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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Girls for Sale

Gurajada Apparao

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To purchase Girls for Sale

Title: Girls for Sale
Author: Gurajada Apparao
Genre: Drama
Written: 1892, rev. 1909 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 198 pages
Original in: Telugu
Availability: Girls for Sale - US
Girls for Sale - UK
Girls for Sale - Canada
  • Telugu title: కన్యాశుల్కం
  • Kanyasulkam: A Play from Colonial India
  • Translated and with an Introduction and an afterword on 'The Play in Context' by Velcheru Narayana Rao

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit unwieldy, but of interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 3/2/2008 Himansu S. Mohapatra

  From the Reviews:
  • "The polyphony of the play is as much to do with its multilingual surface, swirling with several languages and dialects. The play, as originally written, was a polyglot performance par excellence in which Telugu (in its spoken form mostly) jostled for space with Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and English. The English translation does its best to retain this image of an early colonial Telugu world engaged in interfacing with its own residual and emergent worlds. Transliterating and italicizing are among the devices used by the translator to preserve the foreignness of the crucial non-Telugu linguistic presences in the text. (...) This adorable and elegant translation comes closest to revealing the carnivalesque heart of this Telugu, nay, Indian, masterwork of alternative modernity." - Himansu S. Mohapatra, The Hindu

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Girls for Sale is a classic Telugu work. First performed in 1892, this is a translation of the revised version of 1909 that, as translator Velcheru Narayana Rao puts it, "has been celebrated as one of the greatest works of Telugu literature" and "has received unparalleled attention for the past fifty years and has been uniformly praised for the inimitable charm of its dialogue and for its great characters".
       As Rao notes in a note on 'Performing Kanyasulkam', the text is not particularly well-suited for staging -- most obviously because of its too-great length (indeed, the 1909 version was apparently only first performed in 1924). But while not trimmed to an easily stageable length, it is an otherwise successful theatric work -- and suitable for reading- (rather than simply viewing-) enjoyment.
       Girls for Sale is a somewhat convoluted play, though that's more because of how Apparao presents the material than the basic plot itself. Among the many things Girls for Sale can be described as is a social drama, and one of its main subjects is the (re-)marriage of widows. One main character, the somewhat Western-educated smooth-talker Girisam is enamored of a young widow and does his best to counter this:

deplorable custom in our society. A man can remarry again if a wife dies, but a woman can't remarry again after the death of her husband, no matter how young and beautiful she might be. Is this unfair or what ?
       Set around the turn of the 19th century, the characters act in a society that is both heavily influenced by the colonial English rulers (and their education-system) but also very tradition-bound. The play is full of contrasts: Madhura-Vani is a central character who is a "pleasure-woman", and there's quite a bit of risqué talk and action -- as well as quite a bit of kissing (recall that kissing was long not permitted to be shown on-screen in Indian movies ...) -- while the characters also worry about traditional mores, including the acceptability of marrying widows and similar improprieties. And this is a world where, as Rao explains in an afterword 'On Kinship and Friendship': "Telugu people generally consider it improper to call an individual by his or her given name".
       The main plotline revolves around one Brahmin, Lubdha Avadhanlu, wanting to marry the young daughter of another Brahmin. Because Lubdha Avadhanlu is already old Venk'amma, the mother of the girl, is opposed to the match, as her other daughter is already a (very young) widow, and she doesn't want the same fate to befall another daughter. Venk'amma's brother, Karataka-sastri, comes up with a plan, procuring another young bride to take the place of Venk'amma's daughter -- except that the bride is no girl at all, but rather Karataka-sastri's young student, a boy who can still convincingly play a girl. After the marriage the boy disappears, leading to a charge of murder being brought against Lubdha Avadhanlu.
       Full of trickery, double-dealing, and disguises, several characters think they're being very clever but, of course, wind up causing more confusion and complications. Madhura-Vani, Girisam, and Karataka-sastri all entertainingly string others along -- but not all get what they want: as one character notes in the play's closing line: "Damn it, the story has taken a wrong turn" -- though, of course, others have been buffeted by the many previous wrong turns all along.
       Apparao is particularly strong in the different voices he gives these characters, from those who get hoodwinked to the lazy students who learn nothing to the seductive-manipulative Madhura-Vani. The role of English and the meeting and clash of cultures is also constantly prominently on display -- obviously so in Girisam's extensive use of English words and phrases (these and words from other foreign languages are presented in the original but italicized in the translation). While an English education is considered useful -- and certainly helps Girisam bluff his way through many situations -- not everyone takes well to this foreign infiltration: as Girisam recounts:
I had hardly begun the introduction when a couple of English words slipped past my tongue. Immediately your father fell into a rage and yelled: "These dirty English words ! All Brahmin-hood is ruined with this bastard learning. Morning prayers and chants to gods and goddesses have been lost long ago. Now you bark those profane words even at mealtime as they were gods' tongue."
       The provocative social intent does not always blend well with the often broad comedy, but Girls for Sale is fairly entertaining. The translation isn't so much awkward as ultimately unsure in tone, but it's difficult material to deal with, neither truly classical nor completely modern; the unfortunate choice of the English title (which makes the play sound far more -- and differently -- sensational than it actually is) already suggests how difficult the balance is to strike. When one character is hungry but is shushed by another by the words: "You can pig out later" it simply doesn't sound quite right; Rao makes some better choices elsewhere, but overall there's too much of an uneasy mix between the too-contemporary casual and the very traditional.
       The critical apparatus included in the book, from the notes to the various afterwords, is helpful, though even more context would probably be useful for non-Indian readers.
       Girls for Sale is both of literary and historical interest, though not the smoothest of reads.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 March 2010

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Girls for Sale: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Gurajada Apparao (గురజాడ అప్పారావు) lived 1862 to 1915.

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