13 Gurjada Appa Rao: Kanyasulkam

Dr. Vamshi Krishna Reddy

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Telugu Theatre has a prominent place in producing several pioneering works which have been translated into English and many other Indian languages. Among them, Kanyasulkam by Gurazada Venkata Appa Rao (1862-1915) is considered as the greatest. Appa Rao is known as a pathfinder of modernism in Telugu Literature. Most of the time in his life, he was with Vijayanagaram rulers by working and producing lot of research in English classics. He produced his writings by using the form of common men Telugu language. One of his masterpieces, a prose plays ‘ Kanyasulkam‘, inscribed in the north costal Andhra dialect, which is a popular work of art in the genre of Telugu Drama and remains as one of the most admiring literary works. Appa Rao’s ‘Mutyala Saraalu (Strings of Pearls) and ‘Neelagiri Paainlu (Songs of Neelagiri) place a new trend in Telugu poetry.

Career and Works of the author:


Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao, popularly known as Gurajada, born on Septrmber 21st , 1862 in Rayavaram Village, near Yalamanchili of Visakapattanam district of Andhra Pradesh into a Telugu Brahmin family. Some of his popular works along with Kanyasulkam are Prathaparudreeyam, Purnamma and Viswavidyalayalu. He was honored with titles like Kavishekara and Abhyudaya Kavita Pithamahudu. He was highly popular for bringing spoken dialect/language of common people of that time to his works of art. His Kanyasulkam is considered as the best and the greatest play in Telugu theatre. He died on 30th November, 1915.

List of Important Works:

  • Kanyasulkam (1892)
  • Kukku, an English poem, published in 1882.
  • Kondubhattiyam (1906)
  • Neelagiri Paatalu (1907)
  • Mutyalasaramulu and Kasulu (1910)
  • Kanyaka and Subhadra (1912)
  • Langarettumu (1915)

Kanyasulkam is considered as the first ‘modern’ text in Telugu literature. It portrays the the practice of bride price in the families of priestly Brahmins across Andhra Pradesh in particular and South India in general. It is also one of the earliest works in Telugu Theatre to have appreciated the colonial models of modernity. Appa Rao came across many uncertainties and contradictions in the ideologies of reforms in the movements during 19th century in Andhra Pradesh. However, he succeeded in exposing the then society and their atrocities in life with his critical discernments in Kanyasulkam. This play primarily deals with the evil practice of bride-price, in other words, dowry along with many other inter-related social issues of the time such as child marriage and widow remarriage. Appa Rao’s intention is serious, but his indispensable dramatic mode in his play is comedy. Humor and levity have become weapons for his dramatic masterpiece in foregrounding the tradition and modernity. Kanyasulkam created a revolution both in social reforms field and Telugu literature alike. It dealt with the abolition of Child marriages and Bride price.


Gurajada Appa Rao’s Kanyasulkam is set in the Vizianagaram princely state of British India. The play deals basically with the lives of the ‘Upper Caste’ Telugu Brahmins of the area. However, it also offers a few insights into the lives of other communities in the region as well. The play revolves around two characters namely Mr. Girisam, an English-educated, quick-witted and resourceful but dishonest Brahmin man, and Madhuravani, a prostitute who values and considers her morals seriously. Even though the play continues a shell of humor through satire, it expresses the ‘dishonor to society’ that outraged the playwright.


List of important Characters:

  • Agnihotravadhanlu – Venkatesham’s father
  • Venkamma – Wife of Agnihotravadhanlu
  • Bucchamma – Elder daughter of Agnihotravadhani
  • Subbamma – Younger daughter of Agnihotravadhanlu
  • Venkatesam – Son of Agnihotravadhanlu
  • Karataka Sastri – Brother-in-law of Agnihotravadhanlu
  • Sishyudu – Student of Karataka Sastri
  • Lubdhavadhanlu – Venkamma’s brother
  • Meenakshi – Widowed daughter of Lubdhavadhanlu
  • Ramappantulu – Karanam of Ramachandrapuram agraharam and Brother-in-law of Lubdhavadhanulu
  • Gireesam – cousin of Lubdhavadhanlu
  • Madhuravani – Prostitute
  • Saujanyaravu pantulu – Lawyer
  • Nayudu, Private vakeel

