Vemana: The People’s Poet

Vemana, poet, pose, thinker
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
Vemana was a seventeenth-century Telugu mystic-poet who campaigned against caste and superstition through his verses.

Like many disillusioned about life by love, Vemana, the popular mystic-poet of the Telugu people, learned to disregard the material life from a failed love affair.

In one story, he had fallen in love with a Devdasi (a temple dancer), whose mother had an eye for Vemana’s sister-in-law’s jewellery. She told him he could not visit anymore until he had brought her those jewels.

Desponded, Vemana returned to his home and didn’t eat for a couple of days. His sister-in-law noticed, and pried the story out of him. Once he had told her, she laughed and handed him her jewels – shaking her head, as the story goes.

He brought the jewels to his lover but was repelled by the greed with which she seized them. The contrast of his sister-in-law’s nonchalant yet sweet generosity struck him. This began his journey to becoming one of the most famous mystic poets of his time.

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The story, as with all stories, may or may not be true. But it’s a good example of the essence of Vemana’s work – divinity in simplicity. 17th century India was not a safe place to call for religious reform, but Vemana did so anyway.

Vemana renounced the world and dropped his (powerful) family name to become a travelling mystic-poet. He recited verses and preached against orthodoxy, the caste system and idolatry. Though not an untouchable himself, he took heed of their plight – his verses a stringent condemnation of social evils and superstition. He discouraged against pilgrimages.

A firm humanist, he called for a man to recognize their inner divinity over any other artificial division.

Kill Brahma and merge him in Vishnu; kill Vishnu and merge him in Siva; kill Siva and merge him in yourself.

– (Source: Encyclopedia of Indian Literature: Sasay to Zorgot)

Food or caste or place of birth
Cannot alter human worth…
Empty is a caste dispute
All the castes have but one root

– (Source: Gover’s translation in South Indian Folk Songs)

It’s a landmark moment for Telugu writing. As Professor K. Purushotham of Kakatiya university writes:

“During the fifteen hundred years of Telugu literary history, Dalits were written about positively only in the last three hundred years… The first form of challenge was by the mystic poets. The non-Brahmin mystics, Potuluri Veerabrahmam/ Siddaiah and Yogi Vemana of the seventeenth century attempted at the reformation of Dalits and Sudras. They actively took part in detouring Dalit and Sudra streets educating them of self-respect, social equality and against the untouchability.”

What gave Vemana his popularity was his ability to reach the common man. He was never a court poet – and was thus excluded from the annals of courtly history. But everyday people know him – he is a household name in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana even today. Professor N. Gopi, a Sahitya Akademi recipient who has written vastly on Vemana, says what made the mystic stand out was his ability to communicate.

He had nothing to do with the courts of any king, so nobody knows he was a great poet. He was like a Sanyasi, a very general person, known by villagers…maybe he would have gatherings and recite his poems. That’s why he could touch the core. He could communicate to illiterates and scholars at a time. His poems were not superficial and had so much depth. He is a great communicator.

The exact period Vemana composed in is contested, but Gopi is confident that it is around 1650 AD. It was an age of orthodoxy, and Vemana’s challenge to Brahmanical culture led to his being known as mad, all the more so for being a non-Brahmin daring to write such verse. He even refers to himself as Verri Vemana, ‘Mad Vemana’, in some of his poems.

His poems are composed in one of the simplest metres of Telugu poetry. His use of the vernacular makes his work highly accessible in Telugu, merging everyday speech with simple phrasing – to make profound points. They usually end with the refrain ‘Viswadabhirama Vinura Vema’ (Beloved of the bounteous, Vema, listen!). Some examples are below:

Men imagine stones to be Siva, and magnify them. Stones are stones and not Siva. Why is it that we cannot discern Siva who dwells within us?

– (Source)

A mean (low) person always speaks pompously
A good person speaks softly
Does gold reverberate the way brass does?
Beloved of the Bounteous, Vema, listen!

– (Source)

Rediscovered amidst centuries

A good deal of Vemana’s resurgence in popularity has to do with the work of the Telugu writer C.P. Brown, an English-descended official who translated 1164 poems of Vemana’s from Telugu to English in 1839. Brown also played a big role in returning the Telugu language from slumber.

Today, Vemana’s poems have been passed down through school textbooks and a rich oral tradition. There has also been a 1947 cinema adaptation of his life, ‘Yogi Vemana’. Vemana is always depicted with a beard, often naked, drawn or painted in a pose not dissimilar to Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. In one of his poems, he joked of the impermanence of clothing:

When we are born in the womb of our mother, at first, we had no clothes, nor shall have it at our latter end. Is not it then a joke for us to wear clothing in our intermediate life?

He remains a household name for Telugu speakers – a rarity for a 17th century poet in the 21st century. His campaign against casteism, superstition and social division could continue even today – and lives on in the popularity of his verse.

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