Atman ke saundarya ka shabd roop hai kavya; Manav hona bhaagya hai, kavi hona saubhaagya
(Poem is a form of inner beauty; to be born human is luck, to be a poet is great fortune)
— Kavi Neeraj
Dr C Narayana Reddy was perhaps the only literary figure in the recent past who excelled in all forms and genres of Telugu literature. Not many film lyricists have the privilege of winning the respect of the academia or the literary world, but CiNaRe had the distinction of earning the respect of both the literary world as well as the film industry. In this connection, he can be compared to Kavi Neeraj and Saahir Ludhianvi of the Hindi film industry. He had the rare combination of academic scholarship, poetic excellence, and incessant craftsmanship. His oratory skills in Telugu, Urdu, and English are far well-known, and so was his sense of humour and his utter humility.
When Maha Kavi Sri Sri and Dasaradhi had a war of words, Sri Sri wrote in praise of CiNaRe, condemning Dasaradhi with the choicest of epithets. When this was once recollected to him, CiNaRe’s cryptic response was: “Sri Sri had to praise some one, and my name occurred to him, that’s all!”
When a local English newspaper wrote something about him and ANR religiously attending cultural functions almost every day in Hyderabad, albeit in a lighter vein, CiNaRe summoned the editorial in-charge. But, instead of rebuking the person, CiNaRe said, “What your paper wrote is in poor taste, but I will take it in the right spirit.”
Dr Narayana Reddy always recalled how veteran actor Gummadi Venkateswara Rao helped him read his long poem ‘Karpoora Vasantha Rayalu’ at a special function held in Chennai (then Madras), which was attended by great film personalities, including NTR. Thus was laid the foundation for his entry into the film industry.
He once said his ear for music and his ability to understand the intricacies of composing music helped him greatly while writing songs. For instance, he said, for the film Nirdoshi, the tune was first given and he later wrote the lyric for the song ‘Malliayalara malikalara’.
“If a composer gives me the tune and asks me to write the lyric in sync, I always take it as a challenge,” he would say. The song he penned on Ramappa Temple called ‘Ee Nallani Rallolo’ was later used in the film ‘Amarasilpi Jakkanna’.
On several occasions, CiNaRe mentioned how he never allowed any obscenity to creep into any of the thousands of songs he wrote. “Even if I am asked to write a song for a vamp, I try to maintain the lyrical quality.” Remember ‘Entati Rasikudavo’ from the film ‘Mutayala Muggu’?
Being a progressive thinker himself, he always tried to imbibe progressive elements in the songs he wrote and the poems he penned. He advocated universal humanism coupled with good values. When he was awarded the Jnanpith for his magnum opus ‘Visvambhara’, he said his canvas was the vast universe and universal brotherhood.
In one interview, he said, “We are concerned with the element of beauty represented by the poet. The poet is the ‘Sayer’. He is an emperor in his own right. We can reasonably deduce from this that the sayings of the poet are indeed universal and timeless. Dante, Tennyson, Homer, Shakespeare, Valmiki, Kalidasa, Tagore and many others, by their works, became immortal. The passage of centuries does not diminish their poetic excellence and appeal. Even contemporary poetry has this trait of global appeal.”
On why no Indian poet or writer received the Nobel Prize for Literature after Gurudev Tagore, Dr Narayana Reddy said, “We don’t have Yeats to help us.”
Of his more than 3,500 songs, 97 compilations and books, a large body of work in other genres of Telugu literature and language, Dr Narayana Reddy never crossed the self-imposed limits on the literary, musical quality of the language. He said there is music in every stage and every act of human beings. “Music is very much the elixir of our daily lives, and the spontaneous flow of feelings resonate it.”
On some of the challenging tasks he did as a writer, Dr Reddy mentioned that he had to take much care while writing the dialogues for the film ‘Ekaveera’, which was based on the novel of the same name, by another Jnanpith awardee Kavi Samraat Viswanadha Satyanarayana.
“I had to be very careful not to move away from Viswanadha’s style and the original narrative. I am happy that everyone appreciated it, including the Kavi Samraat. Viswanadha Satyanarayana garu went to the extent of saying that he was so happy with my dialogues and songs that he refused take to remuneration for the film.”
Though he held many coveted positions such as Official Language Commission Chairman and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Indian Languages, he was always accessible. Whenever his comments on some literary trend were sought, he spoke at length explaining the subject, even though he had much to be busy with.
More than anything else, the way he kept himself abreast with the latest developments of the Indian literary space was amazing. He would reel out the titles of the books just published in Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam. He would often complain that back home, such literary activity was missing. “We seem to be happy with what we have so far, thus far no further,” he would say.
On several occasions, he would maintain that not much from Telugu literature is translated into other languages, and hence, not much is known to others.
“We lack good translators who can reproduce our work in other languages, especially into English. We need translators, especially from the field of journalism, to do the needful,” he would say, and go on to give examples of journalists from Tamil, Hindi, and Bengali languages who were doing an excellent job of translating literature from their languages into English.
As once pointed out by eminent Telugu professor Kottapalli Veerabhadra Rao, the PhD dissertation topic chosen by CiNaRe showed his in-depth knowledge and his ability to take up herculean literary tasks. Dr Narayana Reddy’s PhD topic was ‘Adhunika Andhra Kavitvam: Sampradayalu, prayogalu’ (Modern Telugu Literature: Traditions, experiments). This work of his was later published as a seminal book.
Incidentally, Prof Veerabhadra Rao was one of the supervisors who evaluated the thesis and recommended the PhD award for CiNaRe. Even a cursory glance of the book shows what kind of painful and yet monumental research Dr Narayana Reddy did for the PhD. He once shared that he had to cut short the dissertation by several hundred pages.
My first encounter with him was not as a journalist but as a teacher at AP Residential Junior College in Vijayapuri South, Nagarjuna Sagar, where he came on a short notice to address the students. Needless to say, he mesmerised the gathering with his oratory and literary skills. In the end, he asked the then-principal Marri Srinivas Reddy to change the name of the institution from Andhra Pradesh Navaysya Kalasala to Avasa Kalasala, as he found Navaysya sounding like Nirasa; nyrasya (despair).
This association continued till Dr Narayana Reddy met with an accident in an elevator. He would always speak in warm words about contemporary writers, poets and lyricists. He also spoke highly of Veturi and Sirivennala. There was no bitterness in him.
Tradition, modernity, progressive ideology, universal outlook, human values — the goodness of all things good blended equally, effortlessly and perfectly in him. To conclude in Kavi Neeraj’s words, “Mere mann bhogi, mere atma yogi.” Bhalare! CiNaRe!
(The writer is a senior journalist.)