Nannaya’s Mahabharatam (1030 A.D.), which is an adaptation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, marks the beginning of the Telugu literature. This work, which is rendered in the Campu style, is so chaste and polished and of such a high literary merit that many scholars do not rule out the possibility of the existence of literary works in Telugu in the pre-Nannaya period. This argument is based on the inscriptional evidence of the 7th century, which shows metrical compositions rendered in Telugu. Nananaya’s Mahabharatam could not be completed during his lifetime. Nannaya is also credited with a grammatical work, the Andhra Sabda Chintamani.
In the period 500-1100 A.D., Telugu was confined to the poetic works and flourished in the courts of kings and among scholars. This period also saw the translation of Ganitasara, a mathematical treatise of Mahivaracharya, into Telugu by Pavuluri Mallana. The real development of Telugu began during the period 1100-1600 A.D. when the language got stylized and rigid, closing itself from the influence of contemporary spoken language.
The twelfth and the thirteenth centuries A.D. saw the emergence of the Lingayata school of thought or Virasaivism, which propagated bhakti towards Siva as the only means of attaining salvation. The reflection of Virasaivism was also on the Telugu literature. Nannecodu, the first of the Saiva poets in Telugu, wrote the great kavya Kumara-sambhavamu in campu style. Palakuriki Somanatha (c.1200-1240) was the pioneer in creating new literary genres in Telugu like gadya, ragada, sataka and udaharana. His famous works are Basava Puranamu and Panditaradhyacharita, which are biographies of the two great Saiva saints Basaveshvara and Panditaradhya. The first translation of Ramayana in Telugu, which is referred to as Ranganatha Ramayana, is credited to Gona Buddha Reddi (13th century). Tikkanna Somyaji (1200-1300 A.D.) brought together the Saivaite and non-Saivaite schools of Telugu poets. His first work was Nirvacanottara Ramayanamu written in Kavya style. He undertook the task of completing the translation of Mahabharata left unfinished by Nannaya and succeeded in completing the remaining fifteen parvans. Ketana (13th century A.D.) translated Dasakumaracharita of Dandin and dedicated it to Tikkana. His other great work is a grammatical treatise known as Andhra-bhasa-bhusanamu, which is the first work of its kind in Telugu.
The other notable works of this period include Markandeya Purana by Marana, Keyurabahu-caritramu by Mancanna and Krishnamacharya’s Simhagiri Narahari Vacanamulu. Yerrana (1280-1350 A.D.), who was the court poet of the Reddy kings, was the first poet to render Harivamsa into Telugu. His Narsimha Puranamu is considered as a landmark since it initiated the Prabhanda style of writing in Telugu literature. He completed the translation of the Mahabharata started by Nannaya. Thus, the three poets Nannaya, Tikkana and Yerrana, who completed the translation of Mahabharata in Telugu are referred as kavitraya or the trinity of poets in Telugu literature.
The period 1400-1500 A.D. in the Telugu literary history is described as the Age of Srinatha. The popular Telugu literary form called the Prabandha (a story in verse having a tight metrical scheme) evolved during this period. Srinatha (1365-1440 A.D.) was the King of poets or Kavi-sarvabhauma in the court of the Reddy kings and was given the royal honour of Kanakabhiseka. Srinatha’s major works include Sringara Naishadham, Haravilasamu, Bhimeshvara Puranamu, Kasikhandamu and Palanati-viracharitramau, all of which are now extant. Bamera Potana (1400-1475 A.D.) translated the Bhagwata Purana into Telugu in his Mahabhagavatamu. Pinavirabhadrudu (1450-80 A.D.) adapted Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in Telugu in his Sakuntala-parinayamu. He also translated the Puranic stories into Telugu in his Jaimini Bharatamu. Dubagunta Narayana (1450-1500) adapted the Panchatantra in Telugu. Annamacharya (1408-1503 A.D.), a bhakta poet, composed thousands of devotional songs or sankritanas of high literary and musical value. His wife Timmamba, believed to be the first Telugu poetess, wrote Subhadra-kalyanamu. Nandi Mallaya and Ghanta Singaya translated the Prabodhacandrodava and Varaha Purana in Telugu. The other great Telugu translation works of this period include Padma Puranamu, Vasistha Ramayanamu and Nachiketopakhyanamu.
