Legendary Telugu Poet – Sri Gurajada Apparao
Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao panthulu garu [1862-1915] is perhaps the most celebrated modern Telugu writer. There may be controversies and strong sectarian feelings surrounding other great writers like Sree Sree and Viswanatha. But Gurajada is universally respected for heralding the modern era. His epochal writings had far reaching influence and encompassed many aspects of modern Telugu Literature. Sree Sree and several other major figures had almost idolized him. His works have retained their freshness even a century after they were originally written. His Kanyasulkam is billed as one of the greatest works in world literature. Many a literary critic said repeatedly that if one were to collect a list of one hundred indispensable books from all the languages of the world combined, Kanyasulkam would figure prominently in that list. Gurajada was a scholar of classical works as well as European literature. He was one of the earliest to part ways with classical traditions in poetry, drama, and prose. His close associates such as Gidugu Rama Murthy and his own initiatives were primarily responsible for what is now known as “Vyavaharika Bhasha Vadam” In more ways than one, his 1910 work Mutyala Saralu (along with Kattamanchi Ramalinga Reddi’s musalamma maraNam, 1898 ) form the earliest works heralding a break with traditional poetry. If one must anoint someone for the title of “father of modern Telugu poetry,” it would be Gurajada. He was the first to write modern short stories in Telugu. He was also the first to write a “fully modern” drama. His works are among the most exceptional examples of a masterly blend of literary brilliance and avowed social purpose.
Gurajada lived most of his life in and around Vijayanagaram in what was then called as Kalinga Rajyam . He and his father before him were both employed by the princely state of Vijayanagaram. Gurajada enjoyed a close relationship with the ruling family during his adult life. Two dates of birth (according to western calendar) have been calculated based on Gurajada’s horoscope, viz., Nov.30, 1861 and Sept. 21, 1862. Apparently, his descendants prefer the second date. Gurajada was born at his maternal uncle’s home in Rayavaram village near Yelamanchili (Visakhapatnam Dt.). His parents were Venkata Rama Dasu and Kausalyamma. He had a younger brother by name Syamala Rao. Gurajada’s ancestors seem to have moved to Kalinga region from Gurajala village in Krishna Dt. (hence the family name?) Venkata Rama Dasu worked as a Peshkar, Revenue Supervisor, and Khiledar in the Vijayanagara Samsthanam. He was well educated and had a good command in Sanskrit. He died in an accident while crossing a small river Utagedda near Vijayanagaram.
Gurajada had his initial schooling (till age 10) in Cheepurupalli while his father was working there. His remaining schooling was done at Vijayanagaram after his father passed away. During that time, he lived in relative poverty and maintained himself as a varalabbayi. He was generously taken care of by the then M.R. College Principal, C. Chandrasekhara Sastri who provided him free lodging and boarding. He completed his matriculation in 1882 and obtained F.A. in 1884. Soon after, he was employed as a teacher in M.R. High School in 1884 with a salary of Rs.25. He was married to Appala Narasamma in 1885. In the mean time, he continued his studies and graduated with B.A. (Philosophy major and Sanskrit minor) in 1886. For some period during 1886, he worked as Head Clerk in the Deputy Collector’s office. On Vijayadasami day, 1887, he joined as a Lecturer (Level IV) in M.R. College with a salary of Rs.100. Around the same time; he was introduced to Maharaja Ananda Gajapati (1850-1897). This prince had a significant role in encouraging the arts and education in these parts of the country. Gurajada gradually developed a cordial relationship with the prince. This association led to his involvement with the princely family for a long time. In 1887, Gurajada spoke at a Congress Party meeting in Vijayaanagaram. His daughter Lakshmi narasamma was born in 1887. He was simultaneously involved in social work and became a member of the Voluntary Service Corps in Visakhapatnam in 1888. He was elected vice-president of the Ananda Gajapati Debating club in 1889. His son Venkata Ramadasu was born in 1890. In 1891 he was promoted to Lecturer (Level III) with a salary of Rs.125. He taught the F.A. and B.A. classes several subjects including English Grammar, Sanskrit Literature, Translation, Greek & Roman Histories. His younger brother Shyamala Rao died in 1892 while studying at Madras Law College.
