Geisha & Devdasi – mirror images?

I happened to read “Memoirs of a Geisha” a few months ago and have been kind of intrigued by the uncanny resemblance the Geisha has with Devdasis or “Kalavantis” (as they were popularly known in ancient times) of the south Indian folklore.

In fact the literal translation of the two words is exactly the same. “Gei” in Japanese means “art” and jin stands for person, and so the word Geisha basically translates to “a person who is skilled in some art form” or “an artist”. Similarly, “Kala” in Hindi means “art” and “vanti” refers to a woman who is an expert in or possesses some skill.

The book describes the world of a Geisha in a very lucid manner with subtle descriptions of their emotions, customs and rituals and is one big reason that I decided to come up with this write-up. After reading the book I did some research on Devdasis and was surprised at how two women from two different parts of the world, different cultures and beliefs, and strikingly different looks, can possibly have so much in common.

Usually coming from an impoverished background, they were sold into households that maintained such practices, at a very young age and were then rigorously trained on various art forms such as dance, singing, musical instruments (Sitar, Shamisen), etc. Both went on to become professional entertainers, the only difference being that Geisha performed at tea houses and were thus required to master the tea ceremony, whereas the Devdasis performed at temples. It was a kind of social obligation (also religious obligation in case of a Devdasi) that they were expected to fulfill till they died.

Although they enjoyed a very high social status in the pre-colonial days, the British and American presence resulted in an intense social and financial turmoil in the two countries. This may have caused the two systems to collapse and forced the Geisha and Devdasis to succumb to prostitution.

Born out poverty, these so called “mortal fairies”, molded into personality that is a connotation of queen, a slave, an artist, and a prostitute, have been a subject of fascination for many. Revered by some and looked down upon as social outcasts by many, they lived a life dedicated completely to the society and yet they belonged to nobody. Beyond their elaborate costumes and extravagant lifestyles, there lied immense pain, which is very clear from the following snippets from the book – Memoirs of a Geisha.

“We can never flee the misery that is within us.”

“Nobody becomes a Geisha because they want to – they become one because they have no choice”

Another one from a book, “Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in Modern India” that explores the various traditional forms of faith in modern India, captures the emotions of a Devdasi beautifully.

“If I were to sit under a tree and tell you the sadness we have to suffer, the leaves of that tree would fall like tears.”

The enormous grief hidden behind these words can only be felt and understood by them, they who have lived all their lives as slaves and yet had nerves of steel. Although geisha and Devdasis lived**in oblivion of each other’s existence, their sufferings and fate binds them into a bond that only soul mates can share.

** The Devdasi system was abolished by the government of India in the year 1988 but continues to flourish in some parts of southern India. The modern Geisha still lives in Okiyas (geisha households) in areas popularly known as hanamachis (literally “flower town”), the most popular one being Gion in Kyoto.



photo by:


Michael Elleray

2 Comments

  1. Aditi
    Aditi April 14, 2013 at 6:10 pm Reply

    Very interesting read! I wonder why I didn’t think of the parallels when I read the book couple years back.

  2. charanjot singh
    charanjot singh April 23, 2013 at 9:10 pm Reply

    Hi Aditi,
    Well! the article was written my my elder sister. Though i have seen the movie. It seems most of the Asian cultures are similar to some extent, especially with advent of Buddhism which again has backgrounds in Indian Culture and Hindu roots.

    The Devadasis of yore were much like Geisha – they were respected artisans in Performing Arts, but never had the security a stable marriage could render. They had a right to their feelings, but had no right revealing them. They belonged to the Society, and yet belonged to nobody.

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