The Minority Question: An Analysis of Gender Reform in Colonial India Through the Figure of the Mahari Devadasi, 1868-1947

Advisors: Anupama P. Rao (Columbia), Padraic X. Scanlan (LSE)

My dissertation sketches a history of gender and sexuality in colonial India through the figure of the Mahari Devadasi. Before British annexation of Orissa in 1803, temple-dancers in the Jagannath Temple known as Mahari Devadasis were respected cultural figures, who enjoyed clerical and royal patronage. Devadasis were were historically not bound to the institution of marriage and wed to Hindu deities in their practices of religiosity. Some women had royal patrons; however, their social positioning was not defined as commercial sex-workers, as many were dance-teachers, musicians and nurses. Maharis were the historical actors of the classical dance form - Odissi. After the passage of the Indian Penal Code (1860) and the Contagious Diseases Act (1864), they were prosecuted for prostitution. The stigmatization of this community continued until its extinction in 2015, accompanied by shifts in popular culture. My dissertation traced this process of disenfranchisement and social stigmatization as a direct by-product of colonial intervention on gender and religion in Odisha. It follows a granular methodological approach through oral-histories and the diaries of 4 Maharis to address historical silences in the official archive and document the experience of subaltern actors with the modern nation-state. My research thereby attempts to provincialize Europe in human rights discourse in situating the narratives of these women within broader global feminist movements.

The Jagannath Temple at Puri, in the state of Odisha. Source: Abhishek Barua, on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.