The roots of Indian dance, music and theatre are found in Natyashastra – the treatise from III AC, believed to be written by the famous prophet Bharata. The myth depicting the origin of Natyashastra says that all the gods asked Brahma – the mightiest among them all – to create some amusement, something nice to look at and pleasant to listen to. Therefore, Brahma took the four most important things from four Veda’s (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, thought to be “not of human agency”): that which could be read – the intellectual content; that which could be sung – the music; the abhinaya - mimetic art and the rasas - the emotional content. Out of these four aspects Brahma compiled the fifth Veda – Natyaveda, Natyashastra.


classical Indian dance from Tamilnadu state

In its past Bharatanatyam was strictly connected to temples and religious rituals. First known under the name sadir, it remained a domain of devadasis – “servants of god”, temple dancers, dedicated to worship and serve in a temple. During the Chola Dynasty in South India (9th-12th AD) the devadasis were respected and were holding a high social status. Their dance was known not only in the temples, but also in the royal courts (these dancers were called rajadasi). Till the early years of the 20th century, sadir was performed and learned only by devadasis. However, with time their status and social position diminished. During British rule in India (1858-1947), devadasis were left without the support and patronage of kings (patrons of temples) and the public campaign to outlaw the devadasi tradition was started.

Fortunately, several people acknowledged the importance of preserving sadir and bringing it back to its previous glory. In 1930, Krishna Iyer – a lawyer from Tamilnadu – came up with a new name for sadir (to avoid the controversial connotations): Bharatanatyam. Some see here a reference to the name of the legendary sage Bharata (the author of Natyashastra) or to the name of India (Bharat). According to one of many theories, this name is derived from an acronym of three words, describing the essential aspects of dance: “bha” is from bhava – emotion; “ra” from raga – melody; and “ta” from tala – rhythm. The word “natya” means dance.

The name Bharatanatyam was popularized by Rukmini Devi (1904-1986) – a very important silhouette in the history of Bharatanatyam. Apart from being the author of many changes and innovations in the form of this dance, in 1936 in Chennai she founded her own school of Bharatanatyam under the name of Kalakshetra (this is also the name of a style of Bharatanatyam, established by Smt. Rukmini Devi). In Kalakshetra students learned not only the dance technique, but also theory and history of dance, music, etc.

In the 20th century, Bharatanatyam is more and more seen as a complicated and exquisite artistic dance form, widely performed all over the world. It combines sublime beauty, feminine elegance and grace with dynamism, strength and exceptional precision.