Within populist narratives, the south Indian hereditary courtesan community, often referred to as devadasis, has been the subject of grotesque fascination as well as attempts at erasure. Sadir Attam, their dance tradition, has been appropriated and realigned with Brahminical respectability. Their involvement in non-conjugal relationships and sex work fuelled moral panic in the colonial and post-colonial eras, rather than spotlighting the caste oppression they lived under.
In recent years, a number of academic and literary works, from Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, And Modernity In South India (2012) to Gitanjali Kolanad’s Girl Made Of Gold (2020), have grappled with the ambiguous cultural roles thrust on devadasis. Breaking Free, by the prolific Tamil writer Vaasanthi, is a welcome addition to this cultural contemplation.
Translated from the Tamil original, Vittu Viduthalaiyagi (2012), by N. Kalyan Raman, the novel is set across two time periods. The present-day narrative centres on Maya, a young academic who lives in the US and visits Kodaikanal to try and understand the mysterious drowning of her mother. The second, set in the years before independence, follows Kasturi and Lakshmi, two young women born into the devadasi community in the Madras Presidency.
Kasturi, a gifted temple dancer, sees piety and artistry as her reward for tolerating her profession’s unwelcome protrusions, including sex work with powerful temple patrons. Headstrong Lakshmi, the illegitimate daughter of a Brahmin man, becomes a doctor and makes a Kali-esque vow to Kasturi: “You are born in this despicable clan. I am going to destroy it.” Their disagreements encapsulate the complications of finding feminist agency in a community that can seemingly liberate itself only by incinerating its traditions and history.
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Breaking Free gets off to a slightly clunky start. The first few chapters are overwrought and the transitions between time and memory feel as chaotic. Before long, Raman’s translation finds its rhythm: “To the children in that street, ‘father’ was a metaphor…No one yearned for that abstraction of a person.”
One poignant chapter unfolds from the point of view of Thilakam, Kasturi’s sister, who elopes with her Brahmin lover and lives a caged life with a husband who tries to stamp out every vestige of her “disreputable” past. “She hadn’t imagined that on hearing birdsong at dawn she would have to suppress the melody that involuntarily rose from her navel, press it back into her vocal cords and direct it back to where it had come from.”
Feminist reluctance and solidarity are recurring themes in Vaasanthi’s work. In Breaking Free, as Kasturi falls in love with Singaram, a Gandhian freedom fighter and an oppressed-caste sculptor who introduces her to Bharathiyar’s poems, she turns to nationalist fervour and resistance. Breaking Free ends on an inelegant note, as a number of melodramatic plot twists careen into one another. But this doesn’t chip away at a novel that foregrounds intimacy, artistry and fortitude in a deeply exploited community.
Karthik Shankar is a Chennai-based writer and editor.