Review of Radhika Santwanam; Muddupalani; trans. Sandhya Mulchandani; Penguin Classics 2012; Rs 250; pp 166
– Shana Susan Ninan
I’ve read and taught epics from many countries. But a sringara prabhandam – erotic epic – is a first. Radhika Santawanam is the most recognised work of 19th century poet and courtesan Muddupalani. Two strong women – one, the author and then, the lady who resurrected the poetic work and brought it to light – are credited with sharing this erotic narrative poem with the world.
This autobiographical work shows us the lives of the famous courtesan and literary connoisseur, Muddupalani, Maratha King Pratapasimha who ruled Tanjore and made her his queen-consort, and her grandmother Tanjanayika. When two people’s (in this case, three) love story won’t be freely accepted by society, just throw in the names of Gods and Goddesses as protagonists, and everything’s solved. Tanjanayika introduced young Muddupalani into the world of the courtesans, and to Tanjanayika’s patron King Pratapasimha, who later took Muddupalani under his wings. The love triangle between Radha, Krishna and Ila is an apt framework for narrating the story of Tanjanayika, Pratapasimha and Muddupalani.
Even though the British banned it in 1920, the whole text of Radhika Santawanams, also known as Ila Devyamu, is now available for the public. I drew many similarities between this narrative poem and the Song of Songs from the Bible. Celebrated stanzas dedicated to describing a lover woman’s anatomy, her willingness, the man’s urge to conquer her body and their union all find points of reference that are common.
The 163rd stanza of chapter three:
O moon! Carry on your waxing and waning
Till my round-faced lady arrives.
O Malaya breeze! Your gentle wind works
Only till my lady love sighs.
O drunken parrot! Wait until you hear her lovely voice.
O peacock! Your preening will stop when she combs her long hair.
O nightingale! Your song is good only till she speaks.
O swan! Your gait looks good only until she walks towards me.
O bee! Your sounds are melodious only till my lover looks at me.
O Kamadeva! Your conceit will vanish when my beloved arrives.
Referred to as devadasis, devaradiyal, bhogam, kalavati, gudisani and nagara shobhinis, the courtesans of the 17th and 18th century shone in the fields of art, dance, music and other literary pursuits. The erotic poem contains 584 verses, complete with poetic symbols, passionate rhymes, sexual references and subtle innuendos. Radhika’s strong presence in Krishna’s love life and her unabashed initiation of intercourse, Ila’s coy introduction into the world of lovemaking and Krishna’s creative cavorts.