Aestheticising the Woman’s Body: J Devika

[This is an excerpt from an earlier version of my research article “The Aesthetic Woman: Re-Forming Female Bodies and Minds in Early Twentieth-Century Keralam.” Modern Asian Studies 39, no. 2 (2005): 461-87.]


Rejection of older conventions and adoption of modern dressing was often an act of defiance by women in these times.62 In literature, it sometimes symbolically expressed the female subject’s struggle against the older order as in the reformist play Ritumati.63 In Ritumati the Nambutiri-girl’s struggle against forced reintegration into the traditional home is expressed in her determination to wear a blouse. In this play, the resisting heroine Devaki relies entirely on her cultivated mind, her only source of strength. Indeed, the mind was of central importance in the projection of ideal Woman. In the ideal monogamous union, the partners were to be bound by mental compatibility. Such statements as the one quoted below are frequently encountered in writings about Womanhood of this period:

It is true by experience that a special interest always develops towards the beautiful woman at first sight. But if love and respect towards her born at first sight must be sustained certain other qualities are essential. Of these the most important one is the lack of vanity.64

Courage displayed by women in the face of any danger to their families, or in resistance put up against any suppression of Womanliness was heartily applauded, though not, say, physical strength.65 Devaki’s insistence on wearing the blouse in Ritumati is approved as a defence of Womanly modesty, a defiance of tradition in favour of union with modern-thinking men. Here we draw upon an incident related in the autobiography of the reformer C. Kesavan. The narrator of this account is the wife of C.V. Kunhiraman, a prominent early twentieth century reformer. The fashion of wearing a blouse reached Mayyanad, this lady’s village, around the late nineteenth century from Thiruvananthapuram through a sister-in-law married there. Presented with two blouses Mrs. C.V. Kunhiraman says that she ventured to try them on.  Kesavan quotes her:

            ……I too found them attractive, and tried them on, at once. Yes, pretty good. But ticklish; I took them off folding them and carefully, showed them to Amma very enthusiastically. Amma (mother) sized me up : “Where are you going, to gallivant ? Fold and put them into the clothes-box….”  I was very scared of Amma, she would kill me. At night I showed them to Vasanthy’s father (C.V.). Good, you can wear them, he agreed. It would be alright now, I thought, since Vadhyar (teacher, meaning C.V.) had agreed…… Vadhyar left in the morning and I, in my simple mind, came out, wearing the blouse….. engrossed in some day-dream I didn’t see Amma come. But I heard the sound of a twig of firewood being broken and turned around quickly. There was Amma, all fire and fury. “Remove it at once, you hussy, dancing girl (Attakkari)! So you’ll wear the blouse like a Muslim !” I removed it that day out of fear of being beaten by Amma. But I too was stubborn… If Amma didn’t want it, Vadhyar did. I wouldn’t wear the blouse during day-time. The night was mine. When I saw that Amma was asleep, I would take out my blouse and wear it, duping Amma. Vadhyar would come only late at night, like a Gandharvan.” 66

Wearing the blouse here is already an act of rebellion against the established authority (Amma) which would see wearing it as a sign of being a `dancing-girl’ or a change in the wearer’s position in the Jati- order. The wearer of the blouse, however, is defiant, seeing in the blouse a way to make herself attractive to her husband. He needs it, even if Amma does not. The `husband’ emerges out of a combination of the images of “Vasanthy’s father”, “Vadhyar” (teacher) and “Gandharvan” (celestial lover, seeker of beauty, favouring young and beautiful virgins). It is for such a man–modern in tastes and inclination–that the woman in the account dupes traditional authority and wears the blouse.

