Forbes and Fifth

The Effect of the Indian Social Structure on the Perception and Development of Bharatanatyam


Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form originating from Tamil Nadu, Southern India, and is known for its elegance, beauty, and ability to express ideas and stories. This enchanting dance form suffered throughout history due to the stigmatizing nature of the Indian caste system in regards to the values and perceptions that the dance form held. Bharatanatyam’s origins are unable to be precisely identified. However, its beginning is understood to date back more than 2000 years, into ancient India. Even though many kings and rulers contributed to the flourishment of Bharatanatyam, there is a consensus among scholars that it rose to prominence during the Rajaraja Chola period. The golden age of Bharatanatyam, during the Chola period, began to diminish after the Cholas, but still survived as an art form for hundreds of years, until the British colonized India during the 17th century. The 17th century brought not only Bharatanatyam but also the entirety of India into a state of calamity in which the perception of Bharatanatyam as a dance form experienced a drastic shift. Bharatanatyam was seen as an art form that only the poor members of Indian society engaged in, until the early 20th century, when certain upperclassmen activists realized the beauty of Bharatanatyam and revolutionized its entire perception as a dance form to be engaged in by everyone in society. The effect of the revolution still can be seen today, as children all over the world from different social backgrounds eagerly seek to learn this ancient dance form.

History of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is an ancient classical dance form from Tamil Nadu that has been in existence for over 2000 years. The word Bharatanatyam can be broken down to “bhavam” which means expression, “ragam” which means music, “talam”, which means rhythm, and “natyam”, which means dance. The dance that society now calls Bharatanatyam was actually referred to as Sadir Natyam during ancient times (Shankar, 1994). Sadir refers to dancing in the royal courts, which was the original purpose of Bharatanatyam during ancient times. During the early ages of India, Bharatanatyam was used as a form of entertainment for rulers in India in which people, known as Devadasis, or temple dancers, would dance for the kings. The temple dancers were, to an extent, servants to the king and devoted their lifetime to both learn and dance on a daily basis for the royals of the kingdom.

Bharatanatyam is an expressive dance form that utilizes many body parts, such as the eyes, hands, and feet to accentuate various human emotions. Modern Bharatanatyam contains over 30 individual hand gestures with each gesture representing a different meaning. The myriad of patterns that arise from a combination of eye and hand gestures allows for both men and women dancers to create a story through this visually aesthetic dance. For example, the hand gesture “pataaka” is done with all the fingers held straight like a stop sign, without any gap between the fingers. Pataaka is used in Bharatanatyam to express denial, blessings, months, years, etc.

The Caste System

The caste system is a unique social stratification structure of Indian society that, though dating back more than 3000 years, has firmly persevered into modern Indian society. The caste system is hereditarily selective with little to no opportunity to move between castes. Thus, the caste system is a key element in the identity of an Indian individual and significantly affects their social life and environment (Belkin, 2008).

Figure 1. Indian Caste System (Belkin, 2008)

The caste system is composed of five main classes in hierarchical descending order: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Untouchables. Each class within the caste system dictates the occupations and power that members within the caste were born into. The Brahmins belong at the top of the caste system and served as priests in temples. Their role was to serve as the gatekeepers and the direct connection between the Hindu gods and members of Indian society. The next caste is the Kshatriyas, who were the warriors and rulers of society. The Kshatriyas were responsible for serving the public in all forms through administration, law making, and protection of the citizens of society. The Vaishyas, who were merchants and landowners, were the next caste in the system. The Vaishyas were responsible for all commercial activity in India. The second to last class contains the Shudras, who were relatively unskilled laborers. In Indian society, the Shudras engaged in jobs as peasants and farmers working the lands of the Vaishyas. The final caste contains the Untouchables, who held little to no power in society at all. Even though the Untouchables were part of the caste system, they were outcasts amongst the other four classes in the caste system and could only engage in jobs such as sweepers or cleaners (Torri, 2009).

