Vie scientifique | Invités du CEIAS

	Davesh SONEJI


(Professeur invité de l'EHESS) Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Canada

Mai - juin 2015

Davesh Soneji is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at McGill UniversityMontreal, Canada.

He is the author of Unfinished Gestures: Devadāsīs, Memory and Modernity in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012; Permanent Black [India], 2012), a study that examines the social history of women in devadāsī communities over the past two hundred years drawing from extensive archival and ethnographic work. He is also editor of Bharatanāṭyam: A Reader (Oxford, 2010), and co-editor, with Indira Viswanathan Peterson, of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (Oxford, 2008).

Prof. Soneji is also the co-founder and director of The Mangala Initiative, a non-profit organization that focuses on social justice issues for hereditary performing artists in South India. He is currently Director of McGill’s Centre for Research on Religion (CREOR), and is an also an Associate of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies.

Prof. Sonejiis currently completing a major research project on the eighteenth and nineteenth-century traditions of Marathi kīrtanin Tamilnadu and their influence on the making of Karṇāṭak music, as well as a co-edited volume entitled Dance and the Early South Indian Cinema, as well as a new monograph on the politics of writing feminist life histories tentatively titled Afterlives: Eight Women Speak to their Pasts and Futures.


Lectures series  (May-June 2015)


The Powers of Polyglossia: The Memory of Marathi Kīrtan in Tamil Bhajana Practices


May 19th , 2015 |  1:30-4:30 PM 190, avenue de France 75013 Paris, room 640.

Marathi Vārkarī and Rāmdāsī kīrtan was brought to Tamil-speaking South India during the earliest phases of the establishment of Marāṭhā power in Thanjavur at the end of the seventeenth century. These practices survived largely through institutions known as Rāmdāsī maṭhas in Thanjavur city and nearby Mannargudi, patronized by the Thanjavur Marāṭhā court itself. In this presentation, I consider the process by which Marathi kīrtan was “indigenized” by the Tamil smārta Brahmin community in Thanjavur by focusing on the development of a uniquely cosmopolitan practice that today is known as bhajana saṃpradāya. The codification of this multilingual, hybrid musical practice was no doubt a mirroring of the Thanjavur court’s own culture of literary polyglossia, and indeed Sadguru Svāmi of Marudanallur (1777–1817), a founding figure of the Tamil smārta Brahmin bhajana tradition, is popularly believed to have initiated King Serfojī II into this practice. This paper focuses on how Tamil Brahmin music traditions mediate the presence and meaning of Vārkarī and Rāmdāsī kīrtan in modern South India. The songs of Nāmdev, Chokhāmeḷa, Tukārām, Janābāī, Samarth Rāmdās, and others are brought into a world of not only uniquely “South Indian” rāgas and singing-styles, but also into the distinct ritual and mnemonic culture of Tamil Brahmins that includes life-cycle events, temple-style domestic pūjā, purity laws, and contemporary identity politics. Today, the memory of Marathi kīrtan is put to the service of the public identity of segments of the Tamil Brahmin community, largely through one of the community’s most cherished expressive forms, namely “classical Karṇāṭak” music, fully inflected with all its nationalist socio-historical resonances. I argue that the making of modern Karṇāṭak music and the caste-based aesthetic it engenders cannot be disassociated from its Marathi kīrtan and bhajana roots. I propose a complex genealogy for Karṇāṭak music that foregrounds the co-opting of Marathi musical and literary traditions and takes seriously the powers of courtly polyglossia in the world of Brahmin music.


Illicit Sexuality and the Politics of Movement : Dance and the Kalāvantula Performing Community in South India


May 22nd, 2015 | 2:00 - 4:30 PM 190, avenue de France 75013 Paris, room 640

Seminar : ‘Performances culturelles du genre’ (coordinated by A. Castaing, T. Leucci and F. Lignon)   


For the past two decades, much of my research has been invested in the politics of reform in the Tamil and Telugu-speaking communities of former courtesans, generally glossed by the colonial appellation “devadāsī.” Beginning in the late nineteenth century, social reform movements dislodged these women from their quasi-matrilineal homes, “domesticated” them in rehabilitation centres, and generally questioned their legitimacy. In the nearly hundred year-long deliberations on the future of this community, a number of legal interventions were also made, and in 1947, the same year that India attained independence from the British, the “Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act” officially criminalized their lifestyle, now legally defined as “prostitution.” The logic of reform, often articulated by women reformers, was ubiquitously couched in the language of a nationalist patriarchy that naturalized female chastity and marital fidelity and rendered it part of the “common sense” of the middle class. This new ethnographic project investigates the lives of young women in these communities who contend not only with the deep stigma and moral suspicion that surrounded the previous generation of women, but also with the political, economic, and cultural realities of a globalized, neo-liberal India. Drawing on new post-feminist theories of the social and affective powers of narrative such as Clare Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory (2011), one of the key aims of this project is move the discourse on traditional women performers away from the oft-repeated theories of Spivakian “voiceless subalternity” that has dominated writing on the subject for the past two decades. This project also challenges the myth of invisibility that permeates quotidian Indian middle-class understandings of women from these communities. It also challenges the notion that reform had a singular or uniform effect on the families of women who lived through it. Indeed, the primary aim of this project is to capture the very diverse experiences in these women's lives, and at the same time, to enable these individuals to reflect on identity, genealogy, struggle, and the political future. The diversity of narrative and mnemonic possibilities here opens up new pathways for thinking about the successes and failures of reform, issues around caste and women’s labour, and more generally about gender justice when it comes to education, marriage, economics, motherhood, and access to the middle-class, upper-caste world of the performing arts in modern South India.


