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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dr Chekuri Ramarao: Eminent Linguist with a Literary Flair of Par Excellence

Shri Chekuri Ramarao, a well-known Telugu writer, literary critic and linguist, died on July 24th, aged 80, while doing meditation at his residence in Hyderabad.

As I was reading about his peaceful and graceful passing away in the newspaper, an elegantly aged man sitting on a chair quietly with a contended smile on his face—the face of Dr. Chekuri Ramarao, whom I met for the first and last time at Dr. Bh Krishnamurti’s book, ‘Studies in Telugu Linguistics’, release ceremony at Hotel Ramada Inn on June 2009—flashed in my mind clearly and vividly.

What a wonder! Such a quiet looking thorough gentleman, who was born at Illendulapadu, a village near Madira of Khammam district on October 1st, 1934, had indeed become a ‘problem’ for his parents. For, coming under the influence of a relative-cum-friend, he had become an adventurous child: watching the Sun rising from the other side of the stream nearby his village ... over the mango orchards ... with wide- opened eyes obviously, caught by its scenic-beauty... ... absconding from school...  perhaps!... stealing money from home...and whiling away the time in the nearby town, Madira, meaninglessly. He was therefore to be shifted to a village near Sattenapalii for schooling. Finally, it was in Narsaraopet Municipal High School that he seemed to have acquired his rooting in traditional and modern Telugu poetry, grammar and prosody under the tutelage of stalwarts like Nayani Subbarao, school Headmaster and a noted romantic poet;  Bhagavathula Subbarao and Lanka Seetaramayya, Telugu teachers. His leaning towards Marxist philosophy too appeared to have flowered here at Narsaraopet. Later on he moved to Machilipatnam for his Intermediate studies. Dr Rao once wrote: “From SSLC to BA, I have not passed any examination at the first instance.” Yet, with his brother’s clever intervention he could sail through BA and obtained MA in Telugu from Andhra University.

Finally, he secured PhD for his research on linguistics— ‘A Transformational Study of Telugu Nominals’— from Cornel University, USA. To quote him: “Although my childhood  was not all that fruitful, I could, in my later life, learn a lot from such stalwarts as Duvvuri Venkataramanasastry, Ganti Somayajulu, Bh Krishnamurti, Martin Joos, Gordon Fairbanks and Charles Hockett.” And with such sound grounding, he became a Professor in Linguistics at Osmania University and retired in the year 1980 as the Head of the Department of Linguistics.

It is no exaggeration to say that intensive research on Telugu Syntax within the framework of modern linguistic theories indeed began with Dr. Rao’s pioneering work—‘A Transformational Study of Telugu Nominals’—published in 1968. In this study, adopting transformational generative approach,  he discussed about factive, dubitative, quotative, intensive, action and relative nominalizations in Telugu.   Some of his path breaking articles are: ‘A Grammatical Sketch of Telugu’ (1965), ‘Direct and Indirect Reports’ (1968), ‘Coordination or Subordination’, ‘Causal Use of Quotative Morpheme in Dravidian’ (1972), ‘Some Aspects of Coordination in Telugu’ (1972), and ‘Time Passes’ (1975). His other stellar work on the syntax of Telugu sentence is: ‘Telugu Vakyam’. He also brought out an English-Telugu dictionary for journalists. Some of his other interesting publications in Telugu are: Sahitya vyasa rinchli, Cerapithikalu, Bhasanuvartanam: Bhasa Prayoga Vyasalu, and Bhasaparivesam: Bhasanubhava Vyasalu.

Dr. Ramarao is however known more for the columns and essays that he wrote on varied literary aspects—feminist, minority, Dalit writings and poetry—under his pen name, Chera, in Telugu news papers, magazines and journals. ‘Smruti Kinankam’, a compendium of his literary essays, won him Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for the year 2002.  It is these incisive literary analyses and critiques that won him a permanent place in the Telugu literary world.

