Exeunt Omni: The Story Has Turned

by Gautam Pemmaraju

In a recent critique of Pankaj Mishra’s book From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, David Shulman points out interestingly, that in attempting to articulate a composite notion of Asian modernity (and thereby resistance to the West), to configure modernity in context with attendant modernizing processes, negotiations, and ‘modern’ ideas, one must take note of pre-colonial times wherein, as Velcheru Narayana Rao has argued for South India, there are intriguing, ‘organic’, ‘forms of awareness’ that are to be found in Telugu and Tamil speaking regions towards the end of the fifteenth century. “Highly original thinkers and poets” had during this time generated work “comprising a novel anthropology” and, Maps_90368_merc_ind_or_med

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.

Far from the ‘bewildered Asians’, ‘accustomed to divine dispensations’, Shulman points out further that Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and himself have written extensively on these precolonial ‘shifts in sensibility’ as articulated by several inventive writers and thinkers. ‘Colonial modernity’ in 19th century India was expressed in part by the high-minded social reform of protests against prevalent social evils – child marriage, ban against widow remarriage, the ‘nautch girls’ question (the institution of courtesans), moribund traditions, evil superstitions, and suchlike. These social reformers and ‘modernists’, such as Kandukuri Veerasalingam in Andhra, ‘dreary’, ‘disassociated’, and ‘strident’, Shulman argues, obscure the influence, the ‘subtlety’, and the imagination of ‘the real modernists’ who reside in the shadows.

It is in this context that he invokes the much loved ‘modern’ Telugu play, Kanyasulkam (1892), seared into the collective imagination of the Telugu speaking people (particularly Andhra), and written by the maverick writer, Gurajada Apparao, who was one of the pioneers of the spoken vernacular in written form, as opposed to the exclusionary prose of elite literary groups. It is then this play – as a work of potent literary imagination, as a critical text that animated discourse and society at large (co-opted by reformists, Marxists, and others alike), as arguably even an ‘internal’ critique holding up a mirror to orthodoxy, transactions of power and venality amongst Brahmins, and ultimately, as a critique of colonial experience – that represents a form of dexterous modernity quite beyond the limited purview of social reform and colonial modulation. Revealing subtle social contracts and subversive caste/class roles with deft satire, the nuanced narrative mobility of ‘others’ with finely balanced ethical and moral choices, Kanyasulkam is a marker of an inherent literary sophistication, a preexisting enlightenment of sorts. Its place in the Telugu literary firmament is a prominent one indeed, and its ‘social life’, an influential one.

Image232Narayana Rao discusses these ideas with me, pointing also to the playwright Apparao’s own ‘emancipation’ – an irony that sparks about fabulously in his seminal play. Born into the niyogi sub-caste of Telugu Brahmins, who were scribes and administrators as opposed to the vaidikis who performed priestly functions, Apparao initially wrote in English. Born into a family of scribes, or karanams, he was in the employ of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram, Anandagajapati (1850 – 97) whose ancestors had ruled as powerful kings of the region. With a decline in political power, the maharajah, a Sanskrit and Persian scholar himself, was less an autocrat and more a wealthy landlord and patron of arts and culture. After Anandagajapati’s death, Apparao was appointed as a private secretary to the late maharajah’s widowed sister Appala Kondamamba, who had been married to the Rajput Maharaja of Rewa. It was rumoured that Apparao was her lover, and that he spent late nights in her company, drinking wine and eating meat – breaking all social proscriptions. He even visited courtesans, expressing an interest in their lives. It was during this time, in the late 19th century, that there was significant activism against pleasure-women and courtesans, linked in no uncertain terms, Narayana Rao says, to colonial ideas of public morality and the contemporary disavowal of the classical erotic, shringara, traditions in literature and the arts. Untethered from orthodoxy, schooled and literate beyond mere ‘English’ education, sharp and subtle in approach, an aesthete perhaps (?), but aloof from strident reformism, Apparao managed to tread a fairly autonomous path, expressed mostly through his authorial voice as Narayana Rao points out, given that he was a private man.


Set in an environment of social upheaval, where the Brahminic hierarchy was falling apart, challenged by colonial reform, social reform, and the rise of non-Brahmin consciousness, Kanyasulkam presents ‘a subjectivity’, a thoroughly ‘modern self’, which is a continuation of the literary traditions of a pre-colonial modernity, Narayana Rao contends. The characters of Apparao’s play in this context are self aware, ‘dynamic’ and very funny. Arguing that the text itself is intriguingly polyphonic in nature, Narayana Rao writes in the essay The Play In Context, which is found in his translation of Kanyasulkam titled Girls For Sale (2011) that:

Apparao is not presenting a society that is deteriorating, nor is it in any moral crisis. And if there is an occasional violation of the moral order, the play strongly suggests that this society itself is capable of setting it right with a strong sense of purpose and determination. Apparao also suggests, equally strongly, that the impact of colonialism is debilitating even for a confident society such as this one… In this, Apparao is an extraordinarily original writer with an understanding of social reality, very different from many writers of this time, including the more celebrated Bankim and Tagore.

