The poet as the revolutionary – Talking with Varavara Rao

In the second part of the ongoing series of interviews with Varavara Rao, founder member of Virasam, by playwright Ramu Ramanathan, the Maoist ideologue and Telegu poet narrates his revolutionary journey, about people’s movements in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, about writing and publishing revolutionary literature and how the movement has produced some great writers

The poet as the revolutionary

RR: In all this, what is happening to Varavara Rao, the poet?

VVR: I am writing poetry and also social commentary, plus literary criticism in magazines. The good thing is even the mainstream Telugu dailies publish revolutionary writings.

RR: From 1985 to 1992, you encountered many hurdles and challenges?

VV: In fact, for the Telangana struggle, we have been present since 1969. If you recall, Kondapalli Seethamaraiah started the movement, based on his own experience in Warangal. He has seen the uneven development and gross neglect of Telangana. As you know, at that time, Telangana was part of the Hyderabad princely state. Those were the days of the glorious Telangana armed struggle against the Nizam, who was also supported by the British colonialists. After the military action in 1948, the Hyderabad state was annexed by the Indian Union. By 1950, after the first general elections, a popular government was formed. Along with it, the Mulki movement started in Telangana. After the formation of the State in 1956, certain safeguards were given to Telangana under the supervision of the Telangana regional committee. But all of these were violated. So in 1968-69, a militant separate Telangana movement, led by students, emerged. It coincides with the Srikakulam struggle. Government dealt with both the movements with repressive measures. In both the movements, 370 students and youth were killed in police firings. If you look back, it is but natural that those students, who were in separate Telangana movement under the leadership of KS, joined the revolutionary movement. Some of them are there in the movement even now and many have become martyrs like Kishanji and Nalla Adireddy (Aks Shyam)

RR: You spoke of Maharashtra and how intellectuals, artists and middle class have become silent. In this era of Bhayamev Jayatev (Fear shall prevail), is there a lesson for all of us?

VVR: Maharashtra has a great tradition of social political and cultural movements. Namdeo can be compared with Kabir and Vemana, who caused so many social movements. Jyotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar have a place all over the world. They are visionaries who worked for social and cultural emancipation of the oppressed people. Maharashtra, particularly, the city of Bombay, has a robust history of working class movements. Almost hundred years ago, when Lokmanya Tilak was given life imprisonment and sent to Andaman Islands, there was a great working class movement. This was the beginning of the working class movement in our country.

RR: You have written a poem about the workers in the city…

VVR: Yes, I wrote a poem during 1964-65 when the Bombay port workers refused to lift the wheat sent under the PLA 480 by America. The influence of the Naxalbari movement was seen on the militant working class movement, particularly the 1980s movement. Even though it was under the leadership of Datta Samant, the Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha led the movement. The one-day strike of the Bombay mill workers is a landmark militant struggle all over the country and as Gurbir Singh has acknowledged in an article in the Economic & Political Weeklythat it was inspired by the Singareni Karmika Samakhya organisation and the movement in the Godavari valley of Telangana.

RR: You have said, “We were inspired by Dalit Panthers on the 1970s, both as poets and as a youth movement”. How so?

VVR: The precedence was in the digambara kavulu of Andhra Pradesh. Thedigambara kavulu existed during 1965 and 1968. The Dalit Panthers emerged in 1972, taking inspiration from Marx and Ambedkar. They opened a new chapter in the history of literary youth and social movements. Earlier, we heard that a study circle was formed in Maharashtra. We translated a booklet, which was procured from this study circle which said Marxism and Leninism are the microscope and mega-scope to understand this world. People like the Late PA Sebastian (a founding member and lifelong activist of the CPDR – Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights) contributed to the democratic movement in this country. I consider him one of the great democratic visionaries, like Rajani Kothari, KG Kannabiran (the great stalwart of India’s human rights movement), among others. There was Madhav Sathe, who worked in the CPDR. All these people came to Andhra Pradesh and conducted fact-finding teams.

RR: How did Andhra Pradesh’s connection with Maharashtra begin?

