Mahadevi Varma - More Than a Romantic Mystic

Chirravoori Shyam

[Mahadevi Varma Geetalu – A translation of great modern Hindi Poetess in Telugu by Chagani Tulasi, Chaso Sphurti Prachranalu, Jan 2015. Price: Rs 130/-]

‘Mahadevi Varma Geetalu’ is a collection of Telugu translations of Srimati Mahadevi Varma’s Hindi poems. Dr. Chaganti Tulasi translated thirty of Mahadevi Varma’s well-known poems. Is there a basis for selection of these particular poems? Could it be just a subjective liking or a random selection from her vast repertoire? But they appear to be representative poems of Mahadevi Varma (महादेवी प्रतितिधि कविताएँ).

Jnanpith winning poet, Mahadevi Varma has been one of the four major Chhayaavaad poets of Modern Hindi literature, along with Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala,’ Jaishankar Prasad, and Sumitranandan Panth. Her poetry is an alchemy of Chhayaavaad and Rahasyavaad. It could be termed as an amalgam of romanticism and mysticism. In addition to her poetic prowess, she had artistic talents too. She adorned some of her poems (Deepshikha and Yatra) with wonderful color paintings (sketches). Mahadevi Varma makes a certain distinction between art forms of poetry and painting. She felt that poetry would emerge in a certain emotional state of mind of the poet and, usually, he or she would not be able to repeat the process at will at a later time, whereas a painter would be able to recreate his or her artistic creations at will, at a later time.

Mahadevi Varma is more often called the ‘Modern Meera.’ But, subtle or more than subtle differences do exist in Mahadevi Varma’s devotion towards her hidden beloved as opposed to Meera’s Giridhar Gopal.

There is certain musical timbre in her poems or lyrics which enabled so many musicians and singers to convert them into compositions. A cursory look at YouTube shows so many musical versions of her famous poems by well-known to not so well-known musicians. Here is a very famous poem by Mahadevi Varma appealing, rather exhorting the Deepak to keep the flame burning so that the path of love is always lighted. Music director Jayadev composed a very melodious tune for ‘Madhur madhur mere Deepak jal,’ and Asha Bhosle sang beautifully. The intrinsic musical beauty or timbre allowed it to flow so naturally. There are other songs too, to stand testimony to this statement.
Sometimes, it becomes difficult to say if the meter makes it rhythmic or the choice or words and the intrinsic meaning with feeling renders it rhythmic. It is difficult to say whether the poet’s emotional mind and spontaneous flow of words imparts the strength to the thought, or that the poet chisels her words and brings sheen to the poem. Mahadevi Varma was a scholar in Sanskrit. Her chaste classical Hindi bestows certain poise to her prose or orations. She has a convoluted way of expressing her profound thoughts. These qualities could be extremely taxing to the translator at times, especially in the case of poetry of mysticism.
Look at this:
मैं नीर-भरी दखु की बदली!
विसतृत नभ का कोई कोना
मेरा न कभी अपना होना
परिचय इतना, इतिहास यही
उमड़ी कल थी, मिट आज चली

The translator had to use equally heavy words originating from the same original words for fear of losing their profundity. A less thoughtful translator would have simplified the process in the name of innovation or indigenization or simply attempting to make it appear more vernacular. 
Variations in punctuations impart additional power to the expression and add appeal to he writings of the great. Mahadevi Varma’s poem, ‘अधिकार’ can be an example of this. I just quote a few lines:
वे मुस्काते फूल , नहीं
जिनको आता है मुर्झाना ,
वे तारों के दीप , नहीं
जिन को भाता है बुझ जाना

