Bharatanāṭyam is the classical dance of South India. It has its origin in the ritual dance of the temple dancers and the court dancers and is based on the Nāṭyaśāstra a Sanskrit text on performing arts. It is dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE and attributed to the sage Bharata.
In the Vedas, the collection of ancient Indian literature, the gods and goddesses are compared to dancers. The highest absolute manifests itself as Śiva-Naṭarāja, king of the dance. His cosmic dance represents creation, preservation and destruction of the world. The entire universe is in constant movement and activity. All matter takes part in the eternal cosmic dance. The rich South Indian culture and philosophy gave the foundation for the creation of a dance form which can be taken as a way of self realisation as well as a way of a highly sophisticated entertainment.
"Nṛṭṭa (dance) is occassioned by no specific need; it has emerged because it creates beauty; naturally everyone loves nṛṭṭa. Hence it is eulogized as auspicious. Tānḍava is essentially for the adoration of gods; it’s delicately tender usage (lāsya) is connected with the experience of the feeling of love". From: Nāṭyaśāstra Chapter IV.
The dance repertoire which is called Margam was created by the four famous musicians Chinnaiah, Ponniah, Shivanandan and Vadivelu - the so-called Thanjavur Quartet. They were employed at the court of the Maratha King Serfoji II. Bhonsle at Thanjavur in the early 19th century. This dance repertoire includes abstract and narrative dances in a particular sequence. Till today this repertoire is followed by traditional dancers. Nevertheless there are many new compositions, choreographies and formats which are presented today. This makes the dance style a profund and lively art.
„Until the 20th century music and dance belonged to the culture of royal courts and rituals performed in Hindu temples. These performing arts constituted the hereditary right of professional dancers and musicians. They can trace their antecedents back to the first century B.C. but became generally known as Devadasis –servants of god. When Independent India forbade in 1947 the ritual marriage between women and gods, goddesses or religious synonyms, devadasis lost their traditional rights of labour, housing, lands and maintenance in temples, leaving many of them destitute.This time-slot provided a new and socially neutral name Bharatanatyam to an art that for centuries had been know as Dasi Attam, Chinna Melam or Sadir indicating the social background of its professional performers. This new name facilitated a shift to leisured or free performers who devised crucial adaptations to suit a global exposure and marginalisation of the local Dasi Attam. The Devadasi Act of November 27, 1947 was the outcome of centuries unease over this matrilineal community of ritual specialists and sophisticated artists in both Western but decisevely Indian society. The gradual collapse of the socio-economic infrastructures in temples and royal courts worsened the fate of the devadasis. The so-called Hindu-Renaissance did not look favourably upon their heritage; it rather preferred to project a ’spiritual character’ of Hinduism over the more concrete forms of worship as practised in temple and village shrines. Appropriation of devadasi arts has been a long and painful process for those who held ritual and customary rites to perform in temples, courts and social rites of passage. Few devadasis could make the transition from the temple and court to the western style proscenium stage.“
Quoted from Dr. Saskia Kersenboom | Paramparai.eu
But not only Devadasis have been the practitioners of dance, there have been also others like the dancer Jatti Thayamma (1857-1947) from Mysore. She was a stalwart of the Mysore style of Bharatanatyam. Hailing from a wrestler’s family she contributed a lot to the art of Bharatanatyam which was also known as bharatam. She strongly believed that rāsa and abhinaya were the soul of every dance, and the spirit of art comes from the heart of a dancer. Jatti Thayamma actively danced for almost 75 years of her life. She was highly educated and was appointed as Asthana Vidushi at the Royal court of Mysore by Chamaraja Wodeyar X. She was well versed in Sanskrit and Telugu and made great contributions to the dance style in the pre-Independence era of the 19th and 20th Century and enriched the dance repertoire with many Ślokas. In 1945 the title of NatyaSaraswati was conferred to her by the later President of India Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan when she danced at the age of 88 years.
References: Dr. Sunil Kothari - Bharatanatyam Indian Classical Dance. Bindu S. Rao (Jatti Thayamma - New References on Her Art & Life and it’s Significance on Bharatanatyam History).