Sashimani Devi was the last of the ritual temple dancers, whose vocation stems back to the 12th century. At the age of three. she was left at the temple by her parents, and the women there raised her and taught her what she needed to know.
The Hindu god Jagannath, an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, gives his name to the English term juggernaut, inspired by a festival in which the image of the god is pulled along the streets in a huge, ornately carved wooden temple cart. Traditionally, devotees would sometimes cast themselves under its wheels in the hope of freeing themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Devadasis were girls who were given to the temple by their families during childhood to be the mortal wives of the god. After their “marriage” to Jagannath their duties included performing ritual baths and private songs and dances at the god’s bedtime, dressed in special jewellery and bedecked with flowers. During and after the colonial era, however, the devadasi system fell into disrepute, owing to the corruption of the practice in other parts of India, where devadasis became, in effect, prostitutes for upper caste temple patrons.
By contrast the devadasis of the Jagannath Temple, also known as Maharis, never practised prostitution, and were expected to remain celibate. In 1988, however, the practice of dedicating young girls to Hindu temples was outlawed on human rights grounds.
It was a long, proud tradition, and although she adopted a young girl who normally would follow the same path, her daughter took her myriad talents elsewhere.
[Sashimani] continued to dance into her fifties and sang well into her eighties, until her legs were broken by a rampaging bull and she could no longer make her way to the temple.
She died at the age of 92, but you can find some of her reminiscences here. A few years younger, Sheila Kitzinger also died recently, having a smashingly successful career as a social anthropologist who advocated strongly for changing the way babies are born.
Sheila Kitzinger, who has died aged 86, was a social anthropologist and powerful proselytiser for home birth, natural birth, and the avoidance of unnecessary obstetric intervention – what she called the pathologising of childbirth; to women who had undergone the experience, her views were either appalling — or empowering and liberating.
Sheila Kitzinger battled her way into the labour ward with The Experience of Childbirth, published in 1962. The medicalisation of childbirth was at its peak and her message that birth was a wonderful, exhilarating event where women needed to retain control struck a chord. Over the next three decades, her efforts saw an end to routine enemas and shaving and a sharp decline in episiotemies.
As a result of her campaigning it became normal for partners to be present at the birth and she helped to establish the importance of breast-feeding to maternal and infant health. In the 1980s she introduced the birth plan — by which prospective mothers can insist on various procedures during labour — to Britain.
The social commentator Polly Toynbee hailed Sheila Kitzinger as “the Earth Mother, or Birth Mother of the Nation,” observing that “if Britain is now one of the most progressive countries in obstetric practices, it is largely due to her.” One newspaper bestowed on her the title of “high priestess of the childbirth movement.”
Of course, we take these things for granted now, but they were radical innovations for her day. As with any pioneers, one can be so enamoured of a new vision that the seer can lose perspective.
But the flip side of this revolution was that childbirth became hugely politicised, with women caught between the natural-birth, breast-feeding zeal of the Natural Childbirth Trust (which Sheila Kitzinger helped to found), and medical professionals with their statistics showing that, thanks to modern medical techniques, the rate of maternal and child mortality in childbirth was lower than it had ever been.
Some mothers also felt that she contributed to pressures which make women feel inadequate — even guilty — if they did not experience epiphanies when giving birth or enjoy the rose-tinted joy of breast-feeding that they were led to expect.
Indeed some found Sheila’s Kitzinger’s writings about childbirth decidedly eccentric. In Birth & Sex (2012) she celebrated the “eroticism” of childbirth, likening the second stage of labour to “a multiple orgasm that comes in great rushes with each longing to push” and “the most intensely sexual feeling a woman ever experiences.” She urged women to “be wild, to roar like a lion, scale mountains and revel in the birth passion.”
Um, yeah. One might be a little too swept up in the excitement of it all.
Sheila Kitzinger tended to claim that she was misunderstood and that some women had taken her pronouncements on the orgasmic aspects of childbirth rather too literally. “I’m not starry-eyed about this. It’s like if you plan a picnic in this country; you have to imagine what happens if it rains as well. The main point is that if women want to, they can share in the decision-making. If they don’t want to, that’s fine, too.”
Evidently, her own maternal career manifested itself to be curiously apart from the norm as well.
Only one of Sheila Kitzinger’s five daughters chose to become a mother, having all three of her children using the water birth technique. Three of Sheila Kitzinger’s other daughters came out as lesbians, to which their mother’s reaction was entirely positive. When the headmaster of the first to come out called Sheila in to discuss her daughter’s “unhealthy” relationship with her female maths teacher, she invited the teacher to spend Christmas with them. Shortly afterwards, two more daughters made similar announcements. “They’re terrific,” she maintained. “I must have done something right.”
May the God of mercies consider the good these two women pursued with all sincerity, and may they rest in peace.