Did Bharatanatyam Originate from Devadasi Culture?

Did Bharatanatyam Originate from Devadasi Culture?


Among the most heavenly dance forms in India, Bharatanatyam is the oldest of all. It is an illustrative dance form emoted by a dancer with exceptional artwork and dramatic expressions. Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

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A group performing Bharatanatyam (via DTNext)

As per the Hindu tradition, the name of the dance form was obtained by combining two words, ‘Bharata’ and Natyam.’ Bharata is further divided into ‘bha,’ ‘ra,’ and ‘ta’ meaning emotions (bhava), music (raga), and timing (tala), respectively. ‘Natyam’ is a Sanskrit word meaning dance. Thus, Bharatanatyam dance is a beautiful combination of raga (music), bhava (mood), and tala (rhythm).

The Origin of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is mentioned in ‘Natya Shastra,’ an ancient text on the performing arts written by Bharat Muni in Sanskrit. In Natya Shastra, comprehensive treatment of all the art forms are presented. The classical Indian concept of the performing arts, including dance, music, drama, poetry, etc., came from there.

Also Read: 10 Ancient Temples of India

According to the popular folk tales, Lord Brahma disclosed Bharatanatyam to the sage Bharata. He then coded this sacred dance form in his text, Natya Shastra. The version consists of many theories of Indian classical dances, including standing postures, necessary steps, Tandava dance, bhava, gestures, and methods of acting.

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Natya Shastra wrote by Bharat Muni (via Exotic India)

The practice of Bharatanatyam started in Tamil Nadu. The dance form combines artistic expression with a touch of spirituality. Dancers used to perform Bharatanatyam in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu. It soon spread to other Hindu temples of Southern state.

In much Tamil literature, historical references of Bharatanatyam has been found. The ancient Tamil text ‘Silappatikaram’ reads a story of a girl performing Bharatanatyam. Even sculptures have been found depicting the dance form. Badami cave temples in Karnataka, which are dated to the 7th century, features the famous Tandava of Shiva as Nataraja. The image portrays the dance positions of Bharatanatyam.

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Lord Shiva as Nataraja in Badami Cave Temples, Karnataka

A community was known as “Devadasi” used to practice Bharatanatyam. And from then, Devadasi culture became fundamental in performing rituals in South Indian temples.

Devadasi Culture

The devadasi system has been in Southern India for many centuries. Dev means God and dasi means servant in the Hindi language. So, Devadasi translates into servants of God. Devadasis used to perform during essential festivals, rituals, ceremonies, and at the time of worship in temples. They dedicated themselves to God.

According to the Indian caste system, these talented people belong to a lower section in the caste hierarchy. A widely followed tradition in Devadasi culture is to let girls marry God or Deity in the temple. As per the tradition, they are offering young girls to temples is a way to appease God. Before the girls reach puberty, they were hitched.

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Devadasi culture offered young girls to God (via IndianFolk.com)

The Devadasi women considered themselves as sophisticated, educated, knowledgeable and well respected in the community. They were not under pressure to marry a mortal being. Devadasi girls used to have sexual freedom in choosing their partners.

The decline of the Devadasi Culture

When Britishers came to India, the Devadasi culture and dance form saw its destruction. There was a stark difference in the social and economic conditions between Devadasi culture and British society. Under the British colonial rule, the rituals performed by Devadasi were banned in the temples.

The age-old custom of performing Bharatanatyam in Hindu temples came to an end in 1910. The period also witnessed a decline in various other classical dance forms in India.

In ancient texts, Devadasi culture used to exist. However, what is meant by that culture is different from what upper-caste Hindus think. The custom allowed Devadasi girls to dance in Hindu temple compounds during worship and special occasions.

No material proof can say the Devadasis were prostitutes or sex workers. This whole idea of calling Devadasis as sex slaves emerged in the Victorian period.

In the beginning, the Devadasi culture had nothing to do with prostitution. In middle age India, they were respected as being glamorous temple dancers. The girls held a high social status in the society. They presented their sacred dance in the name of God.

Britishers thought that the Devadasi culture was an evil system deeply rooted in the Hindu caste system. So they tried to abolish it. The efforts to end the disgraced system started in the 1800s by social activists and reformists.

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Britishers aimed at abolishing the exploitive Devadasi culture (via scroll.in)

“Devadasi Prohibition Law” or “Devadasi Abolition Act” was passed in October 1947. The law was enacted in the Madras Presidency (present day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Telangana). The act condemned the practice of dedicating a girl to a Hindu temple or deity. Another legal action called the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1982 was ratified.

The practice was made illicit, but it still prevails in many parts of South India. In modern times, the method has been used to push young girls into prostitution and trafficking.

According to the National Commission for Women, there are currently 48,358 Devadasis in India.

Bharatanatyam revival movement

The Tamil people were worried that a rich dance tradition of Bharatanatyam was being persecuted on the pretext of social reform.

E. Krishna Iyer, lawyer, activist and freedom fighter played an essential role in the Bharatanatyam revival movement. He was arrested for being anti-national. During his time in jail, Iyer convinced the prisoners to support the age-old classical dance form. He repeatedly raised questions about killing an art form. Iyer was strictly against the Devadasi culture but not against the Devadasi dance form.

