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Appeasement of Radhika

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Appeasement of Radhika


  The Appeasement of Radhika

  Radhika Santawanam

  Translated by

  Sandhya Mulchandani



  About the Author




  Radhika Santawanam


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four


  Works Consulted


  Copyright Page


  MUDDUPALANI (1730–1790), born in Tamil Nadu, was an accomplished courtesan who became the bhoga-patni of the Maratha king Pratapsimha who ruled Thanjavur from 1730 to 1763. In Radhika Santawanam, she brings to her work her own sensibilities, expectations and skill of love experienced and lost. Muddupalani’s work would have languished in some dusty backroom of history or, worse, been completely lost, had it not been for the unrelenting efforts of another equally talented and determined woman, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who restored Muddupalani to her rightful place in literary history a century later.

  SANDHYA MULCHANDANI is a researcher and writer, and has been associated with the print media for over two decades. She is the author of several books including Kama Sutra for Women, Erotic Literature of Ancient India, Five Arrows of Kama and The Indian Man: His True Colours. She lives in New Delhi.

  Radhika raman, ambuja nayana, Nanda nandana, nath he

  Gopika pran, manmatha mathana, vishwa ranjan Krishna he

  Radhika’s lover, lotus-eyed one, beloved son of Nanda, Life force of all gopis, churner of hearts, Lord of the world, Hail to thee, Krishna


  It was a time of chaos and anarchy. After a millennium of glory, the Eden of the South was under siege. The soaring vimana of the famous Brihadeeshwara temple, outstanding monument to southern artistic sensibilities, bore mute witness to unprecedented change. After being ruled by the imperial Cholas, Hoysalas and Nayaks, it had now been subjugated by the Maratha general Venkoji Raja Bhosale, half-brother of the great warrior Shivaji. Fortuitously, this event turned out to be propitious for this centre of learning. Celebrated for its temple architecture, literature, music, painting and other diverse art forms, Thanjavur benefited greatly from the Marathi-speaking kings who administered their kingdom in the Telugu language, while ruling over a Tamil-speaking population. This unique hybrid produced an unusual and highly evolved courtly culture.

  Pratapsimha, who ruled Thanjavur from AD 1730 to 1763, was at first an unlikely ruler, being the illegitimate son of Raja Tukkoji Bhosale and a concubine called Annapurna. However, he did ascend the throne after the untimely death of the king’s eldest son and was immediately caught up between the warring French and English colonial powers. His reign was one of palace intrigues, civic disturbances and constant wars but, despite this, he went on to become one of the great kings of Thanjavur. He was secular—he built the mosque at Angora—and a prolific intellectual—he penned several Marathi works like Krishna Manjari, Uma Samhita and Parijata Nataka. A linguist and art enthusiast, he welcomed poets and scholars from all over India into his court; in particular, he is known to have patronized renowned musicians like Veerabhadraya as well as four brothers known as the Thanjavur Quartet, who codified musical traditions and sadir that became the forerunner for the dance form that is today known as Bharatanatyam.

  Besides the Maratha kings’ finely developed sense of aesthetics, the city of Thanjavur was also renowned for its courtesans. An intrinsic part of Indian tradition for several centuries, they find mention in the early Puranas that record the custom of dedicating maidens to temple deities. Variously known as devadasis (servants of gods), devaradiyal (slave of god), bhogam (embodiment of enjoyment), kalavati (receptacle of the arts) and gudisani (temple lady), these women were the hereditary proprietors of the performing arts. Fêted and celebrated as nagara shobhinis (ornaments of the city), the rich aesthetic heritage of these women, embellished the cultural traditions of court and country.

