The figure of the medieval devadasi in popular thought is an interesting one: many narratives about these artist-courtesans rest on the notion of their having been downtrodden, whether by British lawmakers, Brahminical oppression or patriarchal hegemony. Without glorifying a past in which exploitation certainly occurred, or glossing over the difficult realities of modern offshoot systems like the Yellamma cult, it remains that such narratives overlook elements of agency – devadasis were learned, accomplished women who had an autonomy which other women of their time, restrained by “securities” like husband and household, did not. Basic literacy was a given, and in the grander courts, so was multilingualism (in the 19th century, a talented devadasi might know English, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu) and proficiency in numerous art forms. They not only had access to power, but also wielded it themselves: the legal right to possess land and wealth gave them the ability to make endowments, as evidenced by the 11th century Shantavve’s commissioning of present-day Karnataka’s largest, still functional, water tank or the 8th century Paravai’s continued veneration in numerous Shiva shrines in Tamil Nadu. These may be selective examples, but in a context in which women were predominantly not allowed education and forced into arranged marriage, not having the opportunity to wed seems a small price to pay for so many relative rights and freedoms.

Sandhya Mulchandani’s The Appeasement of Radhika, a translation from the Telugu ofa narrative poem by Muddupalani (1730-1790) of the illustrious Thanjavur court, makes a fine case for the reconsideration of those standard narratives of oppression. The original Radhika Santawanam was writtenaround 250 years ago, when Muddupalani was a favoured courtesan of the Nayaka king Pratapsimha. The text experienced a revival at the turn of the 20th century at the hands of another devadasi, the erudite Nagarathnamma (who founded the Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru, which continues to be the world’s most famous Carnatic music festival). When Nagarathnamma republished the manuscript, with portions which had been excised by an earlier editor intact, it was found to be objectionable for its sexual content under the prevalent morality of that period, and banned in 1911.

The ban was lifted in 1952, but the politics around the text remain interesting, if complicated. Mulchandani’s introduction itself carries a deeply problematic passage, reproduced here in part: “Muddupalani cannot, in all honesty, be called the forerunner of the feminist movement in India. Being a courtesan, whose very existence was dedicated to providing pleasure to God and men, she reveled in her trade and never consciously took up the struggle of sexual equality for women”. These are late 20th century feminist ideas: they cannot be so dismissively juxtaposed upon a context of centuries ago, just as they no longer hold water for the sex-positive feminism of today, in which the sexual initiative, and indeed the “revelry” displayed in The Appeasement of Radhika would certainly be applauded.

As it were, the beauty of the poem does not in fact lie in its descriptions of lovemaking or physical attributes, which are not truly that different from other works in the canon, but in its emotional landscape. Much is made in this book about the fact that its author is a woman of sexual experience, but the template of the poet approaching the divine in a concubine’s voice, by turns jealous, pining or desirous, is not in itself unusual in Telugu devotional poetry, even that which predates Muddupalani by centuries (see When God Is A Customer, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman). That it is a courtesan herself who has penned the text, rather than a male poet transcreating the experience, matters politically, but perhaps more so than it does creatively.

What makes the poem utterly convincing, however, is Radhika’s yearning. Here, a curious fact emerges in the autobiographical parallel that takes place between the author’s life and the archetypal. The heroine can be surmised to be based not on Muddupalani, but on her grandmother, the gifted Tanjanayaki. Both women were courtesans of King Pratapsimha, and Muddupalani is said to have been envious of the attention the monarch continued to lavish on her grandmother despite her own youthful charms.

But as a poet, Muddupalani successfully puts on the older woman’s anklets, so to speak: in Radhika Santawanam, the middle-aged Radha gives her protégé Iladevi away in marriage to her own lover. Although she bedecks the young bride and blesses her, and even instructs Krishna on the gentle treatment of the virgin, she becomes wracked with pain afterwards at the thought of the two of them together, made worse by Iladevi’s betrayal – she asks Krishna to leave Radha for good, and he agrees. This news comes to her by way of her spying emissary, a parrot, and devastates her.

Muddupalani’s empathy for Radha is striking – the lovemaking in the book, though extensive and at times erotic, is not nearly as memorable as the lamentation. Radha grieves: “Has she forgotten that she learnt/ To sing like the nightingale from me?/ Has she forgotten she learnt to write poetry from me?/ Has she forgotten she learnt to play musical instruments from me? Has she forgotten she even learnt to make love from me?” Krishna’s inveterate disloyalty is one thing, but to have Iladevi turn ungrateful embitters her perspective of everyone around her, from her sakhis to even her spy: “The parrot that carried out only my orders/ Is it now sitting on that woman’s wrist?”

“I wouldn’t wish love like this to even my foes, Krishna!” Radha finally unleashes her ire when he returns begging to be allowed back into her bed. Which, sadly or not so sadly (depending on your taste for masochism), she does – although not before a pleasantly subversive kick to the head.

The reimagining of devadasis is tricky terrain: on the one hand, there is the risk of glorification, on the other, the danger of undercutting their self-evident influence as cultural catalysts. The Appeasement of Radhika is touching, though not masterful, and thoughts of Nagarathnamma’s recovery of the original text linger. The litigation around it adds dimension to how we approach the empowerment or disempowerment of this community, but artistically too, there is reason to reflect. Somewhere, the suspicion remains that Mulchandani’s translation does not do complete justice to the original, which we are told was praised both in Muddupalani’s lifetime and later. Once again, perhaps, a different editrix may have to come to the rescue of its English incarnation.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.