Plot Summary:


Act I:


The play starts in ‘Bonkula Dibba’ a village near Vijayanagaram, situated in North East part of Andhra Pradesh. This scene introduces Girisham and other important characters along with their nature and professions. Girisham introduced as an English educated man and he wants to reform the society from evil practices such as child marriages, anti nautch movement etc. Girisham initially introduced as a man of debts and struggling for the existence as a respectable man in the village. In the very first entry of the play, Girisham assumes that it is better to leave the place where he is living for some time to avoid various problems out of his unnecessary doings. The protagonist character Girisam, who lives in the house of Putakoolamma, is an English educated man. He wants to eradicate the evil practices of the society. To escape from that place, Girisham planned to enthrall his young student who fails in his exams. He motivates Venkatesham and reaches his native place to train him in English as a teacher. Girisham tries to influence Venkatesham through his straightforward speeches on child marriages and other evil practices of the then society in existence. According to his views at the initial scenes of the play, the readers/audience can understand his reformative attitude. Another noticeable point the first act follows his comments against the traditional practices in the society. He opines that those evil practices are having strong grass roots in the society. Afterwards, Girisham visits his lovely lady Madhuravani at her home. During his meeting with Madhravani, a beautiful prostitute of the village, he tackles Ramappanthulu, the Karanam of the village who also happens to be there with her. The comic scene during Pootakoolamma’s search of Girisam for taking some money from Madhuravani gives an idea of the lives of Girisham, Ramappantulu and Pootakoolamma. She consequently attacks Ramappantulu and Girisham with the broom stick who hides themselves under the bed of Madhuravani.


Act II


This scene opens in Krishnarayapuram village, at Agnihotravadhanlu’s home. Here, characters like Karataka Sastri and his student along with Agnihotravadhanlu’s family are being introduced. Venkamma is the wife of Agnihotravadhanlu, receives her son Venkatesham and his teacher Girisham with modesty. Agnihotravadhanlu’s daughters Subbi and Meenakshi, a widow become important subject matters for Girisham. He thinks that he can work out his plans of action on remarriages of widows. This episode encounters with the issues related to the evil practices that exist in the society, such as re-marriages, selling girls and detestation towards English education. Some of the views of the characters such as Venkamma’s enthusiasm for English education and Karataka Sastry’s sarcastic statements about bride price etc are humorous and relevant to theme of resistance against the societal norms. Afterwards, the conversation between Karataka Sastry and his student shows the efficacy of English education and dislike towards the traditional way of learning the Vedas and other themes in Telugu literature. Various satirical situations can be noticed by Karataka sastry, who wants to put aside his sister’s younger daughter, Subbi from marrying Girisam’s cousin Lubdhavadhanlu. Sastry suggests his student to pretend him as a bride to marry Lubdhavadhanlu. He also offered his daughter to his student to get married, if his student succeeds in his plan. The discussion on the subject of English education between Girisam and Venkatesam shows Girisam’s political strategies in gaining name and fame under the name of social reform by encouraging child marriages and widow re-marriages. They converse about the people who have been roaming around law suits. Girisham recites a poem called ‘The Widow’ which satirizes the existing plight of the widows in typical Hindu Brahmin families of Andhra Pradesh.




The present scene shows the aptitude and talent of Madhuravani in settling many disputes. Her initiation being a prostitute to settle the issues of evil society proves that she is morally fit enough. The scene begins in Ramachandrapuram at Ramappantulu’s house. The reader/audience understands that the property of Agnihotravadhanlu is under dispute and also notices that his attitude in manipulation of palmistry and documents. She inspects about Lubdhavadhanlu’s wedding with Subbi. After lot of conversation, Madhuravani brings Ramappantulu under the notion that she is naive about the world affairs and her lack of knowledge in dealing with some inconsequential things. It occurs in the bedroom of Ramappantulu. The first part of this scene happens among the Student, Madhuravani and Karatakasastri. Karatakasastry appeals Madhuravani about his niece and seeks help to save Subbi from the marriage with Lubdhavadhanlu, an old and perverted Brahmin. He manages to show his student dressed in woman’s clothes and asks Ramappantulu that he wants to sell the girl for marriage to clear his debts. He greets Madhuravani about her conduct. Madhuravani offers an idea to Karataka sastry about the plan to get the man (dressed as woman) married. In the last part of the scene, ironically, Madhuravani pours ink on the face of Ramappantulu and leaves the place, as if she was jealous of him when he holds the palm of the girl to read the sentences.


