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Teresa Hubel
Remembering the Devadasis
Teresa Hubel

Hindoo Dancing girls by William Willoughby Hooper, 1870. Collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck


"When it looks as though they may not get something they want,
they use their wits to get hold of it. The dasis have a fine insight into human character."
from Dasigal Mosavalai Alludu Madipettra Myner,
The Dasis' Wicked Snares Or the Playboy Who Came to His Senses
by Moovalur A. Ramamrithammal (1936)


In Canada, the classical dance bharatanatyam is both greater and less than an art form, greater because, unlike more common forms such as ballet or jazz dance, it offers its practitioners and its spectators something more than an opportunity to experience art or to be the vehicle for its expression, and less because what it offers along with its art is ethnicity. And in our multicultural society anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it, in various venues, from concert halls to school gyms, as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.

The links between nationalism, feminism, and classical dance in India have been well documented.1 Let me rehearse them here briefly.2 A movement meant to grant Indians political freedom from colonial oppression, nationalism also functioned to generate an identity, unified at a national level, which would allow a new nation to emerge and to be consolidated. The creation of such an identity, however, required a swerve towards homogeneity and away from the startling cultural and linguistic diversity that more truly could be said to characterize social groups on the subcontinent. This drive for unity, combined with the response of social reformers to British imperialism's disdain for many Indian customs, often led to the suppression of regionally specific practices that couldn't easily be incorporated into the new image of the nation. In South India, for instance, nationalism prevailed at the cost of the temple dancers or courtesans3 and their centuries-long dance and music traditions. To the elite men and women who had the greatest say in what would constitute the new Indian nation, these courtesans or devadasis were an embarrassing remnant of the pre-colonial and pre-nationalist feudal age and couldn't be permitted to cross over into the modern state that the nationalists hoped would be postcolonial India. But to define the dasis in this way, as feudal, as pre-modern, meant to judge them by means of an alien moral order that was culturally antagonistic to them and to the set of values that had sustained their matrilineal and largely matrifocal customs.

The devadasis were prime targets for nationalists and social reformers for many reasons, not the least of which was their sexual practices, which increasingly by the end of the 19th century began to be seen as morally repugnant. The history behind this labelling is long and convoluted, involving European travellers, British imperialists, nationalists, and Indian dance enthusiasts,4 but this history eventually produced the questionable assumption that the devadasis' unconventional sexuality ? namely, their tendency to participate in sexual relationships that didn't involve marriage ? was analogous to that of the prostitutes of Europe and that therefore they deserved to be repudiated.

The organized repression of the devadasi culture began in 1892 with the anti-Nautch campaign, which sought to discourage the public from supporting the dasis in any way, and it culminated in the 1947 Madras Devadasis Prevention of Dedication Act, which outlawed their culture and profession. This suppression was effective in so seriously stigmatising the dasis that they lost their historical rights of possession to the dance. How could they have retained those rights when there were so many groups of antagonists ranged against them? For example, a male faction of the caste communities to which they belonged was determined to eradicate the woman-centred tradition that they had managed to create in order to usurp the power and authority of their mothers, sisters, and aunts.5 But the devadasi men were far from unaided in their campaign to overthrow their women. Other groups, for their own reasons, including the Indian National Congress, social reformers, and Dravidian Self-Respecters,6 were also determined to see an end to this distinctively female profession. The men of the dasi community worked in partnership with the new Indian patriarchy, which had been created by the imperatives of a nineteenth-century middle-class Social Reform movement. Both groups sought to normalize the connection between heterosexual domesticity and womanhood. As professional women, many of whom maintained and organized large extended family households, as wives of gods, as women who danced in public spaces, the dasis exceeded the limits set for females by this modern version of Indian patriarchy.

