Tag Archives: Angikabhinaya

The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Twelve

Continued From Part Eleven

Lakshana Granthas – continued

 7. Bharatarnava

shiva dancing333

There is a School of thought, which holds the view that the two texts relating to the practice of Dancing – Abhinaya Darpana and Bharatarnava – were both composed by Nandikesvara. It also asserts that the Abhinaya Darpana is, in fact, an abridged edition or a summary of the Bharatarnava; literally, the Ocean of Bharata’s Art.

But, that proposition is hotly debated; because, it is riddled with too many problems.


The Author.. ?

To start with, it is not clear who this Nandikesvara, said to be the author of Bharatarnava, really was. The identity of this Nandikeshvara; his period; and, the other works associated with him are much debated. There have been, in the past, many scholars, who went by the name of Nandikeshvara; and, some of them were well versed in the theoretical principles of Dance, Music and other branches of knowledge.

For instance;

:- Tandu mentioned in the Natyashastra, after whom the Tandava Nrtta was named , is also identified with Nandikesvara;

:- Matanga in his Brhaddeshi (dated around the eighth century) mentions a Nandikesvara along with ancient authorities like : Kasyapa, Kohala, Dattiia Durgasakti and Narada and others ;

:-Rajasekhara (8th-9thcentury), in his Kavya Mimamsa,  credits  Nandikesvara  as being a pioneer in the subject of poetics ‘ Sahitya Shastra’; and , as ‘the first writer on Rasa’.

:- Abbinavagupta (11th century) reproduces  lengthy passages attributed to a certain Nandikesvara, as quoted by Kirtidharacharya; and, remarks that he himself had not seen  the work of Nandikesvara;

:- Sagītaśiromai , a standard work on Music,  was a compilation made by a group of scholars during the year 1428 , at the instance of Sultan Malika Sahi (a Muslim convert , who ruled the region to the west of Allahabad) refers to the views of Nandikesvara  at several places ( e.g. verses 150-151;268-271);

: – Bharatarnava , a text on Dancing, is attributed to Nandikesvara;

: – And, we have the Abhimaya Darpana, also ascribed to Nandikesvara.

All these scholars, each named as Nandikesvara, may not refer to one and the same person.


The identity of Nandikesvara who is said to have authored the Abhinaya Darpana is not, therefore, clearly established; and, his time is also uncertain, ranging anywhere between second century BCE to the Sixteenth century CE. And, there is no means to establish which Nandikesvara authored the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava.

The two works could have been written by the same author; or, were written by different authors carrying the same name. To say the least, it is confusing.

But, Prof. Manmohan Ghosh, the scholar who has translated the Natyashastra of Bharata and the Abhinaya Darpana ascribed to Nandikesvara , mentions that he did study closely the manuscript of the so-called Bharatarnava that was preserved the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute at Pune. According to him, the work he examined was NOT the work of Nandikesvara.

 In any case, the scholarly opinion deems it prudent to assume that the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava were authored by two different persons who, perhaps, lived during different periods.


[There are two publications of Bharatarnava. Sadly, they do not seem to be available either in print or on the net.

Nandikesvara, Bharatarnava, ed. Vachaspati Gairola, Chowkhamba Amarabharati Prakashan, (Varanasi, 1978).

Nandikesvara, Bharatarnava, with translation into English and Tamil, edited by S. K. Vasudeva Sastri, Tanjore Sarasvati Mahal Series no. 74, Tanjore 1957. ]



As regards the period of Nandikesvara, some have opined that he might even predate Bharata the author of Natyashastra. But, such speculations have, largely, been put to rest.

The noted scholar Emmie Te Nijenhuis, in her Indian Music: History and Structure, writes: the dating of Nandikesvara’s two works Bharatarnava and Abhinaya Darpana still remains undecided. A certain Nandikesvara is quoted by Matanga in connection with the Murchanas of twelve notes. But, I doubt whether the author mentioned by Matanga is the same person as our dance expert. According to Ramakrishna Kavi, the Bharatarnava was written after the eleventh century. Personally, I would date this work even later; that is to say, after the twelfth century, since it often cites the twelfth century author Haripala.

Dr. Mandakranta Bose also states:  though the manuscript – fragment bears the title Bharatarnava, there is no internal evidence supporting this identification; and, the material comes from a different school of dancing; and, does not belong to the school which is represented in the Abhinaya Darpana. She dates Bharatarnava as belonging to the Sixteenth century.

According to her, the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava seem unquestionably by two different authors; and, from two different periods. The material in the Bharatarnava, she opines, comes from a different School of dancing; and, it does not belong to the School which is represented in the Abhinaya-Darpana.

 Dr. Bose places the Abhinaya Darpana in or close to medieval period; and, says, on the basis of its treatment of several topics, the Bharatarnava seems to be of a later date than the Abhinaya Darpana. And, the Appendix (Parisista) to the Bharatarnava, according to her, belongs to a much later date. Thus, the three works were composed during three different periods; and, by three different authors.

The Bharatarnava which appeared later, Dr. Bose says, deals with the same subject as the Abhinaya Darpana, though differ in the treatment of its details or in their emphases. And, therefore, it gives an impression as if the two texts complement each other.  And, such proximity might have given room for airing unfounded explanations speculating that the two works might have been written by the same author.

The reasons she adduces for treating Abhinaya Darpana and Bharatarnava as texts of the medieval times, as she points out, are:

: –   Here, the Dance is divided into three branches: Natya, Nrtta and Nrtya. But, such distinctions did not come about until about the twelfth century, just prior to the time of Sangita-ratnakara (13th century). Even as late as in the eleventh century, Abhinavagupta avoided using the term Natya; and, restricted himself to using the term Nrtta, presumably because such a term as Natya did not appear in the Natyashastra.

: – Also, the Abhinaya-Darpana views Tandava and Lasya as forms of masculine and feminine dancing, which again was an approach that was adopted during the medieval times.

:- The Bharatarnava follows the practice of describing individual dance pieces along with the specific recommended / prescribed dance-movements – Caris, Sthanas, Karanas and Tala – for each of them, which is typical of texts that appeared later than the Sangita-ratnakara and the Nrttaratnavali of Jaya Senapati (13th century). And, such a practice became more common in the works produced during the sixteenth century and onwards. Some of these texts, therefore, came to be treated almost as Dance-manuals.

:- Certain technical terms derived from regional (Desi) languages, used in the Bharatarnava, as well as in its Appendix, such as: Udupa, Dhuvada, Kuvada and Sulu, came to be used in the Sanskrit works on dancing only after the sixteenth century; and not earlier.

:- Further, the Bharatarnava gives more prominence to the Desi Tandava and Angaharas or basic-dance sequences of the Desi variety, rather than to the Marga types described in the Natyashastra. The practice of encouraging and developing Desi traditions in Dance came into being only during or after the medieval times, lending a new sense of direction to the regional Dances. Following that, the approach to Dance and its descriptions changed significantly during the later periods.



The Bharatarnava, as compared to Abhinaya Darpana, is larger in size, scope and in description of details.

Abhinaya Darpana is a comprehensive text (laghu grantha) with only 324 verses.  It is confined mainly the categorization of several elements of the Angika-abhinaya; and, suggesting their applications, without getting into theoretical discussions.  As compared to the Natyashastra, the Abhinaya Darpana is written in a much simpler style; and, presents its subject in an orderly fashion.

In contrast; the edition of Bharatarnava, which is available in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute–Pune, is said to be a larger work, having 996 verses spread over 15 Chapters. And, in addition, it has an Appendix (Parisista) consisting of 251 verses.  

As regards its scope, the Bharatarnava includes descriptions of different varieties of Pure (Marga) as also the Tandava and Lasya dance forms of the Desi traditions, along with the descriptions of specific Sthanas, Caris, Karanas and Talas suitable for each of them; as also detailed instructions on the execution of various movements in each dance sequence.  It devotes an entire Chapter (Seven) for a discussion on Talas; prescribing how the Talas are to be used in various dance sequences.

Unlike the Abhinaya Darpana, which just lists the individual dance-gestures and postures, the Bharatarnava describes various Angaharas (combinations of the Karanas); seven of which are new, not described in other texts.

Here, the author takes up the components of dance-units (the Sthanas, Caris and Karanas), which make up a total composition (Angahara); and analyzes them systematically by giving their definitions, their divisions, and the Tala required. He introduces a new set of Angaharas, nine in all.

