Touchstone to Telugu tales

K V Kurmanath | Updated on January 20, 2018
Story keepers: Rama Rao, who had initially rejected awards, began to accept them to fund Katha Nilayam, which now boasts 433 anthologies and 2,604 collections. Photo: Basheer

Story keepers: Rama Rao, who had initially rejected awards, began to accept them to fund Katha Nilayam, which now boasts 433 anthologies and 2,604 collections. Photo: Basheer   -  Business Line

Kalipatnam Rama Rao. Photo: KV Kurmanath

Kalipatnam Rama Rao. Photo: KV Kurmanath   -  Business Line

Katha Nilayam, with its 88,000-strong collection, is the first stop for any queries on Telugu short stories

Just before we begin our conversation, the 92-year-old Kalipatnam Rama Rao gets a call from a research scholar in Warangal. The caller wants to know whether a particular story written by Tadi Nagamma in the 1930s is stocked in Rao’s library. “I will have it checked,” Rao assures him, and immediately alerts Vivina Murthy, who is digitising about 88,000 Telugu short stories collected over the past 19 years at the Katha Nilayam in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district. “If the story is available, the researcher will be sent a copy. If not, we will search for it,” says Rao, known as KaRa in literary circles.

Rao says the library has about 80 per cent of all the short stories written in Telugu in the last 137 years. “We will strive to collect the remaining 20 per cent before they get lost in the sands of time,” he says. “The other day we got a call from a man in Khammam who wants to publish, as a collection, the stories written by his 90-year-old father. But he couldn’t find the copies. We are looking for them,” he says.

Calls like these are common for both Rao and Murthy. Katha Nilayam has emerged as a one-stop shop for all queries on Telugu short stories. It is the first point of reference for hundreds of research scholars and Telugu teachers from across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The library now has 433 anthologies and 2,604 collections, besides scores of books on critical appraisals of short stories and writers.

Rao himself has authored stories that deal with complex human relationships in villages in very simple language. He shot to fame in 1964 with his story “Yagnam”, which also kicked off a debate that is yet to settle. In the story, the protagonist kills his son to finish an endless cycle of debt.

The idea of a library struck Rao in 1995 when friend and fellow writer Madhurantakam Rajaram failed to find some stories he was looking for to include in an anthology. “If this has happened to stories written just a few years ago, we could imagine the fate of those written decades ago. I immediately decided to start collecting them,” says Rao.

He bought a piece of land in Srikakulam with the cash prize of ₹1.1 lakh he won for the Jan Peeth award in 1995. A writer who had rejected awards till then, Rao began to accept them to fund his project. He got help from readers too, and as Katha Nilayam slowly built, Rao set up a trust to manage it. To make sure that Katha Nilayam has a bright future, Rao wrote a ‘will’, entrusting the trust with all the rights in managing the library. As a policy, the library doesn’t charge a fee. “We have two accounts — one for maintenance requirements and the other for the corpus. We have a corpus of ₹18 lakh which has been built over the years,” says Rao, also a retired schoolteacher.

He never misses any event that has something to do with short stories. Accompanied by his son Subba Rao, a retired engineer who is also a writer, he travels long distances to meet writers, critics and readers and collect anthologies. Stories and anthologies now pour in from different parts of the two Telugu States.

His stature as one of the greatest short story writers has helped build the collection. But Rao downplays his role. He credits the library to the team of volunteers who have pitched in at every step. “Anybody could have done it. It happens that I started it. But for the contribution from scores of people, it would not have been possible,” he asserts.

The library helped push back the history of Telugu short story by about 30 years — from 1910 to 1879. “We published an anthology of 82 stories that were written before Gurazada Appa Rao’s “Diddubatu,” considered to be the first short story till then,” says Murthy, who took up the job of digitising the short stories after his retirement. Rachapalem Chandrasekhara Reddy, who teaches Telugu at the Yogi Vemana University in Kadapa, calls the Katha Nilayam a treasure-trove and an inspiration for researchers. “Information on any short story or writer is just a phone call away. It helps our students a lot in their research,” he says.

“Of the 88,000 stories in the library, 12,000 are available in the pdf format. We don’t want people to travel to Srikakulam to access these stories. We intend to make them available online,” says Murthy, also an author of over 150 short stories.

He and his writer wife Ramalakshmi shifted to Srikakulam from Bengaluru to take care of the digitisation. The Manasu Foundation, which has been publishing the complete works of Telugu literary giants, is helping the library in the process.

Published on April 15, 2016

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