An in-depth reading of Telugu history reveals the reasons behind the disappearance of Telugu literature from readers’ bookshelves and minds.
Like many stories this one starts with guilt. As I was leaving home for Mumbai to start life as an aspiring writer and budding stand-up comedian, my father gifted me Mahaprasthanam (The Great Journey to a New World), a collection of poems by the Telugu leftist poet Sri Sri. It was a symbolic gift meant to ensure that while I pursued my dreams, I didn’t forget my roots. The loaded gesture would have been poignant had my Telugu vocabulary not been so abysmal. Almost all the poems flew over my head or were lost in translation as I Googled word after word struggling to just make sense of the words, let alone grasp the romantic revolutionary metaphors.
While growing up, I learned little about the literary stalwarts and milestones of Telugu literature. My deepest involvement with literature ended with the compulsory texts of the ICSE syllabus. But these texts had immensely moralistic and theistic tones (one was a book about miscreant children who escape from the camphor island that Lord Vishnu resided on and the other was a summary of Gandhi’s autobiography using archaic language). When a gruelling board exam that lasted nearly two and a half hours came to an end, so did my engagement with Telugu literature beyond colloquial usage.
I am, sadly, no exception in a generation that has lost touch with Telugu literature. According to the All India Survey On Higher Education, a report published by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of Higher Education for the year 2015-16, says that the total number of enrolments at the PhD level in the discipline of Telugu language and literature is 167 out of the nearly 7,000 enrolments in all the Indian languages (a mere 2%). Tamil had 236 enrolments and Urdu and Sanskrit had 425 and 571 respectively. This, coupled with the fact that the total number of PhDs awarded that year in the discipline of Telugu language and literature stood at a total of only 27 students, gives an insight into the status of engagement with the language.
While the number of PhDs may not accurately reflect the readership, it is indicative of the level of engagement.
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