We cannot eradicate devadasi system without government help, says author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant

Friday, 28 March 2014 - 3:42pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA web desk
  • lead.jpg The author with her three children lives in France. RNA Research & Archives

Catherine Rubin Kermorgant, born in France is a documentary film-maker who travelled to India to understand the Devadasi system and make a documentary film to expose the problems faced by them. Now a published author of the memoir that chronicles devadasis journey, she talks about her journey and how change in the system takes time. Below are the excerpts: 

Also, check out her website here.

1. You spent a considerable amount of time in India understanding the plight of Devadasi women and the social hitherto. What do you think can be done by the government to eradicate the tradition that puts women at grave risk? 

The government can eradicate the devadasi system by providing education, vocational training and micro-credit loans. This will take several generations, perhaps, but it is the only way. When the women have another means of survival, they leave the tradition all by themselves.  One cannot eradicate the system with the wave of a magic wand – it is deeply embedded in the religious and economic functioning of the villages. Change will take time, but it will come, I am sure of that.  

2. How has your journey been since your trip to India and interaction with Shanti and others? How has your life changed? 

My life did considerably change after meeting the devadasis of Kalyana because I decided I would not rest until I could carry their voices to the greater public and bring attention to their plight.  I believed that if I could make their voices heard I could help nudge forward social change.  I talked women of Kalyana into sharing their lives with me by promising them I would do this.  In the first instance – the documentary film – I utterly and totally failed.  By getting the book published, I can say that I have had some success, but real success for me would be concrete social change, i.e., seeing the community get access to education, vocational training and micro-credit loans.  

I have tremendous respect and admiration for devadasi women and they were and continue to be an inspiration to me. Deciding to write this book meant giving up documentary filmmaking.  This was a huge change.  But I have no regrets!  

3. What was the most difficult part in writing the book? 

What happened with the documentary is so incredible, if I had made it up, no one would have believed me, so I wanted to be as close to “the facts” as possible, and yet this didn’t always serve the narrative.  It’s important to make the story interesting and easy to read! I worked through this difficulty by moving scenes out of their strict chronological order.  

Some non-fiction writers use composite characters or describe in detail scenes at which they could not possibly have been present.  I didn’t do that in Servants.  I’m not entirely comfortable with these techniques. None of the characters are composite and nothing is invented.  

4. Are you in touch with the women from Kalyana village in Karnataka? 

Unfortunately, because the women do not know how to read or write or have telephones, the only way to communicate with the women is by actually returning to the village. I now have three children, so traveling has not been possible for me lately.  Next year, my finances permitting, I will return and bring them a copy of the book.  They won’t be able to read it, but I know that they will be thrilled that their voices have finally reached the outer world.

They trust me and nothing can take that away.  They know I have them in my heart and will come back one day.  

5. Though the documentary did not turn out well, you still managed to fight out the detractors for putting out misleading content. What do you think can be done against people who manipulate content and truth for their benefit?

The best defense against such manipulation is developing the critical thinking of the general public. When we watch TV or read a book, then we need to weigh the representations that are being made against our own judgment, values and life experience.  

The person in my book whom I call Dilip Patil (this is not his real name) chose to attempt to portray the women of Kalyana as upholding the devadasi system out of religious devotion rather than out of economic necessity.  Who could believe such nonsense?  No one.  As far as I know the film was refused at every single documentary film festival it offered to.  This is encouraging news.  

6. How was the response to the book? How much time did it take you to write the book? 

The response has been overwhelmingly positive – many readers have contacted me through the book’s website to express sympathy.  I’m thrilled to hear from readers.  And I’m thrilled to know that they found the book interesting. Awareness is the first step toward change. I hope they will make contributions to the Devadasi Trust Fund or to the NGOs listed on the site. Those NGOs are working toward the social and economic advancement of the communities from which devadasis come.

7. Even today, violence against women is on the rise in India with gang-rapes, murder and molestation on the rise. Even stringent laws such as Vishakha guidelines and anti-rape bills haven't been able to reduce crimes. What can be done to bring justice and prevent crimes? 

Is violence against women on the rise, or is it just being reported more?  I am thankful that so many women and their families are now coming forward to denounce rape. Societies reach a tipping point when suddenly, collectively, members of a society decide that the old way is no longer possible.  

When that tipping point is reached, change can happen very quickly.  I have great faith in the capacity of men to learn how to look at things in another way. How would they feel if their mother or their beloved sister were raped, and then humiliated by the police, as so often happens?  

Devadasi women are so full of Shakti, divine feminine strength and energy. They have hard lives, but they are so resilient. In this, they are an example to us all. Life is not always easy, but we must learn to be strong, resilient and refuse the degradations other may try to impose on us.  


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