What’s in a Name? Renaming Sadir as Bharatanatyam (Moving memories From The Attic)

Dear Friends,

Here is my article originally published in the India International Center Quarterly Autumn Journal 2015. Happy to share it here for my readers.

What is in a Name?

By Swarnamalya Ganesh

The typical perceptions of a ‘perfect’ middle-class or upper-middle-class Indian girl today include, apart from her being well-educated with a successful career, being adept in housekeeping, softness and grace in manners, and an aptitude for arts such as music and dance. To generalise, one could equate the learning of Indian dance and music with cultural education both within India and amongst Indians worldwide. Setting aside dialogues on gender perceptions attached to the performance of classical dance (solo) for now, I now focus on how Indian classical dance, particularly Bharatanatyam, became a chosen form of ‘approved cultural education’. To understand this, we must first examine its history and the multiple meanings behind the renaming of this art form.

I must explain two concepts that are dealt with as follows. The first is democracy: I juxtapose two kinds of democracy in the context of this art. One is the democracy inherent in the form and repertoire governed by historical, multi-cultural assimilations and acceptance. The second is its rhetorical form, which stands for the idea that this art may be learnt and practiced by everyone/anyone. Why did the latter kind of democracy replace the former? The other concept is that of socialism—not all of socialism, but the movement that led to an ironical situation of turning an art, which was originally/historically for the consumption and participation of all of society, into an ‘exclusive’ privilege of a few, in the name of resuscitation. I call this slant socialism.


Society in pre-colonial India was divided on the basis of labour and economy. The ambiguity inherent in understanding the complex social order of India remained a huge problem in colonial and postcolonial politics. For instance, William Methwold, the 17th century English writer, used the term ‘cast’ (derived from the same root word as chaste; casta in Portuguese) interchangeably with what he termed ‘tribes or linages’. In his broad division of tribes that included Bramene (Brahmin), Committy (Komatti), Campo Waro (Telugu: Kapu Waru), he also included Boga Waro and explained them as ‘Whoores Tribes’. The description of Boga Waro as simply whores is, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam says, grist to the mill of the orientalist, Western view. But beyond that, ‘the vagueness with which caste is used as a rubric under which to organize society’ is the larger problem (Subrahmanyam, 1990).

The other theory that was applied to understand caste was through endogamy and hereditary occupation, i.e., father to son, by Antonio Schorer and other writers (ibid.). What is of interest is how the devadasi community was both inside and outside of these caste markers of endogamy, as they practiced not just the hereditary system by birth, but portability through adoption and assimilation as well. This made them a community, thus making it more obscure to table them strictly under a caste. In Tamil country, devadasis, musicians, dance masters and instrumentalists were subsumed under the larger umbrella of the Vellalar (agrarian) caste as early as the 10th century. Featuring in the hierarchy of Kaikkolars (artisans/weavers), they were for many socio-economic purposes within the caste system. However, the devadasis were a matrilineal kinship. However, any member of society belonging to any other caste could dedicate their sons or daughters to the system and thus gain mobility (1). One can argue that they remained a community with prospects for social mobility even while remaining within the hierarchy of caste. In that sense, it contained a certain democracy (non-exclusivity) within it. However, there was also the hereditary lineage membership applicable to those who were born into the community—the biological sons and daughters of the devadasis, or those of nattuvanars. But those born into this community did not automatically inherit the profession/occupation of serving in the temple or at the court. That process involved years of training, the learning of allied arts and associated artistic skills, singular focus and dedication. When women (devadasis) or men (nattuvanars) turned professionals, they were formally on the pay roll of the temple or court, along with ritual initiations. They earned a living from the endowments and grants given to them, only some of which were hereditary benefits. The system allowed women to educate themselves, hold property and enjoy a certain social standing.


The dance that the devadasis, particularly from Tamil-speaking regions, performed was variously known as Kootu, Cinna Melam, Sadir, Dasi-attam, and so on. These names represented the dance form that was performed by the community, either in temples or at courts, ritually or socially. Their repertoires included a variety of dances that embraced cultural assimilation(2) drawn generously from Maharashtrian, Sanskritic, Telugu, Persian, Islamic, Christian, British, Dutch, Danish, English and French cultures and languages, apart from Tamil. Their music, dance and costumes were deeply multi-cultural in nature, even while being steeped and adsorbed well into the Tamil (desi) ethos. In fact, Sadir was a secular, democratic (inherent democracy of form and repertoire) art. Other examples of Parsi Javalis, Salamu Darus in the Islamic style, English Nottu Swarams as part of their repertoire further reiterated the fact that the devadasi community, which was socially matrilineal in kinship, had a very liberal view of society and the world, living and practising an accepting, inclusive profession, although it was firmly placed within the patriarchal caste bind.

