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Vernacular Publics and Political Modernity: Language and Progress in Colonial South India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2013

University of Illinois at Chicago, USA Email:


The late-nineteenth century in India, usually scrutinized for the emergence of anti-colonial nationalist thought and politics, witnessed broader, and potentially more radical changes in the making and re-making of political subjectivities as articulated within burgeoning vernacular public spheres. Vernacular publics coalesced around the emergence of new communicative forms, the formation of voluntary and political associations, and the restructuring of literary communities. It is within this context I place the writings of Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti (1863–1940). He proclaimed at the turn of the twentieth century that Telugu as a language had to be reformed in order for it to become an appropriate medium for the newly emergent Telugu public spheres. Through his study of linguistics, his commitment to educational reform, and his study of Telugu language and literature, Ramamurti became the spokesperson for a new Telugu that would be able to traverse the boundaries of modern genres of writing that flourished in the colonial era. Fully immersed in linguistic theories of the day, Ramamurti's concerns were primarily with language reform and its centrality in the remaking of political subjectivities.

‘In this era there is an important challenge facing us. There is no Telugu word for ‘challenge,’ nevertheless, the word, ‘dhikaaramu’ or defiance, comes close. For that reason, I am calling this era, ‘dhikaara yugamu,’ the age of defiance. In the past, society was divided between free people and the enslaved. Soon, the enslaved defied the power of the free and freed themselves. In the past, women were not allowed to be educated nor were they allowed to work. Now they are asking themselves why they were not considered more productive in society? These days, women are performing all kinds of work. . . .Until recently, in most countries the wealthy held power. And now the poor are challenging the power of the rich’.1

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Ramamurti, Gidugu Venkata (1992), ‘Neti saahityam [New Literature]’ in Sahitya Vyasalu [Essays on Literature], Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, p. 194.Google Scholar First published in 1933.

2 My conceptualization of the Telugu public sphere is indebted to the critically important work of Francesca Orsini (for the Hindi heartland), Bernard Bate (for Tamil) and Veena Naregal (for Marathi) in historically documenting and theorizing the rise of the vernacular public sphere in colonial India. See Naregal, Veena (2001), Language Politics, Elites, and the Public Sphere: Western India under Colonialism. New Delhi: Permanent Black; Francesca Orsini (2002)Google Scholar, The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920–1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press; Bernard Bate (2009), Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India. New York: Columbia University Press; and Bate, Bernard (2010), ‘The Ethics of Textuality: The Protestant Sermon and the Tamil Public Sphere’ in Pandian, Anand and Ali, Daud, eds, Ethical Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 101115.Google Scholar

3 I take political modernity to refer to a broad set of changes brought about in the late-colonial period in India with regard to the transformation of political institutions, conceptions of political participation, and the formation of new political subjectivities that reconfigured discussions surrounding democratic citizenship.

4 Partha Chatterjee's work on nationalism and its various compromises addresses these tensions in the two dominant discourses of the late nineteenth century. See Chatterjee, Partha (1993), Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

5 Koselleck, Reinhart (1985). Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. xxiv.Google Scholar

6 Ramaurti, Gidugu Venkata (1992), ‘Prajaa saahityam [People's Literature] in Sahitya Vyasalu [Essays on Literature]. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, p. 103.Google Scholar First published in 1933.

7 Habermas, Jurgen (1990). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 2.Google Scholar

8 See Sudipta Kaviraj, Draft of Paper presented at the Roundtable discussion for the Pembroke Seminar (at Brown University) on ‘Temporalities’ directed by Rey Chow in 2005, p. 9.

9 Chatterjee, Partha (2000). ‘Our Modernity’, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism. New Delhi: Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar, 1997 and Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

10 Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, p. 18; Naregal, Language, Politics, Elites, p. 5.

11 Bate, ‘The Ethics of Textuality’, p. 102.

12 The desire for a written standard is not unique for Telugu. For instance, in the Hindi case, Orsini argues, ‘Where earlier several linguistic repertoires existed, one standard was now being developed to comprise spoken and written, mundane, literary, and religious usages in an unbroken continuum’. Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, p. 23.

13 Ramamurti, Gidugu Venkata (1986), Sora-English Dictionary. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.Google Scholar The Sora language has interestingly become the subject of a notable documentary called ‘The Linguists’ (Ironbound Films, 2009) on the extinction of languages and the loss of knowledge-systems in the process.