It may be argued that this account merely confirms the fear voiced by many reformers that unless modern dressing was not strictly regulated by making it an element of `correct training’, it would become a technique of displaying the body as an aesthetically-pleasing object, instead of being an instrument of building sexual self-control. But aestheticising the female body did sometimes appear as a sort of necessity–indeed, we do sometimes find it being advocated by those reformers who insisted upon `correct training’ for women. The propaganda in favour of modern dress for Antarjanams, actively carried out by Malayala Brahmin reformers is particularly striking in this respect. This was considered to be of prime importance for promoting intra-community unions within the Malayala Brahmin community– reckoned to be of considerable importance in community building. It was pointed out that the traditional garb of Antarjanams would be repulsive to modern-educated young Nambutiris; to remedy this, Antarjanams were to adopt modern dress. Addressing Antarjanams in one of his most well-known speeches, the well-known Malayala Brahmin reformer V.T.Bhattatiripad stressed its importance in attracting men in general. Aestheticising the female body–adorning it with culture–is identified as of equal importance with culturing the mind. Therefore, along with advising Antarjanams to cultivate their minds67. V.T. also tells them to pay attention to their dressing:

            Many of us are turning head over heels about this (i.e. about intra-caste marriage) not because of our fascination for your sense of beauty, but merely out of a concern for morality. I do not hide the fact that many of us who are married are fed up of your ugly, disgusting dress and ornamentation, and are able to do no more than curse ourselves.68

In this speech, elements of dress traditionally signifying the Antarjanam get marked out as primitive, disgusting, unhygienic while the new dressing gets presented as its opposite–attractive, cultured, clean. A healthy body, apparently, is not enough to hold a man; it must be aestheticised, `clothed in culture’:69 Hygiene is advocated not merely for the sake of good health but more prominently for making the female body attractive. V.T.Bhattatiripad was by no means a lone figure in his emphasis of this need–it echoed through out the instances of the advocacy of dress-reform for Antarjanams in Nambutiri reformism.70 The `union of minds’, curiously, seemed to require an aesthetic presentation of the female body; as an important means of cementing the modern monogamous conjugal union. Here, wearing modern dress was not only a technique of attaining sexual self-control; it was a way in which aesthetic pleasure from the female body could be accentuated.

In fact, built in the very construction of modern Woman that was circulating in dominant reformisms of the period is a role of the provider of pleasure. It is in this sense that Woman differs from Kulina of classical texts. In texts like the Natyasastra, different types of women–Kulina, Vesya and Bhrtya— are constructed as entirely different from each other with different lifestyles, functions, sexual preferences, gestures, movements,71 even group ethics.72 In this typology, the vesya was the vessel of culture, the provider of pleasure–aesthetic, intellectual and bodily pleasure–to men, of certain social standing, at a price.73 The list of the skills of the ideal vesya, according to the Arthasastra, included singing, playing musical instruments, recitation, dancing, acting, belles-letters, painting, making fragrances, the art of knowing the minds of others, dress and decoration, massaging and seduction.74 The Kulina, in contrast, was to bear heirs, perpetuate traditional norms and values. The provision of pleasure was seen to be the Vesya’s special task, and producing legitimate progeny, the Kulina’s. This division seems to have held good –for example, in the completely different codes of conduct prescribed for Devadasis observed by Abbe Dubois. He remarks : “The courtesans are the only women in India who enjoy the privilege of learning to read, to dance, to sing. A well-bred and respectable woman for this reason would blush to acquire any of these accomplishments.” 75

            To Western observers, such cultural activity and sexual availability seemed inextricably bound in the Vesya, and the former stood as condemned as the latter. Singing by devadasis, for instance, seemed “…..often vulgar and lewd, and sung not only before assemblies of men, but even the deities with a view of exciting the lasciviousness of the men”.76

One may also remember that discussions of female education in late nineteenth century often mentioned the criticism that education would make women immoral emanating from non-modern sources, countered by advocates of modern education. By early twentieth century, change was in sight. In a footnote to the above observation of Abbe Dubois’, the editor added: “In these days female education is slowly extending to all classes, and the prejudice which formerly existed no longer applies to women learning to read and write, though dancing is still restricted to the professional dancing girls and not considered respectable”.77

Womanly education included learning literature, painting, music, etiquette etc. and the new Woman was to take over the function of being the `Vessel of Culture’ from the Vesya–but in a significantly different way, by bringing accomplishments such as music into the interior of the modern home as sources of pleasure to the family. This, in effect, was to turn them into instruments assuring the longevity and stability of the modern home by increasing pleasure in domestic life. Modern Woman therefore was imagined to be a combination of the Reproducer and the Vessel of Culture, with the latter subordinated to the former, and the former relying upon the latter for strength. Throughout the period lasting from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century–and even into the present–a steady process in which Woman acquires the accomplishments of the Vesya–no doubt in the `sanitised’ manner mentioned above–has been in progress78.