In the early years of the 20th century, while India was fighting for freedom from the British and for civil liberty, it was also simultaneously sinking into heated debates on the morality of the female performing class. That period also threw up ideas for reform, of ridding society of licentious women and prostitution, and finally sought to democratise (for everyone to learn and practice) the arts. But, the truth is that the devdasi was caught in a web of multiple political agendas. Everyone, from the missionary colonialist, Tamil-Dravidianist, Hindu-Sanskritist, nationalist among others, used the devadasi issue as a bandwagon for their larger political ends(3). The women, therefore, became a means to an end and were perceived to be central to the problem. The male members of this community, however, found patronage and acceptance under the umbrella of the so-called crusaders. These men became the masters and tutors of the art of Sadir to new, non-hereditary performers. They taught the existing repertoires of music and dance, but these new consumers (learners and patrons) were eager to view this whole appropriation under a new name—Bharatanatyam. The term Bharatanatyam itself was not new or coined by these new practitioners and patrons(4). But, by invoking a name that was not in vogue until then, and by ceremoniously retitling the dance form under a nation-state, social-reform project, Bharatanatyam took away from female hereditary privilege, livelihood and occupation. It was delivered into the hands of patriarchy that positioned it as a liberal, democratic, cultural identity that could be patronised.
Patriarchy bestowed this art form upon its ‘respectable’ women who chose not to work with it, or treat it as a livelihood, but to enhance their social identity and as appendages and decorations to their familial and social roles. This abetment, to the exclusion of an entire community, is hailed as democratising art. But, has this democratic approach made Bharatanatyam more inclusive in general? Over the decades since this reform, it has been rendered into the hands of an exclusive class order, viz., the elitist middle and upper classes, which include people from many castes drawn under a common/similar economic denominator. Sadir’s inherent secular relevance, through its repertoire, is forgotten history. Its association with female hereditary performers was shunned, undermining history, thus making this social reform a nationalistic ‘classicalising’ process and an example of slant socialism.


The devadasi’s position in society is neither one of complete equality nor complete freedom based, as it were, on an equality in which she can exercise a choice/opportunity as a woman to work and earn (as an artiste), and, therefore, take on responsibilities (fiscal) to rear a family and become the economic head of her clan. However, surrounding the Prevention of Dedication Act, 1947, women who belonged to other castes, mostly married middle and upper class, chose not to work for wages as dancers like their devadasi counterparts. They did not have to, or want to, earn a living as artistes but only wanted to pursue dance as social enhancement. This exception of the performing arts, particularly dance, from the fiscal spectrum of the economy by non-hereditary performers put a further spin on the social and moral discourse. It simultaneously gave non-hereditary dancers social benefits such as being accepted as cultural ambassadors and saviours, making the economic struggle of devadasis working as artistes for gainful employment appear somewhat demeaning. Therefore, Sadir, as a wage-earning art of professionals, seemed an unfit pursuit for respectable women. This is not to say that Sadir performers did not experience the autotelic values of being dancers. If anything, they experienced it much more, owing to their long years of practice, access to spiritual spaces and hereditary associations. History records many anecdotes in which devadasi women have remained absolutely dedicated in their service to temple and society under very trying economic circumstances, finding in it the deepest purpose of their role. But, more pragmatically, art and its practice were stitched as a viable profession into the fabric of their socio-economic society.

However, the 20th-century disassociation of dance from economic employment, and its metamorphosis into a noble hobby or passion for women who could afford it, displays the strained relationship between class inequalities and views—political and social—on female participation in the organisational revenue model and the impact of these on the construction of ‘nation-state womanhood’. According to Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kalakshetra was created ‘with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India, recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism (emphasis added)(5).

