That Radha Song

February 11, 2013

Last year, I managed to get three Hindi songs stuck in my head, or on my playlist, for extended periods of time. (In 2013, the only one so far has been Khamakha from Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola.) The first one was Subha Hone Na De from Desi Boyz, and that happened because it was what me and friends flashmobbed the Kodhi-VaiBa wedding reception with. The suggestion to use Subha Hone Na De had come from Pushy – thanks to him, the image of Deepika Padukone looking shattered at having her trust violated is now indelibly marked on my brain. The second song is Abhee Naa Jaao Chhorrh Ke (अभी न जाओ छोड़ कर). That kicked in just after the wedding, largely because the song’s wistful desire for a tryst to be just a little bit longer seemed to capture my feelings about having to leave Chennai and my flat there. Then, for about four months, no Hindi song particularly stuck, until the morning of Bhai Dooj, when I heard Radha from the Student of the Year soundtrack for the first time, courtesy my brother, who likes to have a Bollywood radio station on when he’s driving.

While this was the first time I’d heard the song, it wasn’t my first exposure. For a couple of weeks before Diwali, my timeline on Twitter would, every so often, break out with people (particularly @CookyDoh and @ShwetaKapur) tweeting the lyrics of the refrain. I’d also heard that a bunch of jobless wastefellows (such as this one) had been outraged at the lyrics saying that Radha had a sexy body because saying such things about goddesses is Not Done. But the controversy and the tweets had left me thinking that the song itself was a piece of disposable dance pop, and not worth actually listening to. Oh, how wrong I was.

Because while my earlier earworm, Subha Hone Na De, is inane lyrics carried on the backs of just as inane tune and musical arrangement, and makes me confess my addiction to it in a guilty, shamefaced manner, Radha is above that. True, the tune is simplistic and the synthetic trill after ‘राधा तेरी नटखट नजरिया (Raadhaa teree naTkhaT najareeyaa)’ is particularly grating. But the lyrics, oh, the lyrics! They’re iconoclastic and cheekily feminist, and turn this piece of dance pop into an unlikely anthem for freethinking, For the next few paragraphs, I am going to share my thoughts (and I admit freely that these are possibly far more thoughts than the song warrants) about the lyrics. So here we go.

Assume first, as many believers do, that the Kanja and the Radha of the song are also the Krishna and Radha of the Krishna-and-the-Gopis myths, and moreover, that that Krishna is also the Krishna of the Bhagvad Gita. (Scholars of language and myth will point out that the Gopi stories and the Bhagvad Gita probably came from different times and places, and later on fused so that two very different characters became a single Krishna-as-Supreme-Being. And now, having assumed all that, consider the repeated punchline: ‘But Radha wants more!’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the entire universe, all of creation in fact, is contained within himself. (Pssst. Note how I managed to bring in a Vishwaroopam connect.) There is nothing outside of, beyond, or greater than Krishna. And you don’t have to look only at the Bhagavad Gita for this: there’s also the story where Yashodha angrily opens baby Krishna’s mouth to see if he’s been stealing butter, only to find that he has the whole universe inside his mouth, after which she freaks out.

And with this background, we suddenly find Shreya Ghoshal’s backup vocalists claiming that Radha wants more. More than the universe! More than all of creation! Either she’s insatiable, or she’s rejecting the notion that Krishna encompasses everything there is – and in the process, overturning the Bhagavad Gita. See what I meant about the iconoclasm?

But there’s more than just the refrain. Pay attention to the rest of the lyrics, and you’ll discover a Krishna and Radha dramatically different from the Amar Chitra Katha or Ramanand Sagar versions. In ACK, Krishna is the centre of attention, with hundreds of gopis vying – pining, in fact – for his louw, and Radha just happens to be the one gopi who’s most attractive to Krishna. Other men don’t enter the picture. The song, though, flips things around – now Kanha is the one pining for Radha, and Radha is the one with the pick of lovers, because she has the whole town running after her (पीछे पीछे सारी नगरिया , peechhe peechhe saaree nagareeyaa). Krishna is now just another guy, and not even particularly interesting.

And that particular line about the whole town running after Radha is something that gets me geeking out even more. Krishna has to settle for rustic gopis. But Radha has a pick of urban and presumably urbane city slickers. This is a bigger deal for me than for other people because of my severe antipathy to the countryside and its people, but looking at migration trends and the preferences they reveal, I’m clearly not alone in this.

Even without value judgments about the relative merits of being chased by country bumpkins (bumpkettes?) as opposed to city slickers, Radha looking for (or rather, at) options other than Krishna remains a revolutionary idea. Another of the old Radha stories talks about the parting of Radha and Krishna, and describes Radha being upset, but accepting (or to use the desi phrase, adjusting) and telling him that if he must leave he should at least thereafter be known as Radhakrishna and not just Krishna, so that his name is forever a mark of their love.