This may be further explicated by referring to two early novels in Malayalam, Lakshmikesavam79 and Indulekha80 In Lakshmikesavam, a contrast is set up between Lakshmi, the ideal Woman, and a courtesan called Mysore Muthumanickam. Both are peerless beauties and possess considerable musical gifts. Lakshmi’s beauty and music are installed within the modern home, for the pleasure to her husband-to-be, and her family. However, the courtesan’s accomplishments are for all men of a certain social standing who can pay a price. The hero Kesavanunny visits the courtesan to listen to her famed voice but is mistaken to be an aspiring lover since in the established understanding, the courtesan’s musical skills and sexual appeal are inseparable. However, for Kesavanunny, the courtesan’s music cannot be an instrument of sexual seduction: “Though Kesavanunni was not too much stupefied by the matchless beauty of her form, her wonderful song impressed him “.81 Lakshmi’s musical gifts have no economic significance, they are to bring no material gain—unlike the courtesan. To Kesavanunny, the courtesan’s beauty and her musical skills are strictly separable: her music cannot be an instrument of seduction. Woman is Kulina in that she must be sexually chaste and produce good progeny; at the same time, she also brings pleasure into the monogamous marital union. She is unequivocally distanced from the Vesya in that her accomplishments are not for a price. In Indulekha the heroine refuses to entertain the unwelcome suitor with her music precisely because she wants to turn down his suit, insisting that that she would play for him only if he behaved “with dignity”.82

Dance, significantly, took much longer time to be `sanitised’. In Meenakshi, a distinction was made between `true’ and `false’ sorts of dance, pitting Mohiniyattom as `false’ against Kathakali as `true’.83 Mohiniyattom was thus stigmatised because it seemed to highlight the body and exude erotic appeal, while Kathakali was seen to be a form of dance that did not foreground the body but appealed to the intellect.84 Items in Mohiniyattom that appeared to be related to folk-performances or lewd and ribald were purged from the repertoire. Overtly sexual allusions have been interpreted as the expression of the Spiritual in erotic terms.85 Only since mid-twentieth century was the possibility of imagining dance as a source of aesthetic pleasure and not as necessarily as an instrument of sexual seduction opened.84

In this reckoning, one may see how wearing the blouse is thus `sanitised’. On the one hand, it is no more associated with the woman of easy reputation; it begins to signify `modesty’, `civilisation’, of the wearer. At the same time, it serves to accentuate the aesthetic appeal of Woman’s body, bringing pleasure into the husband-wife relationship. Woman, therefore, may aestheticise her body, but within strict limits: “It is difficult to accept that the hearts of those women who beautify themselves with showy clothes and expensive jewellery are indeed pure. If this is done for the pleasure of their husbands, then their sin is forgivable…”85

Woman may be the provider of pleasure in the monogamous marital union, but she is strictly different from the Vesya in that her accomplishments serve a very different purpose. Mid- and late twentieth century women’s magazines, and women’s columns in the Malayalam press have been engaged in negotiating between Woman-as-Reproducer and Woman-as-the-Vessel-of-Culture in their projection of ideal and desirable Womanly subjectivity. It is common enough to find Women’s Magazines offering advice to women about ways of developing their `Individuality’, `Personality’ etc. and at the same time suggesting ways in which women may deck themselves up in order to be attractive to men–and, in the same breath, warning that their bodies should not gain precedence over their minds in projecting them-selves. This tendency was already evident by the 1950s with `Women’s columns’ publishing articles offering such advice. To quote one such:

            We should not forget our individuality in our obsession with fashion. Fashion without individuality is like curry without salt. No matter how attractive the sari is, no matter how expensive the ornaments are, if they do not suit our individuality they will never blend, like curd and paddy mixed.86    



  1. This should not be exaggerated. Actually, there seems to have been resistance to wearing modern blouses among women, who often wore it under compulsion. Kunhiamma Shanku (in M. K. Sanoo, Shree Narayana Guru Swamy, p. 178) makes this clear : “I myself wore the blouse  for the first time only at the age of twenty. That too, under the compulsion of my husband. I would cover the blouse by covering myself with a cloth in the presence of my maternal uncle and others….”. A.P. Udayabhanu mentions two such instances of compulsion, involving the Ezhava reformer C.V. Kunhiraman’s sister and  Lady Mandath Krishnan Nair, wife of a Dewan of Tiruvitamkoor. A.P. Udayabhanu, Ente.., p.178.


