A forgotten prophet

Pattabhirama Reddy burst on the Telugu literary scene 63 years ago with `Fidelu Raagala Dozen'. Settled in Bangalore, he has contributed enormously to the intellectual and cultural scene in Karnataka. His plans of making a film on the myth of Savitri with Tabu and Rahul Dev in the lead proves that the creative spark continues to burn bright, writes SUMANASPATI.

IT IS difficult to connect this serene, tall, old man speaking in soft, low tones with Pattabhi, who burst on the Telugu literary scene 63 years ago with a slender volume of 12 strange poems that seemed to have broken every rule and convention of "proper" poetic expression.

Its youthful mockery and unbounded defiance perplexed everyone. Buffoonery, egoism and sex were all part of his arsenal. And the twenty-year-old who delivered this decisive punch at a time when the predominantly syrupy, sentimental neo-romantic poetry (bhava kavitvam) was prevalent, was not even aware of the storm he had created.

He pursued a girl (on the pretext of business and studies) all the way to the U.S. He did not get her and was stranded for a long time due to the war. And then he gradually moved away from the Telugu literary field.

Today few people in Andhra know about Fidelu Raagala Dozen (1939). Fewer still know that the man lives in Bangalore and is as creative now at 83 as he was at 20. Or that Tikkavarapu Pattabhirama Reddy and his family have contributed enormously to the intellectual and cultural scene in Karnataka, including Kannada parallel cinema. Their house on St. Marks Road in Bangalore continues to be a hub for intellectuals and artistes.

It was a dream come true to see and meet Pattabhi when he was in town for the release of a book of poems titled Let Me Confess! written by a long time admirer, P. Purnachandra Rao, theatre-man turned photographer and writer.

WINTER'S TALE: Pattabhirama Reddy

WINTER'S TALE: Pattabhirama Reddy  

Fidelu Raagala Dozen - the title means a dozen ragas played on the fiddle (violin), or, as you will see, a dozen of those noisy ones born to the guy Raga and the gal Fiddle - makes an ambitious claim for a new world of east-west synthesis (the violin, a western musical instrument, has been adopted so well for Indian music).

The city that is described memorably in Fidelu is Madras, the only real Metro in South India then. But the seeds for the work were sown in distant Shantiniketan. Like many rich young men of his time, Pattabhi too went to Tagore's university, but soon quit rebelling against its "high romantic atmosphere."

He joined Calcutta University and stayed in one of the seedy localities of the city. Recounting that experience 34 years later, he wrote in the preface to the second edition of the book "The din, the squalor and the human misery shocked me to the core. The mad commercial activity of the city and the loathsome brothels of Chitpur road where innocence was exploited by avarice disturbed me greatly." He returned to his native Nellore involving himself half-heartedly in the family mica export business. The discovery of mica had made the already well-to-do Nellore Reddys in Gudur area wealthy overnight.

Pattabhi met with like-minded young writers like Sri Sri in Madras and drew upon what he observed in Madras and Nellore to give a form to his disillusioning experience of Calcutta.

I have strange thoughts in my mind, Telescopes and microscopes in my eyes, With these stout clubs, poems of mine, I'll break the backs of padyams (poetry in the traditional mould) .......... Beware, I am no mere poet romantic, But a poet-egotist!

While a few revolutionary spirits like Chalam and Sri Sri warmly welcomed these disturbing poems, they were mostly dismissed as the puerile rantings of a clever, immature young man. The aggressive clownish stance misled critics from noting the angst beneath and a new kind of sensibility. A proper assessment of Fidelu Raagala Dozen as also his two other volumes: Kavita Naa Dayita (1978) (Poetry is My Beloved), a remarkable experiment in extending the prosodic possibilities of Telugu language through end-rhymes to suit new kinds of expression, and Punchangam (1980), a book of pun-poems, is probably still due.

Pattabhi met Snehalata, a remarkably beautiful, artistic, intelligent and idealistic young woman in Madras in 1947 and within six months they were married. Predictably this marriage with a Tamil-Bengali Christian created quite a stir in the community and his father, a Gandhian and advocate of women's education, never reconciled with him.