Rukmini Devi clearly considers herself a crusader (an upper-caste and, more importantly, upper-class woman, the wife of an influential socialite) who belonged to the ‘new, modern India’ which was emerging on certain nationalistic agendas. She calls the artistic traditions ‘priceless’, acknowledging their worth and richness; however, she quickly adds that they are misplaced in the wrong hands (i.e., the devadasis), implying the need for ‘resuscitating’ and thereby professing her intent to do so through her modern institution, Kalakshetra. The aim is clearly to keep the content alone intact, thus implying that because of the moral discourse surrounding the devadasi and her character, it is her dancing body that made Sadir vulgar. Moreover, by eliminating didactic and utilitarian values from the original form, such as livelihood and money (commercialism), Rukmini Devi takes an ‘art for art’s sake’ (true spirit of the art) approach in which dance would not be commercialised, but simply performed for the joy. However, that was something only the elite, such as herself, could afford to do. The fact that today many dancers, even graduates from the institutions that she founded, are freelance performers, nattuvanars and dance teachers in schools and colleges, performing in corporate shows, etc., for economic sustenance proves that this elitist model of art production and consumption, devoid of commerce, has failed amongst the middle classes who choose to make a living from it. Lastly, Rukmini Devi subscribed to the larger umbrella of the ‘true’ spirit of art, constructed only as a spiritual conscience. Consequently, she denounced the attempt to capture the mundane life of man through the portrayal of his fears and hopes, in imagined ways through romance, love and other worldly emotions, i.e., Sringara(6). For doing this she adopted a few methods. First, the repertoire of Sadir was largely tampered with by censoring compositions and the surreptitious supplanting of new (acceptable/respectable?) words; and, second, by reducing its imaginative, spontaneous quality into a pre-rehearsed, monotonous display of learnt and accepted techniques.

Around the 1950s, the name Sadir was officially changed to Bharatanatyam. This was not an innocuous move, but a very calculated one to dislodge the community of women who had been preserving this art for centuries, whose livelihood depended on it, and whose identity was to be erased from its history and practice. No new major additions were made to the repertoires or content of Bharatanatyam. It was the dancing body of the devadasi that was obliterated. When newer bodies of women who were mothers, wives, daughters and sisters danced the same dance, somehow it became respectable. Therefore, it was the male gaze that saw in its ‘own’ women the art as a social enhancement, but viewed it quite differently when performed by a devadasi. Besides, this male gaze was not specific to men alone. The majority of elite and middle-class Indian women, too, developed this male gaze, but with a sense of righteous shame(7) about their marginalised devadasi sisters. Here, I employ the term male gaze to refer to the high moral ground embedded in social and cultural practices in societies, especially around the 20th century, which questioned the need for art which evoked, according to them, paltry emotions only when inscribed on the devadasi body.


Traditionally, Indian society, its arts and literature focuses on engaging sexuality through its imaginations. This liberality is not restricted to just Hinduism but to all religions that thrive in India. The cultivation of such romantic imaginations renews our creativity. The devadasi embedded this in her art. Social anthropologist Martha Nussbaum observed thus, ‘Nehru thought people would lose the need for poetry along with the need for religion and therefore fore fronted science. He therefore didn’t fashion a pluralistic poetics of equality.’ (8)

If we were to apply this statement of the nationalist wing, about poetry and its relevance or imagined irrelevance in modern, independent, industrial India to dance as well, which was considered at least by a section of society as another form of engagement with decorative exercise, then we may draw an inference as to why dance and the important discourse on the economic status of hereditary dancers was never an agenda on national reform forums. At a time when India was dealing with colonialism, poverty and strife and with the immediacy of industrial development, perhaps the national agenda didn’t see it significant to address the override of a community of women, allowing the complete dislodging of their identity. This allowed for a new class to emerge as the saviour of art, renaming it, leaving behind its practitioners to struggle by themselves with social neglect and the perils of the improper implementation of a social and economic reform associated with the Prevention of Dedication Act.

Is there, then, an important narrative and blatant honesty hidden in Sadir that can finally place Bharatanatyam in the right context? By accepting the failure of the elitist module of art production and consumption, can we create a constructive space for dance as a viable profession again, acknowledging the need for a dialogue with governance for sustainable revenue modules for performers? Is it possible for us, more than 60 years after Indian independence to revision the socio-political status of devadasi women, and offer them their rightful place as preceptors and preservers of this rich art in our oral, written and performing histories? Most importantly, by learning Bharatanatyam as Sadir we will be restoring great meaning to an art that was regurgitated rather hastily.

I began this article by questioning why it was that the democracy of artistes replaced the democracy of the art. Why were they not allowed to coexist? Absorbing Bharatanatyam as Sadir strives to define it in practice, as a truly nationalist, secular, democratic art, within a rich multi-cultural context with spectacular artistry and un denied history. Therefore, what is in a name? The entirety: equality, justice, dignity and hope.


