A Handful of Stories

Reportage on health, science and politics. And some meditations on film

How to Tell a Story of Beauty and Sexual Abuse

Gitanjali Kolanad’s novel Girl Made of Gold tells the story of Devadasis without shying away from the paedophilia and abuse that lie at the heart of a stunning art form

I came to Girl Made of Gold after three months immersed in Ashapurna Debi’s magnum opus Pratham Protisruti set in late 19th century Bengal. I thought that no English-language book would move me like this or come close. I was, relatively speaking, wrong.  Gitanjali Kolanad transported me to the 1920s to a village in south India when the norms around the Devadasi culture of ‘ temple dancers’ were beginning to change with legal regulations.

There are two kind of books, broadly speaking. One where you map the contemporary world made with the infrastructure of news reports and the prevalent anxieties of our times, and take the reader to the precise GPS co-ordinates of your protagonists. These are typically the stories of terrorists, rioters, refugees or slumlords. Often, well-crafted non-fiction books on these subjects are hard to tell apart from fiction. You take the architecture of the world as it were, but you plot the route to the minds of your characters, the major streets and smaller bylanes.

The other kind of book is where you build a world from the ground up, set in the future or the past or even a concurrent parallel time, separated from the world as we know it. In children’s writing, this world is often separated from the “real world” with a cupboard or a section of a station wall. This world has different rules, a different structure.  You have to build the infrastructure of this world with research and your imagination, and then track your characters on it. I have not written a book yet. When I do, I suspect it will be of the former kind—taking the world as it exists in the news of the day, and providing the rationales for the characters I locate the story around. This is the easier of the two to my mind, because the work of world building is already done for the writer and the reader both. They know this world from the news and the public imagination. There is no need to set it up and introduce the reader to it gently, intelligently without patronising them.

Book cover, Jugegrnaut

This is the additional labour Kolanad does in her novel, constructing the lifeworld of the Devadasis in the twilight of their power, before the legal stipulations of modern independent India savagely reshaped their circumference of influence. Kolanad trained as a Bharatnatyam dancer for years in Kalakshetra, the prestigious classical dance academy on the outskirts of Chennai. She brings this knowledge of the dance form to the book, shaping it with blocks and a rhythm unique to English-language writing. Consider, for instance: “When I first came here six years ago, everyday I took the dhavani she tied around her waist and used it to bind her to the pillar in aramandi position, legs a perfect square, so tight that she could not rise, and in that way I trained her through all the adavus. Thattu adavus in three kalas, without stopping, and if she stopped, we started all over again from the first, and she went on in this way until she could do all eight without a pause. I didn’t relent  even when tears filled her eyes, and her thighs trembled from the effort. Muscles only learn through pain. If she made a mistake, I rapped her palm with the long handle of a brass spoon heated in the embers. Once it was so hot that her skin burned in a strip, and blistered. How she hated me, hated this dance, in those early days! But I loved her through all this, and I gave her all the great beauty I had in my family, gave her what she alone was able to take. But that isn’t right either. I taught other dancers, and Ratna too, but they danced as if my gift were a burden of heavy logs they carried.”

She also argues the motives of her cast of characters beautifully. A large part of this is due to her research on devadasi villages in north Karnataka, where descendants of these practitioners/families still live. I use the word “still” carelessly. Of course, these families would be around, where would they go? The legislation that ended the practice of ‘devadasis’ would not have ended their families or descendants. (It comes from a school education of being told that “untouchability was abolished” in post-Independent India, I think. Yet caste practices continue to this day, and Anglophone education’s deliberate ignorance of it is responsible for belief in Anglophone India that casteism no longer exists except in the concept of reservations. And Kolanad also brings out caste in Indian society superbly. But I get ahead of myself.) The tales Kolanad heard from these families and villages must have shaped the inner lives of her characters and the forces that move them. How else would she know that world from the inside? The dance form is only one aspect of devadasi life, as Kolanad brings out, they played a vital role in the village community by offering sexual services to Brahmins and the higher (dominant) castes in the village. In this, she also does the work of a present-day anthropologist, unaffected by the judgement of colonial anthropology.

