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  Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a hundred years of vociferous social reform, including a 1947 law that criminalized their lifestyles, the women in devadasis communities   Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a hundred years of vociferous social reform, including a 1947 law that criminalized their lifestyles, the women in devadasis communities contend with severe social stigma and economic and cultural disenfranchisement. Adroitly combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical research, Davesh Soneji provides a comprehensive portrait of these marginalized women and unsettles received ideas about relations among them, the aesthetic roots of their performances, and the political efficacy of social reform in their communities. Poignantly narrating the history of these women, Soneji argues for the recognition of aesthetics and performance as a key form of subaltern self-presentation and self-consciousness. Ranging over courtly and private salon performances of music and dance by devadasis in the nineteenth century, the political mobilization of devadasis identity in the twentieth century, and the post-reform lives of women in these communities today, Unfinished Gestures charts the historical fissures that lie beneath cultural modernity in South India.


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  Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a hundred years of vociferous social reform, including a 1947 law that criminalized their lifestyles, the women in devadasis communities   Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a hundred years of vociferous social reform, including a 1947 law that criminalized their lifestyles, the women in devadasis communities contend with severe social stigma and economic and cultural disenfranchisement. Adroitly combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical research, Davesh Soneji provides a comprehensive portrait of these marginalized women and unsettles received ideas about relations among them, the aesthetic roots of their performances, and the political efficacy of social reform in their communities. Poignantly narrating the history of these women, Soneji argues for the recognition of aesthetics and performance as a key form of subaltern self-presentation and self-consciousness. Ranging over courtly and private salon performances of music and dance by devadasis in the nineteenth century, the political mobilization of devadasis identity in the twentieth century, and the post-reform lives of women in these communities today, Unfinished Gestures charts the historical fissures that lie beneath cultural modernity in South India.

51 review for Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Nixon

    In lieu of a review let me say, for now, that I read this mavellously written book in three long sessions over two days. It's my book of the year. Prof. Soneji's meticulous and insightful reading of the documentary and visual archves and his invaluable, apparently impeccably conducted field research form the basis for his compelling narrative of the experiences of South India's devadasis in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, at the same time as he digs deep into their earlier history. Son In lieu of a review let me say, for now, that I read this mavellously written book in three long sessions over two days. It's my book of the year. Prof. Soneji's meticulous and insightful reading of the documentary and visual archves and his invaluable, apparently impeccably conducted field research form the basis for his compelling narrative of the experiences of South India's devadasis in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, at the same time as he digs deep into their earlier history. Soneji raises many questions, and I am left with a mind abuzz with ideas to explore. This is probably not for the casual reader wanting an introductory text to Indian dancers and dance. But, as Soneji writes with a fluently clarity, that will not deter a reader interestd in this area of the human story; he tells how India--in becoming modern and an independent nation--legislated the lives and livelihood of the women artists who practiced and maintained a great repertoire of music and dance, with the apparently noble intention of freeing them from involvement in what was regarded as prostitution, and aiding them to to gain a respected social status. Result? Not great for all concerned. This is indispensable reading for anyone wishing to understand this history, and also the form, aesthetics, and history of the development of South India's dance forms as well as Carnatic music today. These are just off-the-cuff remarks; I will write something more consisdered when I have the time.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Aparna K

    Wow, I have a LOT to unpack within myself after reading this. The history of Bharatanatyam and classical dance in South India is much more complicated than I realized and there are so many layers intertwined in the social, political, and economic histories of the art form. My understanding had always been that British colonizers were the main arbiters in banning the devadasis' hereditary practices and that upper-caste Brahmins came in afterward to transform it into what became Bharatanatyam. I d Wow, I have a LOT to unpack within myself after reading this. The history of Bharatanatyam and classical dance in South India is much more complicated than I realized and there are so many layers intertwined in the social, political, and economic histories of the art form. My understanding had always been that British colonizers were the main arbiters in banning the devadasis' hereditary practices and that upper-caste Brahmins came in afterward to transform it into what became Bharatanatyam. I didn't realize to what extent upper-caste "revivalists" systematically co-opted the art form from the devadasis at the same time that they were drafting legislation to ban them from practicing it. They were left to be outcasts in their own communities, pushed to the margins and seen as degenerates and prostitutes. Even though I'm not a Brahmin, my privilege and access to dance comes through the ways in which they appropriated the art form. These hegemonic forces are still at play and to the extent that it can be felt in the US, I've seen it manifest in my own dance communities. This book also left me with more philosophical questions about art in general and of sexuality, in terms of both my OWN sexuality and of sexuality as it relates to Hinduism and pre-colonial and post-colonial India. Just an overall important read for me that's opened my eyes, and I'm now committed to continuing my education on this history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mitali

