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`You can be killed for your poetry too'

The written word is a crucial weapon in any struggle, believes revolutionary Telugu poet, Varavara Rao.

Together for a cause: Varavara Rao with Gaddar.

A BOY and girl always met in the vast cotton fields that stretched all the way to the horizon. Until, one day, the dam crept across the Suez. There were no fields... and no love. Varavara Rao, the celebrated revolutionary poet from Andhra, quoted the great Egyptian story, The Earth, to illustrate how nothing, not even love, can escape the realities of the here and the present. "True love is possible only in a liberated society," he remarked.

Varavara Rao was in the City recently to apprise the public of the status of the talks between the Government of Andhra Pradesh and the representatives of the Communist Party of India (M-L) People's War. Incidentally, he has now pulled out of talks in protest against increasing "encounter killings".

Varavara Rao is one of the tallest cultural figures in Andhra Pradesh today. Known for his powerful poetry, he has been at the forefront of a cultural movement that articulates issues raised by the revolutionary Left.

He believes that there has to be a space other than the armed struggle of the revolutionary Left to reach out to the people. "The spoken and the written word are as important as the struggle itself. If you look at Latin American society and politics, you'll find that writing is an intense part of liberation struggles. There are similar traditions in East and South Africa."

India too has such a tradition. But the strength of the cultural movement is not as strong, observes Varavara Rao.

"Unrest in various corners of the country after Independence created conditions for such writings. Bengal and Kerala had strong traditions of Socialist writing.

In Andhra Pradesh, the cultural movement was born out of the Srikakulam Movement demanding land rights. It acquired great vibrancy in the 1970s. Later, the Jana Natya Mandali (JNM) spearheaded the struggle against exploitation. It gave the armed struggle a cultural impetus. Gaddar, the famous singer, is a perfect example of how the folk idiom can also be a strong weapon for struggle."

And Varavara Rao made poetry that remarkable cultural weapon. Inspired by Sri Sri, a legend in the Telugu literary tradition, he set out to write poetry espousing the cause of the oppressed.

He continued to write with the same acidity, despite being in and out of jail several times. He wrote poetry that critiqued the coercive aspect of social institutions, including the State. Varavara Rao was also involved in the setting up of the Revolutionary Writers' Association.

But how well are political poems received, for, aren't they conventionally perceived to be lacking in "aesthetics"? He asks: "Whoever said romance is not part of revolution? The Urdu tradition, for instance, is full of romance and revolution. Faiz Ahmed Faiz exemplified the tone and mood of Urdu writing.

The relationship between aesthetics and politics is very strong in Urdu literature." Varavara Rao believes that the distinction between "political" and "aesthetic" is not appropriate. He holds that his poetry is, at once, both. A poet like Kaifi Azmi, he points out, is political, but has also written romantic poetry.

Armed struggles by the Left have met with repression the world over. But are writers/poets, who are not "violative of the law" in the strict sense, and who belong to the realm of the literary/aesthetic, but articulate issues raised by the revolutionary Left, out of bounds from such repression? "But you can be killed for your poetry too. Gelder was a great South American poet. Why did he have to suffer torture and death under the Allende regime?" asks Varavara Rao, making the point that State repression would be inevitable if poetry holds out hope for the revolutionary cause.

He asserts that people involved in direct struggle invite death that much more quickly, while there may be some liberal space available for the poet, which is why it is important to keep the cultural momentum going. "It is very important to lend a cultural-ideological bearing to a movement."

Varavara Rao himself has been a victim of persecution for much of his life. He moved from Warangal in the mid-Eighties to Hyderabad fearing attacks on him.

A teacher of Telugu literature, He had to face continuous threat even by State agencies. It is an irony that he had to take shelter in jail for a year or more to escape the hand of the police!


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