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Alkazi Theatre Archives

A Bibliographic Listing from the Archive

Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India

Book: Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India
Written by: Davesh Soneji
Published by: University Of Chicago Press (2012)

Davesh Soneji’s ‘Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India’ presents the socio-cultural history of devadasis from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century in South-India. The book employs the lens of performance studies, gender studies, and religious studies to talk about the embodied memories that are shared through the performances of the devadasi community — the documentation of which cannot be found in the national/state archives. The term ‘devadasi’ often has been collectively referred to various categories of women performing in temples. However, Soneji marks out the difference between devadasis and other women performers in temples, or courtesans and dancers such as ‘jogati’, ‘tawaiffs’ or ‘baijis’. The book recounts the history of ‘devadasis’ over the past two hundred years through slippages and discontinuities in documentary evidence. It also examines the community’s economic, social and cultural disenfranchisement caused by the ‘Madras Devdasi Act’ of 1947 which criminalised the devadasi lifestyle.

The author does not just wish to reiterate that “women in devadasi communities were, and still are, subject to structural inequalities, and that “agency,” understood in contemporary feminist terms, is, and for the most part has been, unavailable to most women in these communitie”’ but hopes that the ethnographic work “opens up imaginative possibilities for understanding women’s resilience under patriarchal constraints. This of course does not alter the structure of power and inequity but certainly foregrounds how individuals inhabit and subsequently cope with the spaces of civic, moral, and cultural margins.” Therefore, the book attempts to shift the attention of the readers “from the systemic to the individual; to examine forms of self-presentation, subjectivity, and autocritique that live among individuals in these communities today.” (p.14)

Unfinished Gestures- Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India