Women of Pride: The Devadasi Heritage

Item Code: IDK981
Author: Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Foreword by Pavan K. Varma
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788174366726
Pages: 220 (22 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5" X 5.6"
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Devadasi, raja dasi or kutcheri dasi – devadasis have acquired a variety of definitions and roles over the years. Women of Pride studies, in depth, the devadasi tradition and its transformation into a living cultural phenomenon in the context of Hindu tradition. The book brings into focus the activities and identities of the devadasis and examines the functions and forms of the devadasi tradition.

The changing face of the tradition has been authenticated and given a voice by the author by featuring some of the most prominent devadasis of our times. The book also examines the devadasi reform movement in a political, religious, and social context.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan is a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer who has received many honours including the Tamil Nadu State Kalaimamani and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award.

As a cultural ambassador of India, she has performed extensively abroad in important festivals and earned the admiration of world-class dancers and choreographers. Prestigious research fellowships have enabled her to research the history and ethos of dance. Her scholarly lectures and demonstrations have been showcased in both Indian and international academic forums.

A gold medalist from Madras University in English Literature, Vishwanathan has written extensively on dance and culture for various publications. She has also authored Bharatanatyam: The Tamil Heritage, Kapaliswara Temple, and Kunjamma: Ode to a Nightingale (Roli Books 2003). She has directed Poetry of Dance, a documentary film.


Today, the word ‘devadasi’ is not an easy one to understand. It evokes contrasting reactions. In many ways it is a reviled term and those associated with the profession are seen as the ‘fallen’ elements of society. Yet we are aware, albeit vaguely, that the devadasi tradition is an ancient one, a socially sanctioned cultural, creative and intellectual institution that had unstinted royal patronage during its heyday.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan’s Women of Pride: The Devadasi Heritage is a well-timed and significant intervention. Vishwanathan’s effort at documenting the history of the devadasis is doubly important because she approaches the subject not simply as a keen historian and social analyst but also as a dancer. A renowned Bharatanatyam practitioner, her outlook incorporates sensitivity, empathy and detailed research.

Women of Pride is an apt title for a book that elaborates on the devadasi tradition in a lucid manner, reassigning to the women, who dedicated their lives to the gods and the arts, the honour that is rightfully theirs. According to the author, it was the devadasis and their gurus who were responsible for the stature that Bharatanatyam attained as a creative dance form. The same holds true for the poetry and music that accompanied the dances. Vishwanathan looks in detail at the initial phases of this institution, its gradual growth, the social, religious and political reasons for the existence of this tradition, the elevated status of the devadasis in the early days and their gradual downfall after independence. The book has a rich collection of stories and details of well-known devadasis, which illustrate a cohesive history of the times. It throws light on their varied contributions to the arts and religion of the days, including the significant role they played in defending the boundaries of their land and people.

Lakshmi’s Vishwanathan’s Women of Pride is an important contribution and will be of interest both to research scholars and the lay reader.


The devadasi was the proverbial dancing girl of India. Her name immediately suggests the two worlds she inhabited – those of gods and of slaves. She served god (deva), and men who assumed godly status, as a slave (dasi), and considered it an honour in doing so. The persona of the god changed over time. First, he was the all powerful Supreme Being, worshipped in the temple. Later, he was the ‘king’ who was attended by elaborate ceremony. Gradually, the king too became god, and demanded divine rights. The devadasi shifted through the vicissitudes of temple, court and social life. Unfaltering in her trained steps. She had become an expert in music, dance and a host of other kalas (arts), which included the art of love. She passed on her skills to generations of her daughters who left their mark on history as cultured women. The devadasi, the only ‘educated’ women of ancient Indian society, was a precious gem (manikkam) in the royal crown. Her pride lay not merely in her achievements but in her innate sensuality. Her expertise in dance and music matched her skills in the art of erotica. With god and king as her chief patrons, she grew in stature and took great pride in her heritage.

