[When sex workers began to organize in Kerala early in the twentieth century, people accused them and their supporters of importing new-fangled ‘Western’ ideas and corrupting the morals of local people. But they were mistaken — even though I would want to think more before saying that the devadasis were foremothers of the sex workers who, for example, Nalini Jameela represents, I can firmly say that the devadasis of Travancore looked at themselves as workers, as may emerge from the small paragraph they added to the text they borrowed from the memorandum submitted by the Madras Devadasi Association to the Royal Statutory Commission of Indian Reforms (1929) for their own petition (in Malayalam) to the Travancore government in 1929]
A memorandum which used the same arguments and wording was also submitted to the Regent Maharani of Travancore on behalf of the Devadasis of the Suchindram temple in Travancore in 1929. The prohibition had been long coming; Travancore had first stopped the dedication of young girls and later ended all entry into the profession in 1921. But after the Regent Maharani came to power, the determination to end the practice became unstoppable. When Rani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to power, local newspapers protested that she was being reduced to a Regent alone; when she should have enjoyed full powers as Maharani according to the matrilineal traditions of the royal house. However, this Rani was deeply Victorian in her outlook on marriage and sexuality (see Manu S Pillai’s delightful account of this aspect, in the chapter titled ‘Black Magic’ in The Ivory Throne, Harper Collins, 2015). Yet, as Manu Pillai points out, she was a great supporter of women’s education and employment — and it was her time that probably laid the educational foundations of the ambiguous ‘freedom’ of Malayali women in the 20th century.
The devadasi memorandum was not received sympathetically. However, the memorandum of the Suchindram devadasis included an additional paragraph that asks hard questions of the Rani’s support for women’s employment. Below is an excerpt from the memorandum submitted by Krishnaveni Ammal on behalf of the Devadasis of Madras, which was adopted by the Suchindram devadasis as well. I thank Manu S Pillai for sharing it and permitting me to use it here. The last paragraph is my translation from the Malayalam devadasi petition of 1929, parts of which appeared in the press (different portions in different newspapers, including the Malayala Manorama, from which I reconstructed it.]
…. ‘The question of minorities should be looked into more carefully and the rights and privileges of insignificant classes should be jealously guarded against the autocracy and high-handedness of the more powerful political parties who have no right to impose their views and fancies on them in virtue of their superior voting power in the Legislatures. The recognised organizations of the minor communities should they approximate to the population which is fit to send in a representative to the Legislature, be made a special electorate and their voice be heard in the Councils of the Empire.’ Then asks that their community of women ‘enjoying special rights of property, legal status, religious honours, and recognised independence sanctioned by ancient scriptures, traditions, and customs’ should be made a separate electorate ‘and the rights and privileges of this section to represent in the Council and on other public bodies should be safe-guarded against the step-motherly treatment of the selfish political parties now existing. The recent local enactments such as the Devadasis Amendment to sections 372, 373 Indian Penal Code, the Amendment to Section 44A Hindu Religious Endowment Act of 1926, passed into law on the 1st February 1929 much against the will of the community, contrary to the declared policy of the British Government on religious neutrality, and by most high-handedly invoking a special Standing Order without giving time and opportunity, not enquiring into our case, nay refusing all our petitions to be heard by the authorities and anti-Hindu heretics, are eye-openers of the colossal injustice and cruelty shown by the major parties when we had no voice to ventilate our grievances and claims of which the majority of the members had not the least knowledge.’
‘Being a socio-religious group of women mainly depending on the profession of music, dancing and other fine arts from time immemorial fortified by religious sanctions and social traditions, we are looked [upon] with disfavour by a very small section of Hindus who are social reformers having no respect for Hindu religion nor being respected by Hindus in turn. In the warfare of political interests of more powerful parties, our claims are not attracting the attention of the other communities who being in the fight for self-advancement remain lukewarm to our representations and we have not received any support in the Council during the past so many years. Further, we are women not having the disadvantages of the Hindu women but possess on the contrary all the privileges of the males in regard to property, special laws of inheritance, rights and privileges in temples with munificent endowments assigned to us by ancient Kings and Houses of Aristocracy. Unless we are given special representation, there is the danger of our rights and privileges being swallowed by more noisy members of the other parties, besides the indirect effect of our religious customs being trampled under by unholy hands….It is disastrous and ruinous to the welfare of the community to be left alone to the care of the wolfish communities or parties now existing.’
[To this, the devadasis of Suchindram added: “We have been a group of women serving the temple for our whole lives since ancient times, paid regularly by the Government for our services. Our government has been encouraging women’s education and employment in Travancore in an exemplary manner… However, we are not beneficiaries of this [munificence] and [they did not understand however]… why the government wished to abolish our profession at the very moment in which women were being encouraged to enter the public domain through state support.”]