Disrespecting the Devadasis: What the MS Subbulakshmi debate has exposed

We owe it to the community to listen to them, rather than talk about them.
Disrespecting the Devadasis: What the MS Subbulakshmi debate has exposed
Disrespecting the Devadasis: What the MS Subbulakshmi debate has exposed

Following Carnatic singer TM Krishna’s recent comments about the Tamil Brahmin community’s social acceptance of MS Subbulaksmi, another debate has opened up on a different trajectory. The debate is not about MS Amma, but of how we perceive, imagine and discuss the past lives and present condition of Devadasis and their families.   

Some Carnatic artistes have stated on social media that one should not ‘degrade’ MS Amma any more as a Devadasi since she broke the glass ceiling. Amidst the debate, Sadanand Menon called out the ‘delicious irony’ in how, on the one hand, the art of the Devadasis was sought to be erased, and yet on the other, it was colonised and sanitised into another art form with a manufactured 5000-year history. Geetanjali Kolanad, in a counter, rejected all narratives that either valorise or denounce the Devadasi. She also chose to characterise the Devadasi culture “as a system that forced girls into religiously sanctioned sex work because of their birth.”

The heated debates following Krishna’s comments have further exposed our insensitivity to, and ignorance of, the history and lives of Devadasis. I ask, is not every woman who belonged or belongs to the lineage – and not just MS Amma – entitled to her own voice? Or do we hear it only if it’s a mellifluous “kattrinile varum geetam”? The sound of poverty, hunger, shamed dislodging is far less appealing and hence deniable, it seems.

The present discourse demonstrates why we have to move beyond personality-centric narratives of art history, and have a more relevant debate on how we speak about and to Devadasis and their families.

Devadasi ‘reforms’ and freedom

The reform agenda which sought to ‘rescue’ the Devadasis in the 20th century was motivated by the ruling class’s immediate need to give the Devadasi her ‘freedom’ to choose her life and occupation. Whether a victim or villain, she needed to be ‘liberated’ and granted a self-rule of sorts.

The campaign to provide freedom for the Devadasis was similar to Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj, where each one has to experience the self-rule not as an individual willing, or even as a collective willing, but as an individual allowing seizure of their will for this idea of freedom. Many Devadasis, even if individually did not will this ‘liberation’, were forced to allow it. They had to further enrol others of the sorority by speaking for it as collective freedom, even if it personally eroded their social and economic position.

The so-called reformers believed in the need to invoke a particular order of freedom for these women, which assumed that autonomy can be offered to only those with the power to reason and measure. The heavy moral judgement placed on these women foreclosed any chance of autonomy for them. People like Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was the principal mover of the Devadasi Prohibition Bill, set aside the voice of Devadasis, believing these women lacked the power to reason, and hence would be inflicting harm upon themselves. She further considered them an accomplice to exploitation and a life of shame.

Reform yes, but rehabilitation and sustainability?

Preceding The Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Bill, 1947, amendments were brought about to the Hindu Religious Endowment bill 1929 which instructed the temples to receive quit-rent from the government in return for relieving the Devadasis from their obligations of service. If the Devadasi was enjoying any revenue from the lands endowed, those were also to be made available to her, for no obligation in return. On face value, this seems a very amicable measure towards rehab. But in reality, it brought many problems including, the rights of inheritance for their progenies into question.

Moreover, the rent-free inams that were given to the Devadasis were not extended to the male members, such as dance masters and instrumentalists of the community. After this amendment, they were asked to pay a nominal rent for their holdings, to continue to enjoy them. Until then, customarily they received most remunerations in kind and very less as liquid cash. The only source of income generation (as cash) was performances outside the temple such as at weddings and social functions. But the strong on-going anti-Devadasi sentiment stirred a new conscience in many, who began to avoid the services of Devadasis in ritual and social functions. This rendered many unable to pay the quit-rent fixed. At this stage, many of the men sought the help of the Devadasis and in some cases even compelled the women to sell/pledge their jewels, lands and other articles to help them meet the debts. Slowly, many began to mortgage or sell the dry lands in the hope to retain the cultivable lands. Sad reality is, many Devadasis, chased by extreme poverty, were driven towards sex work at this time.

Dr Reddy further advocated that any performance even outside the temple, by the hereditary community women, be made unlawful. This expansion of the moral scope of the Anti-Devadasi law, fully criminalised the Devadasi. So, the problem is not just prevention of dedication but denial of right to livelihood and occupation. When we look closely at the rescue clauses of the Madras Devadasi Prohibition Act by reviewing all records, the execution and complexities that arose in the scheme are apparent. For example, due to quid-pro-quo between temple authorities and bureaucracy, many women were exploited.

Ignoring the Devadasi today  

Post 1901, she has not been categorised in any survey reports. Hence, the NWC survey on Devadasis in Tamil Nadu was difficult to conduct because of this institutionalised denial. Ground realities, off the record, show us the existence of many Devadasis and their families even today. There are no special reconstructive or sustainability schemes like housing or pension for them. I recall one instance, when applying for pension under the state scheme for an aged Devadasi from North Arcot district. We had a problem establishing her identity. She has had no performance opportunities for the last 50 years. She had no photographs, video clips, press reviews to support the fact that she is in fact a dancer/Devadasi. All she had was a head full of memories and her dancing bells. She was denied pension three times before we managed it.

Murugapuri Akhilandamammal and Vedanayakiammal, aged Devadasis

Given these realities, even today we are only speaking and making counter-points about the image of the Devadasi. The rhetoric is around the morality and acceptance, while in fact she is living amidst us in squalor and oblivion. Unless we want to take the tone of the Tamil Nadu government and be in denial of their very existence.

Will we take the first step?

This Margazhi once again saw so many versions of romanticising the Devadasi, through performances and lectures. But our society that speaks of having empowered her, without batting an eyelid, still uses her identity name as a pejorative (the latest being the Naachiyar trailer). I know of Devadasis’s daughters, sons and lineage who hide and cover themselves behind shelters of caste names, family names and other sorts of identities when shamed like that.

The opinion makers of 19th and 20th century India framed the entire community of the Devadasis as immoral, promiscuous women who did not deserve autonomy and willing freedom. Can we then claim to have liberated them? Is dislodging them from their profession, which under the Constitution is a democratic right, true liberation?

If the art world is indignant when people point fingers at them for being discriminatory, at the turn of time when UNESCO has recognised the Chennai music festival as heritage, will we moot a resolution to the lawmakers, that the use of the term Devadasi or ‘tevidiyal’ as a pejorative term should be declared unconstitutional and punishable under law? Do we have the collective tenacity for this small, first step? No doubt the secularisation of art has been a welcome move for all others as it is based on the power of willing freedom. But we owe it to the community to listen to them, rather than talk about them.

Opinions of the writer are her own.

The writer is a dancer and dance historian who works on reconstruction of lost dances and narratives. A student of hereditary artistic traditions, she realigns her practice as Sadir. She is the director of Ranga Mandira Academy of World Dance/Performance and Indic Studies, Chennai.

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