Literary Shelf

Professor SS Prabhakar Rao: A literary Savant

“Jatasya hi dhruvo má¹›tyur…” —… to the one that is born death is certain and yet whenever it comes, it stuns us. That’s what I experienced when I heard about Dr SS Prabhakar Rao withdrawing peacefully ‘into the beyond’ in the early hours of 9-9-2020. That phone call from his nephew simply made me dumbfounded for a while.

As I sat silently, memories swarmed my mind. I first met Prof Rao in an interesting episode. It was the year 2003. We were interviewing professionals for assembling a team to write courseware for the newly launched UG/PG programmes by the ICFAI. And in that process, a frail looking gentleman, aged around 60 plus with hands tucked behind walked in with a gentle smile on face. Looking at him, I wondered: Am I to interview this saint? After exchanging pleasantries, explaining what we are looking for, ventured to ask him as to where he would fit in with our scheme of things. Being a retired Professor in English and having taught the subject for over three decades he said, he could lead the system to successfully launch BA&MA programmes of our Institute. That concluded our interview and I could not but get up from my chair and walk around to open the door and see him off. And since then I enjoyed the pleasure of listening to his passionate discussions on literature—Telugu, Sanskrit and English—which flowed out of his erudite scholarship.

Prof Rao was born in 1936 at Rajahmundry and had his early education in that town. Having developed a “respectful love for Telugu literature” by the influence of his father Dr Ramaiah, he joined Andhra University for studying English literature and obtained MA. Later, researching on the fiction of John Steinbeck, he obtained PhD in 1972 from Andhra University. Having started his teaching career in 1957 in the Dept of Education, Government of AP in Hyderabad, he shifted to JNT University in 1976 as professor of English and retired as Chairman, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in the year 1996.

For almost over five decades, he actively engaged himself in literature in a four-fold way: as teacher of English literature, critic, trans-creator and as analyser of ELT problems. He also guided research scholars for M Phil and PhD. He published papers in the areas of British, American and Indian English literature. He took upon himself the task of launching The IUP Journal of English Studies in 2006 as its Consulting Editor, steered it successfully for over a decade and ensured that it was indexed by Scopus. He was a British Council Scholar in the UK and visiting Research Fellow at San Jose State University, California. Prof Rao was a member of the National Panel of Translators under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. He was also the President of Steinbeck Society of India. He participated in International conferences at Brighton (UK), Singapore, Honolulu and San Diego (USA).

To his credit, Prof Rao did not confine himself to English literature alone. Taking his Professor Srinivasa Iyengar’s advice ‘to play the Suez’ between regional language and English to heart, he pioneered transcreation of Telugu poetry in English. Starting as early as in the early 70s, Prof Rao translated the poetry of Sri Sri, Tilak, Dasarathi, Narayana Reddy, Randhi Somaraju, Nagnamuni and so on for over four decades. Driven by his passion for taking the treasures of Telugu literature to a wider readership, he published five anthologies of Telugu poetry in English: The Song of the Cosmos and other Poems (1975), Duel with Darkness and other Poems (1978), Signatures on the Seashore (1983), The Bourgeois Bridge (1990) and Post Independence Telugu Poetry (1992).

Introducing Tilak, that ‘Highpriest of beauty’ in Telugu poetry, for whom his words are “beautiful belles playing about under the moonlight”, Prof Rao observing that Tilak’s share of romantic sensibility saved him from the arid banalities of the much of the latter day proletarian poetry, cites the following lines of him as his poetic credo: The oceans of light, scintillating / With the waves of glass… and also avers that it however does not mean that he is not aware of “the sea-gulls of fathomless agony, / the blood vessels of the knights of Dharma. He goes on to say that although Tilak succeeded in presenting pulsating portraits of the downtrodden, he was at his best when he recorded the “mute aspirations, timid adventures and timid apathy of the faceless middleclass” thus:

the cocoon of existence
ruminating the half-chewed dreams
caressing gently the half-extinguished life!  —"Flat Life”

Finally, he concluded his introduction of Tilak, who elevated Beauty to the apogee of worship, aptly quoting his following lines:

Full handsome indeed,
Verily bliss incarnate, and
Put on a crown draped in silken dreams. — “As Ambrosia dripped”

Presenting Dasarathi, poet laureate of AP, Prof Rao said of him as a poet celebrating “the spirit of resistance in the human soul” by citing his triumphant proclamations in his Sahitya Academy award winning poems, Thimiram Tho Samaram: The life that carries on the duel with darkness is indeed immortal!; I will fold up the pen and take the gun instead! Tracing his evolution as a poet, Prof Rao said that by the time he penned his Alochana Lochanalu, Dasarathi had so matured that he moved away from a stance of political commitment to a stature of impassioned and unbiased awareness of reality as evident from the following verse:

lest the upper garment should come in the way
when tomorrow the bullets seek to pierce
through the stout, fearless heart
took off the garment and stood erect.

and his declaration,

True revolution doesn’t mean spilling blood all over…
True revolution blossoms inside the meadows of minds!