  Accomplished in the nava rasas, erudite, charming and intelligent, these women studied the classics in Sanskrit, translated them into vernacular languages, composed poetry, set lyrics to music besides playing various musical instruments, thus keeping alive traditional performing arts. Their presence at marriages and other festive occasions was much sought after and, soon, devadasis assumed a very important role in the sociocultural fabric of urban life. The best known amongst them often found mention in poetry and literature. For instance, in Ubhayabhisarika written by Vararuchi, one of the nava ratnas in King Vikramaditya’s court in Ujjain, a courtesan Priyangusena is described as being an expert in four types of acting, thirty-two types of hand gestures, eighteen types of eye movements, six types of positions and three types of rhythms. Their popularity reached its pinnacle between the tenth and thirteenth centuries as their numbers grew in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the state and their patrons. The number of devadasis in a temple was also directly proportionate to its wealth and prestige. History records that Raja Raja Chola, who built the Brihadeeshwara temple in 1010, gifted it 400 devadasis.

  These talented women were honoured with titles, gifts of land and jewellery, and their names etched in stone in temple chronicles and inscriptions for posterity. Thus respected by society, ganikas also gained legal rights so that they could possess land, slaves and money. As their stature and wealth grew, many of them also became known for their charitable works. For example, in the eleventh century, a devadasi called Shantavve commissioned the largest water tank in present day Karnataka which irrigated 7000 acres of agricultural land and is, indeed, serviceable even today. It is not surprising then that such accomplished women often became the consorts of kings.

  The jewel in the court of Pratapsimha was a ganika called Muddupalani (1739–1790). Born in Nagavasram in Thanjavur district, Muddupalani was the granddaughter of an exceptionally gifted courtesan called Tanjanayaki, who was not only a talented musician but was also adept at the nava rasas. At her soirees, where music and conversation flowed, she entertained learned scholars and aristocrats. But her maternal instincts kicked in and she longed to have children. She adopted a boy and a girl, children of Ayyavaya, a man she considered her brother. She raised the young boy, whom she named Muthyalu, to adulthood, and got him married to another talented and beautiful courtesan called Rama Vadhuti. A staunch devotee of Lord Subramanya Swami, Muthyalu named his first-born daughter after the temple town of Palani where stands a famous temple dedicated to the beautiful warrior son of Lord Shiva. Keeping the surname Muddu before the name, a general practice in the south, Muddupalani was thus born into an extremely talented, artistic and devout household.

  Muddupalani’s beauty was matched only by her formidable intellect, sparkling wit and inimitable attitude, her artistic talents coming to the fore even before she attained puberty. An accomplished dancer well versed in all aspects of sringara rasa, she was a multi-linguist, writing in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. Not content with merely translating the Tamil saint and poetess Andal’s Tiruppavai, she introduced novel elements experimenting with seven line verses called saptapadam, for which she was rewarded. It is hardly surprising that her accomplishments caught the attention of King Pratapsimha, who invited her to his court and showered her with gifts. Very soon, she became his bhoga-patni. She started to write under the king’s tutelage and, though she pays obeisance to him and acknowledges his largesse, all her works are dedicated to her ishta devta, the young dark god, Krishna.

  It is not known when exactly she wrote Radhika Santawanam but it
must have definitely been during the years spent as the king’s consort. In fact, the verses may well be autobiographical, rising from issues close to home. Apparently, her grandmother Tanjanayaki too had been a consort of the king, displaced by Muddupalani. After a few years, when the king renewed his attentions towards the older woman, the young and petulant Muddupalani is said to have become progressively jealous and taciturn, leaving the king no option but to appease her. Out of these personal experiences, it would appear, emerged the entire range of emotions expressed in Radhika Santawanam: the blossoming of a girl, the contrariness of adolescence, the hormonal surges arousing passion in a young heart and the anguish of separation from a loved man.

  Muddupalani doesn’t just throw open the bedroom doors for an up-close and personal view of what happens inside a boudoir but offers a peep right into the mind of a woman in love. Writing with unabashed frankness and unbridled enthusiasm, Muddupalani feels no anxiety or remorse in so truthfully expressing her desires or writing such sensuous lyrics in intimate detail.

  There were other distinguished women courtesans who were prominent literati at the Thanjavur court. The courtesan wife of Vijayaraghava Nayaka too had composed many virtuoso works including historical accounts of military operations in several languages. But Muddupalani’s work went on to create history, towering above the works of her contemporaries for its sparkling literary genius and ferocious honesty of expression. Using colloquial adages and phrases, the work set firmly in the language of the times, she brings to the writing her own sensibilities, personal experiences and character to set the mood for her story of love—experienced and lost.

