Hastàbhinaya (Hah-stah-bin-a-yah) = Hand GesturesHand gestures are used for a variety of reasons, they may be used to mime the meaning of the song, or they may be simple aestetic ornamentation. Some have very limited meanings, and some are used as catch-alls for miming a variety of ideas. The Natya Shastra lists the following mudras, along with their most prominent meanings. Many others have been developed in the time since, whose histories are harder to trace. In the cases where an idea is being conveyed, it is more important to communicate clearly with hand gestures - adapting them if necessary - than it is to perform them with rigid correctness.
Different schools and styles of dance use different hand gestures and different terms for the same hand gestures. Most have a fairly similar set of terms that largely overlap with this list, but many may be different in the details. It is largely a case of individual style, and so long as everyone can communicate it matters very little what terms are used. The goal of this class and handout are to note the hand gestures that are most likely to have been used in history.
This particular list is based on my experience Aparna Sindhoor's dance instruction and the study of several translations of the Natya Shastram a translation of the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandiksvara and a study of the Nrtyavinoda of Manasollasa - three period dance texts.
The Natya Shastra is a medieval dance text believed to possibly be written as early as 800AD. It is the earliest known dance text, and generally has formed a basis for most subsequent treastises. It was designed to cover all aspects of medieval dramaturgy - dance, music, acting, costumes, stage construction and many other theatrical techniques. As the first known text on dance, it has strongly influenced all the subsequent literature through history, as well as the modern classical dance forms currently active in India.
The Abhinaya Darpana,ascribed to the sage Nandikesvara, is theorized to have been written sometime between the 5th and 13th centuries. Where the Natya Shastra studies all the diverse aspects of theater and dance, including expression, costumes, dance movements, theater construction, and music, the Abinaya Darpana studies only abhinaya or theatrical expression - including facial movements, and hand gestures.
The Nrtyavinoda of Manasollasa is particularly interesting to me, as it is was composed in my region of interest - Karnataka. It is a section of a medieval encyclopedic text called the Manasollasa or Abhilasitarthacintamani, ascribed ot King Somesvara III. The treastise has been dated to 1131 AD. It covers all aspects of dance - dance movements, poses, and expressive gestures (abhinaya) of the hand, face and head. It's particularly interesting in the fact that the movements noted here are significantly different from the Natya Shastra, although the abhinaya information shows a great similarity.
Asa§yuta = "non-combined", single hand gesturesThese are single hand gestures because they can be used on one hand independantly from the other. The may also be combined with the same gesture on the same hand, or two different gestures on each hand, as the situation merits.
|Natya Shastra Notess and Meanings||Picture||Abhinaya Darpana of Nadikesvara||Ntryavinoda of Manasollasa|
beginning dance, cloud, forest, forbidding things, bosom, night, river, world of the gods, horse, cutting, wind, reclining, walking, prowess, graciousness, moonlight, strong sunlight, knocking, meaning of the seven cases, wave, entering a street, equality, applying sandal paste, one's self, taking an oath, silence, benediction, a good king, palmyra leaf, slap, touching, saying "such and such", the sea, the way of good deads, addressing (a person some distance away), going in front, the form of a sword, month year, rainy season, day, sprinking water
|= three parts of a flag|
crown, tree, vajra weapon, the bearer of the vajra (Indra), screw-pine flower, light, rising flames, cheek, patterns drawn on the face or body, arrow, turning round, union of woman and man
|Not mentioned in this text|
|Not mentioned in either copy of the Natya Shastra||= half-flag|
tender shoots, panel for writing or drawing, bank of a river, dagger, knife, flag, tower, horn, saying "Both"
|Not mentioned in this text|
|= arrow shaft face|
Text describes the hand position as "in the same hand (as ardhapataka), the forefinger and little finger are out spread". The plates provided by the author show a relaxed tripataka position. Given the context, I prefer the image shown with this position.
