Minai, Cassidy. “Kalavantulu/Devadasi Dances in the Films Muddu Bidda and Periyar (an Ode to Davesh Soneji’s Latest Book.)” Cinema Nritya, cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com/2012/08/ kalavantuludevadasi-dances-in-films.html#more. March 1, 2021.

Available free online.

            Description from website: This website works to bring light to classical and traditional Indian dances in the cinema of India; unearthing rare archival clips and academic research on South Asian dance.

Schofield, Katherine, narrator. “A Bloody Difficult Woman: Mayalee Dancing Girl vs. the East India Company.” Histories of the Ephemeral, season 1, episode 2, 25 November 2018, www. listennotes.com/podcasts/histories-of-the/a-bloody-difficult-woman-V9Rb3-Wl2FL/. Accessed February 12, 2021.

This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.  

Summary: In this episode Schofield considers why Indian musicians and especially courtesans appear at all in the official records of the East India Company, and what this tells us about relations between the British colonial state and the Indian peoples whose worlds it was increasingly encroaching upon during the 1830s and 40s.

Schofield, Katherine, narrator. “The Courtesan and the Memsahib: Khanum Jan Meets Sophia Plowden at the 18C Court of Lucknow.” Histories of the Ephemeral, season 1, episode 1, 1 June 2018, www.listennotes. com/podcasts/histories-of-the/the-courtesan-and-the-vgSefIpYJCA/. Accessed February 12, 2021.

This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.                                    

Summary: This episode explores the musical history of Khanum Jan. Khanum Jan was a celebrity courtesan in the cantonment of Kanpur and the court of Asafuddaula of Lucknow in 1780s North India. Famed then for her virtuosic singing, dancing, and speaking eyes, Khanum became famous again in the twentieth century because of her close musical interactions with a remarkable Englishwoman, Sophia Plowden.

Tharu, Susie and Ke Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990.

This enormously influential work contains a sweeping collection of translations of over 200 texts from historical Indian women writers alongside explorations of their historical contexts. Writers include Buddhist nuns, medieval rebel poets, court historians, and, most importantly to the readers of Courtesans of India, devadasis and tawaifs.

We have tagged this book as both a primary source and a secondary source because it contains translations and interpretation. We have cited this anthology on the following posts:

Krishnan, Hari. “Bharatanatyam.” Accelerated Motion, acceleratedmotion.org/dance-history/bharatanatyam/. Accessed 18 February 2021.

The Bharatanatyam section of the Accelerated Motion website contains valuable information and scholarly questions about the bharatanatyam dance, its history, devadasis, and their disenfranchisement. Several pages are contained within this section; we encourage our readers to view each. The content is a clear, concise, and highly digestible introduction to the politics surrounding this beloved dance, and several scanned pdfs of further scholarly material are provided for free.

Pillai, Mannu S. “Muddupalani: The Woman Who Had No Reason for Shame.” The Hindu, 2 June 2018. Accessed 11 January 2021.

This article is available for free online at The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-woman-who-had-no-reason-for-shame/article24057695.ece

Summary

This article profiles Muddupalani (1730-1790), a devadasi in the court of Pratapasimha, who wrote poetry “unsurpassed in harmony and eroticism.”

Pillai explores how Mudduplani was proud, respected, and rich, and how she rejected modesty. It touches upon how devadasis lost their wealth and status as “Indian society absorbed from the British an overblown sense of Victorian piety” and how Muddupalani’s works, including her Telugu epic, the Radhika Santwanamu, became scandalized

Scobie, Claire. The Representation of the Figure of the Devadasi in European Travel Writing and Art from 1770 to 1820 with specific reference to Dutch writer Jacob Haafner. 2013. University of Western Sydney, PHD dissertation.

This dissertation is available to download for free online via the University of Western Sydney: https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:28030.

Alongside this dissertation paper, Claire Scobie wrote a novel entitled The Pagoda Tree. Please note that although reference to The Pagoda Tree is included in the title of the dissertation, the above link contains only the text of the dissertation paper itself, and NOT the full text of The Pagoda Tree.

Click here to view our citation for Scobie’s novel, The Pagoda Tree.

Abstract

This thesis examines the figure of the devadasi, or temple dancer, a familiar
trope in European travel literature and art from 1770 to 1820. Comprised of two parts, the critical component of the work analyses the representation of the figure of the devadasi through a close reading of a selection of eighteenth-century texts. Historically specific and anchored within travel writing and post-Saidian Orientalist theory, I argue that despite the limitations of these accounts, in both form and content, they shed light upon the complex cross-cultural interactions of the period. The texts range from travel accounts, with a particular focus on Dutch author, Jacob Haafner, contrasted with English Company servant, John Henry Grose and French missionary, Abbé J.A Dubois, some eighteenth-century paintings, and two indigenous works—the erotic Telugu poetry of Muddupalani, an eighteenth-century courtesan and artist, and a little-known Sanskrit work, the Sarva-Deva-Vilasa. I propose that the textual paradoxes and tensions illuminate how the devadasi exercised agency and yet, how her apparent dichotomous nature—embodying the sacred and the sensual—would frequently complicate her representation in the West.

The creative component, entitled The Pagoda Tree, is a historical novel set in eighteenth-century south India. Primarily told from the perspective of Maya, a temple dancer, it individualises the personal narrative of a devadasi and intersects her with the larger historical implications of imperial expansion. Informed by the conceptual framework of feminist and revisionist historians, and the recovery scholarship of the devadasi, this approach positions the temple dancer in the fictive space between history, archive and imagination. Together, the two parts of the thesis explore the contradictions and conflicting forces which empower and undermine marginalised figures within colonial discourse, and demonstrate how fiction may assist in their recovery.

Spear, Jeffrey L., and Avanthi Meduri. “Knowing the Dancer: East Meets West.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, 2004, pp. 435–448.

Abstract

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…

Walker, Margaret E. India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective. Routledge, 2014.

From the publisher’s website

Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples. The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history – it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theatre, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India. Through an analysis both broad and deep of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography and current performance practice, Margaret Walker undertakes a critical approach to the history of kathak dance and presents new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.

 

Notes

  • Our readers may be most interested in Chapter 7, “More Hereditary Performers: The Women,” which specifically discusses courtesans.
  • Check out Margaret E. Walker’s “The Nautch Reclaimed” article here!

Jagpal, Charn Kamal Kaur. “I Mean to Win”: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. 2011. University of Alberta, PhD Dissertation.

This dissertation is available to read for free online at the University of Alberta’s ERA website.

Abstract

Grounded in the methodologies of New Historicism, New Criticism, Subaltern Studies, and Colonial Discourse Analysis, this dissertation explores English women‘s fictions of the nautch girl (or Indian dancing girl) at the turn of the century. Writing between 1880 to 1920, and within the context of the women‘s movement, a cluster of British female writers—such as Flora Annie Steel, Bithia Mary Croker, Alice Perrin, Fanny Emily Penny and Ida Alexa Ross Wylie—communicate both a fear of and an attraction towards two interconnected, long-enduring communities of Indian female performers: the tawaifs (Muslim courtesans of Northern India) and the devadasis (Hindu temple dancers of Southern India). More specifically, the authors grapple with the recognition that these anomalous Indian women have liberties (political, financial, social, and sexual) that British women do not. This recognition significantly undermines the imperial feminist rhetoric circulating at the time that positioned British women as the most emancipated females in the world and as the natural leaders of the international women‘s movement. The body chapters explore the various ways in which these fictional devadasis or tawaifs test imperial feminism, starting with their threat to the Memsahib‘s imperial role in the Anglo-Indian home in the first chapter, their seduction of burdened Anglo-Indian domestic women in the second chapter, their terrorization of the British female adventuress in the third chapter, and ending with their appeal to fin-de-siècle dancers searching for a modern femininity in the final chapter. My project is urgent at a time when imperial feminism is becoming the dominant narrative by which we are being trained to read encounters between British and Indian women, at the expense of uncovering alternative readings. I conclude the dissertation by suggesting that the recovery of these alternative readings can be the starting point for rethinking the hierarchies and the boundaries separating First World from Third World feminisms today.

