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From Temple Dance to Rite-of-Passage


The classical dance known today as Bharatanatyam was called Sadir, Cathir, or Dasiyattam (Dasi Attam) until the early twentieth century.

From an article by Dr. Vasundhara Doraswamy:

Bharatanatyam is an ancient classical dance style, originally performed in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Movement, mime and music contribute in equal measure to this beautiful dance and is evenly divided between nritta, pure dance, and nritya, expressional compositions. The songs pertain mostly to the theme of love but not sensual love. These are given an elevated and somewhat spiritual flavour. The Indian dance system is the oldest and most comprehensive in the world, having an unbroken tradition that goes back 2000 years.
A [modern day] Bharata Natyam performance begins with alarippu, an invocatory number which is structured to give the effect of the body unfolding itself by degrees, as if in offering to God. The dancer begins with a sidelong glance, executes a lateral glide of the neck, and then fans the movement out to each part of the body. As she showers alternately silken and steely blows in space, in strict rhythm with the drum, the mridamgam, and the syllables sung by the nattuvanar, the conductor, the feet adorned with ankle bells change scores of rhythmic patterns. The dancer's skill at both pure dance, seen elsewhere in items like jatiwaram and tillana and in mime compositions like shabdam and padam, finds its acme in varnam. This is the central piece of a Bharata Natyam recital and makes the greatest demands on the dancer`s stamina and emotional resources.
From Dance Dialects of India by Ragini Devi:
Bharata Natya, in its pure form, Nritta, interprets the language of rhythm and melody in diverse patterns of curves, angles, and lateral movements, of precise rhythmic movements of the hands, and the continuous footwork that is the basis of the dance. Rhythm and emotion are beautifully blended in Nritya, the expository dance, that conveys poetic meaning to gestures and facial expression combined with rhythmic gaits and postures.
From India's Dances by Reginald Massey:
The introductory piece of a Dasi Attam performance is always the allarippu... the first action of the dancer is to salute the deity. Throughout the allarippu no accompanying song is used, and the only vocal accompaniment employed is in the form of dance syllables or sollukuttus.
After the allarippu comes the jatiswaram, which is again an item consisting entirely of pure dance. The rhythmic patterns are of paramount importance here, for the success of a jati depends entirely upon the interplay between, and the accomplishment of, both dancer and drummer.
The next [item] introduces nritya for the first time. The shabdam opens with a pure dance piece in the form of a tirmana and then goes on to an interpretation of the sahitya, the literary content, and the actual words of the song which follows.
All the elements of Dasi Attam have now been introduced and next comes what is perhaps the most exacting part of the whole repertoire, for all the elements are now brought into play in a single item, the varnam... which can last anywhere from forty-five minutes to over an hour. The music and poetry of the song too have a particularly high quality, so much so that at times they almost vie with the dancer for attention... The songs of the varnam are always connected in some way connected with love... the mood may be one of religious love... They can [also] be purely erotic and these usually involve a sahki, the name used for the confidante of the love-lorn maiden.
The dance reaches a climax in the charnam... which stands out for its beautiful and varied adavus and jatis.
[Then] comes the complete contrast of a number of slow and lyrical padams. It has to be slow because it is exclusively abhinaya, interpreting in detail the words of a song through facial expressions and hand gestures... The padam allows for an exhaustive exploration of every possible meaning of a phrase, and each phrase is repeated several times in order that the dancer may interpret every shade of meaning. It follows, then, that the greater the understanding of the dancer, the richer the color she is able to give to any phrase... Padams can be the most interesting part of the whole recital, especially for those who have some idea of the basic content of each one, for if the dancer is truly accomplished she makes the meaning of the words perfectly clear.
After the padams comes the tillana. This is a dance of pure joy and the dancer's face and whole body express delight. She is exuberant yet captivatingly feminine, and displays the whole range of the devices of allurement.
The performance ends on a quiet and serious note with the recitation of a sloka... in the form of variations on a melody which is set in a particular raga. There is no rhythmic or musical accompaniment. The dancer expresses the meaning of the fairly simple words through abhinaya.


