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Pages: 59-88

Marginalizing the Matriarchal, Minority Subject: A Critical Analysis of Human Rights and Women’s Reform Projects in Colonial and Postcolonial India through the Case-Study of the ‘Mahari-Devadasi’

Shriya Patnaik

Category: Sociology

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This paper focuses on the rights of gendered minorities in India, using the case-study of the matriarchal community of Mahari-Devadasis (temple-dancers in the Jagannath Temple of Orissa[i], the creators of the classical dance-form Odissi, whose kinship structures, quotidian cultures and religious practices entailed being wed to Hindu deities over mortals). Under the colonial disciplining of deviant sexualities together with racialized bio-politics across the British Empire, they were conceptualized, categorized, and criminalized as “religious prostitutes” under Contagious Disease and Prostitution regulations, from the nineteenth century onwards. However, the abolition of this matrilineal tradition, instead of improving women’s life circumstances, propelled a turn towards clandestine networks of sex-work owing to their growing socio-economic stigmatization in the modern Indian nation-state. In problematizing human rights discourses surrounding this now-extinct community in postcolonial India, my research delineates how legal statutes on Devadasi Abolition silenced minority voices by distorting the complex relationship between bodily agency, informal economies of sexual commerce, and women’s socio-economic autonomy. The demise of this localized tradition, however, was accompanied with shifts in collective memory and societal perceptions, particularly with respect to their contribution to performative culture within the regional register of Orissa, which this study encapsulates. The paper therein examines social and cultural borders through the lens of globalized cultural flows and grassroots humanitarian movements, especially in the context of such marginalized gendered minorities in South Asia. It methodologically engages with diverse sources, including colonial period archival records, ethnographic fieldwork, parliamentary debates, national women’s rights paradigms on prostitution and trafficking, oral histories dealing with the experiential domain of such disenfranchised actors, grassroots level social activist movement advocating for the inclusion of minority subjects into civil society, along with visual culture depicting the Mahari-Devadasi dance-form on global theatrical spaces. It conclusively underscores the role of social activist movements from civil society towards incorporating indigenous struggles within the ambit of global humanitarian paradigms. Through the above factors, the paper elucidates how such grassroots level feminist movements epitomize important catalysts of social change, which challenge mainstream nationalist narratives on human rights. This research thereby posits the need to recuperate such subaltern voices from the marginalia in writing transnational historiographies on gender, sexuality, and human rights.

[i] Though a contemporary reading of the region reads as ‘Odisha’, for the purposes of historical consistency, I refer to it as ‘Orissa’ in this paper.

Keywords: Devadasi, Orissa, Gender, Human Rights, Indian History, Minority Rights, Cultural Studies, Women's Rights

DOI: 10.47362/EJSSS.2021.2105

DOI URL: https://doi.org/10.47362/EJSSS.2021.2105