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Sri Sri’s Mahaprasthanam: A Dance of Destruction

By Kondreddy Venkateswara Reddy

Translated by Syamala Kallury


Sri Sri had ushered in new era in poetry by blowing his victory bugle after denouncing both the classical and romantic trends in poetry in 1933 itself.  He ‘rose to great heights as the flag of a tallest skyscraper called the world’. (Bhuvana bhavanapu bavutaane paiki lestaanu). He kept to the tune of the changing times and created the music of a waterfall through his Mahaprasthanam anthology. As it is impossible for one to walk back into the past this poet destroyed the old world order in poetry and moved towards the future paving a path for himself for a new order and creation of new pathways for poetics. He thought that poetry is not something that lulls the society and puts people to sleep but is something that can awaken them from a slumber. It depicts how a large section of people are exploited and were boiling over bitten by the serpents, the feudal lords. This is the unique feature of the poems in Mahaprasthanam. His was the poetry that sought to clean and purge the pollutants in the contemporary society and he did so with great élan. That was the main reason why he was regarded as the pioneer and a poet who gave a clarion call to new age in poetry.

Sri Sri’s first step towards progressive thought bypassing the traditional schools in contemporary poetry: Sri Sri was born in an orthodox brahmin family and had thoroughly studied and acquired scholarship in ancient  poetry and emerged as a prominent poet of a genre called padyam, a metered poem, well known in his times. He wrote as a romantic, pining for the passionate arms of the imaginary damsels in his initial years. There were modern poets like Viswanatha Satyanarayana, who lived in traditional thought often referred to as sanathana dharma (Eternal Dharma) and wrote excellent poetry, and poets like Krishna Sastry who eulogised romantic thought by descriptions of imaginary heroines and their clinging arms. Sri Sri walked this path of subjective poetry for some time in his initial years of writing but soon realised his was not the path that glorified either of these schools. He moved towards progressive poetry in search of a new identity for himself in poetry as well as in society.

The emergence of a new world order through the Dance of Destruction:

Sri Sri had always been an experimentalist and an anarchist. If he ever felt that his genius and scholarship were not appreciated he did not hesitate to totally sever connections with people, however intimate they were. His passion for a new world order taught him to look deep into the contemporary literary scene scrupulously. He, as a poet, rejected all traditional thought and emerged as an exploding volcano. In an effort to attract poets and literary personalities of his times he had declared, which may not be totally true, nevertheless, “Having  overcome the lexicons that were like graveyards,  breaking through the chains of grammar and securing release from the serpentine bondage of meter, I started creating poetry for a new world”.  He saw himself as a poet who reached out to the Muse that was suppressed under the iron heels of classical diction and emerged as the destroyer of poetic egos that have dominated the literary field thus far. He struggled to establish himself without hunger and without sleep, dreaming of poetry as the driving force of his life. He created in his Mahaprasthanam with an intense and a passionate command over his diction a world where a poetic thought moves and causes movement, a thought that can awaken the society from slumber. He became the voice of the muse to create the new way that he carved for himself. The Poetic Muse who was dancing to the tunes of the rich, who was being used as an instrument of oppression on the working classes and who was always wandering in the high skies was brought down to the earth by Sri Sri. He infused new life into the dying craft of poetry. He built a temple for this new muse that he had thus far adorned as a flowery arch on the gates of heavens, with his new diction and technique. He consecrated the working man as an object of worship in this new temple.

Sri Sri was initially tired and frustrated as he had to always stand behind poets like Viswanatha who excelled in the art and craft of poetry or that of Krishna Sastry whose romantic genius far exceeded any of his contemporaries. Also, he could not suppress his quest for an identity that is different from these stalwarts. He announced his decision to rebel against the traditional literature and turned his ideology into a war weapon to use it against the old world order. He went into an adventurous journey with only his frank and unusual language as an inspiration. As rightly pointed out by another revolutionary of his time, Chalam, he broke through ‘the barriers of constraining diction and the stranglehold of meter, imagery, and descriptions by breaking its backbone’. He created music with his new perspective and the one who cannot hear this music was ‘like one old in mind and spirit with rotting bones’, the later quote being a line from Sri Sri’s own poem.

He was only an admirer of Marxist thought when he wrote Mahaprasthanam.      

