Music Emerging from its Shackles: An Essay in Translation by Telugu Feminist Critic Volga

By Sravanthi Kollu. Sravanthi is a Postdoctoral Associate at Kilachand Honors College, Boston University. She writes on literature, history, and community with a focus on colonial and postcolonial Telugu literature and South India. She is a member of the Maidaanam Editorial Collective.

Volga (P. Lalita Kumari)
Source: The New Indian Express

Volga (P. Lalita Kumari), one of the most celebrated Telugu feminist writers, has written novels, short stories, poetry and criticism for over five decades. In 2015, she received the Government of India’s prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of Telugu short stories, Vimukta (The Liberation of Sita).

Volga was born in Guntur in eastern Andhra Pradesh but has lived and worked primarily in Hyderabad since 1985. She holds an MA in Telugu Literature and taught as a Telugu lecturer in Tenali before moving to Hyderabad.

Her literary life was shaped by her close association with Telugu Marxist literary movements, including her association with Virasam, the Telugu Revolutionary Writers’ Association. She parted ways with the organization in 1974 over factional disputes.

Since 1991 she has worked as the president of Asmita Resource Center for Women in Hyderabad, a feminist advocacy organization she co-founded with feminist civil liberties lawyers Vasantha and Kalpana Kannabiran.

In an uneven literary terrain where it is difficult to come by robust translations of even the most iconic vernacular writers, Volga’s short stories have featured in multiple English anthologies. Because of these translations and those published online, readers who know little else about Telugu literature are likely to have heard about Volga or had an opportunity to read her stories.

Nili Meghalu: Strivada Kavitvam
Source: Editor

The essay I have translated here, Music Emerging from its Shackles (Sankellu Tegutunna Sangitam), was first published in the foundational 1993 anthology of Telugu women poets, Neelimeghalu: Strivada Kavitvam (Blue Clouds: An Anthology of Feminist Poetry). Volga’s essay was a major milestone in Telugu feminist literary criticism.

It was one of the first Telugu texts to outline a feminist poetics and introduce an empathic framework for reading feminist poetry. Yet despite its significance, it was only translated into English by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar for K. Suneetha Rani’s 2021 edited volume, Critical Discourse in Telugu.

Volga’s essay contends with a gap between what the poems emphasize and how they are received by critics. In this case, the mostly male world of Telugu literary critics read women poets’ verses on sexual experience, conjugality, reproductive angst, and gendered social norms as indulgent, obscene and of little poetic or political value.

Volga responds to these criticisms with a rhetorical force unsurpassed in her other writings. My translation draws attention to the style and structure of Volga’s sentences, where multiple short phrases within one sentence and the repeated use of the same word combine to create a mood of anger and fierce retort.

As is common in Telugu literary writing, Volga’s essay begins in the middle of a conflict between poets and critics. It provides no introductory comments or contextual history to orient the reader.

The criticism and critics remain unnamed in Volga’s essay. She identifies them as “Marxists” once early on but characterizes them mainly by their inability to engage with feminist poetry. The essay is addressed toward other feminist poets and their allies – note the emphasis on the “we” in the last two paragraphs where Volga lays out some goals for feminist literature.

These strategies effectively sideline the key Marxist critics of the day, especially a collective of six male poets popularly known as the “Digambara poets.” Since the 1960s these poets published iconoclastic poetry containing words and images typically considered obscene. They made used this language and imagery to critique of the exploitation of the laboring classes.

Virasam President Sri Sri with Digambara Poets Jwalamukhi, Nagnamuni, Nikhileshwar and Cherabandaraju
Source: Ramaiah KK

Volga draws on the same literary ideas that these critics used to dismiss feminist poetry, including the use of language, imagery and content drawn from everyday life, conversation, and experience. In so doing, she expands the meaning of key Marxist terms to include reproductive labor, gender and sexuality.

