‘Women Well Set Free’

Women Writing in India Vol. I: 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century

edited by Susie Tharu, edited by K. Lalita
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 537 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Truth Tales: Contemporary Stories by Women Writers of India

edited by Kali for Women, Introduction by Meena Alexander
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 179 pp., $12.95 (paper)

In 1910, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, described as “a patron of the arts, a learned woman, a musician, and a distinguished courtesan,” decided to reprint the Telugu classic, Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika) by the eighteenth-century poet Muddupalani “not only [because it was] written by a woman, but by one who was born into our community,” and because she found it “as adorable as the young Lord Krishna.” She added, in her afterword, “However often I read this book, I feel like reading it all over again.”

The author of the epic poem was an equally unusual woman (unusual to us and not, it seems, in her own time). Her autobiographical prologue—a convention of such work—reveals that she was a celebrated courtesan of the Thanjavur court in the reign of Pratapasimha (1739–1763), a poet who traced her lineage through her aunt and grandmother, and an accomplished dancer and musician. She writes of her beauty and learning and her status among other poets and scholars of the court with a straightforwardness and lack of coyness that indicate both confidence and security:

Which other woman of my kind has
felicitated scholars with 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.

Nevertheless, Nagaratnamma—who had first found a reference to Muddupalani in a commentary on Thanjavur literature—had trouble in locating a copy of Radhika Santwanam and, when she did, found only a poorly printed version brought out in 1897 with many omissions and excisions. She managed to obtain the original manuscript and prepared a new version that was published by a small press which specialized in Telugu and Sanskrit classics. She had the misfortune of doing so in an age no longer receptive to such poetry. A leader of the social reform movement of the day denounced Muddupalani as “an adulteress. Many parts of the book are such that they should never be heard by a woman, let alone emerge from a woman’s mouth.” Since she was “born into a community of prostitutes and does not have the modesty natural to women,” she had filled her poem with “crude descriptions of sex.” Nagaratnamma defended the work stoutly:

“If that is so, it should be just as wrong for men who are considered respectable to write in that manner. But, [as everyone knows] several great men have written even more ‘crudely’ about sex.”

The excerpts from Muddupalani’s epic poem produced in the anthology edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita are brief but justify their claim that she brought the rhythms of classical Telugu verse closer to the spoken form, and that she celebrated a young girl’s coming of age and her experience of sex with an unexpected and sophisticated twist. Erotic poetry in India is traditionally cast in the form of the Lord Krishna wooing the milkmaid Radha;…

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