Telugu Modernity and the Strange Case of Enlightened Privilege

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The “Many Worlds of the Deccan” series explores cultural histories and changing social relations in the Deccan region. It challenges monolithic, north-centric ways of understanding India. The series is curated by the Khidki Collective, a group of scholars committed to building public dialogue about history, politics and culture.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The turn of the 20th century was an extremely productive period in Indian language publishing. Although the publication of prose for non-learned readers began as early as 1875, closely followed by the adoption of the novel as a form of writing, large-scale printing and distribution efforts did not take off until the 1890. Debates raged over the virtues of formal writing styles versus adopting spoken language forms for writing.

It was a time when Enlightenment ideals of equality and freedom captured the minds and hearts of colonial subjects. While their ambitious goals were equality and freedom through literary production for a regional readership, the path to these goals was thwarted as material resources were hopelessly entangled in processes that pulled in the opposite direction. In what follows, I tell the story of such an effort that took place more than a century ago and that may hold lessons for contemporary regional literary endeavors.

In 1907, Vijnana Chandrika Mandali, a Telugu publishing house, started its operations from the residence bazaar in Hyderabad. In 1908 it moved its operations to Madras and continued to function from there. Their first offering while still in Hyderabad was a Telugu biography of Abraham Lincoln. In this biography, the Mandali publishes a founding document – ​​a kind of publishing house manifesto. The publishers announce in this document their intention to launch what can be retrospectively described as a project of modernization of vernacular literature by the publication of works translated from Western knowledge – like Lincoln’s on freedom. Some of the key points of this manifesto alluded to the endowment of vernacular languages ​​with the necessary vocabulary to translate Western knowledge and the publication of science and history books in Telugu. In the editors’ words, “improvement of Telugu literature” was the goal.

The first signer of the founding document was Nayani Venkata Ranga Rao, the zamindar of Munagala Paragana (now located in Suryapet district of Telangana State). He was one of the founding members and patrons of the society and donated the foundation capital needed to start the publishing house. The editor was Komarraju Venkata Lakshmana Rao, the diwan of Munagala Zamindari. The other members were Ayyadevara Kaleswara Rao (freedom fighter and defender of public libraries), Achanta Lakshmipathi (writer and specialist in the Ayurvedic system of medicine), Ravichettu Ranga Rao (founder of numerous libraries and pedagogue) and Gadicherla Harisarvothama Rao (founder of the public library movement in Telugu-speaking areas).

An excerpt from the Mandali’s founding document where they list the genres and books they plan to publish in Telugu. Courtesy of National Digital Library of India

It was actually a gathering of Brahmins and landed Shudra castes who collaborated with each other to establish institutions like Srikrishna Deva Ray Andhra Bhasha Nilayam – a library that still serves Hyderabad readers among others institutions. The founding document states that their only interest in this project was to enrich the corpus of modern Telugu literature by venturing into new genres and that they did not expect any monetary return.

At the turn of the 20th century, the patronage structures of Telugu literature were changing. Whereas previously it was the royal patron who exclusively funded literary works, there was now an evolving sense of market orientation and publishers were trying out new business models and appealing to a nascent Telugu reading public. In fact, the founding document uses the word “Telugu Reading Public” to refer to its readers. Publishing houses like the Mandali were eventually registered as stock companies or literary associations and maintained clear balance sheets, profit and loss statements. But it was an evolving market and they still needed the support of previous patronage networks to finance themselves.

The Mandali in the founding document invokes Kings Raja Narendra, Eastern Chalukya King of the 11th century), Manumasiddhi (Nellore Choda of the 13th century) and Krishnadeva Raya (Vijayanagara Emperor of the 16th century), all of whom were known to be generous patrons of the arts and literature. while asking the aristocratic classes of the time to financially encourage their efforts. Raising these kings of yesteryear as models, it engages the contemporary aristocracy to encourage literary creation. This hybrid business model of the Mandali – Zamindari patronage and subscriptions by ordinary book buyers – must be understood in the context of the broader transitions that were occurring in cultural production during the period. The constant patronage received by some of these publishing houses has allowed them to continue operating even in adversity. For example, the publisher of the Mandali, in the preface to a book published during the First World War, states that although they had great difficulty in finding paper at affordable prices, they went ahead and printed it despite the losses, as their intention was never to make a profit but to improve Telugu literature.