    How did India gets its ‘classical’ art forms? Who was responsible for giving birth to them? Where are these people now? These are questions that we never confront, and if we do, then the answers we are presented with are often a carefully woven narrative, a sanitised version of the truth with a liberal use of terms such as ‘devadasis,’ stories of how Bharatanatyam underwent a period of ‘degeneration’ and how it was ‘revived’ to assume the form we see it in today. But as students and practitioner How did India gets its ‘classical’ art forms? Who was responsible for giving birth to them? Where are these people now? These are questions that we never confront, and if we do, then the answers we are presented with are often a carefully woven narrative, a sanitised version of the truth with a liberal use of terms such as ‘devadasis,’ stories of how Bharatanatyam underwent a period of ‘degeneration’ and how it was ‘revived’ to assume the form we see it in today. But as students and practitioners of these arts, it is necessary that we delve deeper to find out why the use of the term ‘devadasi’ is so problematic, acknowledge the role of hereditary dancers in the evolution of these dance forms, understand what consequences reform and ‘revival’ had for the women of these communities and how this impacts their position in society today. Unfinished Gestures traces South Indian dance forms back to their roots, through the eyes of its true foremothers - women from hereditary dance communities such as Isai Vellalar and Kalavuntulu. It enunciates how these women aren’t some obscure, exotic figment of history as they are made out to be, but in fact the embodiment of an aesthetic that has been appropriated, denounced and systematically wiped out from the annals of practice, performance and pedagogy. A must read for anyone who has ever learnt, practised or appreciated Bharata Natyam.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Juhi

    The history of casteism in classical dance is dark. This book made me unpack a lot of assumptions that I had made, a lot of stories that I had internalized without question. We were taught that the sacred devadasis fell from prestige and the revivalists saved the ancient art of Bharatanatyam - but the devadasis occupied a more ambiguous position in society and they didn't fall as much as they were taken down by a systematic devadasi-abolition effort in the early half of the 20th century. The rev The history of casteism in classical dance is dark. This book made me unpack a lot of assumptions that I had made, a lot of stories that I had internalized without question. We were taught that the sacred devadasis fell from prestige and the revivalists saved the ancient art of Bharatanatyam - but the devadasis occupied a more ambiguous position in society and they didn't fall as much as they were taken down by a systematic devadasi-abolition effort in the early half of the 20th century. The revivalists were upper-caste women who appropriated the dance, ridding if of what they decided was "vulgar" and making it palatable for middle class families to send their daughters to dance classes. I never thought to ask what happened to the devadasis - their descendants are still around and effectively barred from the mainstream Bharatanatyam world. I feel a sense of loss over elements of the dance that I never got to learn about and some guilt for being complicit in the erasure of the devadasis but my eyes are open now. I'm committed to unlearning these myths and educating myself more about the real history of this dance.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shalini

    It is a must read for anyone wishing to understand devadasis and the devadasi culture of South India. Soneji draws on historical archives and ethnographic studies of present day devadasi community to deconstruct transmitted myths portraying them as girls abandoned by families and dedicated to temples for the sexual gratification of its patrons. While this may be true for a tiny subset called jogatis, it is far from the truth. It is evident how public perception created by colonialists, moralisin It is a must read for anyone wishing to understand devadasis and the devadasi culture of South India. Soneji draws on historical archives and ethnographic studies of present day devadasi community to deconstruct transmitted myths portraying them as girls abandoned by families and dedicated to temples for the sexual gratification of its patrons. While this may be true for a tiny subset called jogatis, it is far from the truth. It is evident how public perception created by colonialists, moralising Gandhians and first generation feminists has done much damage to this heterogenous community of artisans and courtesans. `Devdasis were not always Hindus, not always dedicated to temples and temple dedication had little to do with sexual availability than it did with establishing non-conjugal permissively. These women had much that was denied to other women- literacy, permission to chose partners irrespective of caste, non- conjugal relationships, matriarchy and inheritance. It is easy to understand why it sat uncomfortably with puritans who valorised monogamous marriages and wanted to domesticate women. While the likes of Muthulaksmi Reddy led to making their dedication as well as public performance of their art 'illegal', the likes to Rukmini Devi usurped their art and handed it over to the upper classes. The story of what remains of those caught in the culture wars is heart breaking. History should be grateful to Soneji for his contribution to highlighting our nothing-to-be-proud-of history.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rasika Kumar

    Very academic but a must read for Bharatanatyam dancers to begin to understand the complicated history.