The devadasis of South India were part of a tight-knit community, which included dance teachers and musicians. In the modern era they came to be known as the Isai Vellalars, a group of hereditary performing artists belonging to the farming community. Originally these artists were employed in temples where a distinction was made between those who were part of the Peria Melam, which included the soloists and accompanists of the nadhaswaram ensemble known as Melakkarars, and the Chinna Melam who were the dancers and accompanists in the dance performance. The devadasis given duties to perform in temples were particularly known for their accomplishments as dancers. Dance and the devadasi became synonymous to such an extent that, in the modern era, social reformers seeking to abolish the devadasi system targeted the dance and not the devadasis.

From my viewpoint, a dancer, I searched for the last devadasi who would be real rather than a mysterious legend. However, her long history, intertwined with religion, mythology, and politics, posed a mind-boggling complexity. Her dance, an esoteric temple ritual, was transformed into an artistic presentation on the modern stage. Her personality that was an enigmatic riddle. Fortunately. I had the opportunity to see the human face of the last of the devadasis.

My involvement with dance and my understanding of what it meant to generations of dancers made me approach them with a mixture of reverence, affection and also disbelief. I respected their finesse. I could not believe that in spite of an immeasurably long history, the devadasi whom I came face-to-face with had reached the end of her existence. Without exception, those I met were warm, charming, intelligent women. There seemed to be an inexplicable femininity about them, which I had not seen in other women. Mingled with an ethnic style, their personality suggested a natural gift for attraction. Their flair for dance and music was natural. They were very proud of their artistic legacy.

A panoramic perspective of the devadasi of South India and her life at different times sheds light on the distinctive legacy of this unique kind of woman. She was like the geisha of Japan. She belonged to the particular cultural tradition of Hinduism, within which she performed certain functions, both artistic and social. Skills in the arts of music and dancing were, for the devadasi, on par with ars amoris. She had a special place in society until changing times displaced her. To evaluate her contribution to the arts and to understand the traditions of performance to which she was central, one must recognize the core principles of Hinduism. It was a way of life, which gave credence to the concept of a timeless, yet ever-changing manifestation of devotion (bhakti) directed to a many-faced Supreme Being. To be a slave of god was the ultimate goal of all human devotees, and more particularly of the dancer and singer – the devadasi.

Dance came into my life in a natural way. My parents hail from Thanjavur district, and on both sides of the family, several generations had lived in Kumbakonam and Thanjavur. We belong to the Brahmin community known as Iyers. Culture, particularly Carnatic music and a deep appreciation of it, made my ancestors respected patrons of music. For my first birthday, in 1945, a special celebration was held. The event took place in our ancestral village, Papanasam, which lies between Kumbakonam and Thanjavur.

Part of the celebration included nadhaswaram music, a temple elephant to take children on rides, and a late night sadir kutcheri (dance performance). The dance was by two young girls, probably disciples of Papanasam Vadivelu. I did not see the performance, nor did my mother or any of the women in the family, for in those days, only men attended a sadir kutcheri. That was my first ‘unseen’ encounter with the dance of the devadasi. I often wonder whether the dancers were Kumbakonam Bhanumathi and one of her cousins. They were the most prominent dancers of the time. I never had the opportunity to find out.

In the early 1950s, Mylapore, Madras (now Chennai), was the hub of modern South Indian culture. This is where I grew up, and learnt Bharatanatyam, the new avatar of the classical dance of the devadasis. I came across nattuvanars, the hereditary gurus, like Chokkalingam Pillai, Ganesan Pillai and Ellappa Pillai, belonging to temple-towns of Pandanallur, Vazhuvur, Kutralam and Kanjivaram. The term ‘devadasi’ never came up in any conversation during my student years. If I had encountered a devadasi, I would not have recognized her.

The few ‘women in dance’ I met in my childhood were attached to the households of gurus. They were, for all practical purposes, housewives. Only one younger woman I knew sang, and seemed to know dance, but she herself never danced. I later learnt she was the daughter of a devadasi, and was a dance apprentice in the silambu koodam, traditional house of the guru where dance was taught to young girls. Opting for marriage to a nattuvanar, she was useful in his teaching profession but never danced.

