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My god, you liar, you cheat!

Eroticism and god go together in the Telugu poetry of Ksetrayya and other 15th century masters. This book offers excellent English translations of padams, those love poems that sit awkwardly in the sanitised southern music tradition

In recent years, Brinda and Muktha have been great exponents of padam singing. Granddaughters of the great Veena Dhanammal, they sing this love poetry with all its special embellishments.

The eroticism of the padam places it awkwardly in the larger tradition of south Indian music. Padams are short musical compositions of a light classical nature, often used in dance. Inspired by the south Indian bhakthi cult, the genre reached its zenith in the hands of the Telugu masters of the 15th century. Padams are written in other south Indian languages as well.

Padams were part of a devadasi's repertoire and she sang them when she performed at temples and the royal court. With the devadasi tradition falling into disfavour, padams moved into the larger cultural milieu. Today many of these songs are sung at Bharatanatyam performances.

A K Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Schulman have transalated in this book some of the representative poets of the age.

Ramanujan first translated the vachanas of the 12th century Kannada shivasharanas. In Chicago, where he taught, he embarked on the project of translating Telugu padams. He took the help of two other scholars, and the result is this collection of excellent verse.

The main focus of the book is Ksetrayya, chosen because of his bold subversion of the standard bhakti themes. From an eroticism that has to be spiritually interpreted, we move to poetry that uses spirituality to explore eroticism.

In fact, when Ramanujan spoke to some great dance exponents, they sang the padams but refused to express them in movement.

Muvva Gopala, Venugopala, Venkatesvara and Konkanesvara are gods of love. And the women are the devadasis, skilled in love-making. The gods are gods only in name. They are customers of the veshya, the seducers of wives, cunning lovers of innocent girls.

Some of the love poetry here rivals Neruda, as in this Ksetrayya piece:
Ever since we parted
I'm like a lone woman
in a forest
after sunset,
soaked through by the rain
in the heavy dark
unable to find a way (pg 78)

But it isn't just the imagery that is striking. The exploration of the man-woman relationship, or what modern scholars call sexual politics, is a major concern.

Explicit descriptions don't have the tackiness of, say, a Kamala Das at her worst.

When lustily I jump on top
and pound his chest
with my pointed nipples, he says
"That girl Kanakangi is very good at this." (pg 91)

Note the context. A woman is angry and jealous that her lover is looking elsewhere for passion. This game is played and replayed in every poem. The god/lover woos a woman, takes her to bed, gets bored with her and then begins to look elsewhere.
You opportunist,
you excite them from moment to moment
make mouths water,
show them love to make them surrender,
drown them in a sea of passion,
and by the time the morning star appears-
you get up and vanish. (pg 98)

Every woman who enters the relationship is aware of the rules of the game. She doesn't expect fidelity. At times she resists, but she cannot hold out against his charm. Often she sells herself. Whatever the nature of the transaction, from the woman's side there is adoration, if not love. She might crib about his numerous affairs, but his return is always eagerly sought, even if it is only to the bed.

There is no mushy sentimentality, no pining away for these heroines. Muvva Gopala is the supreme lover, Kama personified.

So where does god come into this? These poems equate devotion with erotic sentiment. The supremacy of the sensory experience is proclaimed everywhere. You live, love and pray fully only with the body. The master of the heart must first be "master of my bed."

Don't read this as devotional poetry. Refuse to be apologetic about the blatant sexuality of some of the poems. You don't need the veneer of god to discuss something that is so intrinsic to you.

And even if you want to get spiritual, start from the premise the translators give you in their comprehensive and well-written introduction: "Loving god, like loving a human being, is not an easy thing."

Parvathy P B

When God is a Customer
Edited and translated by
A K Ramanujan
Velcheru Narayana Rao
David Schulman Oxford University Press
Rs 150

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