The woman who had no reason for shame (3 June 2018)

(Published in The Hindu, June 3 2018)


In the kingdom of Thanjavur there once lived a courtesan called Muddupalani. To her came fame and riches, while modesty, she declared, was a shroud for the timid and colourless. “Which other woman of my kind,” asked this 18th century poet, “has felicitated scholars with gifts and money?” “To which other woman of my kind,” she added, “have epics been devoted?” The queries were both rhetorical, of course, for in the Thanjavur of her day, Muddupalani was a woman unequalled. Her face, she triumphantly proclaimed, shone “like the full moon,” and to gaze upon her, was to behold beauty and brilliance in harmony unparalleled.

Muddupalani (c.1730-1790) was a jewel in the court of Pratapasimha (c.1739–63), a patron of the arts, and Maratha heir to swathes of Tamil country. But a century after their time, this world was inherited by men who cloaked fragile sensitivities in thundering hypocrisy. Some took to calling Muddupalani “Muddu Pillai,” as though she were a man — for this devadasi poet and her “kind” were no longer respectable, and her Telugu epic, the Radhika Santwanamu, promised not edification through art, but ignominy and scandal. Where once the great temple in Thanjavur celebrated devadasis by the hundreds, where once they were feted for their beauty and artistic prowess, their world was now savaged and violently deplored as old kings fell and foreigners emerged to rule. So, if Muddupalani sought admirers in a new generation, they had to hide her behind a fictitious name, inventing an imaginary man.

In the course of the 19th century, Indian society absorbed from the British an overblown sense of Victorian piety: this much is well known. And in this age of duplicity, Muddupalani — that woman with a singular voice — became the author of raging vulgarity. Krishna came to her in a dream, she said, inspiring her poem of love. But now her words were used against her, as the confabulations of a “shameless prostitute.” There was, the critic Kandukuri Veeresalingam grudgingly admitted, charm and scholarship in her writing; “this woman’s poetry” was both “soft and melodious.” But she was too obsessed with ecstasies of the flesh to elevate her palm-leaf verses to the dignity of print and paper. What appeared in an 1887 translation of Muddupalani’s composition, then, was vandalism, her soul excised and discarded. But with the woman made invisible, the elders could remain unthreatened and sanctimonious.

Every line in the epic’s 584 poems that Muddupalani wrote threatened disorder, but some passages were especially calamitous. Not only did she show Radha grooming Krishna’s bride, Ila, for their wedding night, she also highlighted Radha’s furious envy thereafter. At first it is concern for Ila that Radha expresses, like a good older woman (“How will the lips of this young girl suffer his bites… How will her breasts bear his clawing?”). Then it is ironic advice for the girl (“He is the best lover, a real connoisseur, extremely delicate. Love him skilfully and make him love you”). But after she has delivered his bride to Krishna — and given him counsel on how to make love to this young thing “new to the art” — Radha collapses into an ocean of jealousies, “her mind a jumble of misery and joy.”

Once, laments Radha, it was she who made love to Krishna. Now she was supplanted by another whose body was as “soft as bananas.” Lying restless in bed, she pictures them together, tortured by the images arrayed in her cruel mind. “Inside her,” tells Muddupalani, “she was burning. As for Krishna, he was busy with the [other] girl.” But the story does not end in torment or tragedy: Krishna returns to Radha and appeases his first love. She is comforted, and soon it is the hero who expresses exhausted discomfort. “If I ask her not to get too close,” protests Krishna, “she swears at me loudly. If I tell her of my vow not to have a woman in my bed,” he complains, “she hops on and begins the game of love.”

In other words, when Radha had Krishna in her grasp again, she commanded unforgiving allegiance. Muddupalani’s Radha was not timid like the newly-wed Ila. Indeed, she was not like any other Radha at all. She turned convention on its head and claimed her right to bodily pleasure. For the first time in compositions of its type appeared a woman determined to quench her desire. She yearns not coyly for her lord but insists on physical affection. At first, she fears betrayal, but when her lover returns, she collects her dues and demands satisfaction.

