poetry collection Samayikam (2020) to Atreya Sarma, the writer of this article. This collection won the Sri Katragadda Foundation Award (Pedapadu, West Godavari District, AP).

And below are the remaining essential details, mutatis mutandis, of Dr Asavadi Prakasa Rao, as per the nomination submitted on the Padma Awards website.

CITATION

His literary output comprises 60 books across various genres, Poetry, Extempore Poetry, Collection of Literary Essays, Translations, Monographs, Collection of Reviews (of 126 books), Biographies, Emendations, Commentaries, Anthologies, Collection of Forewords, Miscellaneous.

Out of the above oeuvre, 6 deserve a special mention, 3 out of which have been published by the TTD (Tiruamala Tirupati Devasthanam) which engaged him for the purpose.

1. Under the Bhagavatam Project, he rendered the 3rd Canto of Potana Bhagavatam into lucid prose.  Published in 1986, it ran into several reprints.

2. Emendation of the unpublished palm script Chellapillaraya Charitram, originally written by Tallapaka Annaya. It is the tale of Lord Balaji marrying Bibi Nanchari, with communal harmony as the message. Published in 1982, reprinted in 2009.

3. In 2016 under Brahmam Okkate series, he wrote Mala Dasari with commentary, the story of a pariah devotee of Lord Vishnu.

4. Desa Hitam Kosam Samaikyata Swaram, Tune of Unity for National Weal, published by Samajika Samarasata Vedika, Vijayawada (2017).

5. Life History of Dr B R Ambedkar published by Mahabodhi Sahitya Vedika, Anantapur (2018).

6. Viveka Puneeta Nivedita, Poetic work on Sister Nivedita. published by Gowtharaju Sahitee Samiti, Hyderabad (2019).

7. His prolific work coupled with social service has won him the Prestigious National Level Pragna Puraskar 2019 from Pragna Bharati, Hyderabad, a Forum of Nationalist Thinkers.

8. Being into academic, literary, social and spiritual service, he has delivered a host of talks, including 73 for AIR and Doordarshan with a thrust on traditional Indian culture and human values.

9. Conferred with D Litt Honoris Causa in 2000, when he was 56 years old, by the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad in recognition of his overall eminence and attainments.

10. Set up a home library with books on various subjects, for the benefit of researchers, with a round the clock access, free board and lodge.

11. Installed and helped install statues as part of his commitment to immortalise the memory of great litterateurs. Of Sri Krishna Deva Raya. Of Puttaparti Narayanacharya, Padma Shri recipient and great polyglot litterateur. And of Dr BR Ambedkar.

All this he has done without pomp and glitter, but with simplicity and focus on the core of the missions undertaken. His above virtues are a rare combination found in a person from a downtrodden community.

SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTION/ ACHIEVEMENT

His most significant contribution toward social harmony is as Vice President, AP, Samajika Samarasata Foundation, a Forum for Social Harmony with a special focus on Hindu SCs.

One of his numerous literary works merits a special mention. It is an exegesis on Vairagya Sataka by Bhartrihari, which has received wide applause from scholars.

Besides the above, his academic services continue to be used by AP and Karnataka governments, TTD and IIIT.

AS EDUCATIONIST

During 2011 to 2015 he was editor, subject expert, book or lesson writer of Telugu texts for Classes V, VIII, X for AP Government SCERT. Lesson writer for Class X of Karnataka Government. For TTDs Sanatana Dharmika Vignana Exams. For the Optional subject of Andhra History for 4th Year Engineering Students, Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies, IIIT Idupulapaya.

By virtue of his varied services, competence, simplicity and integrity, he was nominated as member of Executive Council and Senate of SK University. Invited for American Telugu Association Conference 1996, and World Telugu Conference in Mauritius 2012, but could not attend. Shortlisted by AP government for high level appointments including Vice Chancellor in 1997, Chairman, AP Official Language Commission in 2002.

STATE-LEVEL RECOGNITION/ FELICITATIONS

Dr Asavadi has received a bonanza of awards, and here is a list 23 more prestigious ones.

1. Telugu Velugu Award, AP Social Welfare Dept, 1976.

2. AP Sahitya Akademi Silver Jubilee Felicitation, 1982.

3. Best Literary Treatise Award, Errana Peetham, Ongole, 1987.

4. Distinguished Teacher Award, AP Higher Education Dept, 1992.

5. Pratibha Puraskar, Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, 1995.

6. Sankranti Puraskar, Pushpagiri Maha Sansthanam Trust, Kadapa, 1999.

7. D Litt Honoris Causa, Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, 2000.

8. Bhashabhigna Puraskar, AP Official Language Commission, 2001.

9. Gandhian Poet Award, AP Harijan Sevak Sangh, 2005.

10. Avadhana Shiromani Award, Lok Nayak Foundation, Visakhapatnam, 2007.

11. Kalaratna Award for Eminence from AP Culture Dept, 2012.

12. Sri Rama Navami Pratibha Puraskar, Sanatana Charitable Trust, presented by its founder Sadguru Kandukuri Sivananda Murty, Secunderabad, 2013.