The play itself is written as a farce, for the most part. Built around the social practice of the purchase of young brides via middle men by elderly Brahmins, it begins with the glib hustler Girisam, who masquerades as an English speaking, enlightened social reformer campaigning for widow re-marriage and against pleasure-women. Moving from one hustle to the other, owing money around town, the charming scoundrel is having an affair with a widow who runs an eating joint, as well as ‘keeping’ as his pleasure-woman a central character of the play, the courtesan Madhura-vani. She has other lovers and suitors, in particular, the proud Ramap-Pantulu, a karanam (a hereditary revenue officer/scribe), who fancies himself to be crafty. The main plot of the play is propelled by the efforts of various characters to thwart the marriage of an elderly, miserly Brahmin, Lubdha Avadhanlu, with the young daughter of an ill-tempered Brahmin, Agni-hotra Avadhanlu. Madhura-vani is at the heart of this plot, orchestrating intrigues and schemes, manipulating her various lovers in order to, in some crude sense, teach the greedy and self-serving others around her, a lesson. As Narayana Rao indicates, the polyphony in the text enables autonomous intent and diverse meanings to the actions of the characters, and attributing clear motive can oftentimes prove tricky. There of course, is money involved – from middle men, priests, cops, the young brides’ intemperate father, the miserly Brahmin, Madhura-vani’s own machinations, to Girisam’s con jobs; all the characters seek to insert their interests deviously (and oftentimes obviously) in this complex equation. There is also the well meaning, serious, and morally upright (uptight?) social reformer Saujanya Rao, who wishes to reform the ‘nautch girl’ Madhura-vani. He challenges her morality. She in turn, as Narayana Rao discusses in great detail, challenges him back by asking if he would consider marrying a reformed courtesan, to which he responds in disgust, saying he wouldn’t even touch one; but as is revealed in a hilarious, and deft game of sexual play, Madhura-vani ensnares him with her charms and just as he is about to kiss her, she withdraws. In some fine irony, the confused reformist tells the wily courtesan that the Bhagavad-Gita that he has kept at his bedside turns around bad people, and those who read it find a friend in the god Krishna, to which Madhura-vani slyly (and brilliantly) counters: “So Krishna is not anti-nautch?”


Sir_Thomas_Munro_2C_1st_Baronet_mAs S Inna Reddy discusses in his work on social reform movements in Andhra (see here), and in particular, on the rise of non-Brahmin consciousness in the 19th century, the colonial rule brought several changes in established political and social orders, broadly affecting many social groups. These groups then began “an intense quest for new identities and alternatives”, which resulted in a wide range of responses and the growth of public consciousness, generally understood as part of social reform. Along with colonial tax regulations such as the Ryotwari settlements, whereby the Brahmins lost both the traditional patronage of the ruling elite and the land holdings therefrom received, the challenge to their social hierarchy was led by various groups of non-Brahmins: from the Kamsali (or Vishwabrahmin), Reddy, Kamma, Vaisya, Balija, to the Velama castes. Given also that there were several absentee landlords who leased land out to tilling peasants, the high taxation of the Madras Presidency propelled this loss of the manyam, srotrium & agraharam lands, as the traditional land grants were referred to, and:

When the hold over land relations were weakened under the British rule, some of the non-Brahmin zamindars in Andhra began using force in grabbing the lands held by Brahmins. Such a forceful usurpation was evidenced by the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. The non-Brahmin castes began, thus, asserting their supremacy over land. By the middle of the 19th century the emergence of non-Brahmin castes as landed magnates picked up momentum.

This equation was further compounded by the historic constructions of anicuts on the Godavari and Krishna rivers (see Arthur Cotton), thereby resulting in “unprecedented changes in the agrarian economy of Andhra”. As Inna Reddy further writes, the prominent beneficiaries of these changes were the Reddy and Kamma communities. Commercial agriculture prospered, rice mills grew, and a concomitant rise in trade and communications enabled a ‘money economy’ in the now prosperous delta region of coastal Andhra.

