Continued from Last Week…
The waters of the lake were clean and the swim invigorating, a bevy of maids sent by his host, awaited him when he reached his tent. Anointed by scented oils, wearing a long robe of the finest silk and a satin sash with the marque of the royal house of Portugal, he was ready to go. A brisk wind from the east greeted him, cool and pleasing, carrying a mixture of scents from the orchards and paddies of the lower basin, notwithstanding the smell of drying manure. He took a deep breath enjoying the anticipation … it’s not often that one can watch the most famous danseuse of the country.
Days are short in this part of the world, even in summer. The scarlet sky turned into a thin line of purple on the horizon and a canopy of stars had begun to shine brightly overhead by the time he reached the royal enclosure.
Gopa was waiting for his guest. He was in two minds, should he or not tells the foreigner about the real purpose of his presence. That it was his suggestion or observation had resulted in this plan, a strategy to bring Uddanda Raya crawling to their side. Opportunity knocked at their door in the person of Madura Sani; it is no secret that her influence on the general was far greater than that of his king.
Let the evening unveil itself, an impish smile lit his face, remembering what had transpired the previous day…
‘Let’s not disappoint her,’ Appaji was convinced that her visit was at the instance of the general, ‘we shall give enough news for her to carry back to her lover,’ he had said laughing. What followed was a simple set of instructions from him, rather comical, like a sutradhar of a play instructing his actors.
Then he saw Alvarez approaching. He liked what he saw. Let him figure out himself, isn’t he too perceptive for a foreigner? ‘Ahoy Lord Alvarez,’ he greeted the trader.
The stage was set…
The delay was unusual. ‘Let’s go and inspect the stage,’ Gopa guided him to a platform of stone and mortar, built on a manmade island in the lake, Pillars of carved wood marked the corners and a taffeta screen formed the backdrop, with trees, bushes and pliant animals like deer and rabbit, and a variety of birds embroidered on, it looked like a veritable jungle, a little surreal though. ‘The act is from Sringara Sakuntalam, story of one of the earliest ancestors of our king, Bharata, our first emperor who had given his name to this land,’ Gopa began explaining, ‘the danseuse Madura Sani will play Sakuntala, a damsel brought up in a forest home, forsaken by her paramour, peening for him.’
‘Apt, isn’t it?’ Alvarez laughed, ‘it should come natural to her, crying for Uddand Khan, her lover.’
‘Husssshhhhh,’ Gopa cut in, ‘don’t say that name, she should never know that we’re aware of her relationship,’ pointing at the shadows behind the screen.
‘Oh?’ his eyes narrowed. Something’s afoot, a play within a play. And … is he an unsuspecting actor? Let me see he thought, and shifted his attention to the others waiting for the arrival of the king and the play to start. A sprinkling of king’s hangers on, poets and singers, it was a small group. The chiefs and the captains were missing. Are they involved in action somewhere, a major battle perhaps? he wondered. Most of the generals were there the previous day at the court and it’s not normal that they aren’t invited to an event such as this.
‘The king is tied up in a conference with Appaji,’ Gopa whispered, ‘about the capture of Kondavidu.’ Alvarez was smart enough to guess, the words were meant for those behind the screen eavesdropping on their conversation.
‘What’s the plan?’ he played along.
‘You know, it’s a city within walls, so high in the hills, the wall is three yojanas long that is over twenty miles, impossible to take by siege. Right now their supplies are low, not a single grain from the last two harvests was allowed inside.’
‘But I heard they have fields and orchards inside?’
‘Yes they do, but now is the driest season.’
‘So it’s about water?’
‘Yes… not enough for the population and a ten thousand strong army trapped in, but the rains are only a month away. We don’t have time.’
‘When do you plan the final push?’
‘Right now…,’ he winked, ‘we are waiting for the news.’ There was an audible stir behind the screen as he continued feigning ignorance, ‘haven’t you seen those high platforms being built to go over the walls? The plan is to enter the fort from all sides… simultaneously.’
‘Good plan!’ Alvarez exclaimed. ‘So… after its fall, you may need more horse, for the campaign north, all the way to Cuttack?’
‘Huh uh, Lord Merchant, already counting your silver?’ Gopa laughed, ‘don’t be so greedy, the king has no intention to carry on beyond the river.’
‘What about yesterday… the girl and the song and all that brouhaha?’
‘Ah, that was just a pep talk… for the bloodthirsty generals,’ Gopa said dismissively, ‘the river there, is the natural boundary of our kingdom. Once Kondavidu falls, our king would call for peace.’
‘Hmm…’ he responded sounding disappointed, ‘but what about the enemy to the east?’ A sudden intake of breath from behind the screen brought a thin smile on Alvarez’s face only for the eyes of his host.
‘Ah! You mean Uddanda Raya?’ he said aloud, ‘The king of Orissa will give his head on a platter, in exchange for the precious hostages Kondavidu will provide.’ A loud thud from behind the screen confirmed that someone was shocked enough to faint. At that moment bugles announced the arrival of the king accompanied by Appaji. A slight nod to him from Gopa had not gone unobserved by Alvarez, as they hurried to their seats.
