The Dance forms of the Devadasis

Kuchipudi: Situated in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, the village Kuchipudi is 32 miles from Vijayawada. Six miles away from it was Srikakulam, the ancient capital of the Satavahana empire (2nd century BC), and the rulers of this dynasty were great patrons of art.

From the inscriptions found here, on the temples of Andhra Vishnu, which was the most sacred shrine of those days, it is evident that more than 300 devadasis received royal patronage and performed the dance which later transformed into the Kuchipudi dance form. Many sculptures found in this area show these dance postures. The emergence and spread of Krishna Cult and the efforts of a Brahmin Siddhapa, born in the 14th Century A.D. was mainly responsible for the transformation of the devadasis’ art into the present day Kuchipudi dance.

Bharatnatyam: It originated from Sadir Natyam, a higher form of which was the Dasi Attam, it was also called Chinna Melam, or simply, Sadir. The term Sadir originated in 17th Century during the rule of Marathas in South India. Sadir was the dance performed in the courts while Dasi Attam, the dance of the devadasis was a part of temple worship. Devadasi families specialized in the arts of music and dance, and they maintained these traditions through several generations, promoted through royal patronage. Sculptural and literary evidence indicates that dances of the Bharatanatyam form, that was based on Natya Shastra, had been used in temple worship throughout India. But the tradition survived in South India because of the efforts of the devadasis. Many Devadasis taught the dance to girls from Brahmin families and they were invited to elite households on auspicious occasions. Later Rukmini Devi Arundale of the Theosophical Society of India established the Kala Kshetram in Tanjavur and transformed the ancient art form Sadir into the present day Bharatnatyam.

Mohiniyattam: Mohiniyattam seems to be a dance of the Devadasis; the temple dancers in Kerala. Sculptures and inscriptions from the temples dating back to the ninth century support this. There are also references to the form in 12th century literature . In Kerala, Devadasis were known under the name “Teviticci” which means “Servant at the feet of god” (Tevar = God, Ati = feet, Acci = woman).
However, Mohiniyattam only appears to be around 500 years old. Alternative opinions are that Mohiniyattam was not a dance of the Devadasis, and has existed only since “the Golden Era of Art and Literature” in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was originally called 'Dasiyattam' since it originated as the temple dance performed by Devadasis and portrayed feminine love in its myriad forms-carnal, devotional and maternal- with accent more on Lasya and Bhava. Odishi dance also evolved from the Maharis’ dance.
The British rulers called the Devadasis ‘nautch girls’ since, for them dance and spirituality were opposed to each other. In 1892, the Hindu Social Reforms Association made an appeal to the Viceroy, the Governor General of India and the Governor of Madras thus, “That there exists in the Indian community a class of women community commonly known as nautch-girls. And that these women are invariably prostitutes”. The Viceroy and Governor of Madras had denied this but the organization carried out a fierce campaign against these ‘nautch girls’ and maligned them as mere prostitutes. Unable to resist the campaigns of huge organizations of reformists and abolitionists, and with the former system of royal support having come to an end, many of the temple dancers had to make a living through prostitution or manual labour.

Other Important measures to be initiated to end the practice:
1. Awareness needs to be spread among the dalits and lower castes whose women become devadasis. They must be made aware of Government Schemes, and about the Laws against dedication of girls to temples.
2. Women should be educated about STD/ HIV/AIDS.
3. Men and women belonging to lower castes, from which women are initiated into devadasis should be educated through media against superstition and blind faith.
4. Children of devadasis should be educated free of cost in good schools. Education will bring awareness regarding this anti-woman, anti-dalit, exploitative system.
5. It is necessary that rehabilitation and correctional centres be located in rural areas where the practice is prevalent to a greater degree. They must be strictly implemented. Yearly evaluation is a must.
6. Poverty and unemployment are major factors which encourage poor lower Caste people to give away their daughters. It has been eradicated. It is necessary to male policies in this regard and launch anti-poverty programmes. Employment should be provided by establishing industries.
7. Scientific teaching and cultural methods should be used to help the village people
understand the root cause of calamities and misfortune.
8. Frequent anti-dedication campaigns, plays and rallies should be arranged in the area where this practice is popular.
9. The children of devadasis are more prone to be forced into the devadasi system. Hence, they should be kept away from such a social environment .Rather, they should be trained in the classical dances and music of India free of cost.
10. Marriages of devadasis should be conducted and respect and social prestige should be given to them and their offspring.
11. Casteist and patriarchal attitudes in society responsible for continuation of exploitation should be challenged.


Devadasi cult is, in contemporary times, is an evil system where many poor dalit and backward caste women are exploited in the name of religion. Poverty, blind faith and unemployment are the major factors which encourage the devadasi cult. Hence, a policy for socio-cultural and economic rehabilitation of the Devadasis is essential. They have to be made free from social stigma, respected as upholders and preservers of the traditional art forms of India, and integrated into the national economy.

Did You Know

Devadasis are also called Nayakasani, Rangasani, Gangasani, Muttukattikondavlu, Davara Sule, Kasabi, Patradavalu, Jogti Devadasis are not treated as untouchables like the jogins.

Devadasis were called ‘nitya sumangali’ (never to be widowed) Lata Mangeshkar’s paternal grandmother, Yesubai Rane belonged to Devadasi community of Goa. Shanmukavadiver Ammal, mother of M.S. Subbulakshmi, was a Devadasi

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