Gurajada Appa Rao’s works were a trenchant commentary on social conditions of the day, but their characters have a timeless appeal.
Kanyasulkam and Desamunu Preminchumanna are synonymous with the name of writer Gurajada Appa Rao. Pundits of social theatre still say no play equals Kanyasulakam and patriots say no better message than Desamunu Preminchumanna. Both are immortal and Gurajada continues to be as relevant today as he was 150 years ago.
Kanyasulkam was the money paid to a bride’s family for having agreed to give their little girl in marriage. The practice those days was to marry the girl to an elderly man, which led to her early widowhood and facing heinous procedures like tonsuring of head, wearing white sari, removal of bangles and never allowed to remarry. Government statistics revealed to Gurajada that a hundred girls were married at the age of five, four, three, two and one, paying bride money between three hundred to four hundred rupees, per child. At times , bargaining would began right when the child was in womb, hoping it was female. He wrote this in the preface to the first edition of Kanyasulkam brought out in 1896, in those years, around a thousand and forty four such weddings took place in a year. Hence he used his literature as his weapon to expose and defeat their purpose. Thus Kanyasulkam mirrored this cruelty to female children.
Surname Gurajada is the name of a village in Krishna district from where his ancestors hailed, but moved much later to Vijayanagaram, where his father Gurajada Venkata Ramadasu had been transferred. Ramadasu’s son Appa Rao, was born at Rayavaram, his mother Kausalyamma’s place, on November 30, 1861. He grew there and had to go to Vijayanagaram for higher studies. By then he had become a scholar in Telugu, Sanskrit and English, taught by Velivela Ramamurthy Pantulu at Gulivindada. Chandrasekhara Sastry, principal of Maharaja’s college, Vijayanagaram helped in the boy’s growth in academics and in attaining graduation. Gurajada served as lecturer in the same Maharaja College he studied. Yet his love for novels and drama was never lost.
Though Gurajada looked dignified in his contour, he was so frail that he wore layers of clothes. The Maharaja’s sudden death in 1897 left Appa Rao helpless, as he lived and progressed under his patronage. An adopted boy became Raja’s successor. As he was a minor, the queen positioned Appa Rao as his secretary. Subsequent succession controversies made Gurajada become a central figure, organising court proceedings for almost 12 years. But he never stopped writing and was well known for his ready wit, enormous patience, and balance of mind. But tragedy struck him in the form of death of his younger brother Shyamala Rao, a good writer himself, and tragic death of his father that left him sullenfor a while.
Ahead of his times
Gurajada began researching the history of Telugu land and Kalinga (Orissa) with plans to write their history. His works on drama, short story and poetry continued alongside. His dictum was ‘writings should never be an open advocacy of the moral or a strong condemnation of a social evil in literary production’. His Kanyasulkam vouches for this. He was far ahead of his times and was being compared to Tagore; his contemporary whom he met during his last years — between 1910 and 1915.
Kanyasulkam Gurajada’s play was no figment of his imagination. Kanyasulkam remains popular even now because of its satirical approach and the manner in which it dealt with various sub-plots and issues of corruption, debauchery, cheating of young widows and lectures by mercenaries on widow-marriages hypocrisy and morality.
He used the spoken dialect long before modern Telugu movement began. “I clothed the play in spoken dialect for it is intelligible and also good vehicle for comic diction” Gurazada observed. He also penned plays like Kondu Bhatteeyamand Bilhaneeyamthat were either lost or were incomplete. He wrote five stories including one in English (Stooping to Rise). Pedda Maseedu, Mee Peremiti addressing God and other two relating to foibles at domestic front. His Mutyala Saraalu (strings of pearls) and Puthadi Bomma Poornamma are well known. He died in 1915.