Vasaanthi’s ‘Breaking Free’ Brings the Complex World of Devadasis to Life

To liberate oneselfthe recently published translation of Vaasanthi’s 2012 Tamil novel Vittu Vidhuthalaiyagi, by N Kalyan Raman, is a powerful feminist work that exposes the deep trauma associated with the disenfranchisement of the community of hereditary courtesan dancers – the devadasis — from southern India. Historically, dancers from the Isai Vellalar community were married to the local deity and served in temples and courts. Their art (dance and vocal music) was patronized by kings and zamindars, which often meant that women had to enter into non-marital sexual relations with their patrons, thus making them objects of ridicule and ostracism outside of this structure.

Set at the end of the 19th century and told through the stories of three generations of a family, To liberate oneself highlights the intergenerational trauma faced by an entire community in the face of pivotal historical events such as the Devadasi Abolition Bill and the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Commitment) Act (1947) and the Indian struggle for independence. The protagonists of Vaasanthi are two community-born women: while Kasturi was born to dance, truly in love with the deity she is married to, Lakshmi is loosely based on Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was at the forefront of the abolition of devadasi practice from the temples.

Both Lakshmi and Kasturi yearn for their father, who, though known to Lakshmi, remains a metaphor in their lives. The metaphor hinges on patronage, meaning any of their mothers’ bosses could be their father, a truth that haunts them. It is this righteous indignation that fuels Lakshmi’s ambitions to become an educated woman, the first in her community to “break free”. She is unwavering in her vision and has no room for the art that has shamed her and her mother.

Kasturi, on the other hand, has the soul of an artist. A charming dancer, she finds herself a suitable boss in no time. Her body is for the public gaze. The few times she tries to exercise her free will, she is met with scorn by her mother, the Durai; his patron the Raja, and others. Unfazed, for as long as she can, Kasturi embraces her art. Suppuni, who secretly desires her, says, “Those who watch Kasturi dance…certainly feel the joy of seeing God in the flesh.” She falls in love with Singaram but never betrays her divinity. Kasturi’s righteous indignation resurfaces when she learns that her old friend is spearheading the movement to abolish her art. It’s the only thing that honors his otherwise dishonorable life.

Lakshmi and Kasturi’s struggle to free themselves from their chains parallels the nation’s struggle to break free from British rule. In many ways, Lakshmi’s own quest for morality, often mirroring that of Dr. Reddy patriarchal ambitions of femininity which sought to make “useful citizens and chaste wives” devadasis, also echoes the nation’s idea of ​​morality. The novel’s omniscient narrative voice melds seamlessly with the voices of the characters, its stream-of-consciousness observations illuminating inner and outer upheaval. Vaasanthi serves us the ambitions of love, art, honor and the aspirations of a nation-state, without taking away the complexities and dilemmas of wanting one or more of these things together. The writer treats the subject of disenfranchisement with empathy and carefully presents the cases of his characters without upsetting readers’ opinions about them. The novel also holds up a mirror to modern society, particularly one with a neo-Bharatanatyam Brahmanical, non-Bahujan stance that perpetuates caste and gender atrocities inflicted on the hereditary dancer.

To liberate oneself does not, however, address the subject of Bharatanatyam and stays with Sadir (as Bharatanatyam was known before his revival), without betraying him. N Kalyan Raman’s translation connects the work and opens it up to a whole new audience. In the timelines it offers, the novel only slips when it attempts to delight the reader with Lakshmi’s granddaughter Maya’s search for clues to her mother’s unnatural death.

In the short list of works that have treated the subject of devadasis with sensitivity and responsibility, including that of Srividya Natarajan The Dance of Cancellation (2018), To liberate oneself adds nuance for the interested audience.

About Herbert L. Leonard

Check Also

The Best Lesser-Known Fantasy Books to Read During the Holidays

Many players are also lovers of literature, and more specifically of the fantasy genre. And …