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Monday, December 11, 2017

Wow, Nanduri's Yenki Celebrates Birth Centenary!

It is during the early 20th century that Yenki, the darling, the “forest fairy”, descended on Telugu poetry like a flash on the firmament, “clad in azure sari”, spreading grace all around with a smile that is dazzling like diamonds, winking her eyes and teasing playfully, making the readers’ hearts rock in their throats.

It is when Telugu poetry was turning more and more moribund that Nanduri Venkata Subbarao (1895-1957), an advocate by profession and an inspired poet by choice, came up with the picturesque love of Yenki—a working-class washerwoman as the heroine—and her Naidu baava (literally means brother-in-law, but connotatively ‘baava’ has a titillating and tantalizing familiarity with the undertones of friendly mockery and modest flirting), painting their passionate love with words contemporaneous, too full of an unearthly energy, the thrill of which, of course, a native speaker alone can experience in its full and get transported from earthly feelings to a distant world of unknown joy.

In fact it was while traveling by a tram in Madras in 1917 from Madras Christian College to his residence that the now famous line, “gunde gonthkalo kottu kuntunnadi—My heart fluttering in my throat,” was said to have flashed in his mind. With that throbbing heart, as he sat at home, he could reduce that rocking of heart to writing and thus a whole song unfurled spontaneously. And the rest is history—history of the birth of new poetry in Telugu.

As the poet in Subbarao went on with his feverish composition, the immortal Yenki came greeting all of us with her lyrical ballads: a trailing cloud of beauty of an undiscovered world enchanted the young hearts of the 1920s and 1930s… and continue to rock the hearts of even the present generation. Of course, she did raise dust storms as the pandits and pedants, the so-called custodians of the standards in literature, shouted at her. But it could not last for long, as the young took Yenki to their hearts and the songs were already on the lips of all those—both young and old—with a spark of love in their hearts.

There is, of course, no explicit storyline behind these songs. And they are surely in the folk mode evocating the simple and passionate love of Yenki for her Naidu baava, but they are not merely folklore! There is a certain amount of extravagance of dreams in the love of Yenki and her Naidu baava, the pastoral hero and heroine, before which everything else turns dim. A scintillating music pervades the lyrics: the lines are soft, harmonious, impressive, all wrapped in a bloom of beauty. It lingers more in our memories: every word in it evokes an indefinite power of love.

In Nanduri’s Telugu, there is rustic power of love. There are lines in his songs, for that matter in most of them, that there echoes “A pleasurable feeling of blind love.” They air the longings of lovelorn common folks in an unaffected simplicity expressed through colloquialisms and localisms of their speech and yet sound universal. Their passionate ecstasies (“kookundaneeduraa koosinthaseepu! —Doesn’t allow me to relax a while!”) and silent exultations (“Thrills me immensely my Yenki”) dwell in our memories. Their echo haunts us. But if we try to analyze them, their charm becomes elusive.
With his prowess of fancy, animation and eloquence, Nanduri made the young read and reread Yenki with the eagerness of youthfulness. His sheer craft of lyrical expression that is ever soaring, ever singing of love made their popularity unbounded. They are long remembered. They retain a hold even on mature men more because these songs remind them of their youth and they delineate “Such sights as youthful poets dream / On summer eves by haunted stream”.

The hovering air of power and beauty that the words really have is difficult to perceive rightly even by the natives, for the sentiments expressed by these words are “clothed in white samite, mystic and wonderful.”

Yenki is simple but not too simple. She is ardent but not artless: “When I call her playfully ‘little rascal’, / She diverts the talk, as though heard not.” She is loving but not un-suspecting. She is devoted to Naidu baava but exacting in her demands: “Give me a guileless heart! / And then be happy.” She talks with her eyes. She mocks at him with her eyebrows. “Even to the palace of kings” she simply “Adds color and glow!” Indeed, “spreads grace all around”.

For Naidu “There is no lass like Yenki”, for she “melts his heart” and even “chews and swallows.” She is not a mere queen of Naidu’s heart but a goddess. For, she
“comes so softly!
 In the fullness of moonlight
 She comes enchantingly
 In a bright blue saree
 My Enki flashes beauty
 And seems the forest fairy!”

