Monday, May 21, 2018

Devadasi Abolition Act: Success of Reformist Movement or Evangelical Corruption of Indian Values? Bogan Sankar's Baseless Charges.

Douglas M. Knight Jr. biographer and son-in-law of legendary dancer Bala Saraswati had, in an interview, said that Bala, as she is fondly referred to, is being eclipsed due to political reasons and that her name continues to evoke a chord of fear in the field of dance as she had challenged Brahminical hegemony in that art form.

Contemporary Tamil poet and prolific writer of popular posts on Facebook, Bogan Sankar, has opined that the marginalization of legendary dancer Bala Saraswati by Brahmins had it's origin, "as usual" in the history of Christian missionary activity. He added that Knight Jr.'s own biography had traced the Brahminical opposition to Bala in the influence of Christian evangelism on Indian mores amongst other factors like imported notions of American feminism and half baked understanding of Indian ethos by Theosophists. Unable to absolve Brahmins of any responsibility, begrudgingly, Bogan Sankar, who specializes in fictional and highly imaginative narrations in daily life as poet, assigns them a 'marginal role'. I pointed to him that that was not true and lacking any substantive factual rebuttal Bogan Sankar took recourse to, what else, but my supposed Christian heritage. So, what are the facts?

Image Courtesy Publisher

Evangelism, Theosophy and The Marginalization of Bala, in Knight Jr.'s Biography

Bogan, as he is popularly known, refers to the chapter "Renaissance 1927-1936" wherein Knight Jr. traces in 4-5 pages the historical setting, in his opinion, in which Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, credited as the leader who spear headed the abolition of the Devadasi system, arrived.

In hurried couple of paragraphs Knight Jr, a musician by training and an 'independent scholar, compresses several decades of Evangelical and Colonial history. The East India Company, which had at first been lukewarm and even hostile to missionary activity, began to allow Christian Evangelism in 1830s. Barely three decades later, 1857, a major revolt broke out and almost extinguished the colonial rule. The revolt, was largely driven by religious concerns as both Muslims and Hindus felt that their religions were under assault by the new faith and the colonial regime. By 1870s the evangelical movement that had spread from UK to US and then to India had petered out and given rise to offshoots like Transcendatlism and a certain variety of Spiritualism called Theosophy. Theosophy, unlike Christian evangelism, in Knight Jr.'s own telling, had it as a principle to oppose dogmatic Christianity. Knight Jr. cites a convoluted passage from a biography of Henry Olcott, one of the founders of Theosophical Society, to establish that Olcott by refusing to differentiate himself from the Hindus and Muslims mirrored, in a curious way, the missionaries insistence of differences with native religions and thus was still an "imperial thrust" on behalf of British Colonialism.

Olcott, Knight Jr continues, to curry favor with Indians  took to "unabashed criticism of Evangelical Christianity and Christian orthodoxy" and then imported a version of women's rights "adopted by American spiritualist reform movement".

Knight Jr. is NOT a historian of the colonial era and in the packed few paragraphs he's completely ignorant or has not presented the really tangled history of Colonial governments and missionary evangelism. Pre-1857 the Company officials eagerly courted Brahmins and extensively used Shastras to codify laws in areas governed by them and they were careful not to irritate local sentiments too much. Post-1857 the Crown decided to resolutely stay out of local affairs and customs. Both of that had large implications for Indian history, conversions, Christianity in India and societal upheavals.

Bogan is also forgetting that Knight, before he transitions to Muthulakshmi Reddy, concludes the section on Annie Besant by saying that she did not understand how much her popularity amongst Brahmins and her ideas about Brahminism was threatening to non-Brahmins. In my earlier essays on the topic of Sanskritization of Carnatic Music I had pointed to this schism based on multiple sources other than just Knight. Unlike Bogan I don't pick the first information that comes my way. When I wrote that article I was careful in choosing information and opinions that several sources had independently corroborated.

The remaining question is whether the Devadasi abolition movement in the twentieth century had its roots in Christian evangelism? If not, what else drove it? For those answers we need to turn to Davesh Sonjie's exhaustively researched and sourced book "Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India".

