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Servants of God, the Wife of the Whole Town; Visual Narratives of Devadasi

In 1789, a famous British landscape artist, Thomas Daniell, visited the affluent city of Varanasi with his nephew William Daniell. Amazed by the marvel of the temple architecture of the town, he painted the famous image ‘Hindu Temples at Brindavan’ in 1797. Daniell’s painting does not try to capture the contemporary life of the country’s people but instead tries to highlight the grandeur of Indian temples and their religious symbolism. This genre of paintings of Indian temples eventually served the European market better.

One of Daniell’s contemporaries, William Hodges, also painted a sketch of the Indian temples called the ‘Brahmins Before the Temple of Vis Visha (Bisheshwar) at Benares’ in 1781 which depicts a temple offering being prepared by a group of Brahmins standing at the temple doorsteps. Hodges’s sketch differs from Daniell’s painting as it captures the contemporary lives of people in and around an established temple (Most of the images by Hodges capture people’s occupations, houses, expressions, body postures, etc.).

William Daniell | Hindu Temples at Brindaban, 1797 | (Courtesy: Forbes India)
William Hodges | Brahmins Before the Temple of Vis Visha (Bisheshwar) at Benares | (Courtesy: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Both canvases give out a specific image of the Hindu religion, where temples serve as prime centres of rich aesthetic spirituality and refined architecture in the Indian Brahmanical society of the 18th century. Regardless, the work of the two artists certainly differs in the perspective with which they look at the same Indian Hindu temples.

For one of the lengthiest parts of history, the perspectives and realities of one particular section of the society discriminated against based on ‘purity and lineage’, called the Dalits, have remained suppressed.

The Devadasi culture of the Hindu tradition is one such suppressed reality of Dalit Women. The temples of India have historically been prime sites of spirituality and art, with musicians, dancers and painters dedicating their art and lives to God, like the ‘Devadasis’. How did the tradition that was once said to earn dignity to young female classical dancers in society now banned in all of India post-1988 but is still practised illegally? It was for visual artists like Savi Savarkar, Giordana Napolitano, etc., who brought the exploitation of young Dalit girls under the safe asylum of religion into the light. Painting alternate Dalit reality of Devadasis, specifically in the paintings of Dalit artist Savarkar, promises a different perspective of the Hindu religion.

Devadasis: Servant of God, but the Wife of the Whole Town

The word ‘Devdasi’ translates to ‘servants of gods’. The Devadasi system is an age-old ritual of ‘deflowering’ girls upon attaining puberty by making them perform sexual duty by the decree of the god or goddess (goddess Mathamma or Yellamma) with a chosen man, preferably the temple priest. Devdasis become wives of the god and are not allowed to be married to a man on earth. The famous Marathi proverb on Devadasis goes like this, “Devadasi Devachi bay ako, Sarya Gavachi” (Servant of God, but the wife of the whole town)

Historically, Devdasis held high status in society since they performed classical dance and music in the temples. The origin of the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam can be traced to the temples of South India, where Devdasis would perform classical dances and music during offerings and festivals. Devadasis thus formed an occupational group believed to have wealth and high societal status.

Many understand the coming of British invaders as the point of contamination of the Devadasi system, when kings and upper caste patrons lost their power over temples, eventually prompting Devdasis towards prostitution. Outlawed in 1988, the tradition is illegally still practised in border districts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and other parts of southern India.

The Devadasi culture has never been monolithic, and a part of the duties of a Devdasi was performing sexual allegations towards upper caste men like kings, priests or zamindars. Giordana Napolitano, a 21st-century Italian artist, paints Devadasi’s portrait in a Bharatnatyam stance. Counternarratively, she paints another picture of a purple-blue-skinned Devdasi without clothes being fucked by a white-skinned man. Her entire series on Devadasis indeed brings out the historical degradation of Devadasis from trained classical dancers to ‘prostitutes’, but more importantly, her portraits also speak of the different unique perspectives with which the Devadasis can be painted. The pictures have nuanced and contrasting figures of the female (a Devadasi). The skin colour of the female figure denotes more than just the woman’s health. The images are put together to produce the best understanding of how different realities can be allotted to the exact figure (that of a Devadasi)by an artist.

Series on Devadasis | Giordana Napolitano | (Courtesy: Celeste Network)
Series on Devadasis | Giordana Napolitano | (Courtesy: Celeste Network)

Devadasis were mainly drawn out of non-Brahmin castes (Kalavantin/Isai Vellalar/Kalavantulu) or amongst Dalits (Jogini/Mathamma). This is further validated by the report published by the National Commission of Women in 2016, which concluded that girls from the SC community are more vulnerable to being ‘dedicated as a Devadasi’ (59% of the existing Devadasis are from Scheduled Castes, as per the report). Another report by NCW 2001 recorded that ‘there are 2500 devadasis in the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, and all of them are Dalits. Being the most vulnerable sexually, the ‘so-called’ lower caste girls lose rights over their bodies upon hitting puberty, and their virginity is sold to the upper caste males like kings, priests, patrons, businessmen, traders, jewellers, architects, etc.

This practice is veiled through religion and makes the enterprise of upper-caste males to practise sexual control over young Dalit girls easier and more spiritual!

Savi Savarkar: Questioning Hindu Spirituality Through Art

Savi Savarkar, an eminent Dalit visual artist, paints images of this sexual exploitation of Dalits and other lower-caste women. Savarkar understands art as Brahmanical and elaborates on the religious cover of the inextinguishable supply of concubines to wealthy upper castes in his lecture on the Indian Cultural Forum platform.

Like Napolitano, Savarkar also paints a series of portraits of Dalit Devadasis, like the ‘Freedom to Devadasi’ (2001), which depicts a Devdasi’s sexual captivity by a Brahmin and subsequently all of the society, which is represented by timid multiple scribbles at the right edge of the painting. His work ‘Devadasi with Crow, etching’ (1987) instils an image of a Devdasi with a surgical cut on her belly, for they go through many abortions. Another piece by Savarkar, ‘Devdasi 1,’ also shows a portrait of a Devdasi without clothes and a lantern in hand. Her headgear has black flags resembling the flags of the temples.

Savindra Sawakar, Devadasi I, credit: Saurabh Dube | credit: opendemocracy.net
Devadasi with a Crow | Savi Savarkar | (Courtesy: Research Gate)
Savi Sawarkar | Freedom to Devadasi | (Courtesy: Research Gate)

Savarkar paints these images in retaliation to the age-old sexual exploitation of Dalit females sanctioned by religion. He reclaims the space of faith through art and redefines ‘Devadasi’. Painting the Dalit reality of Devadasis of the Hindu tradition, specifically by Dalit artist Savarkar, is not representative of the opinion of the entire Dalit community. Still, it does make way for dismantling popular and casteist histories of religion and spirituality.

An Alternate History

Art and religion have always travelled together across the histories of the Indian subcontinent. Caves of Bhim Betka, Hindu temple sculptors under Hoysala and Chalukya dynasty rule, European paintings of Jesus and Mary presented in the court of Mughal emperors by Portuguese traders or calendar art of Raja Ravi Verma. Ironically, means of decoration and devotion for the upper caste were and still are hugely painted, sculpted, weaved or sung by Dalits across the subcontinent. Indian visual arts and architecture have aged with the Dalit community.

Across the span of the hundreds of years of caste-based discrimination in India, art produced by Dalits and other lower caste communities has tried to redefine realities of religion, sexual violence, slavery, temple customs and monochromatic understanding of God. Using visuals, sculptors, and digital space as forms of protest by Dalit artists repeatedly redefines the notion of purity and religion of the Indian subcontinent.

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