On Wednesday evening, a small group of policemen stood outside the Chennai head office of Dinamani, a widely circulated Tamil newspaper. The publication is battling criticism from the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva groups in Tamil Nadu after it published a speech last week by acclaimed Tamil poet Vairamuthu on the seventh century mystic poet, Andal. Vairamuthu had delivered the speech last week during a discussion on Andal at the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple.

In the course of his speech, Vairamuthu cited the research of an American scholar who said that Andal belonged to the Devadasi community and had lived and died at the Srirangam temple in Tiruchirappalli.

The Devadasi system was a religious practice in parts of South India in which a girl was married to the temple deity and was expected to serve the deity for the rest of her life. It has been associated with the oppressive practice of women and young girls being regarded as temple property and sexually exploited.

On Tuesday, BJP leader H Raja used the Devadasi reference in Vairamuthu’s speech to launch an attack on him and Dinamani. He said in a tweet, “What Vairamuthu has said is poisonous. It is unfortunate and condemnable that Dinamani has given a platform to a disgraceful person. The quality and respect of Dinamani daily was broke down in a moment. Dinamani should apologise to the public.”

Andal was the only woman among the 12 Tamil poet-mystics of South India called the Alwars. These mystics pledged their devotion to Vishnu and his avatar of Krishna. Andal’s collection of 30 stanzas in praise of Vishnu, known as the Tirupavvai, is recited particularly in the Tamil month of Margazhi, from December 16 to January 13. Some consider Andal as one of the pioneers of bhakti poetry from the feminist perspective.

Following the strong reaction, the newspaper took down the article from its website on Monday and issued an apology.

Vairamuthu also apologised on Twitter. He said on Tuesday: “In my article of Tamizhai Andal, I quoted a line in a study by Indiana University. It is not my opinion. It is the researcher’s argument. The purpose of literature is to soften [make accessible] great personalities. Not to diminish them/their greatness. Everybody knows that the views I’ve expressed about Andal talk only about her greatness.”

He added: “It is not my intention to hurt anyone’s sentiments, if it did, I regret it.”

‘Not derogatory’

Some Tamil writers feel that there is nothing controversial about Vairamuthu’s reference to Andal being a Devadasi in his speech. “Mr Raja from the BJP is converting this into a controversy,” said Azhai Senthilnathan, a writer and publisher. “Vairamuthu only referred to an article in his speech.”

Senthilnathan said that the real issue is not about the speech or the article but about the use of the word “Devadasi”, which has been wrongly interpreted as derogatory. “It is currently used in normal Tamil, it is not derogatory,” he said. “People use the word when they are writing about historical issues, even the history of Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music. There are some other words used as derogatory words, but not Devadasi. Raja is just making a lot of noise over this.”

But V Maitreyan, an MP of the ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, who has written articles about Andal in the past, was critical of Vairamuthu. He said that it was wrong to “bring Andal down to an earthly level”. “For someone who knows so much about love, it is not befitting her image,” he said.

The published article also evoked strong reactions on social media from another section of people who have deemed Andal’s poetry to be pornographic in nature.

Disrespect to Devadasis

Carnatic musician and writer TM Krishna said that the controversy was “deeply disturbing” and those who have taken offence have shown “scant respect to the Devadasi community”.

“The reactions imply that Devadasis are lowly beings, outcastes sans any moral or ethical moorings,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “The reactions seem to be coming from the feeling ‘how can such a pure divine soul such as Andal be referred to as a Devadasi?’ This is so very problematic. Does Andal become lesser if she was a Devadasi?”

The musician said that if the arguments had countered Vairamuthu’s statement on a historical basis, the issue would have been different. “Even if Mr Vairamuthu was just being nasty, imagine if the reaction had been ‘we celebrate and worship Andal and if she was indeed a Devadasi then we respect that too’. Wouldn’t this have been beautiful?”

He added: “The fact that Mr Vairamuthu apologised for his comments only reveals his own disdain for the Devadasi community. This entire episode is sexist and casteist.”