Early Telugu Poetry–

Nannaya to Tikkana


(Lecturer, The Osmania College, Hyderabad, Dn.)

The stage was set for the beginnings of Telugu literature in the first half of the 11th century A. D. King Raja Raja was the first known royal patron of Telugu, and Nannaya was the first known poet. This was rather late for the Telugu genius in poetry to burst forth into noble expression. Tamil claims a literature from the beginning of the Christian era and Kannada also blossomed forth into flowers before Telugu. It sounds paradoxical that the Andhras were known to history since 1000 B. C. but the literature extant in Telugu dates since 1000 A. D. The reasons are more historical than cultural. Prakrit played an important role in the politics and culture of Andhra up to the ascendancy of the Chalukya Dynasty. The language also was ‘In the Workshop’ in the centuries before Nannaya. The blending of the Dravidian tongue with Prakrit and Sanskrit was in the process, and standardised Telugu capable of expressing noble sentiments was in the formation. The inscriptions of the pre-Nannaya era are the only authentic records to which one can look for Telugu in formation. These inscriptions starting from the 7th century A. D. disclose the potential beginnings of Telugu literature. The earlier inscriptions are written in prose and there is a strange admixture of Prakrit terms in them. One meets with a rugged prose style, free from Sanskritisms and compounds. There are occasional echoes of pure Telugu idiom in them. Some of the grammatical forms are still in the melting pot, the sign of the plural for instance. The cerebrals N. & L. are still much in use, a relic of primitive Dravidian. The inscriptions of a century and half later reveal the rising influence of Sanskrit on Telugu. Historically this is the time when Sanskrit culture and Vedic religion are trying to establish themselves in Andhra Desa. There are more of tatsama words, light compounds, and the language is easy and spiced with native idiom. There is an increasing use of poetry interspersed with prose. This reminds one of the champu style then coming into prominence in Sanskrit. The metres are purely of a native origin and the whole evidence goes to show that two centuries before the first celebrated poet of Telugu, Nannaya, Telugu was used for purposes of poetic composition, though not of a truly literary nature. Another set of inscriptions of the middle of the 9th century are written in a language which heralded the rise of the highly tatsama and musical style of Andhra Mahabharatam.

Though the Telugu Muse seems to have been dormant before Nannaya, the Telugu lyre was awake and must have filled the land with its sweetness. That there was an infinite variety of native metres before Nannaya is admitted on all hands. There was no dearth of composers and the language was fit for composition two centuries before Nannaya. It is conjectured; on the scanty evidence now available, that the literature of that period was predominantly in song–ballads, lyrics, lullabies, devotional songs of women. The people at large must have chanted and understood them. No civilised people are without the poetic instinct for long, and much less the Telugu people who had an instrument like Telugu which is the charm of strangers to this day. The few relics of the ancient ballad literature of Telugu that are handed on to us are replete with essentially Telugu music. They are in the strain of couplets and the metres are native. The language is simple and uninvolved. Here is a remote corner where Sanskrit did not dominate and adorn. There must have flourished many a mute Nannaya in those days. But they all paled into insignificance with their compositions before Nannaya and his great Muse.

Into this potential mine of music and poetry entered two great men, Raja Raja and Nannaya, the one king and patron, the other poet and scholar. The day for creating great literature in Telugu arrived at last. Stout were the champions of the cause; the king himself was the patron of this movement. But the opposition was equally formidable. The Pundits, the traditional bulwarks of Indian culture, ranged themselves in array against Telugu, or, at any rate, anything that the Andhras may not willingly let die, viz., creating Sishta Vangmaya (serious literature). Let the commoner sing in Telugu; that cannot be helped. But why profane the august compositions of divine Sanskrit by translating them into Telugu? Where are the moulds in Telugu into which the molten gold of Sanskrit can be poured? But the flag bearers of Telugu, Raja Raja and Nannaya, were more stout hearted, and a third combatant joined to Succour them. This was Narayana-bhatta, a Brahmin and a great scholar, Nannaya alludes to this historic struggle for and against Telugu in his Mahabharata. In the prelude of this great poem he describes it thus:

"As Lord Krishna, in the mighty battle of the Bharatas to Arjuna, Narayanabhatta, the ornament amongst the Brahmins, foremost among those accomplished in literature, friend and fellow student, stood by and conducted the effort to a successful issue."

Truly noble souls! The one in doing and the other in acknowledging.

Nannaya was eminently fitted for his great task both by scholarship and temper. Giving us a picture of himself in the most unassuming manner he says:

"The king addressed himself with a kindly look to Nannaya, his family priest, attached to him, whose sole concern is japa (penance), homa (sacrifice), who was a profound scholar and dictator in the realm of speech, well learned in the Vedas, fully posted with Puranic lore, of pure and unsullied nature, acquainted with the ways of the world, illustrious for capacity for poetic composition in both the languages (Sanskrit and Vernacular), ever truthful."