In the previous ten years, Gurajada Appa Rao (along with brother Shyamala Rao) had been writing several English poems. His Sarangadhara, published in “Indian Leisure Hour” was well received. The editor of the Calcutta based “Rees and Riot” Sambhu Chandra Mukherji read it and re-published it in his magazine. He encouraged Gurajada in many ways. While praising Gurajada’s talent, he actually encouraged him to write in Telugu. He told Gurajada that however talented he might become in English, it is still a foreign tongue and that he would scale greater heights if he chose to compose in Telugu. Gurajada too was gradually coming to this conclusion. During this period, it is also said that Gurajada was also in correspondence with a British Journalist and author. Gundukurti Venkata Ramanayya, editor of the “Indian Leisure Hour” encouraged Gurajada greatly during the same period. In 1891, Gurajada was appointed to the post of Epigraphist (Samsthana Sasana Parisodhaka) to the Maharaja of Vijayanagaram.
In 1892, Gurajada’s celebrated drama “Kanyasulkam” was staged for the first time. It became an instant hit. It was the first Telugu drama expressly written in spoken dialect. Prior to that, there were dramas that employed spoken dialect in a few parts of the drama. Vedam Venkata Raya Sastry wrote a very popular drama “Prathaparudreeyam,” where he followed the Sanskrit example in allowing the so-called “lower” characters to use spoken dialect while the so-called “upper” characters used chaste literary dialect. Veeresalingam Panthulu wrote some dramas, notably “Brahma Vivaham,” with some spoken dialect content. This drama was written more as an accessory to his crusade against social evils than for literary enjoyment. The Kanyasulkam was the first to achieve both the aims and an unparalleled achievement it was! The success of Kanyasulkam encouraged Gurajada to open up and seek out others with similar views. He came in contact with several contemporary luminaries. The rumbling sounds of movement to support spoken dialect as a platform for literary activity were gathering around that time. Gurajada’s childhood friend and classmate in Chipurupalli, Gidugu Rama Murthy (1863-1940) was the leading light of this school of thought. The highly successful staging of Kanyasulkam gave this movement a big boost. It conclusively showed that works that have undisputed literary value and are very popular could be composed in spoken dialects. Even the opponents of the spoken dialect movement such as Kaseebhatla Brahmayya Sastry had to concede that the Kanyasulkam has a significant literary merit. The success made Gurajada a sort of celebrity. He was being sought after for literary events and for reviewing other literary works.
In 1896, Gurajada tried to establish a magazine by name “Prakasika.” It is not known whether this magazine was ever published. In 1897, Kanyasulkam was published (by Vavilla Ramasastrulu & Sons, Madras) and was dedicated to Maharaja Ananda Gajapati. In the same year, the prince died following a brief illness without leaving a successor. After this, Gurajada was appointed as personal secretary and advisor to the Maharani of Reeva (Appala kondamamba -sister of Anada Gajapati). Gurajada had his second daughter (third child) Puligedda Kondayyamma in 1902. In 1903, a court case was filed challenging the right of Ananda Gajapati’s mother (Alaka Rajeswari) to adopt an heir to the throne of the principality. Gurajada was put in charge of taking care of all the legal proceedings. The case dragged on for many years and ended in an out of court settlement in 1913.
In 1905, Gurajada’s mother passed away. In 1906, his close friend P.T. Srinivasa Iyyangar, principal of Mrs. A.V.N. College, Visakhapatnam started an association to promote curriculum reform in high schools. One of the chief aims was to introduce spoken dialects. Along with him, J.A. Yates (1874-1951) -a British civil servant, Gidugu and Gurajada were the principal members. Another friend S. Srinivasa Iyengar (1874-1941) also gave a lot of support and encouragement. Incidentally, this Srinivasa Iyengar was a well-known lawyer and was the President of AICC (All India Congress Committee) annual session at Guahati in 1926. Gurajada attended the 1908 Congress session at Madras. Gurajada developed some health problems and took some time off to convalesce at the Nilagiri hills. While taking rest, he got around to preparing the second edition of Kanyasulkam and published it in 1909. This edition was completely revised and greatly expanded compared to the original version. It is this edition that made the drama a truly outstanding work of art. Each character developed a life of its own and they all came together in an unforgettable comedy. The next year, he participated in a community meal at Berhampur where people of various classes and castes shared the same food and ate together. Around this time, Gurajada started writing very prolifically and composed several poems, songs and short stories. These works are among the most famous in Telugu literature.
In 1911, he was appointed to the Board of Studies by Madras University. The same year, Gurajada and his friends started the Andhra Sahithya Parishat to promote the use of spoken dialects. The next year, he was invited to attend the meeting of the Vangeeya Sahithya Parishat (Bengal Literary Association) at Calcutta. The same year, his second patron, Maharani of Reeva died. Gurajada took retirement in 1913 with a pension of Rs.140. Madras University honored him by making him a “Fellow.” His health started deteriorating slowly. He constructed a new house and moved into it in 1915. After a few months of illness, Gurajada passed away in 1915.