THE FIRST NOVEL IN TELUGU

 

DR. C. R. SARMA

Regional Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, Madras

 

The novel is a late-comer on Telugu literary scene, but by far most enduring and popular in today’s “pop culture.” But about a century back, it was not known. Even though the term novel has been retained in Telugu, with a negligible variation, namely, Navala, the earlier novels in Telugu, were called Vachana prabandhams. Perhaps, it was thought that any prose romance giving the story of a poem might be called a novel. It was only in 1897, the term Navala came into vogue. Since then it received warm and wide patronage from the writers and the readers alike. As in other Indian languages, Telugu novel appeared on the scene following our contacts with western literature.

 

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the first Telugu novel, and three different theories have been enunciated. According to the first, Narahari Gopala Krishnamma Chetti, a Deputy Collector by profession, was the first Telugu novelist and his novel, was Sri Rangaraja Charitram, published in 1872. The second is that Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, one of the architects of modern Andhra, was the first writer of repute to write a novel entitled Rajasekhara Charitram which was first published in book form in 1880. Earlier, in 1878, it was serialized in his paper Viveka Vardhini. There is yet another theory attributing this honour to Kokkonda Venkataratnam, a distinguished scholar of his day, who wrote in 1867 Mahasveta in high-flown language. This was never published as a book though a portion of it was serialized in a literary monthly published from Madras. It is evident from the serialized portion that the author had desired to give a Telugu rendering of the episode of Mahasveta from the Sanskrit Kadambari. This and other reasons enable us drop Kokkonda from the field and the real tie, therefore, lies between Gopala Krishnamma Chetti and Veeresalingam.

 

Though we do not know much about the literary pursuits of Gopala Krishnamma Chetti, he appears to have taken a lively interest in modern Telugu literature. Inspired by the advertisemant inserted in the Bengal Gazette by Lord Mayo, the then Governor-General, he attempted a novel in Telugu depicting the customs and manners of the Bengalis. The result was Sri Rangaraja Charitram also known as Sonabai Parinayam (the wedding of Sonabai). The theme is his own though the characters are called after historical personalities. “This is apparently the first attempt ever made in this part of India at novel-writing in Telugu prose”, is the description available in the Madras Fort St. George Gazette which furnishes details of the books printed in 1872.

 

It is surprising and also unfortunate that Sri Rangaraja Charitram and its author had failed to receive due recognition though the press had hailed it as a novel. Dedicated to Lord Mayo, this novel has dealt with the caste differences, the age-old beliefs, the Sakunas (omens and auspices) and the like. Gopala Krishnamma Chetti had contributed prefaces both in Telugu and English. In the Telugu preface, he called his work as Vachana prabandham and he is, perhaps, the first writer to coin a Telugu equivalent for the term novel. This equivalent has gained currency and that even Veeresalingam had called his novel Vachana prabandham is worth-mentioning. As years elapsed, Vachana prabandham was replaced by the popular expression Navala.

 

Kasibhatta Brahmayya Sastry, a scholar and critic of eminence, was the first Telugu writer who popularised the term Navala. While writing a critique on Veeresalingam’s Rajasekhara Charitram, he observed that he was employing the expression Navala instead of using a Sanskrit term, since English “novel” and Sanskrit “Nava” have the same meaning, namely, new.

 

Let us now turn to Veeresalingam and his novel Rajasekhara Charitram which is otherwise known as Viveka Chandrika meaning Prudence of Moonlight. To me, the latter seems to be a meaningful title as the hero of the novel becomes wise after experiencing bitter truths in life.

 

Veeresalingam is undoubtedly a great man in several respects. In him we find a sincere social reformer and a distinguished writer. He was a pioneer in Telugu writing and had several firsts to his credit. He attempted playwriting, satire, biography, autobiography, literary history, science writing and children’s literature. He was a great master of prose. He was also the founder of modern Telugu journalism. And he is hailed as the father of the Telugu novel too.

 

It is significant that the early Indian novelists had drawn inspiration from western novelists. Bankim Chandra Chatterji, the first novelist in India, was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, the Malayalam novelists T. M. Appu Nedungadi and C. R. Raman Pillai also by Scott. Scott had inspired Hari Narayan Apte in Marathi and it is interesting that the novels of Bankim and Apte inspired in turn the early Kannada novelists Venkatachar and Galaganath. And Veeresalingam drew considerable inspiration from Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. In fact, he intended translating it, but later gave up the idea. So Rajasekhara Charitram is more or less Veeresalingam’s original work though he is to some extent indebted to Goldsmith. Significant to mention is that this Telugu novel has been translated into English, Tamil and Kannada. The English rendering done by J. R. Hutchinson under the title Fortune’s Wheel has been favourably reviewed in The Times of London in September, 1887. The reviewer has rightly observed: “The story itself is simple and from an European point of view, of no great interest....”

 

            The story is poorly conceived, though narration is remarkable. Rajasekhara, the hero, hails from a well-to-do middle class Brahmin family, leading a happy domestic life. He spends lavishly on his so-called friends and relatives. As a result, he also runs into debt after celebrating his eldest daughter’s marriage in the traditional way. Misfortunes invade him. In his anxiety to repay the debt, he loses his real gold and silver believing an alchemist. His younger daughter was kidnapped during his pilgrimage to Varanasi. But the pilgrimage helps him realise the good and bad. Happily, he was also relieved from his troubles and tribulations. Towards the end of the story, Rajasekhara, who used to consult the almanac before wearing new clothes or having a shave, becomes wise and lives happily with his family ever since.

 

            In the novel are vividly described the pride and poverty of the middle class families. The various customs of the orthodox Hindus including the practice of child marriage, the popularity of the alchemists, the evil of untouchability and the like are interwoven in the story. Thus Rajasekhara Charitram provides the social life of the Telugu middle class families. It is the first Telugu novel dealing with the Telugu men and women–their good and bad points.

 

            It is significant that we find in Rajasekhara Charitram an urge for eradication of superstitions through rational approach, the necessity of providing education for women and of their betterment and also a great stress on the need of emergence of an honest society. It also indirectly points out the weaknesses of a feudal society. Being its true product, the hero of the novel fails to understand the value of money and hence indulges in extravagance which finally led to his ruin.

 

            Besides being translated into other languages, Rajasekhara Charitram has been a source of inspiration to the later Telugu novelists. That it has undergone ten reprints is a clear indication of its immense popularity with the readers. In fact it is an extremely readable novel.

 

            To conclude, it may be mentioned that Sri Rangaraja Charitram is the first attempt in Telugu novel-writing while Rajasekhara Charitram, is the first Telugu novel in its real sense.

 

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