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Bharatanatyam: Origin, Decline and Revival

Updated: Apr 18, 2019


What we know as Bharatanatyam today springs from Sadir Natyam, also known by names like Dasi Attam, Chinna Melam, or simply, Sadir. The term Sadir beganwith the Maratha rulers of South India in the 17th century, who called the dance Sadir Nautch. This corresponds to the presentation of the dance in the courts. A more exalted role of the dance is evoked by the name Dasi Attam, the dance of thedevadasis as a part of temple worship. A devadasi, whose name means servant (dasi) of divinity (deva), was an artist dedicated to the services of a temple. The dance of the devadasi was integral to the ritual worship. Devadasi families specialized in the arts of music and dance, and with the nattuvanars (dance masters), they maintained these traditions from generation to generation, supported by royal patronage.

Sculptural and literary evidence indicates that dances of the Bharatanatyam form, that is, based on the Natya Shastra, were used in temple worship throughout India. This original classical dance tradition deteriorated in the North due to repeated foreign invasions, and mixed dance forms replaced it. Fortunately, the dance tradition survived in South India, where it continued to be patronized by kings and maintained by the devadasi system.

This is not to say that the tradition of Bharatanatyam was static from the time of the Natya Shastra through the last century. It did evolve and there were regional variations in elements of the dance. An important milestone in this evolution was the development of the current format of the Bharatanatyam recital. This happened in the late 18th century, at the hands of four brothers known as the Thanjavur quartet. They were the four sons of the nattuvanar Subbarayan: Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam. They also refined the music of Bharatanatyam, influenced no doubt by their musical mentor, the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar. These developments shaped Sadir into the precursor of what we call Bharatnatyam today.


Under British rule, propaganda prevailed against Indian art, misrepresenting it as crude, immoral, and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization. This influence was pervasive enough to dissuade the patronage of royal courts for ritual temple dances, and to alienate educated Indians from their traditions. The devadasi system declined. This in turn diminished the reputation of the devadasis as a community. Even the terms by which the dance was known – Sadir, Nautch, Dasi Attam, and so on – took on derogatory connotations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social reformers under Western influence took advantage of these circumstances, launching an Anti-Nautch campaign to the art itself, condemning it as a social evil. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the classical dance of South India was almost wiped out, even in Tamil Nadu.


Against all odds, a few families preserved the knowledge of this dance tradition. Its revival involved individuals from disparate backgrounds: Indian freedom fighters, Westerners interested in Indian arts, people outside the devadasi class who learnt Bharatanatyam, and devadasis themselves. Everyone working with classical Indian dance today owes a debt of gratitude to these individuals, without whose efforts Bharatanatyam may have been lost.

E. Krishna Iyer was a freedom fighter and lawyer who also had learnt Bharatanatyam. He would perform it in female costume to remove the stigma associated with the dance, and campaigned to raise public interest in the art. He also played a role in founding the Music Academy in Madras (now Chennai), and used its platform to present Bharatanatyam performances by devadasis. The public controversy caused by the first such event made the second one a great success, and the art gained respect due to its acceptance on the Music Academy stage.

Bharatanatyam now attracted young artists from respectable Brahmin families. Initially met with shock, their participation ultimately helped to shift public opinion in favor of reviving the art. Two such women were Kalanidhi Narayanan of Mylapore and Rukmini Devi of Adyar.

Also during this time, Western luminaries like the ballerina Anna Pavlova were taking interest in the artistic heritage of India, while the spiritual heritage of India was being promoted by Westerners in the Theosophical movement.

When E. Krishna Iyer invited Rukmini Devi to the Music Academy performance, beginning her work with Bharatanatyam, she had already produced plays on Indian subjects and studied Western ballet. She had trained in ballet under a pupil of Anna Pavlova’s, but Pavlova advised Rukmini Devi to learn Indian classical dance instead. Raised in a Theosophist family, Rukmini Devi was married to Dr. George Arundale, a president of the Theosphical Society, and knew Dr. Annie Besant. Both Dr. Arundale and Dr. Besant worked for India’s freedom and the restoration of its spiritual stature. Rukmini Devi’s unique background equipped her to reform the existing Bharatanatyam to emphasize its spirituality.

An association of devadasis joined the effort to revive Bharatanatyam. Its ranks included an eventual teacher of Rukmini Devi’s, as well as the family of the legendary dancer Balasaraswati. They advocated preserving the tradition, and also keeping it in the hands of the devadasi community. Their argument was that the art would die if separated from the caste, while advocates for Bharatanatyam from the educatedBrahmin community argued that the art had to be transferred to respectable hands to be saved. Ultimately, both communities carried on with the dance. It was, after all, the devadasis and nattuvanars that trained the new dancers from upper class society.

Rukmini Devi’s debut performance in 1935 was a milestone. Her efforts won over much of the orthodox community of Madras. Her reforms of costume, stage setting, repertoire, musical accompaniment, and thematic content, overcame the objections of conservatives that Bharatanatyam was vulgar. She went on to found the Kalakshetra institute, to which she attracted many great artists and musicians, with whom she trained generations of dancers. Balasaraswati promoted the traditional art of the devadasis, maintaining that reforms were unnecessary and detracted from the art. Staying true to her devadasi lineage, she achieved great renown for her excellence.

The renewed awareness of Bharatanatyam in Indian society allowed manynattuvanars to resume their training activities, and many artists to enter the field of classical dance. A diversity of styles like Pandanallur, Vazhuvur, and Thanjavur, named for the villages from which the nattuvanars came, became recognized. Rukmini Devi’s desire to restore the full spiritual potential of the dance motivated reforms that led to what was known as the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam.

Bharatanatyam soon became the most widespread and popular of the Indian classical dance forms. It wasn’t long before it achieved international recognition as one of India’s treasures.

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1 Comment

Udit Shah
Udit Shah
Sep 01, 2022

Very beautifully written article.

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