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Monday, February 07, 2011

EMPIRE, NATION, AND LITERARY TEXT- Susie Tharu and Dr. K. Lalitha

the following write up on Empire, Nation and the Literary Text is by Rekha Kamath


The essay ''Empire, Nation and the Literary Text'' is a combined effort of Prof. Susie Tharu and Dr. K. Lalitha. By using ''Radhika Santwanam'' (Appeasing Radhika), a classic work of the eighteenth century Telugu poetess ''Muddupalani'' as an example, the authors have attempted to portray the imbalance in the cultural authority during the colonial period, and its changing trends. In the introductory section, the essay reveals the efforts made by Bangalore Nagaratnamma, philanthropist and savant of the twentieth century, in trying to bring back to the public eye the great classic of Muddupalani which had gone unnoticed.

Muddupalani was a courtesan attached to the retinue of Pratapsimha (1739-1763), a Nayaka king of Tanjavur. Traditionally the only women who had an access to scholarship and arts like dancing, music, and literature were courtesans. Many of such women commanded respect for their learning and their accomplishments. One such accomplishment was Muddupalani’s Radhika Santwanam. It consists of 584 poems divided into four sections. The poems are stories involving Radha, Krishna’s aunt, who brings up Ila Devi from childhood and then gets her married to Krishna. The poems are a detail description of Ila Devi’s puberty and her consummation of her marriage with Krishna. In these poems Radha advises Ila Devi how to respond to Krishna’s love-making, and Krishna how to tenderly handle Ila Devi. At a point of time, the poems change course and Radha, unable to bear the pain and grief of her own separation from Krishna, whom she desires herself, breaks down and rages against Krishna for having abandoned her. When Krishna gently appeases her, she is comforted by his loving embrace. This is what gives Muddupalai’s creation its title.

The introduction of the essay shows the serious implications of the efforts made by Bangalore Nagaratnamma in reprinting the classic ''Radhika Satwanam'' (Appeasing Radhika) in 1910, during the reign of the British in India. She did so with a very clear intention of making the classic work of Muddupalani available to the public again. But this resulted in Muddupalani’s work being criticized as obscene and was banned from being printed, published, or even read. Even though the ban was lifted with the winning of Independence, the text didn’t achieve the recognition that it deserved. Radhika Santwanam gives a chance to take a peek into the ideological conjunctures of the last 250 years of Indian critiques.In the sections following the introduction, the authors attempt to "trace the changing political economies of gender, caste and class, serviced in turn by changes in literary taste as well as by altogether new notions of the function of literature and the nature of the literary curriculum."

The third section of the essay elaborates on the accomplishments of courtesans or ganika during Maddupalai’s time. Unlike the non-Muslim women upper caste women of that time, this section of the community got a chance to get well-versed with the literature of various languages including Sanskrit. As the culture of the Thanjavur court grew into a singularly composite one, the national culture also showed signs of miscegenation. The Thanjavur rulers were displaced by a Maratha dynasty and therefore there was a cultural influence too. This also showed changehad an impact in Muddupalani’s writings. Verses and secular prose narratives started replacing the poems. But what gave Muddupalani's works their uniqueness were the subversion of the received form. Usually it is the man is the lover and the woman is the loved one. But in Radhika Santwanam the woman's sensuality is at the center. "Legitimation of female desire and its endorsement of a woman's right to pleasure" is what makes Radhika Santwanam a unique classic.

The fourth section of the essay concentrates on the reason for the shift in ideologies. The work that was uncontroversial during its time became totally unacceptable when Bangalore Nagaratnamma brought its reprinted version into the open in 1911, the time when British rule in India was at its peak. The era saw major shifts in political, economic, and social ideologies. Thanjavur lost its relevance as the British started taking over places that were once ruled by Indian rulers. Artists, singers, dancers, especially the women, lost their status in the society and were forced to take up peury and prostitution.

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