veena instrument

Bhakti poets—who were in some cases lower-caste Hindu women—and their audiences drew emotional sustenance from these verses, which expressed a pure devotion to Hindu deities. Their poetry, written in local languages beginning in the 6th century in South India and the 12th century in North India, attracted large audiences among the marginalized in Hindu society, such as women and “untouchables.”

In this poem, Janabai, a 13th century poet from a low-caste surda family, presents herself as shrugging off social conventions enshrining women’s honor (covering her body) and taking up musical instruments (cymbals and the veena) to go sing and dance in the marketplace. Janabai, though a low-caste woman, was brought up in the household of Namdev, a popular poet-saint, and thus treated with a certain amount of respect in light of the egalitarian ethos of Namdev’s message. Nonetheless, she is still well aware of her “place” in society; she is a servant, one who is perhaps more aware of social conventions because of her associations with Namdev, and is here apparently flaunting these very conventions, imagining herself as a woman who is utterly outside the bounds of respectability. Shedding these bonds of respectability, she is left with nothing. In essence, there is nothing standing between herself and her Beloved Vithoba, another name for Krishna, incarnation of the god Vishnu in human form.

Source: “Cast off all shame.” In Women Writing in India, 600 BC to the Present. Vol. 1. Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991.


“Cast off all shame,
and sell yourself
in the marketplace;
then alone
can you hope
to reach the Lord.

Cymbals in hand,
a veena upon my shoulder,
I go about;
who dares to stop me?

The pallav of my sari
falls away (A scandal!);
yet will I enter
the crowded marketplace
without a thought.

Jani says, My Lord
I have become a slut
to reach your home.”