This is a remarkable lack of ambition. Of all things in the world, Radha only wants to be remembered as the one who Krishna loved the most (and vice versa). Think about it for a little while, and it’s alarmingly short on self esteem if your greatest desire is to be defined i relation to your (ex-) boyfriend. Also, considering I personally know one Radhakrishnan P, but a Krishan Agarwal, a Krishna Sundaresan, a Krishna Thirungavedam, a Krish Ashok, a Krish Raghav, and several Krishnamoorthis or Krishnamanis, the ambition was never even realised. In the song, though, Radha can’t be bothered. She’s ready to look for other people, who aren’t so boring, or whose approach to romance isn’t harassment (भूलेगा तो सताना and छेड़े है हमका दैया are the lines I mean). This Radha is a player, not a doormat. Meanwhile, Krishna, totally at a loss, is reduced to persuading Radha to be with him because she won’t find anybody else (मिलेगा न कोई सावरिया, milegaa na koee saawareeyaa), and because everyone knows that they’re meant to be together (सारी ही दुनिया यह मानी है, शुरू हमसे तेरी यह कहानी है, saaree hee duneeyaa yah maanee hai, shuroo hamse teree yah kahaanee hai). And not because, you know, he possesses any good boyfriend qualities. The song’s Krishna is utterly useless.

And despite this utter devaluation of Krishna, the only thing religious nutcases found to protest about was Radha’s body being described as sexy – protests which were neatly sidestepped by rereleasing the song with ‘sexy’ replaced by ‘desi’, and nothing more. It reminds me of what Douglas Adams wrote about the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation’s products:

It is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all.

In other words – and this is the rock solid principle on which the whole of the Corporation’s Galaxy-wide success is founded – their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

Similarly, the song’s superficially outrageous lyrics conceal its fundamentally outrageous lyrics. Genius.

Personally, I find the transmogrification of Radha’s sexy body to a desi one to be one of the few instances where a censored version of something is as naughty (and possibly naughtier) than the original. A sexy Radha body isn’t particularly interesting, but a desi Radha body conjures up images of a dark-skinned, long limbed young girl, perhaps with a Bangalore accent. Ahem. Pardon me while I fan myself.

But now, the bad news. Despite the intense badassery of the song, I expect it to have zero impact. Zip. Nada.

This is not because the song’s potential for radicalising the masses is visible only to my fevered mind, though that possibility can’t be ruled out either. No, even if it turns out that everyone else is reading between the lines in the same way that I am, nothing’s going to come out of it.

The reason for that is the way Hinduism, and Vaishnavism in particular, deals with threats: it co-opts them. (If I recall correctly, Sir Humphrey Appleby had independently discovered this technique.)

It works like this: faced with something that challenges the status quo of Hinduism, you start claiming that in fact, due to Hinduism’s inclusive nature, it is actually already part of Hinduism. The catch is that it’s important enough to be acknowledged, but not important enough to be allowed to change mainstream practices or status quo.

Faced with atheism? Point out the existence of the Carvaka school of philosophy, while gliding over the fact that its teachings never became mainstream, and are never discussed today except for the fact of their existence. Buddhism? No worries, declare that the Buddha is actually an avatar of Vishnu – and in the process you make the Vishnu cult even stronger. This is reminiscent of how Shang Tsung gains power by absorbing the souls of the warriors he’s defeated, but I digress. For an intramural example of Vaishnavite co-option, there is the way Iyengars turned Ganapati into Thumbikai Azhwar.

So with this horrendous track record of Vishnu-bhakti assimilating its challengers into a Borglike collective, I expect that the eventual fate of the party loving Radha will be to be upheld as Hinduism’s token independent woman. People will say “But of course Hinduism has a feminist side to it! Look at how Radha turned down Krishna! And with that established, please get back to exalting gods for their creepy woman-attacking ways!”

Tangentially related, there was an old Devdutt Pattanaik column that started doing the rounds again on twitter recently about how Indian Hindu myths are full of examples of both womens’ bodies being treated as somebody else’s property, and of women being people in their own right. Pattanaik asks rhetorically why Hinduism is so often placed on the defensive and made to answer for its misogyny instead of being applauded for its positive female characters. The rhetorical answer to that is to point out that the misogyny is central and the positive women are footnotes.

That may be because Hinduism’s assimilative, acquire-everything nature has no filters on what it assimilates. And when it assimilates every idea it encounters, without any concern about their ethical content, the nastiest ideas end up beating the other ideas out in the quest for mindspace, in a sort of Gresham’s Law of Memes. This is probably why every reform movement that has challenged hierarchy – Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, and what have you –  has caught on, expanded the liberal space a little, added adherents, and then sunk into stasis. It makes me pessimistic, and worry that the only way to shatter the Vaishnavite death grip on societal renewal is the Kulothunga Chozha method.

Pessimistic as I am, there’s a small mercy that can’t be denied: in the face of all this co-option, Radha will still have a beat that you can dance to.