If I were to go into the faults of and the monumental game of omissions and half-truths that is the state of history textbooks in India, we’ll just be stuck here, not only all night, but for a few days and maybe even a few weeks. The subject of the discussion right now is the fault, specifically, in our Telugu textbooks. In case you weren’t a student of telugu, but of one of the various other Indian languages, hear me out, and maybe you’ll relate and can bring to light a similar irregularity in an analogous language.
August 29th was National Telugu Language Day, and it caught me by surprise. Not because August was coming to a close far too soon (is it just me or is 2019 flying?), but because I hadn’t known such a day even existed. This is significant, because, unlike the nonsensical National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day or National Chocolate covered Cherry Day (yes, those exist; thankfully not in our country) National Telugu day seemed like it warranted not only importance, but celebration. Having grown up in Hyderabad, now one of the two capital cities of the telugu heartland, if anyone should know of the existence of this day, I should hope it was the school going children of this state, past or present. Now I can’t speak for government schools in the state, but is not enough of a sorry state of affairs if the average private school student doesn’t know about it?
Coming to the meat of the situation, my beef (pun intended) is not just with the lack of awareness, but the lack of any action to rectify this sorry situation. Speakers of the telugu language are unfortunately blissfully unaware of the beauty, intricacies, and most importantly, the history (especially more recent history) of the ancient language.
While I cannot in English words describe the beauty of telugu, I can however stress its nearness to the hearts of those who speak it. It is the only language whose every word ends in a vowel sound, and thus, lends itself beautifully to Carnatic music. Two out of three of the trinity of the greatest Carnatic musicians ever composed lyrics in Telugu (Saint Tyagaraja in a more colloquial and Syama Sastri in a more Sanskrit-heavy Telugu). The love for telugu is also evidenced by another fact unbeknownst to the millennials, there was a massive movement not only to revive the language, but for the right to continue its public use and education. The Nizams forcefully imposed Urdu as a medium of instruction in all educational institutions, and suppressed the use of telugu language and squashed the culture and customs of the telugu people. For nizam apologists who think that’s fair – Hyderabad was 18-20% Muslim at the time, not 45% as it is today, so to impose the language of the rulers on the entire population is entirely wrong and entirely Nazi. The Nizams also created a landlord or jagir system that was shockingly unfair and exploited labour, illegal taxation, horrific large-scale exploitation of the telugu people (this is why I’m incensed when a Hyderabadi starts glorifying the nizams for giving them biryani, Osmania university and Hussain Sagar; but that’s neither here nor there and I will detail the horrors of nizam rule in a separate write up).
The golden age of telugu was during the God-king Krishnadevaraya’s rule of the expansive and prosperous Vijayanagra empire, but to truly understand the ‘revival’ of telugu, I’ll start briefly with the contribution of Kandukuri Veeresalingam, a great social reformer and the father of the telugu renaissance. He wrote the first novel in the telugu language in 1848, translated all of Shakespeare’s works into telugu, wrote plays and novels relating to women empowerment, socio economic conditions, womens’ independence, education, and equal rights (feminists take note). He encountered massive resistance to his efforts but made major strides – he advocated education of women and set up the first school for women; he conducted widow remarriages which were unheard of at the time, and set up homes for widows where they would be educated and independent; he strongly criticized child marriage, dowry, and sati.
Coming to the gentleman in honor of whom Telugu Day is observed, Gidugu Venkata Ramamurthy, was an icon and a visionary. He is responsible for the widespread acceptance and usage of ‘vyavaharika’ or colloquial telugu in print, press, and as a medium of instruction in educational institutions. He studied sasanas or inscriptions in ‘grandhika’ or literary version of telugu, which is loaded with ‘accha telugu’ (pure telugu) and Sanskrit words; and realized the impracticality and incomprehensible nature of it, insisting that it was not suitable for everyday communication. He met with much heated resistance from scholars of Sanskrit and Telugu, who regarded colloquial telugu as ‘gramya’ or ‘backward’, the modern equivalent being “ghetto”. He was a linguistics expert and scholar, and his most pioneering work in the field was working closely and tenaciously with the tribal ‘Savara’ people of the Munda tribe of AP and Orissa, and creating a script and a lexicon for their language (this creative and exemplary work in linguistics is still applauded by linguistic experts in universities across the world today). He travelled into these deep forested areas so frequently, that he caught malaria and was treated with the ototoxic drug quinine, which caused hearing loss. He was conferred the Kaiser–e-Hind medal by the British and was lovingly nicknamed ‘Pidugu’, meaning lighting bolt, rhyming with his last name. Kandukuri Veeresalingam also set up the Vartamana Vyavaaharikandhra Bhasha Parivartaka, which fought alongside Gidugu Ramamurthy for the shift towards vyavaharika. [Finally after about 40 years of rallying, in the 60s, AP universities began to accept the spoken language in textbooks, exams, and theses.]
During the Nizam rule which started in the early 1720s, the only real political revolution started in the 1920s. In 1921, a telugu lawyer, Allampalli Venkata Rama Rao, spoke in telugu in a conference with the Nizam state, and was ridiculed, which woke the telugu people up to the reality of the treatment of the language and its people by the Nizams. The “Andhra Jana Sangham”, whose name was later changed to “Andhra Mahasabha” was initiated with 11 original members, to promote and nurture telugu literature and language. They established multiple libraries, promoted education, encouraged research, and conducted regular conferences. They fought for education and healthcare for the masses. They also vehemently opposed the purdah system which had no basis in dharma sastras for Hindu women and advocated education for girls in the state. The analogous ‘Andhra Mahila Sabha’, for women, was presided over by educated women social reformers and womens rights activists in the state: they fought for girls’ right to education, widow remarriage and opposed polygamy. Nizam rulers banned all political conferences, so most meetings took place outside the state. Any peaceful gathering required permission from the police commissioner 10 days prior. Gradually, the movement gained traction and they included social and political changes relating to taxation and the brutal, autocratic zamindari system in their manifesto. PV Narasimha Rao, future PM of India, joined the Andhra Maha Sabha seeing the atrocities of the Nizams, but left to pursue Hyderabad’s liberation movement started by Swamy Ramanad Thirtha. By the 1940s the group saw a divide amongst the members, with the communists breaking off to form a Nationalist Andhra Maha Sabha; but in 1946, communist party was banned and hence all operations ceased. What followed was the establishment of the Hyderabad State Congress, the Telangana Rebellion, and the accession of Hyderabad to India a year after independence, which would make great fodder for subsequent ‘whats missing in textbooks’ series.
- Language in India – 20th Century Visionaries by VVB Rama Rao, PhD http://www.languageinindia.com/dec2002/visionaries.html
2. The Telengana Movement: Peasant Protests in India, 1946-51 Rohan Matthews http://base.d-p-h.info/en/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8892.html