This is achieved by repeating a key word such as “value” or “base” – initially to set up its primary meaning and then later a second or third time after she has sketched out feminist critiques of prevailing gender norms. Through this method, she distils nearly a century of Marxist feminist ideas into extremely clear prose. An excellent illustration of this is her description of women’s reproductive work as the “basis of capital.”

Volga’s deft engagement with Marxist theory also foregrounds the significance of Marxist literary movements to her formation as a writer and critic. The feminist poetics in this essay come from a disquiet with left literary frameworks. However, it extends those left frameworks rather than discarding them.

Readers of Volga’s celebrated novel, Sweccha (1987), might recognize this dis-ease as a hallmark of Volga’s writing.  

An engagement with Marxism is one of the many literary conversations Volga sets up in this deceptively straightforward text. In addition to the essay itself, her choice of title brings to the Telugu reader’s mind poet Devulapalli Krishnasastri’s spirited defense of the Romantic lyric in Telugu. His rhetorical question “can music be shackled?” appeared in a preface in 1922.

Volga’s essay, arcing back in spirit to that question, defends the continuing quest for unfettered poetry in Telugu.

“Music Emerging From its Shackles” by Volga (P. Lalita Kumari). Excerpted from Neelimeghalu: Strivada Kavitvam edited by Volga (1992). Translated by Sravanthi Kollu.

The criticism of feminist literature as obscene and poetry written by women as pornographic reminds one of the wolf which attacked the lamb drinking water downstream for defiling its water. The wolf is unconcerned about upstream, downstream, and the direction the water is flowing in. It is not interested in reason and material reality. It was just looking for an excuse and it found one in the charge of defilement.

The critics here have found excuses that are inferior to the one above. They have begun their attacks with charges such as “indecency,” “prostitution,” “pornographic,” “personal problems,” “a wasteful trend that neglects social responsibilities,” and “those without chastity.” If women hesitate even a little to write poetry because they are frightened or tired of this attack, the critics’ tricks will bear fruit. These are the first weapons people use to debase the work that women are doing. If they realize this isn’t working, then they resort to allegations of a personal nature and proclaim that the women in question are bad people.

The state of Telugu literary criticism is so poor that feminist poets appear like women who are vain. (The fact that the critics are expressing such opinions without fear of being beaten with chappals is an indication of how forgiving the feminists are). Responding to such criticism is as annoying as listening to the critique. This is because these critiques lack a theoretical foundation. They are able to write such trash because such a foundation doesn’t exist.

Over the last ten years feminism has foregrounded discussions about some issues. It has generated a new mode of thinking about patriarchy, gender, oppression, the nature of housework, etc. Feminism states that several things in society are shaped based on how men and women are defined and that gender is a foundational system that imparts a particular form and nature to other things. The critics who have not thought about or discussed these things engage at a very superficial level with the literary expression of these new ideas and write critiques where they state that feminists write only about the body and sexuality.

Everyone, including the Marxists, hears the word “feminism,” and perceives it according to whatever occurs to their thinking, and creates reviews based on their own imaginations. They launch an attack using old clichéd words. Hence, these arguments will always lack a theoretical foundation. They can never attain a theoretical form.

As a result, those who study feminism are annoyed by these trashy reviews. They control their annoyance and attempt to critique the poetry – which critics are labeling pornographic poetry and creating an uproar about – and its feminist perspective through a feminist lens to the extent possible.

Among the poems that are the target of such criticism are poems such as “Hridayaniki Bahuvacanam” (“The Plural Heart”), “Labor Room”, “Jugalbandi” (“Duet”), “Tellarakatta Kivatala” (“Other Side of Dawn”), “Call Girl’s Monologue”, “Paytani Tagaleyali” (“Burn the Sari”) and “Abortion Statement”.

Some groups do not have objections to some poems. There is a lot of anger against some poems. There are intense objections against certain words used in these poems. Some women critics are also objecting to the use of these words, such as “loathsome intercourse” (ratirota), “ejaculation” (viryavarsham), “vagina” (jananangam) and “wet dream” (swapna kalanam). These are words that all poets, from the medieval courtly poets to the modern progressive and revolutionary poets, have used in their poetry. But objections are being raised when women poets use these words.