Later, the conversation among Girisam, Venkatesam, and Agnihotravadhanlu shows the authors concern towards the social evils. After gazing at Butchamma, a young widow, Girisham shocked to see her beauty and compares her with Madhuravani in a soliloquy. On one hand, Girisham admires Butchamma’s spectacular beauty with prettiness and calls her as a pure diamond. On the other hand, he states that Madhuravani as a useless stone. He attempts to express his attraction towards Butchamma by saying a few stories to Venkatesam about the significant creation in the world. The scene becomes highly hilarious when Venkatesam says Cow gods and Cows are important in this creation. Girisham also induces Agnihotravadhanlu about training his son in judicial matters as well. The episode at the backyard of Agnihotravadhanlu’s house, Butchamma asks about Girisam and his magnitude. Butchamma questions Girisam why he didn’t marry a widow. Girisam makes them feel surprise and scolds Venkatesam for climbing the guava tree. Finally, he reads a poem about Butchamma’s beauty, which shows his lustrous nature.


Act IV


This episode revolves around Ramappantulu, Madhuravani, Lubdhavadhanlu, Sishya and Karatakasastry. Madhuravani mocks Ramappantulu during his attempt to read a letter written by Girisam to Lubdhavadhanlu. She chortles at him because of Girisham’s comparison of Ramappantulu with a donkey and camel. Afterwards, they talk about the marriage at Lubdhavadhanlu’s house. Meenakshi, Karatakasastry and Siddhanti (Atchannamama) also discuss the marriage from various aspects of the then society. Meenakshi assures Karatakasastry that she would take care of the girl. Regarding the wedding, Siddhanti shouts at Lubdhavadhanlu for being late. However, Ramappantulu supports Lubdhavadhanlu and opposes Siddhanti. The house of Lubdhavadhanlu’s is the venue for the wedding. Sishya (bride), pujari Gavariah, Kondibhattu, Ramappantulu, Siddhanti and rest of the Brahmins sit together. The marriage takes place in Ramappantulu’s absence. Many People opine that that the wedding ceremony is not graceful without his presence. Girisham comes to know that Madhuravani is not singing in the marriage despite of everybody’s requests. He feels envious about Madhuravani while she is talking to the head constable. Afterwards, he enquires their conversation and asks Kondibhotlu to spy on her when he pushes the door. Madhuravani surprises Kondibhotlu by kissing him for his help in not disclosing the truth about the constable.


Later, the episode discloses Girisham’s love towards Buchamma. He also discusses the God’s creation of dependence and to be independent. Girisam also tries to encourage Buchamma to elope with him. He also reveals that if she comes with him, they can stop the marriage of her sister with an old man. He also boasts that he cannot live without her. Girisham also promises her that he will provide all comforts if she marries him.


Act V


This episode occurs in the bedroom of Lubdhavadhanlu where he dreamt that the earlier husband’s soul of his wife come to murder him. He inquires Meenakshi to invites poojari Gavaraiah to grab the ghosts. Lubdhavadhanlu strongly feels that Meenakshi has killed the bride and scared of the ghosts. Afterwards, while everyone playing cards, Sishya comes and gives the gold necklace to Madhuravani. After the verification of Karatakasastry, Madhuravani does not allow Ramappantulu into the house until he brings the necklace. Later on, Ramappantulu, Meenakshi and Gavaraiah are also presence in the scene. The episode of Poojari Gavariah and his claim of catching of the two devils which were kept in a bottle seem comic. With her ignorance and innocence, Madhuravani says that the two devils are kept in a bottle, and they may breed devil kids. She conveys her astonishment.


