#DesiBooksReview 3: Vaasanthi on Literary Lineage


Vaasanthi is a renowned author and journalist who writes in English and Tamil and resides in Delhi. Click for the full bio and bylines.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 3

Literary Lineage: How the agonies, wounds, and humiliations of the devadasi community inspired the novel, Breaking Free

[Afterword excerpted with permission from Breaking Free by Vaasanthi; translated by N Kalyan Raman. Copyright © 2022 N Kalyan Raman.]

A contemporary novel would not normally require an exposition on its theme or an elaboration of the factor(s) that inspired the work. However, I feel that the reader of this novel could indeed benefit from an afterword.

Though Breaking Free is entirely a work of the imagination, it is also connected to history. The narrative is braided through a few actual events during a turbulent period in Tamil country, when the whole nation was waking up to the call of freedom from foreign rule. The customs and rituals that governed the social and religious life of Tamils, designed mostly by the upper and dominant castes, were always unjust to women; worse, they were not even perceived as such. In various forms, they remain unjust even today. While there is much argument and debate about the many disgraceful customs and rituals that were prevalent in our society, there is deep-rooted reluctance to talk about the devadasis (or servants of God, connected to the temple and the arts). In fact, as I learnt purely by chance, members of this community are seeking to erase its existence completely from their memory.

I discovered how the wounds, agonies and humiliations suffered by those women—some of whom were great artists—over many generations had made a profound impact on their descendants, and how the latter have sought aggressively to reject the markers of their past. The shock of that discovery and the effect it has had on me over the years, along with my research as a journalist into the devadasis’ art practice, gave me the impetus to write this novel. Although some of the incidents described herein are real, the people who inhabit these pages are fictional and have no connection to anyone who lived during that period.

Many years ago, when I was working as editor of the Tamil edition of India Today, I spoke at length about the devadasi system with Mr S. Guhan, former Indian Administrative Services officer and connoisseur of the arts. A casual remark he made during that conversation affected me deeply and left me eager to find out more about the subject. He said, ‘Bala [the celebrated danseuse T. Balasaraswathi] took the art of dance to supreme heights, but no one talks about her these days.’ He added, ‘Even worse than the erasure of the contribution made by the devadasis of yesteryear, who looked upon service to the arts as a lifelong penance, are statements made by upper-caste dancers of today that the dance of the devadasis was vulgar and obscene.’

‘The dedication, immersion and knowledge with respect to the arts that was the norm in those families, where art practice was a part of daily life, couldn’t have existed in other families,’ Mr Guhan said emphatically.

Initially, my curiosity was limited to meeting, interviewing and writing about the surviving devadasi women who were famous dancers and singers at one time but had since been forgotten by the arts community. I was not deeply familiar with the Tamil environment at the time. Raised in Karnataka, I had lived most of my life in north India. But I was keenly interested in the performing arts of Tamil Nadu, having learnt Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam as a young girl myself. On the pretext of writing an article for the magazine, I got the opportunity to meet and talk to a few highly distinguished artists. The famous singer Sathiyakkudi Meenakshi Sundarathammal of Thanjavur; the genius of dance, Jayalakshmi, famous for her Kutrala Kuravanji, in Thiruvidaimarudur; Thirukokarnam Ranganayaki, a mridangam player, who lived like an ascetic in Pudukkottai; Thiruvarur Kamalambal who lived in Chidambaram—meeting and having long conversations with them was a memorable, scintillating experience. The extraordinary glow that appeared on their faces when they talked about their art, and the way they readily sang, or mimed gestures even while seated, brought me an ineffable joy that was equal to a sighting of god. All of them were past eighty at the time.

Today, no one speaks about the service rendered by these artists to the music and dance of Tamil Nadu; their own descendants do not wish to talk about it. Even after the name of the community was changed—from ‘chinna melam’ and ‘devadasi’ to the respectable ‘Isai Vellalar’—and the passage of several decades after the enactment of the Devadasi Abolition Bill, no one born in that community wishes to turn the pages of their history. One of the main reasons for their aversion is the injuries the community received from society. I saw with my own eyes that those wounds were still raw and bleeding, to the extent that the younger generation refuses to go anywhere near music and dance. It is evident in the way their blood, which had sustained the tradition of developing and nurturing the arts, has frozen, hardened and become subsumed in the mechanical way of life of the larger society.

My article about these forgotten artists and their unique forms of art met with massive opposition, which came mainly from the men of the Isai Vellalar community. It was interpreted as advocacy for the revival of the now defunct devadasi tradition. At first, I was shocked by the resistance. But later, upon reflection, I concluded that perhaps the way I had written the article was what might have been objectionable. (What was prominent in the essay was a wistful lament that their arts have been destroyed.) There was a strong undercurrent of revulsion in the opposition, which I naively believed was aimed at me. Over time, however, I realized it was directed against the social institution that they wanted to forget. I thought it likely that there were many tragic stories behind that total rejection. My journey in search of those stories formed the seed of this novel.

I haven’t written a social history of the institution in these pages. Rather, I have tried to understand its impact on the lives of the people and the era through my fictional characters. Many details that I had collected in the course of my research went into the narrative. It grew into a story of the life struggles of three generations of women. Kasturi, from the first generation, is its protagonist. Hers is a time of great upheavals, an era in which many important questions about our social structure are raised. There is revolution in the air and an abiding thirst for freedom. A sense of political urgency affects everyone. Detached from all this, Kasturi lives her life with the conviction that nothing can be more important than art. I experienced the joy that dancing gives her and the shock she suffers when her hopes are dashed.

Lakshmi, who takes the first steps towards revolution, is a character modelled after Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who has a special place in the annals of feminist history. Dr Reddy was from the devadasi community, yes, but the narrative draws only on certain historical details of her public life. There is absolutely no connection between Dr Reddy’s actual life and that of Lakshmi, a character of my imagination. I took advantage of the freedom available to a writer of fiction, and nothing more.

In Tamil Nadu, where caste privilege and prestige still control social life, the devadasi tradition is a delicate subject that few want to remember, let alone discuss. Their aversion to the past is so deep that their contribution to it has been summarily erased. It is this erasure that prompted me to explore, through the prism of fiction, the underlying sociological reasons and their impact on the community.

I felt the pain of all my characters at various levels and in different periods, and underwent a metamorphosis along with each of them. It was a difficult journey, one that connected me intricately to the women I had created, all of whom became real for me. I realized in the end that this was the story of women, then and now—and of the women of tomorrow.

Many people have helped shape this novel; experts with first-hand knowledge of the community provided anecdotes, facts and references. I thank them all. Most importantly my thanks are to the remarkable devadasi women, stars of a bygone era, who opened an unknown treasure chest guilelessly before me and permitted me to dive deeper into their past.

I express my heartfelt gratitude to my dear friend and publisher, Sethu Chockalingam of Kavitha Pathippakam, who readily published my novel written in Tamil under the title Vittu Viduthalaiyagi.

I am very grateful to N. Kalyan Raman, my friend and an excellent translator, for translating the novel into English. His translation, Breaking Free, has exceeded all my expectations. It was exciting to see how involved he became with the narrative and the characters. My thanks to HarperCollins India, publishers of the English translation.

March 2022
New Delhi

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Vaasanthi is a renowned author and journalist who writes in English and Tamil and resides in Delhi. Click for the full bio and bylines.

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