It is hundred years to this year that Yenki of Nanduri greeted Telugus with her elusive and energetic songs that swayed them in the fragrance of Parijatha pushpa .....
It is during the early 20th century that Yenki, the darling, the “forest fairy”, descended on Telugu poetry like a flash on the firmament, “clad in azure sari”, spreading grace all around with a smile that is dazzling like diamonds, winking her eyes and teasing playfully, making the readers’ hearts rock in their throats.
It is when Telugu poetry was turning more and more moribund that Nanduri Venkata Subbarao (1895-1957), an advocate by profession and an inspired poet by choice, came up with the picturesque love of Yenki—a working-class washerwoman as the heroine—and her Naidu baava (literally means brother-in-law, but connotatively ‘baava’ has a titillating and tantalizing familiarity with the undertones of friendly mockery and modest flirting), painting their passionate love with words contemporaneous, too full of an unearthly energy, the thrill of which, of course, a native speaker alone can experience in its full and get transported from earthly feelings to a distant world of unknown joy.
In fact it was while traveling by a tram in Madras in 1917 from Madras Christian College to his residence that the now famous line, “gunde gonthkalo kottu kuntunnadi—My heart fluttering in my throat,” was said to have flashed in his mind. With that throbbing heart, as he sat at home, he could reduce that rocking of heart to writing and thus a whole song unfurled spontaneously. And the rest is history—history of the birth of new poetry in Telugu.
As the poet in Subbarao went on with his feverish composition, the immortal Yenki came greeting all of us with her lyrical ballads: a trailing cloud of beauty of an undiscovered world enchanted the young hearts of the 1920s and 1930s… and continue to rock the hearts of even the present generation. Of course, she did raise dust storms as the pandits and pedants, the so-called custodians of the standards in literature, shouted at her. But it could not last for long, as the young took Yenki to their hearts and the songs were already on the lips of all those—both young and old—with a spark of love in their hearts.
There is, of course, no explicit storyline behind these songs. And they are surely in the folk mode evocating the simple and passionate love of Yenki for her Naidu baava, but they are not merely folklore! There is a certain amount of extravagance of dreams in the love of Yenki and her Naidu baava, the pastoral hero and heroine, before which everything else turns dim. A scintillating music pervades the lyrics: it is soft, harmonious, impressive, all wrapped in a bloom of beauty. It lingers more in our memories: every word in it evokes an indefinite power of love.
In Nanduri’s Telugu, there is rustic power of love. There are lines in his songs, for that matter in most of them, that there echoes “A pleasurable feeling of blind love.” They air the longings of lovelorn common folks in an unaffected simplicity expressed through colloquialisms and localisms of their speech and yet sound universal. Their passionate ecstasies and silent exultations dwell in our memories. Their echo haunts us. But if we try to analyze them, their charm becomes elusive.
With his prowess of fancy, animation and eloquence, Nanduri made the young read and reread Yenki with the eagerness of youthfulness. His sheer craft of lyrical expression that is ever soaring, ever singing of love made their popularity unbounded. They are long remembered. They retain a hold even on mature men more because these songs remind them of their youth and they delineate “Such sights as youthful poets dream / On summer eves by haunted stream”.
The hovering air of power and beauty that the words really have is difficult to perceive rightly even by the natives, for the sentiments expressed by these words are “clothed in white samite, mystic and wonderful.”
Yenki is simple but not too simple. She is ardent but not artless. She is loving but not un-suspecting. She is devoted to Naidu baava but exacting in her demands. She talks with her eyes. She mocks at him with her eyebrows. “Even to the palace of kings” she simply “Adds color and glow!” Indeed, “spreads grace all around”.
For Naidu “There is no lass like Yenki”, for she “melts his heart”. She is not a mere queen of Naidu’s heart but a goddess. For, she
“comes so softly!
In the fullness of moonlight
She comes enchantingly
In a bright blue saree
My Enki flashes beauty
And seems the forest fairy!”
To Yenki, the innocent, Naidu baava is everything. He is her lover—the Prince charming of her dreams. She asks of him nothing more than a loving heart, promising to
I will live with thee,
Give me a guileless heart!
And then be happy
I ‘ll build for me
My palace in thy shade!”
Naidu remembers Yenki in varied surroundings and some scenes indeed remain etched in his mind, perhaps to haunt his memory constantly:
“A mountain here and a mountain there,
And in the mountain valley,
She puts the milk pot down
And prays to the temple deity
Alas! Me thinks to see her
These eyes are only two!”
At times the seasoned Naidu tends to brood in his solitude airing a complaint against Yenki’s neglect —of course, more of imaginarily:
“The speech of blossoms
Does Enki know
The mind of garden flowers
Does Enki know
Her friendship with flowers
Quarrels amidst flowers
Will she turn a daisy
Leaving me high and dry
Like a log of oak dreary?”
Why, even Yenki is not lagging behind when it comes to complaining about her Naidu baava: immersed in song and dance with other women when Naidu forgets her while she
“Placed the lamps in a row
And you beside them
And greeted the glow
She noticed in his eyes.
and when there is no near sign of his coming, she laments:
“Won’t you come to me
Tonight, Oh King?
