Kshetrayya and the legacy of erasing women’s voices from erotic poetry

The writer remembers the women whose sexual desires and words were repressed behind a man’s identity.
Kshetrayya and the legacy of erasing women’s voices from erotic poetry
Kshetrayya and the legacy of erasing women’s voices from erotic poetry

While the right wing Bajrang Dal's Valentine's Day plans get preposterous year by year, let us measure such societal anxiety about the erotic, against the nuanced role it had in the lives of our ancestors. 

Just touch her lips with the tip of your tongue. Don't squeeze.

Kiss her cheeks lightly.

Don't scratch.

Caress her nipples with your fingertips. Don't crush.

Make love very very gently.

Don't be wild…

Is this a para from a modern erotica? No. These are lines from Radhika Santvanamu (Penguin Translations) by Muddupalani who was in the court of Maratha ruler Pratapa Simha (18th century, Tanjavur) where Radha instructs Krishna’s new bride. Tamil country’s literary history, starting from Sangam poetry, to works of Bhakti poets like Nammalvar, Manivachagar, Andal and later Annamayya are filled with ideas of the sensual. Bharatanatyam, like some other forms, has cleverly managed to keep the token umbilical cord to the courtesan performing traditions of erotic poetry, through either sanitising them or exaggerating them.

Friend, tell me, who is more wicked, he or I?

When lustily I jump on top 

and pound his chest 

with my pointed nipples, he says

“That girl Kanakangi is very good at this.”

I slap him hard with all five fingers.

Now tell me, who is more wicked?

(When God is a Customer, Translations by A. K. Ramanujan, V. Narayana Rao & David Shulman)

Credit: Gyana Prakash Collection

The above padam was written by a well-known composer-Kshetrayya. Or was it? The new emerging knowledge that deconstructs Kshetrayya and declassifies padams that were pinned on him and on Madhura Bhakti (devotional love), will increase the existential anxiety of the culture guardians, particularly the dance world. 

In a padam such as this, the actual sublimity is in its openness in speaking of desire. The gestures and movements used by the courtesan women were highly nuanced yet subtle. Besides, as skilled musicians they often sang the pieces themselves, making its exposition one of great artistry. But, with the 21st century burgeoning a version of Bharatanatyam that is hyper calisthenic, divorcing the dancer from music on the one hand, yet using every faculty under its wing from dramatic stage lighting, tighter costumes, husky voice overs in English, to sensual eye makeup replete with fake eyelashes, accentuating the dancer’s body, end up highlighting the erotic import of the padams. Hypocritically, while doing so, the dancer is separated carefully from the dance. The brahminical dancer of today, by merely alluding to a “universal union” of the soul to the divine (Jeevathma and Paramathma) as the underscoring theme of the padam, gets away with drawing attention to her/his own physicality, allowing themselves to be objectified but without the moral judgement weighted in by the poetry performed. 

Kshetrayya was from the court of Nayaka Kings of Tamil country. Atleast 300 odd padams of his survive. Each draws a vivid sketch of the sensual pleasures enjoyed by lovers, capricious unions, and exciting lovemaking positions. Kshetrayya under the nation-state production got repositioned as a Bhakti-poet by the Telugu nationalists. He was picturized as a pious, non-sexual poet, whose only contact with the world of sensual bodily desire was through his fertile imagination. CR Reddy wrote of him, “I half suspect that he was not sensual in conduct. The imaginative abhor the real.” As scholars V Narayana Rao and David Shulman observe, both Telugu and Tamil elite recast literature and performance as national identities, fit to be preserved and pursued by respectable upper caste people, by making such apologist arguments for the erotic content. 

Because these padams formed a major part of Sadir dance repertoire, people like advocate E Krishna Iyer, in the 20th century, carefully sieved them as noteworthy for their musicality but unsuitable for the “respectable family girls” to perform. This hardly met any opposition because these erotic poems connected dance to its original custodians, the Devadasis. At a time when huge public referendums on Devadasi’s morality were held, these served only as further examples to point to her moral depravity. As art transitioned into the hands of high caste Hindu women, they wanted as little as possible of its eroticism, which they believed, best suited the Devadasi’s risqué personality. Hence, women like Rukmini Devi readily censored most of these padams from the repertoire, claiming she had no taste for them. 