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E. Krishna Iyer is regarded as the Keeper of Bharatanatyam (via the Hindu)

He established the ‘Madras Music Academy’ to honor Bharatanatyam. An attempt to save the dying dance form of Bharatanatyam, Iyer worked with Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Rukmini Devi Arundale was another crucial figure in the Bharatanatyam revival movement. Her entire life, she worked for the rebuilding of traditional Indian arts and crafts. In 1936, she founded a cultural academy called ‘Kalakshetra’ to rescue the traditional art forms of India.

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Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale (via Wikipedia)

Rukmini Devi was a reformer in Bharatanatyam too. She made changes in the original Devadasi dance form. By removing some erotic dance movements, she worked towards transforming the perception of people towards Bharatanatyam.

Tanjore Balasaraswati, the queen of Bharatnatyam, also joined hands in the Bharatanatyam revival movement. She took part in many global events and, thus, became an international face. Balasaraswati is credited for exposing the audience both national and international to the traditional dance form of Bharatanatya. She inspired many practitioners of this art form.

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Tanjore Balasaraswati is called the queen of Bharatnatyam (via Feminism in India)

A repertoire is a set of dramas, plays, operas, or musical compositions performed by an artist.
The repertoire of the performing arts is divided into three brackets, namely ‘Nritta’, ‘Nritya’ and ‘Natya’ followed by all primary Indian classical dance forms including Bharatanatyam. It is mentioned in Natya Shastra written by Bharat Muni.

‘Nritta’ is a technical performance based on pure dance movements emphasizing on speed, pattern, and rhythmic aspects. The patterns mainly create along straight lines, circles, triangles, and semi circles.

In ‘Nritya’, the performer conveys the meaning of lyrical expressions. Dance includes a story, message or emotions expressed through gestures and slower body movements coordinated with melody.

‘Natyam’ is usually a dramatic expression presented by a group or a solo dancer. They keep specific body movements for different characters of the play or drama.


In dance universe, hand gestures are called ‘Mudra’. It comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “sign”. Mudras are also called as ‘Hastas’.

Bharatanatyam is performed with harmony achieved by the Mudras. Every hand gesture or Mudra holds a particular meaning. There are 52 Mudras in Bharatanatyam which are bifurcated into 28 single-hand gestures and 24 double hand gestures.

Asamyukta hastas are the single hand gestures. Pataka, Shikhara, Suchi, Trishula, etc. are the names of Asamyukta Mudras in Bharatanatyam.

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Pataka Mudra depicts forests, clouds, etc. All the fingers are straight and the thumb is bent a little (Photo via Sulekha.com)

Samyukta mudras uses both the hands. Shankha, Swastikam, Pushpaputam, Dola-Hastam, etc are some of Samyukta Mudras.

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Chakram Mudra depicts a wheel or disc. The right palm vertically touches the left, while left stays horizontally straight.
Bharatanatyam Costume

Bharatanatyam dress is a traditional bright coloured and radiant attire. The costume consists of a tailored sari complimented with ornaments.

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Bharatanatyam dress is worn by women (via Fashion mantra)

In older days, the Bharatanatyam costumes were stitched using gold and silk threads. The female performer wears a sari by adding pleats to it. When she executes different poses, the creases of the sari admire the postures gracefully.

The Bharatanatyam dress for men covers only the lower body and the upper body is embellished with simple jewelry. No garment is worn by men on top. He is dressed up in a plain Dhoti.

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Men wear bharatanatyam dress
Bharatanatyam Jewellery

Performers don attractive jewelry items such as necklaces, bangles, earrings, wristlets, and anklets. An additional jewelry belt is worn by a dancer that enriches her waist.

Also Read: Vishwaguru Bharat; The significance of Natraja’s statue in CERN

Ghungroo, musical anklets, made of straps with small metallic bells attached to it are tied to the performer’s ankles. The hair is neatly plaited and decorated with flowers. Men performers wear less jewelry than women.

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Musical Anklets called Ghungroo is tied to the feet of the dancer

A vivid makeup is applied to the dancer’s face. The Bharatanatyam dance mostly focuses on the movements of eyes and eyebrows. Thus, the composition is put in a way that highlights the eyes so that spectators can see the performer’s expressions correctly.

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Bharatanatyam make up look (via Makeup Academy School)

To highlight the movements of hands and legs, red henna is applied to fingertips, the tips of the toes, and soles of the feet. The red color in the form of an unbroken circle is also involved in the palm. The makeup for male and female dancers are similar.

Instruments used in Bharatanatyam

The Bharatanatyam dancer is escorted by a ‘Nattuvanar’ or ‘Taladhari’ who is a vocalist and also sometimes the Guru or teacher of the dancer. He conducts the whole performance along with the performer.

Bharatanatyam dancers usually perform on South Indian Carnatic style music. Cymbals, drum, flute, a long pipe horn called ‘Nagaswaram,’ and veena are the instruments played. The lyrics played during the performance are in Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil.

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