‘Digambara Kavi’ Nikhileswar, an ardent advocate of civil rights, chosen for Sahitya Akademi Award

Published : March 13, 2021 18:17 IST

Revolutionary poet Nikhileswar. A file picture. Photo: K.N. Murali Sankar

Renowned Telugu writer and poet, well known for his revolutionary writings and participation in civil rights movements, Kumbham Yadava Reddy, has been chosen for the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-2020.

Chosen for his anthology of poems Agniswaasa, penned in 2017, the 83year-old Kumbham Yadava Reddy is popularly known by his pen name Nikhileswar and is one among the six ‘Digambara Kavulu’ (naked poets). He has for nearly six decades as a poet kept a focus on social issues, writing against the violation of human rights and the feudal system and corruption in government, writings for which he and others like him were branded traitors and jailed.

A strong critic of the arrest and treatment meted out to the rights activist Varavara Rao, Nikhileswar was the founder-secretary of Viplava Rachayithala Sangham (Virasam) and was jailed under the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1971 purportedly for his revolutionary writings and participating in civil rights movements. Nikhileswar has also contributed to the English and Hindi languages.

Born in Veeravalli village, in the present day Yadadri Bhongir district of Telangana, as Kumbham Yadava Reddy, he completed his B.A. and B.Ed degrees from Osmania University, before serving first as a civilian schoolteacher in the Army and then as a clerk in the Indian Air Force. He also held jobs as a sub-editor in Golconda Patrika, a Telugu-vernacular journal, before joining as a teacher in the Keshav Memorial School between 1966 and 1996. Joining a group of five other similarly minded young Telugu poets, who came together and called themselves as ‘Digambara Kavulu’ (naked poets), all of whom decided to drop their caste-based names and assume new ones. Kumbham Yadav Reddy assumed the name Nikhileswar.

The first anthology of the Digambara Kavulu was released in May 1965 by a rickshaw puller on a pavement in Hyderabad, the second volume in December 1966 by a hotel employee in Vijayawada, and the third in 1968 by a destitute in Visakhapatnam, which was dedicated to Kanchikacherla Koteshu, a Dalit boy who was set afire in a caste-related incident.

In 1969, during his tenure as a guest editor for the monthly magazine Poet, which was published from Chennai, Nikhileswar got Digambara Kavitvam translated into English. Nikhileswar’s works include Mandutunna Taram (1972), Life: The Edge of the Knife (in English) and Itihas ke Mod Par (in Hindi). He later parted ways with Virasam and became the founder-member of Jana Sahithi Samskrutika Samakhya and was associated with organisations such as the Andhra Pradesh Teachers’ Federation and others.

On contemporary Telugu poetry, Nikhileswar has been quoted as saying that while some Telugu poets and writers were doing a good job, the latest trend in a section of poets/writers has been to pledge slavery (udigam) to the rulers, which he termed as a “very dangerous trend”. Nikhileswar has time and again in recent years expressed the view that young Telugu poets and writers were keener on earning instant fame and name, and towards this end had conveniently given up progressive poetry about women, Dalits, and the minorities. The poetry and writings were based more on their own personal experiences rather than on social happenings or any social consciousness.