THE EROTIC IN THE DIVINE
Almost 300 years later, when discussions of sex and sensuality are commonplace, these verses shock and titillate while offering a nuanced portrayal of human emotions.
Rādhikā-sāntvanam is an erotic epic poem that reminded me of a Banganapalle mango born in the heat of Kurnool district in south India. Overripe and bursting with juice, this work, unlike the said mango, is so intensely sweet, sensuous, prurient, and tempestuous that it may only be tasted in small slivers. It’s a shocking piece of work for any period at all in the history of the world.
Rādhikā-sāntvanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by poet Muddupalani is a magnum opus in 584 verses in the Telugu language that’s believed to have been written between 1757 and 1763. Published in 2011, this translation by Sandhya Mulchandani was the first time the epic was translated into English in its entirety.
The poem describes the marital relationship of the deity Krishna, his aunt Radha and new wife Ila, and the appeasement of the jealousy of Radha (Radhika). Krishna's aunt and lover is a voluptuous, demanding woman in her prime who brings up Ila Devi from childhood and then sacrifices her in marriage to Krishna. She teaches her how to seduce and love Krishna and even as she trains her to be the best wife and lover, she knows that her own place next to Krishna is threatened. The poem describes in lush detail Ila Devi's puberty and the consummation of her marriage to Krishna; on the night of Ila’s wedding, Radha suffers pangs of confusion, jealousy and remorse. She is overcome by such longing that she finds herself in a state of bereavement.
As the long night ended,
Krishna took leave of his lover Ila.
As Radha, gently but firmly, took her home
Concealing her jealousy very carefully.
“Oh look, how he’s tired you out!
For long have I admonished him.
Take some respite, come with me,”
Said Radha, leading Ila away.
The divine Hindu god, Krishna, is portrayed as a mere mortal, a player who is deeply enchanted by his young bride, Ila. Introspection is not his forte and he’s so self-absorbed with the heat in his hide that all he cares about is the here and the now. Imagine this legendary avatar of the divine Vishnu, seen only through the lens of his mortality and judged and scorned for his lack of morality. Imagine an omniscient Krishna who is oblivious to his own power, not just on Radha (Radhika) and her pupil Ila, but also on every maiden (gopi) who hounds him wherever he goes.
Realizing she was Ila’s friend,
He embraced her charmingly
Getting her to promise
Not to mention this to Ila!
Ignoring the stunner
Staring lustfully at him
Turning away from the approaching beauty
With desire written all over her
Overlooking the seductive woman
Stripping her upper garment to attract him
Shying away from the charmer
Who was loosening her hair and approaching him lustfully…
His hair hanging undone
His necklace loosened
Body sweating with trepidation,
He thinks only of Ila.
Rādhikā-sāntvanam narrates a tale brimming with love, jealousy and cunning, really, every emotion in the purview of the world of human beings. While Indian classical dance popularly refers to nine “rasas” or human emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust, laughter, calmness, and devotion—the world of science acknowledges more than two dozen. Scientists claim the number is closer to 27. Among these are admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, and surprise. Rādhikā-sāntvanam bursts with variations of these on every page, each so artfully delineated by Muddupalani.
In Krishna’s hands, Radha, the older, experienced lover, and Ila, her niece and protégé, are as pliable as play-doh. Yet these women, the older one, worldly, generous and self-assured, the younger one, a disingenuous blend of passivity and aggression, do not want to be just playthings. They want agency—in bed and outside it.
The book is essentially an autobiography of the author herself who was a courtesan in the court of the Maratha king Pratapsimha, who ruled Thanjavur (Tanjore) from 1730 to 1763; Muddupalani probably saw herself as Ila, the younger consort to Krishna. Like Ila in the story, Muddupalani was educated in her sensual and literary life by her grandmother, Tanjanayaki, an extremely gifted courtesan who was patronized by the king.
I didn’t have enough time this week to pace my reading of Rādhikā-sāntvanam. The translation is so lush and vibrant—with a surfeit of imagery and surprising allusions—that it demands several iterations simply in order to do justice to the work.
What I did find many years ago, in fact, is that a woman born into the devadasi family herself (later known as Bangalore Nagarathnamma) would pioneer the republication of Muddupalani’s work over a hundred years later. As an erudite woman in the arts, Nagarathnamma edited and published books on poetry and anthologies.
When she came across Rādhikā-sāntvanam, she was astonished that an annotated version in 1887 had purged a few erotic verses from the book as the publisher had considered them inappropriate. Victorian prudery could not bear to read lines of unabashed love and sex. Nagarathnamma went on to publish Rādhikā-sāntvanam through a local publisher; soon after, however, the book was blacklisted by the British government. They labelled it ‘obscene’. The ban was lifted after India’s independence, and the book reissued in 1952, the year Nagarathnamma passed away.