THE HOUSE OF VAVILLA
By D. ANJANEYULU, B.A. (Hons.) B.L.
To many of the present generation the name of Vavilla has a peculiar association of vague reverence. Though Sri Venkateswara Sastrulu had hardly finished the Biblical span of three score and ten when he passed away in February last, his immaculate figure seemed to conjure up visions of an ancient world. His personality has become rather dim, partly because of the mist of ancient classics that has surrounded it and partly because of his retirement from active public life, due to illness, over a decade ago.
This impression of antiquity is bound to be reinforced by even a casual visit to the Vavilla book-shop in China Bazaar tucked away in a quiet corner. The possibility of attracting prospective purchasers is out of the question and the hardy buyer, if he is persistent, would have to knock at the door and announce his demands. And then one or two mysterious figures would silently appear from the dark chamber and place the musty volumes into his hands after payment of cash. But the seasoned customers, who come from far-off villages, are not to be deterred by the narrow shop-windows.
It would, however, be sheer injustice to describe Venkateswara Sastrulu as a mere book-seller, printer or publisher. He was, in his time, many other things besides–journalist, publicist, patriot, politician and benefactor of public causes. But, more than everything else, he was a great educator in every sense of the word. The name of Vavilla is a household word wherever Telugu is read and Sanskrit is loved. It would be no exaggeration to say that, but for this publishing house, many a precious gem of literature would have been lost. From the familiar schoolboy’s Ramodanta to the scholar’s annotated version of Srimad Ramayanam, and the Balasiksha primer to the monumental 18-volume edition of the Southern Recension of Mahabharatam, there is not a book of some importance in the cultivation of Men’s minds that has not been produced by them. The credit for translating in Telugu Tilak’s famous Gita Rahasya goes to them. Whether it be the ancient classics in a presentable form or modern masterpieces in a respectable garb, their publications bear the stamp of quality. Vavilla’s are to Sanskrit and Telugu what Natesan’s are to English in the South, comparable in some ways to Victor Gollancz and George Allen and Unwin in U. K.
The fact that a discriminating literary critic like Dr. C. R. Reddy got his book Kavitva Tatva Vicharamu (possibly the first original work of literary criticism in Telugu) published by Vavilla’s rather than by any other publishers, is enough tribute to their reliability in matters of taste and workmanship. In addition to rescuing ancient authors from oblivion in decaying cadjan leaves, Venkateswara Sastrulu encouraged quite a few of the modern writers whose work would not have seen the light of day but for his timely and discerning patronage. With his unerring instinct for spotting merit, he could recognise real scholarship where he saw it.
A staunch believer in tradition, he had no love for new-fangled ways of writing and unorthodox schools of thought, though he was quite familiar with the trends in literature, present and past. His titles in modern poetry include the works of Duvvuri Rami Reddy and Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, while many hot favourites are not to be found in the list. He had a connoisseur’s cynical suspicion for mere show and surface brilliance in writing, as in other things. The novels of Bankim, the speeches and writings of Sri Aurobindo and the stories and poems of Tagore, are all covered by his translation scheme. The omission of a master like Sarat might be due either to a deep-seated conservatism or the anxiety to avoid competition with others. If it could be complained that he could have paid more for the Pandits whose services he had enlisted for the expansion of his business, it has to be admitted that there is none to pay even the little that he did for the vanishing tribe that must feel orphaned by his exit.
It is not perhaps so well-known that Vavilla’s publications are not confined to Sanskrit and Telugu. A number of research works in English like Sri Bhavaraju Krishna Rao’s ‘Early Dynasties of Andhradesa’ and Dr. N. Venkataramanayya’s ‘The Origin of the South Indian Temple’, received his ready patronage, with the help of which the authors earned recognition as historians. His contribution to the popularisation of the Tamil classics deserves greater recognition. Not only did he get translated into Telugu and English works like Manimekhalai, Silappadhikaram and Thirukkural but he launched a series of original publications with the help of that patriot and pioneer navigator, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai. He also published quite a few musical treatises in Tamil.
In all his endeavours to keep the torch of learning bright, had the primordial Hindu ideals as his guiding star. In strict adherence to the filial injunction of the Upanishads (all of which he had published), he tried to continue the work started by his father, Ramaswami Sastrulu, who was a scholar in his own right, especially in the sacred lore. That a Vedic scholar of the mid-Victorian period, a class that would not touch a machine with a barge-pole, should have thought it fit to start a printing press in Tondiarpet is a glowing commentary on his remarkable foresight, in view of the growth of this machine as an aid to mass education and democracy. It was, at any rate, a happy idea and the tender plant nurtured by the father’s long years of toil and tears has grown into a mighty tree under the watchful eye of the son, protecting many under its shade and spreading its fruits far and wide. If the son could not claim to be the father’s equal in learning, he was possibly his superior in business acumen and capacity for organisation. If he did not know to edit a recondite treatise on metaphysics or a technical monograph on Indian surgery, he knew who could do it and got it done, very often at minimum cost and with maximum return. His rigid sense of economy may be described as austere by the sympathetic and niggardly by the uncharitable.
Quite alive to the possibilities of modern industry, Venkateswara Sastrulu had none of the trappings of a captain of industry. His capitalism is distinguished by the human touch of a benevolent patriarch. The workers in his press could never think of high wages as their counterparts in some prosperous concerns. But they had also no need to starve and no fear of losing their jobs by a mere whim of the proprietor. His employees, who are in some cases as old as the hoary machines they handle, had reason to be contented, if they were not unsettled by the Trade Union fever. If a worker had quarreled with his wife and feared to go home for the night, he could have his frugal meals at the proprietor’s house which was always open to the poor and needy.
Not a few students of Sanskrit and other courses were fed and clothed by Sastrulu, who, like the good Samaritan, often did good by stealth. Whether it was the marriage of a poor Pandit’s son, medicine for his ailing wife, or even the weekly rations for his family, they could always count on his unfailing help. His stern and reserved exterior covered a kindly heart that was not callous to suffering, though there was no evidence of soft and feeble sentiment. He gave charity without ostentation and rendered service without love of publicity.
To say that he belonged to the Tilak school of thought is a compliment with a qualification. For, he not only shared the Lokamanya’s political extremism but his social conservatism–the latter more than the former. Gandhi was the blindspot of Sastrulu, whose politics hibernated between the Congress radicalism of Srinivasa Iyengar and the moderate liberalism of Chintamani. To this unrecognisable mixture are added a few drops of admiration for Prakasam and Rajaji, and a secret liking for Subhas Bose. Though he sympathised with the Swadeshi Movement and participated in Congress activity (acting as Treasurer at the Madras Congress in 1927), he took care not to allow his politics to interfere with his business. Denied the comforts of a happy home, he did not become bitter and frustrated but extended his interests and touched life at many points. There was not a field of useful activity in the City of Madras with which he was not associated. He was not only an institution but a landmark in old Madras which knew no linguistic barriers or parochial rivalries.
On the road to cultural revival and renaissance of letters in the South, Andhra in particular, the house of Vavilla has a preeminent place with the name of Venkateswara Sastrulu boldly written on it. It is not with the real estate mentality, that revels in the laws of inheritance and succession, that the problems created by his passing need to be tackled. Now that the patronage of letters (at least the responsibility) has shifted, or is shifting, from princes and potentates to the people, ways and means must be explored to continue his unfinished task in the spirit of a sacred public trust.