An early 20th century tale of censorship: How Bangalore Nagarathnamma fought social norms to revive the legacy of Muddupalani
In 1910, Bangalore Nagarathnamma resurrected the Telugu classic Radhika Santawanam written by a prominent 18th centuey devadasi, Muddupalani. Nagarathnamma, an established musician, scholar and affluent devadasi, was drawn to Muddupalani's story, her legacy and scholarship — which was distinctly similar to her own.
In 1910, Bangalore Nagarathnamma resurrected the Telugu classic Radhika Santawanam written by a prominent 18th centuey devadasi, Muddupalani.
Nagarathnamma, an established musician, scholar and affluent devadasi, was drawn to Muddupalani's story, her legacy and scholarship — which was distinctly similar to her own.
Muddupalani's work had been sanitised in a heavy-handed manner to meet the conventions of the day, so Nagarathnamma published it in its original form.
As a result, she faced tremendous backlash in the form of censorship by the British government.
In 1910, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, an established musician, scholar and affluent devadasi resurrected the Telugu classic Radhika Santawanam (Appeasing Radhika) written by a prominent 18th century devadasi Muddupalani. She wrote “I cannot let this book go no matter how many times I read it...it is as adorable as Lord Krishna”. A scholar in her mother tongue Kannada as well as Tamil, it was Nagarathnamma’s special enthusiasm and distinct preference for Telugu classics that led her to discover Muddupalani’s work. She came across a reference to Radhika Santwanam in Panigruhita, written by the famous Telugu poet duo Tirupati Venkatakavulu.
However, when she obtained an available version of the book at the time, she realised it was full of errors and poorly printed. A friend found an annotated manuscript with great difficulty, and Nagarathnamma compared the original with the available version. Not only was it badly edited but also ‘sanitised’ to exclude the peethika (Prologue) in which Muddupalani describes her literary lineage and scholarly achievements and from entire stanzas within the poem.
In 18th century Thanjavur, Muddupalani was a court poetess, distinguished scholar and courtesan of the Nayaka ruler Pratapasimha. Known for their patronage of arts, music and literature, the Nayaka rulers fostered what is today considered the period when Telugu literature flourished. She proudly describes her matriarchal lineage through her grandmother Tanjanayaki, a celebrated devadasi of her times known for her talent, skill and wealth. Muddupalani introduces herself as a woman of unparalleled talent, beauty and patronage to whom epics were dedicated to. (Courtesans had access to scholarship in music, literature and dance and traditionally enjoyed property rights.)
Muddupalani’s Radhika Santawanam — a magnum opus with 584 verses — revolves around the relationship between Krishna and his maternal aunt Radha, Krishna’s wedding to Ila and the eventual torment and appeasement of Radha. Unlike common depictions of Radha and Krishna, it focuses on its women, their sexuality and sensibilities. It offers insights into the women’s perspectives — the coming of age, the first sexual experience, the trauma of longing, self-doubt, conflicting emotions of love and hate, and asserting self-respect.
Drawn to Muddupalani’s story, her legacy and scholarship which was distinctly similar to her own, Bangalore Nagarathanamma felt the need to bring out the work in its entirety in 1910. She wrote “This work is overflowing with rasamu (aesthetic or taste). As it is not only written by a woman but by a woman who was born into the same community (devadasi tradition) as mine, I intend to edit and publish it in a proper form.”
Apart from her disappointment with the censored version, what probably led her to publish it was her urge to defend Muddupalani against comments by Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, a champion of the women’s movement and a social reformer. In his Andhra Kavula Charitra (1887) Veeresalingam, a staunch supporter of the anti-nautch movement, commented that certain aspects of the book were ‘disgraceful’ and ‘inappropriate’ for respectable women to hear or talk about. He added that while Molla and Mohanangi have written padyakavyamulu (epic poems) before, they were ‘chaste and honourable women’. He dismissed Muddupalani, calling her a ‘prostitute’. Throughout his commentary, he uses derogatory pronouns such as ‘adi’ ‘idi’ and ‘dani’ to refer to her.
“Muddupalani is among the women who wrote poetry. She is a prostitute. She wrote Radhika Santwanam in four cantos. Her mother’s name is Muthyalu. She seems to be a mistress of Pratap Simha, ruler of Thanjavur based on her book.”
Nagaratnamma wondered if Veeresalingam read her introduction, why he would refer to Muthyalu as her mother, when he was her father. She further added that Muddu is a prefix while Palani was the name of the sacred place in South India.
Even Veeresalingam, however, agreed that she was a scholar. “She claims to be an expert in music and literature. There is no doubt that her poetry is mellifluous. She seems to be knowledgeable in Sanskrit and Andhramu (Telugu), while there were mistakes here and there which are common to works of men as well. However, not only must many parts of the book never fall on the ears of women or come from a woman’s mouth, but must be condemned. Being a prostitute, whose occupation is adultery, she left modesty natural to women and was hence was able to fill crude descriptions of sex throughout the book.”
In her preface, Nagarathnamma defends Muddupalani, “If one looks closely there are no books without errors including the Mahabharatamu. In that scenario it is not surprising that there are mistakes in the works of women as well.”
On his suggestion of condemnation, Nagarathnamma retorted sarcastically, “Perhaps the concept of shame applies to only women but not men. Maybe because she was a ‘prostitute’ she was able to write crude depictions of sex without shame. In that case, it surely must not suit the supposed learned men to depict conjugal pleasures in the same way? Or such great men must not have made more cruder depictions of sex in their own books? But then, what about Pantulu garu who personally edited and published Vaijayantivilasam and his own work Rasikajanamanoranjanamu (which is a prescribed textbook in Madras University)? Are there more ‘obscenities’ in Muddupalani’s work than theirs?”
Nagarathnamma’s dissent found itself within the ongoing controversy around abolition of the devadasi system under the then Madras Government. She published Radhika Santwanam through Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu and Sons Press who were by then actively publishing Telugu classics. Soon after, it was met with public notoriety and backlash from the British government. They labelled it ‘obscene’ based on a complaint by a Telugu translator Goteti Kanankaraju Pantulu.
It brought forward questions around female sexuality which did not suit the amalgamation of Victorian and Brahmanical morality. The publishers were charged under Section 293 of the Indian Penal Code based on the accusation that Radhika Santwanam contained ‘obscene descriptions’ which would ‘corrupt the minds and morality of the young readers’ along with eight other similar titles. It was ordered that all copies of the Radhika Santwanam must be destroyed while censored versions of the other books may be published as approved by Telugu Board of Studies (of which the Kanakaraju was a member of).
Multiple raids were conducted on their printing press, offices, and branches in Madras and Rajahmundry. What followed was a long drawn legal battle fought by the Vavilla Press who argued, “these Telugu classics enjoy a great place in history and were written by renowned poets who lived centuries ago and the Government was not fit to ban such books. Be sure that such a ban would only be an axe blow to the tree of literature.”
It was only post-independence in 1947, that then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Tanguturi Prakasam revoked the ban and declared, “I am adding some pearls to the necklace that is Telugu literature”.
Radhika Santwanamu by Muddupalani edited by Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Vavilla Press
Andhra Kavayitrilu by Utukuri Lakshmikantamma
Pracheenandra Kavayitrula Stri Svabhavachitranam by Dr G Sambasivarao
Andhra Kavula Charitamu by Kandukuri Veeresalingam
Women Writing in India Volume 1 (600 BC to Twentieth Century) by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha
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