A reminder of NTR's broader cultural nationalism

A reminder of NTR’s broader cultural nationalism
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A reminder of NTR’s broader cultural nationalism

Highlights

NTR inaugurated the refurbished boulevard on Tank Bund with its awe-inspiring iconography with fanfare on 1 November 1986, the formation day of the...

NTR inaugurated the refurbished boulevard on Tank Bund with its awe-inspiring iconography with fanfare on 1 November 1986, the formation day of the linguistic state. He delivered an inspiring speech, detailing the great qualities of the stalwarts standing on Tank Bund. Each one of the statues was unveiled by a prominent personality invited for the occasion.

For example, the statue of Rani Rudrama Devi was formally unveiled by writer Illendula Saraswathi Devi. Sir Arthur Cotton's statue was unveiled by Rev. Bishop B G Prasada Rao and that of Sri Sri (Srirangam Srinivasa Rao) by Justice K Punnaiah, while Pothana's statue was uncovered by Prof Biruduraju Ramaraju.

NTR had roped in the services of film cameramen in Madras such as Marcus Bartley and Jaihind Satyam to help give shape to some of the personalities of the distant past. The historical iconographies created in films through photography in the past were used as the visual reference.

An example was Tyagayya, portrayed by Chittoor Nagaiah in a film of the same name from the 1940s. As NTR had, in his films, played historical personalities, such as Sri Krishnadevaraya and Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy, they were modelled on his portrayal.

For others like Nannaya and Tikkana, literary references were used as clues. There was obviously less of a problem with twentieth-century figures. NTR had requested his long-standing writer-friend Jnanpith awardee C Narayana Reddy to come up with pithy couplets in lilting Telugu.

The verses captured the valuable contributions made by these eminent personalities. These were inscribed on the six-feet high pedestal of each nine-feet-tall statue. For example, the writeup on Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy read thus: 'Aagami kalagnana karta, purogrami samaaja samskartha [Foreteller of times ahead, forward-thinking reformer].'

Evidently, a lot of thought and effort went into the project. An analysis of the figures would show the liberal and democratic spirit behind the selection. The eclectic list included: the early literary trinity Nannaya, Tikkana and Yerrapragada; followed by Pothana of Bhagavatham fame; modern literary and reformist figures like Gurajada Appa Rao, Gurram Jashuva, Veeresalingam Pantulu and Srirangam Srinivasa Rao (Sri Sri); cultural icons who contributed to Telugu devotional poetry such as Annamacharya, Kshetrayya, Ramadasu and Tyagayya; the first Telugu emperor of yore, Salivahana; the founder of modern Kuchipudi, Siddhendra Yogi; progressive medieval writer Vemana; accomplished woman poet Kummari Molla; the celebrated king who presided over the golden period of Telugu literary history, Krishnadevaraya; social reformer Raghupati Venkataratnam Naidu; editor-journalist Mutnuri Krishna Rao; historian Suravaram Pratapa Reddy; national flag designer Pingali Venkayya; Hindu mystic Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy; philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan; rationalist playwright and reformer Tripuraneni Ramaswamy; educationist and scholar C.R. Reddy; iconic revolutionary Alluri Sitarama Raju; modern theatre personality Bellary Raghava; broad-minded medieval minister Brahmanaidu; liberal Muslim ruler of Hyderabad Abul Hasan Tana Shah; the enlightened sixth Nizam Mir Mahabub Ali Khan; the builder of a gigantic irrigation development work in the Godavari Delta, Sir Arthur Cotton; progressive Urdu poet Maqdoom Mohiuddin; and the valorous queen of Kakatiya Dynasty, Rani Rudrama Devi. It showed the heterogeneous, non-sectarian and broad-based approach adopted by NTR to represent the glorious achievements of Telugus.

However, several pro-Telangana commentators, during the peak of the separatist agitation, saw in the Tank Bund statues 'regional hegemony', a thinly veiled expression for alleged Andhra domination. One objection was that the Telangana region did not get adequate representation. Though proportional regional representation was not the goal, out of the thirty-three personalities, seven were from the Telangana region, sixteen from coastal Andhra, six from the Rayalaseema region, and four were born outside the erstwhile united AP.

Another criticism was that the project helped mainly to consolidate the TDP's identity and inscribe NTR's image within it. Critics said the facial features of some of the statues looked suspiciously like NTR's. Santosh Kumar Sakhinala, an art researcher, alleged that the visual symbolism of the Tank Bund statues involved 'a form of occupationist intervention in the city', by suppressing 'the syncretic Islamic historical identity of Hyderabad by projecting a new hegemonic Telugu history'.

The argument of these scholars appears to be that the 'Islamic historical identity' of Hyderabad should be frozen for all times to come despite the city having emerged as the capital of Telugu-speaking people, with their distinct culture and long history. The subsequent destruction of several of these statues on Tank Bund by highly charged Telangana activists was certainly not an effort to restore this 'Islamic historical identity'.

It was more an assertion of the Telangana ownership of Hyderabad. The act of defilement, however, was explained away by the apologists as a legitimate expression of the long-suppressed anger of the people at the continuing injustice done to the region.

None of the stalwarts on the Tank Bund at the receiving end of the separatist ire would have had any inkling of these latter-day rumblings. Nor could they, by any stretch of the imagination, be accused of partaking in the alleged discrimination since regional identities were not formed in the way they came to be perceived in modern times.

In any case, NTR took his mission as one of bringing a sense of community among the Telugu-speaking people. He wanted the Tank Bund iconography to serve as a reminder of past glory and its continuity in the present. 'There is no future for people who forget their past,' NTR said on unveiling the statues. He called the icons 'inspiring symbols' that showed the way for a 'society devoid of caste, class and religious discrimination'.

In conceiving the project, NTR directed his efforts towards broader cultural nationalism and not the narrow confines of linguistic chauvinism. He wanted to draw inspiration not merely from Telugu-speaking people but anyone who was related to Telugu or contributed to its glory. That was the reason non-residents and even non-Telugu speakers found a place on Tank Bund. But ironically an affirmation of regional identity was later subverted by a counter-assertion of sub-regional identity.

(Excerpt from 'Maverick Messiah – A Political Biography of N T Rama Rao' By Ramesh Kandula, Published by Penguin eBury Press)

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