Who Were the Devadasis?

Anyone interrogating India's past is often frustrated by paucity of records and near total absence of historical writing, of the Greco-Roman type, until the advent of Islamic regimes and later the colonial era. The colonial era saw an explosion of record keeping, commentaries, inquiries and memoirs chiefly by the regime and its administrators and the Christian missionaries. The long freedom struggle from a Sepoy mutiny to August 15th 1947 saw a nation define itself and reinvent itself. The process of reinvention involved a plethora reform movements that were more often than not initiated by Western educated Indians. The Indian reform movements were often undergirded by new awareness of social mores and reinventing an ancient society to fit into the modern world from which it had hitherto remained unaffected. Sunil Khilnani and Jawaharlal Nehru point to a salient feature of India's heritage where rulers and dynasties changed without any or little change to the society that was governed. This changed during the colonial era.

The first myth that Soneji dispels with is the narrative of devadasis as a singular category and as a group of women who held a place of pride in the society due to being associated with temples as 'slave of god'. He notes that the term 'devadasi' itself does not appear in Tanjore Maratha records. The women had a 'contentious status' owing to their non-conjugal sexual lifestyle and were alternately referred to as 'dancing woman, concubine and court servant'.

Soneji equates the pottukattuthal ceremony with kattikalyanam (dagger or sword marriage) and notes that many dancing women were betrothed to a God, if at all they were, in home ceremonies and not in temples. The Maratha records did not give any religious symbolism to this ceremony. "Dedication rituals so fetishized by scholarship on devadasis has less to do with theological symbolism than it does with economic investments". Time and again Soneji deglamorizes their lives as "quasi-matrilineal" and not 'matrilineal' because many lived as concubines and their much valorized economic independence was just a fairy tale. Annam, a a dasi in 1842 had her pottu tied at the age of ten and she, according to records, was entitled to "one kalam paddy every month and one-and-a-half handfuls of cooked rice a day". Thus the pottukattuthal ceremony was a 'transaction that secured a girl's commitment to local economies of land and guaranteed her sexual and aesthetic labor'.

"Slavery was a major part of the economy of the Tanjore Maratha kingdom". "Young girls who were orphaned or destitute were often bought by the court in order to have a pottu tied and then given to a courtesan household ...or simply lived with the concubines in seraglios". This adoption of orphans by devadasis became a key legal issue in the colonial rule.

'Nautch' and Amy Carmichael

The other myth that Soneji destroys is attributing the demise of the 'temple' devadasi system to the rise of the "nautch" performances that in turn stigmatized a glorious tradition. South India, Soneji establishes, had a vibrant courtesan culture that included both Hindu and Muslim women. The courtesans were, contrary to myths, the mainstay of dance and aesthetics. Most of the courtesans were in no way part of the temples wedded dasis.

Having established the prevalence of a courtesan culture Soneji immediately turns to 'European engagements'. "Representations of devadasis in this period emerge out of alliances between Christian evangelicalism, colonial anthropology and imperial medicine, all of which were directed toward the moral reformation of women from these communities". Part of the animosity of many like Bogan towards evangelical influence on devadasi abolition is premised on a utopian retelling of their lives. As we saw briefly, it was anything but idyllic. The system, in fact, was crying out for reform. Sonjie, specifically mentions Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) and her reform efforts. A Madhva fundamentalist supplied Bogan and others with a page from Carmichael's writings about seeing a young child being subjected to the rites of a devadasi. Carmichael went on to form rehabilitation centers for children of devadasis. It's easier to malign Christian missionaries than to at least nominally recognize the services they provided in the social vacuum that Hinduism had left many in.

The dance repertoire of the courtesans were very unlike what revisionist historians of Bharatanatyam would have us believe. The courtesans did not only dance to erotic verses but also to compositions that would be laughed today as stunts. Chennai Nellaiyappa Nattuvanar, grandson of the Tanjore Quartet, composed a performance where the dancer would tied vegetables to their bodies and would slice them off while dancing. The 'nautch' performances included both Hindu and Muslim girls.

