Print edition : December 27, 2013

Kanthimathi (left) and Gowri (right) who served as dancers in the court of Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III (1875-1939). According to, they were sent as part of the dowry package of princess Chimnabai I of Tanjavur, when she got married to Gaekwad in December 1880/January 1881. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Students of Kalakshetra Foundation performing "Sita Svayamvaram" in Chennai. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

An interpretation of the role played by the Dravidian movement in liberating devadasis from “sacred slavery” kicks up a controversy in Tamil Nadu.

"The increased incidence of prostitution in the devadasi community affected a relatively small number of women. However, no real effort to address the root cause through effective social action was ever attempted and the entire community became the object of disdain, neglect and disenfranchisement."

-- Douglas M. Knight Jr. in Balasraswati--Her Art and Life.

WHEN the management of a private women’s college in Chennai recently invited the Bharatanatyam artist Swarnamalya Ganesh to give a lecture on “Evolution of Bharata Natyam”, little did it realise that it would play host to a raging controversy centred around the Dravidian movement and its role in the abolishment of the “devadasi” system. Devadasis (meaning servants of the divine) were associated with Sadir, a traditional form of solo dance performed in temples and royal courts and to select audiences in private places. Sadir is believed to be the precursor of Bharatanatyam.

While Swarnamalya, who has a doctorate in dance from the University of Madras, was speaking on “Devadasis—Wives of God” at the college, a group of women activists and writers raised objections to her argument that the social reformer Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, whose initiative had led to the abolition of the devadasi system, and the Dravidian movement, which had supported her initiative, had done precious little to keep the traditional dance form alive or to protect the livelihoods of devadasis, who were left to languish in penury. The abolition of the devadasi system, a social anathema that was kept alive for centuries by the feudal patriarchal social order claiming that it had religious sanction, has been a subject of intense debate for years. The custom was to “marry off” prepubescent girls from the community to temple deities through a ceremony called pottukattu (tying the holy thread) so that they could dedicate their lives to performing “dance and music”.

The patrons of the temple, invariably the landed non-Brahmin or Brahmin elite, who held the executive powers over temple affairs, would also have them as “partners” but deny them the legal sanctity of a real marriage. Thus, the system kept these women under a religious binding that later morphed into a scheme of “institutionalised prostitution” and a living cultural phenomenon.

Art historians point out that the devadasi system was abolished following the political activism of Muthulakshmi Reddy, whose mother happened to be a descendant of the practitioners of the system. As a member of the Madras Legislative Council, Muthulakshmi Reddy introduced a Bill in 1930 seeking the abolition of the devadasi community structure to prevent its women from being sent into prostitution. Since then arguments for and against the abolition of the tradition have engaged artists, historians and scholars alike.

History records that E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ and his Self-Respect Movement, specifically the self-respect activist Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammal, also hailing from the devadasi community, were in the vanguard of the struggle Muthulakshmi launched on the political front.

Swarnamalya’s argument, put forward by others as well, was that the system was assimilated into religion primarily to insulate it from any sort of external interference. But despite the dogmatic religious fettering, a tiny group of reformers had emerged at the turn of the 20th century to “see beyond religion and Sadir” and liberate the devadasis from the “sacred slavery”, she said

In a study titled “Of Men, Women and Morals: Gender, Politics and Social Reform in Colonial South India”, the academic G. Chandrika observes that devadasis were known as thevaradiyal, a Tamil term that has assumed a derogatory meaning suggesting a sex worker. The earliest recorded evidence of the prevalence of the system is traced to King Raja Raja Chola, who donated lands and houses to some 400 devadasis to serve “gods in temples”. Though they belonged to different castes, they were later identified as a single social group. These girls were forbidden to enter into marital arrangements but were considered nithyasumangali (wedded for life).

Rulers of the Vijayanagar empire and the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur extended patronage to devadasis. But with the decline of royal patronage in the 19th century, their fortunes declined. A few turned to other royal courts such as Ettayapuram, Pudukottai and Thiruvananthapuram while many migrated to Madras (now Chennai), seeking wealthy individuals for patronage. Those who failed to get patronage turned to other means to keep hunger at bay.

Douglas M. Knight, an independent scholar-cum-musician and the son-in-law of the eminent dancer Balasaraswati, in his engaging biography Balasaraswati—Her Art and Life, has written that prostitution was becoming a problem in the traditional matrilineal community of devadasis because of the loss of royal patronage and the decline of standards of practice and audience tastes.

