Women’s History Roundtable August 2019: “Handmaidens of God or Common Prostitutes: Perspectivising the Devadasi Tradition in India” by Professor V. Bharathi Harishankar

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V. Bharathi Harishankar is Professor and Head, Department of Women Studies, University of Madras. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, gender studies, translation, web based pedagogy and open educational resources. She has successfully completed projects on OER, Devadasi System and Impact of CSR on women empowerment. She is currently engaged in Erasmus Plus project.

Professor Harishankar presented the key findings of a report on the Devadasi system submitted to the National Commission for Women (NCW), based on a study conducted in 2015-2016 for which she was the principal investigator. She began by highlighting the inherent ambiguity in the term ‘Devadasi’ itself (as the title of her talk indicates), which literally translates to ‘Handmaiden of God’, but is now synonymous with prostitution. She outlined the systemic exploitation that Devadasis are subject to, extending beyond the physical or sexual to encompass cultural, social economic and religious aspects as well.

Professor Harishankar explained the historical origins of the Devadasi system, citing scriptural evidence of its ancient roots and temple inscriptions across the subcontinent. She highlighted the shift from the ‘dedication’ of girls and women to their ‘appointment’ around the 8thcentury, signalling their occupational status. Their elevated social position allowed them to learn how to read and write, excel in the arts, buy property, and adopt children and grant them inheritance rights, setting them apart from other women at that historical juncture. Their venerated status could also be seen in a number of practices. When a Devadasi died, for example, the sanctum sanctorum of her temple was closed to visitors for three days, as the gods were said to be in mourning, indicating the respect Devadasis were afforded. During the Chola era, there were 400 devadasis who worked in service of the temple, and were seen as being on an equal footing with male ministers of the court. Their high social standing derived in part from their being outside the caste system, giving them the status of an occupational caste group akin to a guild. Moreover, Professor Harishankar asserted that prostitution had never been the primary occupation of Devadasis before the 19thcentury. Some temples had up to seven categories of Devadasis, each of whom performed different roles within that socio-religious space.

Over time, however, Devadasis were absorbed into the traditional caste system, giving them a fixed caste status that eventually lowered their social positioning. In addition, while the Devadasi system had begun to decline in North India from the time of the Mughal invasion, it continued to flourish in South India until the advent of colonialism, when Devadasis begun to be treated as immoral ‘dancing girls’, with their public performances subsequently banned. This was followed by calls for a complete eradication of the system from Indian social reformers, including Devadasis themselves.

While the goal of these reforms was to prevent sexual exploitation, they diminished the artistry of the Devadasis as well, with their dancing seen as illicit. This view persisted, despite Devadasis generally covering their entire bodies during performances, and specialising in restrained movements with a focus on abhinayaor facial expressions. Compositions by devadasis were also seen as obscene, even while male, upper-caste composers’ own sexually-charged compositions, at times inspired by certain Devadasis themselves, were considered acceptable. Professor Harishankar noted that the Devadasi’s body, rather than being inscribed as an artistic body, was objectified and reduced to a corporeal body alone; simultaneously, upper-caste women began to perform a more sanitised form of Bharatanatyam in much greater numbers. She added that these socio-cultural shifts resulted in an erasure of the ‘handmaiden of God’ aspect of the Devadasi system from public memory, and of their previous status as accomplished women who entertained visitors.

Professor Harishankar then spoke about the study she was invited to conduct by the NCW. She noted that the system has moved from one of respect for Devadasis to one of exploitation of young women and girls, as well as transgender people. She conducted her research in areas of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra where the system is still prevalent (although Devadasis and the Devadasi system are known by a number of different local names). After providing an overview of the methodology adopted for the study, she highlighted the terrible conditions of most Devadasis today, who are forced into the system at an early age by their families, largely due to poverty, and who rely on prostitution and begging as their main sources of income. She also outlined the rampant corruption and lack of awareness across stakeholder institutions, including the police, judiciary, government departments, NGOs and the education system, that impeded reforms to the system.

In addition to this lack of awareness, rescue and rehabilitation efforts were also hindered by the dearth of family support that many Devadasis faced, preventing reintegration into their families. Despite the existence of numerous laws and rehabilitation schemes specifically addressing Devadasis and the Devadasi system, progress was far from adequate. She noted that NGOs’ efforts were often ill-conceived; occupational training, for example, focussed on skills such as basket weaving or tailoring, which earned them significantly less than prostitution. Moreover, these attempts at rehabilitation did not address the root cause of the persistence of the system in its current form, such as family poverty or caste-based oppression. The system is also intricately linked with the idea of dedication, even today, and is thus seen by Devadasis themselves as being beyond an occupational categorisation. As a result, Devadasis often fail to demand or expect employment rights associated with sex work, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation. Professor Harishankar also outlined the challenges faced by the children of Devadasis, such as stigmatisation within the education system and a lack of opportunities for social mobility.

In her conclusion, Professor Harishankar reiterated that despite the origins of the system, Devadasis are seen primarily as prostitutes today. She noted the loss of their art forms that accompanied efforts to eliminate sex work, and highlighted that attempts at reform had systematically erased Devadasis’ agency while inscribing their bodies with the narrowly-defined identity of ‘prostitute’, giving them few options outside of this exploitative system. She called for greater regulation of NGOs and other institutions tasked with overseeing the system, as well as education campaigns and awareness-building. She also suggested that a return to the artistic elements of the system and intensive training in traditional art forms might provide a better career path than those currently being offered by support groups.

Rapporteur: S. Shakthi