NomadIT Conference Suite

ECSAS2012: The 22nd European Conference on South Asian Studies

ISCTE-Lisbon University, 25th-28th July 2012

(P29)

Courtesans in South India: towards a revisionist cultural history

Location C301
Date and Start Time 27 Jul, 2012 at 16:15

Convenors

Davesh Soneji (McGill University) email
Tiziana Leucci (CNRS) email
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Short Abstract

This panel opens up the idea of "courtesan cultures" in South India by focusing on the non-religious lives of such women and examining their substantial and sometimes agentive roles in the production of modern Tamil literature, popular South Indian theatre and cinema, dance, and music.

Long Abstract

The English term "courtesan" is most often used in the South Asian context to refer to professional female musicians and dancers from North India, known as tawa'ifs and baijis. By contrast, parallel figures from South India have been glossed by the term devadasi and as such, have been fossilized under the archaic sign of "temple women." This panel opens up the idea of "courtesan cultures" in South India by focusing on the non-religious lives of such women and examining their substantial and sometimes agentive roles in the production of modern Tamil literature, popular South Indian theatre and cinema, dance, and music. Indira Peterson examines representations of the courtesan in the little-known Tamil literary genre of Viralivitututu. She focuses on the ways in which the genre foregrounds an image of the courtesan as artist and as the object of patronage by Brahmin elites in the Tamil-speaking regions. The paper by Joep Bor explores European constructions of South Indian "bayadères" through travel writing and other texts, and also discusses the visit of devadasis from Tiruvahindrapuram to Europe in 1838. The papers by Tiziana Leucci and Saskia Kersenboom interrogate indigenous articulations of "courtesan culture" from a range of textual and ethnographic sources. Davesh Soneji discusses the place of aesthetics, memory, and autobiographical telling in his fieldwork with contemporary women from the Telugu kalavantula courtesan community of coastal Andhra Pradesh.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'Courtly culture': some thoughts on the dharma of South Indian courtesans

Author: Tiziana Leucci (CNRS)  email
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Short Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to ponder about the specific precepts of the Indian courtesan’s dharma as referred to in some literary and epigraphic texts.

Long Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to ponder about the specific precepts of the Indian courtesan's dharma as referred to in some literary and epigraphic texts. I'll start my enquiry by quoting the narratives of several seventeenth and eighteenth-century European travellers who mention the peculiar 'code of behaviour' prescribed to courtesans - all of them accomplished performing artists - in the South Indian temples and royal courts. Their accounts provide a fascinating picture of the rich 'courtesan culture' that appeared so peculiar to European observers. For a more detailed account of the specific duties (dharma) of courtesans, I'll next explore various Tamil and Sanskrit sources. Finally, I'll analyze these references by comparing them to the ethnographic data I have collected during my fieldwork in South India. My aim is to show that in India's past a quite articulated 'courtesans culture' was considered 'necessary' in order to guarantee not only the transmission and development of the local performing arts, but also to maintain the proper 'balance' of the socio-cosmic order of the dharma on which the social and religious system of courtly and temple cultures were ontologically based.

Ganika: glorifying the public

Author: Saskia Kersenboom (University Of Amsterdam)  email
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Short Abstract

The public ('gana') as a female, professional domain in contrast to private purity of lineage was disrupted by (post-)colonial modernity. Courtesans -both sacred and secular- were the first to suffer marginalization. in spite of new, global validations, contemporary India has not provided new vitality neither to past courtesans nor to new professionalism in the performing arts.

Long Abstract

Three abstract issues contextualize the profession of courtesans (ganikas) in South India: 1. the public versus the private, 2. competitive artistic opportunity versus guarantee of lineage, 3. patronage and survival. Flexibility between temple and court had been a traditional double orientation of professional success. This validation was eradicated by (post-)Colonial modernity.

Two concrete case-studies exemplify both the historical continuity of sacred and secular courtesan in Indian culture, as well as their marginalization and ultimately legal disappearance. Smt.T. Balasaraswati -whose family heritage goes back to the royal court of Tanjavur- stands in sharp contrast to the dis-empowerment of Smt. P.Ranganyaki a former temple employee.

A final thrust will be the assessment of 'new professionality'. Emancipation of the contemporary, professional, female performing artist emerges as a 'fata morgana' only.

The Courtesan's life as Art in the Viralivitututu, an 18th-century Tamil literary genre

Author: Indira Peterson (Mount Holyoke College)  email
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Short Abstract

The 18th-century Tamil Viralivitututu genre counters the stereotype of dasi courtesans as avaricious prostitutes or spiritualized figures. Through its unique descriptive language and themes, and the courtesan’s pairing with the brahman as connoisseur, the genre celebrates the courtesan as artist, and her lifestyle (in the erotic and the performing arts) as art.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the Viralivitututu (VVT), 'Message sent through the virali singer', a Tamil poetic genre of the 18th- 19th centuries. I argue that the VVT offers important perspectives that counter the dichotomous stereotype of dasi (aka devadasi) courtesan performers as money-grubbing prostitutes or spiritualized figures. The brahman protagonist, a master of multiple arts, narrates to a virali his infatuation with a beautiful courtesan, and his financial ruin, asking the virali to plead his case with his wife. Despite the narrative of ruination, the VVT's portrayal of courtesans, who both danced at temples and entertained elite clients at their establishments, contrasts both with the depiction of courtesans as women of the court in other genres, and with the ambivalence and moral critique that fuelled later Tamil portrayals. The VVT celebrates the dasi as autonomous artist, and her lifestyle, encompassing both the erotic and the performing arts, itself as a high form of art. This portrait is achieved by pairing her not with the king, but with the skilled brahman as the ultimate connoisseur. Vivid, specific and localizing in ways that are particular to Tamil literature, the VVT's unique descriptions, language, and style serve as verbal images of the courtesan's artistry, and of the process of seduction itself.

Performing untenable pasts: aesthetics and selfhood in kalavantula communities of coastal Andhra

Author: Davesh Soneji (McGill University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper investigates the present lives of former Telugu-speaking courtesans. While "courtesan dance" is understood as aesthetically deprived by urban elites, the dance survives within their households and this mnemonic mode is central to self-understandings in the present.

Long Abstract

In this paper I examine the persistent yet invisible performance practices of former courtesans (kalavantulu) in coastal Andhra who have witnessed drastic social and political transformations of their communities over the past eighty-five years or so. Narrations of selfhood and identity among these women emerge through encounters with their dance and music repertoire which they are careful to preserve "behind closed doors" in the relative privacy of their homes. These iterations of repertoire that take place with some regularity among kalavantula families are also the sites that produce personal and collective imaginations; identity and selfhood live through these mnemonic bodily practices. Outside the kalavantula community, "courtesan dance repertoire" is read as a vestige of feudal history, a sign of the "backward" and aesthetically unsophisticated past that cannot be accommodated by public taste. For some women in courtesan communities today, however, the repertoire is used as a mode of telling; it is mobilized to consolidate an otherwise untenable identity. Deliberations on lineage, the devalued nature of their cultural practices and their experiences of nonconjugal sexuality and institutionalized concubinage unfold through the performance of music and dance. If we are to envision feminist ethnography as a project of documenting shifting subjectivities that are affected and transformed by a range of diverse articulatory practices, then memory-work with kalavantulu presents a productive site for such a project.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.