@BLAsia_Africa. “Divan of Chanda, copy presented by author to John Malcolm in 1799 (IO Islamic 2768).” Twitter, 19 April 2017, 5:41 a.m.

This tweet contains photographs of the British Museum’s copy of famed tawaif Mah Laqa Bai’s Divan of Chanda (called Diwan e Chanda in Urdu). Divan of Chanda is a manuscript collection of Mah Laqa’s 125 Ghazals, compiled and calligraphed by her in 1798. The photographs are credited to Sufinama, a web-based archive of Sufi poetry, and William Dalrymple, a historian.

A photograph of English writing on the first page of Divan of Chanda.
A photograph of a poem from Divan of Chanda written in Urdu by famed tawaif Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.

Mah Laqa Bai Chanda. “Hoping to Blossom (One Day) Into a Flower.” Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990, p. 122.

An English translation of courtesan and poetess Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s (1768-1824) Urdu ghazal, “Hoping to Blossom (One Day) Into a Flower” appears as follows in Vol. 1 of Women Writing in India: 

Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower,
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.

Between the fear of the fowler and (approaching) autumn,
The bulbul’s life hangs by a thread.

Thy sly glance is more murderous than arrow or sword;
It has shed the blood of many lover.

How can I liken a candle to thy (glowing) cheek?
The candle is blind with the fat in its eyes.

How can Chanda be dry lipped. O Saqi of the heavenly wine!
She has drained the cup of thy love.

TERMS

NOTES ABOUT GHAZALS

  • In a Ghazal (this type of poem), couplets may or may not relate to each other thematically; rather, the connecting threads of the poem are typically found in the rhyme scheme. It is therefore difficult to capture the “essence” of a Ghazal in translation.
  • Ghazals for Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s contemporaries made use of conventional images and symbols, which would develop layered meanings for listeners who heard many Ghazals.

INTERPRETIVE NOTES

  • Note the dangerous connotations of the poem: conventionally-romantic images like rosebuds, flowers, and candles contrast with more dangerous terms like “fist,” “life [hanging] by a thread,” and “murderous” arrows and swords. How do these terms represent love and lovers?
  • If Chanda (Mah Laqa Bai’s pen name) is “dry lipped”, what does this mean for her as a performer? If Saqi’s love is the wine of inspiration, might that influence how we view romantic love in the rest of the poem? How can we read this connection between Love, Danger, and Inspiration?
  • Considering the Love-Danger-Inspiration connecting themes, what does the “bud,” which often symbolizes a sweetheart, want to blossom into? And what’s holding the bud or sweetheart back?
  • Is Saqi, addressed in the fifth and  final couplet, also being addressed in the third and fourth?

Malhotra, Anshu. “Bhakti and the Gendered Self: A Courtesan and a Consort in Mid Nineteenth Century Punjab.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1506–1539, doi:10.1017/S0026749X11000837.

Abstract:

Bhakti is viewed as a movement that is subversive of orthodoxy, and inverts the societal norms prescribed by the dharmashastras. This paper looks at the Bhakti movement’s long history and transformations into the nineteenth century in Punjab. If womanly dharma within the normative tradition is defined by sexual containment through marriage and wifehood, the accumulated Bhakti legends and hagiographies are examined to see the place of the prostitute in it, and the limits of its revolutionary potential are brought to the fore. By looking at the writings of the Muslim prostitute Piro who comes to live in the establishment of a ‘ Sikh’ guru Gulab Das, in Chathianwala near Lahore during the period of Ranjit Singh, this paper attempts to read Piro’s use of Bhakti legends and imagery to build support for her unusual step. The imbrication of the Gulabdasis in hybrid practices that borrowed elements from advaita, Bhakti and Sufi theologies is also delineated. The paper shows Piro’s engagement with the radical potential of Bhakti, but also maps her move towards social conformity—the paradox that makes her look at herself simultaneously as a courtesan and as a consort. Abstract from JStor: This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Malhotra, Anshu. “Miracles for the Marginal?: Gender and Agency in a Nineteenth-Century Autobiographical Fragment.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 25 no. 2, 2013, p. 15-35. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2013.0017.