Bates, Crispin. 1997. ‘Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: The Early Origins of Indian Anthropmetry’, in Peter Robb (ed.) The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 238–40.
Bayly, Susan. 1999. Caste, Society and Politics in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ganesh, Swarnamalya. 2015. Demystification: Subaltern Voices that Problematize Dance History and Historiography. Cambridge: Modern Asian Studies Journal, Cambridge (under publication).
—. 2012. ‘Research and Reconstruction of Dance Repertoire of the Nayak Period’. Dissertation under publication.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2007. The Clash Within: Religion, Violence and India’s Future. US: Harvard University Press.
Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 1990. The Political Economy of Commerce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 1) An epigraph of Kulotunga I (1070–1120 AD) in Annual Report of Epigraphy (ARE) of 1921 records that a captain of an army regiment dedicated some women of his family to temple service. Women from all castes, including the Tirumudi Gounder (Trichy, Coimbatore regions), Chengunda Mudaliar, Kaikola Mudali (Tondaimandalam regions), Bhattar Nambis (Brahmins), among others, were dedicated to temple service. Kshatriyas, too, dedicated their women as devadasis (e.g., Niladevi, daughter of King Kulasekharaalvar of Kerala), proving that the Devadasi system stood outside the mark of caste immobility, even while still within the hierarchy. See Bates (1997) for a detailed discussion on the problems of strict tabling and defintion of caste, race, etc., and the ambiguity that persisted in the survey of Indian castes and tribes during colonial times.
2) The dance repertoire called Jakkini was influenced by Persian traditions. The southern coast of India was part of the spice route during the beginning of the first millennium. It was through this route and trade with the Malabar (Mabar in Arabic/Persian) that there was much interaction with foreign travellers, particularly West Asians. This dance form had sustained this cultural assimilation and historic connection in its repertoire right up to the 19th century. Of course, its early contextual history was forgotten over time, smoothly subsuming Jakkini within the ethos of Sadir. See Ganesh (2012) for details of Jakkini, its history and reconstruction. Also see www.fromtheattic.in
3)See Bayly (1999) for a discussion on how caste has been perpetuated by postcolonial politics. Many of its so-called traditional markers took shape as part of the regional-state building exercise. Also see Ganesh (2015) for a specific discussion on the caste politics of Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian movement and its impact on the Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1947.
4) There are references in the compositions of Purandaradasa, the 15th century composer, where he mentions the term Bharatanatya ‘Rambe Urvashi Bharatanatyagalu…’ Therefore, the term is not new. However, it was not in use when it was merely reintroduced in the 20th century to replace Sadir. The other association with Bharatanatyam is attributed to Sage Bharata and his work on dramaturgy. This new name implied the direct spiritual connection of the dance form to Natya Sastra in a very covert manner, disengaging it from its immediate social context.
5) This quote by Rukmini Devi Arundale is part of her memoirs. Interestingly, it has found a prominent place on the homepage of Kalakshetra’s website (kalakshetra.in), perpetuating her desire to reconfigure Sadir as Bharatanatyam by claiming to purge it of its vulgarity and associations to its hereditary past. Well into the 21st century, this premiere national organisation for dance still practices this apathy towards hereditary artistes (from whom the institution’s head as well as her protégés learnt the art form), a fact that deserves serious consideration.
6) There are well-known quotes by Rukmini Devi in which she has expressed her distaste for sringara, believing such portrayals to be vulgar. She remodelled all that she had learnt into the Kalakshetra repertoire by playing down the sringara aspect and introducing concepts such as ‘gourava sringara’ (respectful invocation of the erotic emotion) and many others through many calculated omissions and amendments to lyrics.
7)Moovalur Ramamrithammal, for example, is hailed as a principle women’s social reformer, a Dravidian Justice Party and former Congress politician, who worked for the abolition of Devadasis. Her so-called revolutionary novel is titled Dasigalin Mosa valai allathu Mathi pettra Minor’, which may be translated as ‘The Deceitful Web of the Dasis and the Minor who regained His Senses to Escape from it’. This, and many such works, under the guise of speaking for social reform in a misogynistic way, denigrated the devadasi, her character, and shamed her, paving the way for the term ‘devar adiyal’ that was corrupted into ‘tevidiyar’ in Tamil and used as a pejorative term to mean common prostitute. For a detailed critique of the novel and its motives, see Ganesh (2015).
8)SG artilce- IIC JournalSG artilce- IIC JournalChatterjee (1993), while speaking on nationalism, states that nationalists fore fronted what they imagined as the spiritual domain of India such as women, religion, caste, peasants, etc., and made a clear distinction between this domain and material domains, such as the nation-state and scientific processes. He further states that by normalising the individual aspirations of various groups of the spiritual domain, nationalists readied ground for a political battle. I add to this argument by identifying artistes and their art as part of that spiritual domain, whereby they were neutralised and considered unproductive in the nation-state building process.

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