In the post-colonial Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari stands out as an exceptional scholar, poet, researcher, speaker, and academic. There are very few women who have attained the stature of scholarship as Krishnakumari in modern day Andhra Pradesh.
Nayani Krishnakumari was born in Guntur in 1930. She is the eldest daughter of Nayani Subba Rao, a reputed poet and historian, and mother Hanumayamma. She has four siblings (one brother and three sisters. The brother passed away in 1968).
Krishnakumari did most of her schooling in Narasaraopet except the one year in Srikakulam. In Guntur, she finished Intermediate in flying colors. Originally she thought of going into medicine but did not pursue though. Instead, she went to Andhra University, Visakhapatnam in pursuit of Telugu literature studies.
The three years, 1948-51, in Visakhapatnam, played a decisive role in her life and literary pursuits. There, she met several writers, poets and scholars, and participated actively in many literary and cultural events. She was the first woman in Andhra University to act and direct a play in 1948, wrote his close friend Antati Narasimham, whom Krishnakumari addresses fondly as annayya [older brother]. During that time, Narasimham and a few other students were running a hand-written monthly magazine called azad hind. Narasimham saw one of Krishnakumari’s early poems, brundagaanam [group song], was impressed by the poem and her handwriting, and invited Krishnakumari to be the scribe for the magazine. Her poem, visakha naa neccheli [Visakha, my Best Friend], written in 1977, speaks of the special place she holds in her heart for the city.
Krishnakumari married Kanakavalli Madhusudana Rao, a distant relative and polite young man and choice bridegroom of both the families. He is a lawyer by profession. They have three children—one daughter and two sons. Regarding her marriage, her friend Narasimham has an interesting story to tell. Being a vocal advocate of inter-caste marriages, he told Krishnakumari to have an inter-caste marriage. Krishnakumari replied that she would not mind but she preferred to marry per wishes of her and the young man’s family.
Narasimham has mentioned in the same article that Krishnakumari believes that the caste system is vocation-based, despite her education. Regarding he personality, Narasimham writes that she is good-natured, respects all–young and old, the famous and the ordinary alike. She has taken after her father as much in character as in physical traits.
Krishnakumari’s father, Nayani Subba Rao, was an esteemed poet and historian, which might have contributed to her interest in the cultural and literary history of Telugu people. While she was studying B.A. (Honors.), she took a course on the History of Andhra Pradesh and she noted down the lessons after each class. These notes were published as a series of articles in a popular magazine, Andhra Prabha, and later as a book entitled Andhrula katha [The Andhra People’s story]. The book was prescribed as a textbook in schools—an attestation of her writing skills. She was just 18 years-old at the time.
Krishnakumari has always been surrounded by caring family members and literary stalwarts of her time. Impressed by her poetry written at a very early age, Jnanapeeth awardee, Kavisamrat Viswanatha Satyanarayana nurtured her as he would his own daughter. She used to call him as pedananna [father’s older brother.
Krishnakumari originally began working on Tikkana’s use of language for her Ph.D. dissertation but never finished it. Later, with a little nudge from her husband Madhusudana Rao and friend Antati Narasimham, she worked on the ballads in folklore and received her Ph.D. in 1970. She also has master’s degree in Sanskrit.
In 1951, Krishnakumari started her teaching career as Lecturer in Ethiraja College in Madras. The following year, in 1952, she moved to Osmania University Women’s College in Hyderabad, where she started as Lecturer, became Reader in 1967, and later Professor in 1983. She served as Principal of Padmavathi Mahila University, Tirupati, for one year, 1983-84, and returned to Osmania University as Head of the Department of Telugu. She retired in 1990 after serving as Chair of the Board of Studies in Osmania University for three years. Krishnakumari served as Vice Chancellor of Sri Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, from 1996 to 1999. Currently, she is professor emeritus at Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University.
Marking her sixtieth birthday and retirement, several scholars and the elite in Andhra Pradesh honored Krishnakumari as an esteemed scholar in modern Telugu literature. The festschriften volume, vidushi, features several articles from eminent scholars. (It has been a useful source fir this article).
Krishnakumari has participated in numerous conferences, seminars, organized writers’ conferences and traveled extensively in India and abroad. She has served on reputable literary and progressive organizations in various capacities. By 1990, the list of her accomplishments extending over a period of 38 years is six-page long according to the festschriften volume. (Email me for a copy of the list).
Krishnakumari is a recipient of several prestigious awards such as Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam, Best Woman Writer of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, Best Writer from Telugu University, and Telugu University Award in the best Literature produced by women.
