Devadasis of Tamil Nadu
• It is believed that it was Urvashi, one of the Apsaras in Indra’s court who taught dance to the devadasis. Devadasis meaning Deva (deity) and Dasis (devotee) were the temple dancers of South India.
• The devadasi system was such that girls at a very young age were dedicated to the temple and were often considered to be married to the deity. This was commemorated by a ceremony called pottukattal, where girls were made to wear a bottu (golden chain) around their neck, symbolic of their marriage with the deity. There are references of devadasis often being called nritya sumangali (eternally married and free from widowhood).
• Once a girl became a devadasi, she started training in the dance form called Sadir Attam also known as Dasi Attam under the guidance of dance teachers called Nattuvanar or Koothiliar. The Nattuavanar played the role of a Guru and made sure that the art form was passed down from generation to generation. After years of training, on the occasion of their Arangetral (first dance performance), the devadasis earned the title of thalaikole.
• Patronised by the Kings and other influential classes of society, the devadasis performed in the dance halls (natyamandapas) within the temple complexes. They were also involved in other activities associated with the temple and their dance was considered a vital part of ritual worship.
• Different names were given to the dasis depending on which occasion they performed on, such as the Alankara Dasis who performed at weddings and other ceremonies and Rajadasis who danced at royal functions. It is said that the great Chola King, Raja Raja Deva I, patronised almost Four hundred Devadasis who performed ritual dances and ceremonies at the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore.
• The devadasis occupied a respectable position in society until the advent of the British in India. The British looked down upon the Indian concepts of dance and believed them to be inferior to the western ideologies. Soon, the devadasis were pushed down in the social strata and were looked at as mere dasis (slaves) and prostitutes.
• The ruling class ceased patronising the art form and the artistes and soon the devadasi system drastically declined. It is said that as a result of this, the devadasis, in order to
survive were forced to take up prostitution. The situation worsened till a time came when even the term devadasi was considered offensive and demeaning.
• Adding to this, a bill was passed in the year 1947 that abolished the devadasi system, as a result of which the devadasi community was completely wiped out of the society. Even today, there are no traces of these families who had been dancing for decades.
• Meanwhile, there were tremendous efforts made by personalities in reviving the art form. One such prominent personality involved was E Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and a freedom fighter who himself learnt and performed this art form.
• T. Balasaraswati, was among the last few devadasis who continued to perform. She is credited for having preserved this traditional art form.
• Another prominent figure is Rukmini Devi, who changed the views of people with her debut performance in 1935. She also founded the Kalakshetra Institute in Chennai that promoted performing art forms.
• Bharatanatyam traces its lineage to the ancient dance of Sadir Attam. The transition from Sadir to Bharatanatyam is unknown but it is a classical dance form that was once on the verge of dying and has managed to survive over the years.