Winner of the

The Minority Question: A Critical Analysis of Gender, Human Rights, and Women’s Reform Projects in Colonial and Postcolonial India Through the Figure of the ‘Mahari Devadasi’

Shriya Patnaik


Shriya Patnaik is a PhD scholar at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (International History and Politics Department). She is also a research affiliate of the IHEID Gender Centre.


Shriya’s doctoral project focuses on the historical genealogy surrounding discourses related to prostitution, trafficking, and sex-worker rights in colonial and postcolonial India. In particular, she focuses on the now-extinct community of temple-dancers called Mahari-Devadasis in the eastern state/region of Orissa. This matriarchal community of temple-dancers in the Jagannath Temple of Orissa were the creators of the classical dance-form Odissi, whose kinship structures, quotidian cultures and religious practices entailed being wed to Hindu deities over mortals. Under the colonial disciplining of deviant sexualities together with racialized bio-politics across the British Empire, these women were conceptualized, categorized, and criminalized as “religious prostitutes” under Contagious Disease and Prostitution regulations, from the nineteenth century onwards. Such bio-political forms of sexual disciplining for unmarried groups of women like courtesans, concubines, or sex-workers, was a recurrent feature of colonial social policies in British India across the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the abolition of the Devadasi tradition, instead of improving women’s life circumstances, propelled a turn towards clandestine networks of sex-work in the informal sector economy, owing to their growing socio-economic stigmatization in the postcolonial Indian nation-state. In problematizing human rights discourses surrounding this now-extinct community in postcolonial Orissa, Shriya’s research delineates how legal statutes on Devadasi Abolition silenced minority voices by distorting the complex relationship between bodily agency, informal economies of sexual commerce, and women’s socio-economic autonomy. Her research is methodologically reliant on oral histories, colonial-period archival records, along with UN/ILO humanitarian conventions on the rights of marginalized communities in the Global South. During her time at SNIS in particular, Shriya spent time analyzing the ILO’s digitized collections pertaining to the evolution of sex-worker rights in the Global South, along with the incorporation of a rights-based approach to such marginalized and disenfranchised communities. She thus explored how such bottom-up narratives and experiential accounts from subaltern women at the marginalia, can enrich the workings of national and international humanitarian initiatives on gender, women’s reform projects, and minority rights.

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