KC Suri, in his work on the non-Brahmin movement in Andhra during colonial times, says at the outset that even during periods when there seemed to be tacit lower caste consent to the hegemony of the upper castes, “the struggles of resistance had been continuing, although in an implicit, unorganized and unsystematic manner”. Notwithstanding the “apparent ossification of the caste system”, caste relations were in a constant state of flux, he argues, due to changing fortunes of groups and members. Conscious efforts by members of ‘inferior castes’ in challenging hierarchy and the oppressive varna system have existed from antiquity, and continue till date, Suri writes. Importantly, he argues further, the changes during the colonial times should be seen as a continuation of the “centuries old struggle for social equality in opposition to brahmanical ideology”. Colonial historians of South India (such as Washbrook & Baker), Suri continues, deny any continuity of struggle from pre-colonial times and attribute it to the policies of the colonial government, caste rivalries, and the ambitions of English educated non-Brahmin leaders. Beyond claims of parity in education, employment and power, the non-Brahmin movement is “rooted in the protest against the brahmanical order, a protest for self-respect, dignity, and equality of status”. Citing Ranajit Guha here, Suri writes that colonial institutions, liberal ideas, and policy have played their part for sure, “gave a fillip”, but to attribute non-Brahmin protest solely to colonial policy is erroneous.


The ‘Christianized’ (see RE Frykenberg’s overview here) hustler Girisam evades a debt-collector by swearing on his Brahminic sacred thread that he will pay him soon. Once the debt-collector leaves, he says to himself in a telling indication of his own sense of self,

At last, I’ve found a use for the shoulder string. You never know. As the theosophists say, every old custom of ours has been put in place for a purpose. You’ll know the truth only by experience…As the Englishman says: Make hay while the sun shines.

Lying to various people that he has gotten a job with the Nizam of Hyderabad as a musayib (companion), which he has turned down to dedicate himself to social reform, Girisam accompanies his student, the naïve Venkatesam, to his parents house for Christmas, ‘kismis’, break. The boy’s father is the ill-tempered Agni-hotra Avadhanlu, who is adamant on selling his daughter, much against the desires of his wife. She threatens to throw herself in the well if he does so. Dressed in the style of the city of the Nizams, with a cap to match, Girisam immediately draws the ire of his student’s father: “Who is this Turaka (Turk)?” The hustler’s manner and appearance conflates a range of identities and values, which commute freely according to necessity or even whimsy. The doting mother is keen to hear her son speak English; she believes that an English education will secure for the boy a bright future, an official post in administration perhaps, and the means to marry. The hustler, who has taught nothing to the young boy apart from how to smoke cigars, in a most comic scene, musters his two bits of ‘butler’ (vernacularly, botleru) English and recites the 'Twinkle Star' nursery rhyme. The boy replies: “There is a white man in the tent”, to which Girisam responds with the famous lines from Felicia HemansCassabianca, required reading in schools:

The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled. 400494_091130132625_samekanons09_0031


As Rama Mantena has previously written while discussing the origins of modern historiography, there have been creative and innovative ways by which Indians were able to ‘reconfigure’ traditions in their encounter with colonialism, ‘western modes of intellectual inquiry’, and indeed, the kind of modernity it brought. There have been ‘native’ sources of history, the kaifiyats (village records), which the colonial surveyor and antiquarian Colin Mackenzie accessed through his assistants, the Kavali brothers, that “presented an alternative to the high literary traditions of historical narrative in Telugu”. Positivist methods then took over. In a forthcoming paper on vernacular literary traditions and political modernity, she argues for “an attempt to pluralize modernity” which entails a broader ecology of political, social and cultural changes and transactions, as opposed to “a single, homogenous process” (citing Sudipta Kaviraj & Habermas). She discusses in detail the language reform led by the ‘self-fashioned modernist’ Gidugu Ramamurthi, who declared the time to be an “age of defiance” or dhikkarayugamu. Language reform for him, Mantena writes, was critical to creating new political subjectivities, as well as tackling pre-existing social hierarchies. The printing press, which brought about newer forms of written Telugu, pre-colonial forms; all these disparate traditions had to be then brought together. A break from the elite moorings of the written form was also imperative, and both Ramamurthi and Apparao were pioneers here, Mantena writes, promoting colloquial spoken forms in their writing. A desire for newness, change, and ‘reform’, of adhunika, nava or nutana, was certainly a part of the efforts but the process was not “a blind enthusiasm” for western modernity, but a more complex, self-aware process of selective application, “without the ambivalences that plagued many nationalists”.

The eponymous feature film of 1955 further popularized Kanyasulkam, where the former Telugu film star and chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao, portrayed the con man Girisam. The play's life on stage continues till date, and there was also a TV series. While it is viewed and analysed from diverse standpoints, what is enduring is its literary merit, its inventive qualities, its charm, satire and importantly, its deft reflections of a society and region undergoing transformative change. Fortunes, identities, language, and nations even, they all inevitably change over time, and it is in the multiple mappings of complex, interlinked change, that we gain critical insight into who we are and how we have come to be.