The evolution and historical maturation of Telugu literature is generally divided into six periods, namely:
1. The pre-Nannaya period (up to A.D. 1020),
2. The Age of the Puranas (1020 - 1400),
3. The Age of Srinatha (1400 - 1510),
4. The Age of the Prabandhas (1510 - 1600),
5. The Southern period (1600 - 1820) and,
6. The Modern Period (since 1820).
However, these above mentioned literary phases like the Puranas or Prabandhas, strictly pertains to the literary terms and norms from a particular genre. For a more common understanding of Telugu literature, the time period and centuries of the Dravidian language and its flowering, the predominating ruling dynasties and their classes seize importance here. For instance, the pre-Nannaya period is always considered the mosta ncient period, the time of the Vedas and their evolvement, whereas, Prabandhas and Srinatha had mostly evolved in the same era, with each other surviving as complementary, as Srinatha is known to have majestically popularised this Prabandha style of writing in Telugu literature. Likewise, the Southern Period largely comes under the rule of the Vijayanagara Kingdom or the Nayaka Dynasty and the tremendous rise of Hindu rulers in the Deccan. The modern period in Telugu literature was of course, like any other regional Indian literature, had been profoundly swayed and moulded by the advent of the British Empire. Thus, these stated ages and their precise time period of evolvement, is complemental and almost balancing, with the composers and their patron emperors overlapping each time, as can be seen following.
In the earliest period Telugu literature existed only in the form of inscriptions, precisely from A.D. 575 onwards. Nannaya's (1022 - 1063) Mahabharatam (1030 AD), an adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, marks the beginning of Telugu literature, which has yet been uncovered. This work, which has been interpreted in the campu style (poems in verses of various metres intermingled with paragraphs of prose, also acknowledged as champu-kavya), emotes such simplicity and polishing and of such high literary excellence, that several scholars do not dismiss the possibility of the existence of literary works in Telugu during the pre-Nannaya period. Nannaya is also given full acknowledgment with a grammatical work, the Andhra Sabda Chintamani.
During this period of ancient Telugu literature, a bunch of Telugu poets had begun to translate Sanskrit poems and dramas, while others endeavoured to pen original narrative poems. Indeed, the period of 500-1100 A.D., Telugu was limited to the poetic works and prospered in the courts of kings and among scholars. This period also witnessed the translation of Ganitasara, a mathematical treatise of Mahivaracharya, into Telugu by Pavuluri Mallana. The true and genuine development of Telugu literature however began during the period of 1100-1600 A.D., when the language received a touch of stylisation and was also adorned with rigidness, shutting itself from the charms of contemporary spoken language.
The 12th and the 13th centuries A.D. began to witness the gradual rise of the Lingayata school of thought or Virasaivism, which circularised bhakti towards Shiva as the only resource of achieving salvation. As can be very well grasped, it has happened since time immemorial that in order for a specific literature to survive towards evolution, it has profoundly been influenced by the times and the in vogue trend of socialism. As such, the reflection of Virasaivism very much had impacted upon Telugu literature. Nannecodu, the first of the Saiva poets in Telugu, had penned the memorable kavya Kumara-sambhavamu in campu style. Palakuriki Somanatha (c.1200-1240) was considered the trailblazer in devising new literary genres in Telugu like gadya, ragada, sataka and udaharana.
The popular Telugu literary form referred to as Prabandha, as stated above was given an all-accepted form and life by Srinatha (1365-1441). In fact, Srinatha was the foremost poet who had popularised this style of composition ( Prabandha literally stands for 'a story in verse having a tight metrical scheme'). Srinatha's Sringara Naishadham is particularly well admired, falling within the Prabandha form of writing in Telugu literature. Then there also existed the great and legendary religious poets like Potana (1450-1510), Jakkana (second half of the 14th century) and Gaurana (first half of the 15th century). Peddana's Manucharitra is another outstanding instance of a Mahakavya. Telugu literature also had witnessed prospering in the south in the Samsthanas like Madurai, Tanjavur etc.
The Vijayanagara period (1336-1565 A.D.) is at times also considered as the golden age of Telugu literature, or the 16th and 17th centuries in then India. This was the period during which each literary genre was being formulated and that too with booming results. Nachana Somanatha, a court poet of Bukka I, had given rise to a poetical work named Uttaraharivamsamu. Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529 A.D.), the dandiest and biggest of the Vijayanagara emperors, was himself a poet of much excellence. His Amuktamalayada, considered a mahakavya, is an exceptional illustration of Prabandha style in Telugu literature. It is conceived that eight Telugu literary luminaries, named as the Ashtadiggajas use to grace the court of Samrat Krishnadevaraya. These eight Ashtadiggajas comprised: Allasani Peddana, Nandi Timmanna, Madayagari Mallana, Dhurjati, Ayyalaraju Ramabhadra Kavi, Pingali Surana, Ramaraja Bhushana (Bhattumurthi) and of course, the legend himself, Tenali Ramakrishna. Peddana, who was regarded the 'Andhra Kavita Pitamaha', had authored Manucharitra, another outstanding Telugu mahakavya delivered in the Prabandha style.