Further, the Bharatarnava describes in detail, with definitions and examples, the nine types of Srnganatya, a dance form derived from the combinations of the various types of Caris, Sthanas and Angaharas. The Srnganatya described here, is said to be a new form of dance that was not mentioned in any of the earlier texts. The author describes the specific Talas, gestures (Hasthas) and postures (Sthana) suitable for each type of Srnganatya.

dance padma


Thus, though the two texts deal with the same subject, they differ substantially in matters of detail, enumeration, descriptions and on emphasis of the various elements of the Angika-abhinaya , such as : the gestures (Hasthas),  postures (Sthana) , gaits (Gati) , movements of the feet (Pada-bedha) , feet position (Cari) and even the  eye-glances (Dristi-bedha). These differ not only in their numbers and names, but also in their descriptions and applications. All these, again, go to strengthen the argument against   the assumption of the single authorship of the two works.

Further, the numbers, the actions and their application of the various elements of the Angas, Upangas and the Prtyangas vary significantly from the descriptions given in the Natyashastra. Obviously, both Abhinaya Darpana and Bharatarnava sourced their material from other texts.

For instance:

Hasthas (Hastha-bedha)

The Abhinaya Darpana lists 28 Asamyukta-hasthas (single-hand gestures); while there are 27 in the Bharatarnava. The Natyashastra had enumerated 24 Asamyukta-hasthas.

As against 13 Samyukta-hasthas (both hands combined) in the Abhinaya Darpana; the Bharatarnava mentions 16. The Natyashastra had named 13 Samyukta-hasthas.

The Nrtta-hasthas (abstract-dance gestures) in the Abhinaya Darpana are only 13; while there are as many as 22 in the Bharatarnava, which follows, in this case, the Natyashastra. Not only are there differences in numbers, but are also in the names, definitions and applications of the movements.

Besides such Dance-gestures, the Abhinaya Darpana describes Hasthas to denote Devas (gods-Devahastha); Avatars (ten Avatars of Vishnu – Dashavatara hastha); relatives and members in a family (Bandhava-hastha); persons of different social groups (Chaturjatiya-hastha); and the nine planets (Navagraha-hastha). The Natyashastra had not mentioned these types of hand-gestures (Hasthas) ; the  Abhinaya Darpana might have adopted these from some other source.

The Bharatarnava does not mention any of such Hasthas; instead, it names an altogether a different set of Hasthas – Nanana-artha-dyotaka hastha- the hand-gestures, which convey an assortment of meanings. Such types of Hasthas were not mentioned in any of the earlier texts.


Dristi-bedha, eye-glances

The treatment of the Drstis also varies. The Abhinaya Darpana adopts only eight Darshana-karmas (eye-glances) from among those mentioned in the Natyashastra; and, describes them as eight Drstis. Whereas, the Bharatarnava follows the Natyashastra’s enumeration of the Drstis; and, describes thirty-six Drstis that express aesthetic pleasure and emotions (Rasa and Bhava).


Gatipracāra –walking styles

The Abhinaya Darpana mentions eight kinds Gati, the gaits or the walking styles. But, it does not indicate their applications (viniyoga). In contrast, the Bharatarnava focuses on how those gaits could be employed in different kinds of Tandavas dances, of both the Marga and the Desi class. 

The treatment of the Gatis (gatipracāra) in the Natyashastra is much more elaborate. It describes Gatis or gaits, suitable for different types of characters, such as the Kings and superior characters as also for middling characters. The walking styles for women of various classes are also described.  Natyashastra mentions that the gaits are to be executed in – slow, medium and quick – tempos (Kaalas), according to the nature of 45 different characters.


Pada bedha and Cari

The Abhinaya Darpana does not specifically discuss movements of the feet. It utilizes the various positions of the feet, as described in the Natyashastra. The Abhinaya Darpana mentions four types of movements of the feet:  Mandala  (postures);  Utplavana  (leaps);  Bhramari  (flights or turns) and  Cari  or  Padacari  (gait)  as postures and movements related to feet. But, in this text, the descriptions of the feet movements are not accompanied by their Viniyogas.

The Bharatarnava describes twenty-two types of the movements of the feet, which are a mixture of Bharata’s Pada-bheda (feet movements of five kinds) and Cari (movements using one foot of thirty-two kinds).

Thus, the Caris of the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava differ not only in their names but in their definitions as well

The Bharatarnava describes nine types of Srnganatya, a dance form derived from the combinations of the various types of Caris, Sthanas and Angaharas. It is said; the Nrttaratnavali and the Nrtyadhyaya are the only two other texts that talk about Srngabhinaya. But, they do not describe them. The Bharatarnava gives detailed descriptions of the nine types of Srnganatya, along the composition of each of them.

text and structure

The Text –its structure

Dr. Bose mentions that the edition of the Bharatarnava, which is at present available, has fifteen Chapters, with 996 verses. And, that is followed by an Appendix (Parisista) consisting of 251 verses.

:- The beginning of the main text of the Bharatarnava is missing and the text commences with the descriptions of single hand-gestures.

:- The Second Chapter describes double hand-gestures

:- The Third Chapter names the hand-gestures used specially in dancing (Nrtta).

:- The Fourth Chapter gives other varieties of single hand-gestures as taught by Brhaspati. It also describes glances and movements of the head and the feet, citing the views of other authorities as well.

:- The Fifth Chapter describes different postures.

:- The Sixth Chapter deals with the application of the postures and the applications of combinations of hand gestures.

:- The Seventh Chapter deals with Tala and rhythm.

:- The Eighth Chapter deals with Caris.

:-  The Ninth Chapter describes a new kind of Angahara, of seven types, which is not described in other texts.

:- The Tenth Chapter again deals with more hand-gestures that express a variety of meanings (Nana-artha-dyotaka).

:-  The Eleventh and Twelfth Chapters deal with yet another new form, Srnganatya of which nine types are mentioned. This form, again, was not described in any other text.

:- The Thirteenth Chapter describes seven types of Lasyas and seven types of Tandavas, The names of the seven Lasyas given here are the same as the Desi dance pieces described in the Sangita-ratnakara and the It also describes five types of Desi Tandavas.

:- The Fourteenth Chapter describes the use of Tala, Gati, Karana and Cari, in delineating Suddha (Marga) and Desi Tandava, a type of Tandava found only in this text. The treatment of Tala is also entirely new; instead of merely naming the Talas required in dancing, it instructs how the prescribed Talas are to be used in actual dance sequences.

:- The Fifteenth Chapter is entirely on Pushpanjali, the right manner of flower offerings, and other such matters relating to presentation. The descriptions of all the movements include their meaning and application, except for the Nrtta-hasthas, which are not meant for representational performance.

The text refers to two types of Pushpanjali, one meant for the gods (Daivika); and the other for human beings (Manusa). In the former type, traditional dancing follows the Pushpanjali; and in the latter the Mukhacali follows Pushpanjali. The worshipping of different gods and semi-divine beings are prescribed for this presentation. It goes on to describe specific Sthanas, specific flowers and specific Karanas meant for each god; the procedures of invoking gods, of offering flowers; of specific sides for offering flowers to each god.

Then the main presentation follows. Caccatputa or Dhruva Tala is prescribed. The dance starts with the recitation of the syllables: Ta Tai to Nam, which is called Alpa-riti when done in its shorter form. This is the most detailed description of a Pushpanjali found in any of the texts

dance rasas

The Appendix to the Bharatarnava is almost an independent work. It opens with prescribing the details of the preliminaries to a performance. Then it goes on to instruct  the appropriate arrangements for holding a performance; the manner in which singers should make their entrances; how the opening music should be played to Tala; and the kind of competence and training required in the musicians.

Then it offers general instructions concerning movements. That is followed by instructions on how the actual performance should begin, with citations from Kohala. The rest of this section deals with more hand-gestures, many of them new and not found either in the Abhinaya Darpana or in other texts.



The Bharatarnava introduces certain concepts that were not mentioned in other texts. The more important among them were the Desi-Angaharas and Srnganatya, a dance form derived from the combinations of the various types of Caris, Sthanas and Angaharas.


It is said; until then, the Angahars (basic dance-sequences) of the Desi variety had not been discussed by any of the authors.  The Bharatarnava seemed to the first text to do so.  It seems that the regional (Desi) dances, during the medieval times, depended less on the dance-movements prescribed by Bharata.

The Bharatarnava introduces a new set of Angaharas, of the Desi variety, nine in all: Lalita; Vikrama; Karunika; Vicitra; Vikala; Bhima; Vikrta; Ugratara and Santija. But, Nandikesvara claims these Angaharas, which are derived from the combinations of the Karanas, were formulated by him based on the principles stated by Bharata.

At another place, he explains Angahara as a dance performed in the morning.


