A Lover’s Guide To Warangal By Vinukonda Vallabharaya, Permanent Black, Rs 295
In times of growing orthodox religiosity and (paradoxically) liberal sexual mores, a verse-play freely entwining the sacred and the obscene does throw up uncomfortable questions.
Can obscenity be used to parody a revered poet, to make for a “new, different kind of literary culture”' Can plagiarism be an issue when a poet seeks to go beyond the limits of a venerated but worn-out style' Or blasphemy, when a verse of an earlier work describing the solemn entry into a puja room is “reframed” to refer to a whorehouse, to bring out the ludicrousness of a literary conceit'
Clearly, these are issues of the 20th century that are thrust on the 15th century Telugu text “discovered” in 1909 in a dusty corner of a library. In translating Vinukonda Vallabharaya’s Kridabhiramamu (“The Joys of Sex”), Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman overcome the narrow issues of pornography and social realism to highlight the parodic qualities in the erotic adventures of the “playboy protagonist” Govinda Mancana Sarma that most critics have missed.
The translators’ introduction provides an overview of the discovery of the work and its literary background, the row over the verse-play’s authorship because of its close similarity with the style of the 14th-century poet, Srinatha, and the use of burlesque and anti-climax.
Gradually, the introduction enters the academic zone, unfolding a temple ritual (tirunallu) that echoes and yet contrasts the erotic fantasies of Mancana Sarma and his companion as they experience the “riotous sexuality” on the “life of the streets of Warangal”. The explanation moves on to the concepts of “second-order parody” and “second-order realism”, further registering the caricature of Vallabharaya’s predecessors and contemporaries.
Though heavy in parts, the introduction is an instructive baptism into Telugu classical literature. Philip B. Wagoner’s afterword delves into the archaeological and literary space that the “actual Warangal of history” occupies in the street-play. By the time Vallabharaya composed the play, the glory days of the Kakatiya dynasty’s capital was past. Interacting historical, mythological and cosmological accounts with a spatial understanding of the text, the afterword unravels the depth of a play that has been overshadowed by charges of excessive eroticism.
The translation is a free play of prose and poetry, steeped in explicit descriptions of women. The sacred merges with the burlesque as in the descriptions of ram-and-cock fights.
Some of the footnotes lead to more questions. For instance, the footnote for “singing the story of Kamavalli, who is Laksmi, in her love for Visnu” merely says that this story “underlies a popular ritual, kamesvarikolupu, now carried out by Brahmin families.”
And even to non-Telugu readers, it appears obvious that the translation is sometimes carried a bit too far. Why else would a young courtesan’s name, Madana-rekha, be changed to Love-Streak'
However, the minor irritants do not overshadow the depiction of women. Sample this: “God gave her all this and then he made her an oilmonger, not a courtesan. Make you want to hit the bastard.”
According to Rao and Shulman, the “two patterns of inversion” converge when Mancana Sarma meets his beloved Kama-manjari — a family woman in an illicit relationship. A rather anti-feminist assertion from two translators who try to steer clear of any unequivocal expression of moral scruples.