(My column in Mint Lounge, June 16 2018)
In 1684, a 12-year-old Maratha boy was installed as ruler in Tamil Thanjavur, not long after the region’s older Nayaka dynasty came to an end. The event was emblematic of India in this bustling age, with Tamil Nadu alone attracting Afghan horsemen, Bundela Rajputs, Telugu warriors, and diverse other groups of adventurers. Our adolescent prince, Shahuji Bhonsle, however, came from a family that was of especial significance for the country. Ten years earlier, his half-uncle, the celebrated Shivaji, had crowned himself king of the Marathas, and theirs was a clan that would seek power over distant reaches of the subcontinent. Shahuji too was a king worth his elaborate titles, but even as he tackled matters of state, he cultivated a reputation as a patron of the arts. Going out of his way to attract as many as 46 men of letters to his court, he conferred on them an endowed agraharam (settlement), named (with typical princely modesty) after himself.
Interestingly, Shahuji, who reigned till 1712, was also a poet—his Panchabhasha Vilasa Natakam reflects the plurality of influences around him, featuring Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Sanskrit, and even Hindi verses. He was obsessed with Shiva of the Thiruvarur temple, and many were the plays and songs composed with his blessings eulogizing this deity. Some credit him as the composer of the Thyagesa Kuravanji dance drama, centred on the adoration of the lord by a woman. The theme and story is more or less conventional here and fits into the larger tradition of Bhakti literature. What is perhaps more remarkable—and has been described by scholars as “a work of extreme, deliberately outrageous provocation”—is another play from his time: the Sati Dana Suramu (Take My Wife). While some suggest it might have been composed by one of his poets, the text itself names Shahuji its creator, adding casually that he composed it “to outlast the sun, moon, and stars”.
The Sati Dana Suramu is a hugely entertaining parody of social conventions. The setting is the Vishnu temple in Mannargudi, where a Brahmin (“Morobhatlu the Magnificent”) arrives with his disciple for a festival. What upsets this pilgrimage—and, by extension, the correct order of things—is the Brahmin’s infatuation with a woman he unexpectedly encounters. Not only is his pupil scandalized (“My teacher has gone crazy”), but the woman comes from the other end of society—she is an untouchable. When the student warns his guru to protect his reputation, the teacher retorts that greater men had succumbed to lust and survived. When the disciple reminds him that the female is a demon, the older man responds, “She’s no demon, she’s a woman.” Frustrated, when the pupil appeals that he focus on the “Vedas and Puranas and Sastras” which promise eternal bliss, the Brahmin sniffs that he has “no use for insipid, eternal bliss”.
Soon, the Brahmin approaches the woman, declaring, “Your charm has reduced me to ashes.” The lady is polite but reminds him of the rules of caste and tradition. “We eat beef, we drink liquor…. Don’t talk to me.” Morobhatlu does not care. “We drink cow’s milk,” he replies, “but you eat the whole cow. You must be more pure,” he exclaims. Clearly startled, the lady decides to lecture him on the impermanence of desire, the permanence of dharma and other pious philosophical principles, hoping this would make him go away. She also warns Morobhatlu that she is married, and that it would be best for everyone involved if he stopped “this incoherent prattle”. But the man remains immovable. “We Brahmins have made up all the rules, and invented religion. There is no better dharma than satisfying a Brahmin’s need,” he giggles. Perhaps, he adds, she could look upon the act as simple charity. “Give me your loins,” he coyly suggests, “like offering (a Brahmin) land.”
In the end, the woman’s husband arrives, and, after an initial attempt to beat up his wife’s high-born stalker, he demands, “Haven’t you read the Sastras?” Irony, in fact, is writ across the entire composition, where the low-born out-Brahmin the Brahmin—and so is great comic effect. When the woman’s husband reminds Morobhatlu about the godly path, the Brahmin responds: “Final freedom is that state of no pain, no pleasure, no qualities, nothing—or so some idiot said. But when a ravishing young woman…is free from her clothes—that’s freedom for me.” At long last, then, the husband agrees to present his wife to the Brahmin, only for the latter to belatedly heed his pupil’s voice (“Have a little detachment; think of the subtle meaning of Vedic words”). In the course of events that follow, the husband is upset, the wife is bewildered, and finally Shiva arrives and liberates everybody from this hilarious, singular quandary.
The Sati Dana Suramu is, on the face of it, a simple parody. But viewed in its context, Shahuji, we find, was making a comment on society itself. As the scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam notes, “the play was written…for public performance” at a major festival, which meant its irreverence was consumed by large numbers of pilgrims and locals. Not only does it combine on one stage Brahmins and untouchables, it also cleverly exalts Shiva (Shahuji’s preferred deity), who swoops in to save the day at a site associated with Vishnu. Questions are raised on ethics and morality, on lust and the role of women. But the larger point Shahuji wished to make—and make with much mirth and laughter—was that asking questions and turning some tables was not such a bad idea. As this Maratha prince in Tamil country asks us at the end of this Sanskrit-Telugu production: “You, who have seen this play, decide for yourselves and tell us: Who, among these four, is the best?”