The earliest origins of the history of Telugu Literature, like most of the modern Indian languages that draw from Sanskrit as well as Dravidian roots, establishes its literary traditions and history between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries. Nannayya Bhattu`s Telugu translation of a portion of the Sanskrit Mahabharata
is the earliest available work. The development of Telugu literature between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries passes through two distinct phases- (1) the age of the Puranas, during which several Puranic stories were rendered into Telugu. These works in keeping with the traditional stylistic modes, and their prime objective was propagation of the Vedic Dharma (faith); (2) the age of the Prabandhas wherein the literary subjects were still drawn from the Puranas, but an elaborately ornate style replaced the classical simplicity. Telugu literature describes a sharp decline in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries with mediocre limitations of Prabandhas ruling the day.
During the nineteenth century, there was seen a revival of Telugu literature. This was possible mainly through the efforts of Charles Philip Brown, the Orientalist lexicographer, who brought many Telugu classics into edition and print. Moreover he was responsible for bringing out the first authoritative dictionary in Telugu language
as well. Besides, the contribution of Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu, printer and publisher of easily 1,000 titles, is worth recording.
The rise of a modern sensibility around the turn of the century had a profound impact on the growth of Telugu literature in the twentieth century. The two factors that influenced this development were the colonial history and consequent exposure to the West, and a growing spirit of nationalism. Modernism in the context of Telugu literature may be further identified with four interrelated trends- (1) a review of the existing socio-cultural institutions and practices, resulting in a movement away from orthodoxy toward a liberal system of thought and living; (2) a reform of language, that is, a shift from the classical to the vyavaharik (colloquial); (3) a quest for freer and more flexible forms of literary expression; and (4) the growing significance of prose forms, including essay and journalism, as direct means of dissemination of ideas and ideologies.
Special mention needs to be made here of Kandukuri Veeresalingam
who was the pioneer of the new trend in Telugu Literature. Kandukuri Veeresalingam is the central personality in this period of literary activity and is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern Telugu literature. Though Kandukuri was a traditional scholar brought up in the orthodox tradition, he was a rationalist and revolutionary by temperament. He responded to the social and religious issues of the time with an uncommonly critical harshness. He was inspired by the social reform movement launched by Raja Ram Mohan Roy
in Bengal and soon enrolled himself as a member of the Brahmo Samaj
. He started a journal, Vivekavardhani, which became a forum for active discussions on the social issues of the time, which included the evils of the caste system, the practice of Sati, the dowry system, the need for women`s education, and the desirability of widow remarriage. Telugu prose acquired a new force and vigor in Kandukuri`s writings and became adequately equipped for the tasks of a new era. Kandukuri launched a movement for a revival of Telugu literature. He condemned the degeneration of poetic form into a banal, rule-minded exercise in his long poem, Saraswati Narada Samvadam (1887). A great scholar of world literature, he introduced several new forms in Telugu literature: essay, biography, autobiography, and novel, and thus he heralded a new era in Telugu literature.
The modernization of the Telugu language started by Kandukuri developed into a movement for linguistic reform under the office of Gurazada Venkata Appa Rao
and Gidugu Ramamurthy Panthulu. Stressing the need for adapting the Telugu language to the changing ethos, they called for the extensive use of vyavaharik (colloquial) idiom in place of the grandhik (classical) style. They advocated the adoption of the colloquial Telugu as the chief mode of spreading literacy and, with that, the possibility of enlightenment. The twin objectives of the language reform movement, therefore, were to make language accessible to the common person and turn literature into a reflection of everyday reality. This, of course, meant that the colloquial idiom was not only to replace the classical in literature but also to be introduced in educational institutions. Gurazada believed that colloquial language work would reach the common people and shake them out of their complacent acceptance of the givens with which they had lived for very long.
Thus it was a combination of all these elements that shaped Telugu Literature in the modern era.