Thursday, April 11, 2013

Geisha & Devdasi - mirror images?

I happened to read "Memoirs of a Geisha" a few months ago and have been kind of intrigued by the uncanny resemblance the Geisha has with Devdasis or "Kalavantis" (as they were popularly known in ancient times) of the south Indian folklore. 

In fact the literal translation of the two words is exactly the same. "Gei" in Japanese means "art" and jin stands for person, and so the word Geisha basically translates to "a person who is skilled in some art form" or "an artist". Similarly, "Kala" in Hindi means "art" and "vanti" refers to a woman who is an expert in or possesses some skill. 

The book describes the world of a Geisha in a very lucid manner with subtle descriptions of their emotions, customs and rituals and is one big reason that I decided to come up with this write-up. After reading the book I did some research on Devdasis and was surprised at how two women from two different parts of the world, different cultures and beliefs, and strikingly different looks, can possibly have so much in common.   

Usually coming from an impoverished background, they were sold into households that maintained such practices, at a very young age and were then rigorously trained on various art forms such as dance, singing, musical instruments (Sitar, Shamisen), etc. Both went on to become professional entertainers, the only difference being that Geisha  performed at tea houses and were thus required to master the tea ceremony, whereas the Devdasis performed at temples. It was a kind of social obligation (also religious obligation in case of a Devdasi) that they were expected to fulfill till they died. 

Although they enjoyed a very high social status in the pre-colonial days, the British and American presence resulted in an intense social and financial turmoil in the two countries. This may have caused the two systems to collapse and forced the Geisha and Devdasis to succumb to prostitution.

Born out poverty, these so called "mortal fairies", molded into personality that is a connotation of queen, a slave, an artist, and a prostitute, have been a subject of fascination for many. Revered by some and looked down upon as social outcasts by many, they lived a life dedicated completely to the society and yet they belonged to nobody. Beyond their elaborate costumes and extravagant lifestyles, there lied immense pain, which is very clear from the following snippets from the book - Memoirs of a Geisha

“We can never flee the misery that is within us.”  

“Nobody becomes a Geisha because they want to - they become one because they have no choice" 

Another one from a book, "Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in Modern India" that explores the various traditional forms of faith in modern India, captures the emotions of a Devdasi beautifully. 

"If I were to sit under a tree and tell you the sadness we have to suffer, the leaves of that tree would fall like tears."

The enormous grief hidden behind these words can only be felt and understood by them, they who have lived all their lives as slaves and yet had nerves of steel. Although geisha and Devdasis lived**in oblivion of each other's existence, their sufferings and fate binds them into a bond that only soul mates can share. 

** The Devdasi system was abolished by the government of India in the year 1988 but continues to flourish in some parts of southern India. The modern Geisha still lives in Okiyas (geisha households) in areas popularly known as hanamachis (literally "flower town"),  the most popular one being Gion in Kyoto. 


  1. Very interesting Puneeta, I never knew of the Devdasis. I also read "Memoirs of a Geisha" some time ago and always wondered how a man could have written through a woman's eyes with such understanding .

    1. Thank you Norma. I agree with you. Arthur Golden did a wonderful job with that book. I read this article a few months ago, thought I'd share it with you.,9171,393813,00.html

  2. Hi Puneeta, I literally ignorant of the the Geisha sytem in Japan and also the Kalavantis in India. Thank you for sharing the knowledge. I am expecting more articles from you. All the best.

    1. Hi Jojo, Glad you liked it.It is indeed interesting to find out about how different cultures around the world are kind of similar to your own culture and traditions.

  3. Your article is forcing me to read the book "Memoirs of a Geisha" , though i have seen the movie but at times i think literature has more charm and power to make the character feel alive ... btw ur article also educated me about Devdasis and it was quite interesting to know the striking similarity between the two ! Thanks :)