The cover page of the first Mandali book in which the founding document was published. Courtesy of National Digital Library of India

So who was this zamindar on whose generosity the Telugu enlightenment project rested? According to accounts favorable to Vijnana Chandrika, Nayani Venkata Ranga Rao, the Munagala zamindar was a benevolent patron of the arts. But other contemporary accounts show him as an autocratic zamindar ruthlessly exploiting marginal farmers and farm labor. Peasant rebellions, such as the Munagala Kisan agitation of the 1930s, also mobilized against these atrocities. Devulapalli Venkateshwara Rao, a member of the then undivided Communist Party of India, who led the Kisan agitations of the time, discusses the philanthropic, condescending to the arts and well-educated image of the Munagala zamindar and contrasts it with the poor state of the farmers of the pargana under his reign. According to reports, several court cases challenged the legacy of the Zamindar and the fight against these cases led to his coffers being emptied, and he in turn used means of exploitation against the farmers of the oppressed caste in the form of taxes and demanded free labor from them.

The West Krishna District Congress Committee’s 1938 report on Munagala describes in detail the suffering of the farmers. In the state of Nizam, vetti (Vetti beggar a system of state-sanctioned unpaid work transformed into vetti a right of individuals and families to extract unpaid labour, materials and services) and bhagela – two forms of extraction of free labour, services and supplies from the population – prevailed.

In the vetti system, payments for mined labor, services, and supplies ranged from zero to marginal. The exploiter can be anyone with some form of association with caste or state authority. The exploited could also be anyone from a wide range of population groups considered subjects of that authority. The rights of the exploiter were considered to derive from the birth of his ancestors. For example, under clothes, laundresses were expected to provide services, merchants were expected to provide materials, laborers were expected to work for free or for a small fee.

Under the bhagela system, individuals sell themselves or their family members into bondage until a loan is repaid. Loan records were never written on paper. Protests were severely punished, including the imposition of fines and torture. Even repairing one’s own property required permission from the Zamindar which was granted only after making adequate payment. The Zamindar has also charged its tenants high rent, claimed jurisdiction over grazing and evicted tenants without cause.

This material context – of wealth and privilege extracted and defended by extortion and violence – was then the breeding ground in which Telugu enlightenment germinated. The Mandali’s project of literary modernity is inspired by Western modernity. Modernity has its origins in the ideas of the Enlightenment in the West and the emphasis was on the rights of ordinary people. But in the Telugu literary cosmos, the parties that funded this project were directly involved in exploiting and maintaining the status quo even as the literary modernity project was meant to challenge it. In a recent essay (2017) titled ‘Ingitham Marchipoyina Rajavaru‘ (The King Who Forgot Basic Manners/Common Sense) Gudipudi Subba Rao, author of a local history from the Munagala Paragana, criticizes Mandali members who lived near the Zamindar for ignoring these atrocities and their consequences. Although he does not allude to these stories, a contemporary literary figure, the Telugu poet-playwright Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao, noted how the Mandali’s modernist project was at heart a conservative and reactionary project. He criticizes one of the historical novels published by the Mandalis, saying that it was “violence to common sense” and that the novelist delights in describing an “imaginary patriotism”.

That the Mandali mention their wish to translate Mill’s on freedom in telugu is not just ironic. It is an irony that is at the heart of the Telugu literary modernity project – where two conflicting aspirations – one to consolidate caste privileges and the power of money and the other to launch a dream of equality and universal freedoms had to be compromised. Such is the history of regional literary productions in the Deccan region.

Sasi Kiran teaches at FLAME University in Pune.

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