This is something that can easily fall in the territory of moralising. Yet it is undeniably true that as late as three generations ago (90-odd years ago), it was common in upper caste Hindu families to wed girls in the age range of 8-11 to young men around the age of 20. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, is said to have married Mrinalini Devi when she was 9 and he 20. This is very different from, say MK Gandhi’s wedding, where a 13-year-old MK wedded a 14-year-old Kasturba. By today’s standard, both are underage. But this kind of union does not allow for the kind of sexual exploitation as the marriage of a 9 year old to a 20-year-old man

Sample this, in the voice of the head devadasi Nagaveni. “We are not low-class women who wear garish make-up, are indecent and aggressive, who use bad words, who consort with poor and low-caste men, who service the police to keep them in line and who spread disease. That is not our work. We instead speak politely with proper grammar and a soft voice, do our work for the deity in the temple alongside practising the arts of our lineage, much appreciated by Brahmins and elite noblemen.
The padams and javalis we sing and dance create the mood, get the man thinking on the right lines. Before he ever sees our breasts, we get him imagining how they look and feel. We describe the shape, the size, the weight of them. Then only does he fall upon our fruits, sucking and squeezing to his heart’s content.”

Consider how precisely you must excavate the forces and lines of a pre-existing world to set them out as clearly as this, so can intimately understand the dynamic of a village in 1920s India.

An image of the author performing. Courtesy of Gitanjali Kolanad

And, there is one other quality that is a huge strength of Kolanad’s, the ability to be non-judgemental without giving up a moral compass. In her writing here and the collection of short stories, the author comes across as person who takes pleasure in sex and in writing about it. But there is a sense of right and wrong, the discomfort with the sexual use of those we would call “minors” today.  This is something that can easily fall in the territory of moralising. Yet it is undeniably true that as late as three generations ago (90-odd years ago), it was common in upper caste Hindu families to wed girls in the age range of 8-11 to young men around the age of 20. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, is said to have married Mrinalini Devi when she was 9 and he 20. This is very different from, say MK Gandhi’s wedding, where a 13-year-old MK wedded a 14-year-old Kasturba. By today’s standard, both are underage. But this kind of union does not allow for the kind of sexual exploitation as the marriage of a 9 year old to a 20-year-old man.The Tagores were easily among the most progressive families in 20th century Bengal. This would be a marriage that took place around 1880, the crest of the Bengal Renaissance. In an interview, the actress Sharmila Tagore who is about 75 said that her grandmother was married at the age of 5 years. Her grandfather, I would bet, was at least in his teens when this marriage was solemnised.

‘This is how things were then’ is a sentiment that is often expressed. And it is true. It is wrong to evaluate the mores of the past with the lens of the present. But it is also true that these practices carried a sense of inherent shame as Kolanad indicates in her book. If you are in the upper-caste bracket where these practices were prevalent, ask your grandparents about their parents if you can. Ask them directly: what age were their parents when they wed, what were their relationships like. *If* they tell you those stories, you’ll mostly hear stories of eccentricity and the quaintnesses of those times. Listen to those, because they are lovely stories in their own right, but pay attention to the eccentricities. My paternal grandfather, when he was still sentient, would say that his mother (my great grandmother) was a woman with a very short temper. But she was a loving grandmother to my father, and an affectionate mother to her children. My grandfather certainly remembers her with love. The rage that my grandfather talks about was mostly directed at my great-grandfather. He was the only one on whose plate that she did not heap food lovingly, serving him only when he asked.

Examine the stories of our pasts with criticality. Not with anger or bitterness, but also without shame.  The Hindi film Water by Deepa Mehta references the paedophilia that was prevalent in Hindu upper-caste society pre-Independence. The heroine Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray, acts as a protector of sorts of widowed girl children in the ashram in Kashi, who are used by prominent Brahmins in the city for sex. The shooting of the film was cancelled in India on account of protracted protests by Hindu right wing groups, and had to be rescheduled in Sri Lanka.

