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When God is a Customer

Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others

A. K. Ramanujan (Author), Velcheru Narayana Rao (Author), David Shulman (Author)

Not available in South Asia

Paperback, 158 pages
ISBN: 9780520080690
April 1994
$31.95, £26.95
How is it that this woman's breasts glimmer so clearly through her saree? Can't you guess, my friends? What are they but rays from the crescents left by the nails of her lover pressing her in his passion, rays now luminous as the moonlight of a summer night?

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.

The translators, who are poets as well as highly respected scholars, render the poems with intelligence and tenderness. Unusual for their combination of overt eroticism and devotion to God, these poems are a delight to read.
A. K. Ramanujan, recently deceased, was a poet published in English and Kannada, and served as William E. Colvin Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Velcheru Narayana Rao is a poet and critic in Telugu, and Professor of South Asian Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. David Shulman is a poet in Hebrew, and Professor of South Asian Studies and Comparative Religion at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

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