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How Mahakavi Sri Sri defined political and cultural metamorphosis of Telugu society

By Harsh Thakor 

Srirangam Srinivasarao, popularly known as Sri Sri, or called Mahakavi (The Great Poet), held a reputation like no other Telugu poet. Today, on June 15th, we commemorate his 40th death anniversary.
Sri Sri transcended heights in revolutionary creativity or exploration, unparalleled, in Telegu poetry, giving it a new dimension. His poems projected the theme or plight of the oppressed people at a scale, rarely penetrated by poets, giving revolutionary poetry it’s soul.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was a voice that manifested the anger and frustration of the people and fostered spirit of rebellion. Sri Sri’s call to rise up and give birth to an egalitarian world emancipated of exploitation and deprivation, touched the core of the soul of young men and women who were swayed by the wave of Communism. His voyage as a poet and later as a Communist political propagandist defined the political and cultural metamorphosis in Telugu society in the 20th century.
Sri Sri above all, manifested the spiritual essence of a Marxist revolutionary. There is no doubt that Sri Sri finds a permanent place amongst the greatest revolutionary poets to have ever set foot on this earth. His poetry would rejuvenate people from the depths of adversity, to embark on trail of revolutionary path.

Early Life and Background

Sri Sri was born in 1910 in Visakhapatnam, at the time when there existed a vast dichotomy between the ways of the past and the modern world. The age-old Hindu society and its customs were actively being combated by the modernists and social reformers of the era. In the literary world, the use of archaic and Sanskritised Telugu found a contender in a new wave of Bhavakavita (romanticism) movement led by young Telugu poets. One school of thought was led by ViswanathaSatyanarayana, a devoted supporter of Brahmin supremacy and Sanskrit and another was led by Devullapalli Krishna Sastry, a romantic poet of Bhavakavitamovement. Both had telling effect on Sri Sri..
However, around the same time, there was a growth in the unrest amongst the middle-class society. Criticism of the ideas of aristocracy and zamindari system began to spread like wildfire across the country.
"Even I offered a firewood to the world’s fire
Even I provided a tear to the world’ rain
Even I gave a cry to the world’s roar"
— Excerpts from Jayabheri

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the politics of the world took a 360 degree turn. The Great Depression in America was spreading to other parts of the world (except Soviet Russia). The failure of the capitalist societies and the relative economic stability of the Communist societies was grave. This led to an increase in the influence of Marxism across India including the Indian Progressive Writers .During this period, the impact of world politics and issues of feudal oppression, economic inequality and social injustice made a profound impact on SriSri. He rejected the conventional themes and ways in Telugu poetry.
In 1933, Sri Sri wrote ‘Jayabheri’, a promise to transform the world. In the following years, his poetry manifested the struggles he perceived in society and a revolt against the prevailing degenerate feudalistic society. He adopted the cudgels of the cause of the class struggle and his writings were voiced social concern to the very core. His poetry was published in literary journals and was recited among large groups and gatherings. By the time the collection of these poems was published in 1950 as MahaPrasthanam, his magnum opus, he became a household name.
His poetry is revolutionary not only because it projected the struggles of the working class and peasants but also because it created tremors in the camp of the complacent Telugu bourgeois by liberating the language from the clutches of prosodic rules.
Extricating himself from the pre-existing classicism prevalent in Telugu literature, Sri Sri led the wave of progressive poets who formed the Progressive Writers Association (AbhyudayaRachayitalaSangham also known as Arasam), writing about the oppressed and the working class. He wrote in free verse giving Progressive Telugu poetry a concrete form. The poetry played an important role in moulding the consciousness of people during the Independence struggle and the Telangana Peasant Struggle against the Nizam rule and the oppressive feudal system.
"Whichever country’s history you see
What reason is there to be proud?
Entire history of human race
Is exploitation of others
This queen’s love affairs
The expenses of that invasion
Schemes and accounts
These are not the essence of history.
In the civilisation on the banks of Nile
What was the life of the common man?
In building the Taj Mahal
Who were the labourers who lifted the rocks?"
— Excerpts from Desacharitralu