Each of these nine Angaharas has several sub-varieties: Lalita of five kinds; Vikrama of three; Karunika of four; and, Vicitra, Vikala, Bhima, Vikrta, Ugratara and Santija, each of two kinds.

The five varieties of Lalita use different types of postures; and three verities of Vikrama use a swaying movement termed Sulu.

Specific hand-gestures (Hasthas), glances (Dristibedha), feet-movements (Padabedha) and Mandalas (standing posture) are prescribed for each sub-variety of Angaharas.

But, each of those sub variety has its own characteristics. For instance; Vikrama (swaying or movements, Sulu); Karunika (facial expression of Karuna or compassion); the second variety of Karunika (also by swaying, Sulu); and Vicitra and others have their own set of hand-gestures, glances and feet movements (but nothing is said about facial expression).

But, it is not clear how these Angahara were executed; and, in what manner they differed from the Angaharas derived from the Natyashastra.

dance yamini


The Srnganatya is said to be a sequence of Dance movements that is composed by the combination of Two Caris; One Angahara; and, Three Sthanas. The Caris are selected from among the sixteen aerial (Akasiki) and the sixteen ground (Bhuma) Caris, as described in the Natyashastra.

The Srnganatya are believed to be some type of dances that were suggested in the Natyashastra, formed by the combination of different kind of Caris. The Caris are movements using one foot; and, are used both in Dance and Drama. And, are regarded as the most important single unit of movement in the Nrtta technique, as enunciated by Bharata (Chapter 11, verses 7 to 9 ; page 197)

piṇḍīnā vidhayaścaiva catvāra samprakīrtitā 287 piṇḍī śṛṅkhalikā caiva latābandho’tha bhedyaka


The Bharatarnava describes nine verities of Srnganatya, each comprised by the combination of Two Caris; One Angahara; and, Three Sthanas. As you can see, it does sound very complicated. And, it is not clear how these were actually executed; and, what they were intended to convey. I do not pretend that I understand all that has been said in the Text regarding the Srnganatya.

 The Angaharas named in this section do not seem to come from Bharata’s tradition.

:- In the First Srnganatya, the movements are outlined in the following order: Samapreksana-Cari is performed, followed by Lalita Angahara and Samapada –bhumi-Cari. As regards the Sthanas: the Samapreksana-Cari is followed by Ayata-Sthana; Lalita-Angahara by Avahittha-Sthana; and Samapada-bhumi-Cari by Asvakranta- Sthana (Bh. Ar. 11. 643-45).

:- The Second Srnganatya begins with Sarika-Cari, followed by Vikrama-Angahara and Casagati-Cari. As regards the Sthanas: the Sarika-Cari is followed by Motita Sthana; the Vikrama-Angahara by Vinivrtta-Sthana; and, the Casagati-Cari by Aindra-Sthana (Bh. Ar. 11. 645-47).

:- The Third Srnganatya is constituted by Agrapluta-Cari, KarunikaAngahara and Sthitavarta-Cari. The Candika-Sthana follows Agrapluta-Cari; the Vaisnava-Sthana follows Karunika-Angahara; and, the Samapada-Sthana follows Sthitavarta-bhumi-Cari (Bh. Ar. 11. 648-49).

:- The Fourth Srnganatya starts with Vidyudllila-Cari, followed by Vicitra-Angahara and Vicyava-bhumi-Cari. And, the Vaisakha-Sthana follows Vidyudllila-Cari; the Mandala-Sthana follows Vicitra-Angahara; and Alidha-Sthana follows Vicyava –bhumi-Cari (Bh. Ar.11. 650-52).

:- The Fifth Srnganatya is characterized by Khadga-bandha-Cari, Vikala-Angahara and Urdva-vrtta-bhumi-Cari. The Khadga-bandha-Cari requires Pratyalidha -Sthana, Samapada-Sthana in Vikala-Angahara, and Svastika-Sthana in Urdva-vrtta-Cari (Bh. Ar.11. 652-54).

:- The Sixth Srnganatya is constituted of Rekha-bandha-Cari, Bhima-Angahara and Addita-bhumi-Cari. The Rekha-bandha-Cari requires Vardhamana-Sthana; the Bhima-Angahara requires Nandiya-Sthana; and, the Addita-Cari requires Parsnipida-Sthana (. (Bh. Ar.11. 655-56).

:- The Seventh Srnganatya is characterized by Luthitollalita-Cari, Vikrta-Angahara and Vakra-bandha-bhumi-Cari. The Eka-parsva-Sthana is done in Luthitollalita –Cari; the Eka-januka-Sthana is done in Vikrta-Angahara; and, Parivrtta-Sthana is done in Vakra-bandha -bhumi-Cari (Bh. Ar.11. 657-59).

:- The Eighth Srnganatya is characterized by Kundala-vartaka-Cari, Ugratara-Angahara and Janita-bhumi-Cari. The Prsthottanatala-Sthanaka follows Kundala-vartaka-Cari; the Ekapada-Sthana follows Ugra-Angahara; and, Brahma-Sthana follows Janita-Cari (Bh. Ar.11. 660-62).

:- The Ninth and the Final Srnganatya requires Vicitra-Cari, Shantaja-Angahara and Utsandita-bhumi-Cari. The Vicitra-Cari is followed by Vaisnava-Sthana; Shantaja-Angahara is followed by Shaiva-Sthana; and, Utsandita-bhumi-Cari is followed by Garuda-Sthana (Bh. Ar.11. 662-64).

In the next Chapter of this text, the author describes, in detail, the specific Talas required for these Srnganatyas, as well as the specific hand-gestures used in each particular Sthana. (Bh. Ar. 12).


Tandava and Lasya

The Bharatarnava, in its Chapter Thirteen, describes seven verities of Tandava and seven verities Lasya. The names of some of the Lasya described here are also mentioned in other texts, such as: Sangita-ratnakara and Nrtta-ratnavali. But, the Tandavas mentioned here are not found in any other text.

The seven Tandavas of the Nrtta class mentioned in Bharatarnava are: Dakshina-bhramana; Vama-bhramana; Lila-bhramana; Bhujanga-bhramana; Vidyud-bhramana; Lata-bhramana; and Urdhva-Tandava.

These are Pure (Marga) Nrtta-dance movements, which use six different Gatis (gaits) such as: Mayura; Rajahamsa; Krsnasara; Gaja; Simha; and, Suka. These are the gaits of birds (peacock, swan and parrot) ; and, of animals (elephant, lion and blackbuck).

In these Tandavas, the Karanas and Caris are performed after the Gatis. These seven Tandava Dance movements are used in the Nrtya (Dance) and also in Natya (Drama).


The Desi Tandava described in this text has five different varieties, namely: Nikuncita; Kuncita; Akuncita, Parsva-kuncita and Ardha-kuncita; and, they use five specific Gatis, five specific Caris and five specific Karanas.

Thereafter, the specific Gatis, Caris, Karanas and Talas applicable to the seven varieties of pure (Marga) Tandavas and five varieties of Desi Tandavas are dealt with in Chapter  Fourteen (Bh. Ar. 14.770-870).


The text also talks about seven types of Lasyas, which are meant to enhance the beauty of the Caris. They can be either pure (Marga) or Desi.  They are named as Suddha, Desi, Prerana; Prenkhana, Kundali (or Gundali); Dandika (or Dana-lasya) and Kalasa (Bh. Ar. 13. 732-33). The author then discusses the specific Caris, Sthanas, Karanas and Talas applicable to these Lasya-Dances; and the gods associated each of them (Bh.Ar.14.871-93).

desi tradition

Desi tradition

Towards the end of the early medieval period and in the late medieval period the approach to describing the dances changed. With the growing popularity of the regional dances, the scholars, by around the twelfth century, began to include, in their manuals on dancing, the dance-forms of the Desi tradition along with those of the older Marga tradition, initiated by Bharata. And, that trend continued through the succeeding centuries, into the nineteenth.

The treatment of the Desi type of Dances seemed to differ from the Marga types in two major ways :  first, by emphasizing on the style of presentation rather than on the content of the composition; and, secondly, by encouraging  natural, more attractive and  swift movements.

Yet, the Desi Dances described in the medieval texts were not completely different from those of the Marga class. They were, in fact, based on the framework of the tradition of Bharata. The Desi format continued to follow the Marga method of constructing a composition by forming small units consisting of individual movements and moving on to the large units of a composition. In Desi, this basic method of constructing a composition did not change. But, it brought in more varieties of limb movements that were rather acrobatic and brisk.

