Telangana’s songs and its singers

(Originally published in

Every people’s movement has its moments of poetic and literary inspiration, and the Telangana agitation is no exception. Indeed, the poets and singers have not only lent strength to the movement but have also taken Telugu literature into new directions.


Cultural identity formed by customs, traditions, practices and lifestyles bring an assertive element into the political struggle of a particular community. It gains strength from history and common memory. Anchoring oneself to history gives an insecure individual or community a sense of belonging and hope for the future.

For instance, the Indian national movement and the Andhra nationalist movement (andhrodyamamu) both had strong cultural components. Similarly, the Telangana renaissance during the first decades of 20th century had an overwhelming cultural expression.

Indian identity was constructed in such a way that India had a great golden era in early history and a dark period in the mediaeval centuries. Indian identity became about reviving past glory. And the Andhras of Madras Presidency found their own icons and inspired themselves with stories of the great Vijayanagara Empire and its galaxy of poets.

And then, the Telangana of the Nizam’s state woke into the modern era trying to find its own history. During the Nizam’s rule, Telangana was a Telugu-speaking area in a multi-lingual state facing neglect and denigration.

Interestingly, this struggle was essentially based on language, while the struggles in post-independence and post-unification period have mostly been about regional autonomy. As a geographical area, Telangana wants to be a separate administrative unit. As a cultural entity, it is searching for its own idiom.

The movement which erupted to achieve these goals tried to create expressions that were unique, distinct and geo-culturally specific. Though the definition of regional identities is still evolving, a working explanation can be given to the phrase “regional identity”—as a construct of geo-specific and cultural expression that disowns and rejects previous identity, which has surfaced or resurfaced particularly during the last two decades.

These identities evolved or continued because language-based identities failed to unify the speakers of a particular language. In essence, all newly surfaced identities are born of the failures of previous identities.

The movements that sprang up during in the middle of the 20th century were mostly language-national. Movements for the linguistic reorganisation of states were also called regional but they were really aimed at breaking up obsolete multi-lingual colonial structures. The present regional aspirations could perhaps be called sub-national, trying to fragment the language nationality constructed by earlier movements.

Hence, the discourse of newer versions of regional identities are more vocal and critical than the “defined” others. A separate identity need not be a separatist identity. The distinction and uniqueness of a particular population can be invoked and consolidated in socio-cultural fields alone without physical or political separation.

In Andhra Pradesh, however, Telangana is pursuing the option of political separation, even though the two other “marginalised” regions, Rayalaseema and Uttara Andhra, are not keen about it. But they too are constructing a parochial sub-regional identity, only it is through different means.

Literature is, by default, an active participant in all these processes. Telangana was never reconciled with the merger with the British-administered Andhra region which merged with Telangana to form Andhra Pradesh in 1956. It cannot be said they were comfortable with each other even in the first decade. There was serious opposition to Visaalaandhra (unified Andhra Pradesh) even during the formation.

Telangana was always apprehensive. The new rulers might not have had a policy to appropriate Telangana resources but they certainly knew about the benefits they could squeeze out of this new arrangement. So Telangana was asking uncomfortable questions at every step even in the first decade. But the time had not come. Indira Gandhi’s nationalistic authoritarianism played a major role in suppressing the 1969 movement.

It had to be reborn, in1995, and this time there was no going back. It has grown into a huge movement. Perhaps the conditions were right, given that Telugu identity continued to be fractured even after four decades, and given that change was the mantra, as it swept across the world in the decade of globalisation.

Whatever the complete story, they have raised a monsoon wind that has brought the Telangana movement to the fore once again, this time to the accompaniment of a literary and cultural revival unprecedented in the history of identity movements. Telangana’s creativity, until then dormant or neglected, has suddenly found its renaissance.

For any identity movement the definition of self and other is crucial. All identity movements are invariably born from earlier identity movements. And Telangana is a child of the Telugu identity movement during the Nizam’s rule. That movement was based on language, Telangana is based on geography. The language and cultural specifics are also based on geographical area. Still, it is an identity movement as well a demand for a separate state.