Bharatanatyam During Ancient India

From historical accounts, it is evident that dance and music were prominent during the Sangam period and the Chola dynasty. The Sangam period, which arose during the second century, contains the first written records of Devadasis, thereby proving the existence of Bharatanatyam. In the popular Tamil epic, Silapathikaram, written during Sangam era, the central character, Kovalan, is the son of wealthy merchant. Kovalan’s mistress, Madhavi, was a Devadasi woman who was given the same importance and respect as Kovalan’s wife, Kannagi. Even though breaking monogamy was considered a sinful act, Madhavi was still treated in an honorable manner (Shankar, 1994).

Figure 2. A geographical illustration of the Chola's territory and influence (Chakraborty, 2004)

Bharatanatyam entered its age of prominence during the Chola dynasty in Southern India. The Chola dynasty began during the 9th century and lasted until the late 13th century. The Chola dynasty was known for its wartime abilities, through which, at its peak, Chola was able to expand all the way to the northeastern border of India. What set the Chola dynasty apart from other dynasties during this time was that the Chola dynasty became well known for its literature, art, music, and architectural abilities through structures, such as the Brihadeeswarar Temple, which still stands today (Orr, 2000).

Figure 3. A Karana that can be found in the Brihadeeswarar Temple (Prasad, 1991)

Bharatanatyam flourished, because the dance form fit perfectly into the Chola Empire’s value system. The Chola Empire promoted the Devadasi system, and Devadasis were then also known as Devar Adigalar. Devar, in Tamil means “God” and Adigalar means “servant”, which thus makes Devadasis “God’s Servants” (Orr, 2000). Devadasis during the Chola dynasty were well respected and given a haven in the Chola Empire.

Bharatanatyam is based on the 108 positions of Lord Nataraja’s “Dance of Triumph”, which are described in the Natya Shasta, a text focused on the art of performance. Karanas, which are depictions of the 108 positions, still exist on temples in Tamil Nadu. Five temples that were built during this era contain Karanas that clearly evoke the beauty of the positions: the Brihadeeswarar Temple, the Nataraja Temple, the Sarangapani Temple, the Arunachaleshvara Temple, and the Vriddhagirishvara Temple. The oldest of these is the Brihadeeswarar Temple, which was built by Rajaraja Chola, but its Karana sculpture remains incomplete. The ancient inscriptions have shown that over 400 Devadasis were able to dance in the name of Hindu gods and serve the Chola Empire in the Brihadeeswarar Temple. As the Chola Empire grew all over India, the Cholas built temples in the areas they conquered, which allowed for an increase in the number of Devadasis that resided in the Chola Empire. The Devadasis were such a large part of Chola life, that even the Chola princess, Kundavai, learned Bharatanatyam from a Devadasi (Orr, 2000).

Scholars have been investigating as to why the Chola Empire was so receptive and welcoming of Devadasis. From their research, multiple theories have been formulated. One common theory that was created during this time in India stated that devoting girls to temples would help improve the welfare of the empire, itself (Prasad, 1991). This idea’s purpose is somewhat similar to a sacrifice that many cultures engage in to please a supernatural being. By devoting girls to temples, the Cholas believed that they would be giving the ultimate offering to the Hindu gods and goddesses, in the form of the purity and kindness that a girl represents in Hindu culture. Furthermore, scholars have postulated that girls could have devoted their lives to the Hindu temples in order to increase the fertility of the land (Shankar, 1994). Ancient India was an agrarian based society and by devoting a small proportion of the population to the art of Bharatanatyam for religious purposes, the Cholas may have been optimistic for an expanding population and livestock.

