Week Two: History with my feet

by Claire Scobie

On my second visit to Thanjuvar, I interviewed the current Prince, Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, in his palace with its air of fading grandeur. I was hoping for pomp and ceremony, but he arrived in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt. He’s a modern Prince – he’s on Linked-In.

Bharatanatyam dancerAs we sat drinking chai in a dark room hung with chandeliers and portraits of his royal predecessors, he mentioned we were sitting in the original harem. I felt a frisson of excitement. My character, Palani, is based on the real Muddupalani, a royal courtesan and poet who lived in the palace in the mid-1700s. I wondered, would she have languished on a low divan or paced as she tried to find the rhythm in her bold, sexy poetry?

When I told him I was researching the history of women like her and asked whether any would have had relationships with European men, he said, unlikely. ‘Society was – and still is – very conservative.’

I chose to set The Pagoda Tree in the mid-eighteenth-century because, unlike the later Raj era, there was still the possibility of exchange between cultures. Paintings and travelogues from the Georgian period indicate that the temple dancer was a well-recognised figure in European literary and artistic circles. In part this was a reflection of her visible presence in Indian society; in part the fascination – bordering on fetishism – that European men had with the exotic.

Despite what the prince said, there are accounts of European men who had sexual liaisons with Indian women; some who had troupes of dancing girls. The English lawyer and memoirist, William Hickey, wrote with great affection about his Indian wife or bibi in his memoirs. In 1778 the East India Company directors went so far as to declare that they would give five rupees to every child of a rank soldier baptised in Madras. This policy did not last, however. From 1786, Anglo-Indians – those of mixed race – were excluded from European social and political life.

I soon realised the sensitivity and complexity of these issues: both of inter-racial relations and the status of these women in general. One journalist was contemptuous when I told him of my interest in devadasis; a Chennai academic told me of ‘the shame’ she experienced when doing interviews with their descendants.

As a journalist, I’ve been taught to dig deeper. The more resistance I face when researching a story, the more determined I am to pursue the leads. Then, as often happens, found an ally in Dr Perumal, the affable senior librarian at the Saraswati Mahal Library, in the Royal Palace. He found me somewhere to sit as I poured over dusty manuscripts; he ensured I received the hourly cup of sweet chai brought to all the workers.

Corridors of Big Temple_ThanjavurOne afternoon Dr Perumal invited me over to his desk and unfurled a yellowing eighteenth-century map of the city, pointing out where the British troops were garrisoned and the proximity to the street where the devadasis lived. Remnants of the barracks still exist next to the ‘Big Temple’. In order for the devadasis to reach the temple to perform their daily rituals, they would have had to walk past the garrison and Dr Puramel encouraged me to physically retrace their steps. He also conceded, with a wry smile, that it wasn’t out of the question that a relationship between a devadasi and a British man could have developed.

This is where I started experiencing ‘history with my feet’. I retraced the path that my main character, Maya, and her family, would have walked. I watched the nightly Bharatanatyam dance performances at the palace. These follow the tradition of the devadasis’ dance repertoire, albeit with much of the sensuality excised.

One day I found myself on the back of a bullock cart heading to an outlying village to celebrate the spring festival Pongal. The rutted road was lined with bushels of sugar cane and the rain pelted down. Later on, in a palm leafed feasting tent, I suddenly got a real sense of my character, Walter, an English reverend. I imagined him sitting there in itchy woolen breeches, uncomfortable in the dampness, uncomfortable in his skin.

The next morning one of the prince’s aides called me excitedly to say my picture was in The Hindu on page three. ‘There you are, Madam, most elegant on the back of a bullock cart.’ Not usually words I would associate, but delightful all the same. I kept a copy for my scrapbook.

Bullock Cart_Pongal_Thanjavur

I have a strong (though unsubstantiated) belief that stories have a life force of their own. The deeper you go, the more likely the right person, phrase or document, will land in your lap. Sometimes, literally. I’m sure this is because you’re more open and receptive. It’s also part of the mystery of storytelling.

After ten days in Thanjavur, I understood what the Prince meant about the conservatism of the region. I was feeling stifled. The whole time I was conscious of myself as an outsider and the cultural sensitivities I was navigating through. There was the question of authenticity, authority and the responsibility of a novelist in relation to historicalevidence. There was also a cultural acceptance of shame and a frequent denial of the devadasis having any historical agency. Yet Muddupalani, the first woman to write erotic poetry in southern India, a woman who celebrated female pleasure, showed another perspective.

In my last days there I contacted academics who specialised in the field. I was excited to hear back from Davesh Soneji, a Toronto-based scholar, who’s been studying the devadasis of Thanjavur for over a decade. In his email he described the voices of these women as ‘irretrievable’.

I remember sitting in an internet café, the sound of rickshaws and motorbikes screeching past. I remember the heat and how my legs were sticking to the cheap plastic chair. I read his words again and briefly felt a wave of panic. Irretrievable. I repeated the word to myself. Later that day I returned to the ‘Big Temple’. Walking through the stone corridors, I heard the swish of silk and the laughter of a child. And it dawned on me, for a historian, these voices may have vanished. For a novelist, it was a question of becoming quiet enough to hear.

Temple offeringsAll photos courtesty of Claire Scobie  www.clairescobie.com

Find her book ‘The Pagoda Tree’, here: http://www.booktopia.com.au/the-pagoda-tree-claire-scobie/prod9780670077335.html