Interview with Shri Sirivennela Sitarama Sastry

Note: Telugu version of the article is on Page 2.

An inspirational writer with numerous witty yet profound lyrical compositions to his credit, ‘Sirivennela’ Sitarama Sastry has prevailed for over three decades as a sturdy figure in the Telugu film industry’s lyrical scenario. On Monday, the 26th of February 2018, Shri Sastry had come over to IIT Madras, as the first speaker in the new and ambitious series of lectures – ‘Extramural Lectures – Vernacular’, when T5E took the opportunity to engage in a brief interview with him at Bose-Einstein Guest House. The video of the lecture can be found here.

In this conversation with T5E correspondents Sruthi Ranjani and Ramcharan Roy, Shri Sastry talks about the aspects of writing in the Telugu language, critically examines the concept of language and gives honest descriptions of some of the famous figures in the Telugu film industry.

You have, in the course of your career as a lyricist, written many inspirational songs that have served as motivating forces for many young people – ‘taralirada tane vasantham’, ‘jagamantha kutumbam naadi’ and ‘aakasam takela’ to name a few. Could you tell us about any person or song that has served as an inspiration to you at any point in your life?

(after considerable thought) There hasn’t really been a particular inspiration for my thought process. My father – a man of unimaginable multifaceted talent – was my mentor throughout my childhood. One of the things he had a clear understanding of was the concept of ‘perspective’. How does one look at the world, the society in different ways? What are the causes behind something being the way it is? These were the questions he would constantly engage with. I think it has something to do with him being a doctor – he would constantly look around for the reasons behind symptoms. He would ask me similar thought-provoking questions on various topics and would encourage me to think critically. Over the years, this habit of critical observation became a natural part of my life.

‘Vernacular language’ doesn’t really mean mother tongue; it means regional language. ‘Vernacular language’ is our purpose for today, it isn’t really matrubhasha (mother tongue). India is home to many languages, but the underlying principle of all languages is the same across all Indian languages. This isn’t the same in other places – say, Europe. Although the religion and culture is the same across Europe, Europeans aren’t as united. The unity that they do not possess, the unity we must possess and we think we possess should be realised through the common thought process we as Indians have. Indians as a whole, I would say, think in the same way. This is something that is not acknowledged enough, but is very much existent. Thus, if asked, we must assert that our mother tongue is ‘Indian’ and our regional language is Telugu. That all our lives are spun across a common thread – our thought process – is something we must acknowledge. This is what will take us forward, not just in a physical sense, but in a more holistic sense.

When I first entered the field of cinema, I was resolute on bringing across my perspective through my lyrics.

In spite of all the strings that come attached with writing in the film industry, I strive to make my writing reflective of my opinions and critical thought.

To answer your question, then, I would say that my critical thought process is my inspiration, my teacher; and the very same is my song.

You have been in the cinema industry for more than three decades now, with a range of songs of different genres to your credit. Over the years, as people’s tastes change and evolve, and times change, have you ever found yourself compelled to change your writing style to suit the audience’s needs?

I’ve never had to change the message I seek to bring across in my writing; although I’ve changed the outer disguise. Medicine is enclosed in capsules so that one does not directly experience the bitterness, is it not? I do the same with my writing.

Yes, what with globalisation and blurring borders, I would say we lost our freedom just when we thought we had gotten it. English has become something that every child in the country is familiar with in some small way or the other. This is something we can do nothing about, for that is our legacy – a part of our history – and it would not do to condemn it or wash it away.

All over the world elders are respected. But I would say that it is only in India that parents are equated to divinity. ‘Matru devo bhava, pitru devo bhava’ is part of our attitude, unlike in other places of the world. If this concept is what I were bent upon expressing, I wouldn’t really hesitate to express it in a way that is intelligible to the people of today – I would just as easily write ‘mummy is god’ (chuckles). My message needs to hit the nail on the head, and for that to happen I need to change my writing accordingly. What matters is what goes across to the audience; what they comprehend. So if tweaks to the outer attire of my writing are required, I’m not against making them.

As one of my songs goes –

botanical bhasha lo petals purekulu’

(in the language of botany, petals are called corolla.) *bad translation*

‘anatomy lab lo manaki manam dorakam’.

(one can’t find oneself in an anatomy lab.)

We are so accustomed to idiomatically using the expression ‘changing times’, when in fact, time does not really change. It is the perspective with which we look at the world that changes. We once used to talk about the hamsanadaka (the swan walk) – but now we talk about the ‘catwalk’. Perspectives and tastes have changed, and so must we adapt. One must also look at the ways in which changing perspectives affect our tastes and how they knit across generations and create bridges between them.