Krishnakumari is a pioneer in the fields of Folklore and women’s literature. She entered the field at a time when even male scholars were scarce in the study of folklore. Only a few names such as Biruduraju Ramaraju, Nedunuri Gangadharam and Hari Adiseshu were known at the time.
While she was professor, Potti Telugu University, Krishnakumari M.A. in folklore. published as telugu janapada vijnanam: samaajam, samskruti, sahityam. The book includes several chapters by several scholars in folklore with topics for discussion and further research. It could serve as a model or a valuable tool for students looking for guidance in the field.
Under her guidance, a total of twenty students worked for their M.Phil. and Doctoral degrees. One of her students, Pulikonda Subbachari, mentioned that, “students consider it a blessing to have her as their guide. … With her dissertation, the scientific study of Telugu folklore took a new turn. The elite agree that she broke the ground and laid the path by shifting the research methodology from the descriptive mode to the analytical mode.” It would appear that the research in folklore has been conducted in three phases: In the first phase, the characteristics of a specific aspect of the folklore are identified and defined; In the second phase, scholars accepted it as literature only half-heartedly or condescendingly; and, in the third phase, scholars started to recognize it as a form of literature that needs to be studied with a different set of rules. Krishnakumari laid the path for this third phase. In her own research, she adopted the same method she had established as the best for our folklore, which belongs to anthropological school.
In fieldwork, she welcomes the methodology of the western scholars but does not encourage accepting it in its entirety or without questioning. She differs especially in regard to the contextual data collection. In collecting and presenting data, Krishnakumari says that the scholars must make a distinction between the material needed for native scholars and the western scholars. Presumably, there are details that need to be furnished to those who are not familiar with our culture.
Krishnakumari puts greater emphasis on field work as opposed to reading published works, “armchair research” as she puts it. In gathering data, advises students to focus on meta-folklore—the concepts underlying the words the folks speak. It is important for the researcher to ask questions tactfully and draw the causal beliefs and convictions of the subjects.
Her students speak fondly of her. She is not just a guide who walks them through to their degrees but is also a good friend and mentor.
One of her students, Ravi Premalatha, commented that, “Usually researchers pick one topic from several established categories such as collecting data, classification, analysis, comparative studies, and construction for their study but Krishnakumari has worked in all these areas and proved her multifarious talent.” (vidushi. p.25.).
Premalatha continued to say that Krishnakumari applied the straight line equation from mathematics to the storytelling methods in folklore and proved her unparallel talent. This is a new experiment in the studies of folklore in Telugu literature and a mark of Krishnakumari’s knowledge of mathematics and her erudition in research methodologies.
Krishnakumari’s articles on Telugu people’s customs, lifestyles, and culture also attest to her comprehension and knowledge in the areas in question.
Krishnakumari publications include two anthologies of her poetry Agniputri [Daughter of Fire, 1978] and Em cheppanu nestam! [What Can I Say, My Friend!, 1988]; history books: Andhrula katha [The Story of Andhra People], and telugu bhasha charitra [History of Telug language], ; two collections of short stories: Ayaatha (A Collection of short stories), Gautami (novel), manamuu, mana puurvulu [We and Our Ancestors], Aparajita (A collaborative novel with three other writers), pariseelana [An Anthology of reviews], parisodhana [A Collection of research papers], kashmira deepakalika (A travelogue, recounting her experiences of a tour in Kashmir with a group of students), and Telugu Janapada geya gaathalu (Ph.D. dissertation on ballads in Telugu folklore) and several others. To date, she has published about 20 books.
Krishnakumari’s publications do not speak sufficiently of her erudition. And that does not bother her. Mr. Narasimham mentioned a brief conversation he had with her regarding the paucity of her publications and suggested that she should spend less time on speeches in schools and colleges and more on writing and publishing. Krishnakumari replied, “These students spend so much time and energy on organizing these events. It is not fair for us to take a ‘high and mighty’ attitude and snub them.”
Her views on poetry are well recorded in her foreword to her book, agniputri. Therein, Krishnakumari stated not only her reasons for writing poetry but also for writing her own preface. Krishnakumari believes that works by a writer possess insights only the writer can explain. As an example, she remembers her own study of Tikkana’s usage of language and the moments she wished the poet was here to explain. It is not uncommon for a critic to misconstrue or misinterpret the original author’s message, she adds.
Krishnakumari believes that it is important that the reader be aware of the author’s echelon of the psyche, confidence, empathy, and discipline. Readers’ awareness of the measures the author uses for evaluating the good and the bad, the light and the shadows and the author’s perceptions through his experiences– they all contribute towards the reader’s appreciation of the poetry on hand. She speaks from the heart and in no uncertain terms. For her, poetry is a means to express oneself, it must be sincere. In her preface, she took a jab at the writers who just in a corner in their rooms and write provocatively. She is a person of action.