Evans, Kristi. “Contemporary Devadasis: Empowered Auspicious Women or Exploited Prostitutes?” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 80, No. 3, 1998, pp. 23-38.

This article is available for free online through the University of Manchester Library. 

Summary

After contextualizing the common discursive question in the article’s title, Evans briefly explains that Western colonization eroded devadasis’ cultural roles and the public’s perspective of those roles. She goes on to attempt to answer the question, “Who are the contemporary devadasis?” by discussing the struggle over a cultural identity for the “post-devadasi:” the devadasi that exists when their once-integral practice of temple dancing is outlawed.

Readers should take care to note that this article was written in 1998, and thus may not represent the experiences of today’s devadasis.

 

From the Introduction

The contemporary devaddsis have been subject to sociological and anthropological representations. Conversely, the devadasis’ own accounts . . . are often discrepant with those who study or attempt to reform them . . .The question ‘whose experience, whose representation?’ is posed. Even though the representations are generally context-sensitive, studies of the contemporary devadasis have mainly focused on the gendered dimension of the devadasi-hood, that is, the devadasi as synonymous or reducible to a common prostitute.

It is puzzling why the label ‘prostitution’ is so persistently attached to the contemporary devaddsi. One explanation is that the generic term ‘devaddsi’ is applied to any woman associated with theogamy (principally the cult of Yellamma-Renuka) in Karnataka, overlooking the diversity of her ritual statuses as the ‘chaste’, ‘degraded’ and ‘pious’ wife of Siva Jamadagni. A closer examination reveals that only the ‘degraded wife’ (sule muttu) is associated with commercial prostitution. Another explanation is that such a misappropriation of the term ‘devadasi’ may reflect a secularized sociological perspective which represents the devadasis as predominantly exploited rather than empowered. This perspective is reflected in the newspaper reports in which the Yellamma-Renuka temple is portrayed as a ‘recruiting centre’ for prostitutes. An increasing social and sociological concern for women’s issues in contemporary Indian society arguably makes the sociological perspective a valid representation of the contemporary devadasi as an exploited sex worker, especially if she comes from
rural scheduled caste communities. Nevertheless, as Trivedi discovered, the issue is more complex, and devadasis were found to be ‘sacred’, ‘clandestine’ or ‘commercial’ prostitutes, with the first category dominant in Karnataka. But even though a context-sensitive representation to a point, a secular-cum sociological perspective tends to gloss over the ritual aspect which, when we hear the voices of the devadasis, appears to be an important aspect of their experience.

 

Fruzetti, Lina and Rosa Maria Perez. “The Gender of the Nation: Allegoric Femininity and Women’s Status in Bengal and Goa.” Etnografica, vol. 6, no. 1, 2002, pp. 41-58.

Abstract

This joint paper is the outcome of collaborative efforts through joint teaching and joint publication. Our central aim is to compare the nationalist period in India – when gender was endorsed both as an ideal and an ideological program, to the post-independence era. Our comparative analysis tries to understand the status and social role of women after Indian independence, when they were drawn into the nationalist movement through their participation in the mission of cleansing the earth-land, the mother land. Adopting an anthropological and historical approach to women in Bengal and Goa, we are theoretically concerned with postcolonial gender construction, and the meaning of “woman” within contemporary national constructs of the personhood.

Meduri, Avanthi. Nation, Woman, Representation: The Sutured History of the Devadasi and Her Dance. Dissertation, New York University, 1996.

Summary

From page xiii:

“‘Nation, Woman, Representation: the Sutured History of the devadasi and her Dance’ examines the complex interplay of national and international events, the impact of Western modernization on the life and artistic practices of a class of South Indian women known as devadasis or temple-dancers…the traditional practice was radically transformed in the late nineteenth and twentieth century practices of Indian nationalism when devadasis and their artistic practices began to be idealized and hailed as the quintessential signs, symbols and metaphors of the ancient Indian nation. If the devadasis were derided as temple prostitutes in the 1890s, their artistic practices were reclaimed in the 1920s, and described by A.K. Coomaraswamy and Annie Besant, as the immortal dance of Shiva. The artistic practices were subsequently aestheticized and renamed in the ideological metaphor and name of India, that is, as Bharatanatyam, the national dance of India. The transmogrification of many names into the one name of Bharatanatyam manifested itself as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon in the history of Indian nationalism because five master-discourses— colonialism, Orientalism, internationalism, Indian nationalism, plus another indigenous discourse, which I identify as the local, artistic history of the devadasi— came to be imbricated in the cultural reconfigurations effected first in the 1890s, repeated in the 1920s. I shall here… describe how selected traces from the artistic history of the nineteenth century were carefully reclaimed, reassembled, and sutured on to the visual bodies of living devadasis and middle-class women in the twentieth practices of cultural nationalism.”

Orchard, Treena. A Painful Power: Coming of Age, Sexuality and Relationships, Social Reform, and HIV/AIDS Among Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural Karnataka, India. Dissertation, University of Manitoba, 2004.

Abstract

This dissertation examines coming of age, sexuality and relationships, social reform, and HIV/AIDS among a unique group of female sex workers, the Devadasis, in rural areas of the South Indian state of Karnataka. Former temple servants, religious functionaries, and courtesans in the medieval to early Colonial period (c. 10th-19th century), over time the Devadasis have lost their wealthy patrons and attendant socio-religious status. While often equated with commercial sex workers, many Devadasis continue to practice age-old ceremonies and customs. However, many aspects of these sex workers’ lives are misunderstood. A combination of qualitative methods was used during this research; mainly participant-observation, interviews (individual, group, life-histories), and workshops with participants were coordinated to ensure their participation in the process and feedback on study results. Among the most important findings is the alternative model of child prostitution that emerged from the data. Contrary to standard portrayals of the young as victims of a degraded trade, Devadasi girls discussed some positive aspects of prostitution, such as their ability to support their families, providing income to participate in peer activities, and becoming an adult. The common assumption about sex workers as sexually detached and incapable of forming important unions was also challenged, as many Devadasis enjoy meaningful sex with their long-term lovers or partners, who are central to the women’s socio-emotional and economic well-being. Their response to state-level social reform movements aimed at “rescuing” them from prostitution reveals a pragmatic understanding of these campaigns not often considered in the literature, with the women incorporating these programs into their sex work earnings to maximize their position in a demanding economic environment. Similarly, their involvement in the formation of Collective organizations in order to develop a sense of empowerment in their fight against HIV/AIDS reveals the women’s ability to mobilize and politicize their demands. The results of this dissertation are relevant to the emerging research on global sex work, especially in relation to the issues of childhood, sexuality, and relationships, and they present new data on the Devadasis about coming of age, changes in the system over time, social reform, and HIV/AIDS.

Sharma, Karuna. “The Social World of Prostitutes and Devadasis: A Study of the Social Structure and Its Politics in Early Modern India.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007, pp. 297-310. 

This article is available for free online through The Journal of International Women’s Studies.