The play began at a signal from the king. A compere accompanied by a player of traditional two sided drum on his right, and lute and cymbal players on his left. He began with an invocation of gods and a panegyric of the king, which always preceded the main show. Then he was joined on stage by two stunningly pretty maidens, conversing with each other and with him. Their singing accompanied by subtle movements of arms and feet to the tunes of percussion set the mood. The music is a little alien but the flow was so familiar like the flamencos from his native land. ‘They’re Anasuya and Priyamvada, friends of the leading lady, Sakuntala,’ said Gopa, his guide, with his fingers tapping on his knee to the tune.
‘If the maids are so beautiful, I can barely wait to see the lady,’ he whispered back.
As the anticipation built itself to the peak, the tempo of percussion changed, he could notice an almost imperceptible adjusting of seats as the audiences leaned forward ever so subtly. When Madura Madhavi appeared on stage almost like magic, he had expected her to be attractive but what he saw was way beyond, she was so delicate and ethereal, his desire to possess her was so intense, he felt his heart stop, being wrenched out to be with her. But her performance was something else altogether, her eyes, hands, subtle turns of her body were so easy to read, the distance of language and culture was bridged so seamlessly. He was transported to be one with her, a merging of souls, his heart beat in tune with her moods, yearning for her lover. His eyes brimmed with tears, a feeling so alien to him… and the music stopped, all of a sudden.
Alvarez felt lost… it was like a free fall to reality.
He saw a man on his knees in front of the king, his tunic mud-stained, hands above his head holding a scroll. He strained to hear him mumble between gasps for breath. ‘Victory to the King of Kings… Kondavidu has fallen…’
The king rose and gave a triumphant roar stunning the night into silence, he pulled the messenger up and hugged his sweat soaked body, tore out the scroll from his hands and began reading. ‘It’s from Ramalinga Nayaka,’ he said aloud, ‘the prince Virabhadra Gajapati has submitted and is being brought here in chains.’ Shouts of victory rent the air.
‘Peace at last,’ Appaji shouted over the din, ‘now the Gajapati will do anything we want to save his son.’
Alvarez’s eyes were fixed on Madura Sani, her tormented eyes turning to complete distress as she stumbled down the stage with her robe trailing behind her and fell at the feet of Krishna Raya. ‘Lord, I beseech you to spare my man… he’s only been doing his duty.’
A slight nudge from Gopa and a smile was a proof that the ploy worked. The king lifted her up ever so gently with his finger under her chin. Looking deep into her desolate eyes, he said, ‘Lady Madhavi, you are asking me for the impossible, to spare an avowed enemy, but your performance today had given me immense pleasure… and that must be rewarded… Hmm… let him approach as a friend, alone, after handing the command of his troops to my generals, and I shall show mercy to him,’ he paused… and after a moment’s thought, we should never give him enough time to realize that the fall of Kondavidu is just a ploy, he said, ‘Ah, can it be done before the dawn tonight?’
‘Yes lord,’ she said relieved, ‘my word is as good as his.’
Alvarez felt the eyes on him before he turned to see whose they were. It was Appaji. The horse trader gave a slight nod acknowledging the mastermind.
At the dawn of the 16th century, three kings dominated the political scene of Deccan; they were called Gajapati, Aśvapati and Narapati, the King of Elephants with his capital Cuttack in Orissa; King of Horses, the Bahmani Sultan of Gulburga; and the King of Men, the Raya of the proverbial Vijayanagara. It was also then a new era in the history of Northern India was unveiling, a descendant of Tamerlane was knocking at the doors in Kabul, who would in time found the Mughal Empire. Perpetual state of war and the dependence on feudal levies have contributed to the rise of a class of noblemen. Loyalty v/s Ambition, an internal tug-of-war characterized the polity of the times.
The provincial governors were calling themselves Sultans in the Bahmani Deccan. A succession of weak kings and internal strife was gnawing at the very existence of Vijayanagara. Orissa had a strong king, at least for now, Pratāpa Rudra Gajapati and he became the lord of the eastern seaboard from the mouths of Ganges to Cauvery at the expense of the traditional territories of his neighbors.
Into this scene the greatest hero of South Indian history made his entry, Śrī Kṛṣṇadēva Rāya. His contributions to literary arts and the stories of his valor; made him the most fondly remembered king of Telugu speakers. The sobriquet ‘Sāhitī Samarāngaṇa Sārvabhauma’ defines him. He was born on February 16, 1487. When he ascended the throne on August 9, 1509, he was just a young man of twenty three. What he inherited was a house on fire. It took a little over a decade of active campaigning to discipline the feuding neighbors in the north, to quell the banners of revolt in the Cauvery belt, and win back the lost territories of the east coast. (See map.)
Fortunately for us, his eastern campaign brought him to the Telugu heartland. For four years he lived in the environs of Amaravati, inaugurating a golden era of literature, art and culture. On the banks of Kṛṣṇavēṇi, like a discerning horse trader picks his bloodstock, he collected literary thoroughbreds. It was the song of the same river that had inspired him to pen the magnum opus, Āmuktamālyada.