From Dance Dialects of India by Ragini Devi:
With the decline of the southern kingdoms and the final event of British rule in India, royal patronage of the arts ceased, and dance and music in temples was curtailed. Rajadasis (dancers in the royal courts) were compelled to seek remuneration for their art from wealthy patrons and a few Rajas who could maintain their services. Immoral women, calling themselves Dasis, exploited the dance.
The British ruling class, who did not understand the art..nor the customs and social environment of these gifted dancers, began to condemn the dance...Eventually orthodox Hindu society turned against them and, as a result of social ostracism, some Devadasis gave up their profession . . . [but] some families of Dasis continued to learn the art as their Kuladharma (sacred family duty) without any hope of emolument of fame.
From Dancing in the Family by Surkanya Rahman:
A missionary from London, known only as Miss Tenant, who was the driving force behind the [anti-nautch] movement, had crusaded zealously to abolish Indian dance. The "notorious nautch," performed by dancing girls, was a typical after-dinner entertainment Indian merchants provided for their customers from abroad. European men were beguiled by the charm of the dance, but European ladies, scandalized by the dancers's languishing glances and sultry smiles, declared them wicked.
The Devadasis, socially ostracized by the British, had similarly fallen into disrepute. Loss of royal patronage had forced some of them into dubious professions. Their ancient art, rooted in the sacred Vedas, was deemed immoral. A Devadasi bill, prohibiting the employment of dancers in the temples, was proposed in the Madras assembly. Disdainful English puritans, as well as upper-class Hindus who had adopted Victorian attitudes, condemned indigenous artists, yet tolerated foreign ladies performing in public.
Occidental theatrical conventions - the proscenium stage, special lighting effects, beautifully crafted sets, and a price for admission - imbued public performances by foreign artists with a semblance of propriety and sophistication. Ballet, symphony, opera, theatre and art exhibits were essential components of "civilised" societies.


Pavlova's interest in Indian dance, Denishawn's tour in the Orient and La Meri's studies of Indian dance sparked an interest among well-to-do Indian society in revitalizing and supporting traditional Indian dance arts, much like the revival of the banned Gaelic tongue in British-dominated Ireland. Rukmini Devi [Arundale], a Brahmin girl who married a British Theosophist, studied ballet with one of Pavlova's best students and eventually became a friend of Pavlova herself, was encouraged by Pavlova to assist in the revival of Bharatanatyam. Rukmini, who was NOT a member of the devadasi class, exerted a great deal of influence on what elements were revived; she edited out the more erotic elements (Sringara) in order to make the dance more acceptable to a conservative, Victorian-influenced society.

From Dance Dialects of India by Ragini Devi:

Perhaps the ethereal beauty of Anna Pavlov's dances in India in 1929 re-kindled the vital spark of enthusiasm for the age-old Hindu dance. The anti-nautch reformers who had banished the dance were suddenly confronted with a pro-nautch movement, which grew into a public controversy through the medium of the Madras press led by E.Krishna Iyer, an advocate, who was able to demonstrate the beauty of the dance as a convincing argument. Finally, the Madras Music Academy took the initiative and staged performances by the Kalyanai sisters of the Devadasi community before a cultured audience in 1936. Captivated anew by the chaste beauty of these dances, people began to take an interest in the art . . . Aged dance masters were summoned to Madras to teach in newly established dance academies. Eventually the traditional dance of the Devadasis found a secure place in the art-life of Madras under the new name "Bharata Natyam."
From Dancing in the Family by Surkanya Rahman:
When Anna Pavlova toured India in the early twenties, her ballets were received with reverence. When Ruth St.Denis performed her interpretation of the nautch during her 1926-27 tour of India, she brought the house down with roars for an encore. Pavlova's early interest in traditional Indian dance coincided with the country's changing political climate; a growing surge of nationalism, bolstered by Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to emancipate women, had sparked in some Indians a renewed pride and awareness of their ancient heritage.
E. Krishna Iyer, an orthodox Brahmin advocate and freedom fighter, challenged opponents of dance by dressing in female Bharata Natyam costume and performing in public. His campaign to remove the stigma attached to dance further fueled the battle between supporters of Miss Tenant and supports of the pro-nautch movement... A number of dedicated Devadasi families, believing it was their sacred duty, disregarded the ban on dance and continued to practise their art in secret.