Though his poetry represented the nationalist movement in an early Independent India, Sri Sri perceived the people’s movement as an international phenomenon.
Mahaprasthanam was a collection of forty poems Sri Sri wrote between 1934 and 1940.The
period encompassed the economic depression after the war and the consequent trials faced bythe downtrodden across the globe. The book was path breaking contribution and defined a new epoch beginning in Telugu literature. It is the first widely acclaimed book of poetry written by a Marxist public intellectual in Andhra. This book marked a rebellion against the prevailing literary trends where in poetry belonged to the elite and the intelligentsia of the times and the common reader was generally excluded from any poetic or artistic endeavours of the contemporary age.
Sri Sri’s writings on the Soviet Union comprise the most enriching by any writer, encompassing in deep depth how anew man was created in USSR. He glorified the public healthcare system and children’s well fare. Quoting Sri Sri ““I saw with my own eyes, how the children are looked after in the way of humanistic, communistic morals. The Soviet state lavishes great care and loving solicitude on its children, the pioneers of a great new human civilisation, of which I have spoken earlier, the like of which was never known before.”
“You go to any city or town or village in the USSR, health is there in abundance, cleanliness is visible to the naked eye.”
In the late 60’s when Naxalism was spreading he modelled himself on Devulapalli Krishnasastri’s style in his early days but Krishnasastri was a poet and a poet alone in Sri Sri’s life. Still GurazadaApparao, the father of the Telugu renaissance was an idol, in Sri Sri’s godless life.
It was at the formative stage in Sri Sri’s life that he got first-hand experience of communism and its unprecedented achievements in the USSR during the Depression, and the idealism of its advocates in Spain in the 30’s. Sri Sri had already pealed the skin of conventional norms having undergone a second transformation and gave up writing on love, or romance. He embarked on writing on the sufferings in the capitalist world and the merciless exploitation of peasantry and the proletariat.

Role in Communist Movement

Sri Sri unflinchingly stood with leftist politics till the end of his life. In 1955, he was the only member of the Progressive Writers Union who supported the Communist Party of India contesting against Congress. During an election campaign in Guntur, the gathering was attacked by stone pelting as volunteers tried to control the situation. His mental health took a toll when he saw a bleeding volunteer attacked. He recalls in his autobiography that he lost consciousness for five to six weeks and had no recollection of how he reached Madras where he was admitted in a hospital for treatment.
During the Indo-China War (1962), the Indian Government framed many Communists, and suppressed anyone who dared to raise his voice against the manner India operated during the War. Sri Sri who was then heading the Human Rights Commission in Andhra Pradesh worked to draw public sentiment against the ways of the state.
Sri Sri resonated the spirit and politics of Naxalbari and through his poetry, knitting a powerful team of activists and sowing the seeds for a revolutionary cultural movement. Sri Sri’s writings shimmered the spark of Naxalbari and Srikakulam uprisings, penetrating zones almost unscaled in his time, igniting flame of revolution in the hearts of vast number of people. He sowed the seeds for many a revolutionary writer or poet to bloom.
No Indian poet as much crystallized or gave shape to Mao Zedong thought, in an Indian form. He made Marxism touch the core of the soul of the masses and stirred revolutionary spirit in masses with effect of a Tsunami.
In 1970, Sri Sri’s 60th birthday celebrations were celebrated in full pomp in every city in Andhra Pradesh. Most members of Progressive Writers Union parted themselves from the revisionist parties when the Naxalbari movement was influencing Srikakulam. Students, who were associated with the Srikakulam Tribal Struggle at the time, gave a pledge to Sri Sri and his kind, whether they would be on the side of the struggle or the enemy. Sri Sri and a handful of other poets strived to support the endeavours of the tribal struggles and formed the Revolutionary Writers Association (ViplavaRachayitalaSangham, also known as Virasam). Sri Sri became the founding president of the Revolutionary Writers Association or Virasam. Sri Sri remained a member of Virasam till his death. In the mist of the left adventurist stand of Charu Mazumdar which called for disbanding mass organisations, it was a remarkable achievement to create Virasam or Revolutionary Writers Association..
When a Naxalbari activist NagabhushanPatnaik was sentenced to death, he wrote:
"That day, the white man called you Bhagat Singh
Today, the brown man calls you a Naxalite
Tomorrow, everyone will call you the Morning Star
Inquilab Inquilab Inquilab Zindabad."
When the Andhra government arrested three Virasam poets, he wrote an angry letter to the then Home Minister and signed his address as ‘c/o NagabhushanPatnaik, wherever he is’. In 1974 Sri Sri chaired the founding of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Commitee,which marked a historic landmark in history o civil liberties movement. He stood at the forefront of the revolutionary movements of the in-between seventies. With dauntless courage with personal example he led activists to combat the tyranny of emergency.

