The Venus Flytrap: When The Devadasis Were Virgins

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Aruna Sairam shuffled onto my playlist with a song of a longing devadasi, and I called a friend who knew it well. He had the original Telugu text of Paiyyada, while I pored over an English translation. Together, we transliterated: ‘The one who rested his head on the fabric over my breast is embittered by me – aiyo…” At the end of our spontaneous cultural salon, he mentioned another Kshetrayya padam, one in which the raconteur says frankly to the deity Konkaneswara that it will cost a hundred gold coins just to enter her house, and three crore to kiss her.

The poem reminded me of one of my favourite devadasi songs in Tamil, which goes – “kathavai saathadi / kaasilathavan kadavul aanalum, kathavai saathadi”. “Shut the door, girl – if he’s empty-handed, even if he’s god himself, shut the door!”

When Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared on a Google doodle last week, it was the devadasis I thought of again. In the 1930’s, Arundale appropriated the devadasi dance known as sadir, angularised its sensuality, censored its eros and turned it into the caste-privileged form renamed as Bharatanatyam. This was part of a larger project of erasing their matrilineal, woman-centred culture, which had garnered disrepute (it came to be banned all over India). This should be widely-known, and isn’t, because of the sheer domination of one narrative over another. Before their fall from grace, devadasi women from as early as 8th century were known as: dancers, musicians, multi-linguists, land-owners, endowers of public infrastructure, impresarios, polymaths and poets. Today, they are dismissed as sex workers.

We forget them both: the mid-20th century devadasi in a system of ruin and abuse, and the medieval devadasi whose empowerment and erudition remains beyond what many women enjoy today.

I’ve also been reading about the Asur people of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I heard about them just a few days ago, when their traditional telling of the epic battle between Durga, my beloved goddess, and the buffalo Mahishasura, whom the Asurs trace their lineage to, became the stuff of headlines. A fascinating alternative rendering, not unlike how Ravana has the sympathies of Tamil people.

But I’m not convinced that the story we’re being told is the one the Asurs themselves tell. When the word “prostitute” was raised in reference to Durga, as a means of literally demonising those with this belief, I wondered – what if the original word was “apsara” (like the transgendered Mohini, who used her seductive charms on asuras too, before she bedded Shiva). What if, indeed, the word was something like “devadasi”? And if it was “sex worker” – well, as a woman who happens to be Hindu, I am frankly more offended by misogyny than blasphemy.

Another mythological word we misunderstand is “virgin”. It means a sovereign woman or goddess, by no means devoid of sexuality, and in complete control of her own. Hence, unmarried. Like a devadasi was, except to her god and her art.

Myths are full of history, and history is full of myths. We can love their messy richness, and if we must sieve them of anything, let’s sieve the manipulations that serve only their blinkered tellers.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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