Presenter’s Preface: Atreya Sarma U (The Telugu Tableau)

U Atreya Sarma

At the outset, a big ‘Thank you’ to Dr Sunil Sharma, Editor (English) for his ardent suggestion a couple of times that I should be presenting the vignettes of Telugu literature via English translation as regularly as possible for Setu. And I couldn’t say no or come up with any excuse. The reason: His interest in literature and Indian values of which Telugu is a part is genuine and passionate. And Indian values have a universal ethos.

Though my dabbling in English is much more than in Telugu, yet I adore Telugu, my mother tongue and that was my medium of instruction up to my SSLC (XI Grade) even as the language was off my subsequent syllabi. I have, however, kept reading and writing in Telugu. And then translation demands poured in and I am continuing this activity – of translating from Telugu to English. When Dr Sunil Sharma called me, my mind was in fact abuzz with a beehive of ruminations about the current scenario of Telugu, and the offer of this platform is indeed a godsend, I believe.

Now a brief overview of the Telugu language. It is one of the 6 recognised classical languages of India, the 4th largest spoken language in India, and the 15th in the world. Telugu is the majority and official language of the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and of the Yanam enclave – a part of the Union Territory of Puducherry. In addition, a large number of Telugus have long since settled down in the neighbouring states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, besides across the rest of the country and also overseas in many a clime. There are about 85 million Telugu speaking people across the world.

Telugu is a rich and vibrant language with a millennium of rich literature across genres. It is variously called Telugu, Telungu, Tenugu, Tenungu, and Andhram. Hailed as the Italian of the East for its mellifluence due to most of its words ending in vowel sounds; it is complimented by JBS Haldane (1892-1964) for being a most suitable language for expression of scientific ideas. Centuries ago, the Tulu/Kannada speaking Vijayanagara Emperor Sri Krishna Deva Raya (reign 1509-1529) found Telugu as the best Indian language. The musicality of Telugu got further enhanced with the devotional lyrics (kirtana-s) composed and sung by Tyagaraja Swami (1767-1847). His compositions have become synonymous with the classical Carnatic music so much so it has become a willing sine qua non for even the non-Telugu singers from the south Indian states to compulsorily learn and sing out his songs in any concert. The famous Tamil writer of the Freedom fight times, Subrahmanya Bharati (1882-1921) lauded Telugu as a dulcet tongue (Sundara Telungu).

The felicity of Telugu in imbibing Sanskrit words has made it amenable to incredible literary feats. For example, the poetic works Raghava Pandaveeyam by Pingali Surana (1550), Harischandra Nalopakhyanam by Ramaraja Bhushana (1580) convey entirely two different stories through the medium of the same poem – the former telling the story of the Ramayana as well as the Mahabharata; and the latter that of Harischandra and Nala at the same time. The poetic compositions that narrate two stories concurrently are called Dvyarthi kavyas. There are also tryarthi and chaturarthi kavyas, namely, poetic texts concurrently telling three and four stories respectively through the same poem.

Another uniqueness of Telugu is Avadhana, a mind-boggling literary-poetic feat wherein the performer (Avadhani) in a live session takes on 8 or 100 or 200 or 1,000 or even 2,000 litterateurs simultaneously, as the case may be, and successfully negotiates their challenges and restrictions by extemporaneously weaving metrical poetry in as many rounds, and finally recites all of the stanzas in the same order with no external aid like pen or paper or smart phone. This genre of literary performance demands vast and profound knowledge and erudition – ancient to the current; exemplary command of language; extraordinary and simultaneous multi-focus; enormous retentiveness; photographic memory; and enthralling wit and repartee. The Avadhanam that takes on 8 or 100 or 200 or 1,000 or even 2,000 literary challengers simultaneously is respectively called Ashta-Avadhanam, Sata-Avadhanam, Dvi-Sata-Avadhanam, Sahasra-Avadhanam, Dvi-Sahasra-Avadhanam respectively; and the performer is called Ashta-Avadhani, Sata-Avadhani, Dvi-Sata-Avadhani, Sahasra-Avadhani, Dvi-Sahasra-Avadhani respectively. And the Avadhani should also be gifted with a mercurial mind that is at the same time tied up to the lodestar of the primary purpose, for the reason that his requisite multi-focused attention is constantly sought to be distracted by a silly-cum-frivolous-cum-badgering non-literary questioner – called Aprastuta Prasangi (shooter of irrelevant questions).

And a few lyrical poems of one such Ashta-Avadhani Dr Asavadi Prakasa Rao are presented in this opening instalment. He is a recipient of Padma Sri – the 4th highest civilian award by the Government of India.

Like in every other language, the modern Telugu literature is resonant with every experiment and every school of ideology, thought and approach. The other poet featured in this issue is Sailaja Mithra, a well-known bilingual writer based out in Hyderabad. This feature also takes a peep into the lives of two different women characters; and the creators of the two stories are – Uma Bharathi Kosuri, an accomplished Kuchipudi classical dance exponent cum trainer cum writer (from Houston, Texas); and Ambika Ananth (from Bengaluru), a distinguished bilingual writer and a founder Editor of the Muse India literary e-journal. As a translator of the pieces of all these four writers, I have taken a few liberties to ensure a smooth flow in the target language but keeping the spirit of the original work intact.

Whatever the language, basically the emotions, feelings, experiences and aspirations are almost the same across the globe. Hence it is hoped that the writings featured in this section appeal to a cross-section of readership, which is exactly the motive force of the Setu journal.

Happy reading! And see you with some more aspects in the next instalment.

Be meticulously cautious! Be hale and healthy!

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