In the 2,000-year-old definitive text on classical Indian performing arts, the Natya Shastra, the word natya encompasses music, vocalization, dance, expression, and drama. Bharata Natyam, one of several dance and theatrical styles to develop from the art described in the Natya Shastra, was originally danced only by devadasis, who were dedicated to temples to dance for the gods and had high social status. When the practice fell out of favor in the 20th century, the art form was resurrected on the stage. Today's Bharata Natyam integrates geometry, rhythm, and highly stylized emotional expression, accompanied by traditional instruments, song, and nattuvangam. Some dances tell stories about the gods, others tell stories about people, and still others do not tell stories at all, but showcase the body's sculptures and rhythms themselves, and a traditional performance structure ensures that the music and dances are presented in an emotionally fulfilling arc.
Like ballet, the movement is extremely precise in order to elicit pure expression: When the dancer's body and the steps become one, expression on a higher plane is possible. The confidence with which writers and artists – past and present – delineate its purpose and place within the culture is striking. While, in Western culture, the arts are often considered to be subjective – you might like it, or you might not; you might get it, or you might not – classical Indian dance is said to have a distinct and essential purpose: to educate, enlighten, motivate, and relieve stress and grief. According to classical dance guru V.P. Dhananjayan, in his many-editioned volume on the art, it provides "all things needed for the well being of the people."