Should all the glory of the Moon
Waste itself away
On the mountain stream?”
For, she sees him in her waking hours and in dreaming nights. In every sight and sound of the nature, she feels of him—as though he is walking behind her, as though he is smiling from behind. And if it is too long an absence, she gets terribly worried: “What will befall my lord! /And what indeed will my fate be!”
When they are together, she is the very embodiment of beauty—“… flies like a bird / Moves like a star / Laughs like a flower / She is new every minute—who lovingly chews and swallows Naidu baava, for—
As she raises her eyes,
A shower of gold!
A smile from her is diamonds dazzling!
And even to the abode of princes
Glow she would gift!
At times Naidu laments at his inadequacy to adequately express his intense love for Yenki, who, to the eyes of Naidu, looks like the goddess of orchard and there is no girl like Enki anywhere! But on occasions when she, ignoring him spends time with neighboring ladies, she looks hardhearted for him. Nevertheless, they are together—entwined in sweet romance—he feels: If the beauteous Enki is around, it is enough! / I can sleep peacefully the whole night!”
And Yenki is no inferior to him in her longing for him. When they are united in sweet romance, she feels that she “bathed lustily in the waters of the Ganges resplendent in diamond glow” and when she
Called out the azure stars
Soaring in the sky,
They dropped in the hands
Like diamond drizzle!
Her attachment to her Naidu baava is so intense that, though her heart is pained, she will not shed tears lest it should harm him! In her romantic moods, she finds all ingenious ways to win over her Naidu—pretending fear and “On the pretext that the cloud / Enveloped the Moon” Yenki joins him anxiously “On the flower bed!”
Years rolled on, yet Naidu’s passion for Yenki had not grown any less intense, but his youthful flush of passion finds sublimation in eternal dream—
“Wake me not, Oh! Enki
wake me not from sleep
For, a bliss so deep
Had never come my way
Wake me not anyway
Lest the dream should melt away
One ‘me’ alone for you
But many ‘yous’ for me.”
Following these rustic but evocative lyrics of early 20th century , the poet came up with a fresh set of songs in 1952, but the charming naiveté of Yenki of the 20s seems to be missing. For, this time round the poet attempted to adorn the simple rural Yenki with a certain spiritual aura. Indeed, Chalam, the well-known master of sinewy prose, observed in his Musings that they lacked the punch of the earlier songs.
Nevertheless, some of them portray arresting poetic imagery: “The stream feeds on moonshine / And slumbers in the river belly!” As the swan like Yenki swings gracefully, she looks like the luminous lamp, while the sindoor and the crescent Moon adorn her head like the crown. These songs are studded with picturesque images of beds of flowers, thrones of flowers, flutes of flowers, all of which lend the songs a charming feel of vibrant nature in all its glory.
Here and there, the spiritual-fragrance of the songs overawes us as when Naidu baava says:
If ever the world at large
Asks, “Who is Yenki?”
I shall turn my finger at
Light and shade!”
The underlying philosophy of these simple words instantaneously makes one realize how ephemeral life is! And how fleeting pleasure and pain is!
Initially, these songs of Nanduri Subbarao evoked stiff resistance from scholars for “the vulgarization of language.” Some orthodox scholars have even questioned the poet’s act of placing an illiterate rustic washerwoman on the pedestal as a romantic heroine. But as the romantic poets of the era started singing them from public platforms, the youth welcomed the fresh breeze of Nanduri’s natural poetry.
A traditional Pandit, Panchagnula Adinarayana Sastry, comparing Nanduri’s songs with the poetry of Kshetrayya and Ramadas, highlighted the fragrance spread by these freshly blossomed flowers on the bough of Telugu literature in the twentieth century. He could indeed see Rathi and Manmatha in Yenki and Naidu baava. In the same vein, Vedam Venkataraya Sastry saw the Sringara of Rambha and Nalakubara in Yenki and Naidu. Sir C R Reddy, former Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and a noted literary critic, satirically attacked the orthodox critics of Yenki Patalu stating that “unless there is worth in them they will not find fault with them,” and read them avidly. The famous journalist and munificent donor, Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao provided space for them in Andhra Patrika and Bharati, besides carrying advertisement for the songs free of cost. Over the years, Yenki and Naidu baava could, from a motivated opposition through the hesitant acceptance, win whole hearted appreciation from all corners. Indeed, Yenki paatalu (Songs of Yenki) that are steeped in Sringara rasa have finally been canonized as landmark in modern Telugu literature.
Later, they were even set to music by no less than the famous musician Parupalli Ramakrishnayya, which were sung by celebrities like Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, Srirangam Gopalaratnam, Balantrapu Rajanikanta Rao and so on. These simple rustic-sounding ballads that portray the ‘love eternal’ of Yenki, the “wild-jasmine” and her passionate Naidu baava continue to dance on the tongues of even laymen and are sure to delight the generations to come.