SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

Seminar: 'Neither a Mother nor a Daughter: The Devadasis and the Performing Arts of Bengal'

Dr Bisakha Goswami (SOAS)

Date: 15 November 2017Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 15 November 2017Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B104

Type of Event: Seminar

The Devadasis, female performers who presented music and dance at the temples for the worship of deities, played an important role in the maintenance, transmission and reformation of traditional performing arts throughout the history of India. In their role as professional performers, the Devadasis were revered as an embodiment of divine devotion on the one hand, while they were barred from marriage and family life on the other, leading to an ambiguous social status. In the region of Gauda-Vanga, or ancient Bengal, examples of literature, sculpture, painting and oral culture concerning the Devadasis that date back to the second century BC, show that the region had its own distinct characteristics in terms of the sociocultural context of performances and performance style. A strong influence of this tradition shaped the literary world of Bengal throughout ages writing about the performing women, their performance and uncovering their demoralized social position in many ways. The names under which Devadasis of Bengal were known, such as rajadasi, janapada kalyani, devasini, deyasini, vararama, varabanita, nati, surasundari, suraveshya, swadasi, and sevadasi indicate the diverse social aspects of their lives. Particularly in the field of literature in the region, the special status of the Devadasis provided inspiration for many works, which were sometimes written from a mythological pe rspective, at other times starkly highlighting the social reality of their lives. The Pala and Sena dynasties between the eighth and twelfth centuries saw a blossoming of the Devadasi tradition, and historical evidence from this period onwards shows that they at times assumed significant roles in the religious and political spheres of public life. Introducing legislative initiatives in the early 20th century has outlawed this long existing practice in order to protect the rights and dignity of women. Yet, the contribution of the Devadasis in the field of performing arts reverberates up to present times, as their lives set a precedent for the acceptance of female performers, as evident from the nachnis, kirtaniyas, bhairavis, charandasis, sebadasis and other female performers of modern day Bengal. However, an eroded form of the old Devadasi tradition is still reflecting in the challenging existence of these performing women. Recently, there have been some initiatives in India to acknowledge the relevance of the Devadasis, though their contribution remains under assessed too often. This paper is an attempt to bring to light the contribution of such women performers collectively in the making of 'cultural Bengal'. 


Organiser: SOAS South Asia Institute

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