Monday 15 December 2014

Demystifying Devadasis, Demystifying Dance

Today almost three generations down from the nationalist movement, Devadasis are thought of as extinct and are recalled as people from the past. They are remembered either as auspicious women who were victimized by the society or as overly sexualized people who with their excessive sexual instincts were propagating a lifestyle which was regressive to the ideals and the growth of Indian society. Stigmatized as a community with regressive ideals, they were alienated from their own art.  These are not imaginings and ideas that are founded on material history of the Devadasi community but are certain tropes that were created as a result of the political agenda and interests of various people during the nationalist movement. Sadly, these tropes become the reference points of their history, to which they trace their present identities. These tropes are so dominant in the imagination of the people and the Devadasis themselves that, to uproot it, one has to delve historically into the complexities of their lives. One has to trace, not only linearly but dialectically to get some insight into the trajectory of events that unfolded in the history of Devadasis – the people and the practice. 

The Devadasis of the present day themselves have to invoke ‘artificial’ memories of their pasts that are constructed politically in order to make sense of their identity. Since Devadasis are portrayed in such opposing images of sexual exploitation on one hand and glorious artists on the other, they pose a problem of category. The Marxists interpret them as exploited labourers with no agency while some nationalists consider them as the keepers of the culture and the tradition of the country through their art and practice of dance. It is required, for us to articulate the past of the Devadasis differently to render their present identity, a historical reference and not vulgarly reductive and politically motivated stereotype. In order to open up multiple yet not skewed imagination of Devadasis, it is needed that we explore the social reality of the Devadasis in the previous centuries in India. To recount and account for historiographies exploring the subjectivities of the Devadasis who were common place is the need of the day and not just that of the few iconic and exceptional ones. A larger number of Devadasis are the ones whose voices were drowned in the loud commotion of the Nationalist movement with the grand agenda of reformation of the whole country.

Historically, the many roles played by devadasis are ambiguous in their definition and are amorphous in popular memory. The term “Devadasi” itself is a problematic term which is loaded with one, singular imagination. Various regional practices collapse under the weight of this one term and the meaning it entails. Leslie Orr in her book “Donors, Devotees and daughters of god” discusses how the term “Devadasi” is barely encountered in the regional inscriptions and the scripts of the 18th and 19th century. This implies that the word is a much modern creation that reduces and consolidates various practices into one category. Books like Davesh Soneji’s “Unfinished gestures” and autobiographies of devadasis such as “Rukmini Devi- A Life” by Leela Samson and “Balasaraswathi- Her Art and Life” by Douglas Knight demystify this term “Devadasi” for us. They reawaken the eclectic lives and practices in the 19th and the 20th century that are eclipsed by this singular dominant term. “Devadasi” as a terminology, is crudely understood to mean “slave of god” or “hand-maiden of god”. Stereotypically, we tend to associate the term with the temple women who were dedicated or symbolically married to the presiding deity of the temple.

Devadasis in temple have been the perpetual and persisting stereotypical image of the Devadasis in Indian cultural imagination. Apart from being in temples they were also courtesans and street dancers. Their roles were diverse and they were not restricted to dancing and singing. The modern idea of Devadasis is largely that of dancing women in temple. It is necessary to break this one image into the variety of experiences these women went through within and outside of temple. Leslie Orr in her work traces the beginnings of the Devadasi practice in the temples to the Chola period in the 6th to 9th century. She develops and constructs this history through inscriptional and iconographical evidences on the temple walls. She also claims that in the Chola dynasty, the temple women were the patrons of the temple as well which is clearly reversed by the medieval time. Though we frequently encounter the idea that the raison d’etre of the devadasis in the temple was singing and dancing, Leslie Orr says that their roles in the society were holistic and diverse, and their lives were relevant to the on-goings of the stately affairs.

Saskia Kerseboom, author of Nitya Sumangali, recently in a talk mentioned that dance was not just formal movement. It was a yagna which had a veda. A good dance performance was important for the well-being of the state, crops, king and his subjects. Dance in today’s society seems to have lost this relevance to our lives and is perceived as something apart from the everydayness of the world. This calls us to engage with the nature of the art practice and explore the lives of the artists, to see what made them so relevant and probably what should make artists relevant to our lives and world today.

  • Soneji Davesh, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Orr, Leslie C., and Leslie Orrey. Donors, devotees, and daughters of God: temple women in medieval Tamilnadu. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  •  Samson, Leela. Rukmini Devi: A Life. Penguin Books India, 2010. 
  • Knight, Douglas M. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Wesleyan University Press, 2010. 
  • Kerseboom, Saskia “An East-West Perspective on Abhinaya”, Conference “Abhinaya in Classical Dance”, Bangalore, November 15, 2014

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