Cycle - L’amour entre norme et transgression : art, histoire, fiction |

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

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


4 juin 2015 | 10h30 - 12h30

salle 662 | 190 avenue de France 75013 Paris


Conférence donnée dans le cadre de l'atelier thématique : L’amour entre norme et transgression : art, histoire, fiction



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.


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