The Bharatarnava is, in a way, a very significant text of the medieval period. It contributes to enrich the Desi tradition by providing the details, in specific terms, of the movements needed for each dance-sequence, along with its accompanying music and rhythm. Nandikesvara introduces new sets of Angaharas with their sub-divisions; along with the Sthanas, Caris, Karanas and Tala they need. The Bharatarnava also introduced the Srnganatya with its nine verities, each composed by a set of Caris, Angaharas and Sthanas.

dance shakthi

Dr. Mandakranta Bose sums up saying:

The Bharatarnava is as important as the Abhinaya Darpana as an instruction-manual, although it is not so used now; nor do we know if it was ever so used. Nonetheless, its importance as an excellent practical guide cannot be denied. If the Abhinaya Darpana trains a dancer in the basic movements, the Bharatarnava teaches a dancer to compose a dance piece. Both pursue the same purpose of instructing practising artists and not merely of recording the Art form of their times. The Bharatarnava may be regarded as being complementary to the Abhinaya Darpana; and, put to better use.

dance odissi

In the next part, we shall move on to other texts.



The Next Part

References and Sources


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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Eleven

Continued From Part Ten

Lakshana Granthas – continued

6.Abhinaya Darpana


The Abhinaya Darpana, a comprehensive text describing various gestures, postures and movements in Dance is ascribed to Nandikeshvara. However, the identity of this Nandikeshvara; his period; and, the other works associated with him are much debated. It is very likely that were many persons during the ancient periods that went by the name of Nandikeshvara. And, quite a few of them seemed to have been scholars, who were well versed in the theoretical principles of Dance, Music and other branches of knowledge.

Two works on dancing are traditionally attributed to Nandikesvara: the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava. But, the question whether they were written by the same Nandikesvara is again debated. It, however, looks doubtful; because, the contents of the two texts differ, a great deal. Further, the date of the Bharatarnava is also not decided.

The edition of Bharatarnava, which available in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research InstitutePune, is said to be a larger work, having 998 verses spread over 15 Chapters. And, in addition, it has an Appendix (Parisista) consisting of 251 verses. The scholarly opinion deems it prudent to assume that the Abhinaya Darpana and the Bharatarnava were authored by two different persons who, perhaps, lived during different periods. We shall briefly talk about Bharatarnava in the next part.


The date of the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeshvara is rather uncertain. The scholars tend to place it in or close to the medieval period; because, it divides dance into three branches: Natya, Nrtta and Nrtya. But, such distinctions did not come about until about the twelfth century, just prior to the time of Sangita-ratnakara  (13th century). Also, the Abhinay Darpana views Tandava and Lasya as forms of masculine and feminine dancing, which again was an approach that was adopted during the medieval times.

Though Nandikesvara acknowledges the importance of all four kinds of Abhinayas, in his work Abhinaya Darpana, he focuses, almost exclusively, on the Angika-abhinaya – gestures, postures and movements of the hands, feet and other limbs, in Dance.

Abhinaya literally means carrying forward towards the spectator. The Angika-abhinaya or gestures is an essential part of the dance-language. It is that which expresses Bhavas (states) by means of bodily gestures and movements (Angika), in Nrtya. Abhinaya also includes elements of Vachika and Sattvika, which are meant for suggesting actions thoughts and emotional states of the character (Bhaved abhinayo vasthanukarana). And, the other element of the Abhinaya is Aharya, the costumes, makeup of the performers as also other accessories on the stage.

Angika-abhinaya, in Drama and Dance, uses artistic gestures, regulated by the character’s bearing, walk and movements of features and limbs. It follows the stylized Natyadharmi mode of depiction.

Nandikesvara’s primary concern in his work is Angika-abhinaya; and, he presents a detailed analysis of various kinds of gestures, postures, movements, their symbolic meanings and their applications in Dance. In addition, he also cautions which of the gestures or movements may not be used in a given context. But, at the same time, Nandikesvara takes care to ensure that the Abhinaya aspect is not entirely overlooked.

The Abhinaya-Darpana deals, predominantly, with the Angikabhinaya (body movements) or Gesture-language of the Nrtta class; and, is a text that is used extensively by the Bharatanatya dancers. It describes Angikabhinaya, composed by the combination of the movements of the Angas (major limbs- the head, neck, torso and the waist); the Upangas (minor limbs – the eyes, the eyebrows, the nose, the lower lip, the cheeks and the chin); the Pratayangas  (neck, stomach, thighs, knees back and shoulders, etc) ; and, the expressions on the countenance. The text specifies, when the Anga moves, Pratyanga and Upanga also move accordingly. The text also suggests how such movements and expressions should be put to use in a dance sequence.


The Abhinaya Darpana is widely used as a practical reliable guide by the performing artists, the teachers and the learners alike, in order to hone and refine the technique of Angika- abhinaya. The Bharatanatya, as it is taught and practiced today, is closely associated with Abhinava Darpana, which it regards as a sort of comprehensive training manual or a part of the curriculum on the techniques of dance, body movements, postures etc., especially related to the Nrtta aspects of Dance performance.

Nrtta is Angikabhinaya, which is pure and abstract dance, with stylized beautiful movements of limbs, neck, head, hands; feet etc., performed to music and especially to rhythm. Here, the Hastas (Nrtta-hastas) are not intended to convey any particular meaning; and, they do not also communicate a Bhava or a Rasa; but, they do contribute to the grace and beauty that the Dance offers. Nrtta, as Angikabhinaya, is much more than a decorative element; it, indeed, is a specific and technical aspect of a perfect dance performance.

Nrtya signifies an Art that combines in itself the beautiful movements of Nrtta (Angikabhinaya) with meaningful expressive eloquent gestures of Hastas, to convey thoughts, emotions and also to indicate objects (Abhinaya).

Though the gestures of the Abhinaya Darpana are primarily related to Nrtta, its repertoire of Hasta, Mukhaja, and Caris etc can very well be adopted (Viniyoga) to the Abhinaya aspects in narrative depiction of a theme through dance movements, providing expressive interpretations of the various shades of the meaning of the words, sentences of the song (Sahitya), bringing out its emotional content. The Nrtya, in the present day, is the very epitome, symbol and the soul of chaste classical Dance. And, Nrtta plays a very large part in that aesthetic Art expression.

The emphasis on Angikabhinaya in Nrtta requires the dancer to be in a fit physical condition, in order to be able to execute all the dance movements with grace and agility; especially during the sparkling Nrtta items according to the Laya (tempo) and Taala (beat).

According to the text, the perfect posture that is, Anga-sausthava, which helps in balancing the inter relationship between the body and the mind, is the central component for dance; and, is most important for ease in the execution and carriage. For instance; the Anga-sausthava awareness demands that the performer hold her head steady; look straight ahead with a level gaze; with shoulders pushed back (not raised artificially); and, to open out the chest so that back is erect. The arms are spread out parallel to the ground; and, the stomach with the pelvic bone is pushed in.


Nandikeshvara’s Abhinaya Darpana is a comprehensive text (laghu grantha) with only 324 verses. As compared to the Natyashastra, the Abhinaya Darpana is written in a much simpler style. It focuses mainly on the Angika Abhinaya aspect; and, presents its subject in an orderly fashion. Here, Nandikesvara enumerates the various gestures, postures and movements related to the different limbs, separately, under three broad categories; Anga, Pratyanga and Upanga. He merely catalogues these independent gestures movements etc., with a brief note on their possible applications. The Natyashastra, on the other hand, follows the synthetic as also the analytical method. It not only enumerates different limb-movements, but also suggests their combinations in the form of Karanas, Recakas and Angaharas.

The Abhinaya Darpana often refers to Bharata-shastra (not the Natyashastra); and also to the Chapters Eight and Nine of the Natyashastra, dealing with Angika Abhinaya (gestures)

Shiva tandava -Shri SRajam

After submitting a prayer to Lord Shiva through the famous prayer-verse (Dhyana-sloka), the introductory part (verses 1-48), moves onto other subjects:

Angikam Bhuvanam sloka

Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya, Vachikam Sarva Vangmayam, Aaharyam Chandra Taradi, Tam Namah Saattvikam Shivam 

Whose bodily movements is the entire universe; whose speech is the language and literature of the entire Universe; whose ornaments are the moon and the stars; Him we worship, the serene Lord Shiva. ..!

At the outset, the author establishes the importance of Abhinaya; and briefly discusses the characteristics of its four kinds. This whole opening section takes up only forty verses; and, the rest are devoted to describing the movements of the individual parts of the body, which, according to the author, are of vital importance for a performance. Then the author instructs the performer to begin the performance with various stylized body movements.