Luckily, Pattabhi had received his share of the family wealth prior to the marriage. The couple threw themselves with great passion into theatre, cinema and socialist politics. Pattabhi and Snehalata were among the founders of The Madras Players, the leading theatre group of Chennai known for quality productions of Indian English plays.

On the invitation of his friend K. V. Reddy, the most successful film director of South India at that time, he entered into film production. The first two films, Pelli Naati Pramaanalu (1958) (it won the President's certificate for the best Telugu film) and Sri Krishnaarjuna Yuddham (1963) were runaway successes.



The devastating failure of their third film Bhagyachakram (1968) however, forced Pattabhi's exit from mainstream cinema. It was sheer coincidence that he took up the production of Samskara based on U.R.Anantamurthy's Kannada novel. At a dinner at their home, he heard Gopal Gowda narrating the story of the novel to the great socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia. He immediately decided to make a film on it. And since the cost of production of a Kannada film (just about two lakhs) was much less than a Telugu or Tamil film, he opted to do it in Kannada. Girish Karnad and Snehalata played the leads.

The film was a commercial as well as a critical success. Considered now a milestone in Indian cinema, it triggered the New Wave cinema movement in Karnataka. The Emergency was a traumatic period for the Reddys who had shifted to Bangalore in the early 70's. They were arrested and hounded by the police for being friends of George Fernandez. Snehalata took the incarceration and questioning upon herself on the condition that Pattabhi and her two children, were released. The terrible conditions in the prison and lack of proper treatment took its toll and she died soon after her release in 1977. Her untimely death drew great anger and vehement reactions from all over the country.

How did he recover from the loss of someone who was so inspiring and so inalienably associated with everything he did? Pattabhi smiles wryly, "Just time!" But the family has held on to her ideals and the same atmosphere of creative excitement continues at their residence. Pattabhi completed Chandamaruta, a searing critique of politics and corruption, after Emergency. The films after that have been more or less family productions with the active participation of his daughter Nandana. Films like Sringaramasa and Ritusamhara, dealing mainly with interpersonal issues and Devarakadu which won the National award for the best film on environment are powerful statements of the time.

Pattabhi is going to launch his long time dream, a film based on the myth of Savitri and her argument with Yama to bring back her husband Satyavan from the land of death. Tabu, Rahul Dev and Vijay Raaz are tipped to perform the main roles. The story had intrigued Pattabhi from his childhood.

"Somehow even at that age, I felt cheated by the way Savitri wins through trickery. My maternal and paternal uncles were both great devotees of Sri Aurobindo and they used to live in Pondicherry. I had heard that he was writing a mammoth work based on the myth. But I read it much later when it suddenly occurred to me that this could be a good subject for a film. I liked the way Sri Aurobindo's Savitri wins over Yama through intellectual argument."

For someone who despite so many hard knocks in life remains an idealist and would like to believe that the world is progressing in the right direction ("hasn't globalisation for all its ills resulted in greater interaction between people and a great synthesis in the arts, like what we are seeing in music?"), taking up this project in the twilight of his life is probably logical. The legend of Savitri is an epitome of all idealistic aspirations as death or failure cannot mark the end of life. Life continues in other ways and forms and human effort in some sense always leads to a qualitative movement forward.

Does he remember, that hilariously tongue-in-cheek prophecy at the end of Fidelu?

And then Ragam clasped Fiddle in a tight Embrace. And their bodies conjoined on a cosy bed To them were born countless progeny. So beautiful never seen on earth.

And would they all surround Pattabhi calling "grandpa, grandpa?.." Pattabhi smiles sweetly and adds, "I don't know all the details. But I think Telugu literature is going the right way. I basically feel that poetry is not just lines on paper, it is the poetic feeling in people that's important. We have had Feminist poetry, Dalit poetry. And this kind of poetry allows, ensures that kind of a thing to happen.

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