Many feminists were also complicit in standardizing this patriarchy in India, some of whom saw the devadasis as particularly suitable targets for their activism. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, a leader of the women's movement and one of the most vociferous critics of this South Indian tradition, fought through legislative means to render illegal the ritual through which a girl or woman became a dasi: namely, pottukattu, the practice of temple dedication. The first woman ever to be elected to the Madras legislature, Reddy introduced a series of bills in the 1920s that were meant to abolish the devadasi system. The earlier anti-Nautch campaign had prepared the ground for the passing of these bills, since it had brought such enormous public censure to the dasis and their practices, so much in fact that, by Reddy's time, the middle- and upper-class Hindu people of the south, who had once valued these women, even seeing them in some ways as appendages to their own communities, essentially turned their backs on them. After the devastation wrought by the anti-Nautch campaign, many dasi artists in the early 20th century found it difficult to secure patrons and audiences for their music and dance; many more stepped away from the profession entirely, choosing to deny they were devadasi or that they hailed from dasi families. As Sriram V writes in his 2007 book The Devadasi and the Saint, "with them several precious music and dance pieces vanished. It was a grievous loss to the world of art" (173).

Reddi and various other women of the women's movement put the final nails in the coffin that the anti-Nautch campaigners had built. And they justified their intervention in the lives and choices of the dasis by constructing them as children, as girls who could be defined solely by their sexuality and not by their art. But she and the other feminists who worked so assiduously to turn the public away from the devadasis weren't malicious so much as they were careless. Perhaps it could be said that they fundamentally lacked something in imagination and in empathy. For by failing to acknowledge the dasis' autonomy or to see them as self-determining and possessing agency, the feminists demonstrated a serious deficiency in their activism: they were unable to achieve solidarity with women who - in some ways but not others - were unlike themselves or to recognize the dangers that the new patriarchal form of womanhood posed for the dasis and for all girls and women. Rather than reach across this sexually charged chasm to forge political bonds with the dasis, it was surely easier to understand them as only objects of charitable intervention, as only corrupted innocents waiting to be rescued by women more empowered by caste and class status than they were, and on the right side of history.

But there is a good deal of evidence that the dasis decidedly did not see themselves as the appropriate recipients of feminist charity. The historical record suggests that many devadasis believed that they were engaged in work that was both artistically and spiritually important to the larger south Indian Hindu community.7 For example, they responded to Reddi's bills by forming the Devadasis Association, and in temple towns of the Madras Presidency, they held meetings where memorandums were issued, letters were written to government officials and newspapers, and activism against the proposed eradication of their profession was organized.8 That they weren't successful in their bid to preserve their extraordinary way of life attests to the strength and number of the forces ranged against them. Although I can comprehend why the Congress and even the generally less patriarchal but still male-dominated Self-Respect Movement might have wanted to see the abolition of the devadasis, I've always found it troubling that the Indian women's movement did as well. I lament that the feminists couldn't see the dasis for the model of professional womanhood that they were. Given that the women's movement was, in these decades of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, moving towards the objective of achieving economic and personal independence for women and freedom from the very domestic roles that earlier feminists of the 19th century had celebrated,9 it is disappointing to me that they couldn't see what was right in front of them. But, instead of seeking local examples of women who were economically self-sufficient and domestically authoritative, they looked to the West for their models.

Of course, they did this in part because the sexual lives of the devadasis prevented the middle-class women activists from appreciating this female-dominated culture. Nationalism in India, in both its early and later phases, encouraged an asexuality in its women because it placed enormous emphasis on their potential or actual motherhood. Even the role of wife was subordinated to this celebration of Indian motherhood, which reached its apotheosis in the construction of India as the motherland. Within the terms of this representation, the role of woman as the lover of man was elided. Female erotic sexuality is therefore a subject notably absent in nationalist writings and speeches, and, because of the close connections between nationalism and feminism during this period, in feminist works as well. The consequence of this deliberate erasure was that the sexuality of the dasis inevitably seemed excessive and offensive.

The devadasi dance tradition didn't entirely succumb to these efforts to dismantle it. Many dasis continued to perform and teach it, and some, courageously, still do today. Further, a careful selection of the music, gestures, and choreography of their dance was transferred to a new dance form by means of a deliberate effort on the part of another group of upper caste people as well as a number of foreign men and women belonging to the Theosophical Society. Called a revival movement because it claimed that its aim was to 'revive' an ancient artistic form that had been debased by women who had allowed themselves and their dance to be degraded, its proponents sought to re-invent the dance of the devadasis so that it could be appropriated by women and girls - as well as men - of the upper castes and middle classes and showcased as an emblem of a modern but still 'eternal' India. Sadir, the name the dasis used to describe their dance, became bharatanatyam, a completely made-up term that was obviously meant to invoke nationalist notions of India as Bharat Mata, or Mother India. While sadir was associated with a specific region of India - the South - and with a specific though now reviled and shunned group of female professionals, bharatanatyam was universalized and made to seem a natural product of Indian antiquity and Hindu religiosity. As a consequence of this transformation, the dance was imbued with an all-India authenticity and even began to acquire a certain sanctity. Once it was detached from the dasis and hallowed by its new significance, middle-class, upper-caste girls and women were free to study the dance and perform it in public places, secure in the knowledge that they weren't jeopardizing their sexual reputations by doing a dance that was once performed by women who were regarded (mistakenly) as prostitutes.