The introductory portion (1-48)  covers such matters as :  the origin of NatyaNatyopatti (1-7); tribute to lore and knowledge of NatyaNatya Prashamsha (7-11); the variety of Dances (Natana); the occasions for performing dances ; and the definitions of terms Nrtta, Natya and Nrtya – Natana-bedha (11-16); required qualifications of various persons involved with dance performance, including the audience  (17-23); the desired qualifications and virtues of the dancer (23-30); and, the details of the preliminaries, Purvaranga (31-37)

[The text explains the term Nrtta as a dance which is void of  Bhava (moods) and Abhinaya (representations) – Bhava-Abhinaya-hinam tu Nrtta ity abhijayate ; the Nrtya as that which embodies Rasa, Bhava and suggestion- Rasa-Bhava-Vyanjana-adi  yuktam Nrtya ity abhijayate ; and, the Natya as dancing used in a drama (Nataka) combined with the original plot – yetan Nrtyam maharaja-sabhayam kalpayet sada.]

Describing the desired attributes of a dancer (Patra) the text mentions (AD.23-25): she, Nartaki,  should be slender; neither stout nor very thin; be neither very tall nor short; very lovely, beautiful, young, having beautiful large eyes, possessing a happy countenance, and round breasts; self-confident, witty, pleasing and splendidly dressed; dexterous in handling the critical passages  ; knowing well when to begin a dance and when to end it; able to perform to the accompaniment of vocal and instrumental music, properly  keeping with the Tala (beats and rhythm).

Tanvi rupavathi shyama peenonnata-payodhara / pragalbha sarasa kantha Kushala graham-mokshayo /vishala-locana gita-vadya-tala anuvartani // paradarya-bhusha samapanna prasanna-mukha –pankaja / yevam vidha gunopeta Nartaki samudirita // AD.23-25 //

And, again, the Abhinaya Darpana describing the essential inner virtues (Antah-prana) of a good dancer says: A dancer must have the inherent sensibility which can be enhanced by training. Agility, steadiness, sense of line, practice in circular movement, a sharp and steady eye, effortlessness, memory, devotion, clarity of speech, sense of music –  these ten are the essential qualities of a dancer.

Javaha Sthiratwam Rekha cha /27/ Bhramari Drishti Shramaha; Medha Shraddha Vacho Geetham; Paatra pranaa Dasa Smruthaha/Ab. Da.28/

[A version of the Abhinaya Darpana makes a mention of the ‘outer-life of a dancer’ (Patrasya bahir pranah): : the drum; cymbals of a good tone; the flute; the chorus; the drone (Sruti); the lute (Veena); the bells, and a male singer (Gayaka) of renown.]

As a part of her preparation, the dancer should offer her respects to the well-shaped dainty (Surupa) little (Sukshma) ankle-bells (Kinkini) made of bronze (Kamsya-racita), giving pleasant sounds (Susvara), with insignia of the presiding star-deities (Nakshatra-devata), and tied together with an indigo string (Nila-sutrena). Before wearing the anklet-bells, the dancer should reverently touch her forehead and eyes with them; and repeat a brief prayer (AD. Kinkini-lakshanam, 29-30)

As regards the positioning of the dancer on the stage, the Abhinaya Darpana (AD.21-22) specifies : the dancer (Patra) should place herself at the centre of the stage; next to her should be the best male-dancer (Nata); on to her right should stand the cymbalist (Taladhari); she should be flanked on either side by the drummers (Mrdanga-players); between them and behind stand the group of chorus-singers (Gitakarah) ; and , the one who keeps the Sruti (drone) a little behind them. Each of those, thus well ordered, should take their positions on the stage.

Ranga-madhya sthithe Patre , tat sameepe Natottamah / Dakshine Taladhari cha, parshva dvandve  Mrudangakau / tayor-madhye Gitakari, Sruti-kara stahdintake// Yevam thistetah kramernava natyadau Ranga-mandale/

After having completed the Purvaranga and offering flowers (Pushpanjali) the Dancer should commence her performance of the Nrtya. The Abhinaya Darpana etches a lovely picture of the Dancer as she commences her performance with a soulful, melodious song. It says: Her throat full of song; her hands expressing the meaning of the lyrics; her eyes and glances full of expression (Bhava); and, her feet dancing to the rhythm (Taala), thus she enters the stage.

Khantaanyat Lambayat Geetam; Hastena Artha Pradarshayet; Chakshubhyam Darshayat Bhavam; Padabhyam Tala Acherait ॥ AD. 36 

That is followed by the famous verse that instructs: ‘Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow; where the eyes are, there the mind should follow; where the mind is, there the expression should be brought out; where there is expression, there the Rasa will manifest.’

Yato Hasta tato Drushti; Yato Drushti tato Manaha; Yato Manaha tato Bhavaha; Yato Bhava tato Rasaha  AD.37

This famous dictum is followed in all the Schools of dancing, while performing Abhinaya.

[The Natyashastra also includes a similar verse. It instructs that even when there is verbal acting (Vacica-abhinaya) the gaze (Dristi) should be directed to points at which the hand gestures are moving (tattad dṛṣṭi vilokanai); and, there should be proper punctuation  so that the meaning may be clearly expressed. The intention is to enhance the appeal and total effect so that the language and the hand gestures support each other; and, become more eloquent.

yatra vyagrāvubhau hastau tattad dṛṣṭivilokanai   vācakābhinaya kuryādvirāmairtha darśakai  NS.9. 181 ]


The text then briefly describes (in verses 38-42) the four kinds of Abhinayas: Angika (of various body-parts); Vachika (of speech), Aharya (of costumes, makeup etc); and, Sattvika (involuntary bodily reactions)

Then in verses 42-49, it describes the three broad elements of the Angika. Here, it mentions that it is called Angika because it is expressed through the segments categorized in three ways: Anga, Pratyanga and Upanga.

The text mentions (42-43); the Angas are six: head, hands, chest, sides, waist and feet. It says, some others include neck in this category

And, it says (42-45) the Pratyangas are also six; and, these include shoulder-blades; arms; back; belly, thigh; and shanks. It is also mentioned that some other include three more under this category: wrists, elbow and knees; and, sometimes also the neck

The Upangas , the minor limbs are said to include (verses 45-49) eyes, eyebrows; eyeballs; cheeks; nose; jaw; lips; teeth; tongue; chin and face. And, sometimes shoulder is as also considered as a Upanga. Thus, the Upangas in the head are twelve in number.

And, when an Anga (major limb) moves, the Pratyanga and Upanga also move, in coordination.

[The classifications of the Angas, Pratyangas and Upangas in the Abhinaya Darpana, broadly follow that in the Natyashastra. But, the numbers of elements in each category, as listed in either text, vary.

According to Natyashastra:

1) Anga: The main parts of the body are known as Anga. The Natyashastra identifies them as the following six: head, hands, feet, Vaksha or the chest region, Kati or the waist and Parshava or the sides. Some experts add Griva (neck) to this as well.

2) Pratyanga: The parts that connect the main parts of the body are Pratyanga. These too are of six types: the shoulders, the arms, the spine, the midriff, the thighs and the abdomen. Some experts also consider the neck, knees and elbows in this

3) Upanga: Smaller constituent parts of the body are called Upanga. They are different according to each body part. Mainly the Upanga exist on the head/ face, hands and legs, because the waist, chest and sides are complete on their own. There cannot be an Upanga for these.]


The text then goes into the enumeration of the Gestures, Postures and Gaits. Along with that, it also provides the description of each feature and its applications (Viniyoga).

The Abhinaya Darpana lists nine gestures of the head; eight of the eyes; four of the neck; twenty-eight of one hand plus four additional gestures; twenty-three of both hands; gestures to represent gods; the ten Avatars of Vishnu; the different classes of people; the various relations; gestures of hands for dance in general; and, the method of moving hands in dance, and the nine planetary deities.

The Abhinaya Darpana also describes, in detail, the postures and gaits, as the body moves in dance, especially on the feet. The carriage of the dancer’s body with the different movements as codified is presented as Mandalas or Sthanakas which are sixteen modes of standing and resting, Utplavanas are the leaps, the Bhramaris or pirouettes, and finally, the Caris and the Gatis.



