Differently modern

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An attempt to retain the image of an early colonial Telugu world.

Girls for Sale: A Play from Colonial India, Translated from Gurajada Apparao’s Kanyasulkam by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Indiana University Press, $21.95.

Kanyasulkam” in Telugu means bride price, a meaning that inheres in the new title of the present translation. Going by its name, Kanyasulkam would seem to invite incorporation into the tradition of social problem literature that began to be valorized in India in the wake of the colonial encounter. The theme of social reform was writ large in the English preface to the first version of the play, staged in 1892 and published in 1897. It was also touched upon in the English preface to the much more complex second version, published in 1909. The play has thus found itself enlisted in the cause of social reform from the start. This new translation of Kanyasulkam together with a bold new interpretation of it, given as an “Afterword”, is prepared by V. Narayana Rao of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the express intention of contesting this claim. It has the effect of prising the text loose from its social problem, but not realistic, moorings, thereby edging us towards an appreciation of Apparao’s art.

Moral crusade

The content of social reform in this extraordinary play finds itself constantly undercut by images and scenes suggestive of a bustling and vibrant pre-colonial Telugu world. The plot involves the venal attempt of one influential Brahmin to give his younger daughter in marriage to another old, greedy and miserly Brahmin for money. It thus drags in the entire social reform baggage which, under the passionate advocacy of Viresalingam, turned into a moral crusade in the nineteenth-century Andhra in favour of widow marriage and against bride price and the vogue for pleasure women.

Yet how do we perceive Saujanya Rao, the idealistic social reformer and the play-version of Viresalingam? He is a flat character with no inner life and almost no ability to influence the society of which he is the undisputed cheerleader.

Seeing him alongside Girisam, the handsome con artist with the gift of the gab, and Madhuravani, the intelligent, vivacious and irrepressible courtesan, not to mention a whole gallery of resourceful survivors like Ramap-Pantulu ready to adapt to the new colonial order, the reader is likely to look past the agenda of reform towards the carnivalism of an “upwardly mobile society” (p. xi).

Rao rightly observes that the society portrayed in the play has the resilience and the wherewithal to sustain itself and does not need a colonially sponsored reform programme being mediated by a C19th Bengal. The child marriage bid of the two greedy Brahmins is foiled in the play by a mechanism that is internal to the society. Likewise, the play shows the social ethos of the lower orders to be much more egalitarian and less gendered compared to that of the upper caste society. The “Afterword” treats of these matters in detail.


The polyphony of the play is as much to do with its multilingual surface, swirling with several languages and dialects. The play, as originally written, was a polyglot performance par excellence in which Telugu (in its spoken form mostly) jostled for space with Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and English.

The English translation does its best to retain this image of an early colonial Telugu world engaged in interfacing with its own residual and emergent worlds. Transliterating and italicizing are among the devices used by the translator to preserve the foreignness of the crucial non-Telugu linguistic presences in the text.

It is also not far fetched to suggest that in its redrawing of gender roles and relations the play resembles an 18th century French novel by Laclos titled Dangerous Liaisons (1782) which shows sexuality as the contradictory site of desire and domination.

In Kanyasulkam’s “dialogising” of the provincial Telugu society then is to be found its most effective weaponry for criticizing a colonial modernity. This adorable and elegant translation comes closest to revealing the carnivalesque heart of this Telugu, nay, Indian, masterwork of alternative modernity.

The writer is Professor of English, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa.



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