VVR: Our connection to Maharashtra began with Comrade Peddi Shankar crossing the Godavari and going to Gadchiroli. Of course, Gadchiroli district was not formed then. It was known as Sironcha. Gadchiroli was part of Sironcha district. Those were the days when CPI (ML) COC was trying to form CPI (ML) (People’s War). The perspective, after the Jagityala Jaitrayatra, was to retreat and extend. It was decided to cross the Godavari and enter the forest of Gadchiroli and Bastar. One team went to Gadchiroli under the leadership of Comrade Peddi Shankar and seven teams went into Bastar. Comrade Peddi Shankar was arrested and killed in a fake encounter. CPDR conducted a fact-finding into this encounter. This included Shoma Sen, Kobad Gandhy and Allam Rajayya and others, including me. This was the first time in Maharashtra. Also, it may have been the first encounter death in Maharashtra after the Naxalbari movement. Though Peddi Shankar was killed, there was an initial setback in Gadchiroli, the movement, which started with Peddi Shankar, continues in Gadchiroli as a part of Dandakaranya.

RR: In your speech during the release of Arun Ferriera’s book at the Mumbai Press Club, you said the Gadchiroli movement is one of the strongest movements. You also added that repression in Gadchiroli is more than the repression in Bastar areas, plus there is the worrying silence of the intellectual class…

VVR: I spoke about this at International Hindi University in Wardha too. In fact, Wardha is very near the Gadchiroli forest. So I was telling the intellectual professors, that “just beside you is the forest and the Adivasi people are fighting against the imperialist onslaught and the imperialist plunder and the feudal lords”. In Mumbai, the intellectuals are away from these areas. So I wanted to introduce what is happening in Gadchiroli, the extent of repression, what kind of war the State has waged on them. In this context, I was referring to the role of intellectuals in Maharashtra. If you look at the Spanish Civil War or during the Naxalbari and Srikakulam struggles, the intellectuals, writers and poets spearheaded the movement. Today, due to the impact of the market and globalisation, the intellectuals are separating themselves from people’s movement.

RR: Would it be fair to say that this is a phenomenon all over the world and in this in country from 1992 onwards, and more so, after 2004? We see a trend where the middle class has become anti-people…

VVR: I am not saying that the middle class has become anti-people. I am saying the middle class has become apathetic towards the people’s movements. This is because of self-interest that they are distancing themselves from the people’s movements. They are not trying to understand the people’s movements. A Latin American poet was saying that a day will come that your milkman will come, your paper vendor will come and ask the middle class what you were doing all the time when we were facing repression. There will be nobody to help you. You will be isolated. Such a day will come for the middle class in India too.

Rise of the revolutionary literature

RR: I have heard of Varalaxmi and Udaya Bhanu who write in Telugu. What I want to know is how much of this literature has been published?

VVR: In the past three to four years, we have published about 40 books, most of them being compilation of stories. Many of these stories are written by women, Shahida, Midko, Nitya, and Myna. Nitya has written a criticism of Premchand’s writings very long ago, from the Maoist point of view. I have penned a poem about Basaguda titled Beejabhoomi. Poets like Pani, Udaya Bhanu and Kenari have written several poems about the Green Hunt Operations, Janatana Sarkars and DK movement. Today, we are regularly publishing the series of DK stories.

 RR: How do you publish these books?

VVR: We print minimum 1,000 copies, which are dispatched to books stalls. We have a publishing cell of our own. During all our meetings, we place the books at the stall. On 24 August 2014, around 80 writers and intellectuals had gathered for a meeting. Some of these writers contribute articles in Telugu dailies voicing our viewpoints. For us, it is not merely about development, it is the evolution of the value system and the culture.

RR: Is there a momentum in the literary movement? Have we been able to produce writers of the stature of a Ramana Reddy?

