Devadasi Communities in Ceylon and the Straits Settlements: Tamil Circuits of Labour and Cultural Production in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

This talk examines the movement of women from devadasi communities into worlds of colonial labour and cultural production outside of South India. It focuses primarily on two related sites, namely those of Ceylon and the Straits Settlements. In both of these highly racially stratified contexts, Tamil professional dancing women found themselves engaging in multiple forms of corporeal exertion, which included plantation labour, sex work, as well as cultural work. Tamil labour and investment in the wider Indo-Malay world, and certainly across the Bay of Bengal, were key markers of imperial modernity from both economic and cultural points of view. Questions around women’s participation in the shaping of both culture and economy across this region remain largely unanswered. Bringing written and visual archival sources into dialogue with Tamil vernacular print texts – one of which was written and published by a devadasi named K. Ancukammal – this paper entertains the idea of para-Tamil histories of cultural production that link India with early South Indian diasporas across the Bay of Bengal. Devadasi dance and music thrived in the competitive and highly differentiated sexual and cultural economies of Ceylon and the Straits Settlements, but always alongside the borrowing, mixing, and adaptation of other forms – the emergent Tamil drama (icai natakam), “Hindustani” dance and music, and “Western” musical forms — elements of which were rather seamlessly sutured into devadasi performance practices themselves. Finally, this paper also aims to shift the focus of debates on devadasi reform to the colonial Tamil diaspora, arguing that these sites provide us with alternate chronologies for charting both interventions against “temple dancing” and “temple prostitution,” and women’s resistance to such intervention.

Davesh Soneji is Associate Professor in the Department of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at the intersections of social and cultural history, religion, and anthropology. For the past two decades, he has produced research that focuses primarily on religion and the performing arts in South India, but also includes work on gender, class, caste, and colonialism. He is best known for his work on the social history of professional female artists in Tamil and Telugu-speaking South India and is author of Unfinished Gestures: Devadāsīs, Memory, and Modernity in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which was awarded the 2013 Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize from The Association for Asian Studies (AAS). He is also editor of Bharatanāṭyam: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2010; 2012) and co-editor, with Indira Viswanathan Peterson, of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is presently co-editing another volume entitled Dance and the Early South Indian Cinema (forthcoming). Prior to coming to the University of Pennsylvania, Prof. Soneji taught at McGill University in Montreal, Canada for over twelve years.  He is currently also working toward a new book on the social history of “classical” (Karṇāṭak) music and musical production in South India from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.