Bharata Natyam finds its origins in Hindu mythology. As the story goes, Brahma took aspects of from each of the four Vedas, and created the fifth Veda, called the Natya Veda. He taught this Veda to the sage Bharata Muni, who wrote the Natyasastra, an ancient (300 BC) and detailed text describing drama. Bharata then choreographed a drama called "Tripura Daham," which was performed in front of Lord Shiva, who is known for setting the world into motion with his cosmic dance. Shiva was so impressed that he taught Tandava, the masculine dance, to Bharata, and asked his wife Parvati to do Lasya, the feminine portion of dance. Their dance has been passed down from generation to generation, but was not given the name "Bharata Natyam" until the 20th century.
Originally, only Devadasi girls learned and performed Bharata Natyam in temples. The Devadasis were dedicated, devoted and exclusively to a particular Hindu deity. They danced religious stories to please the gods either in the sanctums of the temple, or during processions of the deities. During British rule, Devadasis began dancing in the courts of princes and homes of wealthy landlords. This marked a change in the content and prupose of dances, as well as in the location where they were performed. In the courts, dancers acted out poems written to honor the greatness of their patrons. Dancing was utilized as entertainment instead of for religious offering.
However, there were still strict rules about who could perform these dances. The dance form was kept only by the Devadasi community of artists. However, the Devadasi practive was banned by mandate of the British colonial government in the same year that India was fighting for independence in 1947. Temple dancing was termed nautch, with the anti-nautch movement calling for a return of purity to the female dancing body.
After the British banned dancing in temples, Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Westernized and Sanskritized Brahman, learned the dance form from the Devadasis and established a systematic way of teaching the steps in order of difficulty, as well as establishing the Kalakshetra school of dance. Now officially taking on the name "Bharata Natyam," it was performed on stages and in auditoriums. This complete change in setting marks the transformation of the dance from exclusively a form of worship to an art form that anyone can learn.
Also, during the Freedom Movement, nationalists striving to unite India so as to break from British rule had to oversome India's great cultural and linguistic diversity. Bharata Natyam aided in both uniting the people and rising above the language barrier. It was a tool to protest British rule by nationalist forces in two specific ways. The first was re-imagining the dance form as a national art form that represented Indian identity. The second was through conveying messages of freedom through actual dances.
Today, people of all religious backgrounds study Bharata Natyam. Choreography, which in the past only told stories from Hindu epics, is now adapted to tell stores from other religions. Songs can be adapted to fit any language, and can be used to convey epics from other religions, like Islam. Also, other social themes are being told through Bharata Natyam, allowing it to become a tool for education of issues such as global warming and AIDS awareness.