Misunderstood tales of devadasis

Misunderstood tales of devadasis

Manipulated history

A gathering in a small room listened to recordings of Carnatic music sung by devadasis. An initiative by ‘Ek Potlee Ret Ki’, an activist collective, aimed at preserving art and sustaining artistes from across the country, smashed many mainstream narratives that have been constructed around the image of a devadasi.

Swarnamalya Ganesh, a Fulbright fellow who is also a sadir dancer, explained the various sides to the devadasi and traced her transformation through history. She has learned sadir from devadasis as well and does not call it ‘Bharatanatyam’, as it is popularly known as. 

“Sadir is the original dance form, which after undergoing the reforms that were heavily influenced by Victorian morality, became Bharatanatyam. It was snatched away from devadasis, who in the process, lost patronage. Bharatanatyam was placed in the hands of elite, a circle very difficult for most devadasis to enter,” she explains.

She further shares, “Reality doesn’t settle in extremes. Devadasis are painted as figures that have always been marginalised and they are often maligned, whereas historiography has a different narrative to tell.”

Today a devadasi has become synonymous with prostitute, but it was not so, Ganesh clarifies. “Because devadasis were devoted to art, they had access to property, society, education and were empowered before colonial times. Of course, it cannot be denied that this empowerment was afforded by patriarchy.”

“While it is true that they did retire at the age of 29, they were taken care of by the society and patrons afterwards as well. There is a reason they were called ‘NityaSumangali’ , which means ever auspicious, and yet they are portrayed wrongly,” she adds.

Since noblemen, kings and the temples used to be their patrons  the devadasis could devote all their time to art.

This patronage was snatched away from them during colonial times. The kings, noblemen and temples lost their wealth and while the British wanted entertainment from devadasis, they were not ready to be their patrons. “And art cannot survive without patronage,” Ganesh quips.

But, according to Ganesh, it is not just the British who have to be blamed for the poor conditions of devadasis today. “The Indian elite adopted Victorian morality and forced it on the devadasis. Did they really need reforms of that type?” she questions.

Ganesh has looked at various narratives of colonial writers about devadasis and found inconsistencies in the way devdasis have been described. “They are not an identity from the past, they are very much amongst us, but have been pushed to the margins because when the devadasi system was abolished, no one came up with an alternative way of survival for them. It was much later that many of them had no choice but to resort to prostitution,” says Ganesh.

Also, it is very difficult to identify the devadasi group from prostitutes today because, for decades they have been clubbed together.

She has also interacted with many devadasis and tried to capture the voice of the subaltern. “They did come together as a collective and drafted a charter for the devadasi reforms that were going to take place. The subaltern does have a voice but they weren’t heard,” explains Ganesh.

Many mainstream films have worked to malign the image of devadasis. The rationalist politics have also opposed and worked to eradicate the devadasi system in Tamil Nadu. M many women rights activist like  Muthulakshmi Reddy have worked towards abolishing this system, but never came up with an alternative for devadasis.

“The reforms further marginalised them,” says Ganesh.

“Today art schools are just producing clones,” Ganesh tells Metrolife. While for decades it has been claimed that Bharatnatayam came from the divine ‘Nataraja’, a manipulated discourse around this dance form has tried to sever ties with devadasis and sadir.

Ganesh is now working for the betterment of this community and trying to revive sadir. She also teaches this dance form and has several students.

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