This article challenges some of the arguments of Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India.”  Put simply, Oldenburg argues that devadasis performed “covert subversion of a male-dominated world [by] resisting and inverting the rules of gender.” Sharma, contrastingly, argues that devadasis found economic and social success by operating within the socially-constructed bounds of acceptable labour.  We encourage our readers to read both articles!

Abstract

This research paper discusses two groups of professional women who had a distinct place in the sexual economy of the period under review. By analyzing the actions and situations of prostitutes and the devadasis (literally meaning servants of God) in terms of a broader context of relationships, I consider the sexual-services and the entertainment provided by them as a meaningful labor, which got integrated at both the social and cultural levels. I have looked at how and to whom the prostitutes and the devadasis sold their labor, and how they related to other women, to men, and to various social systems. The study of these professionals shows different strands of Indian culture and one could state that the world of entertainment, to which these professions belonged, itself is a cultural reproduction of society. Specifically, it is my view that the prostitutes were sought after for their physical attraction, but elegance and élan were to an extent constitutive elements of their profession. In the case of devadasis who were the custodians of the arts of singing and dancing and whose dedicated status made them a symbol of social prestige, I would say that while the economic/professional benefits were considerable, they did not lack social honor either. The essay shows that the women who were part of this set-up, a set-up which thrived on the commercialization of women’s reproductive labor, had those skills and expertise which eventually get appropriated by politico-economic structures. This gives a better insight into the politics of human relations.

 

 

Bor, Joep. ”Mamia, Ammani and other Bayadères: Europe’s portrayal of India’s temple dancers.” Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s. Eds. Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon. Ashgate, 2007: 39-70.

From the Introduction

In this chapter I will explore an aspect of the encounter with the Other that has not been dealt with by Gerry Farrell in his excellent study Indian Music and the West, and has also been ignored by writers on bharata natyam, the classical dance of Southern India. First I will show that India’s temple dancers and singers have a long history in European travel literature, giving a brief overview of the way they were portrayed. Next I will focus on Jacob Haafner’s remarkable essay on the devadasis; pubished in his Reize in eenen Palanquin (1808), it was written in memory of his beloved, the young dancer Mamia.

After Goethe wrote his poem “Der Gott und die Bajadere” in 1797, nineteenth-century librettists metamorphosed the temple dancers into the fictitious bayadères who became the heroines of Examining dozens of artcles and reviews, I will finally demonstrate that during the autumn of 1838 the “real” bayadères were “the chief magnets of attraction” and “greatest curiosities in London.” In fact, part of the success of the 1838-39 season at the Adelphi Theatre could be attributed to the foreign dancers.

 

Notes

  • This article is noteworthy for first providing an overview of some of the most well-known depictions of the devadasis by early European travel writers. In familiarizing themselves with these depictions, our readers can get a sense of how long-standing Western cultural myths about outside groups can form.

Ramanujan, A.K. et. al., eds and trans. When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others. U of California P, 1994.

This book is available to read for free online at the University of California Press E-Books Collection.

Publisher’s Summary

“These South Indian devotional poems show the dramatic use of erotic language to express a religious vision. Written by men during the fifteenth to eighteenth century, the poems adopt a female voice, the voice of a courtesan addressing her customer. That customer, it turns out, is the deity, whom the courtesan teases for his infidelities and cajoles into paying her more money. Brazen, autonomous, fully at home in her body, she merges her worldly knowledge with the deity’s transcendent power in the act of making love.

This volume is the first substantial collection in English of these Telugu writings, which are still part of the standard repertoire of songs used by classical South Indian dancers. A foreword provides context for the poems, investigating their religious, cultural, and historical significance. Explored, too, are the attempts to contain their explicit eroticism by various apologetic and rationalizing devices.”

Poets and Padams

When God Is a Customer is a collection of Telugu erotic devotional poetry, mostly short lyrical poems called padams, translated into English. Poems attributed to Annamaya, Sarangapani, Rudrakhavi, one anonymous author, and most prominently, Ksetrayya were selected for translation.

Telugu padams were originally performed by professional dancers and musicians, such as devadasis, whose patrons included courts, temples, and wealthy men. Padams are highly erotic, mostly feature female speakers, and often illustrate lover’s quarrels, infidelity, sensual longing, and sulking; these romantic conflicts long served as a metaphor for humans devoting themselves to the divine.

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

“From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)….

A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millennium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism….

[A]nd perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic colouring. As we seek to understand the import of the Telugu padams translated here, we need to ask: What is distinctive about the erotic imagination activated in these works? How do they relate to the earlier tradition of South Indian bhakti, with its conventional erotic components? What changes have taken place in the conceptualization of the deity, his human devotee, and the intimate relationship that binds them? Why this hypertrophy of overt eroticism, and what does it mean to love God in this way?” (9-10)

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

This section briefly summarizes and interprets the courtesan figures in When God Is a Customer by rewording and condensing a portion of the book’s Introduction. In its entirety, the Introduction also explores the God-customers’ roles, situates the poems in their historical contexts, and assists readers in the act of reading by exploring padams’ traditional themes and structural elements. We highly recommend that interested scholars read the Introduction in full.

Intriguingly, most of the speakers and characters in the poems of When God Is a Customer are courtesans. They are strong-willed and can be self-possessed, often brazenly playing power games with their God-lovers in search of their fee. The book’s introduction examines one such courtesan in “The Madam to a Courtesan”, a poem by Ksetrayya, on pages 14-16. Here, readers see the God-customer Muvva Gopala/Lord Krishna hapless and awkward, wandering the streets of the courtesan colony, unable to find the courtesan he lusts for; she has taken his money, but not given him her address. An older courtesan, the speaker, chides her for her haughtiness:

Woman! He’s none other
than Cennudu of Palagiri.
Haven’t you heard?
He rules the worlds.

When he wanted you, you took his gold—
but couldn’t you tell him your address?
Some lover you are!
He’s hooked on you.

     And he rules the worlds

I found him wandering the alleyways,
too shy to ask anyone.
I had to bring him home with me.
Would it have been such a crime
if you or your girls
had waited for him by the door?
You really think it’s enough
to get the money in your hand?
Can’t you tell who’s big, who’s small?
Who do you think he is? (14-15)

Like the courtesan spoken to in the excerpt above, many of When God Is a Customer’s speakers plainly lack wonderment at their God-lovers’ ruling powers: in an anonymous padam, a courtesan insists her God can “enter [her] house only if [he has] the money” (39), asserting some level of dominance; in “A Woman to Her Lover” by Ksetrayya (33), the lovers laugh as a pet parrot mimics the courtesan’s moans, then bemoan the morning for interrupting their lovemaking—a remarkably “down to earth” moment, given that Muvva Gopala “rules the worlds” (14).

As the introduction observes, a power dynamic that posits the courtesan speaker as having the upper hand against or being on an even playing field with the God figure reverses that which is commonly seen in earlier Tamil bhakti models of devotional poetry. An eighth-century bhakti by Nammalvar on page 10 serves as an example of such a model, imaging a powerless woman heart-wrenched by her god-lover’s all-consuming absence. Unable to sleep on a black, rainy night, she spends her hours resenting her heart, her “sins,” and her womanhood.

