Remembering Charles Philip Brown: The Englishman Who Saved Telugu Literature

 Remembering Charles Philip Brown: The Englishman Who Saved Telugu Literature
(L) Chai Biskit ; Abe Books (R)

Unforgettable American author F Scott Fitzgerald had once said, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

He could not have been more apt as he spoke of ‘belonging’ –– a feeling not described by what surrounds you, but what your surroundings make you feel. The power of literature is capable of tweaking even this emotion. As immersive as literature can be, we often look at it from a macro lens, where only the most popular works exist. Take the time to peep into regional India’s literature, and you’ll find some undeniable gems.

This perspective brings about the need to speak of an Englishman who we can thank for the revival of Telugu literature –– as bizarre as this statement sounds, this tale will make you believe otherwise.

Image Courtesy: Madras Courier

His name was Charles Philip Brown, born in (then) Calcutta in November of 1798. With the establishment of the East India Company in the 1600s came many Britishers, one of whom was Charles’s father, Reverend David Brown. Along with running an orphanage in Calcutta, senior Brown was also a Sanskrit scholar and missionary. The appreciation and fondness for languages and literature clearly passed down to his son, who was forced to move back to England after his father’s death in 1812.

Back in England, he received training at Haileybury College (previously East India College) in Hertford to be eligible to apply for the civil services in India. He then returned to Madras in 1817. Three years after his move, the then Governor of Madras, Thomas Munro declared that all civil officials must learn a local language for smoother administration, and Charles chose Telugu. He went on to study its basics, and pass the required exams, as well as those for civil services.

His first posting was with the Collector of Kadapa (also referred to as Cuddapah), Mr Hanbury, who happened to be proficient in Telugu. Following his footsteps, Charles, too, improved his Telugu and learnt the intricacies of the language –– all from the sheer will to be good at it, rather than just because the mandates called for it. He then went on to become an administrator for Machilipatnam in 1822, and later in Rajahmundry in 1825.

Under the guidance of Venkatasivasastri Tippabhatla and Advaitabrahmasastri Vatthyam, Charles took to Telegu philosopher Vemana’s literature. From here, his love for Telugu literary works only deepened, and he spent a good part of his time preserving Telugu kavyas (poems) that if left alone, would have gone extinct. He realised the lack of individuals working to preserve the literary arts of the Telugu language, and took it upon himself to do so. He collected books by the poets Tikkana and Pothana, and also edited and published several Telugu and Sanskrit books himself.

Image Courtesy: AbeBooks

Andhra Mahabhagavatamu by Pothana, considered the ‘crown jewel of Telugu literature’ and Andhra Mahabharatamu, the Telugu version of the Mahabharat by the poet trio Kavitrayam (Nannayya, Thikkana and Yerrapragada) were reprinted and republished by the writers and copyists Charles hired. Additionally, he printed Telugu-English dictionaries and authored several articles, grammar and prose books, manuscripts, and more. In fact, the Madras Oriental Library (now the Government Oriental Manuscript Library) in Chennai still houses some of his works.

A commendable characteristic of Charles was that all the money required to do any of this –– preservation, hiring, printing, among more –– was shelled out from his personal savings. He was so devoted to the cause of saving Telugu literature that he did not mind depleting his own resources. When he ran our of money, he took loans and continued his efforts. Even with all this, he performed his duties as an administrator diligently and set up two schools each in Kadapa and Machilipatnam, where children received free food and education.

1854 saw his retirement and move back to London where he became a Telugu professor at the London University before he passed away in 1884. In his honour, there exists the CP Brown Library in Kadapa.

Charles remains not only an admirable individual that worked tirelessly to preserve the literature of a language that was not even his own mother tongue, but also a man of dedication, and perseverance, with a love so undying that it made the preservation of Telugu literature possible.

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