Sri Sri never claimed, anywhere, when he talked of Mahaprasthanam that he was writing this in the context of Marxist thought. As he was quite well versed in world literary trends it could be expected that he must have been inspired by the ideology. His initial intent must have been only to write differently from the others of his time. Addepalli also says that Sri Sri never said that either his poetry or literary criticism was ever influenced by Marxist thought. He must have been only an admirer and was not involved with the party. But his lines in the anthology reflect the Marxist principles and later became torch bearers for this thought. Gradually he was branded as a Marxist poet. In 1968, thinkers like Ra Ra  (Rachamallu Ramachandra Reddy) decided to examine his poetry only through the Marxist lens.

If, around 1934, Sri Sri was a committed communist and if his aim was to propagate the Marxist ideology he would not have requested Chalam to write the foreword for his Mahaprasthanam.  For he knew that Chalam was not at all known to have had any respect, interest or love for the poetry of his times. He was only interested in uplifting the women’s position in the contemporary society Sri Sri would not have asked him  to write the foreword and this clearly establishes that Sri Sri was not an avowed communist at this time.

His life and focus were more on the aesthetics of Poetry rather than on the communist ideology. He wrote inspiring the hot-blooded young soldiers to see the dazzling lights of the crown of fire, the shining glory of the red flag, and the ascending flames of the yagnic fire. If in the process spouses, sons, well wishers all may go; and troubles, losses, anger and curses may come, let them all come. He extols that they should not be afraid of anything. He calls himself a revolutionary song and his inspiration was the ear hangings that adorn the ears of an ascetic.  He says with supreme confidence that he was an impenetrable fort and a heaven and his path was inimitable and did not say that the path was the Marxist path. He used the illusion, mystery, and Vedanta philosophy as synonyms for fraud. He asked the indifferent people to assess the value of the sweat of farmers and factory workers. There was no trader who can evaluate the tears that stream down the face of these sad people. These ideas were no doubt very close to communist thought. That is the reason Marxists became close to Sri Sri and they admired his poetry. But Sri Sri himself did not ever place the political philosophy above his love for the aesthetics of poetry.  He was not committed to those principles and did not invite the Marxist interpretation of his poetry.     

The traces of traditional trends would not leave even after the poetry burst forth as a tornado: Though Sri Sri claimed that his poetry was not affiliated to any meter, Adepalli says, one finds a sense of rhythm that takes one to a great height and that in fact is his meter in poetry. He achieved newness through this meter. One can say that Sri Sri was the poet who formulated free verse meter. His poetry was written in what is called ‘mātra chandassu’ and keeping to a rhythm.

His poetry also abounds in sanskritised idioms and phrases. The light of the fifth day of the rising moon, (bahula panchami jyotsna), In the evening (pradoshamandu) etc. Similarly he used  numerous images of the Indian puranic literature like the metal bells of Yama’s buffalo, the canines of hell, Nandikesa (Lord Shiva’s vehicle), The Boar- the original incarnation, the scholar of Vedas etc.. A number of such phrases merge naturally with his new aesthetics and give new meanings. The mythological lore appears as new experimental expressions. In other words, the imagery of the puranas comes in a new garb, complimenting the old and the new.     

His poetry which bursts forth as the dance of a whirlwind and sends his ideas in all the four directions like the sacred horses of the holy fires and they spread like wind’s waves, and fragrances. He extensively used  highly sanskritised ideas and idioms to bring out the best of his creativity.    

Sri Sri confidently asserts that his poetry melts the high heavens, it laughs in a dance of destruction, it crosses the barriers of the forts, and it reaches the cosmic heights. The worlds with bugles, the ashes of holy vermillion, the garlands of hibiscus flowers; all these images come in highly sanskritised diction used by the poet to his advantage.

However he also says that his poetry touches the margins of affection, the depths of joy, and re-invents life by giving fresh breath to death. It places ladders to reach the heaven. It reins in time.

Sri Sri’s idea of newness lies in his belief that he should stand by the oppressed and exploited sections of society: ‘All the orphans and all the restless ones will rise blowing the bugle of revolution in a long and intense voice’and ‘his poetry would be dedicated to the welfare of the factory workers  and working class.’

Sri Sri describes the condition of the downtrodden in one of his poems thus, ‘we are all slaves, we are all the wheels turned by the buffaloes that go round extracting oil in oil mills from sesame seeds, we are all dead bodies. Fraud in front of us and fraud behind us, to our right and to our left, fraud all around!’ so saying he asks the question ‘Is ours a life?’ in a tone of contempt. They provoke the reader into thinking and awaken his conscience.

While depicting the real nature of the nations and their histories, he says, ‘the entire history of human race is of oppressing the others, like rivers of blood flowing during the battles fought, the mighty have become famous by exploiting the weak and the downtrodden’. He further asks, there is no land anywhere on the globe that has not been drenched in tears and blood. It is not an exaggeration if one says that there is no other Telugu poet in the first half of 20th century who could speak out with such vehemence and power.