Chandrika points out that since the beginning of the 19th century the colonial state began the process of disenfranchisement of devadasis by criminalising them and their dance. The Indologist Sasika C. Kersenboom, in her book Nithyasumangali: Devadasi tradition in South India, observes that with the loss of royal patronage an entire universe was lost to devadasis, which was never recaptured. “The aristocratic values of art, devotion and learning and their deeply cultured support by the [royal] court that continued an age-old tradition were exchanged for mercenary values, search for patronage of individuals and aggressive publicity.”

These women mastered the art of Sadir. In the late 18th century, Sadir was refined and formatted for stage recitals by Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, known as the Thanjavur quartet. They were sons of a nattuvanar (dance master). But as the opposition to the devadasi system became louder, many abandoned the art itself. However, a few families tenaciously clung to the traditional form with pride.

With the abolition of the devadasi system, Sadir remained confined within the four walls, meant only for private viewing, for nearly three decades. Its revival, however, is attributed to the lawyer and dancer E. Krishna Iyer, who played a pivotal role in founding the Madras Music Academy, and Rukmani Devi Arundale, who is considered to be one of the teachers of the refined form of the dance. Rukmani was responsible for the “reconstructed and modernised” version of Sadir, which is familiar today as Bharatanatyam.

Exploitation of devadasis

But Tamil scholar and Professor V. Arasu of the Department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras, said a feudalistic society and a colonial state had ensured the exploitation of devadasis to strengthen the relationship between women and temples in the Chola and Pallava periods.

He said, “Thus an artistic community evolved by a feudal system and in sync with temples was formed for an easy and hassle-free exploitation of women under the wrap of sanctified morality. A conspiracy was hatched to make the art secondary, forcing the performers to resort to disgraceful acts. Thus they became the unfortunate victims of a delinquent society though a few survived with grit, determination and pride.

“At the turn of the 20th century, newly emerging democratic forces launched a movement of sweeping social reformation, which included women’s emancipation. Periyar and his Self-Respect Movement thus played the role of a countervailing force against the devadasi system,” he said.

While accusing Swarnamalya of misleading the students, especially on the role of the Dravidian movement in seeking social justice, activists and campaigners claimed that she was “making attempts to justify the tradition of the degraded system”. The dancer, they said, had insinuated that Dravidian ideologues, instead of preserving the art form and upholding the social security of its performers, allowed it to be abolished, forcing the artists to vacillate perilously between the art and poverty, which eventually pushed many into the profession of debauchery.

“How can you glorify the devadasi system, a pernicious practice that forced these ‘women of gods’ into prostitution?” asked Oviya, an active Periyarist, who led the band of feminists that raised objections at the lecture. “Swarnamalya’s presentation sends a wrong message about a group of women and their status in society to today’s young girls, many of whom are blissfully ignorant of the complex nature of the issue that had sought to blend the performing art with a social movement. We do have a strong moral responsibility to intervene if any attempt is made to degrade a historical social movement like the Dravidian movement, which fought against the hypocrisy of religious protection. We are justified [in our protest] more so as it [the lecture] took place in an educational institution especially meant for girls,” Oviya argued.

It was the Dravidian movement, in the artist’s opinion, that forced devadasis to emerge as a separate caste group to fight against the forces that supported the abolition. “The significance of Muthulakshmi Reddy and the relevance of the Dravidian movement in the struggle against a revolting system cannot be rubbished. The history of a society and its hoary past should not be tinkered with by making irresponsible utterances,” Oviya said.

The social workers claimed that before the lecture was to begin they had met the college management to express their apprehensions about the dancer’s presentation on the devadasi system and Bharatanatyam. The management had assured them that it would not permit any act on its premises that would embarrass anyone. But the artist went on to present her prejudiced views on the Dravidian movement, accusing it of decimating the art. “She even deified the devadasi system. She argued that the system should have been preserved for the sake of the art and artists,” Oviya claimed.

S. Anwar, a writer and documentary film-maker who assisted Swarnamalya for a portion of her doctoral study, denied that the dancer had degraded either the Dravidian movement or the role of Muthulakshmi Reddy. “She just criticised the way the movement handled the devadasi issue. What she wanted to convey was that while abolishing the societal system that promoted a classical form of dance, the Dravidian movement had failed to insulate the performers from exploitation. It was revived but not in its pristine form. Many of those who practice and perform it today are reluctant to recognise its roots,” he said.

Her approach, he claimed, was scholarly. She made a presentation urging that the hereditary dance form should not have been ignored. She drew attention to the Thanjavur style of natyam followed by great artists such as T. Balasaraswati, before a liberal dose of theatrical excellence replaced the puritanical form. “She pointed out that those who took steps to abolish the system had failed to protect the art in its original flavour and its performers from exploitation,” he added.