The Vijayanagara period (1336-1565 A.D.) can be considered as the golden age of Telugu literature. Nachana Somanatha, a court poet of Bukka I, produced a poetical work called Uttaraharivamsamu. Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529 A.D.), the greatest of the Vijayanagara emperors, was himself a poet of great merit. His Amuktamalayada, a mahakavya, is an excellent example of Prabandha style in Telugu literature. It is believed that eight Telugu literary luminaries called the Ashtadiggajas adorned the court of Krishnadevaraya. These were Allasani Peddana, Nandi Timmanna, Madayagari Mallana, Dhurjati, Ayyalaraju Ramabhadra Kavi, Pingali Surana, Ramaraja Bhushana (Bhattumurthi) and Tenali Ramakrishna. Peddana, who was regarded as the ‘Andhra Kavita Pitamaha’, authored Manucharitra, which is another outstanding Telugu mahakavya rendered in Prabandha style.
Timmanna’s Parijathapaharanamu, Djurjati’s Kalahasteeswara Mahatmyan and Kalahasteeswara Satakam, Surana’s Raghavapandaviyam, Kalapurnodayam and Prabhavati-Pradyumnamu, Bhattumurti’s Vasucharitram, Narasabhupaliyam and Harischandra Nalopakhyanam, Mallana’s Rajasekharacharita, Ramabhadra’s Ramabhyudayam and Sakalakathasara Sangraham and Tenali Ramakrishna’s Panduranga-mahatmyamu are some of the great Prabhanda style works of the Vijayanagara period. Another poet Chintalapudi Ellanarya (1510-1560 A.D.) authored two great poems Radha-Madhavamu and Tarakabrahmarajiyamu while Narasimha Kavi authored the Kavikarna Rasayana. Kummari Molla, a poetess of this period, authored Ramayanamu which retains its popularity even today for its beautiful descriptions and lucid style.
The Telugu literature also flourished during the Qutub Shahi dynasty of Golkonda (1518-1687 A.D.), which saw the composition of great Telugu works like Tapati-samvaranamu (1565 A.D.) by Addanki Gangadhara Kavi; Yayaticharitramu (1578 A.D.) by Ponnikanti Telaganarya; Nirankusopakhyanamu by Kandukuru Rudra Kavi, Satcakravaticharitramu by Malla Reddy; Vaijayanti-vilasamu by Sarungu Timmanna, the court poet of Ibrahim Qutub Shah and Raghava-Yadava-Pandaviyamu by Balasarasvati.
Telugu literature flourished in the South under the patronage of the Nayaka kings of Madurai and Tanjavur. A large number of poets among the rulers, women and non-Brahmins popularised the desi metres during this period, which is called the `Southern Period’. King Raghunatha Nayaka (1600-1631 A.D.) wrote Achyutabhyudayamu, Nalcharitramu and Valmikicharitramu. Kandukuri Rudra Kavi wrote Sugrivavijayamu in 1568 A.D., which is considered as the first Yakshagana in Telugu King Vijaraghava Nayaka (1633-1673 A.D.) was a prolific writer and composed over twenty Yakshaganas. The first prose in Telugu also appeared under the patronage of the Nayaka kings of Madurai. Sthanapati wrote Rayavacakamu, which is a prose biography of Krishnadevaraya. Kameshwara Kavi’s Dhenumahatmyamu and Satyabhama-santvanamu, Venkata Krishnappa’s Sarangadharacharitramu, Radhikasnatvanamu and Ahalya-samkrandanamu and Venkatacalapati’s Mitravindaparinayamu are the great prose works of this period.
With the conquest of the Deccan by the Mughals in 1687 A.D., there ensued a period of decadence (1750-1850 A.D.) in Telugu literature. However, the few poets of importance who emerged during this period include Kucimanci Timma Kavi, Adidamu Sura Kavi, Kucimanci Jagga Kavi, Kankanti Paparaju, Sishtu Krishnamurti, Pindiprolu Lakshmana Kavi, Madina Subhadramma and Tarigonda Venkamamba. There was a period of transition from 1850-1910 A.D., followed by a long period of Renaissance. Chinnaya Suri’s Nitichandrika (1853 A.D.), Suryaprakasa Kavi’s Sitaramacharitra and Krishnarjunacharitra and Matsa Venkata Kavi’s Kusalavacharitra were important works of this period. Europeans like C.P.Brown played an important role in the development of Telugu language and literature. In common with the rest of India, Telugu literature of this period was increasingly influenced by the European literary forms like the novel, short story, prose and drama.
