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Located Within a Debate

S. Anandhi

Introduced and translated by Kalpana Kannabiran and Vasanth Kannabiran
Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 217, Rs. 300.00


Dasigal Mosavalai Allathu Madhi Pettra Minor (‘Web of Deceit or The Minor Grown Wise’) is a Tamil novel written in 1936 by an activist of the Self-Respect Movement and a reformed Devadasi, Muvalur A. Ramamirtham Ammal. After being out of print for several decades, the novel has been recently reprinted in Tamil. The book under review is a translation of the novel along with a detailed introduction on the politics of Devadasi reform in colonial South India.   The author of the novel, Ramamirtham Ammal belonged to the Isai Vellalar caste, a caste that was closely associated with the devadasi system. Dedicated as a devadasi, she broke free from the system by marrying her music teacher. At a time when the nationalists opposed the participation of prostitutes and devadasis in politics Ramamirtham Ammal voiced their right to involve in formal politics. Her strong resistance to varied forms of marginalization of devadasis in the emerging public sphere was quite evident in her insistence on the leadership of the devadasis themselves in the abolition movement. Reminiscing this, a well-known trade unionist and a Congress leader of her time, Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram noted in his autobiography that in 1925, when male social reformers of her caste invited him to deliver the keynote speech at the Isai Vellalar caste conference, Ramamirtham Ammal succeeded in inviting a devadasi social reformer from Andhra Pradesh to preside over the conference.   Unlike Muthulakshmi Reddy who demanded the reform of the devadasis through legislation, Ramamirtham Ammal in addition sought the transformation of the public sphere so as to recognize devadasis as citizens in the emergent nation. The novel conceptualizes this much-needed transformation through its critique of caste patriarchy, Brahminism, Hinduism and Congress politics. The novel is a product of Ramamirtham Ammal’s long years of devadasi reform activities combined with her political activities in the Congress earlier and in the Self-Respect movement later. Given the author’s identity as former devadasi, the publication of this novel in the 1930s was met with strong resistance from publishing houses in Madras city. Finally, a zamindarini from Pudukottai state, Vellai Duraichi Nachiyar who was concerned about the status of the devadasis, funded its publication.   The novel is about the world of devadasis and about what the devadasi reform movement, infused with the self-respect ideology of anti-brahminism and atheism, could achieve. On the advice of a wealthy dasi mother, two young talented dasis of much beauty ...

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