Devadasis from Andhra dominated the cultural scene in South India. The classic example was the celebrated devadasi Muddupalani who adorned the royal court of the Nayaka King of Tanjore, Partapsimha (1739-1763), a great patron and lover of music, literature and the arts. He honoured and rewarded Muddupalani not only for her accomplishments in performing arts but also for her scholarly achievements as a learned poet being well-versed in Telugu and Sanskrit. Pran Nevile describes the contribution of Muddupalani.
DIVINE courtesans or Apsaras who adorned the court of Indra, lord of the firmament, entertained the gods by dancing merrily to the accompaniment of music by Gandharvas. Urvashi, peer among the Apsaras is said to have been born on earth as a devadasi and imparted the divine knowledge of dance and music to human beings. The devadasi institution was established all over India. The Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang who visited India in the 7th century, testified to the existence of a well established institution of temple dancers. After the advent of Muslim rule, devadasis disappeared from the scene in North India but the practice continued in the South until the beginning of the 20th century.
In their heyday, under the generous patronage of the Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Nayaka Kings, devadasis were honoured with titles and gifts and their names are even mentioned in temple chronicles and inscriptions. They were trained from childhood in the arts of dance and music and were also taught classical literature in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. Devadasis commanded respect in society and were treated as symbols of good luck. The exchange of devadasis between the temple and the court was an accepted practice. Though married to the temple deities, some of them gifted with rare beauty and accomplishments became royal courtesans and consorts of kings.
Devadasis from Andhra dominated the cultural scene in South India. The classic example was the celebrated devadasi Muddupalani who adorned the royal court of the Nayaka King of Tanjore, Partapsimha (1739-1763), a great patron and lover of music, literature and the arts. He honoured and rewarded Muddupalani not only for her accomplishments in performing arts but also for her scholarly achievements as a learned poet being well-versed in Telugu and Sanskrit. At that time, Tanjore court was one of the few surviving Hindu patrons of the arts in India and therefore attracted the best talents from other parts of the country.
Muddupalaniâ€™s marvellous erotic epic Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radha), a mid-eighteenth century literary masterpiece and virtual gem of Telugu literature was little known outside Andhra Pradesh. Credit goes to Susie Tharu and K. Lalita for bringing to light this great work through their excellent compilation, Women writing in India-600 B.C. to the Present published in the early nineties. Radhika Sant-wanam consisting of 584 poems is replete with Shringar Rasa or erotic pleasure and presents the story of Radha and Krish-na in a new light.
Mud-du-palani is totally unconventional in her perception and treatment of the subject. She highlights the womanâ€™s domineering role and her active initiative in the game of love. It is the womanâ€™s gratification that takes precedence and forms the central theme of this great literary work. There is also an absorbing account of a young girlâ€™s coming of age and her maiden sexual experience.
Hailing from a family of devadasis, Muddupalani speaks with pride about the literary achievements of her mother and grandmother who were both poets. In her autobiographical prologue, she proclaims her own eminence and popularity as a poet and scholar. She also describes with confidence and pride, her physical beauty and charm, her gracious personality and her generous patronage of young artists and writers. She introduces herself with the following verses:
Which other woman of my kind has
felicitated scholars with gifts of money?
To which other woman 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.
A face that glows like the full moon.
Skills of conversation, matching the countenance.
Eyes filled with compassion,
matching the speech.
A great spirit of generosity,
matching the glance.
These are the ornaments
that adorn Palani,
When she is praised by kings.
The first version of Radhika Santwanam as edited by Venkatanarsu was published in 1887. It omitted couplets of several poems as also Muddupalaniâ€™s autobiographical prologue which informed the readers about her accomplishments and eminence as a poet in the royal court. It was in 1910 that Nagaratnamma, a learned devadasi from Bangalore, not satisfied with the published version, decided to bring out the classic work in its original form. After extensive research, she finally succeeded in tracing the original palm leaf manuscript of this work and the new edition was published by her in 1910.
Speaking about her determination to bring this masterpiece to the attention of the intelligentsia and general readers, she wrote in the Preface that she could not resist the temptation of reading this book over and over again. She also highlighted the fact that this epic brimming with Rasa was not only written by a woman, but by one born into her own community. (Translated by B.V.L. Narayanarow)
The above verses clearly show that Muddupalani was an erudite scholar of Sanskrit literature and fully conversant with the writings of poets depictingShringar Rasa like Bhartrihari, Dandin, and Bilhana. According to legend, Bilhana, the 11th century poet had a love affair with a kingâ€™s daughter and was condemned to death.
The publication of Muddupalaniâ€™s classic work aroused a lot of controversy and outright condemnation by the contemporary social reformers. Many of them denounced it as obscene and labelled its author as a fallen woman. Nagaratanamma strove hard to defend this great literary work but to no avail.
The western educated reformers, with their newly acquired Victorian prudery and alienated from their age-old culture and tradition, prevailed upon the colonial Government to ban this book in 1911. Though all the copies were seized and destroyed, yet the copies of the book continued to circulate. It was only after Independence in 1947, that the ban was withdrawn by the enlightened Chief Minister of Madras, T. Prakasam. What a boon it would be for the lovers of literature not only in India but also abroad if this supreme gem of Telugu literature is translated into other Indian languages as well as English.