Every expression of Yenki is so endearing for Naidu that he ignores no opportunity to marvel at and be amused by her innocence. When he once asks her, “Who could we have been / in the previous birth”, Yenki smiles shyly.    When he asks, “What form will we take in the next birth”, she gets confused. And lastly, as he poses that ultimate question, “How long will this / Joy last”, she sheds tears. Although these songs are steeped in romance, one cannot ignore the profound philosophy suggested by that shy smile, confusion and the tears of Yenki, for they emphasize the preciousness of the ‘time present’.    

To Yenki, the innocent, Naidu baava is everything. He is her lover—the Prince charming of her dreams. She asks of him nothing more than a loving heart, promising to
“…follow thee,
I will live with thee,
I ‘ll build for me
My palace in thy shade!”
Interestingly, these lines, though apparently steeped in romanticism, are pregnant with profound philosophy of Vaishnavism. Besides their musicality, the lines, “nee needaloonee meeda kadathaa naidu baava” (I’ll build for me / My palace in thy shade) remind us about the metaphoric bhakti (devotion) of Gopikas for Krishna in Brindavan.  In her yearning for her baava, as yenki whispers the words, “build my palace in thy shade”, she is in effect giving an expression for her longing to merge with her baava—an expression of Vaishnava cult’s madhurabhakti: another shade of Sringara rasa.    

Naidu remembers Yenki in varied surroundings and some scenes indeed remain etched in his mind, perhaps to haunt his memory constantly:
“A mountain here and a mountain there,
 And in the mountain valley,
 She puts the milk pot down
 And prays to the temple deity
 Alas! Me thinks to see her
 These eyes are only two!”

At times the seasoned Naidu tends to brood in his solitude airing a complaint against Yenki’s neglect —of course, more of imaginarily:
“The speech of blossoms
 Does Yenki know
The mind of garden flowers
Does Yenki know
Her friendship with flowers
Quarrels amidst flowers
Will she turn a daisy
Leaving me high and dry
Like a log of oak dreary?”

Why, even Yenki is not lagging behind when it comes to complaining about her Naidu baava: immersed in song and dance with other women when Naidu forgets her while she
“Placed the lamps in a row
And you beside them
 And greeted the glow
 She noticed in his eyes.
and when there is no near sign of his coming, she laments:

“Won’t you come to me
Tonight, Oh King?
 Should all the glory of the Moon
Waste itself away
 On the mountain stream?”

For, she sees him in her waking hours and in dreaming nights. In every sight and sound of the nature, she feels of him—as though he is walking behind her, as though he is smiling from behind. And if it is too long an absence, she gets terribly worried: “What will befall my lord! /And what indeed will my fate be!”

When they are together, she is the very embodiment of beauty—“…flies like a bird / Moves like a star / Laughs like a flower / She is new every minute”—who lovingly chews and swallows Naidu baava, for—
As she raises her eyes,
A shower of gold!
A smile from her is diamonds dazzling!
And even to the abode of princes
Glow she would gift!
At times Naidu laments at his inadequacy to adequately express his intense love for Yenki, who, to the eyes of Naidu, looks like the goddess of orchard and there is “no lass like Yenki anywhere!” But on occasions when she, ignoring him spends time with neighboring ladies, she looks hardhearted for him. Nevertheless, when they are together he feels: Andala naaa Yenki undantee saalu / nibbaram gaa reetri nidrapoyyeenu!If the beauteous Yenki is around, it is enough! / I can sleep peacefully the whole night!”   

And Yenki is no inferior to him in her longing for him. When they are entwined in sweet romance, she feels that she “bathed lustily in the waters of the Ganges resplendent in diamond glow” and when she
Called out the azure stars
Soaring in the sky,
They dropped in the hands
Like diamond drizzle!
Her attachment to her Naidu baava is so intense that, though her heart is pained, she will not shed tears lest it should harm him! In her romantic moods, she finds all ingenious ways to win over her Naidu—pretending fear and “On the pretext that the cloud / Enveloped the Moon” she joins him anxiously “On the flower bed!”

And Naidu is equally spellbound about his longing for Yenki: wondering if Yenki, “administering some medicinal herb or other” (mandoo maakoo petti mariginchinaadi / vallakundaamante praanamaagaduraa!) got him under her spell because of which he “can’t resist going, for his breath won’t permit!” The refrain of the song is: “praanamaagaduraa!” —breath won’t let me stay back! What a romantic expression!