  She is not a modest woman, being fully aware of her own abilities and accomplishments. Poised and self-assured, she portrays herself as a woman equal in every way to any male scholar of her time citing numerous works dedicated to her. She speaks with pride about the literary achievements of her mother and grandmother, and proclaims her own eminence and popularity as a poet and scholar in her autobiographical prologue. She describes with confidence her genealogy, revels in her physical beauty, charm and congenial personality and her generous patronage of young artists and writers.

  Despite this, Muddupalani cannot, in all honesty, be called the forerunner of the feminist movement in India. Being a courtesan, whose very existence was dedicated to providing pleasure to God and men, she revelled in her trade and never consciously took up the struggle of sexual equality for women. More confident than rebellious, she challenged the norm, freely acknowledging that women too had sexual needs that had to be satisfied. Much like her, her heroines Ila and Radha are strikingly compelling women: beautiful, proud, sensitive, wilful, passionate and, at times, scathingly sarcastic. If Ila is the child growing up to experience her first foray into sex, Radha is the diva. And Krishna, though god, is a mere mortal here experiencing what it means to be torn between two feisty women. The porosity of these women’s desires is reflected most poignantly when, throwing caution to the wind, they celebrate their sexuality, demand intercourse, initiate foreplay, assume superior positions above the man and are unambiguous about their sexual needs. Smitten and remembering every kiss, touch and thrust, Muddupalani explores every aspect of being a woman: a prepubescent girl, a young bride, a woman exploring love, a confident and demanding wife and a consummate lover, now satiated and then eager for more.

  Women writing about sexuality, though not unknown, were unusual especially when even men of the period often adopted the guise of women when writing about love. So, rereading what she had written, Muddupalani probably realized that she would come under severe censure and criticism. She very cleverly adopts an oft-used technique in Indian literature of setting the poem as a dialogue between the very wise Maharishi Suka or Suka Muni, son of Vyasa, and the scholar King Janaka—two erudite men no one would dare question!

  Muddupalani’s erotic epic went on to become a literary masterpiece in her own lifetime. Though considered a gem of Telugu literature, it never gained recognition outside Andhra Pradesh. Her work would have languished in some dusty backroom of history or, worse, been completely lost, had it not been for the unrelenting efforts of another equally talented and determined woman who restored Muddupalani to her rightful place in literary history a century later.

  Nagarathnamma (1878–1952)

  The life of Nagarathnamma is a rags-to-realization story, featuring the single-minded grit and determination of a woman who would brook no opposition to the path she set for herself.

  Nagarathnamma was born on 3 November 1878 to a ganika called Puttu Lakshmi and a man named Vakil Subba Rao, who chose to abandon his mistress and child at the first opportunity. When Nagarathnamma was but a year old, her destitute mother found patronage under Shastri, a noted Sanskrit scholar in the court of the Maharaja of Mysore. He taught the child Sanskrit and music and, at the age of five, she was dedicated as a devadasi.

  Puttu Lakshmi was soon abandoned by Shastri too but was not a woman to be easily scorned. After taking a vow never to step into the state of Mysore until it recognized her talent, she took refuge in Bangalore with her uncle Venkitaswamy Appa, a violinist of some repute. Soon Nagarathnamma learnt English, Kannada and Telugu as well as to play the violin and dance; by the time she turned fifteen, she had made her debut in front of an august assembly of scholars and musicians.

  When His Highness Sir Chamarajendra Wodeyar (1868–94) heard of this performance, he invited Nagarathnamma to perform for his family. Delighted, she accepted at once and performed at Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore. Her fame grew as she continued to receive the patronage of the courts of Mysore, Travancore, Bobbili and Vizianagaram. The Bobbili Coronation Gazette, in fact, mentions her with great pride. Nagarathnamma’s beauty and undeniable talent drew the attention of Narahari Rao, a high court judge. He became her patron and, within no time, Nagarathnamma blossomed into a household name. As her stature grew as a concert artist, especially in Madras, so did her fortunes. She was, in fact, the first female artiste to pay income tax!