In a significant term Nannaya compares himself to the high-priest of Indra, the king of the Gods, and no one had a better claim to this distinction than pious Nannaya. Everything is said when we say ‘pious Nannaya." From his own description, he gives us an inkling of what we must look out for in his Poetry. A simple and profound man accidentally turned to poetry was Nannaya. His patron requested him to translate, for him–and, he meant, perhaps, for his subjects–the Mahabharata which is justly called the fifth Veda by virtue of its encyclopedic nature. Raja Raja was not so much in need of a translated Mahabharata as his people were, for he was himself "one well versed in Vedas and Agamas." The Mahabharata was dear to him as it celebrated the achievements of the Pandavas from whom he proudly claimed descent. It was the rising day of Neo-Hinduism, Kings were openly the patrons of the Vedic religion, Buddhism definitely receded into the background and the days of Jainism in Andhra

Desa were numbered. All adventurous classes styled themselves Kshatriyas and traced their genealogy to one or the other of the warrior races of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Lunar and the Solar races. In support of this high claim they were ready to perform sacrifices and placate the Brahmin by profuse liberality; and they constituted themselves the custodians of the fourfold division of castes. The Mahabharata as composed by Vyasa was a mine of information about Aryan society, manners and polity, and, would prove a great asset in the propagation of Vedic religion. This was obscured for a time by Buddhism, but raised its banner in the days of the Gupta Emperors and was on its full tide in the time of Nannaya and Raja Raja. Thus the translation of the Mahabharata was designed to celebrate the heroism of Raja Raja’s ancestors and to furnish rising Neo-Hinduism with literature to foster it. It seems to have been realised even at this remote period that arts and literature form the blood and sinews of any movement, and particularly of a religious one. They give a long lease of life to it and people will be loth to let the movement die, that is associated with such arts and literature.

Happily for us the first attempt to create great literature in Telugu fell into the hands of Nannaya, who in piety of life resembles Milton and whose sense of the melody of numbers is certainly not inferior to that of the great English poet. Nannaya was capable at writing equally great poetry in Sanskrit as Milton in Latin, but the fact that he contented himself with an appeal to a limited Telugu audience in preference to the certain applause of the vast Sanskrit world, is proof of his love of his mother-tongue. Priest and pious man as he was, Nannaya is thrilled at the very mention of the name of his beautiful country, which to him was the land of penance and sacrifice. He would not hesitate to pay a glowing tribute to his country when occasion arose, though no such passage occurred in the original Mahabharata. Describing the various holy places that Arjuna on his pilgrimage visited, Nannaya brings Arjuna to his beloved ‘Vegi Desa’ the land of the holy and pure and makes him bathe in the noble waters of the Godavari.

The Andhra Mahabharata is justly considered by the Andhras as an original Kavya and not a mere translation. Such are the merits of this great poem. The original Mahabharata is admitted by all scholars to be the work of three distinct poets with varied degrees of poetic skill, and in many places it drops down to the level of third-rate poetry and commonplace narration. Also it is vitiated by repetitions, unduly stretched digression having nothing to do with the story, and tedious dissertations on all known subjects. But the Telugu Mahabharata is an Epic of the highest order and the high tune to which the poetry is set in it never flags for a moment. This was because of the three great masters of Andhra Poetry into whose worthy hands fell the task of writing the Mahabharata,–Nannaya, Tikkana, and Yeranna. The treatment of the subject matter is characterised by vigour. Unity of plot was kept in view and digressions were minimised. The characters were delineated with greater skill and approximation to human nature. The heroes of the Andhra Bharata are no longer the ancient dimly painted portraits but living inspired beings. Much was gained on the side of propriety (Auchitya) and glaring inconsistencies of character and behaviour have been avoided in the translation. In short, the Telugu Mahabharata is an independent poem which infused life into the dry narration of the original. As in the historical dramas of Shakespeare, the incidents alone are the property of the chronicler, but the life, action and characterisation are the creations of the dramatist; the merits of the Telugu Mahabharata are all on the side of the three great men who handled it.

