Before I continue any further my story I have to speak about something very important. Some of my friends who have been around me long enough might have heard these things a million times from me but saying it all one more time, for the benefit of the new listeners wouldn’t hurt.
Bharatanatyam is today viewed as the Indian cultural identity. It is and will continue to be a part of the intercultural and interdisciplinary movement. It is not simply an art form practiced or learnt. It is not even simply a tradition of a sect of people, country or religion. It is a way of life with whose practice come issues of rites, authority, ownership, transfer, power, social, economic, political and moral status, cultural hybridity, adaptability and the co-existence of older traditions and newer sensibilities.
All the above-mentioned issues are key factors in shaping this artform. They are each a story to tell. Different beginnings and different courses but they all have a common thread. The most important parts of this story belong to the Devadasis or Hindu dancing women who were dedicated to the various temples over centuries. Art was still very much in the custody of these hereditary practitioners.
These were a group of people who were bound together by their way of life and profession; much has been said and written about them. These, community of artistes preserved for centuries, every aspect of this art as precious, ‘transferable only upon authority’ knowledge. They used rites, ownership, strict communal regulations, power and authority to practice and preserve this art form. It was hereditary just like how a carpenter’s son becomes a carpenter, goldsmith’s son a goldsmith. However, since this was not a caste but only a community or vrtti (a professional class), they adopted children from all castes to be included into the community and then trained them in their ways of life.
Most often people who’s prayers were answered, dedicated their first born to the temple, in service. A child would be given as a gift or donation to the temple or sometimes temples would buy children for a price. Now, as you read this I am sure it comes across as a cruel, regressive practice to you. But let us remember we are discussing a norm that was and therefore its important to understand the system from its socio-economic point of view.
During the various imperial rules in India, the temples were the seat of power and administration. They served as not only places of religious worship but as a cultural, administrative, economic epicentre. The temples were as wealthy as the Kings. They held separate treasuries and granaries. An entire village (within every kingdom there would be several villages) would be centred around a temple. Architecturally, houses on the four streets around the temple, their adjacent streets, the outer streets etc. were all allocated systematically to people of various professions who’s services were of hierarchical importance to the everyday up keep and administration of the temple and thereby the kingdom. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a prominent temple in a kingdom was the King’s public hall where his subjects would meet, get employed and interact with the King’s office. So, in this context the services of a devadasi were important only next to the priest! It was not only her duty to sing and dance as part of the various rituals but to also clean the temple, make garlands and do other such services. Therefore, to dedicate a child to a temple to be trained in the life of a devadasi was considered a great privilege and boon. Similarly, for a temple to come forward and buy a child (this is similar to hiring an employee today) means the child and her family are worthy of this honour (Don’t we feel elated if we get hired or campus selected by some fortune 500 company?). Besides, when children were adopted or bought from economically weaker families, the child found not only a home but also a whole new life and vocation which granted them among other things a social status.
It is true that some literatures in some contexts have spoken of dancing girls and the oldest profession going hand-in-hand. But they were far and few. The societal norms allowed for the devadasi to lead a life where she could chose her partner and live as an “ekacharin”(woman who is mistress to only one man) without being bonded in a marriage. They were hailed as Nityasumangalis (ever-auspicious) who were wedded to God. This meant that they were never touched by the societal evils of widowhood (shaving a woman’s head clean and making her wear white or khaki clothes and no bindi, flowers or any social interaction and considering her ill luck). They had rites of passage from the temple and were bound by religious norms. They underwent strict training, had a difficult social sanction order and then were expected to lead life according to religious codes, which were rigid. As a nityasumangali, a woman had the protection of a living patron and the deity of the temple for social identity. The devadasi was allowed to participate in the secular society to educate herself in artistic skills and exhibit the same in the midst of the connoisseurs. This gave her a unique position in the highly patrilineal society where other women had no role in public life. Every one hence had to respect her and treat her with chivalry.
Very often, for the want of a better explanation of a devadasi we hear people equating them to a catholic nun. While both are engaged in temple (God’s) service, nun hood demands celibacy and preaches virginity as a norm. But according to the Hindu nidhi and agama sastra we recognise the biological needs of every human (even those engaged in God’s service). Besides, the temples demanded heredity and skill in positions offered to workers. Heredity to ensure dedication and commitment. So, a devadasi was allowed and encouraged to have a progeny so that generation after generation dedicated servants to Gods and temples were groomed. However, it was not enough to be born into the community but one had to train hard to get competent in order to claim their rights. We must also remember that just as gaining competence was difficult, unless born or adopted and resident in the community with its internal facilities any training would be impossible.
There was an evolved division of labour as cinnamelam and periyamelam, which consisted of female and male service providers. The female devadasi being the central focus in a cinnamelam and the periyamelam consisting of nagaswaram and melakarars. Monetary benefits were shared in accordance to this hierarchy. Of course the devadasi remained the central force of the family under whose administration and governance the entire family lived. In a society, which denied respect and recognition to women, the devadasi was an independent professional maintaining an entire household well within the Hindu community itself.
Even the early travel accounts of Marco Polo, Nicolo De Conti, Nuniz and Peas do not call them prostitutes. They elaborate on their ritualistic duties and the high position and status these women enjoyed in the society. They also confirm that they were not married but were dedicated to the deities. A Dutchman Jacob Haafner who lived in India for more than 13 years during the late 18th century and early 19th century in his extensive travel accounts titled “reize in eenen palanquin” (1808) describes how he fell head over heels in love with a young devadasi named Mamia in 1786.
Devadasigal- Dancing whores?
The interest of the west turned to the devadasi, her unique social position, her art and beauty. She brought a certain aura of eroticism with her personality and life. This translated into a lot of literature and documentation by both Indians and westerns about devadasi, her life and work. All these constructions of a devadasi as a hindu high priestess who was exploited by the religious heads and the picture of her as a knowledgeable but impoverished maiden was very sensational and exotic for the western eye. By this time a new “elitist class” had begun emerging in India who s missionary education made them feel very self-conscious about their own traditions. They were fed with ideas of Indian moral systems being redundant and paganistic.
But sadly she has never told her story, hence much of the misnomer continues.
Devadasi means Servant to God. She is differently called as mahari, Talaikoli, Manicckam, sani in various regions of India. Why, even the French word Bayadere means a hindu dancing girl! Such is her allure!
I am a very proud student of one of the last few living devadasis of Tamil Nadu. It is not only a pride but I feel truly blessed and look at it as a divine ordain that through my Gurus I have the fortune of knowing their stories!
With more…in a while
Behind the Attic!