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Sri Sri’s Experiments in Mahaprasthanam

By Navin


Sri Sri is popularly called a mahākavi- a great poet, in his mother tongue Telugu. One may be a traditionalist or a modernist; there is no disagreement between them in accepting Sri Sri as a great poet.

Sri Sri’s greatness as a poet rests on his major work, Mahaprasthanam (The Great March). It is an anthology of his poems written in the decade of the hungry thirties between 1930s and 40s. Besides poetry, he wrote short stories, literary criticism, book reviews, his autobiography, works that can be described as non-fiction. 

Sri Sri was basically an experimentalist. He was greatly influenced by new trends and experiments that had taken place in the West, particularly French and English literature. Swinburne and Edgar Allan Poe in poetry and Maupassant in prose were his ‘three sages’ as he said several times. Later Maupassant yielded place to Baudelaire who introduced Sri Sri to symbolism and impressionism. As well known Telugu critic K.V Ramana Reddy says, “the young poet gave himself up thoroughly to French and English experiments in poetry and passed through a great gamut of modernist trends ranging from Impressionism and Dadaism to Surrealism. He tried bold experiments with Telugu verse and achieved a mastery over meter and technique in the process.

Sri Sri started as a romanticist and in his early days was influenced by Viswanatha Satyanarayana and Krishna Sastry - the two great romantic poets of his times. His first anthology of poems was Prabhava. All the poems in Prabhava were written in a genre called padyam wih meter and the poetry was full of pompous phraseology as Sri Sri himself confessed later. Romanticism or bhava kavitvam was the main trend in Telugu poetry during nineteen twenties. Being very young Sri Sri too fell in love with romantic trends in poetry. But very soon he began casting off the romanticist influence on him. He was also disillusioned and disgusted with the metered poetry or padya kavita with its rigid insistence on yati and prasa[1]. In its place he started writing in the mātrā meter and later took prose poetry and verse. 

This was the first experiment that Sri Sri brought into Telugu poetry - casting off rigid padya kavita in favour of poetry in mātrā chandassu. Writing poetry in simple mātrā meter and later prose poetry, Sri Sri liberated Telugu Muse from the clutches of metered poetry. Chalam a fire brand contemporary of Sri Sri and a revolutionary writer of the times said, “Sri Sri had successfully broken the spine of metered poetry in Telugu”. He had also bid goodbye to pompous phraseology and pedantic style of writing poetry. This was the major change that Sri Sri brought in the technique, expression, and style of writing poetry. 

When it came to content also, Sri Sri had brought to poetry a revolutionary change. Prior to Sri Sri, the two most predominant themes of poetry were unrequited love and the resultant melancholy of the poet, and patriotism and the spirit of nationalism. With the advent of Sri Sri there was a change in the themes the poets had chosen for Telugu poetry. For the first time, Sri Sri talked about the exploitations of the working class by capitalists. The common labourer became a focal point in his poetry.

The Progressive Writers Movement for which Marxism provided the base started in English poetry during the decade of the hungry thirties (1930-1940)[2]. Poets like W.H Auden and Stephen Spender were pioneers of this movement in England. They had published a manifesto of Progressive Writers Movement in 1928 which was called “The Manifesto of the London Progressive Writers”. Abburi Ramakrishna Rao, a good friend and contemporary of Sri Sri and a poet in his own right brought this manifesto to India to Sri Sri’s notice. After reading this manifesto Sri Sri became a changed man. He began to consider himself a progressive poet. The class struggle, the ultimate victory of the working class, a socialist society - combined with Marxist philosophy - provided the themes for his poetry from 1933 onwards.

The great depression of 1929 brought a gloom to the capitalist world. Everybody thought the fall of the capitalist regime was imminent. The Great Depression continued up to late 1930s. Unemployment of millions of workers, the closure of thousands of factories, and the collapse of stock markets led to the near total destruction of the capitalist regimes. The poor and the middle class were the worst victims of this depression, which widely swept through Europe. There was hunger and despair everywhere. While the capitalist world was on the brink of a disaster, the Socialist world - represented by Soviet Russia - was free from the effects of the depression. All the intellectuals of the day felt that socialism was the only way to mitigate the sufferings of the affected people. An egalitarian classless society is be possible, it was thought, only under socialism. So all the writers and artists of the day embraced the progressive ideology and started writing poetry advocating socialism as the only ray of hope. Sri Sri was the product of this world wide Progressive Movement.

Sri Sri took the Telugu literary world by storm, compelling everyone to acknowledge his astounding mastery of diction and an entirely new meter. His command over language, usage of a torrent of words was unseen and unheard of, in Telugu poetry. The reader was simply dazzled and spell bound with his diction and the images he created with his words. That was why he was called ‘Sabda Brahma’, creator of words.

Thus both in form and content Sri Sri’s poetry was an experiment. He had thrown open poetry to the common people. Poetry writing and reading was made simpler and less pedantic by Sri Sri’s entry into the literary arena. Every young and budding poet in Telugu started imitating Sri Sri after Sri Sri’s Mahaprasthanam was published in 1950. Arudra, Tilak, Kundurthi and a host of others were deeply influenced by Sri Sri’s experiments. The era of Sri Sri which started in the late 30s continued up to late eighties. Sri Sri used to say that up to 1930s, Telugu poetry had driven him, but from 1940s onwards he had driven the Telugu poetry. It may sound as boasting but there is an element of truth in it.

Beginning with Jayabheri, the Gong of Victory (in 1933, there came poem after poem of reverberating rhythms for a full decade. The appeal of these poems of Mahaprasthanam was to the young and to the brave.  Mankind’s great march towards a classless society formed the central theme for all these poems. Besides Jayabheri Pratigna (The Vow), Desa charitralu (Histories of the Nations), Jagannatha Radhachakralu (The Chariot wheels of Lord Jagannadha) Kavita! O Kavita! (Poesy! O Poesy) and the title poem Mahaprasthanam (The Great March) can stand in comparison to any great poem in world literature. Both in form and content these poems are outstanding. Rooted in his native tradition, Sri Sri nevertheless kicked the doors wide open to experimentation in verse. His association with the Progressive Writers Movement yielded good results. But his experiments with surrealism did not find favour with the readers and critics alike. It had a brief spell and its novelty soon faded because of its obscurity. His experiments with light verse like limericks and nonsense verse such as ‘siri siri muvva’ too are unique experiments in poetry in their own way.


[1] Meter and rhyme

[2] A term normally used to denote the great economic depression of thirties



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