A savant sans sciolism, a towering critic, a scribe par excellence and a powerful octogenarian (b. 1938) poet, Dr. V.V. Rama Rao has performed a stupendous work by translating into English the lyrics of some promising Telugu poets in his unparalleled style. Divided into thirteen sections, the book under review Vivid and Vibrant contains Telegu verses translated into English. The time span covers more than thirty years, and the canvas is broad enough to catch the spirit and spark of the time the poets — while in physical existence — were involved with.
Enriched with a variety of themes — from philosophical to realistic, from aesthetic to satirical and from feminist to rebellious — some Telugu poems of the previous century specially between 1985 and 1995, the collection is a cornucopia of unique thoughts; and the thoughtful oeuvre of poems has aptly been rendered into English by Dr. Rama Rao. In his words, the eleven years from 1985 to 1995 is the period that “deserves special study since never before in the entire range of this millennium has there been such effulgence and flowering of poetic expression”.
During this period the traditionally rhetorical poetry was accorded a go-by. The new wave in Telugu poems encompassing Free verse gave way to a remarkable change in style, syntax and content with an eye to social dimension: “words hidden in mother’s lullabies yesterday/Become sticks of dynamite today” (Sikhamani). It is to be admitted while admiring the emerging trend in Telugu poetry that feminist and Dalit poets, focusing on social and democratic values, have made a headway. The thrust on women’s sensibility is also evident from some poems in section I. Some of the lines are like — “As there are pills to drive milk dry/If there were to be potions the soft-sensibility to parch/How nice it’d have been!” (Patibandla Rajani). “Life should be securely held and saved/Even from the one to whom the heart is given” (Jaya). “My mother is express of the kitchen/But the name (etched) on pots and pans is my father’s” (Vimala). These are the poems that call a spade a spade, and this is Feminist poetry with no faux pas for being straight forward, if not pungent, even about some secrets of female body. It is evident from some more recent poems as well, like Mother by Indraganti Janakibala — “Those who bore her too are cross for bearing a female/Even then-melting the hardened heart of her mother/She proffers her nipple to the new born baby girl/Arrived afresh on this earth”. This is true, and if exposing the truth is considered indecorous, the reaction — according to Dr. Rao “was some kind of a propeller” (P. 31).
Dalit poetry in Telugu is more rooted to down to earth syndrome and a realistic approach to life than to ‘languidly imaginative and luxurious poetic fancies’. With the demand for social equality, their poems dig at the flaws of our socio-economic system — one such being the issue of discrimination. They write, as Dr. Rao observes, ‘Gutsy poems with gusto’ which are sometimes vibrant with ‘seething paroxysms of fury and wiry virulence’. Two examples are cited: “The five elements are taking baths/Transcending the lines on the forehead/Feet are now sprouting from Brahma’s face” (M. Venkat). “While these wounds throb through generation/walking erect on roads with heads held high/Don’t differentiate tears: don’t divide wounds” (Pagadala Nagender).
From section II onward, we find diverse thoughts on themes — ranging from the pleasant childhood days to the heart-squeezing reality of modern age — have influenced the mainstream Telugu poems at present. The change in attitude and mode of expression accompanied by a sense of empathy as also anguish have contributed largely to the transformation Telugu poetry has undergone between 1985 and 1995. It is evident from such poems as “If poetry were to be cut with logic/What remain are not ideas/only fragments of words” (N. Udaya Bhaskar) or, “Even if I lie heart-broken would their hearts become puddles? Beasts that eat placenta, would they have love for us?” (Chitram Prasad).
Ramarkably also, in some poems is crystal clear the adoration for revolution: “Time is my pen-gun/Right from the forests of Srikakulam/Up to the mines of Singareni/There are reverberating thought explosions” (Radheya) or, “Ideal is not a flower to drop at the noise of the gun/We are not the ones to divulge secrets in fear” (Sayyed Haneef). This undying revolutionary ideal is appealing as much as these lines — “Mother alone/Since millions of years/Has been travelling from womb to womb/Trying hard, labouring to deliver Man .........” (M.S. Suryanarayana).
Moving from sentimental and/or romantic to movement-oriented broad perspective, many Telugu poets have expressed themselves without euphemism and elegiac tone — their poems are more direct and striking. For instance “Life/not a passing dream/But a flame that fires” (S.V. Satyanarayana). The next example, a few lines by Asha Raju are stunning indeed “Children would ask you about me/Forgetfully don’t ever show them in the day’s newspaper/Pictures of mangled and broken corpses/Point me to them in the crowd/Show the cool hand that wipes a tear/They’d love and I too would be kept alive”. Now a few poems on revolutionary thoughts: “Tenderness for leaf buds/Came not knowing the world/Redness for flowers/Came, knowing the world/For little infants/Naxalities I conceive great liking/That guilelessness for infants/came, not knowing the world/That selflessness for brothers/Came, knowing the world” (Indravelli Ramesh). What a nice depiction! Nothing needs to be explicated. There is another instance equally laudable: “Cleaning the earth, raising the head/Defying self-respect and submission/Shows up existence/A Revolutionary”. (Harikrishna Mamidi) Enthralling poems indeed.
