Ananga-Ranga in the #MeToo era: Subjugation of women who seek pleasure has been the norm since medieval times
Women have no right to either seek or express their pleasure; that renders them, like the woman in the Ananga-Ranga, a shrew to be tamed
"A woman who was burning with love and could find none to satisfy her inordinate desires, threw off her clothes and swore she would wander the world naked till she met with her match. In this condition, she entered the levee-hall of the Rajah upon whom Koka Pandit was attending and, when asked if she were not ashamed of herself, looked insolently at the crowd of courtiers around her and scornfully declared that there was not a man in the room? The King and his company were sore abashed; but the Sage joining his hands, applied with due humility for royal permission to tame the shrew."
“He then led her home and worked so persuasively that whole night fainting from fatigue and from repeated orgasms she cried for quarter. Thereupon the virile Pandit inserted gold pins into her arms and legs; and, leading her before his Rajah, made her confess her defeat and solemnly veil herself in the presence."
The Ananga Ranga—Stage of Love in English—was written by Kalyana Malla sometime in the 1400s or 1500s. The poet wrote the work in honour of Lad Khan, the son of Ahmed Khan Lodi. Translated into English in 1885 by the traveller and scholar Richard Francis Burton—and burned, it is believed, by his wife Isabel Burton in the weeks after his death—is often compared to the Kama Sutra.
Frank, guilt-free sex is one great legacy of Indian tradition: Sensual pleasure, addressed with poetry, wisdom and humour, is seen as an ecstatic expression of life’s possibilities. But this is also a tradition that imprisons.
The Ananga-Ranga, and works like it, are not simply sex manuals; they represent particular ideologies about gender. The pursuit of pleasure, in this text, involves the subjugation of women for the pleasure of men—a story that haunts us today, as the #MeToo movement unfolds.
First published in the 1400s, and translated into Arabic and Hindustani as the Lazzat al-Nisa—‘the pleasures of women’—the Ananga-Ranga travelled well over the centuries, appearing in Persian and even Turkish. Its stated intent is to protect the institution of monogamy. “Great and powerful monarchs have ruined themselves and their realms by their desire to enjoy the wives of others," it warns. “Let none, therefore, attempt adultery even in their thoughts."
Kalyana Malla, the author of the Ananga-Ranga, is an obscure figure, though the text describes him “as a great sage”. The work itself, though, was written for Lad Khan, the king’s son. “King Ahmad," the text tells us, “was the ornament of the Lodi House. He was a Sea, having for waters the tears shed by the widows of his slaughtered foes, and he rose to just renown and wide-spread fame. May his son Lada Khan, versed in the Kama Shastra or Scripture of Love, and having his feet rubbed with the diadems of other kings, be ever victorious!”
Sex involves, among other things, performance: The Ananga-Ranga, and other works in this genre, are manuals to demonstrate masculine virility and feminine objectification.
She has no right to either seek or express her pleasure; that would render her, like the woman in the Ananga-Ranga, a shrew to be tamed.
The representation of the human sexual organs in some Mughal-era painting is instructive. There is one of particular interest, representing the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, where he displays a phallus of a wholly improbable size. The painting, obviously, is not just about representing pleasure; it’s true subject is male power.
In the Ananga-Ranga, the signifier of masculinity is quite different. “The man whose Linga is very long, will be wretchedly poor. The man whose Linga is very thick, will ever be in distress. The man whose Linga is thin and lean, will be very lucky; and the man whose Linga is short, will be a Rajah.”
Leaving aside minor details like the penis-size which signifies power, these tropes remain with us. It is not just pornography which limits the role of women to facilitators and providers of male pleasure. The recent controversy around a Bollywood scene where the actress Swara Bhaskar is shown to be masturbating is a case in point. There is no similar outrage at expressly sexual sequences or songs, as long as the women perform for the pleasure of men.
Thus, our mindsets have not moved on from the time of the Ananga-Ranga. We still are deeply embedded in the medieval thought of this text, wherein it is the wife whose duty is to satisfy her husband sexually. Never ever is there a straight question asked or posed to female sexual satisfaction and her pleasure.
Dr Syed Mubin Zehra (DU) is the author of Sexual & Gender Representation in Mughal India
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