VVR: There certainly is. Every decade is producing its own leadership as the time is demanding and they are doing as good work as KVR did but only because of the language problem, their contribution is not known outside the state. For example, T Madhusudan Rao’s contribution to Marxist literary criticism has sharpened not only the revolutionary literary criticism but also the literary criticism to greater heights. The entire Telugu literary world acknowledges it. Though he based all his works on the Marxist teachers in English, he did not write anything in English. So he is not known outside the Telugu states. C V Subbarao, Balagopal, Venugopal and Dr K Srinivas have continued the tradition of Marxist literary criticism in wider spheres extending in to applied criticism. Of late, Chenchaiah has written a wonderful book about the Telugu language. Short stories by Allam Rajaiah, BS Ramulu, Raghotham have been translated into Hindi. V Chenchaiah, who joined RWA after the Emergency, was the secretary of our organisation for a longer period than KVR, until 1990-94.

RR: What about Pani? He is highly rated.

VVR: Pani is a versatile writer. Since the nineties, he has published three novels, a long poem, an anthology of poems on the Dandakaranya movement, plus literary criticism. He is also a short story writer. These two people since they don’t converse or make speeches in Hindi or English are not known outside the state. Chalasani Prasad and CSR Prasad who also could speak in English are known outside the state because of AILRC. Since Kalyan Rao’s novel is translated to English and many other Indian languages, he is known all over the country. Likewise, Balgopal and Venugopal also are the products of RWA, who are also known with their English writings. Our present secretary, Varalakshmi, is 28 years old. She is also a versatile writer. She writes poetry, short stories, literary criticism. She understands the present day world. So she studied environmental issues and specialised in that subject. Also, she teaches the same in a college. Because of this interest, she had been to Kudamkalam and was part of the all India fact-finding committee and was also implicated in a case along with other activists all over the country. She has published a comprehensive book on the hazards of nuclear plants with reference to Kudamkalam. She writes articles in popular Telugu dailies, plus she is active on social media as it should be in this day and age. Most of the young members of the team reach out on a social platform to a larger audience. But the hindrance is the language.

RR: Any other women writers?

VVR:  Rukmini, Sasikala and Geethanjali are renowned short story writers. Rukmini and Geethanjali have outstanding novels to their credit. Krishna-bai and Ratnamala are well known not only in RWA and literary field, but they have a place in the social and cultural life of Telugu people. We consider Shaheeda, Myna, Nitya and Sujatha and Sadhana the underground activists as part and parcel of RWA movement though not of the organisation and their published works are very popular. Through the short stories and novels of Allam Rajaiah and Sadhana, through the  poetry and short stories of Shaheeda, and short stories and other writings of Midko, Damayanthi, Nitya, Myna, Sujatha, one can easily recreate and reconstruct the revolutionary movement from Jagityal to Dandakaranya (1978 until today).

RR: And Uday Bhanu’s scholarly writing?

VVR: Yes, Uday Bhanu has written an anthology –Pillanagrovi Vennela.Vaddeboyina Srinivas, Rivera and Kaseem are today renowned poets not only in RWA, but in Telugu literature as a whole. These writers entered this space are between the age group of 25-30 and are from non-upper class background.

RR: You are associated with the literary magazine Srijana. Is it available now for a new generation of readers?

VVR: I was associated with Srjana from 1966 to 1992. Srjana was an unofficial journal of Virasam and now the official journal is Arunatara. Yes, all 200 issues of Srjana are now available in the form of a DVD. It may interest you to know that when I was detained under MISA in October 1973, my wife Hemalatha took the responsibility as the editor, printer and publisher until the end in May 1992. During this time (1972-74), six issues of Srjana were proscribed under sedition. During the railway strike in May 1974, Srjana published a poem “can jails run the rails” by a railway worker and wrote an editorial under the same heading. It was banned. Meanwhile, Emergency was clamped. State arrested Hemalatha and prosecuted. She approached the high court. The High Court upheld the proscription. After the Emergency, the trial took place under sedition and she was given two years conviction with an observation that the court did not see any repentance in her though she had three girl children. I wrote a poem in response to it “if any day the jails can run the rails I will repent for my writings.” By then, George Fernandes, the militant leader of railway strike, became the minister in the central government and came to Hyderabad. The media asked him about this contrast. As he rightly observed it is the “drama of absurdity”.

RR: What about the theatre movement?

