Indian Classical

Relevance of a devadasi’s work

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Muddupalani’s poem unlocks the door to an era, when the female voice rose above patriarchy of all kinds

This is the first of a four-part collaborative writing/discussion between Dr. Priya Srinivasan and Priyadarsini Govind, examining the silencing of the female voice at different historical moments. We ask what it means to engage with Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music in experimental ways when social justice issues are placed in the forefront to ask difficult questions. The first piece we write looks at the devadasi Muddupalani’s epic poem, Radhika Santwanamu and its staging in Melbourne, Australia, in 2019, within a broader framework of power. The second piece will focus on a work in development called “Sthree,” which toggles in time between Devi Mahatmyam and everyday rape cases in New Delhi and Melbourne using a Carnatic ladies choir, which will premier in December 2020 in India. The third piece will examine what it means to look at the entangled relationship between the devadasi/brahmin/NRI. We would look at this particularly in relation to marginalisation and Indigenity as interpreted in our project called “Churning Waters,” which was developed from 2017 and premiered in South India for Australia Festival in India in 2019. The fourth and final piece in the series will look at the dancing body today and what its future might be.

Which other woman of my kind has felicitated scholars with such gifts and money?

To which other women of my kind have epics been dedicated?

Which other woman of my kind has won such acclaim in each of the arts?

You are incomparable, Muddupalani, among your kind.

So begins Radhika Santwanamu, an erotic poem by the devadasi Muddupalani, who dared to write about female desire in the mid-18th century. We came across the Muddupalani’s work at different moments in different spaces across the globe but united by our need to understand how women have played with power and survived.

Priya Srinivasan: I came across Radhika Santwanamu in 1996 in Los Angeles, in a writing class, as a fragment when Susie Tharu and K. Lalita published small sections in their larger work “Women Writing in India Part 1 and 2” and wrote that the devadasi Bangalore Nagarathnammal published the poem in full with the recovered coda (above) in 1910 that named Muddupalani as the rightful author of the work. The work was censured, banned and destroyed in 1911 by the British colonial authorities, who did not want to read women writing about their sexuality and desires. It was also in 1996, I encountered the hybrid and appropriated history of our form (in Avanthi Meduri’s unpublished dissertation), which stopped me from presenting Bharatanatyam to the public for the next 12 years in order to understand this complex history. I sat with the work for many decades wondering when and how it should be presented, under what circumstances and who had the right to present it — in what form? As more and more sections began to be translated, we had the complete work in English by Sandhya Mulchandani in 2009. We began seeing how women’s bodies and voices continue to be silenced around the world. I felt it was time to start to engage seriously with Muddupalani’s text because of its continued relevance in today’s world.

Priyadarsini Govind: My first encounter was in the 1990s, when V.A.K. Ranga Rao brought Radhika Santwanamu to my attention as a unique piece of writing by a woman, a Devadasi whose work had survived the test of time. I returned to it when Priya Srinivasan brought it to my attention. The complex characters in the poem — Radhika and Ila (two women) — and their love for Krishna caught my imagination. A love triangle with a twist in that Radhika marries Krishna to her own niece, Ila, in an effort to retain her hold over Krishna. It was interesting to interpret the multilayered character of Radha — by giving him away did she think she could keep him? But when things go beyond her control what would be her reaction? What about the man’s role? Has society changed since then? Where does this inspiration for Muddupalani come from? To what extent is it autobiographical? I was also curious about the reason it was banned as it was no more licentious than the works of many of her male counterparts. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this work to me as an artiste, is the concept of a woman revealing both her most vulnerable moments and her greatest strengths with equal candour and courage.

Together we decided to rework the poem taking only small sections of it. The collaboration occurred between us (Priyadarsini Govind and Dr. Priya Srinivasan) with Uthra Vijay (Carnatic music vocalist/composer), Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (violinist/composer), Ching Ching Ho (Director/dramaturgy) and Dr. Philipa Rothfield (philosopher and dance writer) in Melbourne in November 2019 as part of the inaugural show of ‘Sangam: Performing Arts Festival of South Asia and Diaspora’ held at Dancehouse (the home of contemporary dance in Australia). Using performance methods of Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam, spoken word and literary readings, our intention is to represent the devadasi Muddupalani and the characters in Radhika Santwanamu but to analyse the 18th century text from the perspective of 21st century artistes.

Fragments of history reveal that Muddupalani was a consort in the court of the Thanjavur ruler King Pratap Singh. It is also understood that her grandmother (not by blood), the great devadasi Tanjanayaki was also his consort. We’re talking about women, who have no claim on the King and therefore had to negotiate power accordingly. Muddupalani’s work was written during the transformation of the East India Company into a military power and King Pratap Singh was negotiating his own power. All this gives the composition and the author a unique place and voice in history. How she deals with the various relationships in her life — be it the King or her grandmother — are perhaps reflected in the characters in the poem.

Startling difference

The questions brought to the forefront in this work differs from the questions usually raised by male artistes, who write from a female perspective. We are aware that many devadasi and women’s poetry were subsumed by male poets in history. The startling difference here is that Muddupalani negotiated the male powers in the court and became acclaimed for writing as a woman in her own time. In the process, she claims a woman’s right to pleasure and sexuality on her own terms, something women even in the twenty-first century are not always able to do. Through acts of subversion, Muddupalani writes erotica. It is interesting to look at Saskia Kersenboom’s dual concept of bhoga and citta where the devadasi’s reality was a sensuous reality as opposed to a reality of the mind. Perhaps these realities are irreconcilable and without a clear resolution.

The work attempts to heighten the differences between the historical poet/woman /devadasi/writer who still lies partially hidden and obscured in time. This poet can only be partially recovered through a nuanced reading. Muddupalani leads the reader tantalisingly into her world, offering ways to almost hear her voice. We point to the fact that during Muddupalani’s time and up until the mid-20th century, most women, including Brahmin women, were rarely educated and subject to the extreme burdens of patriarchy, enforced servitude and often led labour intensive lives in the domestic spheres. While some devadasi women were educated and could move relatively freely in the public sphere, Brahmin women were not educated and in fact prevented from entering the public sphere until the second half of the 20th century.

Brahminical, Colonial and other forms of patriarchy eventually led to the Devadasi Abolition Act of 1947. This silenced the so called “immoral” and “erotic” devadasi bodies and interestingly enough, enabled Brahmin women to emerge in the public sphere as performers. Ironically, this was on the terms of the very “chastity” and “morality” that had kept them locked in the private sphere. Understanding patriarchy and different women’s class and caste burdens across time helps us to visualise the psychological and political landscape in which the Muddupalani text is located and therefore connect to it. What does it mean now — in the 21st century — to question different class/caste/female voices, lost in time, in order to examine how female sexuality and power vis-a-vis patriarchy have operated?

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