After Telugu Desam came to power in 1983, things changed rapidly.

The TDP’s slogan of Telugu self- respect led to greatly increased migration. All the business and cultural interests until then entrenched in Chennai shifted to Hyderabad. Migration to Telangana became part of government policy. Meanwhile, the traditional agriculture of Telangana lay in ruins. It was this combination of deep crisis and deprivation that brought common issues and common aspirations into focus for the entire rural community in Telangana. An outside enemy was identified and on that basis a new unity forged. Memories of a glorious past (either imaginary or real), nostalgia for lost livelihoods and hope for a golden future together brought turmoil in Telangana just as it happened during the national movement.

It was the poets who first recognised these anxieties. They were the first to write about dried-up lakes, disappearing occupations, pitiable conditions of farmers, travails of migration, changes in climate, vanishing collective life, etc. Though they were still writing on the perils of globalisation, their focus moved from the general to become more and more Telangana-specific.

By 1997-98 they had clarity about what they were aspiring for. Before that, they were travelling unknowingly towards regionalism, which in itself would make an interesting study. Being familiar with Telengana’s ground reality they could propose certain things. The important concept they had put forward, albeit indirectly, is that Telangana is a movement about local control over local resources and the answer or solution to globalisation lies in localisation alone.

The movement has given birth to hundreds of poets and writers. Much before it took political institutional form, the writers showed the way. The Telangana Sanskritika Samakhya was formed in 1998 and Telangana Rachayitala Vedika in 2001. These organisations helped create a network and to motivate writers for the cause.

Apart from new generation poets who entered only after the restart in 1995, a number of older poets too underlined their commitment. These include Varavararao, synonymous with the revolutionary literary movement in Telugu, Pervaaram Jagannaatham and Kovela Suprasanna, who wrote in support of Telangana statehood and identity.

As for the others, Nandini Sidha Reddy, Gudihalam Raghunatham, Sunkireddi Narayanareddy, Afsar, Jayadheer Tirumalarao, Allam Narayana, Jukanti Jagannatham, Vemula Yellaiah, Juluru Gowri Shankar, Anisetti Rajitha have also carried the mantle of poetry from earlier progressive movements. Siddhartha, Annavaram Devender, Skybaba, Darbhasayanam Srinivasacharya, Maddela Santaiai, Belli Yadaiah, Jupaka Subhadra, Gogu Shyamala are names that came up in the last two decades.

Most of these poets claim other identities too and write accordingly. They have added a Telangana working class idiom and Dalit-Bahujan flavour to Telugu poetry. The nostalgia for lost cultural practices, life, dialect, etc, makes Telangana poetry distinctive.

During the formative years of the Telangana identity movement, literature underwent a renaissance. The following tendencies can be found in Telangana literature during 1995-2000. These have been consolidated into the main branches of Telangana literature during a later period.

Mostly in free verse: Assertion of a sense of belonging, fiercely detaching “itself” from previous identity and pronouncing the separation of identities.

Research Movement: Sense of historical pride, compiling Telangana texts that were overlooked, unpreserved and unappreciated.

Songs: Romanticising locale and nature; nostalgia about “lost” past and “space”.

Criticism and non-fiction prose: Rewriting the history of Telugu literature incorporating Telangana’s contributions, questioning larger processes like globalisation and corporatisation.

The literary movement has inspired much research by young scholars. K Jitendra Babu, Sangisetti Srinivas, G Balasrinivasa Murthy, Sunkireddi Narayanareddi, Mudiganti Sujatha Reddy have done outstanding work in unearthing Telangana literary history.

Sangisetti Srinivas’s book Shabnavees details a separate and unique history of the Telangana Press. Another work, Dastrum, indexes Telangana writers’ stories up to 1956.

The collection, compilation and publication of forgotten Telangana writers’ works are going on in a big way now. Telangana researchers have also enriched Telangana literary criticism.

