Opinion
What offends me, as a person from a nattuvanar lineage which had devadasis in the past, is the public shaming of my foremothers.
Image: Gopi Amarnath

Popular Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu is facing a massive backlash from Hindus for stating during a speech, quoting a book, that the much-revered Andal, the only woman Alvar saint, was a Devadasi. After his speech, which was delivered at the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple recently, was published in the Tamil daily Dinamani, Hindus came out in hordes online to take offence to the statement.

Whether Andal was really a Devadasi or not is a historical debate. But what offends me, as a person from the lineage, is the public shaming of my foremothers. In one Tweet after another, and in several Facebook posts, Hindus outraged about how calling Andal a Devadasi was an ‘insult’ and ‘abuse’, and that Andal was a ‘chaste’ woman and thus cannot be called a Devadasi.

We are so used to social indifference, that having an opinion is considered activism. But this is just my opinion. You may call it an emotional outburst or a reaction to all that has transpired, but I stand by it. And I request each of you to think this over too. And I don’t just speak as an Isai Vellalar, but as a woman.

I have read the speech by Vairamuthu, the rebuke by the politicians and others, and the apology tendered by the poet. And I feel pained and let down by the society I live in, both as a woman and a member of the Isai Vellalar community. I feel insecure, disrespected, insulted and even unsafe as a practicing staunch Hindu who belongs to a Hindu community that was very much a part of (and once very close to) the Hindu temple ecosystem, in a country where the majority are Hindus and is ruled by a Hindu party.

Devadasis are as Hindu as Andal is, and they are not lower than anyone. Rajaraja Chola's daughter Kundavai was taught dance by my ancestors, they were teachers to this princess, this is on record. Panchavanmaadevi was a talicheri (temple woman) trained both as a dancer and a warrior, and was a favorite queen of Rajaraja Chola, this is also on record. And yet the abuse and denigration of both the term and the community continues.

Believers have the right to feel offended, but they also need to use caution before making sweeping and disrespectful statements about a community. I pray to the same Hindu gods that any other Hindu prays to, and I am pained by the venomous vilification of an entire community of women. 

I am left completely paralysed at how my ancestors have been tainted and humiliated. We are taught ethics, to not name victims of rape and abuse, to not speak ill of people posthumously and about their personal life or choices. And yet the Devadasi and her community is not given this basic human right. Not even the right to rest in peace in her grave. Let alone the fact that she is not celebrated for her contributions to Indian art, she is not even provided respite in death. Let them rest in peace. Stop the abuse.

Groups that let down communities of the same religion in the name of the religion – both political and apolitical – you must look back at our histories. However glorious our past is made out to be, it is still one that is infested with caste and has done grave injustice to certain groups of people. But I wouldn't be wrong if I said that it is the women who have been subjugated and put to suffering. The men who abused have gone scot free. Men still think they can put themselves on a moral high ground and certify women for their morality and discipline.

And as a friend Prasanna Ramaswamy said, the problem is beyond caste. ‘Dasi’ and ‘Vesi’ are considered abuses only against women (not only women from a particular community), their shaming and their subjugation according to the moral code prescribed by men. There are no "man equivalents" for the slander that these words offer to women.

I am also left wondering how some privileged communities have absolved themselves from their association with the Devadasi system. The male patrons and partners of Devadasis, who were sometimes sexual abusers, were from every community.  The misogyny of the men from the same communities today is suffocating. For having just born in a community, Devadasi women were commoditised and victimised by the same communities which are today denigrating them. They lived their lives under tumultuous conditions and yet kept the arts close to them. It still affects younger generations which includes me and I request each of you to let us have our dignity too when you fight for the dignity of Sri Andal.

Nrithya Pillai is a dancer from a nattuvanar/devadasi lineage. 

Views of the author are her own and not of The News Minute.

(Edits: A factual error on Kundavi and Panchavanmaadevi has been made)