The episode which opens at Ramachandrapuram Agraharam, behind the arrack shop discloses the various evil practices of the society. It shows the readers/audience that there are many superstitions and therefore the attitudes of the people are surrounding with the witchcrafts and other supernatural entities. Characters such as Bairagi, Yogini, Munasab, Sominaidu, Saatani Manavallaya, Jangam veeresam, shopkeeper, Ramdas, havaldar Achanna, head constable and Ramappantulu are taking part in this scene. The characteristics of Bairagi like the power of travelling with the speed of air and making gold from sand, talking to the spirits etc, are revealed. Ramappantulu urges the head constable to help him in finding the necklace. As he knows the whole scene, he initially rejects to everything and finally accepts to go to Lubdhavadhanlu’s house along with the shopkeeper and Bairagi. Later, the scene which takes place at the footsteps of the temple projects Asirigadu complains to the Head constable that Ramappantulu went to old man’s house to fix with Meenakshi. He later claims that Madhuravani is awful and perverted who rejects Ramappantulu in returning the money. He later says that if anyone goes to her, she would beat him or her. Afterwards, another episode assures the promise of Ramappantulu to marry Meenakshi. Later, she joins with him and goes out with the help of Lubdhavadhanlu. When Madhuravani rejects to open the door, he urges Meenakshi not to trouble him because he would marry her secretly.


Act VI:


Ramappantulu informs Agnihotravadhanlu about Lubdhavadhanlu’s marriage, which happened ten days ago in Ramachandrapuram. He shocked to know the truth and got irritated for the old Lubda’s deceptive act. Ramappantulu wants to beat Lubdhavadhanlu. Later, Venkatesam surprises them by saying that Girisam has eloped with his eldest daughter, buchamma. All of them enters the house of Madhuravani in Visakhapatnam. As he has no money, Ramappantulu takes Agnihotravadhanlu to Madhuravani for monitory help. Naidu enters in this scene and presents busy with dealing the court dealings.

Afterwards, Lubdavadanulu repents himself for his misdoings. Ramappantulu goes to file a case against Lubdhavadhanlu and threatening Sisya by Madhuravani regarding the necklace respectively. They approach Soujanya Rao Pantulu, a sincere lawyer. They repent on their tainted activities. They also discuss the dignity of Saujanya Rao. Later, Saujanya Rao suggests Agnihotravadhanlu to think about the contentment of his daughter for her elopement with Girisham. However, he does not listen to Rao’s suggestion and gets furious on Butchamma for her elopement with Girisham.


Act VII:


The final Act offers the story of Bairagi and his promise to the head constable with regard to Butchamma’s whereabouts with his anjanam. They approach the office of Deputy Collector, Bhima Rao to deal the matter with Ramapapanntulu, Agnihotravadhanlu, Naidu and others. They curse and blame each other about the case in view of its impact and its problems in the court about the properties and the portrayal at this juncture also explains about the lawyers and their corruption. Next episode is about the request of Saujanya Rao to Polisetti to give the verdict in the court. However, he rejects to give verdict and the case is closed. Therefore, Lubdhavadhanlu is also saved. Soujanya Rao shows his truthfulness and commitment to the justice to everyone who approaches him.


The final episode of the play gives the readers/audience a coherent idea of the author’s concern towards the eradication of evil practices and analysis of anti-nautch from various perspectives. When Girisam enters in the house of Soujanya Rao to talk about his marriage with young beautiful widow named Buchamma. Girisam gives an impress that he is for the betterment of the society. In the meantime, Madhuravani enters the house of Soujanya Rao in disguise while they are discussing the possibilities to save Lubdavadanulu. She introduces herself as a man and requests the humble lawyer to spare sometime to discuss various good things in his life. She later requests Soujanya Rao to send Girisam outside. During the discussion about the prostitutes and their plight, Madhuravani questions the lawyer whether honesty and righteousness of prostitutes can be considered or not. Afterwards, she asks Soujanya Rao to marry her. However, he rejects her saying that he does not marry a prostitute.


