A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda

As a kid, I loved reading about mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, you name it. I grew up reading the Percy Jackson books alongside Amar Chitra Katha comics. What I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) most about mythology was the richness, diversity, and depth of its characters, and the ways in which modern authors were able to flesh out and humanize these gods and heroes in so many different ways. Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) had a very different take on the Greek pantheon than Kate McMullan (the Myth-o-Mania books). Similarly, Indian authors today have been exploring the literary possibilities in Hindu mythology and epics; I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s women-centric retellings, like Palace of Illusions.

However, the more I learn about South Asian history and literature, the more I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. People have been playing with mythology and sacred narratives, emphasizing different aspects, changing up the settings, and adding totally new details and characters, for as long as these narratives have existed! This may seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s been quite a revelation to me. I want to share a wonderful passage from classical Telugu poetry, written around nine hundred years ago, that illustrates this exact phenomenon. But first, some background…

Nanne Choda, a forgotten poet

The poet whose work I want to feature in this post is Nanne Choda; I came across his writing in an anthology of classical Telugu poetry spanning a thousand years, translated by David Shulman (whom I interviewed earlier this summer) and Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Very little is known about Nanne Choda; in fact, his poetry had been lost to history until one of his works was discovered and re-published in the early 1900s by the scholar Manavalli Ramakrishna Kavi (1866-1957). Ramakrishna Kavi claimed that Nanne Choda actually lived before Nannaya, who is generally believed to be the first Telugu poet. While Shulman and Rao acknowledge that “there is an archaic quality to his verses,” they tentatively place Nanne Choda in the twelfth century AD, a century after Nannaya.

He seems to have been the ruler of a small kingdom called Orayuru, which some people associate with the city of Tiruchirappalli in the center of Tamil Nadu. Modern Telugu poets have given Nanne Choda the title of Kavi-raja Shikha-mani (“Crest-Jewel of the King of Poets”), but Shulman and Rao write that “his book seems to have disappeared from the horizon of literary discourse already in medieval times; later poets never mention him.”

The Birth of Kumara

The only surviving work of Nanne Choda is his epic poem Kumara-sambhava, “The Birth of Kumara.” Kumara (also called Skanda, Murugan, Kartikeya, Subramanya) is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and younger brother to Ganesha; he is the god in the Hindu pantheon who symbolizes courage and valor. “The Birth of Kumara” is about the intricate sequence of events that led to Kumara’s birth.

In composing his Telugu narrative of Kumara’s birth, Nanne Choda seems to have taken inspiration from the much more well-known Sanskrit Kumara-sambhava that was composed by the legendary poet Kalidasa (fifth century AD) around seven hundred years prior. Kalidasa’s Kumara-sambhava is considered by some to be “the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language.” Although I don’t think Nanne Choda’s work has been given such hyperbolic praise, hopefully the following selection will surprise you in a number of ways.

Continue reading “A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda”

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“Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music

Should Carnatic music be classified as art music or devotional music? Both? Neither?

I tried to answer this question in one of my first posts, and I still don’t have a clear answer.

T. M. Krishna is one of the most skilled vocalists in the next generation of Carnatic musicians, but the reason I admire him so much is because he is attempting to re-imagine nearly every aspect of Carnatic music. He’s stoked controversy through his various articles on social and political issues in India, and by declaring that “Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated, male chauvinistic world.” Krishna has worked to raise awareness about the forces of casteism and sexism historically present in Carnatic music, while also democratizing Carnatic music today. For example, he has pledged to boycott the most prestigious (and rather elitist) Carnatic music festival in Chennai, instead holding a music festival in a fishing village. In addition, he is also aesthetically reinventing the format of Carnatic concerts, which tend to follow a rigid structure.

Krishna has written an excellent book on Carnatic music called A Southern Music, in which he makes an argument for focusing on the aesthetic, artistic aspects of Carnatic music and improvisation over the devotional aspect of most Carnatic compositions:

“Is Karnatik music inherently religious?

To answer that, I must ask whether Karnatik music was intended to be religious. It is not possible to respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ terms to this…

But clearly its journey included a relationship with temples and their associated rituals. This is where we need to look beyond the function and the practice of the music. We need to recognise the brilliance of musicians whose genius was logistically linked to religious sites, but was aesthetically free to and did indeed travel beyond the precincts of the temple where they practised their art. In this complex formation lies the answer to the question about the intent of Karnatik music. My point of view on this subject is not atheistic but aesthetic.

Now to pose another related question: what happens when the thought in the musician’s mind is the music’s religious content? This is not an academic question, but is about a very real situation. Most Karnatik musicians in the past and many in the present hail from conservative families, more often than not of brahmin descent. They believe strongly in religion and ritual. This automatically makes their relationship with Karnatik music religious. In this situation, the lyrics rendered further entrench their already conditioned minds in religious belief, leading many musicians to feel, believe and then propound the belief that they are conveying the philosophical and religious meaning of the vaggeyakara (composer) to the audience. Many kirtanas are rendered with deep feeling and focus on the names of the deities and the vaggeyakara’s yearning for these gods.

