Bharatnatyam is the most prominent dance style of South India. Its name, and much of its style and technique, derives from Bharata's Natya Shastra, an ancient handbook on dance and drama. For much of its early history Bharatnatyam was a devotional dance, performed almost ritualistically in temples and at ceremonial processions. It is generally accepted that the sharp and precise technique of Bharatnatyam as it is practised today developed around a century ago.
The Bharatnatyam repertoire is rich and varied, encompassing all three key aspects of Indian classical dance, namely nritta, nritya and natya. The most familiar images of Bharatnatyam, especially the rigid, bent-kneed posture, come from its nritta aspect. A nritta performance comprises of different adavus, or compositions, linked together in combinations and interspersed with various teermanams, rapid and dynamic bursts of rhythm that accentuate a particular moment in the performance. Movements of the eyes and eyebrows, as well as the neck, shoulders and hands are also used to provide some ornamentation and subtlety.
Nritya has its place in Bharatnatyam through abhinaya, whereby the dancer renders, interprets, and gives expression to a song or poem. The theme most often evoked is of sringara, or love, a rich narrative from which a dancer may demonstrate their mastery of facial expressions and hand gestures. The pattern of a Bharatnatyam performance is also prescribed, commencing with alarippu which serves as a brief invocation, followed by jatisvaram, a highly technical segment wherein the dancer interweaves increasingly complex patterns of steps to a richly rhythmic and melodious musical background. Performances generally end with a tillana, combining statuesque poses, intricate rhythms and expressive gestures.