In this patriarchal society, women are often defined in terms of their husband. Kondapalli Koteswaramma, a communist leader, writer and feminist, was popularly known as Sitaramayya’s wife even after he had left her, disregarding her significant contribution to the movements she had been a part of. She was affiliated with four major movements in her state; the social reform movement, the freedom struggle, the communist movement and the Naxalite movement. She was also running underground during the Telangana armed struggle.
She had lived a long revolutionary life and her voice was one of those rare voices from the margins which helped reconstitute a politics which is both inclusive and extensive, and aimed to build a better world.
Kondapalli Koteswaramma was born in a rich peasant Reddy family, in Andhra Pradesh in 1920. She was married off to her maternal uncle when she was barely 4-5 years old. Soon after his death, she was left as a child widow.
She went to school and grew up in the days of freedom movement. She was barely 10, when in an encounter with Gandhi, she, along with other women joined the Congress party in Vijayawada. But, she was soon disillusioned with the party’s stand against Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Nationalist movement was facing ideological and strategic opposition from the communists and the socialists. In Andhra, western education had spread through the medium of English in schools and colleges set up by British government. Literary associations too became active and it was about this time that the seeds of Communism were being sown in coastal Andhra region. The Communist Party and its associate movement formed much of the backdrop of Koteswaramma’s life.
Along with Mahila Sangathan activists she took part in rallies, reproduced and sold Party literature from village to village, and was an active member of cultural troupe.
The party she was associated with is said to have been found in Andhra in 1934 when Andhra Provincial Organising Committee was formed at a meeting of communist representatives from different districts in Vijayawada. It was banned and mostly remained underground. It was only in 1942 that the ban was lifted.
Her family and Party members arranged her remarriage with Sitaramayya who was already a party worker at that time. She began working as a Party activist extensively. Along with Mahila Sangathan activists she took part in rallies, reproduced and sold Party literature from village to village, and was an active member of cultural troupe. When repression on the Party became severe, she went underground for 5 years (1946-1951) coinciding with the peaking of Telangana peasant movement, a movement against oppressive feudalism.
The agitation was successful in liberating over 3000 villages, and 10 acres of land were distributed to landless peasants. However, fissures began to appear within the Party, soon after the revolt which intensified in 1962. Koteswaramma was deeply hurt and disappointed at Party’s split. She continued to send money to both the factions of Party, for her there was only one CPI. She recounted in her memoir that,
‘Every Mayday they raised slogans asking the workers of the world to unite. But they never unite themselves. Out of the seven factions of the party, who will secure workers the free and equal world that all of them had together envisaged for?‘
Kondapalli Koteswaramma penned various books, essays and songs till date. The notable ones include Amma Cheppina Aidu Geyalu, Ashru Sameekshanam (1991), Sanghamitra Kathalu (1991). Her autobiography Nirjana Vaaradhi (2012) was published by the Hyderabad Book Trust and it took the Telugu literary world by shock. It was translated to English as The Sharp Knife of Memory and into several other Indian languages soon.
Her writings tell us about the movements, its lows and highs and the difficulties faced by ordinary activists. A world completely forgotten, communists of yesterday seem dreamlike figures in today’s commercialised world. Reading her accounts, we find that the history of left movement largely has been that of upper caste Hindu men. Minorities do not appear. Women would largely enter as cooks, stenographers, keepers etc. Marxist orthodoxy would give no room for the discussion on caste until pressure was built from below.
People who have worked in radical movements but have been forced into inactivity faced depression. Differences in the lives of women while in the movement and out, were far more stark than men, since they invested more in terms of lifestyle and aspirations. This is an extremely painful process and has not been written about, and this is what we can read in the silences of Koteswaramma’s text.
Her autobiography Nirjana Vaaradhi won her a Telugu Sahitya Academy award. She expressed hope that the youth will fight for a better society and an expansive vision of the terrain of political struggle.
When she returned to Andhra, she faced trials for activism, abandonment by her husband, and her children were taken away. In 1960, she began the process of rebuilding her life. She studied for 5 years in a hostel for destitute women and wrote plays for sustaining herself. Even in those times of economic hardship, she would regularly send ten rupees per month as levy to the party.
Her autobiography Nirjana Vaaradhi won her a Telugu Sahitya Academy award. She expressed hope that the youth will fight for a better society and an expansive vision of the terrain of political struggle. She died on September 19, 2018 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
Revolutionary remembrance to her. May she continue to rest in power!