Another prevailing theory about the dominance of Devadasis during the Chola era revolves around the relationship between Bharatanatyam and the Hindu religion. During the Chola dynasty, Bharatanatyam was seen as a sacred dance to please the Hindu gods and goddesses (Srinivasan, 1985). Only upper caste individuals were allowed to dance in the temples, while lower caste members were permitted to dance in non-religious functions, such as marriages and puberty ceremonies (Srinivasan, 1985). The combination of both the upper caste individual’s involvement in Bharatanatyam and the direct link between Bharatanatyam and Hinduism bolstered the image and value that Bharatanatyam had in Chola society. In Ancient Indian societies, politics and religion were heavily related, because rulers relied heavily on religion to bolster their wealth and kingdom (Orr, 2000). Due to the link between politics and religion, Devadasis were in close proximity to the Chola rulers which helped raise their status in society. The Chola rulers also supported the Devadasis financially, allowing the Devadasis to help raise the prestige and wealth of the temples (Vanamamalai, 1974). Overall, the Devadasis’ association with religion allowed them to become central to the Chola social system.

Bharatanatyam During Colonial British India

Once the British and other European powers began colonizing India, during the 17th century, the role of Bharatanatyam and how it was seen changed dramatically. The British colonial rule had no foreseeable use for the aristocratic system of India. Although the British did not destroy the aristocratic system of India, former kings were left powerless and subservient to the British (Dirks, 1992). Essentially, these once powerful were now managers for the British. Having lost their power, they could no longer provide money or support for the Devadasis (Torri, 2009). Furthermore, even if a Devadasis could somehow make a living through Bharatanatyam, their livelihood was momentary. Indian society became more judgmental and critical about the physical features of a Devadasi. Once a Devadasi’s physical beauty began to fade, she could be shunned from ever dancing again. This left many Devadasis struggling with no other opportunities or options for a livelihood (Soneji, 2010). The Devadasis therefore entered a state of poverty in which they could not support themselves or the temples they danced within. Bharatanatyam began to lose its bond and identity with religion as a form of offering.

Figure 4. A Devadasi can be seen dancing in front of men during the Colonial British Indian era (Hancock, 2000)

Although this art form began to lose its connection to religion, Bharatanatym survived through the offering of girls to temples by their family in the hope of bringing good fortune to their home (Soneji, 2011). Other reasons why families may offer girls to the temple during this time include being unable to find a husband for the girl or that the girl was a child of premarital intercourse. In the Chola period, families offered their girls as a devotion for religious reasons and to bring prosperity into their families. In contrast, during the Colonial India period, families offered their girls as a last resort in hopes of escaping poverty or because their girls may have no future due to lack of a male presence in their lives.

Beyond the economic conditions and the circumstances which caused girls to become temple dancers, Devadasis also suffered in their social appearance in society. During the Chola period, mainly upper caste girls would become Devadasis, because of the association between Bharatanatyam and Hinduism. However, during the Colonial British India era, many lower caste and even untouchables became Devadasis, which was unheard of for the time. Even the music that the Devadasis danced to displayed the inferior attitudes that were projected upon them. A sample song that displays these antagonistic views is shown below:

It’s true, I have my period But don’t let that stop you.
No Rules Apply
To another man’s wife
I beg you to come close
But you always have second thoughts All these codes where written
By men who don’t know how to love
When I come at you, wanting you, why do you back off?
You don’t have to touch my whole body
Just bend over and kiss. (Narayana Rao, 2002)

This song illustrates a view in which Devadasi women are more open about their body and sexuality in contrast to normal Indian women in society. One might argue that this shows women’s liberation and progressive attitudes that should be accepted and praised, however, it is important to know that a Devadasi did not write the song. A group of men wrote this song and decided that it would be appropriate for a girl to dance to it, as if these were her views. In Indian society, to this day, girls who are more private about their body and in a sense, more pure, are more appreciated and valued. Using Indian cultural standards as a parameter for judgment, it is evident that Devadasis were constantly linked to negative attitudes, such as being more promiscuous and having no honor. Colonial India society did not respect the Devadasis the same way that the Chola society did.

Modern Bharatanatyam

There is no absolute year as to when India entered its modern era, but most scholars agree that the early 20th century is an acceptable starting point, since that is when the British began losing control of India (Dirks, 1992). As India entered its current era, a clear shift towards more progressive and liberal ideas can be seen. Bharatanatyam and the Devadasi system were antiquated in comparison to the progressive ideas that stemmed from this time period. Certain leaders of India saw that Bharatanatyam needed change and led a revolution to fight for a brighter future for Bharatanatyam.

