Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
Okay so I remember having a conversation about this with a classical dancer friend of mine. She told me two theories that are associated with this notion…
The Dance of the Apsaras
Many people think that Bharatanatyam originated as a result of turning the theoretical Sanskrit text Natya Shastra into motion. Natya Shastra is believed to have been written by the ancient sage Bharata. The work is said to have been inspired by the dance of the Apsaras or celestial nymphs at the court of Indra, the Lord of the Heavens. There are several references made to specific apsaras in the text.
Although Apsaras were depicted as wives of the Gandharvas (the celestial musicians), it is often shown that they were the hand-maidens of the Devas…especially the less important apsaras. Many of them were often employed to seduce men and sages on Earth to serve some higher purpose of the Devas.
When Bharatanatyam took its original form from Tamil Nadu, it was performed at temples as a part of temple worship by women who came to be known as Devadasis, Handmaidens of the Gods. These performers were later classified as a sect.
Traditionally devadasis had a high status in society. After marrying wealthy patrons, they spent their time honing their skills instead of becoming a housewife. They had children from their husbands who were also taught their skills of music or dance. Often their patrons had another wife who served them as housewife.
During British rule in the Indian subcontinent, kings who were the patrons of temples and temple arts became powerless. As a result, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. During colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the devadasi tradition on grounds that it supported prostitution. Colonial views on devadasis are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics as the inability of the British to distinguish them from the girls who danced in the streets for the reasons other than spiritual devotion to the deity as in socio-economic deprivation and perusal of folk arts
As the devadasis were traditionally girls “dedicated” to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of their life, this was equivalent to being ‘married to the Gods’ for many people.