Examining the Real-Life Temple Dancers Who Inspired La Bayadère

February 25, 2021

At the heart of Marius Petipa’s 1877 ballet La Bayadère is the tragic heroine Nikiya, an Indian temple dancer, or bayadère, whose extreme vulnerability renders her death all the more devastating.

Nikiya is a servant to her temple. She is expected to obey the High Brahmin and the Rajah. She arrives when summoned and dances on cue. Yet this presentation of temple dancers deviates greatly from accounts of the real-life temple dancers of India—the devadasis—who occupied a sacred space in their country’s history. In fact, through the character of Nikiya, the devadasis of La Bayadère are transformed beyond recognition.

For starters, the temple dancers of Petipa’s ballet are given an entirely new, French name in place of the Sanskrit term “devadasi,” which translates to “female servant of God.” “Bayadère” comes from the Portuguese word “bailhadera,” which simply means “dancer.”

In his 2015 article “The Devadasi System: Temple Prostitution in India,” Ankur Shingal traces the history of the devadasis back to the Keshari Dynasty in the 6th century A.D., when a queen initiated the custom of marrying girls and women trained in classical dancing to the deities. These women then spent their lives caring for the temple and becoming well-versed in bharatanatyam, a form of classical dance from Southern India. Shingal notes the revered status that the devadasis held in precolonial India, writing that because they were “literally married to the deity, they were to be treated as if they were the Goddess Lakshmi herself.”

Along with this esteemed status, the devadasis possessed a surprising amount of autonomy, despite the fact that they were women in a largely patriarchal society. In her 2014 article “The Real Bayadère Meets the Ballerina on the Western Stage,” Molly Engelhardt shines a light on how the devadasis occupied a status that had no equivalence in European society in the 19th century. Engelhardt recalls how these temple dancers were “higher ranked than the men in the religious community,” and how they also were given privileges that were denied to both Indian laywomen and European women. The devadasis received patronage for their work, and they enjoyed a degree of financial freedom, as well. They were, as Engelhardt reports, “educated and free to engage in business matters such as purchasing property or adopting a child.”

The devadasis couldn’t be easily categorized according to European patriarchal standards. They were educated women who occupied a sacred space in their society. Writing for India International Centre Quarterly in 2017, V. Kalyan Shankar and Rohini Sahni note that under British colonization, the devadasis were labeled as “prostitutes” and held in low social regard. In fact, when a troupe of dancers from Pondicherry toured Britain and France in 1838, their mere presence incited a riot. On the opening night of their performance in London, Engelhardt reports on how a group of moralists initiated a “hissing campaign to express fears of the baneful effect of these ‘temple prostitutes’ on ‘the morals of the spectators.'”

Contrary to the reception they received in Europe, the devadasis were generally held in high esteem by Indian society for centuries. However, this status didn’t last forever, particularly under colonization. Writing for the Dance Research Journal in 2000, Pallabi Chakravorty explores how the devadasis went from revered, sacred performers to an ostracized group in the 19th century. The status and protection awarded to the devadasis were essentially obliterated in a targeted movement of social reform, which, Chakravorty notes, was led by English missionaries and Hindu social reformers. By the 1890s, the devadasis lost their financial patronage, and to support themselves, many turned to sex work, which saw them become even more shunned from society.

The devadasis have a rich and complex history that cannot be encapsulated in a single character, or narrative, and yet Petipa chose to center his ballet on an Indian temple dancer. Instead of exploring the societal position of temple dancers, La Bayadère erases the devadasis’ history completely. They are given a French name and they dance according to Western classical tradition. Their costumes are a Western interpretation of Indian dress, rather than an authentic representation.

Unlike the ancient devadasis, Nikiya isn’t treated like a goddess or revered by her fellow characters. In fact, the ballet casts her as an inferior to the High Brahmin, the Rajah and Gamzatti. As they were considered to be married to the deities, the devadasis were unable to marry mortals, and yet Nikiya is the object of desire for both Solor and the High Brahmin. While she demonstrates some resistance to the High Brahmin and Gamzatti, she is unable to truly defeat them, and her very public death signifies her inability to resist the will of the ballet’s authority figures.

In La Bayadère, Petipa overlooks the revered status of the devadasis, and erases all elements of classical Indian dance like bharatanatyam from the ballet’s choreography. Rather than explore the beguiling complexity of the devadasis, the ballet’s lead temple dancer serves to project Western orientalist fantasies.

This is not atypical for 19th-century art forms. In Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Edward Said acknowledges how representations of the East enable a “Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” This sees Asian women being routinely portrayed as innately submissive and subservient, and this representation is often used as a means to justify imperialism.

The way in which La Bayadère ignores the history and traditions of the devadasis certainly constitutes orientalism. Fortunately, more and more members of the dance world are doing crucial work in holding ballet accountable for offensive and reductive stereotypes of Asian people. For instance, Georgina Pazcoguin and Phil Chan—the founders of Final Bow for Yellowface—continue to call for the elimination of outdated caricatures of Asian people in dance. Since 2017, many ballet companies in the U.S. have signed their pledge, indicating that the tide is turning.

Additionally, many artists and choreographers have been exploring what a more accurate version of La Bayadère might look like. In collaboration with Doug Fullington, Chan wrote a version of the ballet set in an entirely different context, while British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh explored the trope of the Indian temple dancer in her 2017 work Bayadère—The Ninth Life. But to pay true service to the devadasis, the ballet would need to be rethought from top to bottom.