Radha's Mistress

Introduction

This piece is about the love-play between the Hindu god Krishna and his divine partner Radha, who are worshipped together as a combination of the masculine and feminine aspects of the divine.  The love between Radha and Krishna has been explored by poets throughout the centuries with various interpretations including Radha as Krishna’s divine counterpart, as his fiercely passionate lover, as the model of devotion, or as a pining forlorn woman separated from her soulmate. The traditional form of this composition is the North Indian Classical (Hindustani) khyal (or khayal, Hindi: ख़्याल, Urdu: خیال) and the lyrics are in Braj Bhasha, an literary dialect of Hindi which was commonly used in poetry from the 15th through 19th centuries. The poetry in the piece I present arguably portrays Radha as the “weaker sex” and it was my aim to contrast that with visuals that empower her as a liberated woman and reclaim her position as Krishna’s divine equal.

Radha and Krishna

For additional background, Krishna, the herder of cows, is known to be a sensuous lover arousing the passions of all the female cowherds (gopis) in the village; this is a spiritual metaphor for a devotee’s pull towards the irresistible call of God’s wonder and love. Radha, his primary lover amongst all the gopis, was historically an obscure figure in Indian literature until the 12th-century Indian poet, Jayadeva, raised her to an exalted stature in his epic poem, Gita Govinda. In describing the importance of this transformation, author George Augustine writes:

Jayadeva broke away from past conventions and elevated Radha to a classical deity worthy of worship and described Her as an appropriate counter figure for Krishna in his role of the perfect lover, who emerges as the unquestioned central concern of His amours. Krishna was no longer a detached lover reciprocating the passion of gopis with equanimity. He suffered and agonized like Radha, in separation.
— Augustine, George. “Shades of Sex & The Radha-Krishna Love Affair.” Dharma Today, Dharma Today, 24 May 2017, http://dharmatoday.com/2017/05/24/shades-sex-radha-krishna-love-affair/.

The Poetry

Returning to the presented piece, below are the lyrics of the main verse, with Radha talking to her girlfriend about her encounter with Krishna:

मानत नाहीं लंगरवा ढीठ सखी
manata nahi langarawa dhith sakhi
Friend, that naughty insolent one just won’t listen

Note: In my research on Braj Bhasha, the word “langarwa” translates to “naughty” or “mischievous” but in his dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English, John T. Platts translates the word as a “profligate” or “libertine”, implying something less innocent than mere mischief.

बरजोरी करत मैं कारी करूँ?
barajori karata main kari karun?
He is insisting, what shall I do?

Note: In my research on Braj Bhasha “barajori” literally translates to “being forceful.”

She goes on to describe going to the riverbank to fetch water when Krishna grabs her on the way.  Here Radha is depicted as a shy, coy, helpless maiden while a frolicking Krishna teases and fools around with her. Against the backdrop of Radha and Krishna’s story, all this play is essentially a euphemism for sex initiated by the man, with the woman’s role as the receiver, and at an even deeper level symbolizes God entincing his devotees with his love.  While the context of this lyrical and metaphorical archetype implies a consensual act, one can detect the undercurrent of a social acceptance of males asserting themselves on females without having consent (a societal problem we are still dealing with to this day). 

This theme, common in Hindustani classical compositions, is at odds with Jayadeva’s depiction of Radha, which Barbara Stoler Miller describes as

...a jealous, solitary, proud female who is Krishna’s exclusive partner in a secret love, a union that is contrasted with his communal sexual play with the entire group of cowherdesses.
— Miller, Barbara M. ‘The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna.’ The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982. 13-26.

Norvin Hein writes that one of the most unique aspects of the worship of Radha is a “deep positive acceptance of sexuality.” Hein points out that Radha is not the prototypical mother goddess, patroness of fertility, or symbol “womanly virtues”.

She is the progenetrix of no people, the beginning of no royal line, the mother of no one. Though she is a great seed goddess, she has never settled down to housekeeping [...] If Radha represents any widely appreciated human value, she would appear to do so as the divinization of ideal erotic love.
— Hein, Norvin. ‘Radha and the Erotic Community.’ The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982. 116-125.