14 First issue was published in May 1936. It was called the Journal of the Association for New Literature.

15 See Krishna Rao, K. R. V. (1896), Andhra Bhasa Abhivrddhi [The Progress of Telugu Literature]. Rajamundry: Vivekavarthani PressGoogle Scholar, and Rao Naidu, P. Gopal (1986). Andhra Bhasa Charitra Sangrahamu [Summary of the History of the Andhra Language]. Rajamundry: Vivekavarthani Press.Google Scholar See vols. 1–2 of Andhra Sahitya Parishad Patrika (1912–1913).

16 See Mantena, Rama (2005). ‘Vernacular Futures: Colonial Philology and the Idea of History in Nineteenth-Century South India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 42:4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Rao, K. V. N. (1973). The Emergence of Andhra Pradesh. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, p. 15.Google Scholar

18 Kasibhatta Brahmayya Sastri, a literary critic who wrote influential essays on Telugu literature in 1896, came up with a term for criticism in Telugu, ‘vivekacandrika vimarsnam’ [criticism]. See Ramapatirao, Akkiraju (1983), ‘Telugulo parishodhana-navala-chinakatha’ in Ramanujarao, Devulapalli, Apparao, PSR, Subrahmanyam, G.V., Krishnamurti, Iriventi, eds, Telugulo Parishodhana. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, pp. 197198.Google Scholar

19 Nyapati Subbarao was also one of the founders of The Hindu newspaper in Madras. He was an active member of the Indian National Congress. He became friend and admirer of Swami Vivekananda when the latter returned from the World Religions Conference in Chicago. In 1897, Subbarao was part of the welcoming reception in Madras for Vivekananda and he continued his friendship with him. As a tribute to his great admiration of Vivekananda, Subbarao founded the Hindu Samajam in 1905 in Rajahmundry.

20 Akkiraju Ramapatirao, ‘Telugulo parishodhana-navala-chinakatha’, pp. 197–198.

21 Writers such as Gurjada Sreeramamurthi (Kavi Jivitamulu, 1878), K. V. Lakshmana Rao and Chilukuri Veerabhadra Rao (Andhrula Charitra, 1910) wrote histories.

22 Akkiraju Ramapatirao, ‘Telugulo parishodhana-navala-chinakatha’, p. 199.

23 Rao, G. V. Subba (1982), History of the Andhra Movement (Andhra Region): Volume 1. Hyderabad, p. 239.Google Scholar

25 See Mitchell, Lisa (2009). Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

26 See Ramaswamy, Sumathi (1997), Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970. Berkeley: University of California Press and MitchellCrossRefGoogle Scholar, Language, Emotion, and Politics.

27 Keiko, Yamada (2010), ‘Origin and Historical Evolution of Modern Telugus’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLV No. 34, pp. 5763.Google Scholar

28 Established in 1903–1904 in Guntur.

29 K. V. N. Rao, The Emergence of Andhra Pradesh, p. 35. Quoted from Konda Venkatappayya's Sveeyacharitra [Autobiography].

30 Venkatappayya, K. (1938), The Andhra Movement. Andhra Maha Sabha, pp. 910.Google Scholar

31 Ibid., pp. 9–10.

32 G. V. Subba Rao, History of the Andhra Movement, p. 239. The Andhradesa Libraries Conference was held in 1914 and within five years of its meeting the number of libraries in the Andhra region increased from 163 to 486. The Library Movement under the Presidency of Nyapati Subbarao stated its goals as the desire for a national system of education, universal literacy, female education and even homes for widows.

33 M. K. Gandhi most famously argues this in Hind Swaraj. See Parel, Anthony (2009), ed., Gandhi: ‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar.

34 Ramamurti, Gidugu Venkata (1913), A Memorandum on Modern Telugu. Madras, p. 21Google Scholar.

35 Sitapati, Gidugu, ‘Gidugu Venkataramamurti Pantulu (Jivita Charitra: Varu Rachinchina Grandhamulu) [Pantulu Gidugu Ramamurti: His life story and the books written by him]’, Sahityopanyaasamulu: Svagriya Gidugu Ramamurti Pantulu [Speeches on Literature: Pantulu Gidugu Ramamurti]. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, p. 8Google Scholar.

36 In 1839, Pachaiyappa Charities was incorporated as a permanent and self-perpetuating trust to be used solely for Indian education. Pachaiyappa School was founded in Madras in 1843, which gained the status of a college in 1889.

37 Gidugu Sitapati, ‘Gidugu Venkataramamurti Pantulu (Jivita Charitra: Varu Rachinchina Grandhamulu) [Pantulu Gidugu Ramamurti: His life story and the books written by him]’, p. 16.

