Chronicles from the Margins: Emotions, Sexuality, and Courtesans in Early Modern India

Sudipa Topdar


Under British colonial laws that aimed at regulating prostitution in India and imposing ideals of Victorian sexual restraint, the devadasi system came under vapid attack. Imposing Victorian ideals of sexual restraint, these laws emphasized that the prostitute was meant to be invisible and anomalous to social and political life. Given the prominence of a predominantly male dominated archive, how can scholars approximate the courtesan’s marginalized subaltern voice? One way to understand the emotional and intellectual agency, and sexual autonomy of the devadasis is to examine the poetry they composed and those, written by male poets, where the courtesan is the central character. Doing so problematizes a narrow portrayal of temple women as passive, lacking agency, and as sexual victims. This article examines poetry and songs sung by courtesans in early modern India to conclude that this literature suggests that many of them signified economic and self-autonomy, assertiveness, and sexual agency. 


Courtesans, Sexuality, Emotions

Full Text:



• Ali, Daud, “Anxieties of Attachment: The Dynamics of Courtship in Medieval India”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 36, no.1, pp.103-139, 2002.

• Gautam, Sanjay. Foucault and the Kamasutra: The Courtesan, the Dandy, and the Birth of Ars Erotica as Theater in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

• Kautilya and L.N. Rangarajan (trans.). The Arthasastra (New Delhi, New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

• Levine, Phillipa. Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (Routledge, 2013).

• Muddupalani, Radhika Santwanam, translated by Sandhya Mulchandani (Gurgaon: Penguin Books India, 2011).

• Nair, Janaki, “The Devadasi, Dharma and the State”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, no. 50, pp. 3157-3159+3161-3167, 1994.

• Orr, Leslie. Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamil Nadu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

• Ramanujan, A. K, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman (edited & translated), When God is the Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and others (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

• Ramberg, Lucinda. Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

• Rao, V. Narayan, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Symbols of Substance: Court and State in the Nayaka Period Tamilnadu (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992).

• Schofield, Katherine Butler, “The Courtesan Tale: Female Musicians and Dancers in Mughal Historical Chronicles, 1556-1748”, Gender and History, Vol. 24, no.1, pp.150-171, 2012.

• Somadeva, The Ocean of story, being C.H. Tawney's translation of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara (London: Chas. J. Sawyer, 1924).

• Soneji, Davesh. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

• Srinivasan, Doris. “Royalty’s Courtesans and God’s Mortal Wives: Keepers of Culture in Pre-Colonial India,” in The Courtesan’s Arts, ed. Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2006), 161-81

• Tambe, Ashwini. Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

• Tharu, Susie and K. Lalitha (ed.). Women Writing in India 600 B.C to the Present Vol. I (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993).



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2017 Asian Journal of Humanities and Social Studies

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.