  7. 4 out of 5

    SR

    This book straddles the line between being a highly scholarly publication, replete with references to literature on the topic, and a personal account about real people who are the last generation to recount in words, tunes and unfinished gestures, the reality of a time gone by. The scholarship of theoretical knowledge and personalized ethnographic ground-work come together fluidly as the author goes from historical account as evidenced by manuscript research to personal account as delivered by s This book straddles the line between being a highly scholarly publication, replete with references to literature on the topic, and a personal account about real people who are the last generation to recount in words, tunes and unfinished gestures, the reality of a time gone by. The scholarship of theoretical knowledge and personalized ethnographic ground-work come together fluidly as the author goes from historical account as evidenced by manuscript research to personal account as delivered by some of the last still living devadasis. What this book does better than others attempting this topic are sheer expertise and a much needed bunking of prevailing myths about what devadasis were or weren't. These professionals were always teetering on the edge of accepted morality. Yet, the current cultural milieu of Independent India is such that it feels compelled to either glorify them as aesthetes of a lost art or condemn them as mere prostitutes whose time has gladly passed. The author finds a realistic middle ground portraying them (convincingly) as occupying that grey territory, where they are at once accomplished artists, but also relegated to serving the sexual economy that many of us want to believe did not exist in moralist 'Bhaarat desh'! That temple art survived in the shady patronage of kings and nobles' sexual quests is a fact that he makes clear very explicitly, mincing no words, offering no apology. In fact, one of the refreshing aspects of this book is the clarification that devadasis weren't all one type across regions and over time. Some were living a pathetic life of sexual slavery, having no control over their destinies, while others enjoyed grand privileges of literacy, pursuit of art, riches and even respectability from their performances. Many were variously in the middle, their role in society and level of acceptability varying with changing times and prevailing ethos. The blunt, factual orientation of the book and the author's fearlessness in taking a stance that is contrary to convenient political and moral beliefs of modern India, is remarkable. Read this book if you have any interest in this subject. It will be time well spent.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Marsha Altman

    Read for grad school. Don't have much to say about it. Read for grad school. Don't have much to say about it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ramesh Abhiraman

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jahnabi

  11. 4 out of 5

    Aditya Roy

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ian Caveny

  13. 4 out of 5

    Swaroopa Unni

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sapna Govindan

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ranjeev Kirupairajah

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rajalakshmi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Premanand Velu

  19. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

  20. 5 out of 5

    JALPA PATEL

  21. 4 out of 5

    Julie Fader

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lianne

  23. 5 out of 5

    Divya Chandramouli

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kruttika

  25. 5 out of 5

    S G

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    306.69453 S6984 2012

  27. 4 out of 5

    parimalphadke

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cyberdionysos

  29. 5 out of 5

    University of Chicago Press

  30. 5 out of 5

    Nagaraju

  31. 4 out of 5

    Meg

  32. 4 out of 5

    Ramya

  33. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Campbell

  34. 5 out of 5

    Geetanjali Desai

  35. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Berenson

  36. 4 out of 5

    Meera

  37. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  38. 5 out of 5

    Aishe

  39. 5 out of 5

    Jayson Beaster-jones

  40. 5 out of 5

    Anusha Chakraborty

  41. 5 out of 5

    Nimanthi Rajasingham

  42. 4 out of 5

    Uthra

  43. 5 out of 5

    Mary

  44. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Wilson

  45. 5 out of 5

    Vrinda Sheth

  46. 4 out of 5

    Shweta

  47. 5 out of 5

    Sukruti

  48. 4 out of 5

    Kavya

  49. 4 out of 5

    Mahalakshmi

  50. 4 out of 5

    Nilesh

  51. 4 out of 5

    Harsha Kadekar

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