VVR: Here, we may have to discuss something about theatre and its place in a semi-feudal semi-colonial system. If you look in to the history of theatre particularly in the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad, because of its backward economy it was not developed. Even in British occupied Telugu land, the theatre came from Maharashtra. So one cannot expect a theatre like Bengal and Marathi in the Telugu states.

RR: But Telangana has a rich tradition of folk theatre…

VVR: The communist party has transformed it to people’s theatre during the Telangana armed struggle (1947-51) with the extremely popular Maa bhoomi andveera kumkuma by Sunkara Satyanarayana and Vasireddy Bhaskar Rao, which were banned by the British, Nizam and also the government of Madras Province after thousands of performances. It is further improved politically and also in terms of theatrical skills in the Beedala Patlu (The plight of the poor people) by Jana Natya Mandali from 1972 to 1980. It is more a people’s Theatre or Red Theatre than a stage drama. Even a stage drama with the norms of theatre was attempted by RWA. Naandi (The Beginning) written by Gangireddy was enacted on stage in different parts of Andhra Pradesh in the seventies. However, there was heavy repression from the State on it. Later, the dramas of Nageti Chaallallo (In the ploughed lands) and Boggu Porallo (in the layers of coal fields) which were based on peasant struggles and the coal mine workers struggles were enacted in Hyderabad, Kareem Nagar and the Godavari Valley during the eighties. It was heavily repressed.

RR: What about the underrated theatre form – the one act plays. The Left has tapped the one-act play form to an admirable extent…

VVR: Cherabanda Raju, Rudrajwala, G Kalyan Rao and Giri have written many one act plays, which were enacted in different parts of AP. Cherabanda Raju’sTemporary Labour (on contract labourers) and Ganjineellu (gruel water) on landless poor are very popular one act plays. RWA has conducted a ten-day workshop on people’s art forms to improve skills in street play, Oggu katha, burra katha and writing skills in one act play and full length play in 1984. In 2009, when the Central Government, taking the States along, decided to clamp down on its own people in the name of Green Hunt Operation in the east and Central India, RWA took up a literary and cultural campaign to resist it. Also, the people’s alternate polity and culture of Dandakaranya is being experimented in the name of Janathana sarkar. With this background, Udaya Mitra, a senior member of RWA has penned two plays. One, Basaguda (2014), was performed in Warangal and Hyderabad to great responses. The other one is People’s Doctors, which was enacted in Bobbili (North Andhra) in 2015.

RR: Wasn’t People’s Doctors staged around the time you hosted Virasam’s 44th conference in Warangal?

VV: We staged Basaguda during Virasam’s 44th conference. That way it was a breakthrough because except for Sahitya Pathshala in 1973 and 1979, because of repression, a conference has never been organised in Warangal. We went there because we got space and support due to the Telengana movement. And Kaloji, a famous people’s poet, whose centenary falls this year is from Warangal. You may ask why Kaloji, a non-Marxist writer, can be so important for RWA. Though he is not a revolutionary writer, he is a people’s writer like Kabir, Namdeo and Vemana and all his life, right from the Nizam days until his death during Chandrababu Naidu’s regime, he was an uncompromising fighter against the state. Kaloji Narayana Rao knew Hindi, Marathi, Telugu and Urdu. He had translated Marathi stories to Telugu way back in 1940. He wrote poems and articles.


A poet against the state : Talking with Varavara Rao

The interview was conducted by Ramu Ramanathan, activist, print evangelist and acclaimed playwright in three phases between 2014 and 2015. It started with a chat following the launch of Arun Ferreira’s book ‘Colours of the Cage’ on 26 September 2014 at the Press Club, Mumbai. Following this, there were several email exchanges, after which the final Q&A was put into place.

You can also watch the video of the launch @



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Ramu Ramanathan Written by:

Ramakrishnan Ramanathan popularly known as Ramu Ramanathan is an Indian playwright-director with acclaimed plays to his credit. His list of plays includes Cotton 56, Polyester 84; Jazz; Comrade Kumbhakarna; and more recently, Postcards From Bardoli

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