Wednesday, February 24, 2010



by Sonti Venkata Suryanarayana Rao

To a superficial critic, Classical Telugu Literature may appear to be a wearisome catalogue of romances in highly Sanskritised diction containing a thin story padded with hackneyed descriptions in conventional imagery. This wrong impression has been created because of the undue emphasis placed earlier on a few scholarly works of the above type to the neglect of the vast treasury of classical literature in various other genres in which genuine lyrical and thoughtful poetry is quite abundant. As a matter of fact even in Sanskrit literature with its high reputation with poets like Kalidasa, Sanskrit poetry became more and more pedantic and artificial. As against such prejudice or hasty opinion, one has to remember that after Baudelaire, objective poetry has gained more attention and the lyric itself has acquired a new meaning. Even classical poets are re-evaluated and Horace is now considered as a lyrical poet.

Whatever may be the judgement regarding Sanskrit literature, ably defended by A.L.Basham (postea), Telugu has a continuous tradition of lyrical poetry in the form of Satakam, a literary genre in which Telugu is probably the richest among modern Indian languages. A Satakam literally means a collection of hundred or a few more verse by the same poet which are independent in nature but composed in the same mood or on a single broad theme. In Sanskrit literature the collection of three such satakas by Bhartruhari on Niti, Sringara and vairagya is the most well known example besides Amaru Satakam which has received universal acclaim. Such Satakams are probably found in all modern Indian languages the best example being Behari’s Satsai (17th cent) in Vrak dialect of Hindi. Telugu has a large collection of Satakams, estimated to be over three thousand in classical literature and like Bhartruhari or Bihari, many poets owe their reputation mostly to their Satakams alone. Vemana Satakam for instance is known all over South India.

As compared to the larger poetical works like Mahakavyas, a Satakam offers greater scope to the poet to express his genuine thoughts and feeling in such a degage collection of verses. Lyrical poetry of high literary value is found in some of the Telugu Satakams even if many of them are didactic. For the latter reason, some of the avant grade poets and committed Marxists who have little use for classical poetry, have employed this medium to propagate their views. Moreover, school children in Andhra study selections from a few popular Satakams as moral education e.g. Vemana Satakam, Sumati Satakam and Bhaskara Satakam and a few stanzas from them from the only means by which a layman gets acquainted with classical literature.

Unlike the Satakams of Sanskrit, Telugu Satakam has a definite form and it is not in that sense a totally random collection on which ground, Bharthruhari’s authorship of all the 300 and odd verses has been questioned. To qualify as a Telugu Satakam, it should have a common refrain, which is usually the last line of the verse or a phrase at the end. It is generally in the same metre or related metre e.g. Utpalamala or Champakamala. There is also unity in its conception viz. its general nature. Many of the Satakams were probably composed at leisure but great poets are known to have composed them at a stretch extempore in literary contests. The earliest Telugu Satakam-like work dates back to the 12th century. Mallikarjuna Panditharadhya, a great Saivite social reformer and contemporary of Basaveswara, the founder of VeeraSaivism in, has left behind 49 verses out of which 135 are addressed to Lord Siva. He was followed by Yaadhaavakkula Annamayya who wrote the ‘Sarveswara Satakam’ in 1242 AD which is more balanced lyrical work of 138 verses. It is probable that these Satakams were inspired by the Chandrachudamani Satakam, of Nagavarmacharya (11th Cent) in the Kannada Language. Palkurki Somanatha (ca 1300), the great Veerasaivite poet and author of Basava Puranam has left behind a Satakams have attained the popularity of ‘Sumati Satakam’ by an unknown author of the same period in the early days of Telugu literary history. Authorship of this well known work is sometimes attributed to Baddena a minor princeling who has to his credit another work on political science(antea) but the style is very dissimilar. Sumati Satakam needs no introduction whosoever has composed it. Pithy sayings from this short work in Kanada metre similar to ‘Arya’ in Sanskrit, are quite familiar even to the common man all over Andhra Pradesh. It is as well known as ‘Kural’ in south India, although it lacks the dignity and philosophic depth of the great Tamil classic.