 The Abhinaya Darpana details the following kinds of gestures

  1. Nine kinds of gestures of head- Shirobedha (49-65)
  2. Eight gestures (glances) of the eyes –Dristibedha (66-79)
  3. Four gestures of the neck- Grivabedha (79-87)
  4. Twenty-eight gesture by one hand – Asamyukta-hastha (87-165) and four additional gestures (166-172)
  5. Twenty-three gestures by combination of both the hands-Samyukta-hastha (172-203)
  6. Gestures representing gods – Devahastha (204-215)
  7. Gestures representing Avatars of Vishnu- Dashavatara hastha (216-225)
  8. Gestures representing different class of people – Chaturjatiya-hastha (226-231)
  9. Gestures for representing various relations- Bandhava-hastha (231-244)
  10. Gestures of hand for dance in general; and the method of moving hands in dance –Nrttahastha (244-249)
  11. Gestures for representing nine planetary deities-Navagraha-hastha (250-258)


Postures and Gaits:

After treating the gestures, the Abhinaya Darpana deals with the   postures and various movements of the body (259-332)

Depending on the carriage of the body and its various movements that characterize a person, the following postures, and movements of the body in relation to feet (Padabedha – 259) are indicated;

  1. Mandala and Sthanakas or sixteen modes of standing and resting (260-282)
  2. Utplavanas or leaping movements of five kinds (282-289)
  3. Bhramaris or flight movements of seven kinds (298-332)
  4. Caris (Caribedha) and Gatis (Gatibedha) or eighteen kinds of gaits (298-332)


As regards the application (viniyoga) of these gestures it is said:

Mandalas, Utplavanas, Bhramaris, Caris and Gatis according to their relation to one another are, indeed, endless in their number and variety. Their uses in Dance and Drama are to be learnt from Shastras, the tradition of the School and through the favor of good people and not otherwise (322-324)


Gestures of the head – Shirobedha

Head and neck 1

According to Natyashastra (Ch.8) there are thirteen gestures of the head (Shirobedha); while Abhinaya Darpana has only nine: Sama; Udvahita; Adhomukha; Alolita; Dhuta; Kampita; Paravrtta; Utksipta and Parivahita.

Among these, five gestures carry the same names in both the works (Dhuta, Kampita, Parivahita, Paravrtta and Utksipta); besides, the names of two gestures agree partially (Udvahita and Alolita)

As regards the head-gestures: Adhomukha, Alolita (or Lolita), Dhuta, Kampita, Paravrtta and Parivahita, they are defined in both the works in a similar manner. As regards their applications also, the two works offer similar explanations.

Besides, the definition of Udvahita in Angika Abhinaya is similar to that of Utkispta of Natyashastra.

Head and neck 2

[The Abhinaya Darpana does not discuss actions related to certain Anga– features, such as: Chest; sides; and, Waist.]


Gestures of the Eyes (Glances) – Dristibedha

eyes 01

According to Natyashastra (Ch.8. 101 onward), there are three classes of Eye-gestures (Dristibedha) : (1) Glances for expressing eight Rasas; (2) Glances for expressing Sthayi bhavas ; and, (3) the Glances for expressing Sanchari-bhavas.

Each of these of the categories in (1) and (2) have in turn eight varieties each; while (3) has twenty varieties. Thus, in all, the Natyashastra describes thirty-six types of eye-glances (Dristibedha), along with their applications (Viniyoga).

But, in Abhinaya Darpana (Dristibedha66-79) the treatment of the Eye-gestures is not so elaborate. It only enumerates only eight of eye-gestures; Sama; Alokita; Saci; Pralokita; Nimilita; Ullokita; Anuvrtta and Avalokita.

But, in fact, these eight are listed in the Natyashastra as eight additional types of eyeball positions (Taraka karma)

Samam Alokitam Saachi pralokita Nimility Ullokita-anuvritte cha tatha chaiva-avalokitam  Ithyashtho drishthi bhedaha syu kirtitah purvasuribhi

Apart from this, the Abhinaya Darpana does not mention other Eye-gestures.


[The Abhinaya Darpana does not also discuss actions related to certain Upanga-features, such as: eye-brows; eye-lids; pupils; cheeks; nose (nostrils); lips; cheeks; chin; mouth; and facial colors.]


Neck gestures (Grivabedha)

The neck-movement is very important in Dance; because the movements of the head and the face pivot around it.

Gestures of the neck are all to follow the gestures of the head; and, the head gestures are also reflected in those of the neck. And, in this manner, Bharata enumerates and describes the gestures of the head and the connected minor limbs (Upanga) and their uses.

 The Natyashastra (Ch.8.164) enumerates nine kinds of neck-gestures- Grivabedha: Sama, Nata, Unnata, Tryasra, Recita, Kuncita, Ancita, Vahita and Vivarta.

While the Abhinaya Darpana (Grivabedha79-87) gives only four kinds: Sundari, Tirascina, Parivartita and Prakampita.

And, the two enumerations do not have common names.

[The Abhinaya Darpana does not discuss actions related to certain Prtyanga –elements such as: Thighs; Shanks; Belly; and Back (spine).]


Hand- gestures (Hastha-bedha)

It is said; the Indian classical dance the joints, rather than the muscles, play an important role.  The Hastha (hand-gestures) generated through the movement of the wrists and the fingers are a portal of an entire language system articulated through animated gestures. They are like the words in a poem. It is around such Hasthas verities denoting suggestive Dance-expressions; the appropriate gestures are composed to covey thoughts and emotions, and to indicate objects.

Though both the Natyashastra and the Abhinaya Darpana classify the hand-gestures into three categories, they differ in regard to the number in each class; as well as in their definition; and, also in their uses.

In fact, Bharata devotes the entire Chapter Nine  to Hasthas and their uses in the Natya (hastā-dīnāpravakyāmi karma Nātya-prayojakam – NS.9.3)



Single-hand gestures (Asamyukta-hastha):

For illustrations of the Hasthas –Please click here

single-hand gestures0001


According to Natyashastra (Ch.9), there are twenty-four gestures in this class, while in Abhinaya Darpana; their number is twenty-eight. In both the works, twenty-two gestures have common names. Their descriptions are also similar.

On a review, one finds that the definitions of the following thirteen gestures are similar, in both the works:

Pathaka; Tripathaka; Ardhachandra; Arala; Sukatunda; Musti; Shikara; Padmakosa; Sarpasiras; Mrigasira;  Catura; Bhramara and Mukula

The following gestures have certain common aspects in their application. The number of such common aspects differs from one gesture to another;

Pathaka (2); Tripathaka (2); Ardhachandra; Musti (1); Katakamukha (4); Padmakosa (3); Sarpasiras (5) and Mukula (2)

Except in these cases, the Viniyoga, the applications of the other gestures vary.


The definitions of the following gestures differ in both the works:

Kartarimukha; Katamukha; Kapitta; Suci; Kangula; Alapadma (Alapallava); Hamsapaksa;   Sadamsa; and Tamracuda


The following hand-gestures of the Natyashastra are subdivided according to their Viniyoga; and special instructions are given on how such subdivisions are to be used in different groups: Pathaka, Tripathaka, Arala, Sucimukha,Catura and Sadamsa



Combined- hand-gestures (Samyukta-hastha):

For illustrations of the Hasthas – please click here






The Natyashastra (Ch.9) names thirteen gestures;

while Abhinaya Darpana gives twenty-three

On a comparison of the two sets of combined-hand-gestures given both the texts, one finds:

The following gestures in both the works have almost the same descriptions and uses: Anjali; Kapota; Karkata; and ushpaputa










Other Hasthas not mentioned in the Natyashastra:

The Abhinaya Darpana mentions certain classes of Hand-gestures (Hasthas) that were not mentioned in the Natyashastra. It is said; these are meant aid dramatic representations and sculpting the images of the deities

:- Hasthas representing deities – Devahastha (204-215) – lists sixteen gods and goddesses-(Brahma; Shiva; Vishnu; Sarasvathi; Parvathi; Lakshmi; Ganesha; Kartikeya;  Manmatha; Indra; Agni ; Yama; Nirrti; Varuna; Vayu and Kubera)

:- Hasthas representing  ten Avatars of Vishnu- Dashavatara hastha  (216-225) – (Matsya; Kurma; Varaha; Nrsimha; Vamana; Parasurama; Ramachandra; Balarama; Krishna  and Kalki)

:-Hasthas representing different class of people – Chaturjatiya-hastha (226-231)

:-Hasthas representing various relatives – Bandhava-hastha (231-244 ); and

: – Hasthas representing nine planetary deities –Navagraha-hastha (250-258)



According to Natyashastra (Ch.9.173) there are twenty-seven Nrtta-hasthas; and, they are not the same as the single-hand or the combined-hand gestures.(Another version lists thirty Nrtta-hasthas).

But the number of Nrtta-hastha in Abhinaya Darpana is thirteen; and, they are not different from the single-hand or the combined-hand gestures. Those names are repeated here.

