For centuries, Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, was a major centre of medieval and colonial artistic production. Among its artists was a matrilineal community of erudite women dedicated to temples, who received political and other powerful forms of patronage. Prevalently known as “devadasis,” they were renowned for creative talents, including dance, notably the form sometimes known as sadir-attam, which became widely known later as Bharatanatyam.
“Devadasi” is a historical, and loaded, word. “‘Devadasi’ is not a term that South Indian hereditary artists were familiar with—it is a term the British and the newly educated class of Indians used to gloss over women who did not conform to patriarchal norms,” the Chennai-based dancer Nrithya Pillai told me over an e-mail. “The term today is used only for women from Dalit communities such as Basavi, Jogati and Mathamma and Dalit cults such as Yellama, Jogini and Mathamma. Their marginalization and their culture is extremely different from that of women from courtesan communities like mine.” Since the devadasis from courtesan traditions were not Dalits, to conflate their realities with those of Dalit women “is epistemologically violent in itself,” Pillai added. She advised, instead, using the phrase “women from hereditary dance communities” when speaking about women from courtesan communities today.
It is useful to keep this in mind when approaching any work on the historical devadasis. The existence of contemporary hereditary dance communities is sometimes unknown, as the usurping of their identities and art forms into the Brahminical establishment was, and remains, extensive. This erasure began with a reform movement in the first half of the twentieth century, influenced by British and Brahmin moral sensibilities, which culminated in the banning of devadasi and similar systems throughout the country—notably in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies. The movement’s self-appointed saviours came in all stripes, from outraged women to outright misogynists and, complexly, those who worked in social justice.
The scholar Davesh Soneji writes in Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India:
Legal interventions in the Madras Presidency were engineered by Muthulakshmi Reddy, daughter of a Brahmin father and a mother from a devadasi community in Pudukottai. Reddy was also the first female doctor in the Madras Presidency, and she was responsible for implementing a series of reforms related to women’s physical and social health. The explicit purpose of her activities was to criminalize the ‘dedication’ of girls [poṭṭukkaṭṭutal]. For reformers, the ritual of poṭṭukkaṭṭutal enabled prostitution and the abuse of women that resulted from relationships unsanctioned by marriage. … The devadasi abolition movement stood at the intersection of the Congress party and anti-Brahmin politics in Madras, and was strongly supported by both Gandhi and E.V. Ramasami Naicker.