To be sure colonial era writings and missionary records were written to portray the "civilization depravity of the 'oft-conquered people' of India". No missionary work, however noble, was divorced from proselytization. Too often missionaries impressed upon their beneficiaries that their plight was the result of not just their socio-economic circumstances but because of Hindu theology. Now, to be fair to the missionaries, there were times when that was true too. Often the conversions, to state a fact, were not the panacea that they were promised to be but that's a whole another pandora's box beyond the current purview.

While expressing umbrage and irritation at colonial era writings that are unfairly prejudiced and sometimes even hypocritical towards Indian history we often forget to contextualize how India's own leaders and Indian scriptures had spoken of lower castes and others. Even to Gandhi and Bharathi Dalits appeared as unwashed masses crying out for a savior. From Manu Shastra to India's own founding fathers it is common to see extremely uncharitable and racist views towards others. It was an era when 'political correctness' did not exist as a norm.

The Legal Code and Devadasis as Prostitutes

Introduction of modern jurisprudence and the codification of laws to govern an ancient country that had become a melting pot of civilizations became the foremost challenge of the colonial government from the East India Company days. Few realize how much Brahminical Hinduism informed the codification of those laws from the 18th century. Brahminism, long relegated to the shadows during Islamic rule, found a resurgence to prominence and position of eminence during Colonial rule. While on the one hand Colonial and evangelical writings were harsh about India's civilization its opposite also was true. Indology, as a study, established during that era has provided yeoman service to resurrecting India's glorious past.

"Victorian notions of sanitary reform and social hygiene were also influenced by the growing importance of eugenics". Devadasis were compelled to register and be tested for venereal diseases following the Contagious Diseases Act.  Exemptions, however, were given to temple bound devadasis. A British Medical Journal on the study of STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) in India (independently sourced by me) corroborates Sonjie's data that curbing STDs was a strategic importance for the British army because the soldiers had been "encouraged to have non-committal sexual relationships with natives". Guess which class of women were ripe for non-conjugal sexual liaisons and thus liable for being infected by a disease that arrived in India, probably, through the Portuguese. Soneji cites an important work that details how British feminists who used the image of Indian women as 'white women's burden' and connected it to imperialism to create a political platform for their own feminist movement back home.

An Indian can bristle at the notion that a colonial regime had to introduce sanitary reforms but let's not forget that sanitary reform was equally the Mahatma's key agenda. Whenever Gandhi entered a village he was known to inquire if the village had toilet facilities and if the answer was 'no' he'd start instructing them to construct a latrine. A key challenge even today in India is the preponderance of open air defecation. Introduction of modern medicine created its own profound frictions with an ancient society.

One of the cornerstones of modern jurisprudence is property rights and an important feature of property rights is inheritance. On framing laws Colonial officials, time and again, more than is realized, yielded to local customs. Chandra Mallampalli's "Christians and public life in colonial South India, 1863-1937" recounts a legal odyssey in establishing inheritance rights for converted christians. It is unbelievable how much the colonial governments, especially after 1857, were reluctant to interfere in local customs. This area of research is not Sonjie's primary expertise and he glides by this important backdrop. But this backdrop is important in understanding what unfolded with regards to Devadasis.

The colonial government codified laws that incorporated Hindu caste traditions and the devadasi community posed a challenge to easy categorization. The legal system categorized devadasis as a 'caste of professional prostitutes'. It is here that one should pause and ask how did the characterization happen? Was it the malicious propaganda of evangelists or racist colonial officials who did not understand a unique customs that was unheard of in their social outlook? Soneji, writing in 21st century, refers to Devadasi lifestyle as 'non-conjugal sexual lifestyle'. Such vocabulary did not exist until recent times. As briefly mentioned above even native records referred to devadasis with vernacular equivalents of prostitute. But that was not all.

Devadasis and Native Literature

Surveying native literature between 1850-1950 Soneji establishes that it is not just missionary literature that maligned the devadasis. Anyone who has a little reading of the uphill struggles of reform movements would consider it laughable that an ancient society which had hitherto, according to popular belief, held devadasis in high esteem just switched its vocabulary to calling them as whores because foreign evangelists called them so. It is useful to again recall Sonjie's assertion that devadasis always had a position of ambiguity.