He is one linguist who is at ease in analyzing poetry meaningfully imparting educative value to it. For instance, look at the essay written about the ballad “Palanadu velaleni maganira!”penned by Pulupula Venkatasivayya. Here, drawing our attention to the verse, “Venuka taramulavari veeracharitala sirulu / narvoci tygampu neervetti penchara! / virici sukhamulu pandura, palanadu, / velaleni maganira!” he concludes that it had inspired Dasaradhi to write the poem: “Rajarajula bogada vandimagadhuduganu / rytujathiki nenu vitalikudananna / pothanna kavi geethalo / telangana chitanyamepandera!” More than his identifying what song would have inspired whom, what merits our appreciation in the essay most is his describing how one Mr. B. Gopalam sang that ballad, “Palanadu velaleni maganira!” that too during his school days and how the audience were carried away by him to an altogether distant world.  He said that while singing the line, “varnadharmalanna ukku chattam pagili”, Gopalam, elongating the syllable, ‘ca’ and applying the stress on the syllable ‘ta’ in the word chattam could simply mesmerize the audience. In the same vein, while singing the line, “kanneganti Hanumanthu korameesamu drippy / palnati prajalache pannulega bettinche”,  Gopalam, exhibiting extreme anger in his face and tone had indeed, enhanced his roudram further by stressing on the syllable ‘gam’ and ‘mam’ in kanneganti and Hanumanthu and  then immediately switching over to marthavam, soft-mood by dimming his voice to match the bhavam, expression of the line, “bali ichhe Hanumanthnu, palnadu”—thus sliding with ease from one line to the other in “run on verse” style, Gopalam, with matching modulation of the tone said to have swayed the audience in emotions of different rasa. Obviously, it is not for the heck that poets like Sivareddy said: “Dr. Ramarao taught us how to write poetry, how to sing and how to understand it.”    
That aside, Dr. Rao is known for mentoring many a young modern poets by honoring them with his foreword. Indeed, his judgment had become the final word on the literary works of contemporary prose writers. Incidentally, you turn any modern poetry book in Telugu and you would invariably find a foreword under the name Chera. It is a wonder as to how this could have happened. Of course, the reason for such a phenomenon is obvious: as a linguist having a thorough grip on generative grammar, transformational grammar, semantic interpretation, phonetic interpretation, etc., and importantly being appreciative of the ‘rule-governed creativity’ and ‘rule-changing creativity’ he is no doubt a better equipped Pundit to apply the logic in judging the quality of poetic output.  But there appears to be something more than his profound linguistic grasp that made young writers keen about seeking his foreword. To appreciate this undercurrent, we may have to take a look at his forewords. In one of his forewords, comparing a verse of the author—“Pagalu gadichpoie sayantram kagane / Pittalu kuvakuvaladuthoo / tirigi neredu chettu meeda valatai / …” —with his own verse that he wrote long back, he commented: “the similarity between these two verses ends with our humanizing the tree” and when it comes to the  poetic beauty, he categorically states, “mine is no match to this verse.” That is the ‘integrity’ that Dr Rao displayed while analyzing a young poet’s output, which obviously could have made the modern poets beeline to his residence seeking his foreword. Similarly, he had never shown poverty of expression when it comes to encouraging a writer. Take the same foreword referred earlier and you will find him saying, “Except while practicing medicine, whatever Vaidehi speaks in Telugu, perhaps, sounds more as poetry. Nindina kavitaswarupini Vaidehi. A poetess incarnation is what Vaidehi is. Soon she shall shine like a polestar in Telugu literary field is what my hope is. And my desire too.”  

Dr. Rao is said to be one among those mature critics who are known to receive compliments with a smile but listen to criticism enthusiastically. He is also said to have exhibited tremendous amount of clarity in differentiating the person and his literary output that is being critiqued. Though he is known for his Marxist leanings, he ensured that it never came in the way of his critiquing any kind of literature—a rare phenomenon of equanimity.      

Whence did the like of ‘Chera’ come again!


Keywords: Chera, Eminent Telugu Linguists,‘Telugu Vakyam’, Smruti Kinankam’


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