Looking at the selection of the peasant-dialect that is spoken in the Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts of Andhra by Nanduri to orchestrate  the love of Yenki and Naidu baava—the love of natural world and its foibles…hypocrisies, antics, anticipation and anxieties of the lover and the belovedcritics are often tempted to say that Nanduri is influenced by Robert Burns and his Scottish poetry:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.”

But many strongly believe that Nanduri was impacted by the British romantic poetry by virtue of his exposure to it as a student.  And this is of course palpable from the fact that never in the past, any poet from Telugu language has ever granted such a dignity and respect to the love and the longing of the ordinary rural folks which Nanduri afforded to Yenki and her Naidu baava. Obviously, it is his craftsmanship in synthesizing phrases and encapsulating lines—“Chandrunni thitti naa Yenki / Suryunni thitti naa Yenki—Rebukes the moon my Yenki / Scolds the Sun my Yenki” for, they, reminding  her about the terminating night and dawning day, subtly suggest that it is time for her to move away from her baava before the rest notice— that best sums up the human conditions and aspirations and makes a striking appeal to the young hearts.   

Following these rustic but evocative lyrics of early 20th century, the poet came up with a fresh set of songs in 1952, but the charming naiveté of Yenki of the 1920s seems to be missing. For, this time round the poet attempted to adorn the simple rural Yenki with a certain spiritual aura. Indeed, Chalam, the well-known master of sinewy prose, observed in his Musings that they lacked the punch of the earlier songs.
Nevertheless, some of them portray arresting poetic imagery: “The stream feeds on moonshine / And slumbers in the river belly!” These later songs, in which the swan like Yenki swings gracefully as a luminous lamp with the crescent Moon adorning  her as the crown,  are studded with picturesque images of beds of flowers, thrones of flowers, flutes of flowers, all of which lend the songs a charming feel of vibrant nature in all its glory.

Years rolled on, yet Naidu’s passion for Yenki had not grown any less intense, but his youthful flush of passion finds sublimation in eternal dream—
“Wake me not, Oh! Yenki
wake me not from sleep
For, a bliss so deep
Had never come my way
Wake me not anyway
Lest the dream should melt away
One ‘me’ alone for you
But many ‘yous’ for me.”

Here and there, the spiritual-fragrance of the songs overawes us, such as when Naidu baava says:
If ever the world at large
Asks, “Who is Yenki?”
I shall turn my finger at
Light and shade!”
The underlying philosophy of these simple words instantaneously makes one realize how ephemeral life is!  And how fleeting pleasure and pain is!  
Initially, these songs of Nanduri Subbarao evoked stiff resistance from scholars for “the vulgarization of language.” Some orthodox scholars have even questioned the poet’s act of placing an illiterate rustic washerwoman on the pedestal as a romantic heroine. But as the romantic poets of the era started singing them from public platforms, the youth welcomed the fresh breeze of Nanduri’s natural poetry.
A traditional Pandit, Panchagnula Adinarayana Sastry, comparing Nanduri’s songs with the poetry of Kshetrayya and Ramadas, highlighted the fragrance spread by these freshly blossomed flowers on the bough of Telugu literature in the twentieth century. He could indeed see Rathi and Manmatha in Yenki and Naidu baava. In the same vein, Vedam Venkataraya Sastry saw the Sringara of Rambha and Nalakubara in Yenki and Naidu. Sir C R Reddy, former Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and a noted literary critic, satirically attacked the orthodox critics of Yenki Patalu stating that “unless there is worth in them they will not find fault with them,” and read them avidly.

Over the years, Yenki and Naidu baava could, from a motivated opposition through the hesitant acceptance, win whole hearted appreciation from all corners. Indeed, Yenki paatalu (Songs of Yenki) that are steeped in Sringara rasa have finally been canonized as landmark in modern Telugu literature. Later, these songs  were even set to music by no less than the famous musician Parupalli Ramakrishnayya, which were sung by celebrities like Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, Srirangam Gopalaratnam, Balantrapu Rajanikanta Rao and so on. These simple rustic-sounding ballads that portray the ‘love eternal’ of Yenki, the “wild-jasmine” and her passionate Naidu baava  have continued to dance on the tongues of even Pandits for over a century and are sure to delight the generations to come, for “age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.” 

Portrait of Sri Subba Rao by Sri Sathiraju Sankara Narayana garu. I thank him for allowing me to use it....


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