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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; but in Radhika Santwanam it is she who takes the initiative and it is her satisfaction that is central. One finds oneself amazed that such a radical interpretation was accepted in her day.

In 1910 it was not. Queen Victoria was not only the Queen of England but the Empress of India and left her mark upon the Indian scene, which was, in the eyes of her administrators, a debauched, perverse, and horrifying one. Police Officer Cunningham seized all copies of Radhika Santwanam and charged the publishers with producing an obscene book. Although a petition was made and scholars and lawyers argued that such proceedings were “highly detrimental to the preservation and progress of Telugu culture” and pleaded that the case should be heard by a judge who knew Telugu, Nagaratnamma and the publishers lost the case. It was only in 1947, when India had won independence, that an influential chief minister who was a nationalist had the ban withdrawn, and in 1952 a new edition was brought out.

However, when the editors of the anthology under review searched for a copy, it proved hard to find. It is a testimony to their dedication and assiduity that it is included here along with other writing by women which they have collected in order that it might

illuminate the condition in which women wrote; bring more significant women’s writing to light; help us reevaluate writers who were reasonably well known but had been dismissed or misunderstood; give us a sense of the themes and literary modes women drew on and made use of; and help us capture that which is at stake in the practices of self or agency and of narrative that emerge at the contested margins of patriarchy, empire, and nation.

Muddupalani was only one of these writers but her story reads like an allegory of their intentions and achievements. Moreover, the publishing history of Muddupalani’s work covers the historical span of the two collections under review in that it moves from a pre-colonial, traditional age through one of social reform and nationalism to that of independence. Nagaratnamma could well be named the patron saint of the efforts of the editors of these anthologies; they have inherited her diligence, her dedication, and her values.

Muddupalani did not belong to the pre-Vedic age (the time before Hinduism was made a formal system by the act of composing its scriptures in the official language, Sanskrit), but can be said to celebrate its values in art—the values of a rural, agricultural, and tribal society that inhabited India before the Aryans began their invasion in 1700 BC, characterized by Lokayata—“that which is essentially this-worldly,” a materialist way of thought to which Prakriti, the female principle, was fundamental. The deities of the time were female, the religion fertility worship.

The collection of women’s folk songs presented here can be said to represent their largely oral tradition. Sung in celebration of the cycle of the agricultural year, they are set to the rhythm of agricultural tasks like threshing, winnowing, husking, spinning and weaving, and rocking the cradle. There are also songs that accompany wedding ceremonies—generally bawdy—as well as poignant songs of a bride’s leavetaking of her parents and pining for home:

O Boatman, brother from the up- stream country.

When you meet my father tell him about me. I watch
The boats come and go. So many of them!

If my brother doesn’t hasten to take me home,
Tell him he should bring a bam- boo bier to carry me to the grave.
Tell my mother, O brother boat- man, about me,
I throw myself at your feet.

The songs composed by the Buddhist nuns in the sixth century BC and written down around 80 BC belong to what was probably the earliest anthology of women’s literature in the world, the Therigatha. Buddhism was created as an ideology to counter the authority of the Brahmins and the sacrificial rituals of the Vedas, and represents a rebellion against patriarchy that the nuns expressed as the release of the human soul from worldly suffering in earthy metaphors easily recognizable even today:

A woman well set free! How free I am,
How wonderfully free, from kit- chen drudgery.
Free from the harsh grip of hunger
And from the empty cooking pots,
Free too of that unscrupulous man,
The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,
All lust and hatred purged.
To the shade of the spreading tree I go
And contemplate my happiness.

As for secular literature, Sangam poetry in Tamil of 100 BC–250 AD also gives us a great deal of textual evidence that it belonged to a pre-Aryan society. It has no references to Vedic gods and celebrates an agricultural economy—forests, pastures, well-watered valleys, and verdant mountain slopes, where cattle are the index of wealth and warriors who protect the settlements are extolled for their valor in battle. If there is a philosophy, it is animist: no transcendent or divine being is worshiped, but the spirit immanent in things. Chiefly it is love and the rites of courtship that are celebrated in the poems, with a fresh and vivid imagery drawn from the forests and fields, with that intricate and subtle interweaving of the religious and philosophical with the earthly and erotic that characterizes so much Indian art. The poetry of Akkamahadevi best represents the intimacy of the relationship of the human with the divine, while the prostitute-poet Sankavva juxtaposes the sacred with the profane with startling effect. She promises the god Shiva to give herself to no one but him:

In my harlot’s trade
having taken one man’s money
I daren’t take a second man’s, sir….

Ah, never, no. Knowing you I will not.
My word on it, libertine Shiva.
“In my harlot’s trade”

Although two hymns in the Rig Veda, the oldest and largest of the Hindu Vedas, are attributed to women, there is no other literature by women of the Vedic period—probably because women were not permitted access to Sanskrit, which was the preserve of men of the Brahmin caste only. No wonder, then, that the Aryan woman remains a shadow of the Aryan man, subservient, dutiful, and loyal, embodying male ideals of womanhood. Yet it is a period that must be studied since “ancient India” is generally regarded as Vedic India, and such studies were in fact undertaken by officials of the East India Company which needed a knowledge of the history, legal practices, and customs of the people they had set out to govern. William Jones (1746–1794) undertook the project and extended it into the study of Sanskrit. The leading Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller (1832–1900) thought that

so deeply have the religious and moral ideas of that primitive era taken root in the mind of the Indian nation, so minutely has almost every private and public act of Indian life been regulated by old traditionary precepts, that it is impossible to find the right point of view for judging Indian religion, morals and literature without a knowledge of the literary remains of the Vedic age.

Since these “remains” contain little or nothing by women, one might think the editors could overlook this particular period, but actually it is of vital importance to women’s issues, since Vedic society was a patriarchal society and, by eulogizing it as a utopia of the Romantic imagination, both Indologists and the nationalists who naturally preferred their benign vision to the harshly critical one of British officialdom and evangelical missionaries, endorsed the system and saw to its continuation.

Because such people “obscured and subordinated other schemes and narratives,” the editors have performed a valuable service in resurrecting these pre-Aryan and non-Aryan texts, sacred and secular, which belonged to the indigenous, non-Vedic culture of India. Of course a good deal of natural assimilation later took place—e.g., the male gods of the Vedas acquired “wives,” the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, and the favorite Lord Krishna was no fair Aryan but a dark indigene, and the female form continued to be a potent icon of fertility.

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