Abstract from Project Muse

In this article the question of agency is explored in the autobiographical fragment of a nineteenth-century poetess of Punjab, Piro. In this “pre-modern” text Piro portrays an enormous sense of self-worth and presents herself as loquacious and active. She simultaneously adheres to the norms of her bhakti devotional world where the guru was held in high esteem and often displayed his elevated status through miraculous interventions in earthly matters. Piro refers to such a marvelous encounter at a moment of crisis in her own life, attributing her redemption to the miraculous powers of the guru. Between Piro’s depiction of self-worth and her self-abnegation in front of the guru, how does one read her agency? This article views western understanding of agency in the genre of autobiographies, and also follows the critique of the western liberal feminist positions on the issue. It underscores the significance of context to understand women’s agency in different cultures. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source. Available free online from Project Muse


Malhotra, Anshu. “Performing a Persona: Reading Piro’s Kafis.” Speaking of the Self: Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia. Anshu Malhotra & Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Editors. Duke University Press, 2015. doi.org/10.1215/9780822374978-009.

Abstract: This chapter unravels Piro’s 160 Kafis to show how a former Muslim prostitute, and then a novitiate in a marginally Sikh Gulabdasi establishment, fashioned a self by writing “autobiographical” verses. The transgression of her move from a brothel to a monastic establishment created a situation that pushed Piro into recounting the particular incident that she perceived as transformative in her life. She used her writing to justify her presence in the establishment and her closeness to her guru. The chapter unpacks the meanings of her metaphorical language, what she says, what she leaves unsaid, and what she merely suggests. The meanings of Piro’s obsessive invoking of Hindu-Muslim conflict is sought to be understood, and her recourse to and creative use of diverse Punjabi cultural imaginary is demonstrated. The cultural eclecticism of her sect and her writing, with its borrowings from Vedantic monism, Sikh inheritance, Punjabi Sufis’ antiauthority moods, and Bhakti devotion is delineated.

Abstract from Duke University Books. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Malhotra, Anshu. “Telling Her Tale? Unravelling a Life in Conflict in Peero’s Ik Sau Saṭh Kāfiaṅ. (one Hundred and Sixty Kafis).” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 46, no. 4, SAGE Publications, 2009, pp. 541–78, doi:10.1177/001946460904600403.

Abstract:

This article explores the manner in which Peero, a denizen of nineteenth century Punjab, in her 160 Kafis tries to communicate aspects of her own story and life through the diverse cultural resources at her command. The questions of self-representation and self-fashioning are central to this text, and Peero speaks of certain events in her life by relating sagas and evoking moods familiar in the cultural landscape of Punjab. Peero, self-confessedly a prostitute, and a Muslim, came to live in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Gulabdasi dera, a nominally ‘Sikh’ sect. This remarkable move, and her relationship with Guru Gulab Das, probably generated discord that pushed Peero into inserting her ‘self’ into the 160 Kafis. An attempt is made to read Peero’s crafting of her story, along with her silences, and bring out the nuances embedded in her text. The article also examines why Peero writes of her personal trauma and experience in the language of religious conflict between the ‘Hindus’ and the ‘Turaks’. This was particularly surprising as the Gulabdasi dera displayed eclecticism in its philosophical choices, and imbibed radical aspects of Vedantic monism. It also borrowed freely from hybrid religious sources including rhetoric familiar within the Bhakti movement, and the Punjabi Sufis’ anti-establishment mien.

Abstract from Sage Journals This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Muddupalani. Rādhikā-sāntvanam (Appeasing Radhika). See editions and translations below.

About this work

Rādhikā-sāntvanam is a Telugu epic poem written by an 18th-century devadasi, Muddupalani, noted for being among the earliest representations of women explicitly seeking pleasure in Telugu poetry.

The book contains 584 poems, and it is framed as a dialogue between two wise and legendary men: Suka Maharishi (also known as Shuka, Shukadeva, and Suka Muni) and Janaka, the ancient philosopher-king of Videha.

Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present summarizes Rādhikā-sāntvanam as follows:

It tells the tale of Radha, Krishna’s aunt, a woman in her prime who brings up Ila Devi from childhood and then gives her in marriage to Krishna. The poem describes in detail Ila Devi’s puberty and the consummation of her marriage to Krishna. Radha advises the young bride on how she should respond to Krishna’s lovemaking, and Krishna on handling his young bride tenderly. But the poem also captures at the same time the pain of a woman in her prime who must give up her own desire and yearning. At one point, unable to bear the grief of her own separation from Krishna, whom she desires herself, Radha breaks down and rages against Krishna for having abandoned her. Krishna gently appeases her and she is comforted by his loving embrace. It is from this section that the poem takes its title.

