The clean and the proper (in the sense of incorporated and incorporable) becomes filthy, the sought-after turns into the banished, fascination into shame.-Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror
The history we are sketching is one of boundaries double crossed between India and the West and between periods of the South Asian past. On one level our story is about an historical irony, how late nineteenth-century Orientalism resuscitated the romantic mystique of the eastern dancer in the West just as South Indian dancers were being repressed in their homeland by Indian reformers influenced by western mores. Within that history there is another dynamic that is less about crossing than about shifting boundaries, boundaries between the sacred and the profane and their expression in colonial law. We will be looking at these movements and transformations within the context of current scholarship that is historicizing even those elements of Indian culture conventionally understood to be most ancient and unchanging….
The story of how the devadasi, the temple dancer of South India, came to be abjected, consigned to the abyss, while her Vedic ancestor was being celebrated, is part of an ironic interplay between eastern and western ideas about the dancer and her dance. Of all the Hindu practices that the British invoked to mark their moral superiority to their Indian subjects, “temple prostitution” may well have been the most notorious after the pr?dations of the so-called “thugs” and the self-immolation of widows (sati).3 The West had no conceptual category for women who were at one and the same time unchaste and holy. The temple dancer’s combination of religious and sexual expression reminded Europeans of that abomination of the ancient Near East, ritual prostitution. (“Thou shalt not bring the wages of a kedesha… into the House of Jehovah,” Deut. 23.18 [Metcalf 102]). The devadasis – literally the slaves or bond-servants of god – were not, strictly speaking, a caste. Rather they had, as Saskia Kersenboom-Story (179) and Amrit Srinivasan note, a way of life or professional ethic [vrtti, murai, not jati]. One could be born into their community, but some girls were formally adopted after being offered, or even sold, to the temples by their families. They were trained in performance from childhood by male teachers from the community and, unlike members of a caste, could not officially perform without their ratification and approval. In contrast to the conventional, patriarchal system of arranged marriages, it was mothers in the community who dedicated their daughters in childhood to the temple god…