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Love poetry and shringara

Erotica & ecstasy


Italy and India have a lot in common: chaos, corruption, bureaucracy, heat, and a passion for food and romance. That shared zeal for love made it fitting that an Italian woman, Anna Dallapiccola, honorary professor of Indian Art, Edinburgh University, gave a talk about Indian love poetry on a snowy afternoon at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.

The British Museum Press has recently reissued her colourful book, Indian Love Poetry, first published in 2006. In the book, Dallapiccola, who has a PhD in Indian Art, brings together Indian illustrations from the collection at the British Museum and combines them with English translations of Indian love poems by some of India's foremost poets in ancient and pre-colonial India.

The poets featured in Indian Love Poetry range from Kalidasa in the 5th century to 17th-century poets such as Keshav Das, Kshetrayya and Lachhiman and include Antal, Nammalvar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Jayadeva, Mulla Daud, Mira Bai, Tukaram, Vidyapati and Manikkavachakar.

"Love both human and divine is one of the major components of Indian literature and art, " she says. The key sentiment that exists throughout Indian love poetry is shringara, or erotic sentiment, one of the nine main rasas (sentiments) that form the basis of Indian aesthetics, she explains. "Love in separation (vipralambha) is a kind of shringara that is widely expressed in Indian love poetry, " she says, adding longing and the playfulness of love also feature. "Sometimes you feel the page burn in your fingers."

Her favourite poet is Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a 6th century saint-poet and one of the great figures of early Tamil literature. She was part of the bhakti movement, which began in the 4th or 5th century in the region now known as Tamil Nadu. During that period, poet-saints wrote compositions stressing the importance of a selfless love between man and god as the way to find meaning in life. Born in the town of Karaikkal on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the poet was a Shiva devotee. "I love the poetry of Karaikkal Ammaiyar because of her passionate devotion to Shiva and her forceful, at times violent, imagery, " says Dallapiccola.

The Karaikkal poem featured in this book mentions the reddened feet of Shiva. The feet of gods have always been worshipped as they are considered the most accessible part of a god for humans. The poem reads: When I was born and learned to speak I was overcome with love And I reached your red feet Lord of gods, lord with the splendid black throat
Will sorrow never end?

Dallapiccola's doctorate focused on ragamala painting, a genre of painting that depicts a season or time when a melody should be performed and portrays lovers in various situations such as remembering past love encounters. An example is Gaur Ragini (1640), which shows a lovelorn woman walking in the forest accompanied by deer and peacocks, suggesting she has renounced the world and is tormented by pangs of love. On another page, a leaf from a ragamala dated 1630 accompanies a poem by Lachhiman. It depicts a woman looking into a mirror, but all she can see are the features of her lover, so anxious is she to see him. Separation was often seen as an allegory of the human soul separated from god. The belief was that the only way to find meaning in life and freedom from sorrow was through a selfless surrender to a god, she explains.

There are eight types of heroine (nayika) according to the Natyashastra. They include a woman distressed by separation, enraged with her lover, deceived by her lover and so on. These form the core storylines in Indian love poetry, Dallapiccola says. However, subsequent classifications based on the woman's class, marital status, and age provide a detailed insight into human love and passion. Krishna, considered the ultimate lover, appears in many of the poems. "There is a lot of physical love and desire for the body, " Dallapiccola says. "Sex is not described, rather it is alluded to in the most intriguing ways. As Bharata's Natyashastra says, sex is not to be reproduced on stage. "

Born in Florence to a composer, Luigi Dallapiccola, Dallapiccola was previously professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, Germany. Her interest in India was triggered when she was eight years old and ill at home. Dallapiccola paged through a library book showing a seated picture of Buddha at Sarnath from the Gupta period. "There was something about that picture I absolutely adored, " she says. "I was mesmerised. " She started collecting whatever she could that was Indian.
"I like the poems because of their warmth - there is a human touch to them, " she says. "Indians were always erotic and passionate. The prudery you see in India today is left over from the Victorian period. " Recalling her first trip to India in the 1960s, she says: "I adored it. You can't compare it to today. From Mumbai airport to Dr Annie Besant Road was one big slum. It went on for miles. I liked everything, the people, the food - everyone was so kind to me. The horrendous bureaucracy of Italy had prepared me for India in many ways. I think India and Italy are quite similar, especially in those years. Now I think India is more advanced. Think of the amazing progress India has made from the '60s till now. In India, you feel there is a future, " she says, adding Italians have become pessimistic.

She has worked on the Vijayanagara Research Project and catalogued the entire collection of South Indian paintings at the British Museum, but Dallapiccola feels that "Indian art and culture does not have the exposure it deserves."

The historian William Dalrymple is a golden exception, she says. He is one of the few who reviews Indian art exhibitions in the British press and in the process tries to inform readers about the cultural context in which the exhibits were created. "Otherwise there are just the usual suspects who write about Indian art. It's very difficult because there are so many different languages and probably the translations of the commentaries are not available. India is one of the great global powers and we in the West don't know the first thing about it. There were chairs of Indian Studies at universities in Europe in my day and they have all disappeared due to the lack of support for the humanities and yet India is a global phenomenon. "

Reader's opinion (1)

Abhishek HindustaniMay 27th, 2013 at 16:55 PM

It was a pleasant and informative article.

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