The Telangana identity movement has thus unearthed thousands of pages of old texts and led to a surge in publication. A number of old writers have been re-evaluated and reinstated in Telugu literary history. All the well known books on the history of literature, anthologies, and compilations of short stories have been scrutinised to show how disproportionate Telangana representation is in Telugu literature.

Until 2000 Telangana’s poetry was pre-occupied with its own grief; not bothering about the “others”. There was more self-pity than anger in these poems, more helplessness than militancy. It was an articulation of the times. That is why it resonated throughout Telangana, in millions of hearts silently suffering the same grief.

Again, it was the poets who first recognised that people were looking for a political solution. Apart from a few peoples’ organisations affiliated to revolutionary movements and a few intellectual groups, it was the poets and writers who first reorganised for this purpose.

The transition from Telangana poet to Telanganavada (Telanganism) poet was easy. Revolutionary song and prose poetry lent its voice to Telangana in the beginning. Later, of course, it found its own voice and genre. All the people who stayed away from progressive, revolutionary politics till then, met their old friends at the crossroads of Telangana. Gradually, the Dalit and minority movements also pitched in. They brought their unique cultural aspects into the regional identity idiom, enriching Telangana literature in the process.

As Telangana expression is more rural, dialect-based and historical, song became the form of creative expression. Gorati Venkanna, lyricist-singer-performer, stands first in expressing Telangana’s agony and spirit in politically apt form. Though his origins were in left-wing politics, his locale-based, native expression made him the pioneer in Telangana identity songs.

He successfully romanticised the past and depicted the present agony in his songs. Ironically, his famous song “palle kanneeru pedutondo” (The village is weeping) was hijacked by the Congress party in the 2004 election to its advantage. Ande Sri, who penned the national song for Telangana, Gooda Anjaiah, also a left-winger, Jayaraj, erstwhile trade unionist, are some of the scores of lyricists who have made the Telangana cause their own. Nandini Sidha Reddy, a famous free verse poet has also penned a few songs that have become popular.

Song remains the uncrowned queen, prose poetry a distinct second. Perhaps the fact that there is no well defined modern middle-class in Telangana, and that whatever is there, is still attached to its rural agrarian roots makes the poetry written by its poets almost like a prose song.

Maybe it’s not possible to write telangavada poetry in modern experimental style! It may be no surprise to hear that the few experimental works have come from outsiders. But if we believe the prose poem is the modern middle-class’ poetic expression and that the lack of such a class in Telangana has affected this form, how do we explain the innumerable informative and analytical articles that have come out during the Telangana movement? They compete with poetry in explaining and propagating telanganavadam. What does that suggest? What about the tremendous research work going on in Telangana? What does that indicate?

In a movement where there is so much scope for intellectual activity, where so many intellectuals are coming forward to participate actively, is it not interesting that song remains the leader of literary expression? This is something that needs to be explored further. The same holds true of the telanganavada story also. There is not much to say about short stories in Telangana literary movement as they are so few in number. What are the reasons for this?

There were two major developments around the year 2000. After the infamous Basheerbagh shooting (where police fired upon people protesting against power reforms) opposition to the Telugu Desam Party began to grow. In 2001, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti party—TRS—was formed exclusively for achieving Telangana.

It became the starting point for an ideological war. Many Andhra political leaders and writers, who had never before debated their Telangana counterparts in cultural, literary matters and on movement platforms, started voicing their opinions after the new party came into being, condemning many aspects of the Telangana movement.

For some time, telanganavadam became a celebration of mammoth gatherings. Diversity in cultural forms kept increasing. Bathakamma (an exclusive women’s festival during September-October) became a symbol of Telangana self-respect.

The developments before and after TRS supremo K Chandrasekhara Rao’s hunger strike in 2009, the emotional and ideological preparations of an entire decade made people come out for direct action. The poetry of this decade reflects all these developments. The tone and tenor has changed. Aggressive, militant and impatient expression dominates the verse. This outpouring sparked serious debate in literary sections of the media.