Any sort of careless pause at any of the commas can easily distort the true meaning of these lines. One can be amazed to see the conviction in Mahadevi Varma’s words. Those who strive to tirelessly work, or others may perish, but here Mahadevi Varma states that she would rather prefer that suffering (right to suffer/ perish) to becoming immortal by the grace of God.
Dr. Tulasi is a thorough professional in her art as well as her craft; but she is not a professional translator. She spends time on reading and rereading and goes into the specific and minute details but does not compromise on the quality of her work. She never looks for an easy way out. She has great respect for Mahadevi Varma and her work. In many ways, she could be compared to her idol. It is no exaggeration. Her progressive outlook and concern for cause of women, young and old, can be just one example. 
The work she undertook and carried singlehandedly is the job of academic or research or governmental institutions. She put her energy, soul, money, and everything into the project without expecting anything in return. Her tribute to Mahadevi Varma, the poet and the painter, is commendable. So did Mahadevi Varma during her lifetime. One wishes for such an effort on Mahadevi Varma’s prose writings too.
Dr Chaganti Tulasi, in her foreword to the translation, profiled Mahadevi Varma’s poetry and the persona for the understanding of the Telugu readers who may not know Mahadevi Varma.
Noted Hindi scholar and academic, Dr Balasouri Reddy, in his brief preface to the book, detailed the true virtues of Mahadevi Varma and enumerated her great services to Indian literature and people. He hailed Dr Tulasi’s translations and her work with specific examples. Some of the poems sound so original and have the natural feel of the Telugu language and do not look like translations, he opines. 
Writer, critic, and translator Sri Vadrevu Chinaveerabhadrudu, in his detailed prologue, essayed to elaborate his reflections on various forms of poetry and several poets with some emphasis on Mahadevi Varma. 
The prefaces complement each other while the cover design and illustration impart a sort of completeness to the book. Reading the book is taking a wonderful glimpse into Mahadevi Varma’s vast poetry for any Telugu poetry enthusiast who cannot read the original Hindi versions. 
It so chanced that I was discussing about Dr Tulasi’s translations with one of my friends, Mr. NS Murty, the other day and he went through my article and Dr. Tulasi’s translations immediately. Impressed with both, he volunteered to translate three poems of Mahadevi Varma which are annexed below. The point of interest, of course, is that he could make a decent translation because of the classical Hindi Mahadevi Varma used in these poems which is easily discernible to a Telugu reader who has some grounding in classical Telugu.  

Three Translations of Mahadevi Varma

 I am Grief-laden Cloud About to Burst
There was enduring inertia in my responses,
And the world rejoiced at my wails,
The gleam of burning lamp in my eyes
And the commotion of a raving river in my eyelids.
There was music in every one of my steps
And the dust of dreams my breath rains
The spectral hues weave a raiment over the firmament
And in the shade serenades a whiff of cool breeze

I am stranded over the edge of the horizon
And am, with a heap of endless grief, stricken,
I skied like a droplet - over a mote of dust
But– like a seed – broke through to life

I step without defiling the path travelled
And my stride leaves no footprints behind
Let my arrival into this world leave ultimately
A goosebump of sweet memory

Just that I could not stake claim 
even to a nook of the vast expansive sky,
here ends the acquaintance, and the history
Swirling I came, subdued I bid farewell.

Darling! My Life is a Twilight sky at Dusk!

My life is 
A twilight sky at dusk!
The horizon is dim and hazy,
Nascent pink and rosy is my fortune,
This eclipsed bod is passionless
Colourful dreams were its treasure.

It’s a golden time for testing one’s patience
With dark gloomy grief circling around 
There is a strange parallel with the evening…
This poor heart smiles behind its veil of wails.

The breeze is heavy with scents of the creepers,
The memories of the world are as halcyon,
The coast of life and death is so fragrant
That a wake of lotuses ripple through the veins. 

Now the beginning and end confluence,
Night blooms wedded to the day,
Smeared with tear the droplets of dew rimes.
The pole today has become a moment of memory.

The sharp arrows of desires
Donning the beautiful beams so lean
Hiding behind the invisible sky
The flowers of star open up one by one.

The bird of anguish and beatitude is homebound,
Darkness sweeps away my consciousness,
That painted demitasse is kept in its case
Now, descend gently over the lids, venerable guest! 
You Entered with Dusty Feet

You entered with dusty feet, O prancing baby-life!
Mother death has taken you into her embrace!

The wanderers have washed off their dust with wine
And the cyclonic winds hugged them time and again,
And the onlooking darkness whispered for a moment.

Poor love-lost heart is a toy inflamed,
Ice-like inertia is needed from every pore,
As the shade scurried kindling longings galore.

The intense grief had sullied the lap,
Spears of afflictions lacerated the feet
And breath toyed with, making dust of my golden heart.

Chaganti Tulasi
Bio of Dr. Chaganti Tulasi

Coming out of the shadow of her illustrious father, Chaganti Somayajulu (Chaso), a front-ranking short story writer of yesteryears in Telugu, Dr. Chaganti Tulasi has carved out a niche for herself as a short story writer in Telugu, and a Quadrilingual Telugu-Hindi-English translator. She holds a doctoral degree in Hindi for her thesis “Mahadevi ki Kavita me Saundarya Bhavana (The concept of aesthetics in Mahadevi Varma’s Poetry).”

