SRIPADA SUBRAHMANYA SASTRI
POTHUKUCHI SURYANARAYANA MURTY
Among the short-story writers in Telugu Sri Sripada Subrahamanya Sastri stands in a class by himself. The short-story as it is generally understood and in vogue as a form of literary art, has been borrowed by us from the West and wonderfully adapted by our writers to suit their literary themes in their variegated facets. Naturally, therefore, all the writers who have come to distinguish themselves as story-tellers in Telugu have had to read a good lot of stories in foreign languages like English, French, German and Russian, in order to imbibe the spirit and technique of story-writing and to present their literary material in alluring, artistic accoutrements. Sri Subrahmanya Sastri is an outstanding exception to this general proposition. He knew no English and was, on a point of policy, (for which he advanced arguments, some of them very convincing) opposed to the introduction and propagation of Hindi among the people of the Telugu country. His main contention was that Telugu itself was a beautiful language with a hoary tradition and rich literature which could adequately express all the nuances, however subtle and intricate, of human emotions and ideas and, was therefore, perfectly fit as a medium of expression; and so there was absolutely no need to impose Hindi, a comparatively less developed and less rounded language, on the Telugu people whose language has been hailed as the Italian of the East for its sweetness, mellifluousness and euphonious vowel-endings of words (Ajanta Bhasha).
Sri Sastri’s stories breathe the spirit of thorough originality, authenticity and convincing realism. He studied situations in life, and characters of men and women, at first hand and his depiction of the same in his stories invariably carried conviction to, and compels appreciation from, even the most squeamish of critics. No doubt he worked on a small and limited canvas (many of his stories deal with middle class Brahmin families of the East Godavari district, and that, too, of the past generation) but his portrayals are masterly and superb of their kind. His ‘Vadla Ginjalu’ (grain of paddy), a long short-story built around the absorbing game of chess is a tour de force in the art of narration, suspense and the description of minutiae of characters and situations. This story can be ranked without doubt among the best in Telugu, if not among the world’s best. (Vadla Ginjalu’ is in a sense superior to Stefan Zweig’s ‘The Royal Game’ which is also a very fine story with chess as its thematic pivot.) In the art of conversational narrative there is no one equal to Sri Sastri, let alone surpassing him. His story ‘Arikallakinda Mantalu’ (Flames under the Feet) is all conversation without a single word of description in all its length of 36 pages and therein we find the writer’s wonderful mastery of his medium, his craftsmanship and dexterity in narration conducted in a language that is at once crisp, forceful and highly expressive, and with an effect that is deep and telling. The story deals with the unrelieved daily drudgery, from early morn till late midnight, of a hopeless young widow in a middle class household, who is constantly harassed by everyone in the family including her own parents, with their never-ending and insistent orders to her to do this thing and that for them, while all of them luxuriate in laziness and revel in pleasure without ever thinking of her. Poor she, she is driven to the extreme point of exhaustion, physical and psychological, by the inhuman treatment meted out to her by her own kith and kin, and, in an uncontrollable fit of exasperation and despair, leaves the home in stealth at midnight for Sri Viresalingam’s garden where there is a home, a veritable haven of peace and happiness for the widow, to receive her with mercy and love. This story presents to us the sorrows of the young widow and her harrowing tale of woe and misery in all its lurid details and serves as a more effective and more powerful plea for widow marriage than any amount of public speaking and pamphleteering in that behalf. Sri Sastri has written more than a hundred stories of which are saturated with a spirit of social realism and convey a message, couched in beautiful language and form, for the removal of the undesirable elements in society in whatever shape they exist and for the promotion of all that is beneficient, auspicious and beautiful. Through his profound and sympathetic understanding of the contemporary social situation and with the deft handling of the same in the delineation of characters in his works with penetrating insight and acumen, Sri Sastri has fulfilled himself as a writer of high purposiveness and great merit.
Sri Subrahmanya Sastri wrote some novels also (Rakshabandbanam, Smasanavatika, Atmabali etc.) but they are not so significant in literary or artistic value. The short-story is his forte and he rightly deserves the title given to him viz., ‘Kathanika chakravarti’. Sastri’s play, “Rajaraju” is a full-length drama with tense situations and powerful language but absolutely unstageable. He did not permit it to be altered in any way to suit the requirements of the stage, even though repeatedly requested by admiring actors and interested playwrights. At long last he relented but, before the stage-version could take shape and be put on boards, he passed away. Sri Sastri’s stories are collected and published in twelve volumes. Besides stories and novels he wrote a good number of playlets, Radio-plays, essays and other literary miscellany on a variety of topics.
His ‘Anubhavalu -Jnapakalu’ (Experiences and Memories) written in a reminiscent vein, is a unique autobiography in the Telugu language and this contribution of Sri Sastri to Telugu letters is a splendid achievement deserving praise of the highest order. We have had autobiographies of great leaders and writers like Viresalingam, Chilakamarthi and others detailing out their life’s activities and achievements in the main and revealing the social history of their times incidentally. In Sripada’s book the autobiographical details are subdued in tone and content but the events and personalities that shaped him and his times and had largely influenced him and people of his generation take the predominant position, focussing the attention of the reader on the hoary and valuable traditions, instinct with life, that have stood the test of time and become a part of our living. There is also an undercurrent of regret mixed with agonising anxiety for the gradual decline and decay of those precious values of life which have sustained our race through centuries of vicissitudes, storms and stresses, in social and political spheres, and alien attempts at their annihilation to the root. The language employed by Sri Subrahmanya Sastri in his writings is Sista Vyavaharika (the colloquial language of the cultured); and he has an amazing mastery over the authentic Telugu idiom. Distilled through his scholarship of Telugu and Sanskrit and perfected during half a century of dedicated practice, Sri Sastri’s prose style is vigorous, lively, racy and arrestingly attractive. Its suppleness and grace, power and puissance, balance and rhythm are hard to beat and Sri Sastri’s greatness as a writer rests mainly on his enviable style.
Sastri ran a monthly journal entitled “Prabuddha
Andhra” for a period of nine years, almost single-handed and in it were
published for the first time many of his stories and novels as also those of
other leading writers of the time. Khadi, Gandhi and
Hindi were his bete noires
and he could never bring himself to approach with respect, or appreciate,
any of them in his lifetime. He was the founder of “Kalabhivardhini
Parishat”, an organisation devoted to the cause of
the arts and the letters. He used to conduct annual meetings at
in a strictly orthodox middle-class family of Brahmins living on Vedic studies
and in the Sanatanic tradition and bred up in a
social milieu in which the wearing of a shirt by a Brahmin was frowned upon,
Sri Subrahmanya Sastri sedulously imbibed all that
was best and worthy in the classical traditions and equally defiantly
spurned off the superstitious, the undesirable, the antiquated and the
oppressive in social customs and manners. He gave up the arid Granthic style in Telugu writing for the more pliable,
pleasant and living Vyavaharika under the influence
of Sri Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, the pioneer leader
of that movement. His first story was published in 1915 and, for nearly half of
a century thereafter, he continued to write to entertain and educate the Telugu
public. His Shashtipurti was celebrated with great eclat at