Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Social World of Prostitutes and Devadasis: A Study of the Social Structure and Its Politics in Early Modern India

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Social World of Prostitutes and Devadasis: A Study of the Social Structure and Its Politics in Early Modern India

Article excerpt


This research paper discusses two groups of professional women who had a distinct place in the sexual economy of the period under review. By analyzing the actions and situations of prostitutes and the devadasis (literally meaning servants of God) in terms of a broader context of relationships, I consider the sexual-services and the entertainment provided by them as a meaningful labor, which got integrated at both the social and cultural levels. I have looked at how and to whom the prostitutes and the devadasis sold their labor, and how they related to other women, to men, and to various social systems. The study of these professionals shows different strands of Indian culture and one could state that the world of entertainment, to which these professions belonged, itself is a cultural reproduction of society. Specifically, it is my view that the prostitutes were sought after for their physical attraction, but elegance and elan were to an extent constitutive elements of their profession. In the case of devadasis who were the custodians of the arts of singing and dancing and whose dedicated status made them a symbol of social prestige, I would say that while the economic/professional benefits were considerable, they did not lack social honor either. The essay shows that the women who were part of this set-up, a set-up which thrived on the commercialization of women's reproductive labor, had those skills and expertise which eventually get appropriated by politico-economic structures. This gives a better insight into the politics of human relations.

Keywords: sexual economy, entertainment-labor, socio-cultural norms, human relations, gender disparity, femininity, political power


From the political movements to the academic discourses, the issues related to sexuality, especially women's sexuality have caught the attention of scholars. (2) My paper makes an effort to look into the world of prostitutes and devadasis (also called temple-women) and their labor, which I hypothesize, had an important role to play in the socio-political structure of the day. (3) The presence of such women, particularly in an order which considered conjugality as the basis of all human relations, (4) evokes the politics of the relations entered with them. I state that even though outside the heterosexual order, the women in question nearly reinforced the socio-political order of the day. These women could have been able to articulate their sexual desires, or alternatively their bodies could have been sites of resistance. (5) However, as I argue in this paper, these women's experiences show that they could not have escaped the diktats of the erstwhile socio-political order, which was doubly reinforced when these women came into (sexual) contact with their patrons/men. This also portrays the human body being central to articulation of prevailing social and economic asymmetries. In our case, women's sexuality and its particular commercialization brings to fore the role of gender in organizing social relations. Such an exercise imparts a constitutive role to women and explains how their (bodily) labor (6) added to the larger socio-political discourses.

In this essay, I have chosen historical period of 16th and 17th centuries, which coincides with the rule of Mughal dynasty in North India. The research data comes from the contemporary court chronicles, foreign travelogues, paintings and I try look at the sexual economy of this period. I will elaborate upon the prostitution of sexuality to show how this profession was reflective of the erstwhile culture and gendered norms. I also draw upon the labor of temple-women in South Indian temples and have combined my reading of contemporary data with modem scholarly works to look for parallel socio-political order in South as well. As I build my case in this essay, more than looking for certain propositions like victim vs. agency, I would rather problematise the sexual aspects of these professions and see how and why a caste-ridden social structure accepted/or allowed such professionals to be part of their society, even though at fringes. …

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