Talking about Dr C Narayana Reddy and his poetry that is “full of imagination and cloyingly sweet verbal expression”, Prof Rao states that Dr Reddy’s “poetic insight could release the potency and excellence hidden in the deathless sculptures of Ramappa temple” by singing:

The flowers that blossomed
Inside the slabs of stone…

Quoting Dr Reddy, “Poetry is my mother tongue, / The theme pervasive is humanness”, Prof Rao points out that ‘humanism’ is another significant feature of Reddy’s Poetry. Stating that another dominant feature of DR Reddy’s poetry is robust optimism, Prof Rao invites us to have a look at the verse in which Dr Reddy assertion that Man:

Defying the limits
Of the world
Marches on

Moving on to the ‘bard of flaming songs’, Prof Rao states that “with his revolutionary fervour” Sri Sri, starting “a new genre of Telugu poetry that is a telling commentary on the ills of the social set-up”, urged the masses “to sprint like the serpent and vault like the Niagara” towards the other world of his vision. Expounding the cause of the downtrodden Sri Sri could find the helpless dog, the used-up soap cake and even the burnt-out matchstick worthy to muse in an agonised empathy with the downtrodden … all expressed in forceful language and striking imagery, which Prof Rao can transcreate in English equally emphatically:

Ideals have a place, true;
But all ideals are not noble;
when ideologies conflict,
weapon cannot stay nonaligned.
Therefore, I tell you,
Take up the weapon;
Your passion has a meaning
Only when it leads to action.

That is why I forge the weapon,
Which destroys Adharma;
This weapon is forged
in the smithy of ink;
this heaven is built
by the sweat of humns.

The workshop of my mind
Emits blazes of thought
And spreads all round
The smoke of wildfire

Come in, come in, please
What I write is the song
Burning like the blazing Sun;
What I forge is the sword
Sharp like weapons of diamonds.

That is the ease with which Prof Rao could express even the blazing poetry of Sri Sri in English. The wonderful gift he had for effective expression, the pioneering role he played in translating Telugu poetry of various poets into English had won him a mighty place in the field of translation. His magnum opus, Post Independence Telugu Poetry, is a lasting monument to the memory of Prof Prabhakar Rao.

Besides transcreation of Telugu poetry in English, he also took upon himself the task of —perhaps as a necessity—introducing the hidden talent of Telugu writers to the outside world by writing a review of their work, a foreword to their anthologies or an introduction highlighting their poetic strength in English. He had also translated short stories written by some of the outstanding fiction writers of Telugu such as Chalam, Padmaraju, Gopichand, Kutumbarao etc. He had also translated Vasireddy Sitadevi’s Matti Manishi, which received critical and universal acclaim both from connoisseurs of literature and common folk, into English for Telugu University, Hyderabad under the title, Man of the Soil.

As a critic of Telugu literature, he was pre-eminently a Sahridaya. This we see reflecting in his essay on Koyya Gurram (The Wooden Horse) —a poem that forcefully indicts the system for its callousness towards the grief caused by the deadly cyclone in Diviseema in AP in 1977—when he says: “Nagnamuni, the author of the Kavya, is no-fire-spitting Marxist, ‘red in tooth and claw’ but understands Marx better…He has also matured remarkably since his Digambara rite de rigeur, when he championed total decimation of ‘the leper system’ … but over the years, his poetic craft has been honed and his vision is mellowed and he can observe reality ‘steadily and as a whole’ … attained a certain ‘metaphysical’ apprehension”, by which Prof Rao perhaps meant to say that his Wooden Horse “acquired a universal and timeless dimension and is bound to be relevant so long as man’s inhumanity to man continues.” Drawing out attention to Eliot who could yet hear the thunder of the Himavant at the close of The Wasteland, Prof Rao observes that the poet doesn’t lose his heart altogether for he ends his poem on an optimistic note:

To weave the cosmic garment
Made up of new dreams,
New values and new convictions
And wrap it around the naked body of man
Lying uncared in the corner.

