The History of dancing can be categorised broadly into three periods:

  1. The initial pre- historic period where references of dance in some form can be traced to ancient cave paintings, engravings, older civilisations, Vedic references in Upanishads, Puranas, Bramhana, epics etc.
  2. The period starting from the 2nd century B.C. through 9th Century A.D., wherein we get references about dancing from the monuments of ancient dynasties, Buddhist stupas, caves of Ellora and temples in various parts of India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. These temples contain sculptures of dancers of different dance forms.
  3. The most recent or the modern phase is the period covered from the 10th Century A.D. to the present time. This period witnessed the development and growth of this art to a great extent towards regional, architectural, sculptural, pictorial and musical fields.

The different styles of classical Indian dancing were practised and nurtured by artists and dancers of different periods belonging to different regions, tribes, castes etc. The hindrances of political developments and foreign invasions have influenced each dance form. Each style developed as a different system or tradition in different regions. The contributions made by eminent artists, personalities and masters enabled the growth of these art forms even though they lacked academic knowledge on account of lack of formal education and unfamiliarity of the language of formal writings, Sanskrit.

The British too were not interested in the development of these classical dances, music and related arts. Further they denied permission to present these in temple deities, imposing Victorian morality on Indians. This lead to a gradual decline in the status of these artforms which were earlier patronised by rulers and imminent well to do persons. The prohibitions and presentation of these art forms in public places and temples and also among the upper-class society circles led to the decline of these divine art forms. However, with the passage of time, there was a revival, to that extent that these divine forms started to get recognition. The interest in dance was developed as a part of reviving and building up the glorious culture and heritage of India.

It is strongly believed that Sadir or Nautch was the precursor of Modern Bharatnatyam. Sadir evolved during the 17th to 19th centuries. The word Sadir is of Marathi origin, meaning to press. In Sangeet Saramritha, King Thulaja says that Sadir evolved during his time. He also gives the technique of dance. But even before that, Sanskrit treatises developed separate chapters on dance and works on Natya were also written by eminent scholars. It was the Tanjore Quartet, who refined and theorised the Bharatnatyam as it is today. Bharatnatyam can be considered as the successor of the ancient Tamil dance style known as Koothu. In Silapaddikaram and Manimekhala, we find references about the 2 types of Koothus, namely Shanti Koothu and Vinoda Koothu. The first is considered as classical and highly scholarly. The latter is meant mainly for Vinoda or entertainment.

During its course of development, Bharatntyam has refined much, at the same time following the trends and traditions followed in South India from ancient time onwards. The Devadasi nrittam prevalent in ancient Indian temples can be considered as the precursor of Modern Bharatnatyam. The devadasis employed in the temples to please the Lords, Kings, as well as the royal households, contributed much towards the perpetuation and preservation of this art form. The Bharatnatyam as we see today, has grown from the various dances prevalent in South India. The term Devadasi Attam is believed to have evolved from Thevar Adichi –Attam, meaning the dance of the dasis of Devas or Lords. It was during the Mahratta rule that the Devadasi Attam came to be known as Sadir or nautch. During Serfoji’s time, The Tanjore quartet consisting of the four brothers- Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Vadivelu and Siva nandam were appointed as Vidwans. They refined this crude dance form and gave it the present-day form and shape and renamed it as Bharatnatyam.  It must have been with the presumption that the form was based on the techniques and peculiarities as laid down by Bharata in his Natyashastra. Afterwards, E. Krishna Iyer, another eminent artist popularised it among the public and thus removing the stigma attached to it. He used to perform in the role of both male as well as female characters.

The efforts of Rukmini Devi bore fruit when Kalakshetra was established and it became a Centre of Excellence in Bharatnatyam for Indians as well as foreigners. By giving systematic and intense training, the art form attained high standard and status. She abolished the unpleasant elements from the dance, devised artistic costumes and removed the erotic stigma attached to it. Kalakshetra became a centre for propagating this art form and became a meeting place for eminent artists, scholars, musicians and gurus of the time.

The names of Balasaraswati, Kamala Laxman, Mrinalini Sarabhai, are worth mentioning for their immense contribution in this field. They reformed this art form to a great extent. The padas presented by Smt. Balasaraswati are excellent pieces for her illustrious abhinaya. The researches done by Dr. Padma Subramaniam in the field of Karanas are praiseworthy. In addition, the effort and experiments done by Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai, Smt. Chitra Vishvesaran, Sudharani Raghupati, Dr. Padma Subramaniam and others helped in improving the standard of performance.

Today Bharatnatyam has attained an exalted status and immense popularity. Learning of Bharatnatyam has become the status symbol for most, irrespective of social status and rank. Within a short period of five decades, this art form has reached the masses from the four walls of the temples. It has attained worldwide fame and has become part of the International dance forums.