Influence, Style and Impact of Writing

Sri Sri asserted he was ‘an extremist in his poetry and a modernist in his politics’. He repeatedly committed errors, and corrected his stances. Belonging to a generation which reposed faith in Communism and the Red Army, he was relentless in his anti-establishment stand and support for leftist politics. His impact in the literary and political spectrum was unparalleled and he welcomed anyone making path breaking rupture from the status quo. He sowed seeds for the next generation of poets to blossom replicating his sense and style to an extent (of which digambara poets, nayagara poets are examples). Oppression, inequality and injustice were central themes of new poetry and his writings remain as relevant and thought provoking, till today.. The sheer flow in his poetry, reminded one f the forces of nature.
. It was at the formative stage in Sri Sri’s life that he got first-hand experience of communism and its unprecedented achievements in the USSR during the Depression, and the idealism of its advocates in Spain in the 30’s. Sri Sri had already pealed the skin of conventional norms having undergone a second transformation and gave up writing on love, or romance. He embarked on writing on the sufferings in the capitalist world and the merciless exploitation of peasantry and the proletariat.
Sri Sri was not curtailed by the boundaries of Marxism. The theme of ‘historical materialism’ and ‘scientific socialism’ is not a permanent feature in his writings. It is the dawn of a classless utopia which is manifested by the chariot of PuriJagannadh and the revolution projected by the Mahaprasthanamof the Pandavas (the great journey).
Poetry was bound by the fetters of traditional norms and classical diction. Those who tried to part ways from these trends were perceived as reactionaries. Sri Sri’s poetry was just what the doctor ordered. He raised his voice vociferously and pulled people with magnetic effect. His poetry inculcated a transformation in the manner in which poetry was perceived by the contemporary world in respect of form as well as content.
The themes that Sri Sri chose made him the mascot of the downtrodden: “What matters most is not the palanquin the king rode on, but the people who carried the king in the palanquin! He also asked pertinent questions like “Who are the coolies that carried the stones while a TajMahal was being built?” His concern was for the farmer who tilled the land or the factory worker who had to sweat it out in the kharkhanas. He became a role model for the generation of poets who followed him immediately after. The progressive movements that shaped the course of Telugu poetry were given their first spark by Sri Sri’s mode of thought. If Gurazada was the father of Modern Telugu poetry, Sri Sri propelled and moulded the course of literary movements covering the entire century, a force behind all the progressive movements that Telugu literature witnessed during the 20th century after the thirties.
Sri Sri‘s language possessed highly sanskritised style but the purpose of writing set a new trend. He endeavoured on writing for the common man. His themes were not based on the sweethearts or caricatures of the world o glamour but the workers and farmers who toiled to the last breath and still denied fruits of their labour. He innovated a new trend in poetry and how his poetry gave writing another chord is something that needs to be investigated. His times demanded his departure from established poetic traditions, but also demanded of him an equal optimism which could provide an alternative to the authoritarian or autocratic trends that pervaded the era.
Sri Sri successfully innovated through his search a suitable alternative for the existing and dominant poetic trends prevailing in contemporary Andhra. Thus historically Sri Sri constructed a bridge between the classical and romantic trends represented by poets like Viswanatha and Krishna Sastry; and progressive trends represented by the dalit and feminists writers of the later eighties. He stood at the forefront of the revolutionary movements of the in-between seventies. However, Sri Sri who championed progressive thought in every sphere was strangely silent about feminist movement which began to take shape during that time.
While his soul possessed the heart and the passion of a romantic, the language and the imagery were dug out from the traditional world which he rejected in his themes. Some of his well-known poems on a lost traveller, an old woman illustrate his deep bond with the plight of thepeople who were the central point of his concern. The humanism that latter day Telugu poetry reflects, has it’s roots in these concerns.
Sri Sri needs to be reborn in another form today to confront the wave of globalisation, Hindutva fascism and Brahmanical facism, on an unparalleled wave. We have to adapt his forms taking into account the sweeping cultural changes and penetration of imperialistic culture in a modernised form.

Weaknesses

Sri Sri was unable to comprehend completely the sway of left adventurist line and insisted on Marxism-Leninism Mao Tse Tung thought being an essential part of the manifesto of Virasam.He displayed a sectarian attitude in promoting the expulsion of activists like Jwalamukhi and rejecting ‘Volga’ line.Sri Sri could not extricate the Revolutionary writers Association from left mongering sloganeering directly propagating party politics or properly construct a broad united from progressive writers, excluding Marxists. Romanticism was a dominant style in his poetry. He remained silent about feminist movement which began to take shape during that time. In my view also after his visit to USSR in 1967 in commemoration of the October Revolution, he failed to speak out openly how revisionism had entrapped Soviet Society or Brezhnevite autocracy, degenerating genuine revolutionary culture.
---
Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has done extensive research on Marxist revolutionaries

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