What we know as Bharata Natyam today springs from Sadir Natyam, also known by names like Daasi Attam, Chinna Mélam, or simply, Sadir.
Surviving texts of the golden age of Tamil literature and poetry known during the Sangam Age such as the Tolkappiyam, as well as the later Silappadikaram, testify to a variety of dance traditions which flourished in these times. The Silappadikaram is a mine of information of ancient Tamil culture, in which the arts of music and dance were highly developed and played a major role.
The Natyashaastra tells an epic story of the celestial dancers (Apsaraas) and musicians (Gandharvaas) who enacted and celebrated, with dance, music and drama, the Devaas‘ (God’s) victorious battle against the Asuraas (demons). This divine dance was then brought to humanity as Devadasi Sadir (the dance of the Devadaasis, Servants of God). Bharata declared that dance, “Shall be the happy adoration of the world.“
In ancient times it was performed as ‘Dasi Attam’ by Hindu temple Devadaasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharatanatyam dance postures (karanas). Basically, a Hindu deity is a revered royal guest in his temple, to be offered the “sixteen hospitalities” – among which are music and dance, pleasing to the senses. Thus, many Hindu temples traditionally maintained complements of trained musicians and dancers, as did Indian rulers.
The term ‘Sadir’ began with the Maratha rulers of South India in the 17th century, who called the dance ‘Sadir Nautch’. This corresponds to the presentation of the dance in the courts. However, the dance didn’t develop much in Northern India due to frequent foreign invasions. Fortunately, the dance tradition survived in South India, where it continued to be patronized by kings and maintained by the devadaasi system.
An important milestone in the evolution of Bharatanatyam was the development of the current format of the Bharatanatyam recital which happened in the late 18th century, at the hands of four brothers from Thanjaavur. They were the four sons of the Nattuvanaar Subbarayan, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam. They also refined the music of Bharatanatyam, influenced by their musical mentor, the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar. These developments shaped Sadir into the predecessor of what we call Bharatanatyam today.
Under British rule, propaganda prevailed against Indian art, falsifying it as immoral and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization. This influence was extensive enough to discourage the patronage of royal courts for the Dance and to alienate educated Indians from their traditions. Even the terms by which the dance was known – Sadir, Nautch, Dasi Attam etc. took on offensive implications. In the early 20th centuries, social reformers under Western influence took advantage of these circumstances, launching an Anti-Nautch movement to eradicate the art itself, condemning it as a social evil. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the classical dance of South India was almost wiped out, even in Tamil Nadu.
Against manyodds, a few families preserved the knowledge of this Dance tradition. Its revival involved individuals from different backgrounds: freedom fighters, westerners interested in Indian arts, people outside the devadasi (servant) class who learned Bharatanatyam, and devadaasis themselves
One such person was E. Krishna Iyer. He was a freedom fighter and lawyer who also had learned Bharatanatyam. He would perform the dance in female costume to remove the stigma associated with the dance, and campaigned to raise public interest in the art. He also founded the Music Academy in Chennai and used its platform to present Bharatanatyam performances by devadaasis. The art gained respect due to its acceptance on the Music Academy stage.
Bharatanatyam then attracted artists from respectable families. Initially met with shock, their participation ultimately helped to shift public opinion in favor of reviving the art. Two such people who played an important role in reviving the dance were Kalanidhi Narayanan of Mylapore and Rukmini Devi of Adyar.
Rukmini Devi’s first performance in 1935 was another milestone. Her efforts won over much of the orthodox communities. Her reforms of costume, stage setting, musical accompaniment, and thematic content, overcame the objections of conservative people. She went on to found the (now world famous) Kalakshetra institute. The renewed awareness of Bharatanatyam in Indian society encouraged various styles of the dance to be recognized such as Pandanallur, Vazhuvur, and Thanjavur. Bharata Natyam quickly gained international recognition and became on of India’s most prized Art form.
References : The author teaches the dance form as well.. You can interact with the author here http://natyakriya.blogspot.com/