(AN EVER RELEVANT SOCIAL REFORM DRAMA)
Dr. N. Anantha Lakshmi
‘Kanyasulkam’ was written in support of the social mission of the Maharajah Sri Ananda Gajapati Raju, of Vizianagaram to eradicate the social evil of kanyasulkam or the practice of bride price. The play-wright said in his words of dedication to the Maharaja that his work is “a feeble effort to arouse public opinion on the subject by exposing the evil in a popular drama”.
Kanyasulkam, (sale of girls) was a traditional practice in a sect of Brahmin families of coastal areas of Visakhapatnam District. Maharajah Ananda Gajapati Raju tried whole heartedly to eradicate it. As a part of it he gathered the statistics.
Today the subject on which the drama was composed has lost its relevance. Even in those days when it was staged for the first time, the system of kanyasulkam was not prevalent in all the parts of the country, at least in Andhra Pradesh. It was a tiny problem seen in a small section of people for some time.
Mahakavi Gurajada gave importance only to the problem of kanyasulkam in the first edition of the play. By the time the second edition was published the drama bulged in size by imbibing some more perennial problems. Though the problem is not of all times, the drama has an all-time relevance. It can be enjoyed at any time, as the characters do not look as if they are created artificially. They are natural and lifelike. They seem as if they entered the stage straight from real life with Gireesham, Madhura Vani, Meenakshi, Ramappantulu, Bucchamma et al., Lubdhavadhanulu, Agnihotravadhanulu, Soujanya Rao Pantulu are the idealized characters for certain qualities which are suggested by their very names.
The plot of the drama is as follows: Gireesham poses as an intellectual of great ideals. This self-styled Nepolean of anti-nautch always appears in the house of Madhuravani, the nautch girl.
Talking about widow remarriage, he tries to exploit the widow who runs a mess for her livelihood, with the least intention of marrying her, When lie goes to the house of his student Venkatesham, he was attracted by Buchchamma, Venkatesham’s sister, who is an young, beautiful, rich virgin widow. When Venkatesham’s father Agnihotravadhanulu decides, to sell his second daughter to a man of 60 years for Rs. l,300/- he tries to win over Buchchamma by foiling her sister’s marriage. Ultimately he encourages her to elope with him by alluring her with the promise of re-marriage. Mean while Buchchamma’s uncle KaratakaShastry assures his sister that he will spoil the marriage. He goes to Lubhdhavadhanulu’s village. With the help of Madhuravani he offers his student in the disguise of a girl to Lubdhavadhanulu with a lower bride price of Rs. 1200/-. In this episode Ramappantulu, the cunning manipulator also uses his own scheming brain unaware that it is only a part of the master plan devised by Madhuravani. This man has relationship not only with Madhuravani but also with Meenakshi, widowed daughter of Lubdhavadhanulu. The false bride runs away with the gold ornament of borrowed from Madhuravani which was given to her by Ramappantulu. Unaware that the ornament was given back to Madhuravani, Ramappantulu asks for it and when he could not get it files a criminal case for the murder of the bride against Lubdhavadhanulu.
Agnihotravadhanulu comes with his family for the marriage. Knowing that Lubdhavadhanulu got married files another case against him. Lubdhavadhanulu goes to Visakhapatnam and takes refuge in Soujanyarao’s house. Gireesham also goes to him on the pre-text of helping his cousin Lubdhavadhanulu. Madhuravani is the only one who knows all the moves. After taking an assurance from Soujanya Rao to protect Karataka Shastry and his student, (the fake bride) she unveils the plot and saves Lubdhavadhanulu. In this context Gireesham stands exposed in his true colours. He feigns to have been reformed. Soujanya Rao Pantulu advises Gireesham properly and sends Buchchamma to the widow-home. Lubdhavadhanulu donates all his property to the widow-home and sends his daughter there.
All these characters are portrayed in minutest detail in life-size, The constable, the Head Constable, Polisetty, Asiri and the other lawyers, the Deputy collector add to the fullness of the drama. Among these “Gireesham the Great” is a unique character whose creation gave this drama its eternal value. He does not have the characteristics of art ideal hero. He is a good looking common man, with a little knowledge of English. He uses his intelligence unscrupulously for his livelihood. With his glib tongue he could win over the gullible. His actual behaviour is a contradiction to his preaching of ideals. By nature he is not bad. Given a congenial atmosphere he can use his intelligence for propagating good. Best circumstances made him rogue! As they are moulded by social forces and influenced by hypocritical elders, the present youth seem to be the shadows of Gireesham who is a fictitious character created a century ago.
