La Bayadère’s Nikiya vs. the Indian Hereditary Dancing Caste



Marius Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadère, inspired by F. Taglioni’s Le Dieu et La Bayadère as well as the opera Les Bayadères, presents the story of Indian temple dancer Nikiya and her navigation of a love triangle, ending in murder and tragedy. The character of Nikiya was inspired by Indian Bharatanatyam dancers, also known as temple dancers or Devadasis. Europe's primary exposure to this classical dance form occurred in 1838, when a troupe of “Devadasis” visited Paris on a tour of Europe, leading to several choreographers' Western adaptations in ballet. France, in particular, 's fascination with Indian culture can be correlated with France's loss of Indian territory to Great Britain in the previous century. However, most of Europe indulged in the exotic Indian "other." But Western recreations of Indian culture all too often misconstrued reality with a fantasized Oriental world. How does Nikiya's character contrast from the authentic Bharatnatyam dancers that inspired her creation?

Nikiya's costuming, choreography, casting, and pieces of her plotline stray from the Indian culture and temple dancers she derives from. I use archival footage of the Bolshoi Ballet's 2013 performance of La Bayadère as well as footage of Bharatanatyam dance from Tanjore Balasaraswati's form, which upholds the traditions of the dance style. In addition, I use historical recounts covering Marius Petipa, the Devadasi European tour of 1938, Bharatanatyam dance, colonialism in India, and Indian-influenced ballets. I review Marius Petipa's diary entries as a primary source in my research. Ultimately, I argue that the only way for Western audiences to appreciate Indian temple dance was through the creation of the Westernized Nikiya.

Keywords: Ballet, Concert, Dance, India, Bharatanatyam, Petipa, Bayadère

How to Cite: McKim, A. (2024) “La Bayadère’s Nikiya vs. the Indian Hereditary Dancing Caste”, Iowa Historical Review. 10(1). doi: