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Indian love poems

Tambimuttu and John Piper (ill)

Tambimuttu; John Piper (ill);

Indian love poems

Peter Pauper Press, Mt Vernon NY 1967

topics: |  poetry | anthology | india | romance | erotica

Tambimuttu, of Sri Lankan Tamil ancestry, emerged as a major literary figure
in London around the second world war.  He is better known as an
editor-publisher than for his own work.  This is his selection of Indian
love poems, and includes an opening myth on the creation of woman.

Creation of woman myth

			   (from Prefatory note)
When it came to the fashioning of woman, Brahma took:
   the clustering of rows of bees, and the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, and
   the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of winds, and the timidity of
   the hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the hardness of adamant, and
   the sweetness of honey, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the warm glow
   of fire, and the coldness of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the
   cooing of the kokila, and the hypocrisy of the crane, and the fidelity of
   the chakravaka, and compounding all these together, Brahma made woman and
   gave her to man.

   Eight days later the man returned to Brahma: "My Lord, the creature you
   gave me poisons my existence.  She chatters without rest, she takes all
   my time, she laments for nothing at all, and is always ill.  Take her
   back." and Brahma took the woman back.

   But eight days later, the man came again to the god and said, "My Lord,
   my life is very solitary since I returned this creature.  I remember she
   danced before me, singing.  I recall how she glanced at me from the
   corner of her eye, how she played with me, clung to me.  Give her back to
   me," and Brahma returned the woman to him.  Three days only passed and
   Brahma saw the man coming to him again.  "My Lord," said he, "I do not
   understand exactly how it is, but I am sure that the woman causes me more
   annoyance than pleasure.  I beg you to relieve me of her!"

   But Brahma cried, "Go your own way and do the best you can." And the man
   cried: "I cannot live with her!" "Neither can you live without her!"
   replied Brahma.

   And the man went away sorrowful, murmuring: "Woe is me, I can neither
   live with her nor without her."

Kalidasa: FLOWER AND STONE p.56

	Having made your eyes from blue nymphaeae,
	       Your mouth from the red,
	Teeth from jasmine buds, lower lip from vernal foliage,
	And your limbs from champak petals, how is it
	    the Creator,
	O my dearest, made your heart of stone?

			tr. Sanskrit Tambimuttu and G.V. Vaidya

Bhartrihari: EYE-BROW IS A BOW STRING p. 58

	Lovely woman, what perfect skill in archery
	       You possess!
	You pierce men's hearts
	With bowstrings only, without arrows!

			tr. Sanskrit Tambimuttu and G.V. Vaidya


	Coming to me quickly, beloved, with eyes
	       handsome as a blue lotus,
	Twine your tendril-like perfect arms round my nexk;
	Or coming from behind with soft steps
	Cover both my eyes with your delicate leaf-like hands.

			tr. Tambimuttu and G.V. Vaidya


With beads of perspiration on her cheeks that shone like mirrors,
With musk-mark on her forehead melted and streaming down,
With the bracelets adorning her wrists tinkling time,
And from her eyes' fountains a great radiance pouring;
Under the burden of her breasts, her slender waist swaying,
Stormy like the ocean, her bosom, with infinite love,
	and her waist-knot every now and then becoming undone,
Her shoulder blades shining, and plaited hair dancing by her hips
Her every sigh like the breeze, rising up to high heaven,
DId Radha with oil pressed from champak flowers massage her Krishna
To her hearts content.

		from Radhika Santhwanam by poetess Muddu Palani c.1765,
		tr. from Telugu Tambimuttu and R. Appalaswamy p.37


	Now Nila's speech grew sweet,
	     suggesting the poet's figure --
	The chattering parrots pecked the red fruit of her lips;
	Her braided hair was black and long like Rahu, the sky snake
	Come to devour the full moon
	     of her face that outshone it.
	The down of her belly was like a long line of bees,
	Thick swarming in file for the suraponna blossom
	      of her navel;
	The feet were paired swans, moving with slow grace;
	She sang of these changest to herself, aware herself --
	For full of youth was she, and knew
		 the power of her own charms;
	Her breasts were full and round and firm
	        out-thurst, awake, awake,
	Like gold lotus buds out of the depths of
	     heart-desire's quiet lake.

		from Radhika Santhwanam
		tr. from Telugu Tambimuttu and R. Appalaswamy p.41


Muddupalani is a woman poet from the 18th c., and her work, the
RadhikA-sAnthanam has been both liked and reviled.  The poems are often
explicit, and they present the women's point of view, which is quite common
even in the most ancient Sanskrit and vernacular poems, but such a
perspective may also have been taken by male poets.

Muddupalani was a courtesan at the court of the Maratha king of Tañjāvūr,
Pratāpa Singh (1739–63), to whom she dedicated her book,
Rādhikā-sāntvanamu. The work must have enjoyed a considerable popularity
through the nineteenth century, for a Telugu scholar employed by C. P. Brown,
Paidipati Venkata Narusu, wrote a commentary on it. By the end of the
nineteenth century, such works were, however, already proscribed by the
government, determined by Victorian moral standards to be obscene.

Muddupalani's śr.Mgāra-kāvya — an elaborate love poem on the theme of KriShNa's
love for his new wife Ila and the consequent jealousy of his senior wife,
Rādha — offers a rich expression of a woman's sensibility and selfperception
in the domain of sexuality. Such a focus is not unique to women poets of this
period, since male poets, too, adopted a female voice: Kshetrayya is a major
example. Muddupalani's poetry is, on the whole, very close to that of such
poets, although not of the same caliber. She is interesting in her own right
for the unmediated articulation of a courtesan's view of love and for the
inventiveness she brought to bear upon a rather routinized KriShNa theme.

