The woman in the mirror

In our choices lie our fate. And so it is with Kasturi and Lakshmi, the two women protagonists in this book. Both women are born into a devadasi clan. Kasturi concentrates on her talent as a dancer and makes peace with being a devadasi. Lakshmi rebels against it, strives to break free, her struggle taking place against the backdrop of India’s struggle for Independence. Lakshmi does break free but the past casts a long shadow, as the story goes on to reveal.

This English translation of the Tamil original deals with three generations of women. The story alternates fluidly between different timelines and as it comes full circle, a mystery in one part is solved and a secret laid bare. For the youngest of the women of the three generations, it leads to a catharsis of sorts.

The devadasis were trained in music and dance and their practice of these arts was an essential part of the temple worship and rituals known as Agama. They served a deity or temple all their lives, and this provided them with land and grants. Royal patronage was another source of income but this had strings attached. Later during the British rule, things changed. The kings themselves were losing their power, economic necessities reared their head, and devadasis came to be associated with prostitution, their stature as artistes tainted.

Kasturi, trained as a classical dancer, is excellent at it and is also able to compartmentalise her life. Her art is sublime and dancing for the deity, a treasured privilege. She is able to accept that she has to sleep with the resident raja. Her grandmother advises her to see this ‘merely as an arrangement,’ one she has to enter in order to develop and safeguard the arts. Of course, these lofty ideas concealed the fact that the rules and societal constructs that defined the life of a devadasi were wrong and unjust. Kasturi herself realises this the hard way when she falls in love with a man from a lower caste. Ironically, she is able to dance in the temple even as she continues to sleep with the king but her relationship with a lower caste man will render her impure and unfit to dance.

Yet, when Kasturi learns that Lakshmi is pushing through legislation to end the devadasi system, she is shattered. She sees it as putting an end to her dance and cannot conceive of it as a chance to live a better life.

A legacy of tragedy

Lakshmi, on the other hand, is determined to lead a different life. She gets no support from her mother who is happy being the mistress of a rich man. Lakshmi is fully cognisant of the humiliation this entails. It hurts that her father will not even acknowledge her in public. With single-minded determination, she demands to be educated. She accomplishes this and becomes a doctor, and then battles to correct social evils.

Whether it is joining the legislative council to push through the Devadasi Abolition Act or providing safe refuge to a widow, Lakshmi walks the talk. This is a woman who knows her mind and works hard at getting the life she aspires to. In contrast, Kasturi comes across as fragile and vulnerable and yet more endearing.

Lakshmi’s daughter Dharini appears in the story through the reminiscences and memories of those who are related to her, or via people who met her briefly. Dharini unravels the knots that crop up after the death of her mother. Along with the revelations comes the realization that the stains of the past are never easily washed off, that whatever their stature as artistes, it was their unsavoury reputation that defined the devadasis. And the fact that this impacts many generations. In this story, it is a legacy that also begets tragedy.

This story was originally released in Tamil in 2012. In the Afterword, the author has revealed her impetus for writing the book. In her capacity as a journalist, she interviewed many surviving devadasis and was struck by how the past, with its humiliations and wounds, impacted the descendants of the devadasis. These people sought to sever all ties to the past in the light of this. She also registered the fact that most devadasis loved their craft but, despite being supremely talented, did not figure in the contemporary discourse surrounding the arts.

The book is competently translated by N Kalyan Raman and carries a useful glossary too. The author’s non-judgmental observation of the devadasi system is remarkable. Kasturi’s defense of that system is never presented patronisingly, and Lakshmi’s opposing point of view is expressed objectively. We see both sides without feeling compelled to take one. Vaasanthi brings to light the complexity and nuances of a singular world in an engrossing manner.

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