Soneji mentions Sascha Ebeling's, "Colonizing the Realm of Words: The transformation of Tamil literature in nineteenth century" when discussing viralivitututu (விறலி விடு தூது). In order to get the context correct I referred to Ebeling's discussion of Cetupati viralivitututu (சேதுபதி விறலி விடு தூது). Ebeling, contrary to what Soneji characterizes, considers the work as 'celebrating' devadasis. The text, rather, as Soneji points out, in the tradition of similar works, portrays devadasis as defrauding agents. Ebeling, citing Nancy Paxton, says Christian Missionaries exerted a significant inluence on colonial policy between 1820-1850. Then she leaps to how 'The Hindu', founded in 1878, led an anti-nautch campaign. In this milieu Ebeling also situates the works of Christian lyricist Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-1889) where devadasis come in for a moral approbation. What is missing in the picture are a few details. One, how did native literature look at devadasis? Two, when the anti-nautch campaign and later the devadasi abolition campaign took root were they guided by the prejudiced writings of the missionaries alone?

Racavetikavi, a 'resident of Tiruttani', published in 1864 (3 years before Amy Carmichael was born), "Poem on the transformation in the nature of the courtesan". The poem depicts courtesans as vesya and gives extremely pornographic descriptions of not just sexual act but of venereal disease too. "Full of lust he feels the urge again...On seeing her, he pulls back the foreskin, and notices a small leakage of blood and urine". Another work, Varakanta, published by Raja M. Bhujanga Rau Bahadur, in 1904 also portrays devadasis as temptresses who lure and defraud men. Another text published in 1943 refers to devadasis as veci muntaikal (வேசி முண்டைகள்). Sonjie concludes, "representations of devadasi-courtesans in vernacular literature" gives us an idea of their "ambiguous social and moral status". These texts also go a long way in establishing the "trope of the lascivious and money hungry courtesan". It is complete nonsense to attribute attitudes to devadasis entirely to colonial and evangelical literature. Rather, native and colonial literature converged in late 19th century.

The Abolition Movement. Devadasis and 'Respectable Citizenship'

Notably, much before the anti-nautch movement began in Chennai the fiefdom of Pudukottai, in 1878, had initiated it under the guidance of the divan A. Sashiah Sastri. There's no evidence that Sastri was enthralled by evangelist literature. He did it to protect a young king from squandering his wealth in licentiousness.

What really undergirded the anti-nautch movement? Emerging ideas of nationalism that posed the questions of what kind of a nation will India be, what will be its social mores, what reforms were needed in practices that no nation entering the modern era could afford to retain and more. Reforms for women and lower caste members drew the most attention. As regards women, their education, rights, widow remarriage, raising the age of marriage occupied the forefront of reformist agenda. Did these ideas sprout from modern education and awareness of modern world and especially an understanding of biology due to modern medicine? Absolutely yes. But that does not mean that India's reformers were pawns to colonial and evangelical prejudices. Such a view does gross injustice to the many who valiantly did everything they could to make an Independent India a better place for all.

Soneji identifies Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muvalur Ramamirtham and Yamini Purnatilakam as the trio that waged a battle against devadasi system in South India. What connected the three women? Gandhi and emerging nationalism.

A landmark event that triggered the anti-nautch movement was child trafficking. The marital-rape death of Phulmoni Das, a 10 year old girl, became the reason for the promulgation of 'Age of Consent' bill in 1891. Bala Gangadhar Tilak, amongst many, fought the bill tooth and nail as interfering with Hindu customs. Tilak went to the extent of arguing in favor of the husband. Around the same time was the Rukhmabai case (Soneji does not mention this) where Rukhmabai, a child bride, had to resort to extended legal means to not live with her husband. She became a doctor.

Child prostitution was a reality. The many devadasis that Soneji interviews or cites became devadasis when they were, literally, children, including Muvalur Ramamirtham. Muttukannammal, interviewed by Soneji, was dedicated at a temple at the age of seven. Anyone who portrays devadasi system as some hallowed paradise torn asunder by evangelical prejudice is ignorant of history or bigoted.