Kandukuri Viresalingam Pantulu (1848-1919) is considered as the father of modern Telugu literature. He was the pioneer in the field of Telugu journalism and started three journals, Vivekavardhini (1874 A.D.), Hasyasanjivini (1876 A.D.) and Satihitabodhini (1885 A.D.). He was the first person in modern times to use literature to eradicate social evils. He also wrote the novel Rajasekhara Charitamu inspired by the Vicar of Wakefield. He was followed by other distinguished poets like Rayaprolu Subba Rao, Gurajada Appa Rao, Katuri Venkateswara Rao, Jashuva, Devulapalli Venkata Krishna Sastry, Sri Sri, Puttaparty Narayana Charyulu and others.
Gurajada was the first to make experiments in new poetry in his Mutyalasaramulu (1910 A.D.). His Kanyasulkam, the first social play in Telugu became very popular. In the 1920s and 1930s the Telugu poets were greatly influenced by the English Romantic poets and their writings came to be known as bhava-kavitvam or the poetry of imagination. R.Subba Rao’s Trinakankanam (1913), D.Krishna Sastri’s Krishnapaksam (1924), D.Rami Reddy’s Palitakesam and Adivi Bapiraju’s Sasikala belong to this genre of poetry. The important Telugu poets of the post-Independence period are A.Subba Rao, Bhagavatula Sankara Sastri (‘Arudra’), A.Somasundara, Gangineni, Rentala, K.V.Ramana Reddy, Umamaheshwar, Srirangam Narayana Babu, Pattabhi, C.Narayana Reddy, Dasarathi, Kundurti Anjaneyulu, Madiraju Ranga Rao, Boyi Bhimanna and Vishwanatha Satyanarayana. Viswanatha Satyanarayana had won the coveted Jnanapith Award in 1970 for his magnum opus Ramayana-kalpavriksham.
During the Nineties, the progressive movement, free verse movement and Digambara style found their expression in Telugu verse. Telugu novels in their real sense began to be written only around 1870s. The credit for writing the first novel in Telugu goes to Narahari Gopala Krishnamma Chetti, who wrote Rangarajacharita in 1872. The well-known modern Telugu novelists were Dharanipragada Venkata Siva Rao (Bhuvanimohini – 1901), Vella Subba Rao (Ranisamyukta – 1908), Unnava Lakshminarayana (Malapalli – 1921), Viswanatha Satyanarayana (Veyi Padagalu – 1934), Tirupaneni Gopichand (Asamarthuni Jiyayatra – 1945), Kutumba Rao and Buchchi Babu (Civaraku Migiledi -1952).
Drama made its appearance in the Telugu literature during the later part of the nineteenth century. Narakasura-vijaya-vyayogam (1872) by Kokkonda Venkataratnam and Abhijnana-Sakuntalam (1883) by Virasalingam are the earliest examples of Telugu adaptations of Sanskrit plays. Virasalingam also translated Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and The Comedy of Errors in Telugu. His Harishcahandra (1880s) is the first important original drama in Telugu. The other important Telugu dramas include Korada Ramachandra Kavi’s Manjari Madhukariyam (1860), Venkataraya Sastri’s Prataparudriyam (1897), K.Subba Rao’s Roshanara (1921) and G.V.Subba Rao’s Khilji-rajyapatanam (1931). Of the important social plays, mention must be made of Kanthabharanam (1917) of P.Lakshmi Narasimha Rao and Tappevaridi (1929) of P.Venkata Rajamannar. Rajamannar also wrote a number of one-act plays like Deyyalu Lanka (1930) and Emimagvallu (1947). The first autobiography in Telugu literature was attempted by Viresalingam in the form of Sviya Charitra in 1910.