Although the devadasis undertook many functions, the accomplishment for which they are universally known is their dance. The devadasis and their dance were important adjuncts to both religious and secular occasions. Until 1920, dancing in South India was the almost exclusive preserve of devadasis.
The most important validation ceremony for the devadasi who danced as part of temple ritual was to be formally married and dedicated to the temple deity. For the devadasi who danced in temples, her marriage and dedication to a deity ranked as a more important qualification than her dancing abilities. There were six prescribed ceremonies of dedication before devadasis could take part in temple rituals.
These were as follows:
- Ritual first dance lesson
- Gejja Pooja
- Selection of a patron
Because the Lord was her husband, the devadasi was always auspicious. Hence, one of her important duties was to perform the “Aarti” ceremony. It was performed outside the temple too when the idols were carried during processions on the streets.
Soon, the devadasis started dancing outside the temples, to dance at weddings. This new source of patronage gave financial support, which was crucial in helping the dance of the devadasis to survive.
In addition to devadasis being used in both temple and the court , they were also an important part of festival celebrations.
Thus, we see that the devadasi way of life was an entire way of life. They danced for the deity as an artistic extention of the elaborate worship by the priests. They danced for God inside the temple and outside too, and again for him when He went outside in processions and at festivals. And since they were wedded to the God, they owed allegiance to no man except him. As a result of their dedication, their art acquired profound depth and bhava.
The early 20th century saw a decline in the sanctity of the outlook people had towards the devadasis. The Brahmins were against the devadasi system and looked down upon the dance as a form of art itself. But by 1935, people like E. Krishna Iyer again helped revive this art form. He used to himself perform as a female dancer. Although , the entry of young dancers from respectable families was frowned upon, it had started creating a lot of stir and controversy. With more and more aspirants like Rukmini Devi joinind the dance scenario, The devadasis again received new found respect for their perfection in this art form. Rukmini devi’s guru was gauri Amma, was herself a devadasi.
By the mid 20th Century, with the rigidity of the devadasi culture breaking down , devadasis started marrying of their own wish. They started teaching dance independently and dance broke the barriers of caste, rigid rules and customs. This beautiful art form filtered down to the common man and spread out not only in the South, but almost all over Central and North India.
Therefore, the existence of bharatnatyam today, is mainly due to the expertise, high level of training and indepth knowledge of the devadasis with whom this dance began and from whom, in one way or the other, we have been able to access and learn it.