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Cultural Mores and Complex Relationships


Kumkum Roy

UNFINISHED GESTURES: DEVADASIS, MEMORY AND MODERNITY IN SOUTH ASIA
By Davesh Soneji
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012, PP. 313, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

Unfinished Gestures provides a gentle, poignant and painstakingly detailed account of the complex processes whereby women who participated and continue to participate in what Soneji classifies as non-conjugal relationships have been marginalized. While some scholars have tried to move beyond the binaries of the celebratory and the condemnatory in their analyses of the devadasi tradition, what sets Soneji’s work apart is his careful disaggregation of spheres of performance and his fruitful deployment of interdisciplinarity in its richness. There are no superficial or quick resolutions or conclusions; instead, we are led through a web of tangled engagements and constantly reminded of the complicated worlds that devadasis both created and inhabited, as well as of the contexts within which these emerged. The first substantive chapter focuses on Tanjore, an acclaimed centre for music and ‘high’ culture under the Marathas. Here, Soneji’s account takes us beyond the narrative of the collapse of these cultural practices with the onslaught of colonialism. Instead, he draws attention to the ways in which performative practices were reconfigured in the aftermath of annexation, and became sites where links were forged between native and colonial elites. In the process, we are provided with a detailed exploration of performative contexts. He also underscores the ways in which categories such as queens, concubines, servants and entertainers intersected and overlapped. These overlapping roles flow into and emerge out of the notion of spaces that were relatively blurred. For instance, both the temple and the palace provided sites for ‘marriage’, which was a moment of initiation. In drawing attention to these fluid boundaries Soneji persuasively establishes that many of these categories were shaped by aesthetic and material concerns. And, refreshingly, he refuses to deploy the categories of sakti or sau-bhagya, strength and auspiciousness, which have often been used by scholars attempting to rehabilitate the devadasi tradition. Soneji also documents the ways in which the tradition of nautch was constituted as disrespectable, even as it continued to flourish. He draws on indigenous literary traditions, which circulated through print, to argue that these texts represented women performers as at once cunning and alluring, and consequently as disruptive of the moral economy of the patrifocal household. Besides, he highlights how European reception of such performers/ performances was often restricted to the visual—the aural aspects, including song and music, which were an inextricable part of the rendering, were often inaccessible to such audiences. The ...


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