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”)
“A Woman to Her Lover”, by Kshetrayya (1600-1680)
“Your body is my body,”
you used to say,
and it has come true,
Though I was with you
all these days,
I wasn’t sure.
Some woman has scratched
nail marks on your chest,
but I’m the one who feels the hurt.
You go sleepless all night,
but it’s my eyes
that turn red.
“Your body is my body,” you used to say
Ever since you fell for that woman,
it’s my mind
that’s in distress.
When I look at those charming love bites
she has left on your lips,
it’s my lip that shakes.
“Your body is my body,” you used to say
Maybe you made love
to another woman,
for, O lord who rules me,
my desire is sated.
Forgive me, Gopala,
but when you come back here,
I’m the one who feels small
“Your body is my body,” you used to say
Annamayya’s songs were sung in the temple. There is, however, no evidence that Ksetrayya’s songs were sung in temple rituals. Ksetrayya’s songs survived among courtesans and in the repertoire of the male Brahmin dancers of the Kucipudi tradition who played female roles. That Ksetrayya traveled to many places to visit courts and temples is clear from the many specific vocatives in his songs (including one even to the Muslim Padshah of Golconda). As we have already mentioned, temples and palaces were associated with courtesan colonies, and it is quite likely that Ksetrayya was composing songs for these courtesans to sing—to a deity, king, or customer, the three categories having been, in any case, conflated into one.
“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?
Around the turn of the century, with the advent of Victorian moralistic attitudes in public life, sexuality and eroticism in Hindu culture and literature came to be seen as a problem.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries social reformers in Andhra opposed the institution of courtesans per se. Kandukuri Viresalingam (1848-1919) started the antinautch movement, which advocated that respectable men should not visit courtesans. Until this time it had been considered prestigious for a man from an upper-caste family to maintain a courtesan. Important men in society prided themselves on their association with courtesan dance groups, which were named after them. People in high positions, such as district magistrates and police commissioners, sponsored courtesan singing groups (melams); anyone who had business with the officer was expected to attend such performances and give a suitable gift (osagulu) to the courtesans, a percentage of which went to the sponsoring officer. As can be imagined, this practice led to corruption in high places.
The antinautch movement addressed itself to these social ills with puritanical zeal. But the movement had a negative effect on dance and music. The courtesan had traditionally been the center of song and dance in South India.
Housewives were normally prohibited from appearing in public, and certainly from singing or dancing before men. By contrast, the courtesan enjoyed a freedom usually reserved for the men; not only did she not suffer from many of the restrictions imposed on women but she was given the same honor shown to poets in a royal court. Names of great courtesans such as Macaladevi are known in literature dating from the Kakatiya period. Some, such as the learned Rangajamma, were prominent poets in the Nayaka courts.
But all this was possible only to a woman born in a courtesan caste. By the nineteenth century women born in other castes, for whom marriage was prescribed, were not free to cultivate any of the skills courtesans practiced. Any effort on the part of the family woman even to try to look beautiful or display womanly skills was severely censured. Thus, looking into a mirror at night or wearing too many flowers on certain occasions would bring down the wrath of the elders and accusations that the woman was behaving no better than a courtesan. No insult could be worse: in family households a courtesan was regarded as the most despicable thing a woman could become.
By this time, then, the world of women was clearly divided into two opposed parts, that of the courtesan and that of the family woman, and neither of the two wished to be mistaken for the other. Chastity, modesty, innocence, dependency, the responsibility to bear male children to continue the line, and the bringing of prosperity to the family by proper ritual behavior—these were the roles and values assigned to the housewife. These very qualities would be considered defects in a courtesan, whose virtues were beauty, boldness in sex and its cultivation, and a talent for dancing and singing in public. A courtesan could be independent, own property, earn and handle her own money; cunning and coquetry were part of her repertoire. She had no responsibility to bear children, but if she did have a child, a female was preferred to a male. Indeed, a male child in a courtesan’s household was both a practical problem and an embarrassment.
Given that these two worlds were so clearly divided, a movement to abolish all courtesans endangered a valuable part of the culture—all that related to song and dance. Granted, in the twentieth century attempts were made to interest young women from respectable families in dance and music so that they could perform in public.
Prestigious institutions like Kalakshetra in Madras presented the courtesan dances in a cleaned-up form, renamed the genre Bharata Natyam, and provided it with an antiquity and respectability aimed at making it acceptable to educated, upper-middle-class family women. Still, it was not easy to get these women to sing Ksetrayya’s songs, with all their uninhibited eroticism. Doubts and hesitations persisted. Thus, E. Krishna Iyer writes in his English introduction to G. V. Sitapati’s 1952 edition of Ksetrayya’s padams: “Is it proper or safe to encourage present day family girls to go in for Ksetraya padas and are they likely to handle them with understanding of their true devotional spirit? At any rate can a pada like ‘Oka Sarike’ [“if you are so tired after making love just once”] be ever touched by our girls?” Apologetics mix with a palpable fear of the explicit eroticism of these poems, Krishna Iyer arguing that the people of Ksetrayya’s time had a strength of mind we no longer possess.
The trend was now to reinterpret sexual references and representations in Hindu religious texts, ritual, art, and literature by assigning exalted spiritual meanings to them. Even so, many valuable religious and literary texts were proscribed as obscene, while others were published with dots replacing objectionable verses, sometimes spanning whole pages.
In an effort to protect traditional texts from disappearing altogether, certain scholars and patrons of art produced limited unexpurgated editions exclusively for scholarly distribution. For works like Ksetrayya’s there was yet no reliable printed edition; the songs were preserved in palmleaf or paper manuscripts. Scholars like Vissa Apparavu and patrons like the Maharaja of Pithapuram (who had long family associations with courtesans) attempted to collect and publish these texts, the Maharaja, for example, sponsoring G.V. Sitapati’s volume of Ksetrayya’s songs. The effort was laudable and did save the literature from utter extinction. But in order to save the songs the new patrons and scholars “spiritualized” them, arguing that these were by no means erotic courtesan songs. The apparent eroticism was only an allegory for the union of jiva and isvara, the yearning human soul and god.
The original context of the Ksetrayya padams was the courtesan’s bedroom, where she entertained a customer identified as a god. No amount of apologetic spiritualizing, no hypertrophied classification in terms of the Sanskrit courtly types, should be allowed to distort the sensibility that gave rise to these poems—even, or especially, if this sensibility has largely died away in contemporary South India. At the same time, we should not make the mistake of underestimating the vitality of the devotional impulse at work in the padams. These are still poems embodying an experience of the divine.