separation of woman and man, opposition or overturning, stealing, the corner of the eye, death, disagreement, lightning, sleeping alone, falling, a creeper
|Not mentioned in this text|
|Not mentioned in either copy of the Natya Shastra||= peacock|
the peacock's beak, a creeper, bird of omen, vomiting, forehead, stroking the hair, forehead, brow-spot, wiping away tears, argument according to law, renown
|Not mentioned in this text|
This is the position held when hands are resting behind the back during modern practice
|= half moon|
the moon on the eigth day of the dark fortnight, a hand seizing the throat, a spear, consecrating an image, a platter, origin, waist, anxiety, one's self, meditation, prayer, touching the limbs, greeting common people
|sweeping, mixing, clasping the waist|
drinking poison, nectar, etc., or sharp acid
|blessing, describing, holding an umbrella or a goad, looking wish astonishment|
|= parrot's beak|
shooting an arrow, throwing a spear, mystery, ferocity
steadiness, grasping the hair, holding things, wrestling
In modern usage I have seen this mean "who" or "who is" as well. For example, "who came to my house" or "he who is Vishnu".
the God of Love, bow, pillar, silence, husband, tooth, entering, questioning, the body, saying "No!", recollection, intimate suggestion, untying the girdle, embrace, lover, letting fly sakti and tomara weapons, sound of a bell, pounding
|ringing of bells, pressing or rubbing the body, throwing a spike or a javelin, holding a rope or reins|
|= elephant apple|
Lakshmi, Sarasvati, winding, holding cymbals, milking cows, collyrium, holding flowers at the time of dalliance, grasping the end of the robe, veiling the head with the ancala, offering incense or lights, etc.
|affirmation, releasing a disc (wheel), discharging weapons after mediating (by placing on forehead)|
|= opening in a link|
This is described as looking more like the picture shown in this column. However, the translator suggests a position that looks like a relaxed Kappittha.
picking flowers, holding a pearl necklace or garland of flowers, drawing a bow slowly, distributing folded betel leaves, applying such things as musk or scent, speech, glancing
|holding an umbrella, fly whisk, weapons or mirror, grasping the hair and the noose|
called Såci(Sue-chi), instead
one, Parabrahma, demonstration, one hundred, sun, city, world, saying "Thus" or "What?", "He", fan, threatening, pining away, rod, the body, astonishment, braid of hair, umbrella, capability, down, beating the drum, turning the potter's whell, wheel, circle, explanation, evening
|Not mentioned in either copy of the Natya Shastra||= digit of the moon|
to indicate the crescent moon
|Not mentioned in this text|
|= lotus bud|
fruit, wood-apple, elephant-apple, etc., breast, curve, ball of flowers, light food, bud, mango, rain of flowers, cluster of flowers, the japa flower, the shape of a bell, the hole of a snake, a water-lily, an egg
|taking the kapittha orbilva fruit, showing the hand to children, a downcast face|
|SarpasÑrùaka||= snake head|
sandal-paste, snake, slowness, sprinkling, cherishing, etc., giving water to gods and sages, the flapping of elephant's ears, massage of wrestlers
|= deer head|
women, cheek, traditional manners, fear, discussion, costume of an actor, place of residence, tete-a-tete, drawing three lines on the brow, patterns on the ground, massage of the feet, combining, house, holding an umbrella, stair, placing the feet, calling the beloved, roaming
|Not mentioned in either copy of the Natya Shastra||= lion face|
coral, pearl, fragrance, stroking the hair, a drop of water, salvation when placed on the heart, homa, hare, elephant, waving kusa grass, lotus garland, lion face, testing the preparation of medicine
|Not mentioned in this text|
lakuca-fruit, breast of a young girl, white water-lily, partridge, areca-nut, little-bells, pill, cataka
|different types of fruits, small quantities, and caressing the chin of children|
|Utpalapadma(Alapallava, Alapadma, Alapadya)|
|= full blown lotus|
Also called Sola-padma
full-blown lotus, elephant-apple, turning, breast, yearning for the beloved, mirror, full-moon, a beautiful vessel, hair-knot, moon-pavilion, village, height, anger, lake, car, bird, murmering sound, praise
|praising oneself, forbidding, enquirin 'who are you?', and emptiness|
|musk, a little gold, copper etc., wet, sorrow, aesthetic emotion, eyes, difference of caste, oath, playful converse, slow-stepping, breaking to peices, seat, oil or ghi, etc.||chanting prayers, a small quantity, doubt, Vedic discourse|
bee, parrot, crane, cuckoo, union
|holding flowers with long stalks, earrings, palm leaves, removing thorns|
tying the marraige thread, initiation, certainty, horripilation, painting, gad-fly, drop of water, raising the wick of a lamp, rubbing, examining things, drawing lines, carrying garlands, singifying "That am I", metaphor, saying "No!", indicating things to be examined by rubbing, accomplishment of a task
the number six, constructing a bridge, making marks with the nails, arranging
|applying color to the face, tying up the hair, accepting|
Alternating between mukula (below) and patmakosa (above) as defined by this text. This is consistent with the modern usage.