The only other Satakam which is equally known to one and all is the “Vemana Satakam” which has received special attention in the modern age. In relatively short verses in the ‘Ataveladi’ metre (literally a danseuse), Vemana, a hedonist turned-a-saint as per legends, has instilled a lot of wisdom and social criticism in simple and idomatic Telugu. Vemana was greatly admired by the British Civil servants and savants like J.A.Dubois, C.V.Grover, H.Bavars, W.H.Campbell, C.D.Barnett and J.D.B.Gribel (Bharati, Nov. 1971) although Telugu pandits were not prepared to recognise him as a poet; his diction was too simple for them, inspite of its rich imagery. UNESCO has chosen Vemana as one of the poets of international importance and commissioned J.S.R.L. Narayana Murthi in California for a fresh translation of his poetry. Medpati Venkata Reddi, Director of the recently established Vemana Yoga Research Centre, Hyderabad has explained the philosophical significance of his mystic poetry in his Vemana Yogam (1984) C.P.Brown, civil servant and the first European to learn Telugu and compose a Dictionary, has translated selections from them into English and Latin in the 19th century, Vemana belongs to probably to the 17th century but his date and personal life are controversial. He was more a saint with a large following than literary figure in his day. His Satakam may be a collection of impromptu verses having a common refrain. Not all the 4000 verses attributed to him may be genuine. He corresponds to Sarvagjna in Kannada whose three line apothegms are called ‘Vachanas’. Since their dates are still uncertain, it is difficult to establish a definite relationship but they appear to be familiar with each other’s work from many verses in common.

Among the other popular ‘Niti’ or didactic Satakams are Bhaskara and Kumari Satakams. Enugu Lakshmana Kavi (18th century) a minor poet judged from his other writings, has achieved the rare distinction of translating Bhartruharil’s Satakams into easy and smooth Telugu verse which have perhaps excelled the original work as in the case of Rubayiat

of Omar Khayam by Fitzgerald. Starting with collections of devotional hymns and invocations to favorite deities, the Telugu Satakam has blossomed into several fields so that it is difficult to classify the vast body of Satakam literature. Among the devotional Satakams, the best is easily the ‘Kalahastiswara’ Satakam, by Dhurjati a major poet of the 16th century who lived at the court of Krishna Deva Raya in his early days and later wrote that above Satakam in anguish and remorse for the Bohemian phase of his younger days. Another famous Satakam is ‘Devakinandana Satakam’ of Vennelakanti Janna Mantri (14th cen) Dasarathi Satakam attributed to the great saint composer Bhadrahala Ramadas, is also well known.

While the above works are mainly devotional from the 16th century onwards, philosophical Satakams also have appeared in the literature ‘Sadanandayogi Satakam’ being the first one. On the other hand Satakams in a romantic vein were also not uncommon as for instance, ‘Brahmananda Satakam’ of Gopinatham Venkata Kavi (early 19th century) Manorama Satakam of Udaya raju Seshagiriraya Kavi and Lavanya Satakam of Potipeddi Venkanna. Satakams of pure humour and parody were written on Pakoda, Visana Karra (fan), Chipuru pulla (broom stick) and such other comic themes. ‘Choudappa Satakam’ although quite familiar to the cognoscenti, is place under quarantine from the general reader because of its hyper-erotic nature. Choudappa (16th cenury), who is otherwise a very talented poet, is specially noted for his skillful handling of ‘Kanda’ a very popular metre. Unfortunately he had a fascination for the forbidden word.

Although reflections on human life and social criticism are found in almost every Satakam, modern readers will find the more recent satakam from 18th century onwards to be of greater interest since social criticism is the poet’s main intention notwithstanding the refrain adressed to the local deity among these may be mentioned ‘Simhadri Narasimha Satakam’ and Andhra Nayaka Satakam by Gogulapati Kurmanatha Kavi and Kasula Purushottam respectively. Good satire is found in ‘Bharga Satakam’ of Kuchimanchi Timmakavi, ‘Ramalingesa Satakam’ of Adidam Surakavi and ‘Venugopala Satakam’ of Polipeddi Venkatarama Kavi.

A special feature of these later satakams is colloquial diction and a total break with archaic and obsolete language. Satakam medium has so popular ie was being increasingly employed for various purposes, including lexicons and grammatical works. Apart from narrative themes and scientific subjects, the most interesting ones are the ‘Prahelika Satakam’ (Riddles) like Tirumalesa Satakam. A recent writer has reviewed the history of the second world war and the dawn of independence in ‘Katyayani Satakam’. There is a satakam on Salt Satyagraha by Garikaati Mallavadhani. In the modern world several poets employed the Satakam form for their autobiographies. Chellapilla Venkata Sastri has described his life in Jataka Charya, a well known autobiographical satakam.

Sumati Satakam

Vemana Satakam


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