When God is a lover… or a customer

When I try to describe the culture I grew up in–Telugu Brahmins living in the US–I tend to think of it as very conservative and orthodox, finding its creative expression either through unbelievably cheesy Tollywood movies (which my family never watched anyway), classical dance, or Carnatic music. Even when I was younger, I wished South Indians had an equivalent to boisterous, energetic, communal dances like garba or bhangra, which have become even more prominent in my life ever since I came to college. Even South Indian weddings are polar opposites of North Indian ones; I saw this first-hand when my uncle married a North Indian woman, and my family awkwardly sat through the sangeet and the other more boisterous (North Indian) parts of the wedding.

So, whenever I come across something that counteracts my narrative of Telugu people (and South Indians in general) as being stiflingly uptight and conservative, I become very interested very quickly. The following poems represent a line of thinking in South Indian Hinduism that sees no problem in blurring the lines between romantic/erotic love and devotion to God; a philosophy that has produced some beautiful works of art, literature, and music.

Everything from this point on is going to be one long series of excerpts from the 1994 book When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others by David Dean Shulman, A. K. Ramanujan, and Velcheru Narayana Rao. It’s a long read, but hopefully it’ll be kind of eye-opening as well. The first part is an introduction to the poetry itself and the history of devotional/erotic poetry in South India. I’ve included a couple of the actual poems as well, concluding with a socio-political explanation of why these poems have remained virtually unknown in the recent past.

What kind of poetry is this?

The poems translated here belong to the category of padams—short musical compositions of a light classical nature, intended to be sung and, often, danced. Originally, they belonged to the professional caste of dancers and singers, devadasis or vesyas (and their male counterparts, the nattuvanar musicians), who were associated with both temples and royal courts in late medieval South India.

Padams were composed throughout India, early examples in Sanskrit occurring in Jayadeva’s famous devotional poem, the Gitagovinda (twelfth century). In South India the genre assumed a standardized form in the second half of the fifteenth century with the Telugu padams composed by the great temple-poet Tallapaka Annamacarya, also known by the popular name Annamayya, at Tirupati. This form includes an opening line called pallavi that functions as a refrain, often in conjunction with the second line, anupallavi. This refrain is repeated after each of the (usually three) caranam verses.

Padams have been and are still being composed in the major languages of South India: Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. However, the padam tradition reached its expressive peak in Telugu, the primary language for South Indian classical music, during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in southern Andhra and the Tamil region.

With the abolition of the devadasi tradition by the British, padams, like other genres proper to this community, made their way to the concert stage. They still comprise a major part of the repertoire of classical vocal music and dance, alongside related forms such as the kirttanam (which is never danced).


A short history of devotional poetry in South India

From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)… Such poems—addressed ultimately to the god, Siva or Visnu, and contextualized by a devotional framework, usually that of worship in the god’s temple—are early South Indian examples of the literary linkage between mystical devotion and erotic discourse so prevalent in the world’s major religions.

A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millenium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism.

And yet these Telugu devotees also present us with their own irreducible vision, or series of visions, of the divine, at play with the world, and perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic coloring… what does it mean to love god in this way?

It should now be clear why the courtesan appears as the major figure in this poetry of love. As an expressive vehicle for the manifold relations between devotee and deity, the courtesan offers rich possibilities. She is bold, unattached, free from the constraints of home and family. In some sense, she represents the possibility of choice and spontaneous affection, in opposition to the largely predetermined, and rather calculated, marital tie. She can also manipulate her customers to no small extent, as the devotee wishes and believes he can manipulate his god. But above all, the courtesan signals a particular kind of knowledge, one that achieved preeminence in the late medieval cultural order in South India. Bodily experience becomes a crucial mode of knowing, especially in this devotional context: the courtesan experiences her divine client by taking him physically into her body.

(…) It would be all too easy to allegorize the verses, to see here some version of a soul pining for its possessing deity, translated into the language of… love poetry. Indeed, the medieval Vaisnava commentators go some way in this direction, although their allegoresis is neither as mechanical nor as unimaginative as is sometimes claimed. But… to reduce this poetic autonomy to metaphysical allegory is to destroy the poems’ integrity, and with it most of their suggestive power.


“The Madam to a Courtesan”, by Kshetrayya (1600-1680):

The senior courtesan or madam is chiding her younger colleague. God himself has come as a customer to this young woman, but she has treated him rather haughtily—taking his money but refusing even to give him her address. The madam finds him wandering the narrow streets of the courtesan colony, too embarrassed to ask for directions. Although his real nature and power are clear enough—as the refrain tells us (and the young courtesan), this customer rules the worlds—it is the woman who has the upper hand in this transaction, while the deity behaves as an awkward and essentially helpless plaything in her control. He wants her, lusts for her, and yet she easily eludes him.

Their relationship, such as it is, is transactional and mercenary, and the advantage wholly hers… God and woman are involved here in a kind of teasing hide-and-seek, with money as part of the stakes, and the woman is an active, independent partner to the game.

(Note: The god being addressed in these poems is Krishna; or as Kshetrayya calls him, “Cennudu of Palagiri” and “Muvva Gopala”)

“Woman! He’s none other
than Cennudu of Palagiri.
Haven’t you heard?
He rules the worlds.
When he wanted you, you took his gold—
but couldn’t you tell him your address?
Some lover you are!
He’s hooked on you.
And he rules the worlds
I found him wandering the alleyways,
too shy to ask anyone.
I had to bring him home with me.
Would it have been such a crime
if you or your girls
had waited for him by the door?
You really think it’s enough
to get the money in your hand?
Can’t you tell who’s big, who’s small?
Who do you think he is?
And he rules the worlds
This handsome Cennudu of Palagiri,
this Muvva Gopala,
has falled to your lot.
When he said he’d come tomorrow,
couldn’t you consent
just a little?
Did you really have to say no?
What can I say about you?
And he rules the worlds”

“A Woman to Her Lover”, by Kshetrayya (1600-1680)


“A Woman to her Lover”, by Tallapaka Annamacharya (1408-1503):

For Annamayya, love/devotion is an exploration of the ideal experience of the divine. Most often, he assumes the persona of the woman who is in love with the god—either the consort herself or another woman. Unlike later padam writers, Annamayya does not describe a courtesan/customer relationship between the devotee and the god. No money changes hands, and the woman does not manipulate the customer to get the best deal. In Annamayya it is always an ideal love relationship, which ultimately achieves harmony. God here is always male, and he is usually in control. He has the upper hand, even when he adopts a subservient posture to please his woman. The woman might complain, get angry, and fight with him, but in the end they make love and the god wins.

(Annamayya is addressing Venkateswara, “lord of Venkata hill”, who is a form of Vishnu)

“O you lover of whores:

I know your ways,
I can see them all.
Why do you need a mirror to see
the jewel on your wrist?
Some woman has tried to hug you hard
with her hand covered with bracelets.
I can still see the print of their curves
on your shoulder. Why tell me lies?
I know your tricks.
You lover of whores, why do you need a mirror?

Some woman has comfortably slept
on your chest and the sapphires
of her necklace have left a print
on your skin. Why contest it over and over?
O you love expert, I can’t be harsh.
You lover of whores, why do you need a mirror?

Some woman has made love to you,
Lord of Venkata hill,
plundered your body’s perfumes.
Soon after, you come into my arms.
How can I blame you? My weariness is gone.
You lover of whores, why do you need a mirror?”


 So what happened to these poems and to the devadasi tradition?

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