It is expected that women should not use some words, even if they are appropriate in the context they are used in. Such usage is considered disrespectful. Some of the critics claim that women and men are equal even as they claim that the words that are acceptable when used by men should not be used by women.

In reality, this is one form of censorship that women are subject to. It is an attempt to control the agitation in women’s minds and their language. Even the people who are producing this criticism do not realize that they are exercising the control of a censor. This is a censor that has been internalized to such an extent. The expectation that women should write sensitively with graceful words, without violating the lines of respectability, is just one aspect of the gender system.

Feminist poems should be recognized not as personal problems faced by women or personal experience of inconveniences but as social problems. Feminism perceives sexuality and reproduction as a foundational part of society. It states that the place and status women have in society is dependent on the kind of restrictions and violence that are exercised over women’s sexuality and reproductivity. It is when sexuality and reproduction are considered not as purely women’s problems but as society’s problems that there will be a transformation in society and in the status of women. Hence, it is a mistake to think that feminist poems are women’s quarrels regarding their personal inconveniences.

Gender-based regulations in a patriarchal society created an ideological system to control women’s bodies. This ideology creates fear and loathing in women about themselves and their bodies. It creates both endless shame and indestructible myths about the body, their experiences, and bodily processes. Why write about menstruation? Why perceive it as an inconvenience?

Critics are eager to label it as a law of nature, a bodily process, and condemn the desire to not experience menstruation. Does society perceive menstruation as a natural phenomenon? If it does, then why are lakhs of women ostracized when they are menstruating, as if they have committed a sin? Fact is there are no natural or physical things that are not subject to the control of societal rules.

There are innumerable historical contexts where this control transforms into unbearable repression. Those who understand the turmoil menstruation creates in the lives of young girls would want to shatter the ideology around it. There is a tremendous difference in the form and attitude behind the control exerted on girls before the start of menstruation and after they start menstruating. They have to wage a war with themselves and with society in order to bear this control and get accustomed to it. People have been able to prevent anything about this battle from being voiced.

Today when menstruation is being spoken about, they are burning with anger. First, the fear about menstruation, then the feeling that it is impure and the attempt to hide it from everyone, the anxiety about controlling it with the help of science and creating scientific systems, the changes that happen in women’s bodies because of this, the operations and experiments that happen on women’s bodies because of menstruation, a medical establishment that treats women as reproductive machines – all these aspects control women’s menstruation. As a result of all this, menstruation does not remain a natural process.

Through controlling women’s bodies and their bodily processes, society controls women’s minds. Patriarchy believes that through controlling women it can also control the entire social system. As a result of this, patriarchy constantly attempts to gain that control through new practices.

In this society, women have to pretend like they have no sexual experience. Men however relate to women as objects that give them sexual pleasure. This situation where men treat them as sexual objects, but women have to pretend they lack sexual experience, and the unending policing women are subject to until they start pretending like this, creates a lot of confusion in the women. This pretense makes them feel depressed. They do not have an opportunity to understand the changes happening in their bodies. Are the experiences their bodies undergo pure or impure? They get caught in a confusion about this. In the end, women alienate themselves through either developing a hatred of their bodies or falling into utter confusion. Then controlling these women becomes easy for society. This is a crime.

Feminism, which recognizes this crime, proposes that societal definitions of women have to be condemned and that women should define themselves anew. It is foolish to think that poems such as “Hridayaniki Bahuvacanam” (“The Plural Heart”) and “Jugalbandi” (“Duet”), which emerge as part of such an attempt at re-definition, are personal issues that have no relation to society.

It is necessary for a lot of literature to emerge from women’s perspectives about reproduction, sexuality and housework. This literature will keep emerging in different forms until society recognizes that these issues are a part of society’s base.

Bearing and rearing children and taking up housework are not women’s personal issues. Let us take a look at how this capitalist society is dependent on women’s reproductive work. Women’s work is the basis of capital. The working class is created through the production of children. Capital requires this laboring power. As laboring power increases, it becomes possible to keep wages low.