Krishnakumari also says she is not writing for fame or fortune. She writes only when she is inspired. Speaking of inspiration, mention must be made of two poems, intensely personal. First one was written when her mother had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Sridevi, a good of friend of Krishnakumari, saved her mother’s life. Second was the title of her second book, em cheppanu nestam. which was written at the time when the same friend, Sridevi passed away. The two poems are even more touching for the fact that one incident brought them together and the second tore them apart. Krishnakumari was shaken both times. The two poems eloquently describe the heartrending pain she had sustained.
Krishnakumari is a protester without labels. She welcomes change but not like a militant rebel. She believes in the kind of change which penetrates deep into the lives of people unobtrusively. She likens the change to a seasoned housewife who defies the world without a bang and takes care of her family with inimitable dexterity.
Krishnakumari wrote only about a dozen or so. Some of them were published as a collection entitled ayatha. The stories reflect her personality and attitude towards family and society. In stories like ayatha, kavigari bharya, pushpalata tecchina kakarakaayalu, the author illustrates the endearing relationship between a husband and his wife. The stories also identify the finer details in the interaction between cousins (children of a brother and sister.). In kavigari bharya, the wife addresses husband as nuvvu [informal singular] when she feels close to him and meeru [formal, respectful] when she is displeased.
In literature, her travelogue, kashmira deepakalika, is unique for its style. It is an account of her experiences, her response to the beauty of nature in the Kashmir valley, during a tour she had undertaken with a group of her students. Chekuri Rama Rao, a reputable critic and scholar, stated that the book, unlike usual travelogues, is a literary masterpiece brimming with poetry. (See the article on Krishna Kumari’s poetry by Vaidehi Sasidhar).
Krishnakumari traces the history of oral literature in her book, janapada vanjmayam. Some of the premises in the book are:
1. The oral tradition existed from times immemorial. Rhythm is inherent along with sound in all the entities in nature. In course of time, man might have developed the dance technique in an attempt to give form to the sound and rhythm. It is hard to establish when the story element was woven into the folk art.
2. There are no definitive answers for questions such as “What did he accomplish by incorporating storyline into his singing and dancing. Psychologists profess that man’s unfulfilled desires manifest themselves as fulfilled dreams in art. For instance, a poor man may write about riches, and a feeble person may write stories about courageous heroes. In every art form, we can see the elements of lifestyles of the primitive man. Probably this is one of instances of the level of sophistication of the primitive man.
3. In this [folk] literature, music was secondary; the general populace enjoyed the presentation by watching the physical gestures, facial expressions, and the skilful rendering. Probably, it was the dramatization and musical quality that shaped into an attractive art form.
4. The masses appreciated this form for their own reasons. But there is a need for scholars to study it for a different reason. It is not fair to dismiss this art as free verse, some cock-and-bull stories fabricated by simple folks, and they are devoid of linguistic merit. This literature, studied in the appropriate manner, will no doubt reveal numerous aspects that could contribute to the understanding of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, ethnology, and mythology.
5. It is also important to evaluate the variance between the folk literature and the traditional [elitist] literature.
6. The characteristics of folk literature are: 1. Unknown authorship; 2. Untraceable timeline; 3. Spontaneous evolution from circumstances and out of necessity; 4. Most of it has musical quality and lends itself to gestures; 5. It is not correlated to contemporary scholarship and its conventions; and, 6. It is disseminated exclusively orally and would accept changes and additions freely.
7. The folk literature can be divided into two groups as 1 with and  without storyline. From a different perspective it can also be classified as melodic or pure text without melody. In all these cases, the folk literature includes children’s stories usually told by grandmas at home—tales of puranas handed down from generation to generation, parables, moral stories, fantasies and ballads singing praise of national heroes. Riddles also fall into this category not because there is a story but they are interesting for the charming imagination that is spread around in a question-answer format.
8. The melody-based folk literature is classified in several ways such as caste-basted, calling-based, or deep-rooted in religion.
9. The religion of the simple folks seems to have evolved from the values dictated by ancient matriarchal society. Various Mother Goddesses in villages were the source of power for people’s religious beliefs. They were also the springboard for practices like self-immolation, sacrifice, and sorcery. So also the women’s traditions in which women wielded powers, sacrificed their lives and became minor goddesses [perantrandru]. In course of time, the women’s songs at weddings and other rituals also became important parts of the same oral tradition.
