Thursday, July 14, 2011

DAMERLA Family History
(subject to corrections, additions and elaborations by you all)

To the best of my knowledge, the name DAMERLA pops up first in the 1600s when one Mr Damerla was said to have donated some land to the British to build the Fort St George or some other structure in Chennappapattanam. Attempts to get more information on this from Doordarshan have failed. Internet has some entries for our contemporaries, but nothing that goes back a few centuries. We have no way of knowing whether he was a brahmin or a wealthy land-owning chettiar. Brahmins generally tend to be pure in living habits, but hopelessly poor when it comes to wealth. So, he may or may not have been an ancestor of ours. A few years ago our cousin, Balu, was pleasantly surprised when a very pretty girl walked into his office and announced that she was Anita Damerla, but not a brahmin!

That apart, we trace our name Damerla to the village DAAMÉRÁ in Khammam district. Some years ago I was driving from Hyderabad to Rajahmundry, a pretty long stretch to do between breakfast and dusk on indifferently made and poorly maintained district roads. On the Khammam to Ashwaraopet stretch I was informed that the Daamérá village is a few kilometres off the road. I was running short of time and so could not go off the road to investigate. Though I did very much wanted to do so. That was the reason for taking that interior route instead of going via Vijayawada, with its better roads.

Our family lore states that one of our ancestors moved from Daamérá to Rajamahendravaram. He was said to be very religious and believed he will go to heaven if he dies at a place where a river is an uttaravaahini. Rivers in India which originate in the Himalayas generally flow from North to South, even though they meander to the east or west in their course. Then, those that originate in the Western ghats flow west to east and a few others flow east to west from the high hinterland to the seas on our west coast. We do not come across any river that flows from the South to North. Being a rarity, this feature is given religious and heavenly attributes.

But we all know that the Godavari does not flow south to north at Rajahmundry. Perhaps our ancestor was wrongly informed or he chose to settle in Rajahmundry because of the kôti lingaalu there, which makes it a holy place anyway, second only to Vàranási.

We, that means I, have no idea of the name of this pious ancestor of ours. I have no idea of when he came to settle on the gôdaavari theeram. I am further ignorant of the number of generations that have passed since his arrival at the kôti lingaalu. That’s why I said it is family lore, though we have no reason for not believing his moving from Daamérá to Rajahmundry.
Our documented family history, that is, what I could document., starts five generations ago, with Sri Seethaaramayya, my great great grandfather. I have not been able to put a date to him in spite of my best efforts. Now, I am most pleased to see great grand children for my generation. That makes it eight generations. Chitra and Priya here are the seventh generation down the Damerla family tree and their children are the eighth generation.

The boys that carry the Damerla name forward are rather limited. Right now we have Tukkibabu’s son Sudhir in the seventh generation and a lot is riding on him to push the family tree forward with members that will carry the family name forward. I do hope Teddy and Dennis, already married, will extend helping hands to him in the very near future.

That is really not very material. The girls in the family and their children are doing very well. You will pardon me if I say with justifiable pride that they are really doing extremely well. Tracing them down the generations becomes difficult. Two generations down, children of the Damerla girls cease to have any attachment for the Damerla name. Quite rightly too, they must take pride in their father’s family.

Now, let us talk about our illustrious ancestors, at least some of them, about whom we know. Our family has been lucky to have had some really admirable predecessors with qualities and achievements we can emulate with pride and profit.

The first senior that strikes me as being admirable is the totally self-educated and self-made man Venkata Ramana Row. He learnt English without a tutor and he wrote ROW, little realising that he was inadvertently making his name end in a word that means a fight. He learnt aayurveda from a Vaidya, which comes traditionally free once a student is accepted, then he learnt yunaani system of medicine from a Hakeem and best of all learnt allopathy from text books, one of them being the well known and still studied Grey’s Anatomy. According to his perception, he gave medicines from whichever system or a combination he thought was most appropriate to result in a rapid cure. He would get snake charmers to come and squeeze venom for use in medicines.