She translated Rahul Sankrityayan, Safdar Hashmi, Sachidananda Routray, Gopinath Mohanty, and a host of others independently and for Central Sahitya Akademi and NBT. She has to her credit “Tulasi Kathalu” - a selection of 14 of her short stories and “Yatra”- a novel. Sita Ram Ki Kya Lagti Hai of Arudra, Ragamalika a collection of  short stories of Dr. Shyam Chirravoori,  Ketu Viswanatha Reddy Ki Kahaniya  and Telugu Ki Sreshtha Kahaniya are some of her important translations into Hindi, besides a monograph on Mahadevi Varma from English to Telugu. 
After retirement from Orissa State Education Department, Dr. Tulasi lives in Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh. She can be reached at 9963377672 or at

Shyam Chirravoori
Bio of Dr. Shyam Chirravoori

A graduate from Andhra Medical College, Visakhapatnam and Postgraduate from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, Dr. Shyam hails from Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh. He wrote prolifically under pen name 'Medico Shyam' during 1970's and 80's. His short stories have been translated into English, Hindi and other languages. Vanguri Foundation of America has brought out a collection of Short stories “Shyamyana” in 2010. Dr. Shyam is a consummate literary aficionado with wide network and ready random access memory.

After taking voluntary retirement from Central Health Services, India, Dr. Shyam settled in McKinney, TX. USA 75092 and reachable at


  1. The review is a tribute both to Doctor Mahadevi Varma and Doctor Tulasi.

  2. I'm very much interested in Telugu literature but new to poetry and Hindi literature. Thank you so much for giving a nice review.

  3. Only those who knows her so closely and who has studied her so intensely can write this so well .. congratulations to both of them .
    Mukundaramarao, Hyderabad

  4. "The translator had to use equally heavy words originating from the same original words for fear of losing their profundity. A less thoughtful translator would have simplified the process in the name of innovation or indigenization or simply attempting to make it appear more vernacular." Dr. Shyam observations are scholarly - while translating Jayshankar Prasad , I felt the same way- though thosand years old Telugu literary tradition blithely borrows Sanskrit - still it is a challenge to get the meaning and meter without sounding archaic. I heartily congratulate Dr. Tulasi for translating Mahadevi varma for Telugu audience, a commendable work indeed - यदुकुलभूषण, NJ

  5. I wonder how that charmingly creative
    Writer Dr medico shyam can also give us such clinically precise and empathetic analysis.I suppose all good writers are poets, singers and critics and good beings at heart

  6. So glad to see you, Dr Shyam, here at Setu. Dr Chaganti Tulasi may not be a professional translator as you have alluded, of course with a complimentary rider, but in my opinion that professional experience is not required for a prolific and competent trilingual writer like Dr Tulasi, more so when her doctoral thesis itself dealt with the work of the very poet Mahadevi Varma covered here though in one facet. Also, Dr Tulasi is an erudite academic which is why she has succeeded in justifiably rendering even the “convoluted” and “profound” (and possibly recondite also) thoughts of Mahadevi. So, you have rightly observed that “A less thoughtful translator would have simplified the process in the name of innovation or indigenization or simply attempting to make it appear more vernacular.”
    I am happy to know that Mahadevi was particular about punctuation. This is really music to my ears in a milieu where punctuation in the name of modernity and freedom has gone for a toss and where organic units of phrases and clauses are whimsically sundered apart on the pretext of innovation. I have seen that in a number of cases it becomes rather struggling to read a poem coherently in the absence of punctuation.
    You say that Mahadevi “felt that poetry would emerge in a certain emotional state of mind of the poet” and that they “would not be able to repeat the process at will at a later time.” Of course, this is true unless the poet records a gist of the emotions at the earliest so that they can be ruminated upon and embodied subsequently.
    That the book’s prologue is by Vadrevu Chinaveerabhadrudu makes it appetizing for his analyses are always perceptive and educative.
    I am also glad to see NS Murthy’s English translation of three poems, and their flow is felicitous and mellifluous. I wonder whether he went through the original Hindi also besides Dr Tulasi’s Telugu translation. I am curious about the expression “A twilight sky at dusk!” – seemingly tautological. I wonder what the original Hindi expression is.
    On the whole, my obeisance to Mahadevi, salutations to Dr Tulasi, congrats to you Dr Shyam, and kudos to NS Murty.

  7. P.ViswaprasadaReddyMarch 6, 2022 at 5:52 AM

    Nice review.I have much interest in telugu literature, but no sufficient touch with hindi. Congratulations to both translator Dr Chaganti thulasi and reviewer Dr Chirravoori shyam.


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