Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology

By Velcheru Narayana Rao; David Shulman | Go to book overview

NINETEEN
Kṣetrayya
Seventeenth century

This great master of the padam form belongs primarily to the Tamil country under the so-called Nāyaka kings. Nothing solid is known about him. His signature line usually refers to his god as Muvvagopāla—perhaps “Kṛṣṇa from the village of Muvva” (often identified with a village near Kūcipūḍi in Kṛṣṇa District, though there are also other Muvvas further south, in North Arcot and in Cittūr near Kārveṭinagaram). But the name could also mean something like “Gopāla of the jingling bells” and have nothing to do with any village.

One of Kṣetrayya's padams refers to Vijayarāgahva Nāyaka of Tañjāvūr, Tirumala Nāyaka of Madurai, and the Golconda Padshah; this locates him clearly in the mid-seventeenth century. Unlike Annamayya, he is not firmly associated with any single shrine but seems to have wandered through south India—hence, by popular etymology, his name (from kṣetra, “temple site”; in Sanskritized form, he is Kṣetrajña). It is more to the point, however, to imagine him in the courtesans' quarters of the temple towns; he sings of courtesans and their lovers, usually in a female voice, and his compositions were probably meant for performance by courtesans themselves. In the dance tradition, these songs were sung orally by the male teacher (naṭṭuvaṉār) while the courtesan danced—a male voice singing in an adopted female persona a song composed by a male poet for a woman. Here the courtesan's lover or patron is addressed as the god Muvvagopāla, and the intimacy of feeling and knowledge between god and devotee is explicitly sexual in text and texture. Only an apologetic, post-Victorian sensibility has managed to mask the eroticism and tone in modern contexts of performance by offering spiritual or allegorical readings of these utterly uninhibited songs.1

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1
For a wider selection of Kṣetrayya padams, see A. K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman, When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Kṣetrayya and Others (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

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