Nannaya as the pioneer of Telugu poetry was naturally more concerned with the fashioning of the literary mould for future Telugu. He is rightly known as Vaganusasana, the controller of speech. He is the reputed author of the first Telugu grammar which laid down the rules of standard Telugu. Whether or not he is the actual father of the grammar now attributed to him, he stamped the seal of his great authority on the unsettled form of Telugu expression. The changing and flexible grammatical forms were standardised in his work and have continued to be so to the present day. He selected and rejected freely from the mass of unsettled ways of speech of his times and elevated the dialect of his province to the position of ‘King’s Telugu.’ An unerring ear for music and a smooth expression gliding like the Godavari on the sandy beds of the Delta, were the peculiar virtues of the diction of Nannaya. He clearly realised that the strength and music of Telugu lay in tatsama, was aware of the increasing tendency of the people to use tatsama freely. He seized this to his advantage and set the fashion to all later writers of a chaste, musical and sonorous Telugu style, rich in expression of shades and subtleties. Nannaya was a true moderate in that, to placate the orthodox opposition to the creation of great literature in Telugu, he went half-way to meet them by freely adopting the Sanskrit mode of expression, turns of speech, idiom and compound in his narration, and this must have extorted an unwilling nod from the hostile Pundit. Nannaya describes what reception his work will have: "The discerning poet will admire the smoothness of the narration and roundness of the plot. Others may be charmed by the colour of the word and diction." He evidently meant the opponents by the second class.

It is not only by diction that Nannaya tried to win the approbation of the learned opponent but he had to make heavier sacrifices. The sacrifices no doubt spelt losses to the purely native idiom. In the first place, by adopting a style highly saturated with tatsama words. Nannaya allowed the purely Telugu mode of expression to drop into the background and we are obliged to look out elsewhere for the richness and variety of desya idiom. Secondly he gave undue prominence for the first time to the Sanskrit metrical devices. There is no instance of Sanskrit vritta being used in Telugu in pre-Nannaya inscriptions. Prose and native metres only were adopted. The un-written literature of that period, the ballads and popular songs, were composed in desi metre. Nannaya with his compeers may have been of opinion that the song metres of pure Telugu would be inadequate for the weight of serious composition. At any rate he admitted them into his Kavya in a halting manner and showed the way for an apt use of Sanskrit vrittas in Telugu. A heated controversy arose amongst later poets round the question of purely desi in diction and metre Versus tatsama style and Sanskrit vritta. Nannaya established the latter and the majority of poets followed in his wake. Tikkana alone, without indulging in any theoretical discussion about the merits of the respective schools of thought, adopted the native idiomatic way of expression. Apart from any motive of making his composition acceptable to the largest number, Nannaya was temperamentally inclined to the classic style. He was a Brahmin whose life was spent in holy sacrifices and the atmosphere that surrounded him was one of exalted scholarship. He had not much of that personal touch with the commoner that Tikkana as a Minister may have had. He was well acquainted with the speech habits of the higher classes and there was a great predilection for Sanskrit and Aryan culture in his time. As a modern Telugu admirer of English will not hesitate to introduce it largely into his speech and writings, the scholars of Nannaya’s time looked up to Sanskrit. Even to this day the orthodox Brahmin prefers Sanskrit terminology in his household affairs to Telugu terms. No wonder if Nannaya paid such a homage to Sanskrit diction and metre.

Nannaya as a poet is undoubtedly of the first rank. The peculiar position of the pioneer of Telugu Poetry precluded him from elaborating his art. He was mainly preoccupied with laying the foundations of a noble style in Telugu. His poetry is uniformly smooth and melodious. He is the master-craftsman of the blending of Telugu and Sanskrit. Chasteness and simplicity is the dominant note of his poetry which is no less sublime for being simple. He was a keen observer of scenes of nature, and delighted in presenting them to us in lively tints. In these descriptions he considered only one figure of speech as worth attempting and that is Svabhavokti (description true to nature). The far-fetched conceits and hyperbolae of latter day poets do not find a place in his style. He is a wonderful story teller and allows no other consideration to obscure this purpose. In this he resembles Chaucer of English poetry. His similes are simple and tinged with pathos. Dhritarashtra on hearing news of the death of the Kauravas is described thus: "He cried like a cow that is bereft of calf."

With the passing away of the first champions of the Telugu cause, King Raja Raja and Poet Nannaya, there was a lull for about a century and half in the fight. Nannaya could complete about, three parvas in the Mahabharata and left the task to successors. There was none during this pretty long period to bend the bow of Ulysses and complete the work of Nannaya, and time rolled on till Tikkana entered the stage. The interregnum between the middle of the 11th century to the end of 13th century, though not conspicuous, is not entirely barren. For one thing, the country did not enjoy peace and settled government. It was a period of internecine strife between Jains and Saivas, and blood was shed in the name of religion. Poets also were tinged with the prevailing religious bias and celebrated either Siva or Vishnu according to their faith. Poetic composition in Telugu increasingly became the fashion of the day. Kings and ministers were patrons and poets in many cases. Nannechoda, a ruling prince of the South, was a Saivaite poet and was the author of Kumara Sambhava which celebrates the birth of a son to Lord Siva. Side by side with the establishment of the claim of Telugu as against Sanskrit as the language of composition, the question of desi Versus classic style, assumed importance. Nannechoda was the first to refer to this controversy. He criticised the champions of marga style (Sanskrit-ridden diction) for their apathy to desi style and branded them as men of no consequence. What he meant exactly by the terms desya and marga was not elucidated by him. Though he stood up for what he called desya method, his poetry is highly ornate and he could not overcome the predilection for Sanskrit, and used tatsama freely. In him we meet with, for the first time, the beginnings of the Prabandha style which was the dominant feature of the literature of the age of Sri Krishna-deva Raya of Vijayanagara. This implies elaborate descriptions, far-fetched conceits, and artificiality in matter and manner.

