Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan: Colonial Material Collections and Representations of Devadasi Bodies in the Public Sphere in the Early 20th-Century South India


This article discusses how the politics of morality in the early 20th-century South India, in its gendered nation-building exercise, reified a distinction between sacred/profane by using devadasis’ bodies as material objects in the public sphere. Traditional performers of dance and music, devadasis were chosen to represent the profane in a series of historical developments in which both Europeans and Indian colonial elites participated in constructing and using the categories of the sacred and profane to classify sex and body as material, profane, and obscene. Specifically targeting devadasis, these developments resulted in ostracization and criminalization of devadasis and their communities. Using statues, poems, and literature as examples, this article shows how devadasis were collected as material objects and used to represent the notion that some bodies and sex were fundamentally materialistic whilst others were not, such as that of the “new woman” who was imagined to be an ideal woman, and the guardian of the sacred space in the colonial and postcolonial India.