Davesh Soneji: Performing Untenable Pasts: Aesthetics, Selfhood, and Women in “Devadasi” Communities Today

Performing Untenable Pasts: Aesthetics, Selfhood, and Women in “Devadasi” Communities Today

 Prof. Davesh Soneji, McGill University

Friday 25th May 2012, at the Centre for Creative Collaboration .

This presentation examines the persistent yet invisible performance practices of former courtesans (known variously as “devadasi,” dasi, kalavantbhogam, and sani) in South India, 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 these families are also the sites that produce personal and collective imaginations; identity and selfhood live through these mnemonic bodily practices. Outside the 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 contemporary public taste. Meanwhile, women from within the community watch on their TVs as “Bharatanatyam” morphs into the globalized commodity it is in India’s neo-liberal economy today, realizing that this is a world in which they simply cannot participate. 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, institutionalized concubinage, and stigma unfold through the performance of music and dance. Women in these communities express an ownership of the idea of the marginal; they articulate an awareness of the socio-aesthetics of their past. 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 women from these communities presents a productive site for such a project.

Davesh Soneji is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He is the author of Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012), a study that examines the social history of women in devadasi communities over the past two hundred years drawing from extensive archival and ethnographic work. He is also editor ofBharatanatyam: A Reader (Oxford, 2010), and co-editor of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (Oxford, 2008). Prof. Soneji is also the co-founder and director of The Mangala Initiative, a non-profit organization centred on social justice issues for hereditary performing artists in South India. Prof. Soneji has also trained in Karnatak vocal music for over fifteen years, and has studied nattuvangam as well as the highly specialized repertoire of kalavantula-courtesans in coastal Andhra Pradesh. He is currently completing a short book on the eighteenth and nineteenth-century traditions of Marathi kirtan in Tamilnadu and their influence on the making of Karnatak music, as well as another book on the politics of writing feminist biography tentatively titled Afterlives: Eight Women Speak to their Pasts and Futures

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