That is Prof Rao, the transcreator, and his ability to empathize with the poet!

Prof Rao’s transcreation is not limited to modern verse poetry alone as he even translated poetry from classics. Attempting to introduce the spectrum of poetic excellence of Bammera Potana, who by virtue of his translating Bhagavatam into Telugu —a unique blend of devotion and lyrical descriptiveness that made his poetic compositions perennial —occupies an exalted niche in the mansion of Telugu Muse, Prof Rao transcreated some of his poems in English. The poem in which Potana declares his intention rather to retire to woods than to fattening himself by selling poesy, had been translated by Prof Rao thus:

The maid of poesy, tender
Like the shoots of mango young
Would a true poet surrender
To the meretricious mortal
And eat of that morsel immoral?
The poet would rather a farmer turn
And live in woods remote
Eating the roots of the earth
For the upkeep of self and family.

Perhaps to highlight Potana’s dexterity in providing an illustration to Simonides of Ceos’s dictum, “…poetry is a speaking picture”, Prof Rao presents another poem of Potana in which he evokes the fight of Satyabhama with rare artistry thus in English:

She looks a while at the adversary
A while at her consort dear;
Her eyebrows creased with wrath
And a gentle smile lit with love
By turns frighten and please;
Her eyes glow with the pink of valour
And with the white radiance of love;
The moon-faced lady sends out with grace
Fierce valleys of lethal arrows
And joyous sallies of pleasantry.

When invited by CP Brown Academy to translate Allasani Peddana’s classic, Swarocisa Manusambhavamu (2009), he translated it canto by canto into English with an elaborate introduction. One of the popular poems set to meter, from this Prabandha was translated by Prof Rao merits our attention:

Who are you, with the eyes of a frightened deer,
Staying here in the woods alone, without fear?
I am a brahmin, Pravara by name. I have lost my way.
Out of insolence, I came to this mountain region;
Can you guide me the way to return to my town?
May God bless you with all happiness!

Listening to him, the damsel, smiling broadly, as her waist and breasts shook and her eyes widened, said:

You are gifted with wide eyes; why then do you
Seek the guidance of others to find your way?
Isn’t it a pretext to talk with women who are alone?
Else, don’t you really know the way you have come?
Why more words? You are taking liberty with us,
Without any fear whatever.

That was his ease in transcreation of Telugu poems in English!

Now that I mentioned about CP Brown Academy, I must share here how helpful Prof Rao was to me in assembling the advisory council for the Academy to guide it in the pursuit of its literary goals. As a true friend, philosopher and guide, he helped me in many ways silently from behind for successfully carrying out the Academy’s mission.

At the Academy’s request, he had also transcreated that darling who 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 in the early 20th century, Nanduri’s Enki in English under the title Love Songs of Enki (2011). As it was obligated upon me by virtue of my role in the Academy, writing a preface to his book, as I put before him for his approval, Prof Rao, having silently gone through it, with a sweet smile said: “So it’s like Sishya writing the Foreword for Guru’s book… it’s fine, I am happy of it!” That was the love and affection that I enjoyed for almost a decade and a half. And today, ha! he is no more. What more can I say of such men who are rare and whose loss is irreparable except silently offering Sraddhanjali.

NB: The verses quoted above are taken from various publications of Dr SS Prabhakara Rao


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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Views: 3521      Comments: 3

Comment True, as Dr Chandra Mouli observed, as a true Guru Prof Rao is known to encourage everybody to aim high and pursue it earnestly. And, he had the sweet nature of relating with everybody as a friend and stand by them. Thanks Dr VVB Rama Rao and Dr TS Chandra Mouli for the visit…

23-Sep-2020 08:21 AM

Comment ssp has been a never failing friend for more than sixty years.
I know the couple very inimately. May his soul rest in peace!!!

vvb ramarao
13-Sep-2020 20:15 PM

Comment I am shocked.My grief knows no bounds.It was Prof S.S.Prabhakara Rao sir who provided the impetus and groomed me as a translator.He had greater designs in store for me to shape into a better teacher and writer.I was not that fortunate to be blessed to work under his guidance. . You have been very kind to me, Sir. But I could not utilise opportunities extended.I regret my foolishness even today.
With a heavy heart, I share grief of family members of Prof S.S.Prabhakar Rao Sir.
Om Shanthi

T.S.Chandra Mouli
12-Sep-2020 12:38 PM

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