Devdasi (Temple Dancer)
- Polychrome terracotta
There are related pair of Devdasi sculptures in the Asian civilization museum Singapore. Acc. No. 2000.3322, 2000. 3323
This dancing figure is an excellent representation of the devadasi tradition. Devadasi, Servants of God, who were women dedicated to the service and veneration of the deity in the Hindu Temple. They were adept in dance and music. The dancer dressed in red brocade sari is standing in a typical Bharata Natyyam classical dance pose known as the sundari gesture with her right hand. This is often used to depict a graceful maiden or goddess. She is fully adorned by jewellery worn by devadasi women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The accessories and costume of Bharata Natyam dancers that we see today are
adapted from those worn by the devadasi. For example, the three part head
band with forehead pendant
(thalaikkachchu), the earrings on the lobe(thodu) with hanging dome-shaped part (jimiki), the braid ornament (jadanagam) attached to the back of her head, the U-shaped armlets (vanki),
the tight waist belt (oddiyanam) and the ankle bells(salangai) found represented on this devadasi are typical accessories worn by Bharata Natyam dancers.
The costume consists of a choli or bodice that covers the upper part of the female body, tight-fitting trousers and a sari. The sari drapes over the trousers in the middle and is pleated hanging from the waist to the knees. The overall attention paid to the details of the devadasi accessories and costume, the vivid facial expression and body posture makes this sculpture fascinatingly real.
In an article by Chung May Khuen “A Pair of Devdasi Sculptures” in Arts of Asia, Nov-Dec 2002, it has been suggested that these statues were most likely made in the Dharawad area in Karnataka. T.N. Mukharji in his book “Art-Manufactures of India”, 1888, points to Dharawad as a centre for the manufacture of Dhurries and Satranjis. In our opinion these Devdasi statues a more likely centre of manufacture of such objects is Madurai in Tamil Nadu where to this day families bring out their statues of Gods, Goddess and Devdasis during religious festivals.
The origins of the devadasi are still obscure but it is a very ancient tradition. They were mentioned and represented in text, temple inscriptions, sculptures and paintings as early as 300 BC. Over the centuries, the devadasi became entrenched in the religious and secular realms, enjoying both royal patronage and social status. It was, however, abolished in 1947 on the grounds of suppressing prostitution.
The need for devadasi stems from the popular notion that the female concept
(Sakti) as personified by the goddess is uncontrollable due to its eruptive
and dynamic power. This force applies to the ritual and secular life of all
Hindus. Since all women are identified with the female
principle, they are immune to the dangers of the goddess. Thus, a woman ritual specialist in the form of the devadasi is seen to be the best person to remove the anger of the goddess, the evil eye and other dangerous effects.
According to the Agama, traditional religious teachings, the main duties of the devadasi included fanning the main deity with chauri (flywhisk), holding and waving the oil lamp during puja (ritual) and dancing and singing hymns in daily temple worship. They also danced outside the temple during festivals and processions. Dancing is seen as act of devotion (bhakti) which allows one to attain spiritual union with divinity.
The services of devadasi were also sought after by secular patrons. They are seen as the embodiment of auspiciousness whose powers are merged with the female divinity. They are often referred to as “Nityasumangali” ever auspicious, who would never become a widow since they are ritually married to the deity of the temple. At wedding ceremonies, they would decorate the bride and danced at the procession to spread blessings.
In short, there are several layers to the significance of devadasi. First, they help to propitiate the dangerous divine. Second, their presence lends prestige. Third, they provide protection for the family from evil influences, and finally create an auspicious atmosphere for social event.
Royal patronage from 9th century onwards helped to promote the devadasi system. According to the temple inscriptions of the Chola period (9th – 13th centuries), major South Indian temples like the Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjavur had devadasi attached to them by orders of the king. By then, kings had assumed godlike powers and the role of devadasi was prominently featured in the king’s court. During the Tanjore rule, devadasi were important adornments to the king’s court and were accorded high social status. By the end of the 18th century, the devadasi system had evolved into a distinctive and hereditary profession.