Editions and Translations (via Wikipedia)

Some translated excerpts from Appeasing Radhika can be found in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita.

Muddupalani. Radhika Santwanam. Ed. Bangalore Nagaratnamma. Madras, Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu and Sons, 1910. (reprinted 1952)

Muddupalani. Radhikasantvanam. Madras, EMESCO Books, 1972.

Muddupalani. Radhika Santwanam—The Appeasement of Radhika. Trans. Sandhya Mulchandani. New Delhi, Penguin, 1972.

Ramanujan, A.K. et. al., eds and trans. When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others. U of California P, 1994.

This book is available to read for free online at the University of California Press E-Books Collection.

Publisher’s Summary

“These South Indian devotional poems show the dramatic use of erotic language to express a religious vision. Written by men during the fifteenth to eighteenth century, the poems adopt a female voice, the voice of a courtesan addressing her customer. That customer, it turns out, is the deity, whom the courtesan teases for his infidelities and cajoles into paying her more money. Brazen, autonomous, fully at home in her body, she merges her worldly knowledge with the deity’s transcendent power in the act of making love.

This volume is the first substantial collection in English of these Telugu writings, which are still part of the standard repertoire of songs used by classical South Indian dancers. A foreword provides context for the poems, investigating their religious, cultural, and historical significance. Explored, too, are the attempts to contain their explicit eroticism by various apologetic and rationalizing devices.”

Poets and Padams

When God Is a Customer is a collection of Telugu erotic devotional poetry, mostly short lyrical poems called padams, translated into English. Poems attributed to Annamaya, Sarangapani, Rudrakhavi, one anonymous author, and most prominently, Ksetrayya were selected for translation.

Telugu padams were originally performed by professional dancers and musicians, such as devadasis, whose patrons included courts, temples, and wealthy men. Padams are highly erotic, mostly feature female speakers, and often illustrate lover’s quarrels, infidelity, sensual longing, and sulking; these romantic conflicts long served as a metaphor for humans devoting themselves to the divine.

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

“From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)….

A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millennium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism….

[A]nd perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic colouring. As we seek to understand the import of the Telugu padams translated here, we need to ask: What is distinctive about the erotic imagination activated in these works? How do they relate to the earlier tradition of South Indian bhakti, with its conventional erotic components? What changes have taken place in the conceptualization of the deity, his human devotee, and the intimate relationship that binds them? Why this hypertrophy of overt eroticism, and what does it mean to love God in this way?” (9-10)

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

This section briefly summarizes and interprets the courtesan figures in When God Is a Customer by rewording and condensing a portion of the book’s Introduction. In its entirety, the Introduction also explores the God-customers’ roles, situates the poems in their historical contexts, and assists readers in the act of reading by exploring padams’ traditional themes and structural elements. We highly recommend that interested scholars read the Introduction in full.

Intriguingly, most of the speakers and characters in the poems of When God Is a Customer are courtesans. They are strong-willed and can be self-possessed, often brazenly playing power games with their God-lovers in search of their fee. The book’s introduction examines one such courtesan in “The Madam to a Courtesan”, a poem by Ksetrayya, on pages 14-16. Here, readers see the God-customer Muvva Gopala/Lord Krishna hapless and awkward, wandering the streets of the courtesan colony, unable to find the courtesan he lusts for; she has taken his money, but not given him her address. An older courtesan, the speaker, chides her for her haughtiness:

Woman! He’s none other
than Cennudu of Palagiri.
Haven’t you heard?
He rules the worlds.

When he wanted you, you took his gold—
but couldn’t you tell him your address?
Some lover you are!
He’s hooked on you.

     And he rules the worlds

I found him wandering the alleyways,
too shy to ask anyone.
I had to bring him home with me.
Would it have been such a crime
if you or your girls
had waited for him by the door?
You really think it’s enough
to get the money in your hand?
Can’t you tell who’s big, who’s small?
Who do you think he is? (14-15)

Like the courtesan spoken to in the excerpt above, many of When God Is a Customer’s speakers plainly lack wonderment at their God-lovers’ ruling powers: in an anonymous padam, a courtesan insists her God can “enter [her] house only if [he has] the money” (39), asserting some level of dominance; in “A Woman to Her Lover” by Ksetrayya (33), the lovers laugh as a pet parrot mimics the courtesan’s moans, then bemoan the morning for interrupting their lovemaking—a remarkably “down to earth” moment, given that Muvva Gopala “rules the worlds” (14).