The tormenting, lonely, helpless atmosphere of Nammalvar’s work is a far cry from both the bright playfulness that so often colours the lovers’ conflicts in Ksetrayya’s poems and the physical unity—often through orgasm—that resolves them. Indeed, the figure of the courtesan, sensual and autonomous, allows for a type of devotional work that, as the book’s introduction observes, is concerned more with union than with separation:

It should now be clear why the courtesan appears as the major figure in this poetry of love. As an expressive vehicle for the manifold relations between devotee and deity, the courtesan offers rich possibilities. She is bold, unattached, free from the constraints of home and family. In some sense, she represents the possibility of choice and spontaneous affection, in opposition to the largely predetermined, and rather calculated, marital tie. She can also manipulate her customers to no small extent, as the devotee wishes and believes he can manipulate his god. But above all, the courtesan signals a particular kind of knowledge, one that achieved preeminence in the late medieval cultural order in South India. Bodily experience becomes a crucial mode of knowing, especially in this devotional context: the courtesan experiences her divine client by taking him physically into her body. (18)

Who is Ksetrayya?

A very interesting article by Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, “Ksetrayya: The making of a Telugu poet”, has called the popular and scholarly assumptions about the padam poet into question. Kamath argues that rather than a historical figure from the village of Muvva, Ksetrayya could be a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform, and that rather than being written by a single male author, Ksetrayya’s poetry could be the work of multiple authors, including courtesans themselves.

Jordan, Kay K. From Sacred Servants to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis in India, 1857- 1947. Manohar, 2003.

From Israel Selvanayagam’s review in Implicit Religion: “This book represents a most thoroughgoing account of the system and practice of Devadasi in India and of the process of banning it through legal debates and
legislation…The book traces the changes in the social, religious, and legal status of the devadasis, with particular reference to changes in government policy toward those temple maids that exemplify the trends toward modernization and secularization from the start of direct British rule in 1857. At the same time, to keep
the study comprehensive, the author, with the help of medieval records of kingly patronage, descriptions by foreign travellers and contemporary traces, starts with the pre-colonial era, in which there was a striking interaction between kings and devadasis as both of them had derived their social position and cultural importance from their relationship to the sacred…Apart from presenting a dynamic period in Indian history with reference to the notable problem of the Devadasi system, the book supplies a few hints of a better understanding of the dynamics of Indian cultural history and the globalized culture of neo-colonialism today.”

Source: Selvanayagam, Israel. “Review of From Sacred Servant to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis in India, 1857-1947 by Kay K. Jordan” Implicit Religion [Online], 9 25 Sep 2007

Knight, Douglas M. Balasaraswati: Her Life and Art. Wesleyan UP, 2010.

From Judith Judson’s review in the Journal of Dance Education: “Douglas Knight has given us an exhaustive biography of the illustrious bharata natya dancer T. Balasaraswati. An American percussionist, Knight is also her son-in-law, and his is an insider account of a career that triumphed over formidable social and political difficulties.

Knight has presented the story from the point of view of Bala and her adherents, because her loyalties were given to the principles that had shaped her upbringing. She came from a devadasi family, one of many south Indian families dedicated to temple service as musicians and dancers. These families handed down their art within their own clans, and Bala’s had a heritage of at least five generations of traditional Tamil musical and dance professionalism, closely associated with a royal court. Her mother and grandmother were almost legendary for musical skill. However, the matriarchal and matrilineal traditions of these families were alien to those outside their province, and the devadasis were often stigmatized by accusations of prostitution. Because of Western opposition to the concept of temple dancing, and because traditional royal patronage had almost vanished as the courts became impoverished, the devadasi families had lost most of their time-honored support, and many were forced to scramble for a living in any way they could. These conditions not only caused the loss of a great part of their long-established informed audiences, but aggravated the negative opinions of would-be reformers. Bala’s career therefore was opposed by those who were at first against the very idea of reviving a once vital south Indian dance form, and then, in the name of stamping out prostitution, in preventing its traditional families of practitioners from performing at all.”

Source: Judson, Judith. “Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life.” Journal of Dance Education 11.2 (2011): 68-9

Soneji, Davesh. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. Print.

From the publisher’s website: “Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical research, Davesh Soneji provides a comprehensive portrait of these marginalized women and unsettles received ideas about relations among them, the aesthetic roots of their performances, and the political efficacy of social reform in their communities…narrating the history of these women, Soneji argues for the recognition of aesthetics and performance as a key form of subaltern self-presentation and self-consciousness.”

Tula, Meenal and Pande, Rekha. “Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2014, pp. 67-82.

This article is available for free online as part of Virtual Commons, the open-access institutional repository of Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Click here to download it.

Abstract:

“Women historiography has been one of the major concerns of the feminist movement particularly since 1960s. Looking at the figure of the courtesan in India—its histories, representations, repression and re-emergence, the paper seeks to problematize discourses of both Universalist and minority history writing that have been built around these women. In the context of Post-Colonial theory, and in the light of the dynamic nature of the categories of Truth, Power, Knowledge, and Discourse, the paper seeks to salvage Foucault’s methodology of writing a genealogical history as opening new avenues within the history of the courtesan in India in particular and women’s history writing in general.”


Introductory Summary

“The courtesan has been a key figure in the articulation of deep anxieties that have constituted the experience of an ‘Indian’ modernity. Produced through a complex entanglement of practices and re-significations of social meaning over the course of the 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that the figure of the courtesan seems to be an enduring object of attention across varied domains of colonial (and now, post-colonial) law, economics and hygiene, from ‘canonical’ nationalist literature to popular culture. Rather, what ought to be surprising is the relative invisibility of the courtesan in academic discourse, evincing little interest as a subject for critical historical study. Of the few studies that have been done, we find that a number of them seem only to reproduce notions deeply entrenched in the production of ‘woman’ as a subject/object of colonial modernity, in the process re-affirming the legitimacy of its violence.”


Noteworthy Critique of Moti Chandra’s The World of Courtesans (1976)

See our citation of Moti Chandra’s The World of Courtesans here.

“We may begin by illustrating this point through a look at two histories of the courtesan and how they replicate a particular logic of containing, disciplining and ‘silencing’ the courtesan subject. Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages—ganika, khumbhadasi—and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who ‘served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris.’  At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and ‘living the life of shame’, he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the ‘crafty’ and ‘worldly-wise’ ways of these women: ‘…courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold.’ Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that ‘explains’ all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra’s history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a ‘women’s history’.”

 

Marglin, Frédérique Apffel. Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford UP, 1985.

This book is available for free online through the Open Access to Odia Books project: http://oaob.nitrkl.ac.in/210/
 
