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Gudipati Venkata Chalam – A Surrealist

Gudipati Venkata Chalam (1894-1979) is a great novelist and short story writer in Telugu language of South India. All his readers appreciate his style of writing but most of the readers remain silent on his content. Some, unfortunately, consider him a writer of sexy stories and prevent youngsters from reading his works! But a respected compiler of Modern Telugu Poetry, Muddukrishna included Chalam’s work (in prose) in his legendary work Vaithalikulu beside the writings of giants of Modern Telugu Poetry like Krishna Sastri, Sri Sri and Viswanadha Satyanarayana. Chalam richly deserves that place of pride as much as the others do.

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Chalam’s focus in almost all his works is woman and her passion for freedom. In his days Bramha Samaj, initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, influenced many Telugu writers like Kandukuri Veeresalingam Panthulu, Gurajada Appa Rao. They wrote opposing child marriages, Sati (burning living wife along with the dead body of husband), Kanya Sulkam (paying money to bride’s parents), and encouraging widow marriages. In this ethos Chalam started writing about another social evil viz, the troubles faced by women in the prevailing system of marriage. Most women were treated badly in the name of tradition, religion and caste. They were not allowed to get educated, were made to marry in childhood, mostly to an adult or sometimes an aged man. Their aspirations, passions, likes and dislikes were never cared for by the male dominated society. Woman was made to confine herself to kitchen and was treated like a glorified servant in the house.

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Chalam was the first writer in Telugu to declare war on this situation and started writing for the freedom of women form this subservient position. Chalam’s women are intelligent, open minded, passionate, and do not accept boundaries which men take pride in flouting. Having multiple wives, maintaining concubines, debauchery were considered qualities of men of high society in those days. Chalam highlights the fact that women too have their own ideas and passions like men and if man flouts social norms without caring for woman she can also do the same. Chalam’s women do not ask or struggle for freedom. They just wrest it and go about their own ways. Chalam presents a contrasting picture (of a free woman) to what was really happening in the society of the day.

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Surrealism makes indolent society to take note

Surrealism is an effective way of presenting something to be noticed by an indolent society. Things are shown through a magnifying glass to make people realize what they have not taken serious note of. Poets like TS Eliot used it effectively in English poetry. In Telugu too a contemporary poet Sri Sri used it well to propagate Communist ideas. The suffering of some people is shown as the suffering of all people to move the society and create sympathy for his ideology.

Chalam too used Surrealism in his works. He wanted to create a respectable place for women on par with men. So he made his heroines snatch freedom from men and behave as men did flouting all norms relating to family life so that men may realize their unjust behavior and treat women with due love and respect as an equal partner in the family. Those who did not understand this noble idea of Chalam saw him as an anarchist, an anti-social activist and as a person who wanted to destroy the institution of marriage by advocating sexual freedom for women. Unfortunately this Surrealistic picture presented by Chalam was taken on face value without any deeper understanding of the underlying suggestion that men are taking women for granted and had enslaved them in the name of marriage. As a visionary he could foresee what would happen if the situation continued and true to his vision we see today that women got educated, employed and their fight for freedom had gone to the extent of taking divorce than subjugating themselves to fancies of male chauvinism.

Also read: “Sculpture”

Irony that SriSri is a pioneer and Chalam anarchist

Irony is Sri Sri who used Surrealism for propagating Communism is highly respected as a pioneer in revolutionary poetry and Chalam who used the same Surrealism to reform the hearts of men to treat women with loving respect is branded as an anarchist and had to migrate to a neighboring state! Everyone knows very well that even if ten thousand people like Chalam write against the institution of marriage, it will not cease to exist. If we understand that Chalam was no fool to wish for this impossibility then our perspective would change and we will be in a position to see him as he is. Without our colored glasses he would appear not as an advocate of free sex and anarchy but as one who pioneered women’s freedom movement and as a revolutionary social reformer.

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Somerset Maugham’s heroines

Somerset Maugham is a reputed writer in English. In his novel Cakes and Ale, Rosie is the heroine. She shares her love and bed with men who wanted her just like a mother who treats all her children affectionately. She is considered above the duality of being moral or immoral. In a short story “The Rain” Maugham writes about a prostitute who behaves wildly. A pastor tries to reform her. When she is about to realize her ‘sinful’ life, the pastor succumbs to her attraction and becomes a ‘sinner’. Rosie shows the higher side of love and the pastor the lower side. The point to note is that both this novel and the short story are appreciated by readers of literature around the world as there are things beyond morality and immorality.

Sasirekha, a typical heroine of Chalam

Chalam’s heroines Rajeswari, Amina, Aruna, Sasirekha and others are similar to the above mentioned heroines of Maugham. Women like Sasirekha are disliked by our readers judging their behavior by middle class moral standards. Love is the root of all relationships. Only people who renounced everything can exist without love. Society created certain norms for all for trouble free living. But at times we forget the very purpose of the rules created and blindly try to enforce them. This creates a problem and the result is violation of the norms. Chalam’s heroines are instances of this phenomenon. 

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Sasirekha is a typical heroine of Chalam in the novel named after her. Sundar Rao adores the limitless love of Sasirekha and takes her away from her docile lover. Soon he starts imposing restrictions on her and even treats her cruelly as she became a dependant on him and had no option but to remain with him. She is driven to the extent of breaking her passionate bond with him and move away. Navajeevandas who takes care of her like a parent is finally enamored to want her for himself like the pastor in Maugham’s story, “The Rain”. The bonds of instinctive passion prove stronger than social norms adopted by men. When Sasirekha dies angels come to take her to heaven. They declare “She is not for this world …… she would go to a world where there is nothing like morality or immorality for love”.

Chalam’s influence on Tilak

Poet Bala Gangadhara Tilak wrote in Telugu, “Oh God protect my country from holy men and husband-devoted women”. Very clearly we see influence of Chalam on Tilak in these lines. Many more followed the path of Chalam in strengthening women’s movement.

If a woman is oppressed she will not remain depressed for long. She would revolt and would behave like the heroine of Chalam. This Surrealistic picture of woman is created to make men realize the need to recognize the equality of woman, stop enslaving her and start loving and respecting her. This is the message of Chalam for both men and women to live a passionate life of fulfillment.

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Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur had been a Lecturer in English. He is a poet, critic and translator. His interests are Literature, Philosophy and social media.

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