Daring Devdasi – MudduPalani

Swapna Narayanan

While the country stands shocked and is still coming to terms with the relatively bold content of two recent Bollywood movies – Veere di Wedding and Lust Stories – showcasing the needs and desire of a woman, my mind goes back to the acclaimed devdasi and a poet of the 18th century, MudduPalani from Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tamil Nadu.

I had a chance to hear her words strung into a song by a young musician earlier this year. Surprised, amazed and heartened by her verses, I had then delved deep into the life of this daring devdasi.

And now, seeing the reaction to the two movies, I thought it would be good to share about this woman artist who had penned her thoughts a few centuries ago proclaiming a woman’s right to desire and sexual fulfillment.

muddupalaniIn early 1700s, PratapaSimha was the Maratha ruling king in Thanjavur and was a well known patron of arts. Muddupalani was the devdasi in his court and was well known for her beauty and artistic prowess. Born into telugu devdasi family that was highly artistic and were staunch devotees of Lord Subramanya Swami she was christened MudduPalani – Palanibeing the abode of the Lord. Her grandmother Tanjanayaki was an extremely gifted courtesan and was patronised by PratapaSimha.

Being a part of a court that encouraged art, poetry and music, MudduPalani honed her artistic skills and penned a few original works and translations. She is known to have penned telugu translations of Jayadeva‘s ‘Ashtapadi‘ and Andal‘s ‘Tiruppavai‘ using unique writing formats.

Yet, she was most well known for her epic – Radhika Santwanamu – where she pens 584 poems illustrating the relationship between Lord KrishnaRadha and Ila (Krishna‘s young bride).

Radhika Santwanamu is her unrestricted, frank and enthusiastic poetry that explores love but does not limit itself to only the heart and mind related aspects of love, and touches upon the physical aspect of love. It not only delves deeper into the bodily aspects of desire, need and urge, it also has women characters taking the lead in the entire art of gratification and fulfillment. Further, it also redefines some fundamental tenets of the ‘Lord – Devotee’ relationship by saying that the Lord must satisfy all the yearnings of its devotee, including physical yearnings.

While the song portrays many an emotions of what Radha feels in her love for Krishna, it also brings out a lot in the open and articulates the bodily urge of love. Whether it is how Radha trains Ila for her wedding night, or her word of advice to Krishna to handle Ila gently and lovingly, or verses displaying her own anguish and jealousy of not being able to be with Krishna, the text is a strong voice of a woman and her myriad emotions and desires (including physical).

mdxcNeedless to say, considering the literal and social norms of that time and the fact that it was authored by a woman, the readers were horrified, the epic was banned and the poetess was shunned for writing what they termed as vulgar text.

Even repeated attempt of publication almost a century later only led to a lot of discomfort and bad mouthing – something that was easily done as she was a devdasi who was ‘not respectable’ and was a ‘shameless prostitute’.

Yet, there were a few hypocrites around. It has been noted that appreciating her verses for being scholarly yet melodious, a few of her readers misconstrued (intentionally?) her name as Muddu Pillai and appreciated her work. Only proving that the text- if written by a man – was completely acceptable to them!

That is the real picture of our society for you. Then and now.

Well coming back, while I am yet to catch up on the said movies, I can only say that man and woman form the core pillars of this nature and complement each other.

While a man can proclaim and talk about his needs, desires and urges (for which the society will herald his masculinity), why cannot a woman also voice her needs, desires and urges?

For those of you who are interested, Sandhya Mulchandani‘s English translation of the book is currently available and is titled as ‘The Appeasement of Radhika‘.

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