The roots of Bharatanatyam lie in South Indian temple culture and royal courts, as well as in classical Indian acting.
The dance was called Sadirattam or Dasiyattam until the beginning of the 20th century. By this time its technique was preserved only in a few families of artists. As the social status of artists declined over the centuries, so did the status of this dance.
In the 1920s-30s, dance was slowly rediscovered by people of higher status: it was recognised as part of the national identity during the time of the Indian independence movement. People like the lawyer E. Krishna Iyer, Esther Sherman (Ragini Devi), and politicians respectively advocated for the revival of this art form. Finally, Sadirattam was reborn as Bharatanatyam: Rukmini Devi Arundale designed Bharatanatyam in such a way that it could evolve into a stage dance (instead of temple dance). She founded the Dance Academy Kalakshetra together with her husband, and it quickly became a centre for classical languages (Sanskrit and Tamil), Carnatic music and dance.
Nowadays, Bharatanatyam is experiencing its renaissance: not only is its ancient repertoire repeated again and again, but a thousand modern pieces using its technique have been created with modern content.
Bharatanatyam has two aspects: Nritta (pure dance) and Abhinaya (performance). Pure dance is abstract, fast and rhythmic. The focus of Nritta is the beauty of movement, form, speed, range and pattern. This part of the repertoire does not tell stories but is a technical performance, a unity of music, rhythm and dance.
In Abhinaya as well as Nritya, the dancers tell whole stories with expressive postures, facial expressions and artful hand positions. In most of the pieces, these two aspects mix, trying to engage the senses and the mind of the audience at the same time.