November 3, 2018
Devadasis of the 7th century were treated with respect and held high social status. They had the right to choose their partners. The relationship with these married or unmarried men could range from a long stable relationship to a short brief affair. They were financially independent as they learnt singing, dancing and knew as many as 64 types of arts. However, in today’s era, this custom has turned into a heinous practice of prostitution.
A short 31-minute short film ‘Nitya Sumangali’ by Laxmi highlights their life.
Women, before they reached their age of puberty, were married off to the deity, which does not allow them to get married to any ‘mortal’ being. But she could have multiple partners. Today they are seen to have been often sexually exploited by men of the village or town – priests, temple keepers, the rich and the affluent, poor vendors and elders.
Devadasi system still exists and thrives in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha, according to the National Commission for Women. The Mathamma system is a living testimony the Devadasi system, where women of Madiga community are forced by their foremothers into this practice.
Another tradition is when girls are given away by their parents during Saundatti festival that takes place in Yellamma temple in northern Karnataka. Sometimes, parents sell their daughters in the name of religion to the highest bidder of the village or town and ask the bidder to take partial or full financial needs of the household.
There were as many as 4.5 lakh devadasis in the country. About 80,000 of them are in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, according to the report. Most of the women are raped, are HIV positive, have children born out of wedlock and struggle to make their ends meet. The single devdasi mothers at times do nott have any other means of livelihood except prostitution.
Laxmi highlighted the plight of Devdasis in her ‘Nitya Sumangali’ The film was produced by her mother and received the best female director silver award in Mumbai at the Kala Samruddhi International Film Fest 2018.
“I wanted everyone who sees this short film to feel the exact emotion that I came into when I first came to know about the subject. I feel I have done justice to what I had to convey,” she said
There are various reasons which played a major role in supplanting the system with firm roots: considered as substitute for human sacrifice, as a rite to ensure the fertility of the land and the increase human and animal population. It is part of phallic worship which existed in India from early Dravidian times, springing from the custom of providing sexual hospitality for strangers by providlimg licentious worship offered by a people, subservient to a degraded and vested interests of priestly class. And lastly, to create custom to exploit lower caste people,according to scholar,Jogan Shankar.
Laxmi says,” If given an opportunity, I would like to choose the same topic, do a feature film on it with familiar artists.. I want to take the topic to the next level where I want to share the history of Devadasis with the people.”