Telugu literature also had thrived and prospered during the Qutub Shahi dynasty of Golkonda (1518-1687 A.D.), which had witnessed the authorship of unforgettable Telugu works like Tapati-samvaranamu (1565 A.D.) by Addanki Gangadhara Kavi; Yayaticharitramu (1578 A.D.) by Ponnikanti Telaganarya; Nirankusopakhyanamu by Kandukuru Rudra Kavi, Satcakravaticharitramu by Malla Reddy; Vaijayanti-vilasamu by Sarungu Timmanna, the court poet of Ibrahim Qutub Shah and Raghava-Yadava-Pandaviyamu by Balasarasvati.
A momentous feature that can be noticed in the context of Telugu literature and its gradual evolution, is that, each genre and its initiation was passionately backed by each progressing king and his dynasty, never for once waning out into oblivion or warring against the literary norms and changes. Telugu literature, thus began to flourish towards a new direction in south India, under the patronage of the Nayaka kings of Madurai and Tanjavur. A colossal number of poets from amongst the rulers, women and non-Brahmins began to popularise the indigenous metres during this period, which is itself named the 'Southern Period'. King Raghunatha Nayaka (1600-1631 A.D.) from this era, had authored Achyutabhyudayamu, Nalcharitramu and Valmikicharitramu. Kandukuri Rudra Kavi wrote Sugrivavijayamu in 1568 A.D., deemed as the first Yakshagana in Telugu literature. King Vijaraghava Nayaka (1633-1673 A.D.) was an intellectually productive writer and had penned more than twenty Yakshaganas.
The first prose in Telugu also had made an appearance under the benefaction and aid of the Nayaka kings of Madurai. Sthanapati had authored Rayavacakamu, a prose biography dedicated to king Krishnadevaraya. Kameshwara Kavi's Dhenumahatmyamu and Satyabhama-santvanamu, Venkata Krishnappa's Sarangadharacharitramu, Radhikasnatvanamu and Ahalya-samkrandanamu and Venkatacalapati's Mitravindaparinayamu are some of the other great prose works in Telugu literature of this period.
Indian history has always veered its course with the majestic entrance of the Mughal Empire in the Indian imperial scenario, impacting and touching upon every Indian life at large, both in the god and bad directions. As such, ancient literature in India was of course not left far behind. The Mughals had conquered the Deccan in A.D.1687, ushering in an era of sufficient depravity in Telugu literature, more precisely within the period of 1750-1850. Nevertheless, the few poets of substance who touched triumph during this period include Kucimanci Timma Kavi, Adidamu Sura Kavi, Kucimanci Jagga Kavi, Kankanti Paparaju, Sishtu Krishnamurti, Pindiprolu Lakshmana Kavi, Madina Subhadramma and Tarigonda Venkamamba. Telugu literature then stayed witness to a period of 'transition' from 1850 to 1910, subsequent to a prolonged period of Renaissance.
Although the first printed Telugu book was issued in 1796, it took some time before the modern period in Telugu literature set in. Young men introduced to English literature tried to imitate Shelly, Keats and Wordsworth, and thus, a new type of romantic poetry called the Bhavakavithwa was born. Bengali novelists like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay and Ramesh Chandra Dutta had acted upon as major influences on modern Telugu fiction.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Telugu poets had profoundly come under the influence of the English Romantic poets; their pennings thus came to be known as bhava-kavitvam or the 'poetry of imagination'. R. Subba Rao's Trinakankanam (1913), D.Krishna Sastri's Krishnapaksam (1924), D. Rami Reddy's Palitakesam and Adivi Bapiraju's Sasikala are excellent instances of this genre of poetry in Telugu literature
During the 1890s in Telugu literature, the progressive movement, free verse movement and Digambara mode determined their expression in verse. Telugu novels in their most authentic sense began to be composed approximately around 1870s. The acclaim and recognition for authoring the first novel in Telugu goes to Narahari Gopala Krishnamma Chetti, who had penned Rangarajacharita in 1872.
Drama had made its presence felt in Telugu literature during the later part of the 19th century. Narakasura-vijaya-vyayogam (1872) by Kokkonda Venkataratnam and Abhijnana-Sakuntalam (1883) by Virasalingam are the earliest illustrations of celebrated Telugu adaptations of Sanskrit plays. Virasalingam also had gone ahead to translate Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and The Comedy of Errors in Telugu.
The mode in which Telugu literature had fitted within a set and established pattern, was perhaps the most unique of any Indian regional literatures. Indeed, so very distinct was its evolution, that each era had carried with it a new and innovative message for its readers, propagated under each genre of novel, play, prose, poetry or short story. Beginning in the pre-Christian period and still continuing in the modern times, Telugu literature was also free from influences from its Indo-Aryan languages counterpart.