38 Venkataratnam, Telikicharla (1964), ‘Adhunikandhra Sahityampai Gidugu Ramamurtipantulugari Prabhavamu [The Power of Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti in Modern Literature]Sahityopanyaasamulu: Svagriya Gidugu Ramamurti Pantulu [Speeches on Literature: Pantulu Gidugu Ramamurti]. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, pp. 4546.Google Scholar

39 Daniel Jones (1881–1967) was appointed Lecturer in Phonetics at University College, London, in 1907. He served on the BBC Advisory Council on Spoken English and served as president of the International Phonetics Association.

40 Gidugu Sitapati, ‘Gidugu Venkataramamurti Pantulu (Jivita Charitra: Varu Rachinchina Grandhamulu) [Pantulu Gidugu Ramamurti: His life story and the books written by him]’, p. 28.

41 Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, Memorandum on Modern Telugu, p. 2.

42 Ramamurti in an Appendix to the Memorandum on Modern Telugu writes, ‘I have used the word ‘Pandit’ in this pamphlet to mean pedantry, bigotry, dogmaticism, unreasonableness, impracticable purism, exclusive spirit and such other characteristics of the average Pandit’ (p. 59). However he claims he does not want to slander particular Telugu pandits because he has the greatest respect for the Pandit's scholarship and his love of knowledge and devotion to study.

43 Rao, Velcheru Narayana (2004), ‘Print and Prose: Pundits, Karanams, and the East India Company in the Making of Modern Telugu’, in Blackburn, Stuart and Dalmia, Vasudha, India's Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century. New Delhi: Permanent Black, p. 153.Google Scholar See Mitchell, Language, Emotion, and Politics. Mitchell argues that, ‘the explicit goal of ‘learning language’ was rarely the aim of formal or informal education’ (p. 129). She suggests that in the new orientation of learning language in educational institutions, language became an object, an end in itself.

44 Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, Memorandum on Modern Telugu, p. 15.

45 Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, Memorandum on Modern Telugu, p. 27.

46 As Gauri Viswanathan and others have shown that English as a subject of study in universities emerged in that century. See Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest.

47 See Velcheru Narayana Rao, ‘Print and Prose’.

48 Naregal, Language, Politics, Elites; Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere; Bate, Tamil Oratory.

49 Quoted in K. V. N. Rao, The Emergence of Andhra Pradesh, p. 9.

50 Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, Memorandum on Modern Telugu, p. 19.

51 Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827) was inspired after reading Rousseau's Emile as well as drawing inspiration from the philosophical empiricism of Locke and Hume. Pestalozzi believed that traditional methods of learning relied heavily on a system of inculcation of knowledge. The obvious drawbacks and limits of such a system was the limit of the teacher's knowledge. He developed a system that drew out a child's natural inclination and took into account the child's internal development. See Sengupta, Parna (2003), ‘An Object Lesson in Colonial Pedagogy’, Comparative Studies of Society and History, Vol. 45, No. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and also see Sengupta, Parna (2011), Pedagogy for Religion: Missionary Education and the Fashioning of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

52 Sengupta, ‘An Object Lesson in Colonial Pedagogy’, p. 98.

53 Gidugu Venkata Ramaurti ‘Prajaa saahityam [People's Literature] i p. 103.

54 Gidugu Venkata Ramamurti, Memorandum on Modern Telugu, p. 21.

55 Kavita Datla writes of parallel movements taking place in Hyderabad with regard to Urdu. See Dalta, Kavita (2009), ‘A Worldly Vernacular: Urdu at Osmania University’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 5: pp. 11171148.Google Scholar

56 Gidugu Venkata Ramaurti, ‘Prajaa saahityam [People's Literature], p. 102.

57 Ibid., p. 103.

58 In his writings, Ramamurti conveys a deep engagement with English history. See Ramamurti, (1992), Sahitya Vyasalu [Essays on Literature]. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing HouseGoogle Scholar. For interesting parallels in educational reform in Bengal especially how the ideas of John Dewey and Maria Montessori came into dialogue with Rabindranath Tagore. See Nussbaum, Martha (2010), Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University PressGoogle Scholar.

59 For an important discussion of ‘traditionalist’ movements in South Asia, see Metcalf, Barbara (2006), Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan’.’ New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

60 Latour, Bruno (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 50.Google Scholar

61 Warner, Michael (2002), Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, p. 12Google Scholar.