Although it is over 30 years old, Frédérique Apffel Marglin’s work remains valuable and notable for her careful consideration of her limitations as a Western observer of the devadasi practice in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. In her introduction, she provides important historical background about British imperialism’s impact on the devadasi practice and their reputation, as well as a thoughtful description of how the gendered meanings of purity, impurity, auspiciousness, inauspiciousness, status, and lack of status appear to interact on the topic of devadasis. Throughout the book, she describes devadasis’ roles and reputation in the Puri royal court and in Indian society at large as they were prior to the reform movement that outlawed the devadasi practice.
Publisher’s Summary
“Among the 1,500 devotees of the Hindu temple and cult of Jagannatha at Puri are a handful of women known as ‘devadasis’ or, literally, ‘female servants of the deity,’ who are associated with both chastity and concubinage and prostitution. This book focuses on the tension between the purity and impurity of the devadasis, and examines ideas about kingship, power, sexual purity, the role and status of women, and other central concerns of Hindu religious and cultural life that are associated with such rituals.”
Notable Quotes from the Introduction (1-24)
On Stereotypical Dualism: “Even though Abbé Dubois’s report is not lacking in ambivalence, the concluding line is a clear and forceful condemnation [of the devadasi practice]. The ambivalence expresses itself in the use of two kinds of terms; one set of terms are heavy with moral condemnation such as ‘loose’, ‘lews’, ‘stew’, ‘strumpets’, ‘obscene,’ … and another set of terms reveals a reluctant admiration such as ‘grace’, ‘elegant’, ‘attractive’… ‘graceful,’ ‘enchanting’. This mixture of the sinful and the sensuously beautiful is Europe’s classical recipe for the exotic. The devadasis, as can be imagined, were prime targets for an exotic one-sided imaginative reconstruction.”
On writers’ limited perspectives: “Because [this book] was conceived as a study of the rituals of the devadasis, it must be borne in mind that all these other concerns [such as women, goddesses, and kings] are dealt with as they arise out of a close attention to the practices of the devadasis. In other words, the perspective from which an observer views anything gives what she/he views a particular angle. I for one do not hold the position that an observer—however well-trained he or she might be—can find an Archimedean point from which to present a truly synoptic view. The view of any observer will be coloured by the perspective chosen, the point of entry, as well as by that observer’s predilections, blind spots, and other particularities.”
On the Indian cultural connotations of auspiciousness/purity/status: “The devadasis are called the ‘auspicious women’ (mangala nari) and they are the ones who sing the ‘auspicious songs’ (mangala gita). However, they are also never allowed into the inner sanctum of the temple, even though not only all the other ritual specialists but also the public at large is allowed into it at certain times of the day. This prohibition turns out to be linked with the devadasis’ status as courtesans and the impurity of sex. This tension between the auspiciousness and he impurity of the devadasis is the pivotal focus of this work…. The meanings of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness reveal themselves through the practices, often re-constructed, of the devadasis. What emerges rather quickly is that the categories of auspicious and inauspicious do not correspond to those of pure and impure….
Women are the harbingers of auspiciousness, a state which unlike purity does not speak of status or moral uprightness but of well-being and health or more generally of all that creates, promotes, and maintains life….

Status seems to be associated on the whole with masculinity and auspiciousness on the whole with femininity. The case of the devadasis who do not marry offers an ideal case study for the understanding of auspiciousness since it is here not intermingled with status…. Purity and impurity underlie the hierarchy of caste. Thus the disjunction between auspiciousness and status predictable correlates with the disjunction between auspiciousness and purity. The maleness of purity can perhaps be seen reflected in the term uses for ‘pure spirit’, namely purusa, a word which can also have the meaning of ‘male person.’….”

Leonowens, Anna. “Life and Travel in India by Anna Harriette Leonowens.” Project Gutenberg, www.owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/. Accessed 2 March 2018.

This work is available for free online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52896

Anna Leonowens (1834-1915)

Anna Leonowens is an intriguing historical figure. She is most popularly known as the inspiration behind Anna in the musical The King and I, which was based on her travel writing in The English Governess at the Siamese Court. She often wrote in support of women’s rights. Although she is commonly thought to be white and British, Leonowens was born in India, and her grandmother was probably of Anglo-Indian mixed race. This heritage, if discovered, would surely have negatively impacted Leonowens’s opportunities in British-occupied India; she appears to have gone to some lengths to hide it, including by claiming she was born in Wales (Morgan).

Life and Travel in India
Life and Travel in India is a richly-descriptive book describing Leonowens’s experiences traveling in India. It is lesser-known than her writings about Siam. As a woman, Leonowens was allowed entry to women’s-only areas in India; she has therefore written about spaces that British male travel writers could not see. 

Our readers might be particularly interested in her observations of dancing girls and devadasis (referred to in this book as “bayahdiers”). In Chapter VIII, she watches a performance of dancing girls, speaks to the owner of an establishment of dancing girls, and develops a fascination with a particular girl, who she says she has “fallen in love with, half in earnest, half in jest” (187). She also explains her understanding of the devadasi dedication process in detail.

Questions to Consider

  • Travel writing and other forms of nonfiction are commonly understood to contain unbiased observations. Does Leonowens simply observe India, or attempt to interpret it? Is anyone just an observer? 

  • Can we consider Leonowens a reliable narrator? What limitations might she have as a narrator, if any? Is she cognizant of these limitations? How might her subject position (race, gender, class, birthplace, profession, etc.) colour her narrations? Is she cognizant of her subject position? Is she critical of it?

  • Consider the following sentence: “These poor devotees [devadasis] often accept their fate with that stolid indifference peculiar to the Orientals.” Is this sentence sympathetic or demeaning? Is it descriptive or prescriptive? Can it be both?

  • Male British travel writers often presented harems as a location of pure exotic pleasure and indulgence (DelPlato); Leonowens, by contrast, refers to the behind-the-scenes life of dancing girls as a “sad and dreary picture” (193).  Is one depiction more true than the other? Can they both be true? Are they complete? Who determines the depictions’ trueness and completeness? What impacts might have these perceptions had on how Leonowens’s British readers viewed and treated Indians and dancing girls?
Works Cited
DelPlato, Joan. Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the harem, 1800-1875. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.
Morgan, Susan.  Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess. U of California P, 2008.

Peterson, Indira and Devesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. Oxford UP, 2007.

“Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, edited by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji, explores the formation of classical traditions in the performing arts of South India. Through ten articles by leading scholars in the field, the volume describes the shifts involved in what reformers termed the “revival” of traditions: from temples to concert halls; from hereditary, lower-caste performers to upper-caste outsiders; from guru-shishya relationships to formal curricula; and from ritual practice to aesthetic experiences… it argues for new understandings of both agency and hegemony in classicization projects. In terms of agency, authors identify a broader set of actors as central to the process; instead of just Brahmin, middle-class reformers, the articles draw attention to the role of former devadasis (women who performed ritual temple dances) in creating, reforming, and preserving dance culture, and that of professional musicians in standardizing musical performance and notation.”

Source:  Abigail McGowan (2009) Performing Pasts: Reinventing the
Arts in Modern South India, History: Reviews of New Books, 37:4, 151-151

Chandra, Moti. The World of Courtesans. Vikas, 1973.

In this book, Moti Chandra compiles an enormity of information about ancient Indian courtesans organized into certain periods/locations and their literatures. By the sheer number of places and locations, Chandra’s book resists a singular or one-dimensional reading of the life of ancient Indian courtesans.

From the Preface

“The institution of courtesans in ancient India in its social setting has not yet received as much attention from scholars as it deserves. Courtesans in ancient India did not merely serve the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and ars amoris. Around them moved interesting characters such as rich merchants, bankers, and the vitas (rakes). In this way a courtesan became an important part of Indian society. So far as literature is concerned, courtesans, in spite of their perfidies, were considered an urban institution which gave an impetus to arts and the life of luxury….

The institution of courtesans is a distinguished feature of developed urban society and, therefore, in Vedic and post-Vedic literature, though the courtesans are mentioned casually, we hardly know much about their life and accomplishments. In Buddhist literature, however, we are face to face with the highly developed institution of courtesans…. In Jain literature as well, courtesans have received attention and their achievements have been noted…. In the Mauryan period, however, the organization of the courtesans became highly complex and the state devised a set of rules which governed their conduct….

However, the best account of courtesans is obtained in the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana which goes into great details in drawing a very correct picture of the institutions of courtesans, the clients who visited them, the low characters who either helped the courtesans and their clients and hangers on, their amusements, the picnic parties to which they proceeded with their lovers, periodic festivals in which they participated, their acts of piety and virtue and vices.”