Rukmini Devi was one of those pioneers who was acclaimed for reviving the devadasis' dance. By virtue of being among the first brahmin women to publicly perform the dance and, importantly, also a member of an elite and powerful South Indian family linked to the internationally supported Theosophical Society, she was able to alter social perceptions of it, lending it a respectability it had lost as a result of the anti-Nautch campaign and the feminist activism directed against it. And when she opened her famous performing arts school, Kalakshetra, in the 1930s, a school famous for its teaching of bharatanatyam and for its distinctive Kalakshetra style, she paved the way for a new generation of dancers who were not dasis. What she and other upper-caste and middle-class dance teachers taught their mostly female students was that sringara, the expression of erotic and sexual love so central to the devadasi aesthetic, was vulgar. Bhakti, a term equated with a spiritual devotion detached from the physical and the sexual, was the appropriate stance for a dancer of bharatanatyam. And, honestly, I've been to Kalakshetra, and it was many wonderful things: it was beautiful, and peaceful, and full of teachers and students ferociously committed to the dance. But erotic it was not.

The 'revival' of the dance was said to have been accomplished through the physical application of aesthetic principles contained in ancient Sanskrit texts, namely, the Natyasastra and the Abhinayadarpana. But what was not taught in that school is that Rukmini Devi, like so many of the other upper-caste dancers of the colonial period, actually studied dance with renowned devadasi teachers and dancers, among them Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. It is also highly doubtful (if not entirely impossible) that an artistic form as grounded in the body as a dance clearly is could even be re-constituted solely by reading ancient texts. We have to therefore conclude that, far from being another dance entirely, bharatanatyam is simply an offshoot of the dasis' sadir.

For dancers today, the all-India ideology that underpins bharatanatyam should, in my view, be a cause for concern. Yoking this dance to the nation of India and tying its performance to the performance of Indianness itself (something we see, for instance, in such spectacles as the government-sponsored Festival of India) has stalled this dance form and inhibited its practitioners, forcing them to be embodiments of a middle-class and upper caste form of femininity that can be stultifying in its expression. Fragile, compliant, and perpetually youthful, the typical female role in bharatanatyam requires a femininity that is contained and decorous in its articulation, that is ever-virginal, that not only eschews any sexuality that isn't delicate but that renounces extravagance, abundance, and transgression. It's no surprise that one of the most widely used expressions in bharatanatyam is submissive coyness. When I look at the photos of historical devadasis, who gaze so directly and confidently at the camera and stand with such solid dignity, I can't imagine that the dominance of this gesture in the dance today comes from them.

Given its iconic status as well as its history, it seems to me that bharatanatyam is and has been from its inception in the 1930s a fetish. Feminist theorists, using but altering Freud's descriptions, see the fetish as an object of veneration which emerges through a psychological process of disavowal that occurs as the result of a profoundly traumatic event. When something powerful has been lost through denial, Freud states, "something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor" (954). Fetishes work to conceal what is missing and cannot be consciously acknowledged. In the construction of the collective Indian nationalist identity, which was both partly constituted as well as seriously fractured by British imperialism, the devadasis of south India - indeed all of India's courtesans and their performance traditions - had to be renounced and repressed in order that a new model of performing womanhood could be internationally showcased, a model that was less extravagant, less low-caste, less regionally located, and less sexually experienced and aware, but that would, with such diminishments, be more acceptable as a global emblem of Indianness. Exalted as Indianness incarnate in dance form, bharatanatyam is the fetishistic substitute for what is meant to be unspeakable - sadir, the devadasis' dance, with all its ties to the dasis themselves and their potentially subversive meaning, which Indian nationalism has worked to erase and forget.

