Devdasi, servant of God or Godess, is the Sanskrit word for a girl dedicated to worship and in the service of a deity or a temple for rest of her life. Devdasis, though an essential part of the temple worship tradition by taking care of temple duties and rituals also practised Sadir, the original form of Bharatnatyam, Odissi and other classical arts. These custodians of the classical Indian dances enjoyed a respectable place in the society as music and dance were an important part of temple worship especially in the times of the golden age of the temples of south India in the 10th and the 11th Century.
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 auspicious. She was also known as Akhandsaubhagyawati as she could never become a widow, often called upon to bless the newlyweds in the upper caste weddings. 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.
With the decline in the power and importance of the temples and being a favourite target of the frequently invading armies, the concept of patrons took prevalence. 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 devadasis to survive.
In addition to devadasis being used in both temple and the courts, they were also an important part of festival celebrations. 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.
With the coming of the European colonists and the fall of Indian rulers the Devdasi system also saw degeneration in many ways. 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. The entry of young dancers from respectable families was still frowned upon, it had certainly started attracting considerable attention. With more and more aspirants like Rukmini Devi joined the dance scenario, the devadasis again received new found respect for their perfection in this art form. Rukmini devi’s Guru, Gauri Amma, was a devadasi herself.
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, who nurtured and carried it through generations and from whom, in one way or the other, we have been able to access and learn it.