Cultural Mores and Complex Relationships
Kumkum Roy
UNFINISHED GESTURES: DEVADASIS, MEMORY AND MODERNITY IN SOUTH ASIA by Davesh Soneji Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2013, 313 pp., 750
February 2013, volume 37, No 2-3

Unfinished Gestures provides a gentle, poignant and painstakingly detailed account of the complex processes whereby women who participated and continue to participate in what Soneji classifies as non-conjugal relationships have been marginalized. While some scholars have tried to move beyond the binaries of the celebratory and the condemnatory in their analyses of the devadasi tradition, what sets Soneji’s work apart is his careful disaggregation of spheres of performance and his fruitful deployment of interdisciplinarity in its richness. There are no superficial or quick resolutions or conclusions; instead, we are led through a web of tangled engagements and constantly reminded of the complicated worlds that devadasis both created and inhabited, as well as of the contexts within which these emerged.

The first substantive chapter focuses on Tanjore, an acclaimed centre for music and ‘high’ culture under the Marathas. Here, Soneji’s account takes us beyond the narrative of the collapse of these cultural practices with the onslaught of colonialism.

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