Poetry written with conviction is an eye opener to some of the existential questions we appear less bothered about, but life is not that smooth in reality. And modern Telugu poems are far from relishing on a drawing room view of life; in reality, it is often harsh or impinging as exposed here: “On the tree hanging on the body of the farmer/A song wet with snow the whole night/The sad one grieves/Who is loveless, the song or the farmer?” (Mercy Margaret). The crucial issue of existence in totality is well addressed by Vijaya Chandra Rokkam — “Do roti essential/For my living/Two words are needed/For the country”. Though space flight has brought moon very close to us, it still rules the roast of poetic mindset in Telugu poems but the texture is different: “The ebb and flow of the blank and white/Full Moon and no Moon/only the difference I know ....... Ideas never ending ‘Who is a man/Who is humane and full one?’ I shout like a heart-breaking thunder.” (Garikipati Pavan Kumar). Again, Ammangi Venugopal views moon as — “Alone/this long black night/How can I spend/The dark night on an Amavasya/The diamond of wings/Escaping from/The hold of the serpent/For the fallen stars the stars shed by the moon/The blindness I saved in my stomach”.
It is gratifying to note that love — an important aspect of the tenuous man-women relationships — has got the flavour of awareness in the recent feminist poetry in Telugu: “I pleaded with you/To soften your heart gone hard/Fashion it as a mirror clear/Not to throw back rays of my love,/Dear!/To reflect in you/me”. (Kavita Rasa Gulikalu). In another poem by Mrs. Vekataramana we find an imaginative impulse — “A loving call in the two stars of your eyes/A black road moving forward like a python/A butterfly of very common sight/Unable to enjoy/Your shirt’s sweat perfume/Flies away whirling above”. Clear that the emerging trend emphasises more the question of identification than anything else. Poems with satirical connotation are also there and one is sure to be impressed by these lines — “Donning Gandhi caps frogs are croaking, croaking, croaking/Their birth place a pool of stagnant sewer water/Their residence stench of ordure/Eating earthworms and insects small/Belching, they croak, croak and croak all night/The night doesn’t seem to have an end”. (Vijayachandra).
But to cap it all, there are poems full of vigour and vivacity. And here, the dialect gives a clarion call — “Come.../Breaking shackles of narrowness/Let us turn and go around, progress/with your hands extended/or Fingers holding a pen” (Hari Krishna Nakka). If imagery matters — as it often does, one is sure to be moved by these lines — “The sun is the pilgrim/Crows changing forms reach the clouds/Falcons throwing their claws on the Ganges/Cocoons becoming butterflies/In the pilgrim’s cup of hands/On the banks of Ganga........./There ....... that is Ma Ni Kar Nika” (Indrani Palaparthy). Interestingly, in his note Dr. Rama Rao states that ‘the burnt parts of the body of Devi Parvati, eighteen in number, were dropped in parts of the country’. But so far as the legend goes, the number is 51 and not 18. And there are fifty one holy places (Peeth) like Kamakshya (Assam), Naina Devi Temple (H.P), Kalighat (W.B) where the body parts of Sati fell.
It is to be admitted that there are a lot of poems worth-mentioning, and for a voracious reader like me it is difficult to shun the path of inclusion which means doing injustice to a number of deserving poets but paucity of space leaves me helpless. Undoubtedly, translation as a difficult task unless one is able to retain the subtle shades of the meanings of the words in translation. Which is why we often miss the literary or dialectical flavour of the original work which can not be transmitted when rendered into another language. Sometimes fear of catachresis is also there. But as far as Vivid and Vibrant is concerned, Dr. Rama Rao has proved his ability and dexterity in translating so many Telugu poems so perfectly as these poems sound close to the original work. Sedulously undertaken by Dr. Rao, the artistic and succinct way of translation reminds me of a French adage: Translation is like a lady — the more beautiful, the more unfaithful. Dr. Rao’s efforts have made it beautiful — not allowing it to be unfaithful. Except for a few printing errors like ‘mother is moves’ (P. 44) or, ‘has been sanding’ (P. 153), the book offering an insight into modern Telugu poems is laudable and worth preserving.
Works cited : Vivid and Vibrant by Dr. V.V.B. Rama Rao, Authors Press, 2020, Rs. 350, Page 169.