Modern day Indians were unhappy with how the Devadasi system worked. These Indians felt that Bharatanatyam and having a personal life did not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive occupations. They believed that a girl could dance liberally without having to devote her entire life to the temple. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a physician, freedom fighter, and woman’s activist, was unsatisfied with the Devadasi system and fought for its eradication. Even though Dr. Reddy was not a dancer herself, she felt that women did not have to be subjugated to the Devadasi conditions in order to learn this beautiful art. Dr. Reddy fought relentlessly and was able to present a bill to the Madras Legislative Council that eventually became the Devadasi Abolition Act. This act contained hundreds of conditions about the Devadasi system, but the most notable changes was that it became illegal for girls to become Devadasis. Anyone who promoted or pressured girls into becoming Devadasis could be given imprisonment for up to five years. The act had multiple retroactive clauses that allowed prior Devadasis to give up the role and be granted the same rights as other women in India, including the right to marry. Dr. Reddy’s struggle is the main reason why there are no more Devadasis in existence today. She completely changed the purpose of Bharatanatyam from an art form performed solely for the pleasure of the Hindu gods and goddesses, to a more tolerant art form that girls from around the world can enjoy.

Until the early 20th century, Bharatanatyam was primarily a dance form that was performed by lower caste members. Krishna Iyer was a lawyer from the Brahmin caste who foresaw Bharatanatyam as a dance that should have no association with caste. Unfortunately, Mr. Iyer was a male with no Bharatanatyam dancing background, so it was difficult to have his statements and views valued by society. Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Theosophical Society activist who shared Mr. Iyer’s beliefs about Bharatanatyam, also had no experience dancing, but she learned and became an expert in Bharatanatyam. Ms. Arundale was a Brahmin, like Mr. Iyer, and the joint efforts between Ms. Arundale and Mr. Iyer rejuvenated Bharatanatyam. Ms. Arundale brought back the honor of the dancers, by eliminating the erotic elements of Bharatanatyam that could be seen in the Colonial British India song, and filling it with spiritual values (Medhuri, 2005). She used her aesthetic knowledge to enhance the beauty of dance presentation, by replacing the unprofessional costumes with intricate dance wear and jewelry. Rather than advocating that Bharatanatyam be learned just by the upper castes, Ms. Arundale encouraged everyone to learn it. Ms. Arundale was able to open Kalakshetra, a Tamil Nadu state-sponsored Bharatanatyam academy. Children globally come to Kalakshetra to this day to learn Bharatanatyam (Samson, 2010). Ms. Arundale and Mr. Iyer’s efforts have liberated Bharatanatyam from being a dance exclusively for certain castes.


Undoubtedly, the perception and the purpose of Bharatanatyam has changed over time. The Chola dynasty represented a golden age of Bharatanatyam, where Devadasis, who were mainly upper caste individuals, were valued for their service to the Hindu gods and goddesses. The wealth of the kingdom grew, allowing Devadasis and the temples to become even richer. This golden age of Bharatanatyam came to an abrupt halt when the British colonized India and Devadasis lost all their wealth, with some being left to beg. During this colonial British India, Devadasis came from lower caste families, rather than the upper caste families during the Chola period. Ultimately, this state of depression for Bharatanatyam ended in the early 20th century, when Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy legally fought to destroy the Devadasi system and allow girls to have their own personal lives, while still enjoying the art of Bharatanatyam. Ms. Arundale and Mr. Iyer fought off the social stigmas associated with Bharatanatyam and made the art form free of any caste association to allow women from any caste to experience Bharatanatyam. Today, Bharatanatyam is learnt by many girls around the world. Other than being an art form marked by beauty and finesse in its delivery, Bharatanatyam training makes for a vigorous workout of the mind, body, and soul. Bharatanatyam has had its highs and lows, yet this art form still remains alive and well thousands of years later.


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Volume 13, Fall 2018