Muthulakshmi Reddy's anti-nautch effort were "inextricably linked to Congress politics and Theosophical society" and "emergent notions of eugenic health". Annie Besant's Theosophical society created a schism in South Indian politics with its extravagantly enthusiastic adoption of Brahminical Hinduism as the ideal end state for an independent India. The after effects of that schism continues to ricochet till today in Tamil Nadu.

Dr. Muthu Lakshmi Reddy (Image Courtesy 27frReddyjpg

Soneji details how a section of devadasis themselves opposed Reddy's movement. A significant figure was Bangalore Nagarathnammal. Interestingly not one of those who opposed Reddy had been dedicated at a temple. This underscores how 'devadasis' is a loosely used terms. In fact the trope of devadasis as beholden to temples was assiduously promoted during this period of conflict to escape moral approbation. Later when the arts were appropriated by the Brahmins and history was re-fashioned this myth became so well entrenched that it has become an article of faith. But, facts, as Soneji marshals, are stubborn.

Soneji, citing several researchers, establishes how "health of the nation was liked to the goal of swaraj". "Politics of respectability was a cornerstone of Congress nationalism" and that was invariably patriarchal in outlook. Addressing a meeting in Rajahmundry in 1921, quoted by Soneji (and I've corroborated it in D.G. Tendulkar's biography of Gandhi) Gandhi calls for women to ensure that there is "no single dancing girl" in the region. When Muvalur Ramamirtham and another dash offer jewels to Gandhi he refuses to accept them until they led "a respectable married life". "He asked that they wear and display talis or mangalsutras". A man wrote to Gandhi about the necessity for "moral elevation" of devadasis and Dalits. Note, the twinning of two very different people. All three women reformers saw, like Gandhi did, that marriage was the respectable institution for women.

Myths and Realities of Devadasis

As regards the fabled property rights of devadasis Soneji is categorical in characterizing it as "loose matriliny" in several places and he highlights some families where inheritance continued through male and female offsprings. Likewise it is an oversold myth that Devadasis were well learned. Even researchers like Paxton, cited by Ebeling, embellish that. But material provided by Soneji says otherwise. A Telugu Brahmin wrote a treatise in Telugu, explaining dance postures, so that he "could facilitate learning for the vesya stris" without having to study abstruse Sanskrit texts. Only highly accomplished courtesans were taught texts like Gita Govind by "Brahmin connoisseurs with whom they often shared intimate relationships".

The reforms did disenfranchise the devadasis socially and economically. The collapse of the maratha regime in the 19th century and later the abolition of zamindari system in independent India essentially sealed the fate of devadasis. The human cost of the disenfranchisement is real but so was the cost of the system.

It is often forgotten that devadasis or courtesans were never really free or independent as the modern women today. Courtesans in the Maratha court were severely restricted regarding where they were allowed to dance and gain revenue. A dasi dedicated to Brahadisvara temple was fined for performing at a private event.

After witnessing a performance by courtesans (kalavantula women) where very explicit and erotic gestures were employed and middle class morality was mocked Soneji cautions us from reading too much into that as independence. "I am conscious of the fact that Kalavantula women were themselves dependent upon the world of men in ways that implicated them in larger, systemic forms of discrimination and potential exploitation". This complexity is often lost sight of in simplistic romanticized notions of sexual independence and exaggerated ideas of what that sexual independence could really be.

A historian, even a lay and itinerant student like me, should look at diverse sources and judge if a point of view can be sustained by not just other authors and other books but books on tangentially related topics.

Sonjie's accent on emerging nationalism, the debate of 'respectable citizenship' and Gandhi in the abolition movement is buttressed by Mrinalini Sinha's "Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire". Gandhi had called Katherine Mayo's 'Mother India' a drain inspector's report. But the book set off a nationalist reaction that wanted to respond by modernizing its society and an important fallout was the 'Sarada Act' that abolished child marriage.

