"Don't you know the house, the Love God's marketplace of passions, the dusk where the dark clears and yet is not clear?" - Annamayya
January 22, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Devadasi are women in southeastern India who were dedicated in their youth to the goddess Yellamma. When they reach puberty they are forced into sex work. Once they were women of high status, but now they've been relegated to the outskirts of society. The devadasi practice goes back a long way in history, and was once celebrated in poetry. When God Is a Customer, a collection of translated classical Telugu poems about the devadasi, is free to read online. Their modern life is described by William Dalrymple in The New Yorker and in a video interview with filmmaker Beeban Kidron which includes clips from her documentary Sex, Death and the Gods. The devadasi have been targeted by exploitative Western media for a long time, but have recently started to hit back, using the internet to disseminate their views.
posted by Kattullus (14 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Typically amazing and interesting post. Thanks Kattullus.
posted by nickyskye at 7:47 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes very ancient, culturally significant, religiously important practices are nonetheless evil or oppressive. But that doesn't justify twisting peoples' words against them, or using the pretext of the journalist's lens to humiliate those who the filmmaker claims to want to uplift.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:23 AM on January 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

You know what? If being against the practice of forcing young girls into prostitution is anti-religious and cultural imperialism, I guess I'm anti-religious and a cultural imperialist. Screw your excuses.
posted by norm at 8:36 AM on January 22, 2011 [12 favorites]

After watching the rebuttal film, I started watching the documentary they were upset by -- it's pretty awful. She didn't speak their language, her translator didn't speak English very well, it was all about her (the reporter's) experiences and feelings. The New Yorker article does a much better job of describing the life of the devadasi from their own point of view, showing high and low points. I don't know if it is ever possible to depict an experience like that of the devadasi fully and accurately to non-sex workers (the cultural divide between sex workers and non-sexworkers seems greater than that between Hindu and non-Hindu) -given limits of time and word-counts. But there are more and less true ways to depict them, and it seems like Harris film very much distorted what was there.
posted by jb at 8:44 AM on January 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Proud to be anti-religious on this one. Do not much like some of our Judeo-Christian old religious "traditions" either, like stoning to death for adultery or disobedience or homosexuality. Not a fan of that fine old tradition in Africa of female genital mutilation either. Which mothers enforce on their daughters. Just because women in a culture defend these practices does not make them ok when the victims are children.
posted by mermayd at 8:48 AM on January 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm reminded of the Falkland Road photos (Bombay) by Mary Ellen Mark. Great post Kattullus.
posted by puny human at 8:49 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

1adam12 and norm: no one is arguing that the devadasi have peachy lives. If you read the New Yorker article, Rani Bai from the first Few sentences talks about how difficult it is, and describes how she was raped when she was 14 -- she talks about why she moved back into sex work, and how she has made so much more money as a sex worker, supporting her mother and her brother, but also how her daughters also became sex workers and have both died of aids.

The point of VAMP in their reputtal video is that they felt that they were lied about, turned into charactitures of victims and bullies (in the case of the older women) by someone whom they trusted to depict them as people.

As for the religious aspect: it's quite clear that this practice has long been divorced from religion. People don't dedicate their daughters out of a feeling of piety - but from poverty. The families hope to make some money from the prostitution -- and women enter as adults (Rani Bai chose to start again as an older girl) because they don't have many other options. She could pick onions and be in poverty, or be a sex worker and live (more) comfortably. Her society didn't give her any other options. Her daughters couldn't marry (one had eloped, the other had a skin deformity), and they both became sex workers.
posted by jb at 8:54 AM on January 22, 2011 [11 favorites]

This practice has almost nothing to do with religion.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:35 AM on January 22, 2011

I read the articles, don't like the insinuation that I didn't, and was reacting specifically to the VAMP rebuttal article accusing those against these practices as anti-religious and culturally imperialist. Shall I quote?
Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism. She has abused the poorest of people for her own ends.
To manipulate poor people to meet one’s ends is blameworthy. It is reprehensible to betray the trust of a most vulnerable people merely to make a film. To, in addition, vilify and disparage a culture and religious beliefs, as Sarah Harris and VBS TV have done, requires either wilful ignorance or a determination to produce work that panders to the worst type of media sensationalism imaginable.
I am well aware that documentary subjects almost universally hate the way they are portrayed. Billy Mitchell hated King of Kong, too, but that doesn't mean that I can't still be amazed at the world of competitive video gaming.

I still think this is a deplorable, reprehensible practice. I have also been against the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhas, Catholic sex abuse, and Baptist youth camps. For all of these stances I've been told that these are not representative of the religions in question (well, Falls Creek pretty much sums up mainstream Baptist practices, actually), and that me being against them is an excuse for me to be against the religion.

I can grant you that the proximate cause of these women being involved in prostitution is poverty, not religion, like much of the world. But the fact that there is a locally mainstream religious practice that sanctions this -- and in a particularly brutal way-- makes it a different story.
posted by norm at 10:04 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm confused by the links. Is "Sex, Death and the Gods" by Beeban Kidron a different documentary than "Prostitutes of God" by Sarah Harris? Because the people speaking out against the Harris film were all the same people featured in the Kidron film.

That doesn't make sense to me for a variety of reasons. (Why would the two documentaries recruit the same several people; why would all the people burned by one documentary agree to an identical project by another unknown foreigner, etc)
posted by dgaicun at 10:10 AM on January 22, 2011

I love the rebuttal videos. Whooda thunk that the oppressed people you've used to make your little film would be able to operate a video camera, and post to YouTube? The world needs more of this.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:23 AM on January 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

My girlfriend spent a semester in India working with children who have managed to escape this cycle. She even made a documentary about the experience, but for inexplicable reasons it's not on YouTube.
posted by spamguy at 10:25 AM on January 22, 2011

Yes, they are two different documentaries -- Harris's is not linked here, but appears in the "related videos" for the YouTube link. I don't know which was made first, but I can imagine that the same people got involved because they were active in VAMP -- and (if Harris's was first) maybe they chose to do the second in the hopes that it would be more accurate.
posted by jb at 11:20 AM on January 22, 2011

Beautiful love poems translated by Ramanujan . . .

When I walk up the stairs,
it is your shadow that follows . . .

When I aimlessly doodle with my fingernail,
it is your name that appears . . .

Your lips are bruised with her love bites
But it is my lip that trembles.

"Your body is my body," you used to say.
posted by jfwlucy at 7:27 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

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