 

Critiques

Although this work is very thoroughly researched and informative, The World of Courtesans is not without its biases. In “Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach” (see our citation and download the .pdf here), Meenal Tula and Rekhal Pande observe that Chandra speaks of courtesans’ sexuality in a demeaning and even anxious way. They argue that in doing so, The World of Courtesans “contains, disciplines, and ‘silences the courtesan subject,'” common features of scholarship on the devadasis. Consider the following quote:

“Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages—ganika, khumbhadasi—and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who ‘served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris.’  At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and ‘living the life of shame’, he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the ‘crafty’ and ‘worldly-wise’ ways of these women: ‘…courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold.’ Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that ‘explains’ all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra’s history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a ‘women’s history’.”

 

Table of Contents

  1. Courtesans in Vedic, Pauranic, and Smiti Literatures
  2. Courtesans in Buddhist Literature
  3. Courtesans in Jain Literature
  4. Courtesans in the Mauryan Period
  5. Courtesans in the Kamasutra and Natyasastra
  6. Courtesans in the Gupta Period
  7. Courtesans and Goshthi in Sanskrit Drama
  8. Courtesans in Mediaeval Kashmir
  9. Courtesans in Mediaevil Times in Other Parts of India
  10. Courtesans in South India

Parker, K. M. “‘A Corporation of Superior Prostitutes’: Anglo-Indian Legal Conceptions of Temple Dancing Girls, 1800-1914.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 1998, pp. 559-663.

From the Introduction: “This paper explores changing Anglo-Indian legal conceptions of the temple dancing girls of peninsular India between 1800 and 1914. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, temple dancing girls constituted corps of unmarried temple servants who had been dedicated to temple deities as young girls through rites resembling Hindu marriage ceremonies; they performed a range of ritual services, derived incomes from endowments associated with their offices and enjoyed considerable prestige within ‘traditional’ Hindu society as ‘eternally auspicious’ women ‘married’ to temple deities. By the early twentieth century, temple dancing girls had been criminalized as ‘prostitutes’; strong legal foundations had been established for their complete suppression as a viable group within Hindu society. This dramatic change was produced in large part through the incremental efforts of the Anglo-Indian judiciary, which enjoyed almost unfettered discretion in shaping legal conceptions of temple dancing girls between 1800 and 1914. The legal conceptions of temple dancing girls discussed in this paper are constructed principally through appellate opinions, influential legal treatises, statutes and legislative documents. Although no claim of priority is made on behalf of such materials, it is hoped that the insights they provide will complicate the historiography of social reform relating to women in colonial India.”

Kotiswaran, Prabha. Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India. Princeton UP, 2011.

Publisher’s Summary:

Popular representations of third-world sex workers as sex slaves and vectors of HIV have spawned abolitionist legal reforms that are harmful and ineffective, and public health initiatives that provide only marginal protection of sex workers’ rights. In this book, Prabha Kotiswaran asks how we might understand sex workers’ demands that they be treated as workers. She contemplates questions of redistribution through law within the sex industry by examining the political economies and legal ethnographies of two archetypical urban sex markets in India.

Kotiswaran conducted in-depth fieldwork among sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light area, and Tirupati, a temple town in southern India. Providing new insights into the lives of these women–many of whom are demanding the respect and legal protection that other workers get–Kotiswaran builds a persuasive theoretical case for recognizing these women’s sexual labor. Moving beyond standard feminist discourse on prostitution, she draws on a critical genealogy of materialist feminism for its sophisticated vocabulary of female reproductive and sexual labor, and uses a legal realist approach to show why criminalization cannot succeed amid the informal social networks and economic structures of sex markets. Based on this, Kotiswaran assesses the law’s redistributive potential by analyzing the possible economic consequences of partial decriminalization, complete decriminalization, and legalization. She concludes with a theory of sex work from a postcolonial materialist feminist perspective.

Sriram,V. The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. East West, 2007.

From Amazon.caThe term ‘Devadasi’ evokes a mystical past, replete with devotion, and dedication of girls to deities, refrains of soaring music and sensuous dances that attracted the patronage of kings and commoners. The preservation and transmission of the arts largely rested with the Devadasis and they had a strong presence in South India, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the intellectual elite, the wealthy and the famous, encouraged and supported the Devadasi system, it fell into disrepute, causing public outcry and government reforms, which led to its gradual decline. Bangalore Nagarathnamma was an icon of that age, highly skilled in the arts and well regarded by connoisseurs of music. She was an exceptional woman, much ahead of her times, a champion of the rights of the Devadasis and of women in general. Her devotion to the poet-composer, Tyagaraja, is legendary and she is best known as the architect and benefactor of the shrine over his Samadhi in Tiruvayyaru. In this book, the rise and fall of the Devadasi tradition is intertwined with the life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. From small beginnings, Nagarathnamma rose to become a stellar figure in the cultural firmament of Madras of the 1920s and 30s. This work is a tribute to her indomitable spirit and her unrelenting efforts to perpetuate the memory of her patron saint, Tyagaraja.

Kohli, Namita. “In the company of the tawaif: Recreating the magic with darbari kathak.” Hindustan Times, 27 Aug 2016.

This piece profiles Kathak performer Manjari Chaturvedi and her project to recreate kathak dances once performed by courtesans, as part of her show “The Courtesan – An Enigma.” Kohli discusses some of the negative stereotypes surrounding courtesans and their representation in Bollywood and wider media, contrasting them with Chaturvedi’s research and attempts to build a more accurate, nuanced and dignified portrayal of courtesans and their role in art and history. As Chaturvedi herself notes, “I had to do this for her, and for all the other tawaifs who deserve that dignity.”

Hackney, Arya Rose. The Question of Agency and Conjugal Norms for the Devadasi. MA Thesis, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2013.

This MA Thesis is free for download here.

Abstract: The devadasis have been a subject of inquiry in the history, gender studies, and postcolonial studies for South Asia. In India’s colonial past, Europeans have called them ‘temple prostitutes.’ Apologist accounts in the present have equated them to ‘nuns.’ Recent postcolonial works, however, have conflated these categories and suggested many of these women were courtesans with a respectable standing in both temple and secular settings. Debates in the past have focused on the question of agency amongst the devadasis when investigating the factors leading to the Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947, which effectively outlawed their system. However, this thesis examines an even more pervasive element surrounding the abolition of the devadasi system: the construction and reconstruction of conjugal norms. This shift in societal ideas regarding conjugal norms presents itself in the history of India beginning with British rule after the Indian Revolution of 1857, which extends well after Independence in 1947.

 

  • This thesis provides extensive information and resources for readers wishing to learn more about the devadasis, including devadasi history, their role in literature, debates and legislative measures surrounding them, and more.
  • Of particular interest to us are pages 33 and 34, on which Hackney argues that devadasi reformists and apologists, despite having very contrasting ideas about devadasis, both often adhere to the same normatives pertaining to the value of sexual purity.

Orr, Leslie C. Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu. Oxford UP, 2000.

Summary from Google Books: Through the use of epigraphical evidence, Leslie C. Orr brings into focus the activities and identities of the temple women (devadasis) of medieval South India. This book shows how temple women’s initiative and economic autonomy involved them in medieval temple politics and allowed them to establish themselves in roles with particular social and religious meanings. This study suggests new ways of understanding the character of the temple woman and, more generally, of the roles of women in Indian religion and society.

Hubel, Teresa. “The High Cost of Dancing: When the Indian Women’s Movement Went After the Devadasis.” Bharatanatyam: A Reader. Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 160-184.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she offers this and other works for free on her Selectedworks page.