  But more than her own accomplishments, Nagarathnamma is best remembered for her determination in creating a platform for Carnatic music and her dedication to one of India’s best known musical geniuses, Thyagaraja. Nagarathnamma claims that she had a dream where she was charged with the responsibility of constructing a memorial to Thyagaraja at Thiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur district. Thereafter, she gave up her comfortable lifestyle, lived like an ascetic, sold her jewellery and set aside much of the proceeds from her many concerts. In Thiruvaiyaru, she purchased land on the banks of the Kaveri and built a temple near Thyagaraja’s samadhi. More important, despite much opposition, she managed to reconcile different warring factions into a single entity and founded what has come to be celebrated as Thyagaraja Aradhana—a commemorative music festival held every January at Thiruvaiyaru, where thousands of people and hundreds of musicians sing the Pancharatna Kritis composed by Thyagaraja in unison, accompanied by a large orchestra of violins, flutes, nagaswarams, mridangams and ghatams. It has gone on to become the most definitive annual concert of classical music in India.

  Accomplished as she was, Nagarathnamma soon started publishing books, poetry anthologies and holding discourses in Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and her mother tongue Kannada. It was during one such foray into literature that she first found a reference to Muddupalani in a commentary on Telugu literature under the Maratha kings. She had trouble locating a copy of Radhika Santawanam and, when she did, she found a poorly printed version with several omissions and excisions.

  In 1855, ready to go back to England, eminent Telugu scholar Charles Philip Brown who had also published a Telugu–English dictionary turned over a ready-for-print manuscript of Radhika Santawanam among others in his possession to the Oriental Manuscripts Library. This manuscript was annotated and printed in 1887 under the supervision of Paidipati Venkatanarasu, an associate of Brown, and reprinted in 1907. Uncomfortable with some of the erotic verses, Venkatanarasu chose to drop them altogether. He also did not deem i
t fit to include Muddupalani’s prologue where she talks about her lineage and traces her literary parampara to her devadasi mother and grandmother.

  Nagarathnamma found this sanitized edition distasteful. Having obtained the original palm leaf manuscript, she set about publishing the text in its entirety. She loved the lyrical quality of the verses. Speaking of her determination to bring this literary gem to the attention of the cognoscenti and general readers, she proudly says in the preface of the book she published that she was tempted to read this masterpiece over and over again as poetry so suffused with rasa could only have been written by a ganika.

  The work that was non-controversial and celebrated during its time gained instant notoriety when published 150 years later. It was panned by noted literary critic Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who was rather ironically a champion of the women’s movement in the Madras Presidency. He became one of Nagarathnamma’s harshest critics, condemning Muddupalani’s graphic descriptions of intercourse. Calling Nagarathnamma an adulteress and a prostitute, he wrote: ‘Several references in the book are disgraceful and inappropriate for women to hear, let alone be uttered from a woman’s mouth.’ Nagarathnamma responded immediately: ‘Does the question of propriety and embarrassment apply only in the case of women, not men? Is he [Veeresalingam] implying that it is acceptable for Muddupalani to write about conjugal pleasures in minute detail and without reservation because she was a courtesan? Are the “obscenities” in Radhika Santawanam any worse than the obscenities in Vaijayantivilasam, a book he has personally reviewed and approved for publication?’

  Nagarathnamma protested against this duplicity and discrimination, arguing that Muddupalani’s work was a classic written under the patronage of Pratapsimha, a very liberal monarch whose reign also witnessed the publication of other works such as Raghunathanayakabhyudayamu (A Day in the Life of Raghunatha), which describes in great detail the king and his courtesan Chitralekha’s long night of love. She wondered why men who penned erotic literature were not just accepted but appreciated whereas women who wrote sensuous poetry were labelled immoral and their works banned. Soon rumours started circulating that the author of Radhika Santawanam was actually a man called Muddu Pillai. The battle, thus, raged on.

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