Among the thirteen listed in the Abhinaya Darpana, six single-hand-gestures (Pathaka, Tripathaka, Shikara, Kapitta, Alapadma and Hamsasya) are the same as the single-hand gestures carrying the same name in the Natyashastra. And, the other seven combined-hand gestures (Anjali, Svastika, Dola, Kataka-vardhana, Sakara, Pasa and Kilaka) are the same as the combined –hand gestures of the same name in the Natyashastra.

Thus, overall, the total number of hand-gestures related to Dance in Natyashastra is sixty-four; and, that in Abhinaya Darpana is fifty-one.

And, one version of the Abhinaya Darpana  (page 47) states: there are as many meanings as there are hand-gestures (Hasthas). Their usage is to be regulated by their literal meaning, category, gender, and suitability. Only so much can be said in an abridged form. Those following careful research; and, those who are acquainted with the ways of displaying the Bhavas in various should use the hands with due care, after consulting the texts, as may be required, and the teachers.


Feet in Dance


The Abhinaya Darpana in its verses 259-260, mentions Mandala (postures); Utplavana (leaps); Bhramari (flights or turns) and Cari or Padacari (gait) as postures and movements related to feet.

These refer to the carriage of the dancer’s body with the different movements codified, that is presented as Mandalas or Sthanakas which are sixteen modes of standing and resting. The Utplavanas are the leaps; the Bhramaris or pirouettes; and finally, the Caris and the Gatis.

But, in this text, the descriptions of the feet movements are not accompanied by their Viniyogas. The explanation provided by the scholars is that the Mandalas, Utplavanas, Bhramaris etc., are to be applied according to their relation to one another; and, these are, indeed, endless in number and variety.

Another feature of this text is that in describing the basic hand-gestures and the eye-movements, the author follows the Natyashastra. But, his treatment of the movements of the feet is his own. He also includes some new gestures, not found in other texts.


The Abhinaya Darpana does not specifically discuss movements of the feet. It factors the whole leg, from thighs to toes, as a single Pada-bheda outlining the actions like standing, walking, roaming, and jumping. In its discussion of the jumps (utplavanas), spiral movements or turns (Bhramaris) and the different types of walking Caris and Padacari, it utilizes the various positions of the feet, as described in the Natyashastra.

In contrast, the Chapter Eleven of the shorter version (from pages 197 to 206) of the Natyashastra is devoted to Cari, the most important single unit of movement in the Nrtta technique as enunciated by Bharata. The Caris are movements using one foot; and, are used both in Dance and Drama. Thirty two kinds of Caris are defined; of these sixteen are termed Bhaumi (ground) – verses 13 to 28; and, the other sixteen are called Akasiki (aerial) – verses 29 to 49.

One of the explanations adduced justifying the brief treatment of Caris in the Abhinaya Darpana (verses 323-324) is:  the mutual relations of the Caris, Mandalas, Utplavanas, Brhramaris etc., are endless in number and variety. Their uses in dance and drama are to be learnt from the practices and tradition of the School, under the guidance of a wise teacher.

A similar advice is tendered with regard to the applications of the Hasthas (on page 47).



Mandalas are complicated movements of the legs involving combinations of Caris. According to NatyashastraChapter Twelve , see pages 207 to 212)), Mandalas are twenty in number; and, are again divided into two classes: Bhuma (earthly, ground) and Akasika (aerial).

The Abhinaya Darpana, however, names only ten Mandalas (Mandala-bedha); and, all are of the same class (260-261) : Sthanaka ; Ayata ; Alidha ; Pratyalidha ; Prenkhana ; Prerita ; Svastika; Motita ; Samasuci ; and , Parsvasuci

The names of the Mandalas in the two works differ.


Any special position of the body which is motionless is called Sthana, stance. The Abhinaya Darpana lists six such Stanakas (274-275): Sampada; Ekapada; Nagabandha; Aindra; Garuda; and, Brahma. The Natyashastra treats the subject of Sthanas in greater detail. It mentions as many as forty Sthanas or standing postures, under six categories of static postures along with their applications.

Utplavana (leaps) are of five kinds (282-283): Alaga; Kartari; Asva; Motita; and, Krpalga.

Bhramari (flights or turns) are seven (289-291); and are the same as in the Natyashastra: Utpluta; Cakra; Garuda; Ekapada; Kuncita; Akasha; and Anga.

Gati (gaits): the gaits or the walking styles (Gati) are said to be of eight kinds: Calana; Sankramana; Sarana; Vegini; Kuttana; Luhita; Lolita; and Visrama.

The treatment of the Gatis (gatipracāra) in the Natyashastra is much more elaborate. It describes Gatis or gaits, suitable for different types of characters, such as the Kings and superior characters as also for middling characters. Walking styles for women of various classes are also described.  Natyashastra mentions that the gaits are to be executed in – slow, medium and quick – tempos (Kaalas), according to the nature of 45 different characters.



The Abhinaya Darpana (298-308) treats Caris and Gatis alike. They are not differentiated, as in the Natyashastra.

The Caris are movements using one foot; and, are used both in Dance and Drama. The Natyashastra (Ch.9.10) lists thirty-two Caris, divided into two groups of sixteen each: the Bhuma (earthly, ground) and Akasika (aerial). Cari is that activity where in the various beautiful movements of the hands, feet calves, thighs and the hip are kept in mutual concordance, in a single flow.

The Abhinaya Darpana, however, gives eight kinds of Cari; and they all are of the same class. There are no divisions here.  And, the listing of the feet movements is not accompanied by their Viniyoga-s: Calana; Sankramana; Sarana; Vegini; Kuttana; Luthita; Lolita; Visrama.

The names of the Caris in Abhinaya Darpana are the same as that of the Gatis (gaits) it enumerates.

The names of the Caris in the two texts- Abhinaya Darpana and Natyashastra- also differ.

[Nyayas: The Natyashastra makes a mention of four types of Nyayas   (Bharata, Sattvata, Varsaganya and Kaisika). These are the ways regulating (niyante)  how the various  weapons are to be handled while staging a fight on the stage; and, how the actors move about on the stage using various Caris and Angaharas (combinations of Caris and Karanas).

The Abhinaya Darpana does not, however, mention Nyayas.]

dance images22

Obviously, there is vast difference between the Natyashastra and the Abhinaya Darpana in their approach to and in the treatment of Angika-abhinaya.

The Natyashastra is the primary text. It lays down the theoretical principles; enumerates the gestures and postures to give a form to its concepts; and, also provides practical examples of their applications. The explanations in the Natyashastra seem to be based on a study of actual performances; and, on a detailed analysis of the actual dance movements.

It not merely enumerates the individual dance-gestures, but also suggests how those elements could be combined to form graceful and meaningful dance movements like Karanas and Angaharas, forming a sequence of completed action. Since the entire process was involved with production of Drama; and, its presentation before enlightened spectators, it appears the complete sequences of movements were carefully studied, structurally analyzed to ensure a correct presentation finally  emerged , as envisaged by the choreographer.

Thus the approach of the Natyashastra was broad based, covering the theoretical, analytical and practical aspects of Dance and its varied gestures, stances and movements.

The Abhinaya Darpana, in contrast, does not delve much into the theoretical aspects of Dance movements. Its focus is mainly on Angika-abhinaya, the gestures, postures and movements of the limbs and parts of the three major segments of the body. It enumerates in a comprehensive, codified and systematic manner the actions of a limb, in isolation; and, suggests the means to its application. The Abhinaya Darpana trains a dancer in the basic movements.

It does not try to combine those various dance-elements, in order to present a seamless, graceful and meaningful sequence of actions. It is said; the Abhinaya Darpana is like a practical, working manual, a tool of communication. It is up to the teachers and learners to make a good use of the material it provides to choreograph charming, enjoyable and expressive dance sequences. The various individual gestures, stances and movements that the text catalogs are like words (Padas); and, they have to be employed with skill and imagination to form countless verities of meaningful sentences (Vakya). The uses of the Dance-elements that the text provides have to be studied diligently and practiced earnestly under the guidance of a well informed and experienced teacher.

There are elaborate descriptions of movements  that are neatly categorized and presented. For example; ten movements of the head, fifteen ways to move the eyeballs and two ways to turn the knee-joint indicate the several combinations available to the conscious and imaginative dancer and teacher to create their dance sequences.


The scholar Raghavabhatta, in his Arthadyotanika (1886), a commentary on the play Abhijanana Sakuntala of the poet Kalidasa, compares the Abhinaya Darpana to Grammar of dance movements. The text suggests various hand and body gestures. But, the skill, he says, resides in combining those elements to compose a beautiful and graceful, meaningful presentation. Raghavabhatta, in his commentary, suggests choreographic patterns for depicting certain actions that take place in the play. For instance:

:- Watering the plants (Vrksha sincana) : first show Nalina and padmakosa hands, palms downwards, then raise them to the shoulder; slightly bend the body with Avadhuta head position and Adhomukha face looking down; with Padmakosa hands downwards to suggest ‘ pouring out’.