generosity, sacrificial offerings, tumour, insect, apprehension, worship, the number five
water-lily, eating, the God of Love, holding a seal, navel, plantain flower
|Urnanabha||Not mentioned in this text.||taking objects like gold, a lion, tiger, scratching the head|
|= red-crest, cock|
cock, crane, camel, calf, writing or drawing
|inspiring confidence in children, hurrying up, snapping fingers, in war, yawning and kings|
|Not mentioned in either copy of the Natya Shastra||= trident|
wood-apple leaf, three together
|Not mentioned in this text|
Sa§yuta = "combined", double hand gestures
|Notes/Meaning||Picture||Abhinaya Darpana of Nadikesvara||Ntryavinoda of Manasollasa|
saluting Deities, Elders (gurus) or Brahmans - hands held on the head for Deities, before the face for Elders, and on the chest for Brahmans
taking oath, coversation with elders, humble acquiescence
hands may be turned inwards or outwards
group, stoutness, blowing the conch, stretching the limbs, bending the bough of a tree
crocodile, timid speech, dispute, praising
listening intently to musical notes, sky, objects which are high up and expansive
|= link of increase|
coronation, ritual, marriage blessing
written as katakavardhana, described as kataka hands crossed, so if the book is consistent, refer to kataka hands in the column above, which are slightly different.
|decorating the stage, making garlands, speaking the truth|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra||= crossed arrow-shafts|
trees, the boughs of tress, the summit of a hill
embrace, modesty, armlet, education of children
describes only the lower (crossed) picture, with hands in mrgasirsa (thumbs out)
|hands are crossed in SarpasÑrùaka|
embracing, anger, cold, bashfulness, women
|Text is unclear, there are two possibilities||Not mentioned in this text||describes bottom picture, with kapittha hand circling the mukula hand|
collecting, discriminating, speaking the truth, squeezing
beginning an expressive dance-story
describes the position as "hands in pataka on thighs"
|fatigue, grief, swooning, intoxication, sorrow, and fear|
offering lights, twilight water-offering, flower-spells, children receiving fruits, etc.
|giving flowers, grain or water, begging, making offering tot he deities|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= car|
the gestures of the Raksasas (demons)
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.|
The gesture is described as "the thumbs of the Sikhara hands are joined, and the forefinger extended."
|Cakra||Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= discus|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= casket|
concealing things, casket
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= noose|
enmity, noose, manacles
|Kãlaka(Key-la-kah)||Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= bond|
affection, the conversation of lovers
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= tortoise|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= boar|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= Garuda|
Garuda is Vishu's mount - an anthropomorphic eagle
|carrying of bride and groom, excessive weight, clasping a pillar and the extermination of a hilll or a boulder||= serpent-tie|
pairs of snakes, bower, Atharva Veda spells
women alighting from a vehicle, carrying children and uprooting a rock
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||= bed|
|Not mentioned in the Natya Shastra.||pair of Bherundas|
|Different N.S. and Apurna, Apurna's is shown here, text is harder to interpret.||= dissimulation|
erotic dances, holding a playball, the breasts
leanness of the body, a lady speaking in anxiety
|Not mentioned in text|
opening doors, windows and the like
Nçittahastas = "dance hands", histrionic gesturesThere's no pronounciation guide, since these came directly from a book, with no pronounciation guides.
|Catura÷ra||hands held at shoulders|
Waved "like a palm leaf fan", either waving entire hand, or rolling fingers.
|both hands are waved in hamsapaksa|
- or -
<-- Nrtyavinoda describes this
- or -
<-- Nrtyavinoda describes this
Sources reference crossing the Tàlamukha gesture.
