“Bad news are critics and kukavis
Whose lives depend on calumny.
Ignore them and pay not heed.
And should you come to a barb while reading
Use your discrimination.”
- Muddupalani, Radhika Santawanam
During the Maratha rule in the 18th century, Thanjavur was renowned for its courtesans. These courtesans were an extension of religion and a reflection of culture. In those days, it was popular for women to be dedicated to temples, and these women came to be known as devadasis (servants of gods). Devadasis studied the classics in Sanskrit and translated them into vernacular languages, composed poetry, played musical instruments, wrote lyrics, and in general were experts in the performing arts. Celebrated and widely respected, devadasis were known as nagara shobhinis (ornaments of the city), and their presence was sought at marriages and important events, as devadasis played a key sociocultural role.
Devadasis were also legally allowed to own property. They were often bestowed with many honours, titles and gifts, including having their names immortalised in stone in temple chronicles. Many devadasis performed charitable acts – in the 11th century, a devadasi named Shantavve commissioned the largest water tank in Karnataka, which is still used today.
Muddupalani was a devadasi who was a jewel in the court of Pratapsinha, the Maratha king during her time. She was highly educated, accomplished in the arts, multi-lingual (she wrote in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit), and known for her ‘formidable intellect, sparkling wit and inimitable attitude’. She was well aware of her talents, and didn’t feel the need to be modest about them. In her own words:
“Shining bright like the moon amidst stars
A rarity among poets
Most experienced in the arts.
Fish-like eyes desired even by Manmatha,
She mocks even the lotus flower
Is equalled only by Muddupalani’s.”
Radhika Santawanam, otherwise known as The Appeasement Of Radhika, is a poem written by Muddupalani about Krishna, Radha, and Ila. Radha raises Ila and moulds her into a woman, who is then presented to Krishna as his new bride. Although she tries to hide it, Radha is tormented at the thought of sharing Krishna with Ila, and her anguish turns into despair when she hears no word from Krishna, as he is busy with his new bride.
The story revolves around love, devotion, jealousy and desire, delving into the sexual exploration, evolution, and demands of both Radha and Ila (with Ila being the insatiable novice and Radha the experienced, more passionate lover).
The story uses a common motif of its times, involving a long period of separation or disinterest on the part of the man, justifying anger from the woman and her right to demand appeasement (often sexual). While this format was commonly used, it was still rather unusual for a woman to depict sexual acts and desires in as much detail as in Radhika Santawanam, which is why Muddupalani cleverly portrayed the story as a tale narrated by a male sadhu to the king.
Radhika Santawanam was celebrated as a literary masterpiece during Muddupalani’s time. But a century later, things began to change.
The arrival of the British and their rise to power introduced a strongly Victorian sense of morality into Indian culture – a value system that viciously attacked women who possessed liberty and autonomy of any kind (especially sexual). India eventually adopted this value system as its own, and the same culture that once celebrated the poetic and literary genius of Muddupalani now expressed shock and outrage regarding the ‘vulgarity’ of her work. She was reduced to the position of ‘prostitute’ in common understanding, with her many other prestigious accomplishments completely ignored in the face of her sexual practices.
In 1887, an altered version of Radhika Santawanam was published, with many of the more detailed sexual sections omitted at the discretion of the publishing supervisor, Paidipati Venkatanarasu. Venkatanarasu also felt that there was no need to include Muddupalani’s prologue wherein she details her lineage and attributes her literary parampara to her mother and grandmother, who were also devadasis.
This did not sit well with Nagarathnamma, an accomplished artist, scholar and courtesan in the Mysore court. She found the censored publication distasteful, and worked very hard to re-introduce the original version of Radhika Santawanam. Sadly, she was faced with heavy criticism, with a prominent literary critic claiming that the original manuscript was “inappropriate for women to hear, let alone be uttered from a woman’s mouth”. Outraged at this socially condoned hypocrisy, Nagarathnamma did her best to defend the literary gem, asking, “Does the question of propriety and embarrassment apply only in the case of women and not men? Is desire only a feeling permitted to men and forbidden forever to women?”
Alas, her valiant efforts were in vain. In addition to foreign critics giving their unsolicited evaluation of the Indian culture based off this book, with their assessment being that Indian character is “deceitful, irrational, and sexually perverse”, a prominent Indian magazine also mocked Nagarathnamma’s efforts, saying, “A prostitute had composed the book and another prostitute has edited it”, thus completely disrespecting Nagarathnamma’s prestige as a scholar and artist and stooping to cheap, slut-shaming manoeuvres (a common tactic used even today to shame women who are comfortable with their sexuality).
The publication of Radhika Santawanam was banned, and most printed copies were seized. This ban remained in place for an entire century, with the book only being released into publication after India gained independence, by the then chief minister of Madras, Tanguturi Prakasam, who said that he was “restoring a few pearls to the necklace of Telugu literature”.
However, male authors during and after Muddupalani’s time also wrote very similar poetry – often through the perspective of a female protagonist – and faced no censure, with their works being praised as elevated, refined literature. And this reveals the single reason behind the banning of Radhika Santawanam: it was not because of the content of the book, but rather the fact that a woman confidently owning her sexual desires was a direct threat to the fabric of a society that depended on women being sexually repressed, placed on an unrealistic pedestal and thus alienated.
If this appears to be an outdated struggle, think again. The brutal and hypocritical censure that Radhika Santawanam received is strikingly similar to the reaction that “WAP”, a recent track released by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion faced. While the lyrics of this track are hardly family friendly (neither would one describe the track as a ‘literary masterpiece’), they are by no means unheard of. For decades, male singers and rappers have been creating songs that objectify women and make explicitly sexual references to their bodies, with titles like “Smack That” and “Swallow”, all of which were accepted without comment. But the second two women (i.e. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion) boldly claim their own sexuality, the internet is filled with conservative males expressing outrage at the vulgarity of the track.
It seems even today female sexual autonomy is perceived as a threat.
One wonders whether that will ever change.
Muddupalani. Radhika Santawanam. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd., 2011. Print.
Pillai, Manu S. The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin. Chennai: Westland Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2019. Print.