13. Distinguished Litterateur Award, Andhra Saraswata Parishat, Hyderabad, 2013.

14. Jashuva Best Poetry Award with a purse of Rs one lakh, Telugu Akademi, Hyderabad, 2013.

15. Kalaprapoorna Dr Paidi Lakshmaiah Memorial Literary Award by Rasamayi organisation, Hyderabad, 2014.

16. Sri Ramanuja Sahasrabdi Utsava felicitation by Jeer Integrated Vedic Academy, Hyderabad, 2016.

17. ‘Padma Shri’ Dr Jnananda Kavi Memorial Literary Award by Jyotsna Kalapeetham, Hyderabad, 2017.

18. Vilambi Ugadi Puraskaram by Sahitee Samakhya, Guntur, 2018.

19. Feted With Silver Crown by Srava Kavya Prachuranalu, Dhone, 2018.

20. Life Time Achievement Award, by Christian Sahitya Academy, Vijayawada, 2018.

21. ‘Padma Bhushan’ Gurram Jashuva Award by AP Govt, 2018.

22. Kopparapu Brothers Avadhana Award 2019.

23. Sri Katragadda Foundation Award (Pedapadu, West Godavari District, AP) for the poetry collection Samayikam, 2020.

24. Rachana Sahitya Vedika (Kadapa) Gadiyaram Venkata Sesha Sastry Memorial Award for the Best Poetry Book Viveka Puneeta Nivedita, 2020.

UNIQUE TRADITIONAL FELICITATIONS

In 2008 at Penukonda (the summer residence of Sri Krishna Deva Raya), Dr Asavadi was honoured with Ganda Penderam (a golden anklet), a rare traditional honour accorded to literary legends. In 2014, he was feted with Kanakabhishekam (sprinkling with golden flowers) – another rare traditional recognition – by the Ksheera Sagara Sahiti Samiti (Hyderabad).

NATIONAL LEVEL RECOGNITIONS/ FELICITATIONS

1. Feted as Balakavi, Teenage Poet, by Dr Radhakrishnan, the then President of India, at All India Veera Saiva Mahasabha, Srisailam, 1963.

2. Pragna Puraskar 2019 by Pragna Bharati, Hyderabad, a forum of nationalist thinkers, for decades long distinguished contribution of a high order to Telugu literature covering various social, historical and literary subjects.

3. Dr Ambedkar Distinguished Service National Award 2018 by Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi.

4. Felicitated by All India Telugu Conference, Akhila Bharata Telugu Mahasabhalu, Berhampore, Orissa, 2011.

5. Smt Subhadra Kumari Chouhan Centenary Puraskar, Panipat, 2004.

6. Kota Punnaiah Memorial Gurram Jashuva Endowment Award by Bangalore University, 1996.

7. National Level Seminar held on Complete Works of Asavadi by KVR Govt Women’s College, Kurnool, Feb 9 and 10, 2017 where over 40 papers were presented.

8. Papers presented at Andhra Samskritika Samiti, Hosur, Tamil Nadu on 22 Feb 1981 and on 17 Nov 2012, and at Authors Guild of India, Madras Chapter on 11 Sep 1986.

9. Out of the total of 171 Avadhanams, he performed 12 outside AP and Telangana in 1977 and 1988 – 2 in New Delhi, 5 in Tamil Nadu (Hosur, Tiruttani, Arakkonam, Pallipattu), 5 in Karnataka (Bellary, Bengaluru, Donimalai, Tung Bhadra Dam) and was feted at those places.

10. Included in Authors Guild of India, New Delhi, 1982, and in Who is Who Directory, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1996.

11. Took part as invitee in Poets Evening, Wold Book Fair, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, on 19 Feb 1986, and in National level programme at New Delhi on Planning and Management of Colleges by HRD, GOI in Sep 1980.

INTERNATIONAL LEVEL RECOGNITIONS/ FELICITATIONS

1. Reference Asia, Volume 2, Who is Who, 1976

2. Included in the Who is Who Directory, Biography International, 2000

3. Mahavadhani Puraskar from World Telugu Conference, Tirupati, 2012

OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE LITERARY FIELD

1. His life and work has influenced many literati to publish 20 books and 60 articles on him, including a doctoral thesis, and 14 books dedicated to him.

2. Conferred with 13 titles by various organisations.

3. Served on the editorial board of many magazines and journals like Srisaila Jyoti, Gautama Prabha, Jagriti, Padya Varadhi.

4. Penned Forewords to 150 books of other writers, and presented 49 Research Papers.

OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE SOCIAL & CULTURAL FIELD

Directed 3 dramas, one of them bagging 4 prizes at Railway Divisional level.

CONCLUSION

May the life and work of Dr Asavadi Prakasa Rao inspire each and every one to have a noble mission and vision in life, to strive for it, and contribute to the harmony of the society by duly blending the best of the past and the present so that our country, India, can play a vital role in the evolution of universal cum ecological harmony!


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