- switching to -
Rotating fingers between two positions.
|âviddhavakraka||Move from one to the next...|
|Såcãmukha||Not mentioned in this text|
|Såcyàsya||Not mentioned in this text|
|Recita||Fingers are rotated in a circle||gesture extended to the side|
|Ardharecita||Fingers in the Haüsapakùa are rotated as in Recita||same position, hands are moved in "Khañakàsya" when I figure out what that is, I'll let you know.|
|Uttànavancita||With a shoulder shimmy||no shoulder shimmy|
hands are moved obliquely
|Nitamba||From Pallava gesture (above) into...|
- and then to...-
|hands are in tripataka, not pataka (see picture), after bringing hands to hips, rotate the fingers (hand circles)|
Means "hair knot", probably referring to something like this...
|In short, move hands between side, head, waist, head...||Hands moved from picture #2 to picture #1. Hands are held in tripataka|
|Latà||Hands in tripataka, and fingers are rotated (hand circles)|
Swinging outward hand from side to side, like the trunk of an elephant
|Similar position, suggests the outward hand is also rotated in hand circles (recita)|
Does not specify which hand is up.
Hands in tripataka, on upper part of hips
Pretty much, just the reverse of the previous pose, not specific as to which hand goes where. Sources differ. It may also be
The hands in Tripataka Hasta are turned up and placed on the waist
Again, which hand where is not described.
The hands in Tripataka Hasta are facing downwards and extended obliquely, with elbows slightly bent.
|Danóapakùa||One of several movements involving Haüsapakùa hand position. Possibly...|
Possibly alternating one hand side, one hand front, as though one was twirling a staff around the body. Possibly twirling only the fingers in circles. Texts are unclear and disagree.
With thumbs over hands (hamsapaksa), hands are rotated.
|Urdhvomanóalã||"Circling movement near upper part of body" it's rather uncertain what that actually means.||Called Urdhvamaõóalina, probably a difference in pronounciation of same word.|
The hands are moved round (in Vyàvartita and Parivartita - see below) over head.
|Uromoõóali||"One hand is to be raised up after the circling movements and the other is to be kept hanging down. Some movements are to tkae place near the breast." Again - rather unclear on what exactly should be done.||Not mentioned in this text|
|Pàr÷vamaõóalina||Not mentioned in this text.|
The hands in Arala Hasta are moved round (in Vyàvartita andParivartita - see below).
|Vakù‘maõóalina||Not mentioned in this text.||Hand circles in front of chest.|
|Uraþpàrãvàrdhamanóala|| - and - |
"Are moved by turns above the breast and on the sides" - possibly alternating the two gestures, while moving the hand about, possibly rotating the hand while holding it in the general vicinity.
|Similar definition. In this text, arala (the left picture) is quite different, see above (single hand gestures).|
In both hands with wrist circles
|Similar definition in this text|
Starting in this position, rotating wrist with the pinkie finger leading the fingers into and away from the palm.
|hands in picture to the left are "shanken and moved round from the knees to the head".|
|Alapallava||Fingers and wrist roll outwards into||Not mentioned in this text|
|Ulbaõà||Not mentioned in this text||Hands in:|
are "stretched upwards and moved round.
|Lalita||Not mentioned in this text|
Hands are "crossed at elbows". Does not specify direction - up, down, forward...
|Not mentioned in this text|
Hasta KriyàAccording to Natya Shastra, they are called Karaõas = "Four classes of hand gestures", four ways of moving the hand gestures. All happen simultaneously while rotating the wrist. In the Nrtyavinoda, they are called Hasta Kriyà, and described as the action which has to be carried out by the hand in order to make a gestures. The names and definitions are the same in both texts.
|âveùñita||leading with the index finger curl fingers into palm|
|Udveùñita||leading with the index finger stretch fingers outwards|
|Vyàvartita||leading with the pinkie finger curl fingers into palm|
|Parivartita||leading with the pinkie finger stretch fingers outwards|
Bibliography and Source Notes
- Aparna Sindhoor - teacher of Mysore Style Bharata Natyam, a modern classical dance form, generally originating from Southern India, and loosely inspired by nadir, the traditional dance of the devadasis, aka temple dancers/servants, from the late 19th century. The first two sections (single and double hand gestures) were largely inspired by Aparna. She was the original teacher for all terms and positions, except for Katakavardhamanaka, Nisadha, and Vardhamana. All pronounciations are based on her teaching, although the pronouciation guide is my interpretation. Aparna teaches in Somerville, MA, and the Dance Complex in Cambridge, MA. More information on her current work is available at www.navarasa.org.