In doing so, is the kirtana’s aesthetic make-up influenced? As much as the musicians are engrossed in the music, the focus is driven by textual meaning as they understand it and their own associations with the words being sung. Lines in the compositions are rendered with a clear emphasis on those words that create a religious – if not devotional – emotion both for the musician and the listener. These lines are even repeated to constantly emphasise the same emotion. In the process, the musician’s thoughts veer away from the musical structuring.

Within the modern world, the Hindu religious content raises an important question. Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?

The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music. They will silently pamper the religious responses to their music and encourage devotional and philosophical expressions. I am not finding fault, but highlighting the difficulty for them to be who they are within this world. The musical fraternity at large does not feel it necessary to give Karnatik music, especially its compositional forms, a purely aesthetic thought.

What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world.” (source)


Krishna makes a related argument even more forcefully at another point in the book:

“When listeners come with the mindset of understanding sahitya (lyrics) in order to connect with Karnatik music, they make the same mistake as the musician in not allowing the art object to create the magic. The listener is only listening to poetry in the garb of music. Although this can be a deeply moving experience, it prevents the listener from connecting emotionally to the abstraction. The music they are listening to becomes religious, social or political music.” (pages 278-279)


Looking back at my previous posts on Carnatic music, I think I’m guilty of prioritizing the religious meaning of Carnatic compositions over their musical aspects, and I definitely want to try and look at Carnatic music from a more aesthetic perspective now.

However, in the case of the song “Enta matramuna”, I think we’re allowed to take a good look at its lyrics, for a couple reasons. Firstly, this kriti was composed by the Telugu poet-composer Annamacharya, who lived from 1408-1503 and whose poetry I’ve written about before. Although we still have the lyrics to hundreds of Annamacharya compositions, we no longer know the original ragas or melodies in which they were set. In fact, many compositions were recently found on copper plates in a hidden chamber of the Tirupati Venkateshwara temple. Because of this, I don’t feel that by closely examining the lyrics of this song, I’m somehow disrespecting Annamacharya’s creative intent. Although he was a vaggeyakara — vach (word) + geya (singer) + kara (person) = composer — in his time, today we have to approach him primarily as a poet whose compositions have been set to music by others.

In addition, I think this song gives a insight into the spirit of religious pluralism that defines Hinduism and, at the same time, makes Hinduism so hard to define.

Continue reading ““Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music”

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?

Continue reading “When God is a lover… or a customer”

Telisi Rama: goats and milkweed and God

In the cheerful, bright song Telisi Rama (in the raga Purnachandrika), Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847) showcases his skill as a vaggeyakara (poet-composer). He quotes various Telugu homonyms to make a point about language and devotion to God. The video above is a rendition of this song by the Malladi brothers.


telisi rAma cintanatO nAmamu sEyavE O manasA

talapu lanni nilipi nimiSamaina tAraka rUpuni nija tatvamulanu

Tyagaraja begins by appealing to one’s mind (O manasa) to “keep thoughts of Rama,” and to “recite his name steadily, even for one minute”. He continues by saying that, having stopped all unnecessary thoughts (talupulanni nilipi) even just for a minute (nimisha maina), one should concentrate on Rama’s attributes and sayings (tattvamulanu).

rAmAyaNa capalakSula pEru kAmAdula pOru vAru vIru
rAmAyaNa brahmamunaku pEru AmAnava jananArtulu dIru

The Telugu word rama can have two meanings: either “woman” or the god Rama. In this (sexist) couplet, Tyagaraja disapproves of those who say rama thinking of women. He says that saying rama while thinking of God will remove the hardships and troubles from one’s life.

arkamanucu jilleDu taru pEru markaTa buddhu leTla dIru
arkuDanucu bhAskaruniki pEru kutarkamanu andhakAramu dIru

Similarly, arka can mean either a poisonous milkweed tree, or another name for Surya, the sun god (technically one would say arkudu if referring to the god). Here, Tyagaraja asks, “When saying arka, if the mind thinks of milkweed, how will one’s monkey-like thoughts go away? / When saying arka, if the mind thinks of the Sun, the darkness of unnecessary thoughts will disappear.”

ajamanucu mESamunaku pEru nija kOrika lElA gIDEru
ajuDani vAgIshavaruniki pEru vijayamu galgunu tyAgarAja nutuni

Finally, the word aja can refer to a male goat, or to the creator god, Brahma (like above, technically one would say ajudu if referring to Brahma). Tyagaraja asks, “If the mind thinks of a goat while saying aja, how will one’s real desires be achieved [meaning moksha/liberation]? / When saying aja, if one thinks of Lord Brahma, they will attain success.”

(source)