As the introduction observes, a power dynamic that posits the courtesan speaker as having the upper hand against or being on an even playing field with the God figure reverses that which is commonly seen in earlier Tamil bhakti models of devotional poetry. An eighth-century bhakti by Nammalvar on page 10 serves as an example of such a model, imaging a powerless woman heart-wrenched by her god-lover’s all-consuming absence. Unable to sleep on a black, rainy night, she spends her hours resenting her heart, her “sins,” and her womanhood.

The tormenting, lonely, helpless atmosphere of Nammalvar’s work is a far cry from both the bright playfulness that so often colours the lovers’ conflicts in Ksetrayya’s poems and the physical unity—often through orgasm—that resolves them. Indeed, the figure of the courtesan, sensual and autonomous, allows for a type of devotional work that, as the book’s introduction observes, is concerned more with union than with separation:

It should now be clear why the courtesan appears as the major figure in this poetry of love. As an expressive vehicle for the manifold relations between devotee and deity, the courtesan offers rich possibilities. She is bold, unattached, free from the constraints of home and family. In some sense, she represents the possibility of choice and spontaneous affection, in opposition to the largely predetermined, and rather calculated, marital tie. She can also manipulate her customers to no small extent, as the devotee wishes and believes he can manipulate his god. But above all, the courtesan signals a particular kind of knowledge, one that achieved preeminence in the late medieval cultural order in South India. Bodily experience becomes a crucial mode of knowing, especially in this devotional context: the courtesan experiences her divine client by taking him physically into her body. (18)

Who is Ksetrayya?

A very interesting article by Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, “Ksetrayya: The making of a Telugu poet”, has called the popular and scholarly assumptions about the padam poet into question. Kamath argues that rather than a historical figure from the village of Muvva, Ksetrayya could be a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform, and that rather than being written by a single male author, Ksetrayya’s poetry could be the work of multiple authors, including courtesans themselves.

Tharu, Susie and Ke Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990.

This enormously influential work contains a sweeping collection of translations of over 200 texts from historical Indian women writers alongside explorations of their historical contexts. Writers include Buddhist nuns, medieval rebel poets, court historians, and, most importantly to the readers of Courtesans of India, devadasis and tawaifs.

We have tagged this book as both a primary source and a secondary source because it contains translations and interpretation. We have cited this anthology on the following posts:

“160 Kafis.” Accessing Muslim Lives. Accessed 9 March 2021.

This webpage is available to read for free online.

The “160 Kafis” page on Accessing Muslim Lives offers a small selection of poems by Piro, a 19th-century poet and courtesan-turned-religious devotee, which have been gathered from Piro’s autobiographical poetry book titled 160 Kafis, translated by Anshu Malhotra, and annotated by the unnamed author of the webpage. These poems offer a rare opportunity for readers to access Piro’s work for free.

Although technically not a high-class tawaif, Piro was nevertheless a courtesan who was possibly sought after on the fringes of the Lahore court (see page 1509 of “Bhakti and the Gendered Self” by Anshu Malhotra.) Malhotra summarizes the content and purpose of Piro’s book as follows in her chapter, “Performing a Persona: Reading Piro’s Kafis”, which appears in Speaking of the Self: Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia:

The 160 Kafis is not the usual compilation of philosophical ruminations, homilies on moral living, or advice on adopting an uncluttered life of devotion that one may expect from a text produced in a religious establishment, and one that purportedly borrows from Bhakti, and even Sufi ethics. It is a text constructed with a specific and limited agenda—to elucidate Piro’s move from a brothel to a religious establishment, and lay to rest the misgivings of those opposed to it. The process of its composition may have helped Piro understand and digest what she made of her unusual move. It also allowed her to explain, justify, and popularize her version of the events, besides scotching the egre¬ gious rumors that followed in the wake of her unprecedented move that not only touched her, but cast aspersions on her guru. The personal tone of Piros 160 Kafis can be further gleaned from her preoccupation with noting, indeed emphasizing, the acrimonious relations between “Hindus” (inclusive of Sikhs) and “Turaks,” a theme around which she frames her own story of flight and asylum.

(206)