“Reproductive labor” that creates the laboring power necessary for capital does not have value. When wages are being decided, this labor is not recognized as a basic necessity. Because the value of women’s reproductive labor and the value of housework are not added to wages, wages are lower than they should be. This leads to a reduction in necessary labor time (the time required to earn the most basic necessities of life is referred to as necessary labor time). Extra labor time, i.e., labor time that generates extra value for the capitalist, increases. As a result, the accumulation of capital increases. This means that the lack of value for women’s reproductive labor and the housework they perform and these not being a part of the economy are a reason for the accumulation of capital.

Family structure and the patriarchy in it work as props for pushing this valueless drudgery onto women. Because housework and reproduction are shown as sacred duties, and a beautiful ideological illusion is woven around motherhood, it becomes an offense to state that there is a value to these duties.

When women state that they will not do this work that gives no value, it is not seen as a revolt against this patriarchal society; instead, it is seen as lust and individualism. However, women will no longer attribute any value to these reviews. They will think about reproduction, about sexuality, which is linked to reproduction, the body that is a basis for this, and bodily processes. They will talk.

A woman writing the poem “Jugalbandi” (“Duet”) is by itself a challenge to society. How can a woman who is supposed to pretend that she has no sexual experiences write about sexuality? It is even more difficult when all of this melts away like a dream and the truth is understood. The line from “Tellarakatla Kivatala” (“Other Side of Dawn”) – when we are entwined like snakes/with the faces and lusts of others – is a challenge posed to this sacred institution of matrimony.

Out of an inability to bear this challenge, questions such as “why are you writing about sex, what is its relevance to society?” emerge. It is foolish to attempt to understand these poems outside the scope of feminism’s criticism of the sacred institution of matrimony and of the institution of sexuality.

It is astonishing that objections are being expressed against the poem “Labor Room” as well. We expect that even the most hardened, arrogant men understand that a woman wages a life and death struggle in labor pain. If they state that giving birth to children is a natural process and a social responsibility and arrogantly question the refusal of childbirth, then what else can one do except think that they did not understand this poem?

Let us accept that it is really a social responsibility. How many hardships and difficulties do people who want to refuse a social responsibility have to undergo? What kind of distress do they have to undergo? Don’t they have the right to even write about these difficulties?

Why are the same people who appreciate it when a worker, who produces things, comprehends that his labor is being exploited and gives this a poetic form, unable to tolerate it when someone writes about the value of her labor being taken away from her through the fetish of motherhood and about her exploitation through this? If they are unable to understand the anguish in the words – subservience, a slave’s tears, island dwelling (paradhinata, banisa kanniru, dwipantara vasam) – it indicates that they are completely saturated with patriarchal ideology.

Comprehending the line – Legs outspread like that, wretchedly, degradingly, very lowly (kalanala edam chesi denanga, henanga, nechati nechanga) – as a refusal of social responsibility and motherhood is an indication of a characteristic male perspective; they do not know anything about “Labor Room.”

The labor room is hell for those who do not know why they got pregnant, those who did not want to get pregnant, those who tremble with the sheer fright of labor, mad mothers who do not know what to do or are unable to imagine what will happen to them until they climb the operating table, when they are being chided, cursed at, being treated roughly and tests are conducted on them, they are given enemas, shaved, cut with knives, innocent mothers who feel ashamed and embarrassed by the medical establishment. For them motherhood is painful.

It is only when women have reproductive freedom that motherhood can be perceived as a boon granted by nature or as a wonderful quality. It will happen only when society transforms into something that is suited to women’s reproductive needs. It will happen only when women are able to love their bodies and bodily processes, when they want to get pregnant, in a friendly environment, when the work of creation is transformed into a good experience.

If they are labeling women’s menstrual processes as impure and loathing them, ripping their stomachs, converting labor rooms into hellholes, calling it the “stench of labor” and blocking one’s nose while expecting women to transform into idols of motherhood then this is not likely to happen.