I quoted the text at length in order to emphasize the work of Krishnakumari in the field of Folk Literature. Krishnakumari devoted major part of her literary career to collecting the material and studying, organizing the data and publishing them.
An important work of Krishnakumari is her Ph.D. dissertation Telugu Janapada Geya gaathalu, [Telugu ballads]. In this dissertation, published in 1977, Krishnakumari discussed elaborately the origin and the development of Telugu ballads in the context of Telugu folk literature. She identified the folk literature as a separate and valuable part of our literatures, compared it to similar literatures in other cultures and countries, and produced a systematic classification chart of ethnology, ethnography and sociology. Further, she has shown how other branches such as songs and stories included physical gestures and other theatrical paraphernalia in course of time. In this, she also noted that the inclusion of terminology from other languages happened with educated singers of the ballads.
Other chapters include the story elements in the folk songs and ballads, hero-worship, and the linguistic aspects. About seventy ballads she had collected across Andhra Pradesh, from Visakhapatnam to Nellore and Kurnool, vouch for her hard work, particularly when we remember that it was a time when the tape recorders had not come into vogue yet. The glossary at the end of the chapter must be valuable for researchers in the field of folklore.
Krishnakumari believes that the folklore must not be dismissed as the creation of a group of primitive people and thus lacks the skills of the elite. She has postulated powerfully that their folk songs and performances provide us with insights into the civilization of ancient times, a great tool for understanding the evolution of our customs, traditions, and immensely useful in the studies of ethnology, ethnography, religion and sociology.
In her article on the construction of idiom in folklore, Krishnakumari discusses the metamorphosis of language in folklore and the logic underlying such metamorphosis. Incidentally, she discusses the growth of Telugu language as a result of acquiring words from other languages and normalizing into Telugu vocabulary. She adds that Telugu is basically descriptive language. Arguably, we may obtain words from other languages because of the expansion of knowledge base, yet it is equally viable to coin new words from the available vocabulary we have, she insists. For example, aayakaram or varumaanam may be used for income tax and aDDu or taakaTTu for mortgage and so on. Krishnakumari insists that we must stop promoting the argument that we do not have correct words in our language. Developing a comprehensive dictionary of the entire literature of Telugu folklore must be undertaken first, she proposes.
In an interview with Vanita monthly, Krishnakumari expressed her opinions on current day writing by women. In response to the question that most of today’s women writers are being criticized as “not reflecting reality, and advocating escapism,” Krishnakumari remarked, “That criticism is not too far from truth. For writers, social consciousness is important. Whatever issue they choose write about, they should first think well, examine it from a scientific perspective, and write the story using their imagination and tell it in a captivating manner. To be able to do that, one must have detailed and scrutinizing outlook, real life experience, and creative skill. When those are in short supply, every small thing becomes an issue and a theme for the story. Many women writers are writing stories, with only numbers in mind, and, without a proper understanding of life, without thinking ‘what issue is and what is not’. They are writing without the logical basis of ‘how that issue had taken shape and what solution could be offered’. That is what rendering their writings poor and themselves the target for such criticism. Those writings only hurt the society, not help.”
Basically, Krishnakumari believes that the feminists at present are not delving deep into the underlying problems of the society. They need to scrutinize the issues and find solutions; there is no point in blaming individuals.
(© Malalthi Nidadavolu)
Krishnakumari, Nayani. agniputri. Hyderabad: Author. 1978
… ayaathaa. A Collection of short stories.
… em cheppanu nestam. Hyderabad: Author. 1988
— telugu janapada vijnanam: society, culture and literature. Hyderabad: Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, 2000
Krishnakumari, Nayani. Ed. jaanapada saraswati. Hyderabad: janapada sahitya parishat, 1996.
Narasimham, Antati. “vinaya vijnana seeli Krishnakumari”. Hyderabad: Nayani Krishnakumari Sanmana sanchika. 1990. pp.12-24.
Ramaraju, Biruduraju. and Krishnakumari, Nayani. Eds. janapada vanjmaya charitra.
Vidushi: Nayani Krishnakumari sanmaana sanchika. Ed. Chekuri Rama Rao. Hyderabad. 1990.
 I translated one of her stories, cheemalu [Ants], which is not from either of the anthologies, and included in my anthology, A Spectrum of My People, published by Jaico, 2006.
 In Andhra Pradesh, marriage between children of different genders—a brother and a sister—is permissible while between children of the same gender (brothers or sisters) is not.
 Rama Rao, Chekuri. “kashmira deepakalika yaatraacaritra kaadu: vachana kavitvaaniki rasagulika..” vishushi. pp. 55-56.
 janapadabhasha – padanirmaanam. janapada Saraswati. pp.1-8.