Bharatnatyam in its solo form with which we are now familiar and as we see it on stage today is indeed an authentic classical Indian dance form. It’s antiquity goes to the Rig Vedic hymns and to the figurine of a dancing girl of a Mohenjodaro statuette. The Bharatnatyam as it is performed now, infact, appears to be a direct derivation of the “Lasya” decribed in Bharata’s Natyashatra.
The present day Bharatnatyam appears to have grown from the form of dances prevalent in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil works, dance is referred to as Kuthu. This came to be known as Bharatnatyam, an acronym from the three words – Bha (Bhava), Ra (Raga or melody), Ta (Talam or rhythm).
Bharatnatyam flourished under the rule of Cholas and Pallavas (4th To 12th Century A.D.). The tradition was nurtured and kept alive by the Pandya, Nayaka and Maratha rulers till the end of the 19th Century. During the Maratha rule, the dance of the devadasis came to be known as DASI ATTAM.
During the time of Raja Sarafoji, four famous court musicians and dancers contributed in shaping the Bharatnatyam recital or “margam”. They were Chinnaiyya, Ponayya, Shivanandam and Vadivelu. They came to be known as the Tanjore Quartette.
During the British Rule, the art of dance suffered a lot on account of various reasons. In Tamilnadu, the art of Bharatnatyam had reached a stage of extinction. The devadasis were looked down upon.
During this time, E. Krishna Iyer was destined to play an important role in the revival of Bharatnatyam. For seven years, he fought against the Anti-Nautch Movement. He even performed as a female Bharatnatyam dancer to remove the stigma attached to the art. In 1927, he organized the first All India Music conference at Madras in the South.
Soon, public opinion began changing. Kumari Bharathi of a Mudaliar family was the first person outside the class of devadasis to learn Bharatnatyam. This caused many young people from respectable families to learn Bharatnatyam which both shocked and caused excitement among the Brahmins.
The arrival of Rukmini Devi raised the status of the art. Her own Institution of Kalakshetra became meeting place of great artistes. Soon different styles of Bharatnatyam like Tanjore, Pandanallur, Vazhuvur etc. came to be known and appreciated.
Today big Institutions and Academies to promote Bharatnatyam have emerged. There is hardly a major city in India where Bharatnatyam is not taught. Within a span of five decades, it has achieved unparalled popularity. As a dance form of great beauty, it has crossed national frontiers and become a part of the International dance scene.