- Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India by Davesh Soneji
Devadasi is a word that has long been misused to refer collectively to a variety of categories of temple and performing women, erroneously giving the impression of a sustained, pan-Indian tradition. Davesh Soneji adds precision to the term, detaching it from jogati, ta'waif, baiji, and other terms for female temple workers, performers, and courtesans. He focuses on devadasis' identities as professional artists within a sexual economy by tracing scattered and fragmentary references to temple women, court dancers, and other "public women" through two hundred years of history. The standard received narrative concerning devadasis in South India entails a story of women married to gods, dancing for their divine husbands inside their temples, then eventually being corrupted and becoming prostitutes who needed to be rescued from their degraded profession. In this book, Davesh Soneji reclaims the secular components of devadasi lifestyle and dance practices, which, though comprising the majority of their performances, had been lost due to years of denial by middle-class, upper-caste reformers. He pinpoints the consolidation of devadasi identity to the Nayaka period (sixteenth and seventeeth centuries) and characterizes it as involving nonconjugal lifestyles as well as "simultaneous investments in temple, courtly, and public cultures, complex dance and music practices, and matrifocal kinship structures" (p. 30). Many women were involved with one or more of these practices but may not technically have been considered devadasis if all the components were not present.
In 1947, after decades of debate, the Madras Devadasi Act was passed in an effort to eradicate prostitution. It banned dedication of women in temples as well as any dancing associated with temples. Soneji's book concerns itself with the social, civic, and aesthetic aftereffects of this ban from the perspective of the performing women themselves. One of the most exciting things about this book is that Soneji has interviewed women from more than ten different devadasi communities in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh who lived through the implementation of the 1947 act. Additionally, he has been able to document and record some of their secular dance practices, many of which had been virtually erased from history as they did not fit the reconstituted religious history and the revived performance practices promoted by Brahmin women such as Rukmini Devi. This casual, often sexually explicit dance repertoire, however, is central to the identities of these women as well as to the ways that they remember the past. They are still performing, as Soneji puts it, "underground," in the privacy of their own homes at night. The melams, or dance troupes, have moved from public spectacle to "the realm of nostalgia and memory" (p. 210) as the women perform for themselves at private late-night parties, where they remind themselves of who they used to be and lament what they have become.
Unfinished Gestures complicates received narratives by focusing not on the few devadasi performers who were sanctioned by elites and continued to [End Page 239] perform on Madras city stages, in films, or on gramophone recordings, but on the majority of the community members who were never integrated into modern Indian society and continue to face loss, stigma, and disenfranchisement. By speaking directly with women who lived through the reform period and recording their private performances, Soneji is able to consider the effects of both the 1947 act and the 1956 Andhra Pradesh amendment (which criminalized all public dancing—even at marriages or private parties—by hereditary dancing women) on both lifestyles and actual dance practices. Discourses of nationalism upheld marriage as the ideal for the modern Indian woman, and reformers worked in vain to integrate dancers into society by getting them married, while the dance was revived and cleaned up by respectable middle-class, mostly Brahmin women, who found devadasis' nonconjugal lifestyles and "unclassical" performance styles unpalatable.
The memories and performances of contemporary devadasis reveal all the places where the implementation and enforcement of the act failed. The overall failure of reform, in the...