Gone with the devadasis
Music aficionados in Bangalore were treated on 31 January 2014 to a day-long discussion and documentary film on the Devadasi tradition of the north Karnataka-Maharashtra border areas with a focus on the music of the devadasis, something that our cultural heritage lost with the “cleaning up” of the tradition of devadasis in the post-war years. We came away from the film show and the discussions that followed, pondering the cultural entities that got snuffed out and jettisoned during and after colonial rule, in the name of “modernity”.
Devadasis, literally meaning “dedicated to the service of God,” were women artists and an essential part of temple ensembles, particularly in south India. Their song and dance recitals were part of the rituals of worship offered to the deities; and this meant that in a social milieu the homemaker women, especially from the upper castes and communities, were not allowed to take to music or dance as a full time pursuit. It was the devadasis who kept alive and nurtured music and dance traditions. In the north, likewise, the tawaif, or courtesans, were the custodians of the thumri and dadra genres, and nobility used to gather at their kothis to listen to their renderings, despite their homes being known as “houses of ill repute”. They never married, as devadasis were said to be married to God. Over time, thanks to the spread of Western ideas and culture, and the degeneration of the institution of devadasis into women recruited as mistresses by the wealthy, they came to be seen as outcastes, and as disreputable women. The word “thevadiyal”, a corruption of “devar-adiyaal” or devadasi, is to this day a word of abuse in Tamil. The British brought in legislation outlawing the system of dedicating girls to temples as devadasis, but remnants of the custom linger.
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