Patronised by the Mughals in the 16th century, the culture of courtesans has been innate to the Indian culture for a very long time. The art of dancing and singing to please an audience- gods or men, became known in the earlier part of the 6th century CE. The courtesans were employed to cater to men who were looking for entertainment and getting pleased. On the other hand, devadasis performed for the God who they were married to. Knowledge and practice about dance and music was inculcated in young girls right from the age of six or seven. In addition to this, they cultivated the art of etiquette, good manners decorum and courtesy. The most important thing was the skill of communication and hosting the perfect mehfil. Basic literacy was required and the right usage of proper Urdu words and phrases was expected by the courtesans of the Mughal era.
By late evening the courtesan would get to work. She sat along with other girls either in the main hall of the brothel, displaying her charms to all the passers-by. Those interested in song and dance would seek such performances and those desiring sexual favours would get them, all with ample money.
The devadasis on the other hand had a high status in the society. They would often become the wives of their patrons and maintained a regular household along with their daily practice of singing and dancing. They would wake up early in the morning and offer the first prayer to the Lord. The day would include practising, teaching, working for the temple, and dancing again in the main hall for the gods in front of an audience as the final prayer to the deity. However, they were never financially dependent on their husband. A devadasi would never be a widow, because she was first married to the god during initiation. However, during the British rule, many lost power over the temples. Devadasis, out of work, were forced into prostitution. Colonial views on devadasis is hotly debated for the inability of the British to differentiate between girls willing to dance for reasons beyond the devotional sphere. Nevertheless, the devadasi system was outlawed in India in 1988. Classical dances, like Kathak, the dance of the courtesans or Odissi, the dance of Puri’s devadasis, have been getting a sacred respect from the general public. It is venerated as an ode to the gods and as a form of meditation for many dancers.
As an Odissi dancer, dancing for 14 years now, I have felt that dance is a union of the body and spirit. The traditional idea around women singing and dancing is not to entirely please the other but indulge in personal delight.
Classical dancing is now a skill that makes one accomplished and talented. It is a hobby that elders can boast about in front of others. It is a factor of being an intellectual and a key part of a holistic personality. Despite the audience appreciating such art forms, dancers continue to face disapproval for indulging in acts reflecting prostitution. “You’ve grown old enough to quit dancing. It doesn’t suit you anymore. Girls of a good house do not put themselves up for a show like this.” Such remarks are very common. A fellow dancer of mine wished to make a career in classical dancing and remove the myth surrounding devadasis. However, she had to quit after 4 years because of parental pressure. Courtesans and devadasis voluntarily dance and sing for others. They choose this lifestyle and do not like to be labelled as ‘prostitutes’. We dancers, perform for a power that has given us this talent to use our bodies in a graceful way. Being forced into a ‘business’ like this is a disrespect to the art form and to the girl who is being pushed purely for monetary reasons. Picture credit: Pinterest Also Read: On World Dance Day: The Women who embody grace Jagriti is an intern with SheThePeople.TV