Gitanjali Kolanad explores the Devadasi tradition from colonial India to recent times.
The word ‘devadasi’ has a different meaning in different contexts. The Tamil version of the word is synonymous with ‘prostitute’. The literal meaning, ‘god’s servant’ allows for a more romantic reading, and in modern day usage it may mean ‘courtesan’ or ‘temple dancer’, because dance and music were often an important aspect of the devadasi’s training. Probably the most neutral and accurate meaning for devadasi is ‘religiously sanctioned sex worker’. Young girls were ritually married or dedicated to deities in temples; this legitimised their sexual availability to rich, high caste men.
Devadasis in Tamil Nadu performed in daily temple rituals, in festival processions and in salon settings for audiences of men. They also acted, danced and sang in the rapidly developing movie industry of the 1930s. The first ‘dream girl’ of Tamil Cinema, T. R. Rajakumari, came from the devadasi community.
So did the women most instrumental in dismantling the devadasi system, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Muvalur Ramamirthammal. Having seen and endured some of the abuses at first hand, they took sustained political action starting in the 1920s in the pursuit of equality and respect, finally succeeding with Indian independence. The system of temple dedication has been banned all over India, but continues to exist in practice, in North Karnataka, for example.
Once the dedication of young girls was abolished, and the dance form and sexual availability were no longer intertwined, the art flourished as Bharata Natyam, which anyone from any community can learn and perform today. Film dance has also developed as an integral aspect of Indian cinema. Both originated from the devadasis.
Gitanjali Kolanad explores the vices and powers of this lesser known community in colonial India through her novel, ‘Girl Made of Gold’. A young devadasi disappears from her town and an idol replica of her is found in her temple. While residents assume she’s become a goddess and begin to worship her, those closest to her delve deeper into her last days to understand the mystery behind her disappearance. Read it here