Later, she reveals herself that she has a great evidence to save Lubdhavadhanlu from the case. But, to reveal the truth, she demands Soujanya Rao to marry her. But, the honest lawyer asserts that he is against the profession of prostitution and therefore rejects her plea. However, she demands him to give a kiss to her to reveal the secret. He finally agrees to do so and came to know that the girl who married the old man i.e. Lubdhavadhanlu is not a girl, but a boy. She reveals that it is Karataka Sastry who saved the girl from marrying an old man by using his Sisya (Student). Finally, she also reveals that she was living in with Girisham for quite a long time. Afterwards, the honest lawyer questions Girisham about it and throws him away from his home despite of Girisham’s repentance and his change of attitude. Lawyer presents Bhagavad Gita to Madhuravani and asserts that the Lord will be with anyone in the world who lives without doing wrong things in life. Madhuravani proves her sincerity and morality once again by disallowing the lawyer during his attempt to kiss her to show his gratitude for her erstwhile demand of a kiss. The play ends with a note that Girisham left with nothing and says ‘damn it! The story overturned!!

Kanysulkam as a Social Satire


Kanyasulkam is considered to be one of the radical texts in Telugu language and literature for various reasons. First it is hailed for its usage of spoken Telugu dialect and secondly for its intense but comic social satire. Surprisingly, Appa Rao started initially in English and Kanysulkam is his first Telugu work. It is first enacted in 1892 and printed in 1897 and took Telugu society by storm and was an instant success. The play is believed to have started a new epoch in Telugu literature, both as a masterpiece and for its social relevance, as against popular, mythological fictions.


Kanyasulkam is not propagandist art work but it is powerful literary work that convey intense social message. Appa Rao clearly states his intention behind writing the play in his preface of second edition. In his dedication to Sri Sri Ananda Gajapati Raj, Manea Sultan, Bahadur of Vizianagaram, Appa Rao declares that “saving a very helpless section of our womankind from a galling type of slavery, fraught with the germs of social demoralization, a humble servant made a feeble effort to arouse public opinion on the subject by exposing the evil in a popular drama.”


   The drama is situated as a social realist drama and satire on rituals, practices of Brahmin community in particular and others in general. He says in the same preface as “Modern life which presents complex social conditions is neglected by playwrights except for purposes of the broadest farce, and poverty of invention is manifested by the constant handling of thread romantic topics.” (16) He strongly emphasized that drama has greater purpose and responsibility in waking up the masses from dogmatic approaches and superstitions. Instead of choosing comfortable genre such as romance, he thinks that social satire is challenging and apt for bringing the pertinent issues that society faces. Kanyasulkam is written in the context in which social evils such as child marriages, marriages of old men with very young girls, bride price, the prostitution of dancing girls, corruption among officials, alcoholism, superstition and witchcraft have dominated societal discourse. However, Kanyasulkam mainly focuses on bride price and widow remarriages which was the most pertinent issue especially among the Brahmins in north costal Andhra Pradesh.


Coming to the characters and themes of the play, each and every character is very important in this play since each character represents a particular social reality of the time. Characters such as Agnihotravadhanlu, Venkatesham, Girisham and Madhuravani seem to be taking the major portion of the play. Especially, characters of Girisam and Madhuravani are greatest characters in Telugu Literature which stand for folly, vice, satire and incongruity. Girisam can be considered as the main protagonist of the play, if not a hero who represents so called modernity, western ethos and embodiment of crookedness with his command over English and philosophy and rightly called a “a pest, an enemy within”, “evil product of the alliance between traditional and modern social orders on the one hand and patriarchy on the other”.