Credit: Narthaki.com

But upon closer study of the life of Kshetrayya and the several hagiographies surfacing in the 19th and 20th centuries, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, (Emory University) makes an explosive argument that questions the very existence of a historical figure called Kshetrayya! She points to the lack of historical information about him from the Nayaka literary sources. Kshetrajna, the Sanskritised version of the name finds mention only after about two hundred years post his lifetime, in a work on traditions of music. Harshita carefully traces every legend that claims Kshetrayya’s birth and life that reshaped his history. As part of the Telugu language reform, people like Sriramamurti and Kandukuri Viresalingam began censoring the erotic content in Telugu corpus by omitting the Padam, thus Kshetrayya all together from the literary genre, until he was reclaimed by the likes of  Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma, Vissa Appa Rao and others who recast him as a Telugu poet, albeit not in his courtly avatar, but as a wandering saint-poet who sang erotic compositions in praise of deities. 

But the most explosive argument she makes is that, Kshetrayya was a figment of revivalist imaginations and that the large corpus of erotic padams that reflect deep knowledge of a woman’s psyche and express freely her sexual desires were written by an assortment of courtesan women of the period. She does not however delve into the possible names of poetesses and courtesans, which I endeavor to do. In my research of the Nayaka period dance repertoires, I studied several works by courtesans who were erudite. For example, in the court of Raghunatha Nayaka were Ramabhadramba, Madhuravani, Krishnatvari and others. During the reign of Vijayaraghava Nayaka thrived Pasupuleti Rangajamma who wrote prolifically in eight languages alongside Krishnajamma, Candrarekha, Rupavati, Lokanayaki, Bhagyarati and others. Many of them composed padams which portrayed relationships; emotional, physical and social between the female lover and her deity / King / customer. Another compelling evidence one is able to add to Harshita’s conclusion is that, among the Nayaka period repertoires, there was one Nava padamulu. Nava to mean new, contemporary padams by a variety of composers, were performed in the court every day. Several of the “now attributed to Kshetryya” padams debuted there, through the courtesan voice and never in that of a Kshetrayya’s. 

However, given that a poet named Kshetra/Cashatreya/Kshetrya features in various sources between 18th and 19th centuries, one can assume that there might have been a poet Kshetrya in Vijayaraghava Nayaka’s court. But let us not forget that Ramabhadramba, Rangajamma, Madhuravani and later Muddupalani and Nagaratnammal fall in the long line of audacious female figures from literary history, who wrote of the sensual pleasures and female sexual desires in an unabashed manner. More importantly, they did so in a society whose culture found nothing debased about sexual desire. The non-kshatriya ruling class of Nayaka Kings, celebrated these erotic poems as reflective of their championing every realm of desire to live and conquer.

But 19th and 20th century Tamil country was drastically different. Through a collective of brahmin saviours, social reformers, nationalists and Sanskritists, the agency of the courtesan; body and voice were systemically suppressed. The construction of a “male” poet Kshetrayya through whose pen  women seemed like exotic creatures epitomising excessive sexual delight, was a product of the complementing processes of colonialism and patriarchy. 

What do we do with Kshetrayya now?

The fact that the erotic padams were not only performed by courtesans but also authored by them is bound to acidify the pit of the stomachs of dancers and moral polices. Women composers suggesting sexual promise, untiring sensuality, unlimited desire (to borrow the words of Edward Said), will elicit a complex response; a threat, a frightening self-discovery, in a society that devalued these women within inherent brahminical cultures and Victorian values that made assumptions about the promiscuous exotic Devadasi/courtesan. 

As Said says of Orientalism, here too the forces discovered a way to clothe, disguise, rarefy, and wrap the padam in a shroud of virtuous masculine voice as a desperate attempt to hide the woman’s voice which ferociously articulated her sexual desires. Are we prepared to hear these padams in its original, female, liberated tone, sans the undercover of discipline, rationality, utilitarian value and knowledge of divinity? 

I agree with Bajrang Dal’s plan of celebrating today as Martyrs day. The courtesans, who represented a society that wasn’t afraid of desire and sex, whose courage of free expression of the self was viciously muted behind a man’s identity, are martyrs in an India that threatens to shame and lynch anyone who expresses desire. Never mind that pornography is a leading industry, women/ girls are raped by juveniles and reduced to mere bodies in this country. 

Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh is a dancer and dance-historian whose work looks at the plural histories of performance in late medieval and early modern South India. She is an Assistant Professor of Practice at Krea University and Director, Ranga Mandira Academy.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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