Women are realizing that giving birth to children and motherhood are not the same thing. Women who have understood that these are two different things remind those people, who have the audacity to tell them that giving birth to children is their social responsibility, of their social responsibilities. They will state that the woman has the right to think about whether or not to have children and that this is a part of human rights. They will state that it is intolerable to heap hostile criticism on a poem like “Labor Room” at a time when women are mobilizing in favor of this right.

The desire to bear a child in one’s womb and falling prey to the illusion you have created that such bearing and rearing of a child is a great job and desiring to bear a child because of this, while at the same time considering the limitations she has, the bodily difficulties, financial difficulties, family planning campaigns happening in society, and the science that has been developed in accordance with the needs of a patriarchal society – if after all this, a woman has to prepare herself for an abortion and raises a cry – it appears as a misguided and personal problem?

If this is how it appears to you, history will not forgive you. In the past, revolt by the slaves, revolts by the working class, and even the Communist Manifesto have been perceived by the ruling classes as unrestrained, misguided and unjust. Nobody was able to protect them.

A strange situation has evolved with respect to issues related to women. Even people who have accepted the changes that came about in their personal lives and are practicing them are unable to accept changes in ideology. They are unable to accept the ideological changes that are in keeping with the rapid shifts happening in the material society.

I do not think these critics will be saddened if their children did not wear the half sari and wore churidars and shirts instead. (Even if they were saddened by this, the children will not care. That is another issue). However, they cannot let go of the ideology behind the covering of the breasts with a cloth. They are scared when they see those who have let go of this ideology. This means they ignore material realities and hold on to moral duties imposed by patriarchal ideology.

I do not think these critics are overjoyed at the sight of a “labor room” in the hospital. I do not think they listen with happiness to the cries of their wives and children, under the impression that they are fulfilling their social responsibilities. They will not be unconcerned about the lack of facilities in the hospital either. Nor will they abstain from cursing the medical establishment.

They will feel at least a quarter of what Nirmala describes in her poem “Labor Room.” But they will forget all these material realities in a few days and ask what would happen if women do not bear children. They will fall into an ideological stupor regarding how sacred motherhood is. Break out of this ideological stupor and understand the material realities about which women are writing. Recognize that these are not their personal problems but are problems of the entire society.

Constructive criticism about feminist poetry and criticism that engages with the feminist perspective has not yet appeared. To some extent, the critic Chekuri Ramarao has focused on art and language in talking about these poems. In reality, there is more interest than opposition in society regarding this poetry.

Literature lovers like these poems. They are beginning to understand the distress out of which women are naturally, without effort, and inevitably, writing these poems. They are recognizing feminist poetry as a contemporary social necessity. Those who are unable to formulate a criticism that is constructive and founded on an ideology and are instead resorting to abuse and personal allegations about the writers, those who are unable to let go of feudal expressions which the masses cannot understand in their criticism but who talk as if they are the pioneers of literature that has a social purpose indicates the distressing state of contemporary Telugu literary criticism. Feminists have to prepare themselves to oppose this trend through their own mode of analysis.

There is another dangerous trend which feminist writers face. It would be good if feminist writers maintain a distance from arguments about who is the first or second writer, about who are great writers and about who are the great women poets among feminist writers. It is unnecessary to enter this structure of hierarchy and competition that was created by a society of men. If we fall into this structure, we will be divided.

This is an attempt to distance us from those who are our own. It would be good if we do not enter into a culture of great writers, the triumvirate of great poets, and state-sponsored pedestals. We are creating literary forms for the battles we face constantly in society. Let us persevere to strengthen this literature into something that can convey our struggles to people and hence give us the strength to fight. That is the purpose of the literature we create.

A method to analyze women’s oppression and its nature, a movement to oppose this oppression, an investigation into the strategy necessary for such a movement – these are our contemporary historical necessities! Empty gossip, cries of anger, and personal allegations are not.