Sinha argues that the "focus on modernizing of marriage and family life" was the result of a "convergence in the early twentieth century go particularly dense economic and social forces". Indian women and women's organizations, just as in devadasi abolition, played a key role. It is beyond uncharitable to attribute devadasi abolition to anyone other than India's own wonderful women. Colonial outlook, evangelist literature, reports of drain inspectors were but marginal factors as a nation willed itself into modernity and reformed ancient, very ancient, customs. This is why even Soneji dwells more on domestic causes than on anything else.

Did Victorian Morality Change Indian Sexual Mores?

As regards the much emphasized sexual freedom of devadasis we've already seen how that could be argued as more in service of patriarchy than a true freedom. Corollary to that is an oft repeated trope about Abrahamic faiths and particularly the importation of Victorian morality corrupting a culture that treated sex as healthy pursuit even to the point of being hedonist about it in literature and temple sculptures. Amartya Sen quoted his teacher at Cambridge to say that the "frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true". Yes India is the land of Kamasutra and Ajanta but it is also the land of scriptures that, like every other culture, laid down the most stringent rules for women especially on matters of sex and practically treated them as creatures of wanton lust to be kept on a leash.

Arti Dhanda's "Woman as fire, woman as sage: Sexual ideology in the Mahabharata". "Mothers in the Mahabharata are frequently cast as all-wise, all capable characters". Other women are linked to sin, snake, sharpness of a razor and poison. Sexologist Sudhir Kakar, strangely he's not cited by Dhanda, labels this the 'mother-whore' dichotomy in Indian attitude towards women and their sexuality. It'd be abjectly silly to think that Gandhi's quest to become sexless, a near fatal obsession for him till his last day, had anything to do with Victorian or evangelical morality. Indians need no lesson in misogyny or suspicion of sex.

The devadasi system abolition needs to be understand against a complex tapestry as outlined above. In reality economic forces, emergent notions of nationalism, role of women in society, protection of children, introduction of modern law and medicine, all contributed to the demise of the society. This is not to mean that colonial regime, its literature and governance and evangelicals had no role in it but they were, in reality, not the driving force or even the spark. It is ironical that I, of all people, have to argue forcefully in giving Indians their due for a major reform. That is because many, these days, are ill-informed and based on myths blame the reforms for a supposedly idyllic system that was destroyed. This view is akin to Margaret Mitchell bemoaning the loss of the South's traditions as "gone with the wind".

The seminal influences on Indian culture and social mores could be more attributed to the advent of modern education and the expanding frontiers of science. Of course, on both of those counts the contributions of the colonial regime and evangelists was significant.

Who is a Historian?

When I declined to accept Knight Jr. as a historian it irked Bogan Sankar. A long forgotten argument centered around Nehru on Facebook was reminded to me by Facebook in their 'on this day' feed. Back then Bogan had referred to American journalist Ved Mehta's book like it was history and I had disagreed. My comment was "No. Completely wrong. Ved Mehta is a journalist who visited India. He did have some perspectives worth considering. But he's not a historian who takes a topic and searches across continents and archives for answers. Ex. Srinath Raghavan's book does that. I'd not call Bob Woodward a historian for the same reason. How a historian approaches a subject is completely different. Raghavan's book gives fantastic details of everything that was at stake in the multiple wars during Nehru's era."

My standards are always the same. Even when it comes to history it matters if a historian making a point is a primary authority on that and if that is the central subject else it has to be corroborated by other sources and the conflict, if it exists, needs to be resolved logically.

A Baseless Accusation

I'll now briefly address Bogan Sankar's charge of "you're a Christian". Whether it is Nehru or Gandhi or Bharathi or Radhakrishnan or the many topics of Indian freedom movement I've time and again taken it upon myself to refute canards when I can. Whenever I've felt that facts do not support assertions I've written extensive fact based rebuttals. Just recently I even wrote a rebuttal to Audrey Truschkey's patently stupid tweet maligning the Ramayana. People like Bogan rarely twitch in those circumstances and conveniently forget that my religion, or what people think of as my religion, has nothing to do with those topics. I've realized that people are more comfortable in acknowledging that someone could be bilingual but someone with no allegiance for a religion or animosity towards other religions is difficult to comprehend and people always look for "Eureka" moments to say "see I knew this is who you are". I wish such moments were grounded in facts.

