There has long been a general consensus among “insiders” in the world of South Asian scholarship that Velcheru Narayana Rao’s contribution to understanding Indian cultural history, literary production, and intellectual life— specifically from the vantage of the Andhra region—has few parallels. However, unlike the writings of his friend A.K. Ramanujan, Narayana Rao’s writings in English remain little recognized by the broader public.
Nevertheless, several features make Narayana Rao’s work utterly extraordinary. He is one of the very rare scholars to be able to reflect magisterially on both the pre-colonial and colonial periods. In part, this is because of his mastery of the “classical” Telugu tradition. As Sanjay Subrahmanyam puts it in his Introduction, “To command nearly a thousand years of a literary tradition is no small feat, but more important still is VNR’s ability constantly to offer fresh readings and provocative frameworks for interpretation.” Further, Narayana Rao’s work moves fluidly between the Sanskrit and vernacular traditions, and between the worlds of orality and script.
The essays and reflections in Text and Tradition in South India bring together the diverse contributions made by Velcheru Narayana Rao to the rewriting of India’s cultural and literary history. No-one seriously interested in the history of Indian ideas, the social and cultural history of South India, and the massive intellectual traditions of the subcontinent can do without this book.
Velcheru Narayana Rao (b. 1932) is a renowned scholar of Indian cultural and literary history. After his education in India, he taught Telugu and Indian literatures for thirty-eight years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has also taught at the University of Chicago, and is currently Visiting Distinguished Professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University. He has written more than fifteen books, many in collaboration with David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. These include Textures of Time: Writing History in South India (Permanent Black, 2001), and a translation of Peddana’s The Story of Manu (with David Shulman; Harvard University Press, 2015).