Do you have a dream song that you’d like to write? A style you’ve never explored but have always wanted to?

One of the advantages of being a lyricist in the field of cinema is that you don’t and (can’t) wait for some otherworldly inspiration to come and strike you because you’re pressured by deadlines and expectations. Each day is a portal to a new experience for each of us. If I were to chronicle all my experiences, and use them in my songs, I could write countless songs. I do not have a particular style of lyric-writing that I’d like to attempt in mind, but I’m ready to explore any genres of writing that I have hitherto left unexplored. But my writing is always conditioned by my strict adherence to a purpose or meaning underneath it. As long as this purpose is not compromised, I’ll be more than glad to write anything new or different.

Today we don’t see a lot of young people pursuing Telugu literature as a career path or a vocation. Do you think, then, there is a scope for the language fading out some time in the future? Will a change in the education system of the Telugu states help in any way?

To talk of languages dying isn’t right, dear girl. Language is like a river. It flows constantly. Here again, perspective comes into play. We talk about the bank of River Godavari. What is Godavari? Is it the shore that you stand on? Is it the water that you see? It’s certainly not the water, for it’s not the same even for a moment. If it were the shore you stood on, what about the same shore at Basara? At Bhadrachalam? Are they not the banks of Godavari? When we talk about a river named Godavari, we don’t talk about the stream of water that is seen; instead, we refer to the origins, the journey and the history of the river. The Telugu that we speak today has no resemblance to what Nannaya wrote during his time. Neither was the language of the kings of Andhra – the Satavahanas – the same as what we speak today. We wouldn’t understand the letters our ancestors wrote to each other either. There are a few tinges of Sanskrit in all languages of India; that’s about the only commonality the current language has with the so-called ‘ancient’ language.

Only when we closely examine and understand the purpose behind language can we progress to the question of protecting it. Language is used at three different levels, the first being for basic needs. As a matter of fact, one doesn’t need language for basic communication. If you wanted to express anger or happiness, you can just as easily communicate that without language. The second level at which language is used is for social communication. When natural means aren’t enough for communication, we require language to get our message across as clearly as possible. The third level at which language is used – and this is the most important – is to question our existence as human beings. Why are we born this way? How are we different from a tree? The language that is used in entertaining metaphysical questions of this sort, is what I would call saarassvatamu (literature-related).

What exactly is language then? What are we seeking to protect? There are about seven different ways in which you can say ‘father’ in Telugu. Which one of these words do you want to protect?

One must understand that ‘Telugu’ does not merely mean the language that was spoken back then, nor the language that is spoken today; rather, it is the journey it has undertaken and the way it has evolved.

So we must let languages be and just watch the course they take, for each change in a language adds to its journey and only helps in defining it better.

When two Telugu people meet today, they are most likely to converse in English and not in Telugu. What do you think about this culture? Is there any way to try and change this situation?

Telugites are quite an intelligent bunch. Historically, they haven’t had to face too many blows from other rulers, owing to the geographical advantage of being located towards the South of the Vindhyas. Also, since our language has a relatively larger commonality with Sanskrit, we have been able to acquire knowledge relatively easily.

In addition to this, it is us who have somehow internalised the notion that English is indispensable if we are to survive in this globalised world.

This obsession with English is so ingrained in us – more than it is in other states of our country.

Nothing can be done about this on a large scale. English is a legacy handed down to us from the British, and we must but accept it. Sweeping change cannot be brought about socially or culturally, in this case. If one is strongly bent upon change, it has to come from within the individual. From the youth of your generation. From people like you. This is not to deride languages like English; rather, it is to emphasize the importance of one’s own language and embrace a culture that is one’s own, before moving to on to other cultures and languages.

Rapid Fire:

K Vishwanath:

The man who introduced the concept of ‘Indianness’ to the world and to India.

SP Balu:

Not just a great singer, but a great human being.

Ram Gopal Varma:

(long pause)

Enigma.

Trivikram Srinivas

The man who can breezily and pleasantly portray the idea of ‘Teluguness’.

Tanikella Bharani

A dabbler in many arts.

Your beloved wife.

The reason I’m here today.

Finally, do you have any message for all of us here today?

(Laughs) I haven’t come here to deliver a message. I’m here to make new friends in students like you. I’m just as young as you are!

Note: Telugu version of the article is on the next page.

 

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