- Nàñya÷àstra, English Translation with Cricital Notes by Adya Rangacharya, published by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. in New Delhi, in 1996. This commentary was used for name spelling, description of hand positions and meanings for the first series of gestures (single hand gestures). As it does not list definitions for the other sections, it could not be consulted.
- Nàñya øàstra of Bharatamuni, translated into English by a Board of Scholars. Published by Sri Satguru Publications in Delhi in 2000. This translation was used for the basis for the second and third sections. The names, positions, and meanings of the hand gestures originates from this text. It was also used as a cross reference point for the first section - it largely agreed with Rangadcharya's work.
- Tàõóava Lakùaõam or the Fundamentals of Ancient Hindu Dancing, by B.V. Narayanaswami Naidu, P. Srinivasulu Naidu, O.V. Rangayya Pantulu. Published by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. in New Delhi, in 1936. Used to get further information on the third section, primarily. Had many suspicious differences in definitions of first two sections, and was not entirely in agreement with the Board Translation on Section 3. Generally the differing interpretations were presented side by side.
- The Mirror of Gesture: Being the Abhinaya Darpaõa of Nandike÷vara by Ananda Coomaraswamy. Published by Munshiram Manoharlal, Pvt. Ltd. in New Delhi in 1997. All the notes in the "Abhinaya Darpana" section come from this text. It's a translation with critical notes of an ancient dance text by the sage Nandikesvara. The author makes quite a bit of his own commentary without referencing sources, which is rather frustrating, but the pictures in the back and the actual translation are quite good.
- The Nçtyavin‘da of Mànas‘llàsa: A Study by Hema Govindarajam. Published by Harman Publishing House in New Delhi in 2001. Quite esoteric, but also fabulous. It's a comparative study between the Nrtyavindoa, the dance component of an encyclopedic text from 1131 A.D. in Karnataka, and two other leading dance texts - the Natya Shastra and the Sangita Ratnakara (written in the early 13th century). The odd thing is there is a marked discrepancy between its interpretation of the Natya Shastra and my translations.
Internet ResourcesIn my opinion, the Internet dance information has a long way to go compared to print books - particularly on the history end. It is growing rapidly, though, and improvement in the number and depth of resources out there has grown a hundredfold in the approxiamately three years I've been out there surfing for this stuff... Still, Internet sites are only as good as the people that write them, so you have an equal chance of hitting history and fantasy - so always weigh your sources. The sites below are pages I've dug up that specifically do a good job with hand gestures in Indian dance or the history of Indian dance, particularly Bharata Natyam. They should all be assumed to be modern - they all reference dance styles practiced modernly, generally all of which were firmly codified in the last 200 years...
- http://kpoursine.web.wesleyan.edu/bhhist.htm - Kay Poursine's website. Kay Poursine is a well-known dancer in the states, one of the first famous Caucasian dancers I'd ever heard of and also one of the first with a great Interent site. Her stuff is right on target.
- http://www.nadanam.com/bharatnatyam - a refreshingly honest and well-researched account of the roots of Bharata Natyam, as well as an excellent discussion of various components of dance. For hand gestures, check out - http://www.nadanam.com/bharatnatyam/b_abhinaya.htm and all the links that end with the word "hasta".
- http://www.kanakasabha.com/hastas/index.html - This time, hand gestures with pictures. I see a typo - ardhapataka and kartarimukha look like the same gesture, and I've never seen that before, also Kartarisvastika doesn't look right... so I'm a little suspicious, but generally this is a really slick site.
- http://www.hindutemplerhythms.com/dance_resources.htm - another primer on hand gestures. Looks pretty good, a little less descriptive, but I don't see any inaccuracies.
- http://www.webindia123.com/dances/abhinaya/angika%20bhinaya/angik%20abhinaya.htm - Hand movements links at the bottom of the page. These are REALLY different from what I was taught. Very likely they are from a different dance style than Bharata Natyam. Most of the Indian dance styles share alot of basic theory and terminology, but differ on details.
- http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Shrine/3155/hasta.html - always a favorite site of mine... no pictures, but the descriptions are fabulous. Probably translating the Natya Shastra.