Devadasis discover feminist autonomy in Vaasanthi's Breaking Free.


Devadasis discover feminist autonomy in Vaasanthi's Breaking Free.


The south Indian hereditary courtesan community, also known as devadasis, has been the target of morbid fascination and attempts at erasure in popular tales. Their dance style, Sadir Attam, has been hijacked and realigned with respectability among the Brahmins. In the colonial and post-colonial eras, their involvement in extramarital affairs and sex labor fueled moral panic rather than drawing attention to the caste oppression they endured.

Many scholarly and literary works have recently addressed the confusing cultural roles that have been imposed on devadasis, ranging from Davesh Soneji's Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, And Modernity in South India (2012) to Gitanjali Kolanad's Girl Made of Gold (2020). A nice contribution to this examination of culture is Vaasanthi's Breaking Free, a book by the prolific Tamil author.

The novel Vittu Viduthalaiyagi (2012), which N. Kalyan Raman translated from the Tamil original, is divided between two time periods. The main character of the current story is Maya, a young academic from the US who travels to Kodaikanal to try to unravel the mystery surrounding her mother's drowning. Two young ladies from the devadasi community in the Madras Presidency, Kasturi and Lakshmi, are followed in the second book, which is set in the years leading up to independence.

The beginning of Breaking Free is a little awkward. The shifts between time and memory feel frantic in the first few chapters because they are exaggerated. Soon, the cadence of Raman's translation becomes apparent: "To the kids in that street, 'father' was a metaphor... Nobody wants that impersonal abstraction of a human.

Thilakam, Kasturi's sister, elopes with her Brahmin lover and leads a caged existence with a husband who seeks to eradicate every trace of her "disreputable" past, as told in one moving chapter. She hadn't anticipated having to repress the melody that involuntarily came from her navel upon hearing birds singing in the morning, press it back into her vocal cords, and direct it back in the direction it had come from.

In Vaasanthi's writing, there are reoccurring themes of feminist resistance and togetherness. In Breaking Free, Kasturi adopts a nationalist fervor and resistance when she falls in love with Singaram, a Gandhian freedom warrior and an oppressed-caste sculptor who introduces her to Bharathiyar's lyrics. Breaking Free's conclusion is unattractive as several exaggerated stories turn to collide with one another. But this doesn't diminish a book that emphasizes closeness, creativity, and tenacity in a severely mistreated community.

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