Following the model of KriShNadevarāya, Muddupalani reports that KriShNa came
to her in a dream as a little boy and asked her to compose this work on
"appeasing Rādhika. " She reported her dream to her guru, Vīrarāghavadeśika,
in the company of other scholars, and they confirmed the revelation and
advised her to compose the book and dedicate it to the god.
   (from bio in Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman: Classical Telugu Poetry)

Radhika Santwanamu: Obscenity case in colonial Madras

			Harshawardhan Bosham Nimkhedkar 2009
			from India-British-Raj archives

[Charles Philip Brown (1798-1884) was a scholar of Telugu; he came across of
a Telugu manuscript called Radhika Santwanamu, composed by a 17th-c.
courtesan Mutthupalani or Muddu Palani.
Brown asked his associate, Venkatanarasu, to publish the work; it was
printed in 1887, and reprinted 1907.  At that time]
it caught the attention of prudish moral police among the native
population and in one voice they condemned it as a vulgar, erotic, immoral,
pornographic, shameless, indecent, obscene piece of literature. It caused
such a strong uproar that its echoes are felt even to this day.

The furore over the book aroused the curiosity of a lady called Bangalore
Nagarathnamma, who was a devadasi, fluent in Tamil, Telugu, and
Kannada, and an exponent of Carnatic music.
(Nagarathnammal, was a great courtesan and feminist.  She had moved to
Madras in 1902 at the instance of her patron, the wealthy businessman
C. S. Rajarathna Mudaliar -

[She compared Venkatanarasu's edition] with with the original manuscript
which she had managed to access after a long struggle.  She [discovered]
that while publishing the text, Venkatanarasu had actually bowdlerised
it. Not only several stanzas were missing but even some portion of Muddu
Palani's Preface was also omitted.

Nagarathnamma was a bold and determined person of saintly inclinations. She
did not accept the prudish criticism of the book nor was she ready to call
it obscene. So she herself re-edited the original manuscript, annotated it,
and brought out a new edition by adding the parts deleted earlier.

The most daring aspect of this whole business is that it was done by a
Hindu woman in 1910. If you take into account the charges of obscenity
Penguin had to face in the 1950s over Lolita, and that too in ENGLAND, this
bizzare feat of Nagarathnamma's becomes nothing short of a wonder.  In
1911, she brought out the second edition and then all hell broke loose.
Purists, prudish morality-mongers, champions of decency in public life let
out a concerted howl that was loud enough to be heard in distant New
Delhi. The publisher's offices were raided and nine titles (including the
Santwanamu) were seized in May 1911. Several protests followed, a
particular point being made that it was a classic and that a modern
government had no right to sit in judgement on what had been written 150
years earlier.

[but the book was banned in 1918 and the ban remained in effect untiil
1947], when T. Prakasam, the then Premier of Madras, lifted the ban, saying
he was "restoring a few pearls to the necklace of Telugu literature."
Subsequently, the Nagarathnammal edition was reissued by Vavilla in 1952.

book: ''The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore
	Nagarathnamma'' by V. Sriram (2008)

(text above has significant overlap with un-ascribed article at

links on Devadasi culture in modern times: * The story of Nagarathnamma, on stage The Hindu V. Sriram’s ‘The Devadasi and the Saint – the Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma’ The story of Nagarathnamma was then told with many little nuggets of information that the Carnatic music fan is sure to treasure. She was proficient in Sanskrit and knew a fair amount of Kannada, Telugu and English. She was among the earliest artistes to pay income tax. She designed a portable tambura when the existing tamburas proved too cumbersome to take on her trips to various towns to give performances. * When the devadasi tradition ended, by S. Muthiah The Hindu October 1927 a bill was presented by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (the daughter of a devadasi herself) asking the Government to end the practice of dedicating women to temples. The first to oppose the resolution were the devadasis themselves. Bangalore Nagarathnamma and other devadasis formed the Association of the Devadasis of Madras Presidency on November 3, 1927. Its office was at Murugappan Street, where Jeevaratnammal, the oldest devadasi of Madras, lived at the time. She was elected President; the secretary was Doraikannammal. The Association sent a letter to the Law Member, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Ayyar protesting against the legislation. They organised meetings of devadasis in various towns in the Presidency, at which the women passed resolutions against the proposed legislation and sent them to Government. But the move lost steam by February 1928. Pressure from the men proved too much and the less successful devadasis were all for the legislation. The Council passed the resolution on November 6, but predictably Government did nothing; it was reluctant to tamper with what was a Hindu tradition. [It was revived by Dr Reddy and] became Act V of 1929. Not surprisingly, the implementation was one-sided; the devadasis were thrown out of the temples, but never got compensation. Many died in penury. Some were rescued by Dr. Reddy herself and rehabilitated in her Avvai Home. With that, dance vanished from the temples but continued to be performed in the homes of the rich – and began to be viewed as something not fit to be seen in public. [The ethics of "nautch" were widely debated, and in the 1930s the Music Academy spearheaded a move to re-introduce it in respectable settings, under the name "Bharata Natyam". ]

author bio

Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu (Ceylon, August 15, 1915 – London, June
23, 1983) was a Tamil poet, editor and critic. He was born in Ceylon, and was
a university student in Colombo before leaving for London. He arrived in
1938, and a year later he began to publish Poetry London, a small magazine
that was to be important in the next decade, in particular during the war
years.  He moved into Fitzrovia, home of the Bloomsbury Group, where he lived
for 13 years. Tambi, as he was called by his friends helped swell the
reputations of artists such as Dylan Thomas, Gerald Durrell, and sculptor
Henry Moore.  His publication of "Indian Love Poems" won for him the
Publishers Award and he presented a specially bound edition to the Queen.

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This article last updated on : 2014 Mar 06