Friday, January 9, 2009

The Rule of Love

One of two writing projects that I'm hard at work on is The Rule of Love, a fictional account of the origins of the Kama Sutra. My protagonist, Vātsyāyana, learns lessons of love and life in a brothel run by his aunt Chandi and spars with Chandi's servant, the outspoken Sarama about the meaning of those lessons. The women play central roles in the story and in teaching Vātsyāyana, they also learn about the human heart and condition. Each day of writing, I enjoy this story more and more. But I've got to say, it's a pain in the @$$ to research!

If there's one thing I do enjoy as much as writing a historical, it's researching it. That enjoyment is amplified when the research materials are easily accessible. But when your setting is fifth century India and very little is known about your protagonist's life, and you don't live in India with access to materials or the sites featured in your work, especially an India now heavily influenced by the colonials' puritanical beliefs, then research can be a real !@#$%^&*.

What is known about the Kama Sutra's author is that Vātsyāyana lived during the period of the Gupta Empire, a Golden Age of Indian culture from the fourth to sixth centuries AD. It's believed he came from the Brahmin or highest caste in India, the scholarly and priestly caste. And that's about as far as the history goes. There's some speculation about his time in brothels among prostitutes, as per Alain Danielou's commentary on the Kama Sutra, where Vātsyāyana supposedly experienced or practiced some of what's detailed in the section on courtesans. So what am I expected to do in fleshing out the history of a man for whom history has so few details? A lot of extrapolation from other sources and a helluva lot of chasing after every detail I found, that's what.

I spent several weeks last year getting my hands on every book ever published on the Gupta Empire and still remaining in print. That's less than ten. But each offered wonderful kernels of information. While there are few details about my protagonist, there's much more about the time he lived. The Gupta Empire spanned the north of India (close the modern border with Pakistan) for at least two centuries. The court moved between two principal cities, Ujjain, and Pataliputra on the Ganges River, one of India's seven sacred rivers. Very little of Gupta society survives, as they built mainly with wood, except for their art, especially metalwork. A lot of that art is erotic, many involving the depiction of scenes similar to the sexual positions of the Kama Sutra. One of the finest examples of Indian erotic art remains at the Khajuraho Temple, and scenes cover the walls of the temple similar to the one above. Trust me, that sculpture is pretty mild compared to the others showing humans, gods and animals having sex. But neither Khajuraho Temple or the Kama Sutra are about titillation; before the colonial period and influence of the West, there were less hangups about sex and representations of beautiful, naked bodies enjoying it.

I'm currently submitting the first draft of Rule of Love to one of two critique groups. At first, I was very nervous, as I assumed I'd be labeled a pervert. There have been strong reactions from my fellow writers, some negative, some in support. But I couldn't expect to write about the origins of what most people think is only a sex manual, and get mild reactions. The project is also daunting for me as I'm not the first to write a fictional account of Vātsyāyana. I deliberately did not read the Ascetic of Desire, by Sudhir Kakar which appeared in 2000, because I didn't want to be influenced in any way by a critically acclaimed work. That's called plagiarism, boys and girls, and it can sneak in when you're consulting a variety of sources, if you aren't careful to note where you got the information. I did, however read a review and it's interesting that Kakar and I both set our stories in brothels, and the aunt of our mutual protagonist, is named Chandrika in his story but Chandi in mine.

As this is a first draft, I don't know exactly where my writing of Rule of Love will take me, but I hope to convey an accurate sense of the life and times of a man whose work has endured the ages. Wish me luck.

1 comment:

Anita Davison said...

Well there's something I didn't know. Funny how a book gets a reputation even without actually being read. I am sure your research will be impeccable, Lisa, as usual

Hugs xx


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