Radha Empowered

Inspired by these aspects described above, I wanted to celebrate a confident Radha completely in charge of her actions and choices who is liberated from societal norms and values imposed on her gender. In the music, I set Indian classical singing against a tapestry of heavy electric guitars and hip-hop beats to evoke the fiery passion of the union of Radha and Krishna. Outside of myself, the visuals are taken mostly traditional silk paintings in the Kangra style (mid-18th century onwards) that celebrate the romance and lovemaking of Radha and Krishna. Many of the scenes depict Krishna in the dominant position with Radha on her back. I modified the artwork for my piece to place Radha as the dominant lover in charge: the woman is now the initiator while the man follows. 

At the very end I chose a painting of Radha and Krishna sitting together as equals to represent what Miller calls the “Divine Duality.” She writes of the aftermath of their union as narrated in the Gita Govindam:

As sympathetic witnesses to the relationship of Radha and Krishna, Jayadeva’s audience shares the poet’s secret participation in the consummation of divine love—the culminating erotic, aesthetic, religious experience of their divine duality.
— Miller, Barbara M. ‘The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna.’ The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982. 13-26.

And the title? According to C. MacKenzie Brown, prior to her prominence in literature as Krishna’s lover and ultimately a goddess to be worshiped,

Radha, [...],is often portrayed as, or at least implicitly understood to be, Krishna’s mistress.
— Brown, C. M. ‘The Theology of Radha in the Puranas.’ The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982. 57-71.

In empowering Radha, I wanted to flip that paradigm. I found that there isn’t quite a word in English that corresponds to a male “mistress”. The closest word I could find was “lover”, which in my mind does not quite capture the taboo undertones of being a mistress. I chose to keep the word to refer to Krishna and named this piece “Radha’s Mistress.”

Concluding Thoughts

As a student of Indian classical music and a first generation Indian-American, it is often convenient to focus primarily on the music and less on the poetry, given the archaic form of the language which can be difficult to understand. Taking the time to truly understand the poetry and exploring its meaning and place in today’s society is an important for anyone studying this art form. All said and done, there are still broader themes of inherent cultural patriarchy to explore which I was unable to address in this short piece. There is no metaphorical archetype of a female goddess exemplifying diving love in sexual union with multiple men. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty of the University of Chicago writes that in the worship of Krishna, the power flows from Krishna as a male (divinity) to Radha as the female (worshiper) who is identified with the mortal worshipper and serves to mediate on his behalf with the divine. [O’Flaherty, Wendy D. ‘The Shifting Blanace of Power in the Marriage of Siva and Parvati.’ The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982. 129-143.] Ultimately Radha still derives her identity from Krishna, and is worshipped as his consort, while Krishna has an identity outside of Radha and can be worshipped without her. In fact he goes on to leave the village of his youth and marry many other women but never marries Radha. Thus, even though she may triumph in her love-play with Krishna and society reveres her as a goddess, her reality was more like that of a martyr, living a life without Krishna, while he went on to fulfill his purpose and save humanity. This has parallels aspects of Indian society today, where women are highly revered in tradition but in practice often still face inequities and are held to different standards than men.

The raga (Indian melodic mode) of this composition is Bhimpalasi, which roughly correlates with the Dorian mode in western music theory. The piece is traditionally set to a 16 beat rhythmic cycle known as teental. Some popular Bollywood songs in this raga include Man Mohini from the film Yuvvraj (composed by A.R. Rahman) and Eli Re Eli from the film Yaadein (composed by Anu Malik).

Sources:

Augustine, George. “Shades of Sex & The Radha-Krishna Love Affair.” Dharma Today, Dharma Today, 24 May 2017, http://dharmatoday.com/2017/05/24/shades-sex-radha-krishna-love-affair/.

“Braj Bhasha Dictionary : Free Download & Streaming.” Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/BrajBhashaDictionary.

Hawley, John Stratton, et al. The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Graduate Theological Union, 1982.

Platts, John T. (John Thompson). “A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English.” The Digital South Asia Library, London, W.H. Allen & Co, 1 Jan. 1884, http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/platts/.