Writing under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947

By Nancy L. Paxton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Temple Dancer

EROTICISM AND RELIGIOUS ECSTASY

The institution of devadasis constitutes a limiting case for women, whose interest stems not so much from a dubious exotic appeal but precisely because limiting cases can throw light on the average, common life of women in the Hindu world.

Frederique Margolin, Wives of the God-King1

The "white slave" who appears in British and Anglo-Indian novels about zenana life not only embodies the projections of fundamental contradictions in the social and sexual contracts in place in the Romantic period, as we have seen, but she also acts, in some respects, as the fantasy twin of the Hindu widow, since both figures, in the colonial imagination, appear as problematic anomalies when compared with Indian or English women who are "legitimate" wives and mothers. Because the white slave is ambiguously placed "inside" the private domain but "outside" the protection usually offered by the husband, "unfree" in that she is constrained by the literal conditions of slavery but "free" in that she is outside the legal bounds of marriage, the white slave epitomizes basic unresolved conflicts in colonial ideologies about labor, marriage, and reproduction. 2

Nineteenth-century British and Anglo-Indian novels also typically represent a second group of Indian women who live in the space of the inbetween, the Hindu devadasi--or temple dancer--who is usually represented as living outside the private domain of the zenana, in a contested public space which displays the changing boundaries between the sacred and the profane in the colonial imagination. The devadasi disrupts prevailing nineteenth- century British perceptions about femininity, first of all, because she literally embodies what Sir William Jones identified as Shakti, or "divine feminine energy," the power generated when spiritual and sexual love are combined

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