Within two months of Independence, the Madras Presidency passed the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, known as the Devadasi Abolition Act, 1947. Former colonists and the Indian elite saw the system as immoral, a social evil. The legislation’s goal was to prevent young girls from being exploited by being dedicated to temples and to help older Devadasis integrate into mainstream society. The community, however, strongly opposed the legislation, saying they were respectable and learned artistes and that laws such as these would put them out of work as well as give a negative connotation to their profession.
As the dance of the traditional practitioners was sanitised, the modern version of Bharatanatyam was born—a dance suited to a newly independent nation anxious about its morals. Rukmini Devi Arundale (along with E. Krishna Iyer) was credited with removing the eroticism from Sadir and making it “respectable”.
As dance became acceptable for upper-caste maidens to practise, Bharatanatyam became hugely popular. In parallel, the original dancers lost their craft and were forced to seek alternative means to support themselves. Between the anti-nautch movement of the early 1900s and the Devadasi Abolition Act, the community was crushed. And, as some scholars have pointed out, the Act spelt the death knell for a host of knowledge systems of music and dance, equivalent to the shutting down of several universities.
Balasaraswati, who came from a family of traditional artistes, is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam in post-Independence India. Although the Act prevented public performances, Balasaraswati took advantage of the revivalist movement to perform and teach Bharatanatyam in its pure form for nearly five decades.
Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1940s
The Madras Act paved the way for the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication Act) in 1947, the Karnataka Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act in 1982, and the Maharashtra System Abolition Act, 2005. In spite of the laws and rehabilitation schemes in place, reports filed as recently as 2016 with the National Commission for Women and media reports indicate that there are numerous cases of former Devadasis who have become destitute and, worse, that the practice continues in a tragically exploitative form.