Padams and Javalis – Classical Love Poems

This article appeared first in The Hindu here.

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“Yevvade Vaaduevvade?” (Who is he?) These are the opening words of a Telugu padam (poem set to music) by the 17th-century poet Kshetrayya. The poet expresses the angst of a woman over her lover’s cavalier behaviour. That the woman is married and the trysts are happening in broad daylight when the husband is away is a mere aside. The woman, who is in the throes of love, laments and pines for her lover (Gopala, the primary deity in the poet’s village temple). Infidelity, indifference and any other feelings that go with affairs of the heart are all common themes evident in padams. What is less evident is how common padams and javalis (even more explicit poems) are on the Indian classical stage.

Classical music, especially of the Carnatic variety, is anchored in the devotional. Even when love figures, it is often love for the divine, and rarely veers from the straight and narrow. However, both padams and javalis, even when they speak of divine love, are far more explicit and uninhibited in their expression of their passion. And in the hands of the right lyricist and delivered by a talented performer, passion-soaked poems such as padams and javalis are no less transcendental than the most popular Carnatic compositions.

The disapproving comments of the orthodox, whether on YouTube or in sabhas, for even the most exquisite rendition of padams in many ways reminds me of the annual brouhaha we seem to have around Valentine’s Day. Every year, rather than dismissing the public expression of love or passion as a Western concept, it might behoove us to become familiar with our own traditions by exploring not just love and romance but so much more through the padams and javalis of our favourite classical musicians.

A padam embodies Shringara Rasa, one of the Navarasas (nine emotions). The Shringara Rasa depicts love in its myriad forms, from the gentle interactions of a married couple such as Rama and Sita in the Ramayana to the sensual as expressed in padams such as ‘Manasi dussaham ayyo madanakadana gadanam’. This Malayalam padam by the 19-th century Travancore monarch Swati Tirunal expresses a woman’s abject despair as she waits for her lover (Padmanabha). The padam is the emotional outpouring of a lovelorn woman who appears to chastise Madana (Cupid) for not doing a good job!

A javali is a bit more risqué in its content and presented in a faster tempo. While padams have celestial beings (mostly Krishna) as the lover, some javalis have real people playing starring roles. Dharmapuri Subbarayar, a 19th-century Telugu poet, composed javalis such as ‘Sakhi Prana Sakhuditu Jesene’ (O friend, see what my soulmate has done) as an ode to Carnatic musician Veena Dhanammal, a contemporary whose art he greatly admired.

There are some literary works that fall in the middle of this spectrum, where the sentiment veers towards devotional rather than carnal love. Jayadeva, a 12th-century poet from eastern India, in his Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda speaks of the love of Krishna and Radha. A parable for the human soul’s wanderings before returning eventually to its true love (God), the Gita Govinda mirrors the dilemma and drama of love affairs. The couplets, grouped into verses referred to as Ashtapadis (eight steps), are banter between the two lovers, often moving from the playful to the passionate.

Padams and javalis are de rigueur in Bharatanatyam and other classical dance traditions of south India. The transition of these ancient dance traditions from temples to mainstream society occurred in the early-to-mid 20th century. Even then, Carnatic musicians shied away from presenting these songs in performances due to the explicit nature of the lyrics. The prudish and the prejudiced on both sides of the microphone skirted around padams and javalis rather than showcase these exquisite literary pieces for what they are. It was the Carnatic vocalist sisters Brinda and Mukta who spearheaded the mid-20th-century movement to bring padams and javalis into the concert repertoire, breaking many a taboo.

Love, in every shade of that word from the subtlest and practically devotional to the most passionate, erotic and earth shattering, has existed in our culture from time immemorial. This is evident to even the casual visitor at our temples — not just those in Khajuraho but all across India — and to a connoisseur of poetry, from Sangam times through Sanskrit writers Bhartrhari and Kalidasa to contemporary women poets such as Kutti Revathi. Rather than the unimaginative binaries that make the celebration of any love beyond the chaste and devotional alien, capitalistic and non-Indian (all of which it can be), it is time we stopped to get to know our own culture. Our lives will be all the richer when we appreciate shringara in all its nuances, starting with these classic love poems in the vernacular — padams and javalis.

The writer is a Carnatic musician based out of Columbus and Bengaluru.

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