On the other side of patriarchal histories are women who are irrecoverably elusive, whose convictions and the examples their lives might have left to us–their everyday resistances as well as their capitulations to authority–are at some fundamental level lost. These are the vast majority of women who never wrote the history books that shape the manner in which we, at any particular historical juncture, are trained to remember; they did not give speeches that were recorded and carefully collected for posterity; their ideals, sayings, beliefs, and approaches to issues were not painstakingly preserved and then quoted century after century. And precisely because they so obviously lived and believed on the underside of various structures of power, probably consistently at odds with those structures, we are eager to hear their voices and their views. The problem is that their individual lives and collective ways of living them are impossible to recover in any form that has not already been altered by our own concerns. In making them speak, by whatever means we might use (archives, testimonials, court records, personal letters, government policy), we are invariably fictionalizing them because we are integrating them into narratives that belong to us, that are about us. Given the inevitability of our using them for our own purposes, we cannot justify taking that all-too-easy (and, as this essay will suggest), middle-class stance that posits us as their champions, their rescuers from history. It falls to us to find other motives for doing work that seeks them.

In the case of this essay, the “them” are the devadasis or temple dancers of what is now Tamilnadu in southern India (the term devadasis literally translates as “female servant of God”), especially those dancers who were alive during the six decades of the nationalist movement. This movement was meant to grant Indians freedom from colonial oppression and give them a nationalist identity, but if it succeeded, at least to some extent, in accomplishing these things, it did so at the cost of the devadasis and their dance traditions. Janet O’Shea (1998) explains the logic through which the newer institution, nationalism, drove out the older one, the profession and culture of the devadasis: “Indian nationalism has often required a shift away from cultural diversity in order to construct a unified image of nationhood . . . The de’rlagfns were threatening . . because they represented, for the new nation, an uncomfortable diversity of cultural practices and cultural origins” (p, 55). Most scholars who have written about the modern history of the devadasis would agree with this explanation. To the elite men and women who had the greatest say in what would constitute the new Indian nation, the devadasis were an embarrassing remnant of the pre-colonial and pre-nationalist feudal age and, as such, could not be permitted to cross over into the homogeneity that the nationalists hoped would be post-colonial India.

The campaign to suppress the devadasis and to eliminate their livelihoods culminated in the Madras Devadasis Prevention of Dedication Act of 1947, an act brought about largely through the efforts of middle-class Indian nationalists who were also social reformers and, often, feminists–that is, advocates not only of nationalism but of the burgeoning women’s movement that was to ensure so many of the legal rights Indian women enjoy today.

That feminists who were determined to extend the rights of some women should also work to deny rights to other women is the conundrum that this essay examines.

This chapter was originally published in Intercultural Communications and Creative Practice: Dance, Music and Women’s Cultural Identity.

 

Hubel, Teresa. “Devadasi Defiance and The Man-eater of Malgudi.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1994, pp. 15-28.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she is pleased to offer this and many of her other scholarly works at her SelectedWorks page. 

 

In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act. Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women’s movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes. What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R.K. Narayan’s novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations.

Anandhi, S. “Representing Devadasis: ‘Dasigal Mosavalai’ as a Radical Text.” Economic and Political Weekly 26.11/12. 1991, pp. 739-746.

Introduction

During the 1930s, the Tamil speaking areas of the Madras presidency witnessed a debate on the ‘devadasi’ system. ‘ The debate was triggered off by a bill on devadasi abolition introduced in the Madras legislative council in 1930. In the course of the debate, devadasis were stereotyped and essentialised either as the protectors of art and culture or as unchaste women. This process of essentialising was common to both the supporters and the opponents of the devadasi system and this had resulted, as one would expect, in a denial of the devadasis their role as subjects.

This brief paper analyses, against the background of this debate, a novel written by Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, a devadasi who demonstrated her will to break away from the ‘dasi’ system and militantly took up women’s issues as part of the early Dravidian Movement. The novel, Dasigal Mosavalai Allathu Mathi Petra Minor [The Teacherous Net of Devadasis or the Minor Grown Wise, Madras, 1936], deals specifically with the lives and struggles of devadasis and, as we shall see in the course of the paper, it was not only located in the political milieu of the devadasi debate, but departs radically from the parameters of the debate and asserts in its own way devadasis as subjects. This radicalism of the novel is what the present paper attempts to bring out by means of contrasting the novel with the devadasi debate.

The paper is divided into six sections. The first section provides a synoptic summary of the history as well as certain sociological aspects of the devadasi system in Tamil areas. The second section analyses the devadasi debate; the third section gives a brief account of the political career of Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, who authored the novel in question; the fourth section brings out certain salient features of the novel and provides a synopsis of its contents; the fifth section analyses how the devadasis were represented in the novel. The sixth and the concluding section compares the novel with the devadasi debate so as to show how the novel departs from the debate.

Srivinasan, Doris M. “Royalty’s Courtesans and God’s Mortal Wives: Keepers of Culture in Precolonial India.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 161-181.

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From the Introduction

“The Indian courtesan pervades precolonial art, literature, mythology, texts on rituals, polity, pleasure, and law books in the three major religions founded on Indian soil. Yet as much as she captivates, she also eludes. Why? Because her actions, her character, her mystique, are relayed to us by outsiders to her world, or to traditional India. Her own voice has remained faint until fairly modern times. This essay introduces different voices that describe the Indian courtesan over a vast stretch of history. What becomes clear is that two options for power were open to the precolonial Indian woman: that of the sexually liberated and educated courtesan or the pure, sexually controlled, uneducated wife.”

 

Notes

  • Though the introduction (perhaps misleadingly) focuses on the courtesan/wife binary, the main thrust of this chapter is that courtesans are the “keepers of culture” in precolonial India. The “Keepers of culture” concept is described as follows: “It was the courtesans who sustained high culture in Lucknow, the kingdom’s capital. They kept alive the distinctive manners of Lucknow society and were instrumental in the development of Kathak dance and Hindustani music.”
  • Srivinasan focuses mainly on two types of pre-colonial Indian courtesans: ganika, secular and well-educated courtesans often associated with royal courts, and devadasis, courtesans dedicated to temples as God’s mortal wives.
  • Srivinasan resists a one-dimensional view of courtesans by providing simple definitions of multiple types of courtesans and discussing differences in their access to education, their places of work, etc.
  • Modern Western readers, who are often saturated in anti-sex-work images and ideologies that shame and criminalize prostitutes, may be interested to learn about the “high culture” expectations of the ganika: on page 162, Srivinasan outlines how the Kamasutra, arguably the most famous ancient book about human sexual behaviour, details over 60 arts in which a ganika should be proficient (including singing, dancing, decorating, tailoring, and even architecture); for mastering these arts, the ganika ought to receive “a seat of honour in the assembly of men”—the ability to discourse with men as their equal. Srivinasan also observes that the Artharashtra, an ancient text on Indian polity, regarded the ganika’s training as an investment of the state.

Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula. “Female Agency and Patrilineal Constraints: Situating Courtesans in Twentieth-Century India.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 312-331.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the Introduction: “Given their well-established socioeconomic as well as musical moorings, why did the courtesan’s art and agency disappear [after India’s purity/anti-nautch movement] rather than metamorphose into a different practice, just as the salons themselves had emerged from court performances? In other words, how viable was these women’s agency? Did Indian courtesans need courts for their art to survive? True, the salon successfully replaced the court. But did its courtly ritual require the validating presence of courts and aristocratic patronage? Could the courtesans’ art not be transplanted onto the concert stage, like the classical art of the male singers who were their masters? Or was the barrier to bourgeois respectability insurmountable for these women? Was it the official condemnation of courtesans’ morals and their banishment from government patronage at All India Radio that erased their art? Or did their music not measure up to the reformist canon of classical music? Under what conditions did a very few exceptional courtesans continue to perform on the public concert stage, and to what musical effect? ”
Burckhardt Qureshi asks many other insightful questions in her introduction. Put as succinctly as possible (at the risk of obscuring the chapter’s complexity), Burckhardt Qureshi aims to identify which social and musical conditions courtesans were able to transcence before the practice as outlawed, to question the viability of courtesans’ agency and independence within patrilineal/patriarchal Indian society but without feudal (and male) patronage, and to explore whether courtesans could and can produce and reproduce themselves as professional musical performers.

