Mahabharata in Telugu Literature
By Dr.Sonti Venkata Suryanarayana Rao
The very first literary work in Telugu literature, Andhra Mahabharata which appeared in the mid 11th century, forms the best introduction to classical Telugu poetry. Since it is the earliest version of the great Epic in modern Indian languages, it has helped in the publication of the standard edition of Mahabharata by the Bhandarkar Institute in Poona’. Kannada has two earlier versions but they are adaptations making Arjuna or Bhima the central figure. A still older Tamil version is said to be unavailable today. The Andhra Mahabharata is not merely the earliest but the best work in the language by literary standards. Moreover, this large early literary work serves as an authority for grammar and usage even today and the three member team who could bring it into chaste and polished Telugu diction that could be easily understood by the average reader, are called the ‘Trinity of Telugu literature (Kavitrayam). The first poet Nannaya Bhattu left it abruptly in the middle of the Aranya Parva, probably due to death or political reasons. His patron, Raja Raja Narendra (1019-1061)’ of the Eastern Chalukya dynasty, was, by a strange coincidence, engaged in fighting for his throne with his half-brother throughout his life and Nannaya was his ‘Kulabrahmana’ or spiritual advisor. They had to seek the help of his maternal uncle, Rajendra Chola in the South. The great literary undertaking was therefore, of topical interest. Even otherwise, herioc tales appeal to the Andhras and Udyotana (ca. 892), a prakrit poet mentions them in his work, Kuvalayamala as being constantly engaged in warfare. Tikkana Somayaji resumed the work in the 13th century from Virata parva onwards and completed the Telugu version. The unfinished portion in Aranya parva stands in the name of Errapragada (early 14th century) who was an equally eminent poet.
In their Telugu version these poets have not attempted a literal translation. Instead of being a chronicle as in the hands of Vyasa in Sanskrit, they adopted the kavya or poetic style and by skillful abridgement reduced its size to nearly one half of the original by omitting repetitive passages and for brevity in expression. Nannaya for instance, performed a major poetic surgery by omitting Bhishma’s long eulogy and enumeration of Krishna’s earlier Avataras in the Rajasuya-Sisupala Vadha episode and made it quite crisp and dramatic. Tikkana required only 70 verses to convey the message of Bhagavadgita in Bhishma Parva. Anomalies in characterization were also ‘rectified’ in the Telugu version. Some modern critics have however, questioned such freedom in the translation of the national epic. Since they had to rely on contemporary manuscripts it is difficult to criticise their work.
Another interesting feature easily discernible even to the average reader is the basic difference between the earlier portions of Nannaya and the latter work of Tikkana. Nannaya adopted the narrative style and his diction is more Sanskritised than Tikkana's. But Nannaya's verses run smoothly and sound more pleasing to the ear with internal rhyme and rhythm obtained by the happy choice of the consonants (Consonance) unsurpassed by any other poet. Moreover his Sanskritised version is sometimes more easily understood than Tikkana's poetry in a more colloquial diction, many times due to deceptive style and syntax. Not withstanding the general admiration for Nannaya who commenced the exercise, Tikkana who completed the work is ranked higher by the later poets and critics for his dramatic and more vigorous style and skill in characterisation. He scores over his predecessor in imagination, versatility and spirited expression. In Stree parva for instance, he employed forty five metres probably to vivify the ghastly scene after the horrendous Armageddon. His translation is quite realistic even in other portions since he came from a family of administrators, warriors and poets. He was himself the Prime Minister of a small Chola kingdom at Nellore ruled by Manuma Siddhi (1248-1263). He is generally known as Tikkana Somayaji, probably for performing a great Yagjna. His military prowess is not known but his father was a 'Dandanatha' (Warrior). His military background helped him to clear the confusion regarding the 'Vyuhas' (battle formations) of Kurukshetra in the Sanskrit original. He completed the translation of Mahabharata, like Milton, after retiring from public life after his patron's death. Like the first poet, Nannaya's patron Raja Raja Narendra, Manumasiddhi was also at war with his cousins and on one occasion Tikkana had to lead a large embassy to the great Kakatiya Emperor, Ganapati Deva (1198-1262) at Warangal to seek his help in recovering the kingdom. Like Dante's confident use of the regional dialect and idiom, Tikkana's preference of colloquial Telugu helped in the growth of its language and literature. Errapragada, the third poet who took up the left-over portion of Aranya parva was also a gifted poet who bridged the gulf between the styles of his predecessors quite successfully, He lived under the patronage of the Reddi kings in the early 14th century and he had other notable works to his credit like Harivamsam which is considered an addendum to the Mahabharata. The well known story of king Nala and Damayanthi is a good example of Nannaya's style in translation while Tikkana took special interest in Virata parva which is more elaborate in his hands compared to the original. The famous story of Savitri can be read in Errapragada's translation.
In addition to the well known translation of Telugu Mahabharata, a critical edition of which was published by the Osmania University, Hyderabad, giving reference to the Bhandarkar text of the national epic, there is some evidence of another early translation probably in the 11th century itself by one Atharvanacharya. Only a handful of verses are extant from his work today even upto the Karnaparva, there being no plausible reason for the loss of this version. Nannaya and Atharvana are said to be bitter rivals and two grammar texts discovered later are ascribed to them.
A fresh translation of the Mahabharata was undertaken around 1600A.D., again by a team of three poets, Battepati Thimmayya, Bala Saraswati and Atamakuri Somana. These poets adopted the 'Dwipada' metre (rhymed couplets in tetrametre). This later translation has also been preserved carefully; and, the Andhra University, Waltair took up its publication. Scholars and critics have not found any literary value in it, although at times, it is more elaborate and reads well. A more recent study shows that it is not totally devoid of literary elegance. A prose translation by Kaluve Veera Raju which appeared hundred years later (ca 1700) had better success. He was the army chief under Chikka Deva Raya (1672-1704) of the Mysore Kingdom. Jaimini Bharata which is also popular all over India for the Aswamedha parva, is also available in Telugu. Pillalamarri Pinaveerabhadra Kavi, one of the eminent classical poets (ca 1485) rendered it into Telugu during the heydays of the Vijayanagara empire. The prose version of Jaimini Bharata is by Samukham Venkatakrishnappa, court poet of the Naik Kings at Madura in the early days of the 18th century.
In addition to the translations of the whole work, several kavyas have been written by eminent poets on different episodes like Draupadi Swayamvara or Subhadraharanam. Leaving these learned works apart, the real impact of the Mahabharata on the cultural life of the common people in Andhra can be judged by the host of ballads and songs in vogue as folk literature like Nala Charitra, Devayani Charitra, Dharma Raja's game of dice, Keechakavadha, Savitri Charitra Padmavyuha, Matsyagandhi-Parasara episode etc. In addition to Subhadraparinayam, the most popular Mahabharata theme in Andhra is Sasirekha Parinayam. According to legend, Balarama had a daughter, Sasirekha (called Surekha in northern India) on whom Abhimanyu had a strong claim since crosscousin marriage is quit frequent in Andhra and even obligatory in olden days. When Blarama arranges for her marriage with his disciple Duryodhana's son, Krishna plays a trick with the help of Ghatothkacha to unite the lovelorn cousins.
The story of Mahabharata translation into Telugu is incomplete without mentioning a fresh modern translation, single handed by a very eminent poet, Sripada Krishnamurthy Sastry (1866-1960) of Rajahmundry, the very city where Nannaya took up the task in the 11th century. It was a laudable attempt since he wanted to offer a verbatim translation of the whole epic to the Telugu people. Unfortunately the new version is yet to gain acceptance for two reasons. Traditionalists are guided by outmoded literary standards and younger poets like neither old themes nor long poems.
A more successful experiment in modern age was recasting the whole of the Mahabharata story into six plays by Tirupati Venkata Kavulu (Postea). Their Pandava Udyogam dealing with Krishna's embassy to the Kaurava court before the battle, contains verses in traditional metres which are known to every Andhra throughout the length and breadth of Telugu Nadu. In this latest and original version, these poets took a lot of liberties in characterisation unpalatable to the traditionalists. lEverybody will surely be liberated. But one should follow the instructions of the guru; if one follows a devious path, one will suffer in trying to retrace one’s steps. It takes a long time to achieve liberation. A man may fail to obtain it in this life. Perhaps he will realize God only after many births.
- Sri Ramakrishna