While performing bharatanatyam in India is an act rife with the suppressed conflict and desire that characterizes the collectively constituted fetish, for the South Asian Canadian dancer of bharatanatyam, its frozen, fetishized heritage is doubly debilitating. This dancer not only becomes a mere cipher for a dance that, in its dubious links to some ancient Indianness, has been built on a lie created to cover up a history of persecution, but also finds in the dance little room for any expression of her and her community's complicated placement: as Indian in a not-completely-Indian land. Instead of being able to develop the creative possibilities in this potentially highly artistic cultural and political negotiation, she's expected to transform her body and her art into a display case for nationalist India. Her own community barely gets to speak through her at all. The multicultural imperative in Canada works to reinforce this pressure on female Indian dancers to embody the eternal feminine India because it has its own fetish to worship and protect - ethnicity.

On top of all this, this diasporic dancer of Indian dance can never be Indian enough to be an authentic practitioner of bharatanatyam, since her upbringing and current residence outside of India automatically renders her Indianness suspect. I've often heard stories of disillusionment from Indo-Canadian students of dance who, to polish their skills, travelled to the motherland, where they were found wanting, where their bodies, with their unwelcome 'western' walk, were deemed inadequate or in need of reform by some dance guru. I've known girls and women who have come to the conclusion that they can't possibly achieve the requisite Indianness to perform the dance without undermining its ancient glory.

They've been misled by fabrications because if there is an antiquity in bharatanatyam, it comes from the historical traditions of the devadasis' sadir. If there is some kind of authenticity to be preserved in this dance, then only they, the dasis, or at best their students, can preserve it, since theirs is the sole ancient dance tradition that dates back further than 85 years ago. But if the historical de-linking of the dance from the dasis can be said to be legitimated by the present practice of this dance all over the world by those who are not dasis, then this dance belongs as much to the girls and women in the South Asian diaspora, whatever their caste, class, or religion, as it does to Indians. Can it be made to convey the diverse realities of these dancers and their diasporic communities, without jeopardizing its specific regional tradition or transforming beyond recognition its conventional postures, gestures, music, and intentions? I've seen glimpses of something new in this dance, and these have made me hopeful.

I'd like finally and respectfully to suggest that the dasis and their artistic descendants might be an enormously fruitful source for even greater innovation. With their help, the dance could be transformed into a politically and historically engaged artistic vehicle through which the past, the devadasi tradition, could truly be seen to live in the present, the bharatanatyam performance.

Works Cited

Anandhi, S. "Representing devadasis: 'Dasigal Mosavalai' as a radical text." Economic and Political Weekly 11/12.26 (March 1991): 739-746.

Freud, Sigmund. "Fetishism." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et. al. New York: Norton, 2001. 952-56.

Hubel, Teresa. "Charting the Anger of Indian Women Through Narayan's Savitri." Modern Fiction Studies. 39.1 (Spring 1993): 113-130.

---. "Devadasi Defiance and The Man-eater of Malgudi." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 29.1 (1994): 15-28.

---. "The High Cost of Dancing: When the Indian Women's Movement Went After the Devadasis." Intercultural Communications and Creative Practice: Dance, Music and Women's Cultural Identity. Ed. Laura B. Lengel. Westport, Conn. and London: Praeger, 2005. 121-140.

Nair, Janaki. "The Devadasi, Dharma and the State." Economic and Political Weekly 29.50 (December 10, 1994): 3157-67.

Natarajan, Srividya. 'Another Stage in the Life of the Nation: Sadir, Bharatanatyam, Feminist Theory,' Ph.D. Diss. University of Hyderabad. 1997.

O'Shea, J. "'Traditional' Indian Dance and the making of interpretive communities." Asian Theater Journal 15.1 (1998): 45 63.

Ramanrithammal , Moovalur A. Dasigal Mosavalai Alludu Madipettra Myner, The Dasis' Wicked Snares Or the Playboy Who Came to His Senses. (1936). Trans. K. Srilata. In The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History. Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003: 106-176.

Reddi, Muthulakshmi. Papers in Nehru Museum and Memorial Library, New Delhi, India.

Soneji, Davesh, ed. Bharatanatyam: A Reader. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2010.

---. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

Srilata, K. "Lobbying for Devadasi Aboliton: From Artiste to Prostitute." The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003. 93-105.

Srinivasan, Amrit. "Reform and revival: The devadasi and her dance." Economic and Political Weekly 20.44 (November 2: 1985): 1869-1876.

Sriram V. The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Chennai: East West Books, 2007.

1 See essays by Srinivasan, Hubel (2005), O'Shea, and Anandi, for instance.

2 For a longer discussion of this historical nexus, see Hubel (2005), reprinted in Bharatanatyam: A Reader, edited by Davesh Soneji.

3 Following Davesh Soneji's argument in the introduction to his book, Unfinished Gestures, I'm using the term 'courtesan' here to call attention to the fact that South Indian dasis didn't confine their performances to the temple alone.

4 I've written more extensively on this in both my 2005 chapter as well as in a 1994 journal article that interprets the significance of the devadasi character, Rangi, in R.K. Narayan's novel The Man-eater of Malgudi.

5 In her 1985 essay, Amrit Srinivasan exposes the numerous forces that worked to undermine the dasis and their traditions.

6 In The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History, a collection of essays and fiction by women of the Self-Respect movement, editor and translator K. Srilata has written a number of very interesting essay introductions that analyze the contribution of Tamil women to the Self-Respect movement generally and the suppression of the devadasi profession specifically. See especially her chapter "Lobbying for Devadasi Aboliton."

7 See, for example, Sriram V's biography of Bangalore Ngarathnamma, The Devadasi and the Saint, and K. Srilata's translation of Moovalur A. Ramamrithammal's anti-dasi novel, The Dasis' Wicked Snares, which nevertheless, as Srilata points out, ends up showing the dasis as intelligent, vibrant, talented, and charming. Ramamrithammal was herself brought up in a devadasi household.

8 See Srividya Natarajan's thesis, pp. 120+.

9 Having done archival and other kinds of research on the pre-independence women's movement, I've realized how significant these three decades were in terms of the shift that began to occur in feminists' goals and ideals. See my essay on Narayan's The Dark Room.



Issue 58 (Nov-Dec 2014)

feature Performing Arts & Literature
  • Editorial
    • Somdatta Mandal: Editorial Comments
  • I: Performance and Theatre
    • Anita Singh: The Actress in Bharata’s Natyasastra
    • Minakshi Kaushik: Indian Women’s Performance Art
    • Partha Sarathi Gupta: Desacralization of Context in Modern Indian Theatre
    • Shukla Chatterjee (Mandal): Vijay Tendulkar’s His Fifth Woman
    • Sukla Basu-Sen: ‘Bera’ as stage-play and classroom text
  • II: Performance and Adaptations
    • Debarati Ghosh: Saoli Mitra and the New Kathakata on the Bengali Stage
    • Debopriya Dey: Performances of Rabindranath’s Phalguni in Santiniketan
    • Saoli Mitra: In discussion with Anita Singh
    • Sumanta Gangopadhyay and Somjit Halder: Cross Cultural Encounters
    • Tapati Gupta: In Step with Macbeth
    • Vikram Singh Thakur: Shakespeare and the Hindi Theatre
  • III: Performance Arts in Bengal
    • Hiya Chatterjee & Shayeari Dutta: ‘Patachitra’ Art Form of Bengal
    • Md. Shofiqul Islam: Gombhira Gaan of North Bengal and Bangladesh
    • Sanchita Chowdhury & Anjali Gera Roy: Bâuls, Mystic Minstrels of Bengal
    • Somdatta Mandal: Role of Women in Contemporary Jatra
  • IV: Performance Arts in South and Western India
    • Chandrakant K Mhatre: Dhavalaas of Coastal Maharashtra
    • Sudha Rani D: Madigas of Andhra Pradesh
    • Teresa Hubel: Remembering the Devadasis
  • V: Folk Dances & Others
    • Ashes Gupta: Hara-Gourir Naach of Tripura
    • Bhaskar Roy Burman: Puppetry in India
    • Debashree Dattaray: Folk Dance Traditions of North East India
    • Margaret L. Pachuau: Folk Dance and the Mizo
    • Sarat Kumar Jena: Animal Mask Dance of Southern Odisha