My arangetram, debut performance, took place in 1952, in the Rasika Ranjani Sabha, the most sought after venue in Mylapore. It was located in the vicinity of the Kapaliswara temple were Gowri Ammal, a famed devadasi, had danced until 1945. My teacher was a young woman, Kousalya, who had learnt from Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai. She was not from the devadasi community. The champion of the devadasis of the Thanjavur district and a great admirer of their dance, E. Krishna Iyer, presided over my debut performance. As the founder-secretary of the Music Academy he had played a historic role in the renaissance of Bharatanatyam. I did not know this at that time. Much later I learnt that. When many were oblivious of the dance of the devadasis, he had invited them to perform at the Music Academy, and convinced the connoisseurs about the value of an authentic art-from. It is also believed that he was one of the first who used the name ‘Bharatanatyam’ to describe the sadir kutcheri in its new urban avatar. With my first performance I had joined a select group of ‘girls from respectable families’ who became votaries of dance. It was not the ritual dance of the temple. Rather, it was a smart re-invention of the court dance of the nineteenth century, structured by the nattuvanars who had come to live in Madras. I was fortunate to learn from, among other skilful teachers of dance, two gurus belonging to a hereditary tradition. They were Kutralam Ganesan Pillai and Kanjivaram Ellappa Pillai. Both were gurus of the last of the devadasis, whose families had left their ancestral villages in Thanjavur district to settle in Madras.

I was taught one of the first Telugu padams, a slow lyrical dance, in the raga Sahana, based on a love-poem composed by Sarangapani in early eighteenth century. It was addressed to Venugopala or Krishna playing the flute. In the padam, the dancer address the deity to whom she is attached:

I was taught one of the first Telugu padams, a slow lyrical dance, in the raga Sahana, based on a love-poem composed by Sarangapani in early eighteenth century. It was addressed to Venugopala or Krishna playing the flute. In the padam, the dancer addresses the deity to whom she is attached:

My husband beckons me,
I must go, my beloved.
Forget you, I never shall.
Beautiful, benevolent Venugopala,
When I was an unknowing child
He tied a pottu around my neck.

Like a lotus that blooms at sunrise
The distance between us matters not.
I place my devotion at your feet.

I did not understand the full import of this padam. Later on, I would wonder whether it referred to ‘child marriage’. I still could not comprehend its full meaning when my teacher explained that the song was meant to show ‘bhakti’. It was only after it had been a part of my repertoire for years, I could perceive that the song epitomized the dual role of a devadasi. She was married to the god. But she had to fulfil her contract with a ‘husband’ who had tied the marriage pendant (pottu) around her neck.

When I first danced this padam, I did not realize I had adopted it from the dance repertoire of the devadasis. The moving tune of the padam endeared it to me, and it always remained a part of my repertoire. I used my imagination to infuse the passion of shringara and bhakti in the padam, which the poet had intended. I now realize that the devadasi’s dance straddled precisely these two streams, sensual love and mystic union with the divine.

My search for the last devadasis in the 1970s turned into a discovery of their long history. In Vedic times, Pumschali was the courtesan who became a gandharvagrihita – one possessed by a gandharva, or a celestial spirit. She danced and served holy men known as rishis. She also served kings, being an expert in a plethora of royal rituals. Mythology traces her origin to the heavenly nymph. The dancing apsara, who was created by Lord Brahma, to participate in the dance-drama composed by the sage Bharata to entertain the gods. The apsara Menaka seduced the sage Vishwamitra. This became a recurring theme of later epics, making her the archetypal woman who tested faith and fortitude.

Her peer Urvasi is said to have descended as a mortal on earth and become the first devadasi or ‘slave of the gods’. She was known as a ganika when she danced to welcome Rama and Sita, back in Ayodhya after their exile, in the immortal epic Ramayana. Kautilya’s Artha Shastra classified her according to her role in society. She was a ganika, pratiganika, rupajiva, vesya, dasi, devadasi, pumschali, silpakarika, kausikastri and rupadasi. She was a woman of status in a male-dominated society. The Kama Sutra chronicled her artistic skills as well as her expertise in the art of love. She was Madhavi, the courtesan par-excellence, in Ilango Adigal’s Silappadikaram.