Though the Telugu people are known for their love for humour, there is a complaint that there is no indigenous humour in Telugu literature. Whatever humour is available is either taken from Sanskrit, Prakrit or English. However, ‘Kanyasulkam’ is a treasure of humour indigenous to Telugu people. Almost on all the occasions humour acts like a sharp knife to expose and castigate social evils. There are occasions where the purpose of humour is either to entertain the reader or relieve the seriousness of the situations.
There is a comic situation of the hiding of Gireesham and Ramappantulu under the cot of Madhuravani when chased by the woman who runs the eating house. When a messenger comes to collect the debt, his action as a deaf man entertains the audience.
Whenever Gireesham was present he gives a tinge of humour to the situation by his subtle or sarcastic way of talk. With his limited knowledge he interprets the epics and upanishads in his favour. He comments that ‘Chamakam’ is nothing but asking for the eatables.
Gireesham’s talks on religious reforms and his comment on dependence and independence of man are humorous. Gireesham comments on the education system. His list of the books to be purchased by Venkatesham including “Kuppusamiayyar made difficult” are satirical. This satire makes the modern educationist think a while about the system of guides and notes which have replaced the original text books. He praises the habit of tobacco smoking and links it up with the invention of the steam engine.
When his new bride runs away, Lubdhavadhanulu thinks that her first husband’s ghost is threatening him. Then the servant Asiri brings Gavariah. After pretending to do some rituals Gavariah says that he sealed the ghosts of the bride and her husband in a bottle. Immediately Meenakshi asks him what if the husband and wife’s ghosts put in the same bottle gave birth to ghost children? This innocent humour lightens the seriousness of the situation and none of the above humourus situations is borrowed or imitated. There is a striking originality about them.
Though the main object of the drama is to expose the evils of selling the brides, other social evils also are dealt with.
One of the burning social problems of those days was nautch system. By that time the “Devadasi” system deteriorated into cheap exposure of the body and prostitution. So the reformers wanted to eradicate that evil by educating them and turning them into house-wives. Madhuravani represents that section. Though her livelihood is selling herself, she keeps her dignity. She says that the status of a poor farmer’s wife is better than that of her’s. She points out the flaw in the anti-nautch movement to Soujanya Rao who is convinced with her argument. She says that keeping the nautches (prostitutes) away does not solve the problem. Reformers should understand them and inculcate goodness in them. This suggestion is not only to Soujanya Rao but to all social reformers. Rehabilitation is more important.
Kanyasulkam and child marriage are twins. Widow re-marriage is associated with it. In his preface Gurujada refers to the practice of betrothal even before a girl was born. For all these girls the bride-grooms are old men. As parents do not like to give their girls to aged men, the older the bride-groom the more attractive is the kanyasulkam. Greedy fathers used to search for old sons-in-law to get more price. By the time these old men die their widows would be in the prime of life. They are also human beings. All of them cannot lead a saintly life without any desires like Buchchamma. That is why even a rogue like Gireesham could not wag his tail in her pious presence. On one side Gurajada depicts Buchchamma leading the life of a pious widow, on the other he portrays the eating house woman who wanted to re-marry and indulged in illegal relationships. There is Meenakshi who was seduced by Rammappantulu and could not resist her desires.
Superstitions like presence of ghosts, bairagis, who pretend to possess super natural powers and fake sanyasins who sell liquor and meat are castigated in the drama in appropriate situations.
The guides in the form of made - easies, litigation, the greedy lawyers who exploit the clients, engaging false witnesses, the fear of the police, the behaviour of the people at places where liquor is sold etc., depict not only the social conditions of those days but also the present day experiences.
The times may change, conditions may change but human psychology will not change. The problems will be perennial as long as selfishness and exploitation of others are there in the human beings. That is why the drama composed by a master mind a century ago is alive even today. The problem he dealt with, the characters he created, the situations he contrived crossed the limitations of time and place.
According to Mahakavi Sri Sri, this is the first ever drama aimed at social reform in India. As far as Andhra Pradesh is concerned there is no doubt that this is the first social reform drama which influenced people to a great extent. Gurujada used the common man’s language instead of the bookish language used by the poets and writers of those days.
The social awareness and sincerity in his efforts made Gurajada a Mahakavi and Kanyasulkam a drama of all times.