Muddupalani — named after the deity in Palani — was a woman who composed a whole epic bursting with erotic elements. As her biographer, Sandhya Mulchandani, records, “Writing with unabashed frankness and unbridled enthusiasm, [she] feels no anxiety or remorse in so truthfully expressing her desires.” Some believe her work is autobiographical: Pratapasimha was initially patron to Muddupalani’s grandmother, herself an acclaimed courtesan called Tanjanayaki. Was Radha’s envy a reflection of what the poet’s own forbear felt when her partner transferred his affections to one so much younger? Was the appeasement of Radha at its core the tale of a Maratha prince who returned, at last, to placate a neglected Telugu lover?

Devotional poetry by women in language charged with erotic feeling was not Muddupalani’s innovation. She was, in fact, heir to a tradition as long as it was illustrious. Raghunatha Nayaka, lord of Thanjavur in a previous age, had a wife, Ramabhadramba. In streams of Sanskrit verse, she paints him as the embodiment of kingly ideals, bursting with masculine strength and physical vigour. When Raghunatha seeks women’s embraces, his consort “compares him admiringly,” writes Vasudha Narayanan, “to Lord Krishna.” She “extols his sexual prowess as he goes through a typical night” making love to “an astounding series of women.” There is heroism and there is ardour. But here, as in works before, it is the man who commands attention.

With Muddupalani, however, the gaze is reversed — it is the deity who must satisfy the erotic yearnings of his devotee. Shudder as some might at these verses, its eroticism itself was not what upset the elders. It was that their author was a woman — one with wealth, learning, beauty and culture — that horrified her two-faced readers. From men, they lauded padams full of sringara.Kṣētrayya, in the voice of a lovelorn woman, sings to his beloved god in lines that are famous: “I can see all the signs/ Of what you’ve been doing/ Till midnight, you playboy/ Still you come rushing through the streets/ sly as a thief to untie my blouse.” Elsewhere he is still more playful: “When we are on the bed of gold/ Playing at love talk/ He calls me Kamalakshi/ The other woman’s name/ I am so mad/ I hit him as hard as I can/ with my braid.”

But Kṣētrayya was a man, his verses naturally sublime. Muddupalani was female: “an adulteress” who had not the “modesty natural to women.” Where was virtue, demanded her critics. Where was shame? “Several references in the book are disgraceful and inappropriate for women to hear, let alone be uttered from a woman’s mouth,” they argued.

Then, in the early 20th century, Nagaratnamma, a dasi from Bengaluru, resurrected Muddupalani from her darkness. She turned to these men and asked sharply in turn: “Does the question of propriety and embarrassment apply only in the case of women, not men?” Was desire only a feeling permitted to men and forbidden forever for women? But the world was not ready; the elders still reigned. And Muddupalani went underground again, far from the self-righteous eyes.

As for dasi Nagaratnamma, people sneered at her. A “prostitute had composed the book,” announced a magazine, “and another prostitute has edited it.” Surely no “literate gentleman can realise God by reading that he enjoyed sex in forty different ways.” But Nagaratnamma remained devoted. “However often I read this book… I feel like reading it all over again… this poem, brimming with rasa… written by a woman.” Where Ancukam, a dasi in Colombo, lectured her “kind” to follow the path of virtue, wearing not jewels but rudraksha, not make-up but sacred ash, Nagaratnamma hungered for Muddupalani who had no reason for shame, no desire for “reform”.

Then, at long last, after many decades had passed and India became free, the ban was removed. Scholars like Susie Tharu and K. Lalita set out to retrieve Muddupalani, encountering on the way men opposed to such unholy plans. One alone offered words of wisdom ringing with an inconvenient truth. Said Yandamuri Satyanarayanarao: “These epic poems are well-formed works, complete with all the nine rasas. If we look at them with our present view of women, they might appear low and unrefined.” But that was “the inadequacy of our culture, and not that of the epic or the poet” herself.

It was a simple principle, but it needed to be said. If today we are afraid of Muddupalani’s song, it is not she who is to blame. If her poem is a moral threat, it is not she who must hide in shame. Muddupalani ruled over a different age, and there she remains eternally enshrined. It is those who came after who proved themselves history’s unworthy heirs.