ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

“Do not treat us like mindless dupes or victimized agents of reform!” : Mahari Songs as shared expressions of resistance and life stories in pre and postcolonial Odisha


Chatterjee Sinjini - University of California, Riverside, Dance, RIverside, United States


26 – Radical Poetics in the Literary Cultures of South Asia


 Female ritual specialists, maharis were introduced in Odishan temples in the 11th century. Their dance is acknowledged as an important ancestor of contemporary Odissi, but they were never consulted during the reconstruction process due to alleged ties to prostitution circulated by local and colonial stake holders in the twentieth century. Songs authored by the maharis serve as an important documentation of their status both inside and outside the temple, primarily as an identity of resistance; especially the songs that were written by them during 1960s. Written in first-person narrative, these songs present the maharis in direct communication with the presiding deity, in discussion among themselves and in questioning the colonizers. This paper argues that even though deceased, mahari songs remain as fragments of their self-articulation and become pivotal in changing their position from law-abiding servants of the God and the government to individuals who negotiated with hierarchy. The recollection of silences become examples of resistance of the marginalized as well as instances through which these groups refuse to be historicized according to the nationalist narrative (Visweswaran, Patnaik). The maharis have been silenced in the cultural space of Odisha, and their songs undocumented in the official archives. In regard to these, this paper will demonstrate mahari songs as instances of a joint vocabulary of life stories and subversive agency.