A more formidable exponent of the desi style and idiom was Palkuriki Somana, a Saivaite poet of the time of Pratapa Rudra I of Warangal. The seat of Telugu power and the centre of culture shifted from Vegi Desa (the country between the Godavari and the Krishna) to the land of the Kakatiyas. The earlier Kakatiya emperors were Jains, but later on they espoused the cause of Saivism. They were great patrons of letters in Telugu and Sanskrit as well. Vidyanatha, the famous rhetorician in Sanskrit, flourished in their court and composed his Pratapa Rudra Yasobhushana at Warangal. Palkuriki Somana was the author of Basava Purana and other works. These he composed in desi metre known as Dvipada which answers roughly to blank verse in English. It has the advantage of being vigorous and is eminently suited for swift march. It is less fettered than the Sanskrit vritta. It may be mentioned here that desi metre is quantitative (matra) and is not so rigid as Sanskrit metre based on a fixed number and position of letters. For this very reason it is more flexible, variable and adapted to musical composition. This was the metre of popular songs before Nannaya. The credit of showing that the desi metre is as well suited to noble and serious subjects as the Sanskrit vritta, belongs to Somana. He was also the exponent of the merits of desi style against highly Sanskritised composition. By this he understood a style which is not weighed down by compounds and tatsama, but is racy, colloquial, and enriched by native word and phrase and enlivened by apt use of Telugu proverbs. For, according to him, the man in the street, the Telugus at large, will not appreciate a high flown language but ‘Tsanu Tenugu, (racy Telugu) will go home to them. Entering a strong plea for the use of native metre he defends himself thus:

"I will attempt Dvipada. Do not for a moment say, this is of purely native origin.’ It deserves as much consideration as the Veda from you, for what the ton is capable of weighing the stone also weighs. He is truly the great poet who conveys great thoughts in humble words."

And he not only preached but showed the way to do it. His Basava Puranam is a noble illustration of what the purely native metres and racy Telugu are capable of. His style rises to the level of the sublimity and force of Miltonic blank verse. He exploded the myth that Sanskrit moulds alone can bear the burden of heavy thought.

The age also demanded this change of outlook. Telugu compositions are no longer designed as a mere exercise of the poetic instinct of the poet. The learned Pundit is no more the person sought to be gratified. Andhras at large formed the audience of the poet. Great controversies in religion had to reach them and win their sympathies. Contending religious sects, the Saivas, Vaishnavas and Jains, all were earnestly courting this audience for their tenets. Hence the need for popular appeal. The Jains for a long time knew this, and, though we have no extant Jaina literature in Telugu, the evidence of Kannada goes to show that they were the first people to realise the need of writing in the Vernaculars to appeal to the masses. The Tsanu Tenugu of Somana was thus a necessity of the time and he succeeded in firing the imagination of the Saivas, only through this medium. What he did for Saivism, Ranganatha did for Vaishnavism. He also flourished in the court of one of the feudatories of Queen Rudrama of Warangal. He wrote the Ramayana as a piece of Vaishnavism in the same metre as Somana wrote his Basava Purana. Ranganatha is a sweet poet and a consummate master of the ornate style of Sanskrit and also of the chaste, musical numbers of Telugu. He coupled

this with high imaginative faculties, and one meets with the true poet in him at every step. This age has established the claim of Telugu idiom and metre to be fit for the puritanic severity of the composition of Somana and the artistic splendour of the verse of Ranganatha.

Into this land torn by sectarian warfare was born the Mahabharata of Tikkana which held out the olive branch of peace to Saivaites and Vaishnavaites. Tikkana took up the translation of the Mahabharata from the fourth book and successfully completed the rest of the great epic. He belonged to the sect of Niyogis among the Andhra Brahmins, who were administrators and warriors by profession. His father and grandfather held the posts of commanders and provincial rulers. He was himself the Minister of Manuma Siddhi who was a ruler of the Choda Dynasty of Nellore. Tikkana was a great diplomatist, of which talent he gave a signal proof by heading a Successful embassy to Emperor Ganapati-Deva of Warangal. There, at his court, he worsted the Jaina scholars in argument and secured the good offices of the Emperor for the restoration of his king and patron to his lost kingdom. Thus he proved himself an eminent success in the field of practical politics, and when he harnessed his great worldly wisdom to a sublime poetic instinct, it easily made him the foremost of Telugu poets.