Concubines, Copper Plates and Colonial Authority: Temple Inscriptions by Women in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Tanjore


June 2nd,  2015 | 3:00 - 5:00 PM190, avenue de France 75013 Paris room 662.

CEIAS Atelier thématique de recherche 2014-2018 'Régionalisme et cosmopolitisme : l'Inde du Sud' (coordinated by E. Francis) 


Between c. 1824 and 1845, Serfojī II (r. 1798-1832) and his son Śivājī II (r. 1832-1855), the last Marāṭhā rulers of Tanjore, built large seraglios called Kalyāṇa Mahal and Maṅgala Vilās that housed dozens of concubines who bore the titles akkā (“elder sister”), bāī or ammāḷ (“respected lady”). The concubines, whose relationships with the kings were solemnized through a “sword marriage” (katti kalyāṇam), came from a range of caste and regional backgrounds, and included Tamil Christian women, Tamil Brahmin Ayyaṅkār women, and various groups of Maharashtrian women. From roughly 1860 to 1895, after Tanjore had been completely annexed to the British, the concubines of Śivājī’s Maṅgala Vilās contributed small and large-scale donations to temples in and around Tanjore, many of which had been built or re-consecrated under the patronage of Serfojī. Their donations are recorded in the form of stone and copper-plate inscriptions that in many ways emulate the style of medieval Tamil inscriptions. Written in Tamil, Marathi, and occasionally English, these distinctly “modern” inscriptions furnish the names, dates and other details about the women that can be corroborated with similar data found in the Marathi palace records in Moḍi script. In this paper I argue that the eleemosynary activities of Śivājī’s concubines must be understood in light of another struggle for power over the redistribution of resources that was played out by the Tanjore Mahārāṇīs. In 1857, Kamakshi Bai Saheba, the senior rāṇī and widow of Śivājī, sued the British Government for declaring the title of “Raja of Tanjore” extinct, and for usurping ownership of the private estates and temples that were traditionally under the legal and economic purview of the royal family. In 1863, the temples and their endowments were restored to Kamakshi Bai and her successors until 1912.


Śiva's Courtesans: Religion, Rhetoric, and Self-Representation in Early Twentieth-Century Writing by Devadāsīs


June 4th, 2015 | 10:30 - 12:30 AM 190, avenue de France 75013 Paris, room 662.

CEIAS Atelier thématique de recherche 2014-2018 'L’amour en Asie du Sud, entre norme et transgression: art, histoire et fiction' (coordinated by M. Fourcade, T. Leucci et R. Rousseleau)  

Uruttirakaṇikaiyar Katācārattiraṭṭu, “A Compilation of Stories about Śiva’s Courtesans” is a Tamil text written in 1911 by a devadāsī named Añcukam who lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. As the title suggests, the bulk of the work consists of narratives about women from the Tamil literary past whom the author identifies as “Śiva’s Courtesans,” or devadāsīs. It begins with the story of Paravaiyār, the consort of the Tamil Śaiva saint (nāyaṉār) Cuntaramūrtti, and ends with Añcukam’s own autobiography. In this paper, I position Uruttirakaṇikaiyar in larger historical, literary and political contexts. Moving away from characterizations of modern devadāsīs as “temple women,” I hope to foreground an approach to devadāsī social history that takes seriously their attempts to realize inclusion within the public sphere – specifically within the spaces of the nation – in the twentieth century. Highlighting the points of similarity and difference between Añcukam’s text and other writings by devadāsīs – including protest letters and memos written on the eve of devadāsī reform – I demonstrate how twentieth-century writing by devadāsīs does not fit into any ready narrative or type. It breaches the standard oppositions between fact and fiction, the literal and the metaphorical, history-writing and literature. It spans a range of moral viewpoints, and as we will see in Añcukam’s text, it is often burdened by the anxieties and contradictions of reform discourse. Through their writing, devadāsīs mobilized rhetorical strategies in attempts to convince their audiences of their legitimate social location as rightful citizens of the emergent nation-state. But for all the polysemy of these rhetorical strategies, their writings did not affect a systemic change in perceptions of devadāsīs in the twentieth century. The promises assured by early twentieth century reformers did not materialize for women in the devadāsī communities, even after reform legislation was passed. As failed citizens of the modern nation-state, women in devadāsī communities today have inherited not only the subterfuges of “respectability,” but also a place in the history of modern Hinduism – as “temple prostitutes” – that they do not wish to occupy.



“Nautch” and the Colonial Cosmopolis: Dance and Dance-Making in the Princely States of Nineteenth-Century South India



9th June, 2015

Maison des Cultures du Monde,

101, boulevard Raspail 75006 Paris


Paper to be delivered at the International Conference: “Temple, Court, Salon, Stage: Crafting Dance Repertoire in South India,” co-organized by T.Leucci (CEIAS), D. Goodall (EFEO) and D. Soneji (McGill University, Montreal).


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