  1. P.Bhattatiripad, Ritumati (1944) (Thrissur: Current Books, 1991).


  1. R.Raman Menon, `Streekalude Saundaryabhramam’ , Lakshmi Bhayi vol. 20, no.11, 1924, p.292.


65 Puthezhathu Raman Menon, `Paurushamulla Streekal’ , Lakshmi Bhayi vol. 10, no.8, 1914, pp.309-20.


66 From C.Kesavan, Jeevitasamaram, pp.109-11.


67 Speech at Aliyathur Upasabha Yogam, `Nambutiri Manushyanayai Maranamenkil’.  Appendix to V.T.Bhattatiripad, Karmavipakam (Thrissur : Best Books, 1988), p.330-31.


68 Bhattattiripad, ‘Nambutiriye…’, p.332.


69 Bhattatiripad, ‘Nambutiriye…’, pp. 333-35.


70 Report of the 20th Annual Yogakshema Sabha Conference, Malayala Manorama, 27 December, 1927; report of the 21st Annual Conference, Malayala Manorama, 29 December, 1928; Moothiringote Bhavatratan Nambutiripad, `Poorvacharam Athava Keezhnatappu’, Unny Nambutiri vol.7, no.11, 1925, p.645; P.M.Manezhi, `Antharjanangalum Avarude Veshabhooshanagalum’ , Unny Nambutiri vol. 7, no.12, 1925, p.715; Presidential Address, 9th Annual meeting, Nambutiri Yuva Jana Sanghom, Unny Nambutiri vol. 9, no.4, 1927, p.281; M.Rama Varma Tamban, `Nammude Bandhukkal’, the same issue, p. 361. Nambutiri reformism was by no means unique in this respect. See early Malayalam novels, for example, O.Chandu Menon, Sharada in Dr.P.V.G.Irumbayam (ed.), Anthappayiyude Novelukal; Chandumenonte Sharadayum (Thrissur: Current Books, 1991), pp.357-58; Chathu Nair, Meenakshi, pp.76-77.


71 Dr.K.T.Rama Varma, Kamapooja Keralathil (Kozhikode : Classic Book Trust, 1985), p.58-59.


72 This is well illustrated in the story of the Veshya murdered by her Brahmin lover who becomes the vengeful Yakshi `Panchavankattu Neeli’. Neeli dies swearing that she had not cheated him of his money, she had only  adhered to the ethics of her group. See, Ulloor S.Parameswara Iyer, `Panchavankattu Neeli’, in Ulloorinte Prabandhangal (Thiruvananthapuram : Ulloor Memorial Publications, 1980), pp. 309-28.



73 The moral stigma attached to the Veshya also seems to have been much lesser in the non-modern cultural worlds in early twentieth century. Female personal names like `Vesukutty’, `Vesamani’ etc were certainly known in Keralam in the early part of this century. To call girl children `Vesukkutty’ as a term of endearment was also known (ibid.). See also K.T.Rama Varma, Kamapooja…., p.10.


74 Quoted in K.T.Rama Varma, Kamapooja…, p.55.


75 Abbe J..A.Dubois, Hindu Manners…., p.586.


76 John Shortt, `The Bayadare; or Dancing Girls of South India’, Journal of The Anthropological Society of London vol.3, 1870, pp.183-84.


77 Abbe Dubois, Hindu Manners…, p. 586.


78 It has been noticed that Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Malayalee women is not of nubile adolescents or voluptuous mistresses, but of “adult, self-assured women”, who are “sensuous  but not seductive, forthcoming but not coquettish”. It seen that only thus “could they be the noble spouses of breeding worthy of the new domestic realm”, which however, was still in a nascent form in the collective aspirations of the new middle-class in Keralam. R.Nandakumar, `The Missing Male: The Female Figures of Ravi Varma and the Concepts of Family, Marriage and Fatherhood in 19th Century  Kerala’, South Indian Studies, 1, January-June 1996, p.73.


