The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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From Sacred Servant to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis in India, 1857-1947 By Kay K. Jordan, Manohar, Rs 500

The act of definition is a powerful tool in both understanding a social phenomenon as it is in atomizing it. When law backs the process of defining a social process, the effects can be far-reaching. The obliteration of the devadasis, a community of ritual specialists and artists traditionally attached to temples in parts of India embodies in a real sense the fallout of new modes of definition and classification that came in the aftermath of colonial modernity. Kay Jordanís work attempts to capture one aspect of this process ó law, which redefined the temple servant as a criminal and a prostitute. Jordan does this by reviewing the available cases that came up before the courts for adjudication, involving issues such as inheritance and entitlement to certain benefits related to temple service. The book ends up resembling a digest of cases and judgments shorn of any analysis of the social context that underscored the legal intervention.

The coalescence of the devadasis as specialized ritual performers attached to temples was a complex historical process that involved ideas of containing female sexuality within a structure of worship and thus rendering it benign and beneficial to state and society. The devadasi succeeded the early bardic songstress whose presence empowered the king in the battlefield. The idea interfaced in later centuries with that of the courtesan who trained in the finer arts and became attached to the royal court or temples patronized by the king.

By the 10th century, several temples in South India had a corps of dancing girls attached to their precincts and who performed a range of functions that accompanied the ritual worship of the presiding deity. They enjoyed specific benefits and entitlements, property rights and a certain measure of social sanction. By the 18th century, when the community attracted the attention of early European ethnography, the devadasis were identified as members of specific castes (isai vellalas) and were also seen as the exotic emblems of Oriental society who, under the cover of being temple servants, were living out sinful lives. The situation worsened when the colonial state intervened in late 19th century to redefine the status of the temple servants and thereby precipitate the abolition of the system that sustained their material existence.

The colonial intervention was backed by the reformist agenda of the Western educated indigenous elite, which identified the devadasis as a vestigial reminder of the degeneration that Indian society had undergone. Reformists like Muthulakshmi Reddy, among the pioneers of devadasi reform, stressed related issues of health and disease and urged the government to do away with the practice altogether. What they failed to see or appreciate was the artistic resources of the community which could have been put to some use in the larger cultural project that nationalist reformers were in the process of engineering.

To what extent was the legal change in the status of the community instrumental in its dissolution' Did it disadvantage the community' These are questions that Jordan needed to ask. There were those in the legislative council of Madras who regarded any infringement on traditional practices as unacceptable while there were others who believed that the practice had to be done away with. The colonial administration was reluctant to push any changes that was interpreted as a violation of tradition. And yet there was a groundswell of opinion that began to reduce the devadasi in definitional terms and thereby divest her of an artistic inheritance. The crystallization of social attitudes was perhaps even more important than the legal intervention.

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