In her reviews and essays on Bharatanatyam, Kolanad carries this the same clear-eyed perspective, bringing the deeply sexualised nature of the dance form to the fore and the sexual abuse that was perpetrated through it. This is something no critic that I have read has brought up, admittedly this is a time when dance reviews have disappeared from the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazine. Sometimes, critics discuss sexual allusions in the high language of ‘rasas’ (broadly, the emotion evoked by the performer in the audience), as if the piece being performed has nothing to do with the art form and the sexual abuse enshrined in it.

In an essay titled The Last Great Devadasi, Kolanad writes: Now imagine you are the one being asked to make a choice—an art form dies, or a 12-year-old girl gets raped by a man old enough to be her grandfather. Would you say, “Well, it’s just one or two girls, the art form must be kept alive at any cost”? Or would you let the art form die? What if it was a really beautiful art form, with a long, rich tradition, part of your language and culture, and you’d been raised from babyhood to practice it? Or what if you were a doctor, and the young girls who had been brutally raped were turning up at your doorstep with venereal diseases and nowhere else to go? What if you saw the dance from the outside, saw how it could resonate in a wider world? What would you choose? Of course, the dilemma is not being presented in such stark terms by the new breed of academics and writers eager to paper over the abuses of the devadasi system in the name of art. Academics, many of them White, raised on feminist theory, twist themselves into knots to make the good guys and bad guys come out in a way that suits their agendas vis-a-vis the art form, while ignoring the abuse of young girls.

In nearly every story in the world, of individuals and institutions, it is the story of beauty that gets told. The ugliness is successfully kept out of view. I write often on health and medicine, and I have increasingly come to believe that only the beauty finds its way into the sun. Consider this bit from a story I wrote on reproductive health in 2015: The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on obstetrics and gynaecology mentions how pioneers of gynaecological surgery like [James Marion] Sims had to fight the public outcry against the “exposure or examination of female sexual organs”. Prostitutes were hired for vaginal examinations because “decent” women would not participate in such a procedure. Sims also designed the modern speculum…”

The speculum is the device used to examine the vagina by separating the walls within. It is an important advance, but it came at the cost of the exploitation of prostitutes and slave women. Modern gynaecology has made some remarkable improvements to the lives of us women, this we know and we must acknowledge. But the stories of slave women and prostitutes, possibly held against their will, for the greater good of science, shouldn’t we hear those stories too?

This essay was published in 2012. I realise that Kolanad has been preparing to write Girl Made of Gold at least since then, because this essay contains the same argument that lies at the heart of the novel, the struggle between beauty and abuse. In nearly every story in the world, of individuals and institutions, it is the story of beauty that gets told. The ugliness is successfully kept out of view. I write often on health and medicine, and I have increasingly come to believe that only the beauty finds its way into the sun. Consider this bit from a story I wrote on reproductive health in 2015: The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on obstetrics and gynaecology mentions how pioneers of gynaecological surgery like [James Marion] Sims had to fight the public outcry against the “exposure or examination of female sexual organs”. Prostitutes were hired for vaginal examinations because “decent” women would not participate in such a procedure. Sims also designed the modern speculum…”

The speculum is the device used to examine the vagina by separating the walls within. It is an important advance, but it came at the cost of the exploitation of prostitutes and slave women. Modern gynaecology has made some remarkable improvements to the lives of us women, this we know and we must acknowledge. But the stories of slave women and prostitutes, possibly held against their will, for the greater good of science, shouldn’t we hear those stories too?

Kolanad does this superbly in her first novel, marrying the complexity of a traditional institituion with criticality and her own delectable talent for pleasure and beauty. All of it matters.

Disclosure: Gitanjali Kolanad is a friend.

Girl Made of Gold by Gitanjali Kolanad is available for download on the Juggernaut app. The hardback book releases end July. Available for pre-order on Amazon

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