narrative poem that explores desire and jealousy, love experienced and love
Santawanam is the most recognized work of the
eighteenth-century poet and courtesan Muddupalani.
It is a candid
and unabashed exploration of the sexual awakening of a girl, of passion aroused
and the anguish of separation. Celebrated as a literary masterpiece in Muddupalani's lifetime, Radhika Santowonom
was banned by the British in 1910 when it was republished, a century and a half
later, with critics panning its graphic descriptions of lovemaking. After
another hundred years, this epic is now available in its entirety for the first
time in an English translation.
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.
Sadhya 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 Colors. She lives in New Delhi.
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.
Feted 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 socio
cultural 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
Vikrarnaditya'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. ot 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 aid 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
ayaka 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.
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