It is argued that Girisam character was the product of his times, a generation of rapid changes, where the existing values, attitudes were undergoing immense change. He is believed to be represented new English educated generation who “were rootless and ruthless in their struggle for survival.” (104, Splitting the West, 1750- 1947: Representation from Indian Languages) His first entry itself starts with seduction and instant survival. He says that “Can love be controlled by adviser? Will cupid our mothers obey? It is women that seduce all mankind” while thinking about a love letter he writes to a married woman in the town. He uses mixed code of English and Telugu in his conversation just to prove that his language and education is superior to others. Interestingly his progressive outlook on the issues of child marriages, widow remarriages, dancing girls, prostitutes and superstations is informed by his English education and his western mindset. He famously says about selling girls to old men as “Selling girls, damn it!” He seems to be sympathetic to their cause and condition; however, he doesn’t offer any solution other than opposing practices furiously, especially when Madhuravani asks him about the livelihood of dancing girls if they give up their profession. But Girisam, with all his flaws, is a loveable negative character much like Mr. Jingle of The Pickiwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Probably, Girisam represents the generation of social reformers who have internalized the progressive outlook but not solutions. Appa Rao seems to be skeptical about this generation of new thinkers.


Through Madhuravani’s innate nature of questioning, Appa Rao, articulates his reservations against popular language of reformism and reformer’s ideal enthusiasm. It is believed that character Soujanya Rao is loosely based on Kandukuri Veeresalingam and caricature of his social reformism. Appa Rao’s skepticism about social reformers is perfectly portrayed through the characters of Girisam and Soujanya Rao. All three characters, Girisam, through his English dialogues, Soujanya Rao with the language of reform and anti dogmatic approach and Madhuravani with simple and sober questions, represent dilemmas and skepticism about the social reform activity of the time. And it is ironical that these three characters are nothing to do with the main theme of the play. This is the major criticism against Appa Rao that Girisam and Madhuravani are deployed for social commentary and main issue of bride sale has been derailed. Having issues such as English education, satires on social practices have occupied the centre stage; Kanysulkam can be considered as true social satire which captured the society of that time.


Kanysulkam and Vyavaharika Bhasha Udyamam (Spoken Dialect Movement)


In order to bring social issues to the fore front, it is important to convey the issues effectively to the masses in the language they understand. Hence, Appa Rao argued and fought for liberalizing Telugu from Sanskrit. If Kandukuri Veerasalingam, another revolutionary writer, widened the base of Telugu literature by employing new literary forms such as the play, satire, novel, essay, Gurajada through his creative literary form called ‘mutyalasaralu’, was the founder of Telugu modem poetry.


He declared that “Literature in the vernacular will knock at the door of the peasant, and it will knock at the door of Englishman in India. Its possibilities are immense.” (19) Along with these reformers, Gidugu Ramamurthy, another Telugu writer, democratized the Telugu language by launching a sustained movement to popularize spoken dialect (Vyavaharika bhasha) and made sure that Telugu scholars use them in their writings. Hence, the trio-Kandukuri, Gurajada and Gidugu, are known as the founders of modem Telugu literature. Apparao argues that “I cannot understand how modern writers fail to see the merits of spoken Telugu, its softness which elicited the admiration of foreigners, and its range of expression. At this movement, the best prose in the language is in the spoken dialect. Strange as it may sound, Telugu prose owes its origin and development not to the patronage of kings or to the influence of foreign literatures, but to the exertions of a curious Englishman who stimulated compilation of local histories in the vernacular during the early years of the last century.” (18) Hence, this language movement should be seen in the background of building broad cultural movement in which the oppressed/neglected sections are drawn. Their efforts truly paid off by liberation of Telugu language and literature from Sanskritized Telugu.




He presided over all genres such as poetry, short-story, drama, critical essay and flourished equally in all areas of writing. He liberated Telugu dialect and writing, reshaped them to suit them to present day times made them “civilizing media” tuned in to living reality as against the dead past. “Before, there is little which great”— this was his admonishment in one of his lyrics (“Love the Country“). “My cause is the cause of the people. To please anyone I cannot discard it”— he announced with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. His scholarly manifestations proceed to throb and flourish even following quite a few years. Telugu literature, civilization and community are proud of Appa Rao and his works and as revolutionary poet Sri Sri rightly says that Appa Rao is the greatest writer of modern Telugu language and literature in his preface note to Kanysulkam.

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