The movement has given birth to hundreds of poets and writers. Much before it took political institutional form, the writers showed the way. The Telangana Sanskritika Samakhya was formed in 1998 and Telangana Rachayitala Vedika in 2001. These organisations helped create a network and to motivate writers for the cause

Union home minister P Chidambaram’s statement on a separate state on December 9, 2009, was an occasion for general triumph. His next statement withdrawing it on December 23 filled activists with a despair that soon turned into a seething rage. It united Telangana like never before. Neutrals too jumped into the fray with a do-or-die attitude.

The self-immolations are a direct result of this desperation. Perhaps never before in independent India have so many young people taken their lives for a political cause. They did this to express their strong desire for a separate state and also to highlight what they saw as the deceitful attitude the Union government.

Telangana poetry has been particularly active in these years; almost equal to its output of the first ten years. Many heart-breaking incidents happened during this period, challenging the poet to rise to the occasion, which he did.

The issue of a Hyderabad free zone, KCR’s hunger strike, Srikanthaachari’s self-immolation, December 9, December 23, Osmania University emerging as the capital of the movement, police repression of students, continued suicides, appointment of the Srikrishna Committee, YS Jagan’s tour of Manukota, the sixth recommendation of the Srikrishna report, the eighth chapter of the same report, the million march, destruction of statues on Tankbund—all these agitated the poet and made him write profusely.

Telanganavada poetry has resulted in many brilliant prose poems and some good long poems. Their images of rural and agrarian life need to be examined against the backdrop of the identity movement. Telangana poetry is rustic, more so than revolutionary poetry. But it is also true that we see many weak and unsuitable expressions. Some of them are ideological pontifications without even a pretence at poetry.

But while it is true that all of them are not of the same calibre, they have their own place in history. The nature of the movement, which is surcharged with emotion, has ensured this.

The “Mathadi” and “Pokkili” compilations 10 years ago at the very beginning of the rebirth fulfilled the requirement of that period. Poems of the last 12 years are being selected for compilation into another anthology “Munum”, which is forthcoming.

The Telangana movement is often described as a great celebration of identity. In full swing, it appeared like a marathon cultural performance. Telangana is an example of how identity politics are best expressed through art and literature.


With a finger-tip touch, flower drops
The dropped flower tells us
How wicked he is
With the tread of foot
The flow of stream at once breaks
Every sand grain in the stream narrates
How vicious he is
Our experience has been telling us
How rude the forehead of
A hundred-tongued man is
What of sparrows?
A handful of seed itself is a veritable feast
Tracing out
And love-trap
Is the biggest test at present!
The seven-storied dream
At once collapses
On his perching
What of mind?
Just to the magic gossip it puffs up
Spotting out
And muddy pond
Is the skill of the time
He is
A peacock plume
With a thousand cacti concealed inside
He exploited
The lands of many
Locating his territory
Is the test of time
Tracing out his head is still a severe test!

– Nandini Sidha Reddy
Translated by: T. Sharath Babu


Grief of the Crow
The beat of your rusted heart
Is inaudible even to me
Can you listen to the songs
In the rhythms of blood?
Were you deceived?
Do the sufferings, ejaculated due to
Snapping of tenet-strings
Close their eyes?
Tears frozen in the ledge
The piece of meat fallen from dreams
Are bitter…bitter…bitter
Shattered, with the way melting?
Whom to love?
The times of breath exhaled by two bodies
Be set on fire.
Deceit, yours and mine
The deceit of ours, known to all.
Shaken by the disquiet of conviction?
Don’t ask me with which saw
The spine has slashed itself.
The entire language is a termite.
In fact, all this will vanish
Life is only a huge wound.
Am I audible at least now?
Creeping over reminiscences of food
A caterpillar I am.
One half, tears
Death is only the other half
The collapsed first silence of a sufferer.
As of now
Nothing is heard.

Translated by: Elanaaga

(These poems are taken from Scent of the Soil (2012)—an anthology of translated poems on Telangana, edited by Dr K Damodar Rao)
(The writer wishes to thank Vasanta for assistance with language during the writing of this article).

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