But the activists are of the view that Swarnamalya had just stopped short of claiming that these women had become devadasis by choice. “We could have accepted and appreciated her had she referred to them as victims,” Oviya said.

Anwar, however, said the protest by the activists was an unwarranted intrusion into an artist’s freedom of expression. Denying her an opportunity to present her views amounted to an infringement of her rights. “These people who raised objections were a loosely knit formation of feminists,” he said. The dancer repeated the lecture a few days later at the Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai, and in other places, where no such incident took place, he said.

The issue had its echo on other fronts, too. The activist Marx Anthonisamy, who justified the rationale behind the fear of the activists, pointed out that Gandhi had supported Muthulakshmi Reddy in the demand for the abolishment of the devadasi system. “While we should uphold artists’ freedom to express their views, they must have the moral responsibility not to distort history and not to indulge in mudslinging,” he said.

Insisting that one should not attempt to legalise the devadasi system and pour scorn on the Dravidian movement, which opposed it, he said interfering in the academic freedom of an institution should be discouraged. “We have many other ways to react, positively and democratically, to a lecture or programme of an academic exercise,” he added.

Swarnamalya told Frontline that the tradition of dedicating women to God as “wives” was a practice that had religious sanction. “What is more important is to understand how it achieved such social sanction and assimilation into the tenets of religion in the first place,” she said.

The practice, she said, had allowed these women in general to have considerable social recognition, and access to education and property at a time when other women were denied all these. “Of course, the fact that there were a few in the community that functioned within the feudal hierarchy had contrived their position in unsavoury ways, which I do not subscribe to,” she clarified.

She said:

“However, it is of interest to understand the movement of this community and its various shifts in the feudal society, where the art, its historicity, artists and anthropology had attained a newer distinction, one separated from the other, deliberately and for several reasons.

“Devadasis stood at the fulcrum of a social, political, and economic turnabout. The roles of social reformists, missionaries, nationalists, puritans and artists and the fallout of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu have to be comprehended to analyse the actual happenings that inspired the large social-artistic operation.”

Devadasis as victims

Denying the charges that she had not treated devadasis as victims, Swarnamalya said she did mention devadasis as victims. “What I said was that devadasis were victims of not only religious sanctions but of a larger agenda of the Dravidian, feudal, gender and colonial forces. That is what these activists did not like, I presume,” she said.

Her broader objective, she said, however, was to help the art form find and retain its roots. “While annihilating the social evil that was said to be associated with the system, the art form should have been protected and retained in its vintage form and essence by providing social security to those who practised Sadir then,” she insisted.

“Hence, it is imperative to revisit a reform movement such as the Dravidian movement today to gather its purpose, course and methods. The stigma that is associated with the term devadasi is due to the lack of understanding of the distinction between devadasi and a sex worker and the lack of engagement of post-Independence society with Sadir. All this should have been studied dispassionately in the light of the socio-political situation of that time. Every reform movement needed to be analysed to see if its mission has been accomplished and, if so, how,” she said. She added that she had engaged in these areas of analysis as “it is important for modern society to discern the course of an art form that is their cultural badge and at the same time register the bearing it has on a very crucial social reform vis-a-vis the anti-devadasi movement”.

A few noted classical dancers to whom Frontline spoke to preferred to stay clear of the controversy. However, a senior dancer, on condition of anonymity, said dancers and art scholars of various styles recognised and respected the contribution of devadasis to the traditional dance form. “Volumes of research have been done on the subject. It is needless to revisit the controversy by casting aspersions on a social movement,” she said.

According to Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) leader K. Veeramani, the dance form, which was a close preserve of a particular group, has been “socialised” now. “Like the parai [a leather percussion instrument mainly played by Dalits], which has assumed widespread acceptability, other forms of art, too, have transcended the barriers of caste and creed,” he said.

Anti-social elements thrived under the guise of preserving traditional practices, he added. “A powerful lobby almost revived the system of dance in temples in Tamil Nadu in 1989-1990. But the Dravidar Kazhagam strongly opposed it, forcing the then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, to drop it,” he said.

The D.K. leader also objected to the claims that the Dravidian movement had failed to save the art and its practitioners. The Self-Respect Movement, he said, had played a clinching role in abolishing a system that enslaved women and freed the art form from the confines of the temple. “In fact the movement annihilated the religious hypocrisy that kept the art and artists as “most private” and made an entire generation to disengage from the corrupt social practice,” he pointed out. “Today the art has gone universal, commanding an aesthetic visibility,” he said. “Otherwise artists such as Swarnamalya might not have had the opportunity to perform it on stage today,” he said.