I can say with a touch of pride that my essay on the Sanskritization of Carnatic may be debatable or even disagreeable or faulty in its conclusions but the bibliography is easily a handy list of books anyone could read to know the complex history. Asking the right questions, Will Durant taught me, is already half knowledge. Nobody sent me a list of books to learn from. It is by persistent questioning, mostly on google, I got to know of references and books. Then I check out sources in the bibliography or notes supplied for references for further reading. It is a lovely game of chasing the horizons of knowledge and wisdom.

Even if a subject's politics is disagreeable to me, like Savarkar or Golwalkar, I've been fair to their contributions. I've defended Savarkar against those who malign his sacrifice. After reading Golwalkar I was convinced his views on nationalism was more mainstream than is commonly supposed. That does not make it correct but it also means he was not admiring Hitler. As I said I always refute when I think facts are incorrect.

Back in 2012 when Thamizachi Thangapandian maligned U.Ve.Sa and incorrectly claimed that Christian missionary Ziegenbalg learned Tamil out of love for the language I wrote a detailed rebuttal that Ziegenbalg learned Tamil to proselytize. Even more recently I had defended K.A.N. Sastry to a Christian columnist. When I rebutted Bogan's claim he retorted "you're so predictable". Yes I'm predictable. When I've better facts I'll rebut anyone. When I suspect a narrative as not capturing the truth I'll search for facts. I've always set out the facts making sure that it's contextualized whether I agree or disagree with a point of view. I supply my references not to boast but to let any reader trace the quotes and verify for himself or herself or for an intellectually curious reader to continue his or her journey.

Alas, Bogan Sankar, you disappointed.


I heartily recommend Davesh Sonjie's book. It is a work of scholarship. As a former resident of Thanjavur for 25 years I was amazed to realize how little I knew of the Tanjore, the event filled 18th and 19th centuries, the Serfoji clan, how much Brahmins have had a long relationship with music and dance pre-dating the devadasi abolition, how brahmins were paid by devadasis to compose javelis and erotic poetry, how Hindus and Muslims and many caste participated in music, the cultural exchanges of North and South musical traditions and more. The book is a compelling read.

The book, reflecting the complexity of the topic, is multi-layered and the feeling with which I closed it was, "if only we could talk of all this without rancor and prejudice". It is a very, very rich history and Soneji has done it justice.


  1. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India - Davesh Soneji, University of Chicago Press
  2. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life - Douglas M. Knight Jr., WesleyanUniversity Press
  3. Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage: Sexual Ideology in the Mahabharata - Arti Dhand, State University of New York Press
  4. Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire - Mrinalini Sinha, Duke University Press
  5. Colonizing the Realm of Words: The Transformation of Tamil Literature in Nineteenth-Century South India - Sascha Ebeling
  6. Appropriation and Invention of Tradition: The East India Company and Hindu Law in Early Colonial Bengal - Nandini Bhattacharya-Panda, Oxford University Press
  7. Politics and Nationalist Awakening in South India, 1852-1891- R. Suntharalingam, The University of Arizona Press
  8. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 - Antoinette Burton, University of North Carolina Press
  9. British feminist Josephine Butler 
  10. India and STDs - British Medical Journal Report
  11. Sarda Act
  12. Phulmoni Das Rape Case
  13. Rukhmabai Case
  14. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi
  15. Moovalur Ramamirtham
  16. Mahatma - D.G. Tendulkar Vol2.
  17. Douglas Knight Jr.'s interview in Tamil Hindu
  18. Bala Saraswathi 100th Year Commemoration Article in Tamil Hinduபாலசரஸ்வதி&order=DESC&sort=publishdate

1 comment:


well done , but you have not clearly brought out the Knight Jr , about Balasaraswathi and the Brahmin"s appreciation about her work,I am following your Blog for your detailing and Frankness in your expressions, please continue, our religious practices need not interfere in our status as Indian and we respect the richness of our Culture and its multitude complexities