Religion, first Hinduism and later Buddhism and Jainism, gave the devadasi a prominent place in the ritual and spiritual hierarchy of the time. Kings favoured her, as did sages and seers. She became, in course of time, an icon of both sensuality and spirituality. I ancient times, an icon of both sensuality and spirituality. In ancient times there was a thin dividing line in such a dichotomy, so much so that she had become an object of prestige and sacredness. She was again given innumerable duties and called patiyilar, rishabataliyilar, kumbhadasi, rudra ganikai, manikkam and talaikkoli. She served the king as well as god; the king had assumed the status of god on earth. She had to hone her skill in dance and music and prove her ability to give pleasure to men and earn her position in temple and court. She was henceforth regarded as an auspicious woman, married to the god and serving the king and his subjects.

The devadasi re-invented herself in every age, until her little world became unacceptable to modern society. New cultural and social influences dictated by Victorian morality re-defined he status and sought to make her an ordinary woman, slave to none, not even to god. With royal dynasties losing their power and wealth, temples too could ill-afford to patronize the dasi. In the year 1937, at the height of the social reforms, which tolled the knell for devadasis, the great historian Nilakanta Sastri in A History of South India emphasized that this class of courtesans ‘had always held a considerable place in Indian society’. He stressed that judging by the evidence in literature and epigraphy there was little to justify the ‘squeamishness with which the institution is viewed by the social reformer, who derived his notions from the hideous traffic in helpless women and girls’ that had grown in large, modern cities. This observation stands out in clear perspective, for it differentiates between the ordinary call girl and the accomplished devadasi/courtesan of India.

Social reformers, among whom were educated women belonging to devadasi families, merged the identity of the ‘girls engaged in the flesh trade’ with that of the fallen devadasi. Although social historians try to prove that the impoverished devadasi took to the ‘streets’, it is arguable whether a correct, objective assessment of her long history is possible with this assumption dominating the discourse. The negative aspects of the last years of the devadasis are better understood when viewed in the context of colonialism, and modern feudalism, which finally pushed her down to a state of abject servility and poverty. Circumstances beyond her control isolated her from many of the systems that supported her.

Devadasis who used to perform for centuries in the temple, the royal court and at social gatherings like marriages, lived in three main streams of society. One was as part of a king’s entourage with a set of duties and an artistic repertoire suitable for the court. The second was the dasi as a ritual dancer in a temple. This milieu too had its distinct character and artistic quality. The third was the kutcheri dasi, who served neither king nor temple, but possessed a bigger repertoire of dance and music. The last became more prominent in society during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when court patronage declined.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, the institution which had nurtured music and dance – the entire world of the devadasi – had collapsed completely. Their ritual marriage to the deities in temples, which had made them slaves of the god, devaradiyar in Tamil or devadasi in Sanskrit, was about to be outlawed.

It is difficult to realize that the long thread of women’s history pertaining to this culturally important persona was snapped irrevocably in the twentieth century by a ruthless process of reformation. The art of this special woman lay in ruins. Picking up shards from the debris was not an easy or pleasant task for me. I found that reconstructing the recent as well as the ancient history of a phenomenon with a vast cultural complexity can pose many challenges. One had to take time and perspective simultaneously into reckoning and see the human face of the devadasi with sympathetic understanding. I have tried to do this while speaking of her various roles over time. The trauma of finding herself in a world that not only shunned her, but also threatened to punish her, had silenced her forever. My effort at weaving a tangible pattern from the multiple threads of history has, I hope, thrown sufficient light on the most fascinating woman of Indian cultural and social history. Her legacy lives on in music, dance, and a host of other kalas, all part of the fabric of Indian life.


Introduction 1
The Ideal Courtesan 11
From The Sacred To The Secular 33
The Legendary Dancers 45
Married To The God, Slaves Of Men 57
Royal Dynasties And Dancers 82
Seeking The Last of Devadasis 119
Nautch Parties 168
Epilogue 199
Select Bibliography 203
Index 205
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