Nevertheless, this poet did not just gift wrap troubles and tribulations as give to the poor, but gave them hope and faith in the future. The ones who were miserable, deprived, and bitten by the serpents of suffering were assured of the arrival of the chariot of Lord Jagannadh which will relieve them of all strife. He gives a clarion call, asserting that these wheels of the chariot were the torch bearers for a new future and thus awakens them with the bugle revolution.

All the suffering of the world was his: Chalam saysin his introduction to Mahaprasthanam that while Krishna Sastry recited his suffering to the world through his poetry Sri Sri made the suffering of the world his.  

 True, he wrote his poem Oka Raatri, One Night, in 1933. In the poem, he says that the moon of the fifth night in the rising cycle scares him. It spreads all out far and wide and pervades like a smoke across the sky. It appears as if there is a sandstorm in the desert of the sky. The air is full of clever spirits and the sea was roaring with a loud open mouth. The lone moon appears like a camel whose legs are severed.  The universe is covered in white ash – all these images speak volumes about the poet’s concern for the contemporary world situation which was full of uncertainties, sorrows, exploitation, lootings, oppression- the impact of the white race on the globe.    

There is another poem titled Baatasaari, A Traveller, in which a village boy who goes to a city looking for some means of livelihood goes to town and does not return, and ends up as a dead body and how his mother too breathes her last waiting for her son’s return, All the trials that this traveller faced in the city as recited by the poet reminded the poet of his early years in Madras.

Another poem is Bhikshuvariyasi, A Beggar Woman, he questions the society as to who is responsible for the death of an old woman who had grown so old that all her bones have become brittle and she had lost the will to live. The ones who are satisfied with small pleasures look at the situation and feel happy like dogs which have got bones to munch on and if exploiters look at this they feel like chameleons that run over flies aptly thus describing the mentality of the society.

If a man flies to the sky with his own effort, the same world which looks at him with wonder, burns with   jealousy and hatred when he collapses bleeding profusely, he feels sad at the double standards in society in the poem Auan!

In  Keka, scream, his voice reverberates with the clatter, a fiery and coarse clanging of the multiple voices he hears. He reveals the inner darkness of his heart, the dark physical hunger of his body and the darkness that surrounds him in his room. He identifies himself with the suffering of the world and his response flows out as poetry.

Mahaprasthanam as a ray of hope for the world of literature: When Chalam says for the Telugu people who ask in defiance, what is all this poetry, what is its use, how does it help the world, Sri Sri’s poetry is a fitting reply. Just as in the process of evolution even when the species change their forms, they retain some old remnants, Sri Sri’s poetry continued to strengthen itself with the classical Sanskrit diction and mythological images though he chose new paths. The manner of using these, in fact, enrich his poetry in a strange new way giving a new and modern tilt to the old images in keeping to his new outlook. He lived in utter poverty between 1930 and 1950 suffering the impact of the economic depression that gripped the world during that time. Though he did not touch upon the contemporary national issues Mahaprasthanam highlights the experiences of real life around him. He not only detested economic inequalities, but also condemned social evils. One should not make the mistake of associating with it with the modern perspective. It is a hot, blazing and boiling pond of blood. It is a fiery mountain ready to explode.  For people who can understand and apply themselves to the lives of different strata of society, it is an assurance of confidence in life; and a struggle for existence.

Today dalits, minorities, and women allege that Sri Sri’s progressive thought was not inclusive of their concerns as they were of the impression that Sri Sri was the exclusive property of the communists. But Sri Sri did have concerns of all these elements. He was a poet who taught the world that one should never look down on a puppy, a match stick, and a soap cake (kukkapilla, aggipulla, sabbubilla) as there is poetry everywhere and in everything; only, one should have the eye to see it – (the words rhyme and follow one another with an ease and spontaneity, while being immediately recognisable as every day, mundane things in telugu, actually proving his point). Could such a poet discriminate among humankind?

There is one truth that stands out and that is true for all times “the world is a maze and poetry is an unquenchable thirst.”  The world will always be a maze if one wants to find solutions to its problems , poetry should always be an unquenchable thirst. The problems cannot be solved and the thirst can never be quenched.

Yes, true! Yes, it is true! Sri Sri is a great poet and Mahaprasthanam is great work of art. Yes, what you said was true. Sri Sri was a great poet with an intense and a passionate command over his diction, poet of his era and his Mahaprasthanam was his dance of destruction.

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