Varavara Rao: A Life In Poetry

The book, ‘Varavara Rao: A Life In Poetry’ is a collection of English translations of poems of the eminent Telugu poet edited by N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy.
The editors, N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy. (Photo | Perla Raamu)
The editors, N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy. (Photo | Perla Raamu)

HYDERABAD: Varavara Rao: A Life In Poetry, a collection of English translations of poems of the eminent Telugu poet was released yesterday at Lamakaan. The editors, N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy highlighted the revolutionary and transformative potential of his poems

Lamakaan reverberated with revolutionary, thought-provoking poetry as the English translations of the eminent Telugu poet Varavara Rao were released yesterday. The book, ‘Varavara Rao: A Life In Poetry’ has been edited by N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy. As part of the book launch, the editors were accompanied by other speakers as well, namely, M Sreedhar, K Siva Reddy and Chandana Chakrabarti. 

Introducing the legendary poet, writer and editor N Venugopal said, “Varavarao Rao was born in 1940 and became a recognised poet in his early teens. At the age of 17 years, he was published in the journal called Telugu Swatantrata, which established him as a modern poet. At 18, he wrote ‘Don’t Fear, Dawn Will Break’ which was considered one of his best poems. At 26, he started a journal called ‘Modern Literature in Telugu’. His first poetry collection came out in 1968. Since then, around 17 volumes of poetry have come out. We have picked around 65 poems for this book.” 

Venugopal reminded the audience, comprising family, friends, co-workers, activists and admirers of the octogenarian poet that he is currently on bail due to health conditions but is not allowed to travel outside Mumbai. Informing the audience about the grave conditions the poet has been living in for the past few years, Venugopal, overwhelmed with emotions, unable to speak properly as tears welled up in his eyes, said, “VV was infected with Covid three years ago, his life was in grave danger. Due to the negligence of jail and hospital authorities and the Maharashtra administration, he was almost on his deathbed. When we met him in the hospital, he was lying in a pool of urine and was unconscious.

We had a virtual press conference then, which was watched by around 20,000 worldwide. National and international organisations came in protest against the conditions in which he was being kept in jail. Leaders like Brinda Karat and Supriya Sule intervened and forced the administration to admit him to a good hospital. At that time, a lot of his poems were translated into 50 languages the world over. A poetry website called carried a 24-hour marathon, where his poems were read out incessantly. Meena Kandasamy, Nitasha Kaul, and Apoorvanand recited one of his poems, “Afraid of the Earth” which created a sensation among poetry lovers. Meena then approached me and said that we can translate and make a complete volume of his poems. This was in July 2020, when VV was on the verge of dying,” he said with a heavy heart. 

The renowned author and activist Meena Kandasamy said highlighted the transformative and revolutionary power that poetry like Varavara Rao’s holds and the significance of poetry for on-ground activists, “No matter what sacrifices we had to make, for me, the most important thing was, I look at his work as an archive of what dissent means in India and what it means to challenge the state in India. So much of our freedom struggle was to be able to govern ourselves and build democracy. When I read his poetry, I am reminded of what Ambedkar said, when the difference between class and caste is maintained, between the sexes, you go building economic policies, you are building a palace on a dungheap.” 

“He is possibly one of the most incarcerated poets, to have spent a huge amount of time in prison. How does a poet navigate these situations? Despite being so close to the situation where becoming a political mouthpiece is easy, Varavara Rao is in prison,” she added. 

“How does a poet like Varavara Rao land up in English literature writing? Are we able to embrace a poet as political and revolutionary as him considering how elitist these spaces are, spaces of gatekeeping? This translation for me is something similar, just like the space other languages have for politically disruptive poetry,” said Kandasamy. 

While M Sreedhar talked at length about the radical nature of Rao’s poetry,  speakers Siva Reddy and Chandana Chakrabarti highlighted that the poet’s groundbreaking work and the translations stand strong against the state repression and oppression he has been subjected to. They mentioned his unmatchable work on the ground as an activist and hoped that the poet, who is now being forced to ‘disappear’, will re-emerge like a breaking dawn. 

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