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Although ancient texts and sculptures indicate existence of such culture and presence of dancing girls as also exclusive quarters for women in temple compound, there is no concrete evidence either archaeological or text-based that can manifest the Devadasis as prostitutes or courtesans as accused by some colonial Indologists.After analysing evidences, Davesh Soneji, a historian on performance arts and an expert on Bharatanatyam, concluded that courtesan dancing phenomenon commenced during the Nayaka period of Tamil Nadu sometime around late 16th or 17th century.
History & Evolution According to the Hindu tradition the name of the dance form was derived by joining two words, ‘Bharata’ and Natyam’ where ‘Natyam in Sanskrit means dance and ‘Bharata’ is a mnemonic comprising ‘bha’, ‘ra’ and ‘ta’ which respectively means ‘bhava’ that is emotion and feelings; ‘raga’ that is melody; and ‘tala’ that is rhythm.
Thus, traditionally the word refers to a dance form where bhava, raga and tala are expressed.
According to Russian scholar Natalia Lidova, ‘Natya Shastra’ elucidates several theories of Indian classical dances including that of Tandava dance, standing postures, basic steps, bhava, rasa, methods of acting and gestures.
One of the five great epics of Tamil Literature, ‘Silappatikaram’ (~2nd century CE) has a direct reference to this dance form.
The 18 arms of the Shiva sculpture expresses mudras or hand gestures that are part of Bharatanatyam.
Association with Devadasi Culture Originating in Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu and nearby regions, Bharatanatyam soon prospered in other South Indian temples.
The Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910 and with this the age-old tradition of performing Bharatanatyam in Hindu temples also came to an end. The Tamilians were worried that such a rich and ancient custom of Hindu temple dancing was getting persecuted on the pretext of social reform.
Many classical art revivalists like Indian lawyer, freedom-fighter, activist and classical artist E. Iyer who became involved with the Bharatanatyam revival movement was incarcerated on charges of nationalism and imprisoned.
Despite the fact that Hindu temple dances were being suppressed due to laws enforced by the colonial British government, many artists like American dancer Esther Sherman came from the West to learn Indian classical dance forms.
She came to India in 1930 and not only learnt classical dances but also adopted the name Ragini Devi and became a part of the ancient dance arts revival movement.