Chakravorty, Pallabi. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. Seagull Books, 2008.

Publisher’s Description:

This is the first critical study of Kathak dance. The book traces two centuries of Kathak, from the colonial nautch dance to classical Kathak under nationalism and post-colonialism to transnationalism and globalization. Reorienting dance to focus on the lived experiences of dancers from a wide cross-section of society, the book narrates the history of Kathak from baijis and tawaifs to the global stage.

Natarajan, Nalini. The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016

“Chapter 2 analyses the effects of militarisation on public spaces by invoking the wife/tawaif duality within the pretext of the Great Indian Revolt of 1857. According to Natarajan, as the Revolt subsumed men into the army, giving them avenues of stable income, it consequentially led to a devaluation of women at home. Contrarily, the courtesan (tawaif), who by and large fled exploitative homes, could be seen as empowered females with steady income from the military. Yet the binary of the purdahnasheen (veiled) wife versus camp courtesan still rendered public spaces unsafe for women, as sexual purity of all women was at risk with men away at war. This, however, led to another division: the elite educated women facing ‘nationalist seclusion’ (p. 48) were shrouded from Western influences and protected from the public, while the lower-class ‘available’ women, with no rights, became exposed to colonial reforms. Thus, although public spaces manifested contrary movements of empowerment for women who occupied it, they were replete with exploitative characters for women through the ‘separate sphere’ ideology of the street (baazari aurat) and home (grihalakshmi), which strongly impresses the notion that public spaces are unsafe for women.”

(Chakraborty, Sanchayita Paul, and Priyanka Chatterjee. “Book Review: The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women.” Feminist Review, vol. 119, no. 1, July 2018, pp. 165–167)

Singh, Vijay Prakash. “From Tawaif to Nautch Girl: The Transition of the Lucknow Courtesan.” South Asian Review, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2014.


Lucknow with its Nawabi court and its patronage of dance and music has been for over two centuries a center of the art of fine language and etiquette. This paper focuses primarily on the dancing women, tawaif, who performed outside the court in private salons or kothas. As highly accomplished women catering to the nobility, the tawaif enjoyed a high degree of financial independence and social prestige. After the establishment of the East India Company, the tawaif were solicited as entertainers for British social gatherings and later pushed into prostitution. The paper shows the decline of the tawaif as representatives of culture to mere social entertainers and subsequently as bazaar prostitutes surviving on the margins of society.

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.


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. 


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.


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.



  • 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.

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

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:
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.’….”