by Sandeep Dhopate (click for more photos)
Within Indian native discourse, the devadasi, was both a public persona, who led Hindu processions through the streets, and a cloistered figure, a temple servant. Attached to both Shaivite and Vishnu temples, a devadasi was considered a nityasumangali or ‘ever auspicious female’ who, at a young age, was married to god, her eternal divine husband. An important figure within Hinduism, her sexuality was identified with the power of the goddess Shakti and believed to balance the ambivalent nature of the divine, ‘the devadasi-nityasumangali was a person guaranteed as “danger-proof”: she should be present in those critical moments of balancing the auspicious and the inauspicious’. Through her knowledge of sacred dance and music, she played a pivotal role in temple ritual as mediator between the deity and the devotees
The devadasi stood at the intersection or ‘intercrossing’ of several oppositional European beliefs. To eighteenth-century travellers and Christian missionaries, dance could never be in service to god, nor could sacredness and sexuality co-exist easily. She was also unmarried and her independence—both socially and financially—empowered her.
These combined traits could pose a threat to the colonial establishment. Unlike the majority of British and Indian women devadasis, ‘were free to engage in sexual relations with any man of the proper caste without public censure and were able to inherit property and bequeath it to their biological or adopted daughters.
While similarities between the Indian temple dancer, geisha of Japan and high priestess of Athens have been drawn, it is the sacredness in concert with the devadasi’s erotic knowledge that has no parallel in the West.
Without an understanding of the devadasi’s religious role, and the gradual erosion of power of Indian rulers, which led to artists, musicians, and entertainers losing patronage across the sub-continent, the devadasi would become a visible target of the nineteenth-century British evangelical and social reform movement, epitomising all that was regarded as immoral in India.
These portraits of Devadasi’s are from a place in Sangli, Maharashtra, where the devdasi community continues in its traditions with pride upholding all of their unique values pertinent since before the foreign invasions and at the same time are fighting to win back their rights to equality and a life of dignity within today’s society.