Kannabiran, Kalpana. “Judiciary, Social Reform, and Debate on ‘Religious Prostitution’ in Colonial India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 43, 1995, pp. WS59-WS69

From the introduction: “This study of the devadasi institution was undertaken with a two-fold purpose. First, it was an attempt to understand the relationship, and shifts in it, among women, religion and the state in pre-colonial and colonial south India. The second purpose was to try and disentangle this complex process, specifically to see how far the projects of colonialism, reform and revival were based on an understanding of the material reality of the practice.”

Pati, Biswamoy. “Of Devadasis, ‘Tradition’ and Politics.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 43, 1995.

Pati’s 1995 article covers the controversial reports of Orissa’s Jagannatha temple holding interviews to select a devadasi. While defenders of the temple argue that the issue is one of maintaining tradition, Pati frames the situation as a case of gender injustice and the exercise of patriarchal authority.

Godiwala, Dimple. “The Sacred and the Feminine: Women Poets Writing in Pre-Colonial India.” Atenea, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, p. 53+.

This article is available for free online via The Free Library.

From the Introduction

This article explores the poetry of Indian women poets writing since 600BCE. The idea of freedom, love and desire in the work of poets writing in Pali, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and Telegu reveals the jouissance experienced and expressed by Indian women in pre-colonial times. The critical framework used is culled from the most ancient texts of Indian theory.”

Topics and Notable Excerpts

  • The inconsistency of female sexuality within pre-colonial Indian patriarchy. From pgs. 53-54: As Richard Brubaker puts it, ‘India knows both the sacredness of order and the sacredness that abandons order’ (Brubaker in Hawley & Wulff 204), endowing the sacred, which is always female, with a complex polarity quite different from the western patriarchal binary divide implicit in the nominal sacer (which, in a later period, splits to denote the oppositions of the sacred and the profane). Thus the sacralization of the normative sexual relations in the dharmic order prescribes male hierarchy over the female, making the insubordination of the female decidedly adharmic, or breaking the bounds of duty. Yet, on precisely this account, breaking the bounds may be a powerful agent of moksha, or liberation from material bondage/salvation, which is the highest state to which the human being can aspire (See Brubaker in Hawley & Wulff 204-209).
  • Briefly discusses the roles of pre-colonial devadasis and tawaifs

  • Takes care to differentiate pre-colonial Indian patriarchal ideology from that which is familiar to even well-educated Western feminists (in other words, it emphasizes that not all patriarchies look the same or promote the same beliefs) 

  • Concisely summarizes a vast history of openly-sexual poetry written by Indian women, and details, through a brief discussion of 18th century Telugu Courtesan Muddupalani’s erotic epic Radhika Santwanam, how this history came to be obscured. Pgs. 60-61: “It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries, under British rule, that the response to women’s writing underwent an ideological change. With the now-famous ban on the 18th century Telegu poet Muddupalani’s erotic epic, Radhika Santwanam, the government considered women writing on the subject of desire and sex objectionable, improper and obscene…. In contemporary western terms, the sexual inversion practised by Muddupalani on the traditional relations between male and female lovers–making the woman’s sensuality and sexuality central to the poem which also speaks of her taking the initiative in love-making, making her satisfaction and her pleasure the focus of the work of literature–may seem startling, but is well in keeping with the ancient tradition of Indian women poets’ verse of pleasure and sexual freedom. However, the foreign ideology which dominated this period in India silenced the centuries-old voices of women intellectuals who had written of freedom, love, desire and sexual jouissance from ancient times with no censure from their societies…. It was with the imposition of a rigidly Victorian sexuality that they lost their independent status, as court patronage was withdrawn under the new rulers, throwing women artists into poverty and homelessness.”

Singh, Lata. “Courtesans and the 1857 Revolt: Role of Azeezun in Kanpur.” Indian Historical Review, vol. 34, no. 38, 2007, pp. 58-78

Singh’s article examines the role of the courtesan Azizun Nisa in the 1857 Revolt, a figure largely ignored or deemphasized in many historical accounts, relating it to a wider trend of dismissing the political and historical contributions of courtesans.  Singh claims that “[b]y looking at the role of courtesan, an attempt is made to revisit dominant versions of historical truth and relocate the ‘loose’ subjects of colonial history into their proper roles in anti-colonial struggles too.”

G. Somasekhara. “Satyagrahi: Moulding Public Opinion in Early 20th Century.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 9, 2003, pp. 866-67

Somasekhara’s essay traces the history of “Satyagrahi,” founded in the 1920s – a Telugu journal that Somasekhara claims played a pivotal role not merely in espousing the cause for freedom, but also launched fearless crusades in favour of eradicating persistent social evils of the time. His essay addresses the journal’s response to many of these issues in turn, eventually concluding that Satyagrahi “supported many noble causes which were all inextricably interlinked with the national movement…[t]he cumulative affect of all this was national resurgence and a national awakening among the people.”

Nair, Janaki. “The Devadasi, Dharma and the State.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 29, no. 50, 1994, pp. 3157-167

From the introduction: “If the sphere of the family was the one over which the nationalist elite declared their sovereignty, both reform and resistance toward reform in that domain were born of the antagonism between the coloniser and the colonised. However, in large princely states such as Mysore forms of state legality remained independent of this particular dynamic. The process of modernisation was initiated by the bureaucracy itself. This article delineates one aspect of this modernising process that signalled shifts in the definition of domestic and non-domestic sexuality, giving specific attention to the legal-administrative measures surrounding the gradual disempowerment of devadasis attached to muzrai temples.”

Singh, Lata. “Visibilizing the ‘Other’ in History: Courtesans and the Revolt.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 42, no. 19, 2007, pp. 1677-1680

By bringing the figure of the courtesan into a political space that is denied and invisibilised in the nationalist discourse as a result of its search for respectability, this article attempts to explore the public roles of courtesans. In a play that foregrounds courtesan Azizun Nisa who participated in the 1857 revolt, playwright Tripurari Sharma ruptures the dominant bourgeois discourse. Azizun Nisa is neither the “respectable” mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse. The play disrupts the trope of “mother India” that dominated anti-colonial and middle-class nationalist thought.

Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Lotus Buds: Amy Wilson Carmichael and the Nautch-Girls of South India.” Victorian Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 175-93

Wallace examines the early 20th- century missionary and writer Amy Wilson Carmichael, focusing on her 1909 book Lotus Buds, an account of Carmichael’s “rescue work” in South India. Wallace describes her article as “an attempt to understand the historical conditions which made the 1909 publication of Lotus Buds both possible in terms of its format and allowable in terms of its content.” She is heavily critical of Carmichael’s “rescue work,” characterizing it as the abduction of the young and vulnerable. Wallace’s article describes imperial representations of devadasis and the concept of the “nautch girl” and how Carmichael’s work reflects and utilizes colonial narratives of India to establish and justify her actions.

Hubel, Teresa. “Dancing in the Diaspora: Remembering the Devadasis.” Muse India, vol. 58, 2015.

From the introduction: “In our multicultural society, anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of Bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it in various venues… as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.”