79 Komattil Padoo Menon, Lakshmikesavam (1892), in Dr.P.V. George Irumbayam, Nalu Novelukal.


80 O. Chandu Menon, Indulekha, n.24.


81 Komatttil Padoo Menon, Lakshmikesavam, p.188.


82 O. Chandu Menon, Indulekha, p.156.


83 Chathu Nair, Meenakshi, pp.106-114.


84 By the 1940s, such `sanitisation’ of dance was proceeding well through the poet and cultural figure Vallathol’s efforts, as well as through other quarters. See, speech by the Dewan of Tiruvitamkoor, Sir. C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyarn, `The Art of Dance’in P.G.Sahasranama Iyer (ed.), Selected Speeches and Addresses of Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer (Thiruvananthapuram, 1943), pp.20-23. For an intimate account of `sanitisation’ of dance in Vallathol’s institution, see the autobiography of the Kathakali artiste Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Ente Jeevitam Arangilum Aniyaraiylum (Kottayam: D.C.Books, 1986).


85 Venu G, Nirmala Panikkar, Mohiniyattom, (Thrissur, 1983), pp.18-20.


84 The history of this opening up is one of conflict. The famous disagreement between one of the most prominent literary and cultural figures of early twentieth century Keralam, Mahakavi Vallathol who was a key figure in ‘sanitising’ Mohiniyattom, and the radical reformer Sahodaran K.Ayappan  about rehabilitating dance is a good instance to begin. M.K. Sanoo, Sahodaran K. Ayappan (Kottayam: D.C Books, 1989), p.292.


85 V.R.Raman Menon, ‘Streekalude Saundaryabhramam’, pp.293-94.


86 V.Malaty, `Feshionum Streekalum’ (Women and Fashion), Mathrubhumi Weekly vol. 31, no. 30, 1953, p. 26; `Streekalum Saundaryavum’ (Women and Beauty) in Mathrubhumi Weekly vol. 31, no. 33, 1953, p.25, also `Kesa Susroosha’ (Hair-care) in Mathrubhumi Weekly vol. 31, no.40, 1953, p.33.


2 thoughts on “Aestheticising the Woman’s Body: J Devika”

  1. Thank you for this, Devika ma’am. It is a delighful, informative article. It throws light on how deep were the roots of patriarchy ,how does it evolve yet always reinforced itself, and how even the slightest reformation, liberation of women was intertwined in this deep maze of male gaze.
    Wearing blouse as an act of defiance, but surely because she had the consent of her husband( a social reformer) and with the intention of pleasing him! (Also I don’t understand how we’ve always been successful in keeping women in this ‘beauty myth’)

    Learned women were extricated from the ‘shame’ of being equated with vesyas, only when kulin women started to learn!, but the latter confined their education only for the pleasure of husband or family! and thus keeping the distinction between ‘kulina’ and ‘ vesya’ intact! Brilliant. How we always find means and ways to pigeonhole women. I can see now that why even today, a women is easily boxed into ‘ mother’ or ‘seductress’ by mainstream media, films etc.
    This article also made me realize how political the art is..How dance and music could either be for the pleasure of husband or to seduce any man. Women is completely a non entity?! I can see now, why ‘item’ dance is economical as it satisfies the psyche of patriarchal society.

    It is also distressing to know that vanity was always considered as a negative quality for women(only?!). Is that why even now we cannot fully embrace the talented women in public who unabashedly profess their abilities – be it their intellectual skills or leadership skills or whatever, if they are in public space which was not meant for them, they would be under constant scrutiny. We were taught to believe that the women leaders are arrogant, pompous and all vanity! Understanding patriarchy helps to see clearly, that, it was illusory correlation, or hasty generalisations based on selective information ,false understanding of our history and projections by the people who hold power or the ones who are submersed in the patriachal system.

    Articles like this help us to learn and unlearn.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.