From Accelerated Motion at

In 1947, the same year in which India became independent, the new nation passed the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947 that criminalized the marriage of women to deities, and outlawed the performance of dance in public by Devadasis. At the same time, anti-colonial nationalism necessitated the presence of symbols, artifacts and figures that could represent distinct cultural dimensions of the emergent nation. In the 1930s, largely due the influence of Western dancers and the Theosophical society, nationalist reclamations of the art of the devadasi had begun. Upper-caste women, such as Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-86) began to learn the dance, largely from nattuvanars (male musicians and teachers of the devidasis). Rukmini Devi in particular reworked the aesthetics of the dance, from designing a new costume inspired from temple sculptures with the help of European designers, to creating dance-dramas based on Sanskrit and vernacular religious narratives . . . These reclamations also involved a transformation of the technique and textual content of the dance. . . The erotic aspects of the devadasi repertoire were either deleted or re-worked through the rhetoric of non-dualistic Hindu philosophy (advaita vedanta). Today Bharatanatyam continues to circulate as the Sacred Dance of India, closely linked to national identity and new understandings of Hindu spirituality&mdash an art engineered and packaged for international consumption in the context of globalized modernity.

There were severe disagreements about these 'reworked aesthetics'... and the battle has not been forgotten. Balasaraswati (Bala), a very famous dance/music artist who was seventh-generation in a traditional family of musicians and dancers (line of descent traced through the mothers), did not agree with Rukmini (ballet dancer and three-year student of Bharatanatyam) on the editing. But Rakmini was determined to make the dance acceptable to folks with even the most conservative (puritan) sensibilities. It would be interesting to know if Bala's school of dance eventually re-integrated any of the deleted elements.

Today, the education of young girls of respectable Indian families frequently includes training in Bharatanatyam, and the young woman's public dance debut (Arangetram) is often as elaborate as a coming-out ceremony or a marriage, with music, photographers, programs, gifts and a feast. Indian families in the US continue the tradition. From the book At Home in the World:

THe dance form, and especially its amateur practice, also provides a means for immigrants to maintain their social identity in diaspora... Parents encourage their daughters to study bharata natyam in the hopes of their performing an arangetram, or solo debut. The arangetram, for many young women, marks their entry into a middle-class diasporic Indian community rather than into the performance milieu, often terminating a period of dance study instead of inaugurating a dance career.

In contrast, the fortunes of many of the existing devadasis did not take a U-turn when their dance arts did. There are still devidasis who are dedicated to the service of the gods in India, but the temples no longer support them, and they earn their livelihood with manual labor and/or sex with patrons and customers.


  • Ruric-Amari, a student of Dr. Vasundhara Doraswamy, teaches Bharatanatyam in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • The History of the Devadasis, the original Bharanatyam dancers. Unfortunately, the fortunes of many of the existing Devadasis did not take a U-turn when their dance art did.
  • An article about the Arangetram (graduation performance for Bharatanatyam students) on "The Arangetram is a graduation performance that is the part of the traditional format — the Margam ( path) . It reflects the different stages of the dancer's consciousness."
  • What is Bharata Natyam by N. Pattabhi Raman, a 2001 article outlining what he felt the essentials of Bharata Natyam are.

Author: Maura Enright
©2012 by Maura Enright
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