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Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a hundred years of vociferous social reform, including a 1947 law that criminalized their lifestyles, the women in devadasi communities contend with severe social stigma and economic and cultural disenfranchisement. Adroitly combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical research, Davesh Soneji provides a comprehensive portrait of these marginalized women and unsettles received ideas about relations among them, the aesthetic roots of their performances, and the political efficacy of social reform in their communities.
DAVESH SONEJI is associate professor of South Asian religions at McGill University. He is coeditor of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India and editor of Bharatanatyam: A Reader.
“...Soneji reconstructs the heartbreaking story of the so-called devadasis, including their marginalization at the hands of a prudish colonial government and a puritanical, Anglicized elite. He has opened a window to a musical world of astonishing richness and expressive power and to an aesthetic sensibility that has largely disappeared, and he has explained the social and cultural processes that undermined that sensibility and, indeed, the entire cultural system in which it once flourished. Anyone who has discovered the great power of Karnatak music should read this book in order to understand how this refined tradition acquired its present public forms, and in order to get beyond the standard, highly distorted narrative of its origins. Soneji is the foremost historian of this musical world as it developed from late medieval to early modern modes of performance.”
“Sensitive, sympathetic, and very well-written, Unfinished Gestures moves the debate about devadasis in a new and interesting direction and will be the standard bearer in the field. Soneji’s ethnographic work supports his historical claims and brings to life the poignancy of contemporary devadasis’ lives.”