He formulated the prescriptions and either he or his compounder made them, often in a mortar and pestle, which was around till the 1960s. Without any need to be apologetic, it can be said safely that he was the best, wealthiest and most respected doctor in the then small town of Rajahmundry with a population of just thirty thousand souls. Here is an interesting sidelight: He built a two-room extension with a verandah for use as his clinic. He would sit on a rich carpet against bolsters in the larger room and treat his important and rich clients there, while the hoi polloi would wait on benches on the verandah!

Professor Venkatrao, M.A., L.T (there was no B.Ed in his time) was perhaps one of the most respected sons of the family. He was not only an extremely well read professor of history who retired as the head of the department of History in the Government Training College in Rajahmundry, he was also a highly respected social activist and public speaker. He was personally responsible for mobilising public opinion which succeeded in converting the rail only planned bridge across the Godavari into a rail cum road bridge to provide a road crossing on the river between Rajahmundry and Kovvur. He is the epitome of stoicism: he took the loss of all his four children and his deeply loved wife with great equanimity and continued to do his bit for the society and humanity as a social activist and educator. Early in his life, as an Inspector of Schools, he would ride a horse to reach inaccessible rural schools, a far cry from today’s inspectors who will not move unless they are given a car – duty be damned!

The most illustrious son of the family who got international recognition for himself is the artist Rama Rao. He was not a good student and spent the family’s money on art without earning any money. An indulgent father who recognised his potential talent let him have his way. His talent was recognised by the principal of the local Government Arts College – it is celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2006 – Prof Oswald J Couldrey (pronounced cooldree) and he sent him to the JJ School of Art in Bombay. He did well and produced a profusion of pencil sketches, watercolours and oils. He won royal patronage in Kathiawad and international fame. His favourite live model was his wife, the beautiful Satyavani, who was with us till a few years ago (199?). We can collectively take great and justifiable pride in the fact that his style of painting became the Damerla Rama Rao School of Art. Another Ravi Verma, if he had lived a full life. But smallpox claimed him at twenty-eight in an era when vaccination was unknown in the small town of Rajahmundry. Today we have wiped out smallpox in our country, but too late for Rama Rao! His works were first displayed for public exhibition in the ancestral house and later in 1956 (?) an art gallery was built by the family as a permanent home for his works. The family also ran an art school there for budding artists, many of them have grown to be successful artists. Later, the gallery was handed over to the Andhra Pradesh government in 1979 (?) which has now built another building next to the one built by the family. INTACH has recognised his work as a nationan treasure.

Things were very different a hundred years ago. A widow’s life was nothing less than living hell on earth. It was worse still when the lady was widowed before her puberty. Bhaskaramma Àdurthy was one such victim, the first born of Dr Ramana Row. But no banishment for life to the cookhouse in the in-laws’ place for her. The family rallied behind her, she was sent to school, studied to be a teacher and retired as the headmistress of a government school for girls in Rajahmundry. It was the limit of progressive outlook on the part of the father in early twentieth century and sheer grit and determination on the part of the daughter. She braved social stigma and overt derision and insults when she stepped out of the home to the school, first to learn and then to teach.

Sacrifice was nothing new to the family. Sacrifice for the family yes, but sacrifice for the country? What is that! That is Butchikrishnamma Digumarthi. She joined her husband in the fight for independence and willingly agreed to forego parenthood along with her husband to be able to concentrate on the exciting journey to win independence for the country. After independence she served the Kasturba Trust in an ashram in the small village of Seethanagaram, in the back of nowhere. She had willingly given up city lights for work to uplift the less fortunate rural sisters. In the midst of all this she blossomed into a fine painter of watercolours. She made money too when she painted a classic picture of Mahatma Gandhi being shot and falling with “Hey Ràm” on his lips. But not for herself like today’s millionaire painters. Proceeds from its sale went a long way in financing the building for the Rama Rao Art Gallery and School.

DVR Rao (Nani)

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