‘Shyam Singha Roy’ is among the rare films to have a major character in the role of a devadasi woman.

Sai Pallavi in the role of a devadasi woman in Shyam Singha Roy
Flix Tollywood Friday, December 31, 2021 - 17:15

The term ‘devadasi’ is commonly used as a slur to insult a woman. It implies that she is of loose morals, and therefore undeserving of respect. Historically, however, the devadasi tradition is a complex one, located at the intersection of gender and caste with shifting understandings of morality brought in by colonial rule and the subsequent changes to society. Telugu film Shyam Singha Roy, directed by Rahul Sankrityan, and starring Nani, Sai Pallavi and Krithi Shetty in lead roles, is a reincarnation drama that has an empathetic portrayal of women from the devadasi community. It’s among the rare films to have a major character play the role (Sai Pallavi as Maithri/Rosie) without vilification.

Devadasi women came from different caste groups and communities, and were considered to be ‘married’ to the deity at the temple to which they were dedicated. They were trained in the performing arts, and enjoyed the patronage of the court, temple, and the elite class. They were also given land and could enjoy the produce from it. They could not marry but they were permitted to have partners. Within the hierarchy that existed in the system, there were women in the lower rung who were exploited for sex work. However, the umbrella term ‘devadasi’, coined by the British, reduced the varied experiences of the women to sex work, a legacy that many descendants choose to distance themselves from.

Although the devadasi system was abolished in all Indian states in 1988, it continues to exist in parts of the country as a caste-based and mostly exploitative occupation.

A troubled legacy

Dancer Yashoda Thakore, who comes from the Kalavantulu community (as her website describes it, this refers to a community of hereditary women dancers of the temple, court and salon milieu in the Godavari Delta region), feels Shyam Singha Roy has done an excellent job in representing the story of a woman from the devadasi community.

In the film, one of the dual roles Nani plays is that of Shyam Singha Roy, a 1960s Telugu-Bengali social reformer and writer with communist ideology. He falls in love with Maithri, a devadasi woman who is dedicated to a temple in a West Bengal village, and rechristens her as Rosie. The two of them elope to Kolkata after Shyam Singha Roy avenges Rosie’s humiliation in the hands of the Brahmin priest.

“The topic is very complex and layered. You cannot come to a single conclusion as it is not a linear story. One cannot generalise that it was the Brahmins or the British who exploited the women, causing the present state of affairs. Exploitation took place at multiple levels. There were families from the community who did not want any change. There were others who wanted to change their lifestyle but continue dancing. Then there were those who wanted to completely relinquish everything, change their identity and become part of the mainstream under an acquired identity,” Yashoda says.

The impact of legislation

The Self Respect movement that began in 1925 in Tamil Nadu played a key role in shaping ideas about the devadasi practice. EV Ramasamy, who came to be known as Periyar, headed the Self Respect movement and was of the view that ‘self respect’ would encourage individuality and rational thinking, thereby pushing people out of the need to conform to oppressive and exploitative structures, particularly caste. The Self Respect movement pushed for the abolishment of the devadasi practice, and the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed in the Madras Presidency in 1947. In Andhra Pradesh, a similar Act was passed in 1988 but it was only in 2015 that the government framed the rules to be followed regarding filing complaints, rehabilitation and marriage.

“The base for the devadasi system in the east of India (as shown in Shyam Singha Roy) and south of India is slightly different. In the east, it is based more on goddess worship and the science of tantra. The energies of the woman's body were understood when this tradition was adopted in the temple. This degenerated into exploitation of the same body. In the south, there may be a streak of this, but they were more representatives of art and were part of temple rituals.They even played political roles in the court. We must not forget that it’s the kings who built the temples. But east or south, it was a livelihood for the women. They didn’t have to belong to any bloodline, they had to belong to the guild.The women came from different backgrounds,” says Yashoda.

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, a medical practitioner and social reformer, was a strong proponent of the Self Respect movement, and was passionate about abolishing the devadasi practice. Her mother, Chandrammal, was a woman from the devadasi community while her father Narayanaswami Iyer was the Principal of Maharaja’s College. Dr Muthulakshmi was pivotal in bringing about the ban. However, Yashoda says that the legislation was “sloppily conceived”.

“It’s only when a person claims the family do they belong to it. Muthulakshmi didn’t give too much importance to herself coming from a devadasi community. She spoke more about her Brahmin scholar father who made her a doctor. But in devadasi families, the mothers are very important. They’re the ones who carry the flag.There is an argument that it was a woman from the community who wanted the Act and it’s therefore good that it happened. But the discussion about her family background came to the fore only in connection with the Act, as if to validate her argument. She has no involvement with the art itself!” says Yashoda.

Legislation against the devadasi system saw several protests from women of the devadasi community who felt it had stripped them of their agency. For instance, the Maharis of Odisha were a matrilineal community of temple dancers who enjoyed several socio-economic autonomies that other women in society did not have. But colonial intervention and subsequent calls for reform and legislation meant that they were pushed into penury. They also resented being equated to sex workers when they saw themselves as artistes.

Watch: Trailer of Shyam Singha Roy

Though Shyam Singha Roy has a hero who is pro-abolition, Yashoda says that the film also talks about rehabilitation. Not only for Rosie but others like her too.

“People don’t understand how important this is. The assumption is that the Act has stopped women from dancing and now they are all fine. But where are the women? Many are in the clutches of the men of their own families who don’t want them to be visible,” says Yashoda.

Several details in the film, like Rosie not knowing to cook because she has never done it in her life, ring true, she adds.

“There are many things like that. She knows several languages, including Sanskrit. She knows the arts, but when the hero asks her if she can row a boat, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know life skills. So when a person like this is stripped of her agency, where will she go? What will she do? What solutions do they have other than the reservations given by the government? The stigma follows them when they try to get into educational institutions,” says Yashoda, pointing out that many in her family do not wish to acknowledge their lineage because of this.

Art and appropriation

Yashoda notes that in the film, Shyam Singha Roy does not prevent Rosie from dancing though she has left behind her life as a devadasi.

“He kept the art alive. She has a flourishing dance school, and in the end, you will see that Rosie isn’t dancing any more because the temples don’t allow her to or she doesn’t have any venues. But, girls and women from other communities come to her to learn dance. Very subtly, that shift of power and agency is also represented,” says Yashoda.

She points out that the women artistes who invented and popularised these dance forms have been erased from history.

“We’re told dance came from Nataraja, the male god. Before everything else, there is always patriarchy,” she says.

However, Yashoda believes that the stigma associated with the devadasi community is slowly on its way out. There are more conversations now about cultural appropriation and the devadasi system, with women from the community owning their lineage, speaking up for themselves and questioning their marginalisation within a field that was founded by their ancestors. A big budget mainstream film like Shyam Singha Roy speaking openly about the devadasi system with an A-list star like Sai Pallavi playing the role, can also be seen in the same spectrum, a sign of the times changing.