In the Nalina-padmakosa, the dancer’s hands are crossed; the palms turned down; but not touching, but not touching; turned a little backward, and made to resemble Padmakosa (lotus bud). To move the Nalina-padmakosa hands downwards is said to be ‘ pouring out

: – Plucking the flower (pushpa-vachayana): hold the left hand horizontally in Uttana Arala; the right hand taken side-ways in Hamsasya extended forward at the side. The left hand here represents a basket; and, the imaginary flowers are plucked with the right hand and transferred to the left.

:- Make up (Prasadana) : putting Tilaka mark on the forehead with ring finger of the Tripathaka hand; wearing the garland with Paranmukha and Sandasmsa (right and left) hands; putting on Tatakas (ornaments of upper arms) and earrings with two Bhramara hands ; painting lac-dye on the feet with Kartari-mukha hands ; and, wearing a ring with Hamsasya and Cyuta-sadamsa hands.

:- Attack by the bee (Bhrama badha): move the head quickly to and fro with the Vidura head; the Kampita lips are quivering and turned down; while the Tripathaka hands are held unsteadily against the face, palms inward.

: – Despair (Visada): with the Dhuta head and the Vinasana eye.

: – Obstacles in walking (Gati-bhanga) with Urudhrta Cari

: – Coming down from a high place (Avatarana); with Gangavatarana

: – Mounting a Chariot (Rathadi-rohana) with Urdhvajanu Cari; “the knees are to be raised, the leg being bent and lifted, so that the knee is level with the chest, and there held; and then the same is done with the other foot.”


Similarly, the classic dance forms of India developed various dance movements by adopting the idioms and phrases from the basic ‘Grammar’ of the Abhinaya Darpana. For instance; the Bharatanatya derived the Araimandi as the basic dance position from the Ardha-mandala or Ayata, which is defined in the Abhinaya Darpana as: “standing in Chaturasra, bending the knees slightly and obliquely and keeping a distance of Vitasati between the two feet “(A.D 263).

Vitastrya antaritau paadau  krutva tu chatursrakau . Tiryak kunchita janubhyam sthithirayath mandalam //AD.263 //

On the same principle, the Kathak developed Sampada; in Odissi it was Chauk; and, in Manipuri the Agratala.


The Abhinaya Darpana occupies a unique position in the literature of classical Indian dance. Unlike in the case of other ancient texts ,  the Abhinaya Darpana is a text that is regularly consulted , even in the present-day,  by the practicing artists and the students, regularly, as a part of the learning process.  It is a practical text that is very much alive.

It not only has helped to preserve the Art of Dancing by imparting instructions to the learners (siyebhyaśca tadanyebhya); but, has also helped in spreading the performing Art through its practice (prayacchāma  prayogata). It is a framework of principles of praxis or practice. Its efficacy lies in the practice of Dance; and, in providing inspiration for reconstructing innovative Dance-expressions by experimentation (prayoga); and, by combining, with skill and imagination, the varieties of gestures, stances and movements of Angikabhinaya that it has enumerated so systematically. Thus, the Abhinaya Darpana is at once, a Sadhana shastra and a Prayoga shastra.



In the next part, we shall briefly talk about Bharatarnava; and, then move on to other texts.



The Next Part


References and Sources

  1. Nandikesvara’s Abhinayadarpanam by Prof. Manmohan Ghosh
  2. The Mirror of Gesture by Ananda Coomaraswamy and Gopala Kristnayya Duggirala
  3. Natyashastra and Abhinaya Darpana
  4. Nritta in Bharatanatyam
  5. The Evolution of Classical Indian Dance Literature: A Study of the Sanskritic Tradition by Dr. Mandakranta Bose
  6. Dance imagery in South Indian temples: study by Dr. Bindu S. Shankar


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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine

Lakshana Granthas – continued

5, Abhinavabharati


Illustration of Abhinava Gupta by Elke Avis

The Natyaveda-Vivritti, more famously celebrated as Abhinava-bharati is the most well known commentary by Abhinavagupta on the Natyashastra of Bharata.  It is one among the handful of commentaries that are as renowned, if not more, as the texts on which they commented upon. Abhinavagupta illumines and interprets the text of Bharata at many levels: conceptual, structural and technical. He comments, practically, on its every aspect; and his commentary is a companion volume to Bharata’s text.

The earliest surviving commentary on the Natyashastra is the Abhinavabharati by Abhinavagupta. It was followed by the works of commentators like Saradatanaya (12th century), Sarangadeva (13th century) and Kallinatha (16th century). However, Abhinavabharati is regarded as the most authoritative commentary on Natyashastra ; because, Abhinavagupta provides not only his own illuminating observations and interpretations, but also gives wide range of information about the works of the scholars earlier to his period , most of which are now lost.

Abhinavagupta, who lived in Kashmir by about the late tenth and early eleventh century, was a visionary endowed with incisive intellectual powers of a philosopher who combined in himself the experiences of a mystic and a Tantric. He was equipped with extraordinary skills of a commentator and an art critic

Abhinavagupta dealt with almost every important aspect of Indian aesthetics in his two commentaries – Kavya-loka-locana (called, in short, as Locana, a commentary on the Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana); and, the Abhinavabharati (a detailed commentary on the Natyashastra of Bharata).

These are the two well known aesthetic works of Abhinavagupta; for which he is celebrated as the principal exponent of aesthetic theory (Rasa-vada). In his Locana, he firmly established the concept of Vyanjana -Vritti or Dhvani or the suggestive power of the words as the best form of poetic expression. And, the Abhinavabharati is the best guide to understand Bharata

These two commentaries influenced and guided the subsequent generations of authors and critics; especially in regard to the aesthetic experience (Rasanubhava). No succeeding writer or commentator could ignore Abhinavagupta’s commentary; and his discussions on two crucial chapters of the Natyashastra namely, the Sixth and the Seventh on Rasa and Bhava.

His work came to be recognized as a text of indisputable authority (Pramana grantha); and, was regarded as the standard work, not only on Music and Dance, but also on poetics (Almkara shastra) as well. Hemachandra in his Kavyanusasana; Ramachandra and Gunachandra in their Natyadarpana; Kallinatha in his commentary on the Sangita-ratnakara; and, Saradatanaya in his Bhava-prakasana, very often refer to Abhinavagupta.  The chapter on Dance in Sarangadeva’s Sangita-ratnakara is almost entirely based on Abhinava’s work. And, similar is the case with Jaya Senapati’s Nrttaratnavalli. The noted scholar Dr. V Raghavan, therefore, remarked: ‘So what is often taken today as the influence of the Natyashastra in these texts is in reality the influence of Abhinavagupta.’


Between the time of Bharata and the Eleventh century , many commentaries on Natyashastra were written ; and, many other independent treatise on dramatics were composed by several authors such as Kohala, Rahula, Dattila, Harsha, Nandikesvara , Varattikakara and others . But, those works are no longer extant, except for a few verses cited in the later texts on Drama, Dancing and Music.

And, many scholars who hailed from the region of Kashmir; and, who preceded Abhinavagupta, had also produced brilliant commentaries on Poetics , Music and Dramaturgy , with special reference to Rasa, Bhava, Abhinaya, Nayika Nayaka’s and construction and presentation of drama with its varieties. Among those scholars were Bhattalollata, Udbhata, Shankuka, Bhattanayaka and Kirtidhara, as mentioned in Sangita-ratnakara.

 But, sadly, all those works are no longer extant; except for a few verses cited in the later texts on Drama, Dancing and Music.

It is only through the efforts of Abhinavagupta that the works of all those masters can only be partially reconstructed through references to them in his Abhinavabharati. Further, Abhinavagupta also brought to light and breathed life into ancient and forgotten scholarship of fine rhetoricians Bhamaha, Dandin and Rajashekhara.

It is through Abhinavagupta’s quotations from Kohala, whose work is occasionally referred to in the Natyashastra, that one can reconstruct some of the changes that took place in the intervening period between his time and that of Bharata’s.

And, in regard to Dance, since a number of works on dancing that were  known to have been written after Bharata are now lost, it is difficult to follow the discussions  concerning the developments in the field  of Dancing that took place during the early period of its evolution , without the aid of Abhinavabharati.

Abhinavagupta also drew upon the later authors to explain the application of the rules and principles of Natya. For instance; he quotes from Ratnavali of Sri Harsha (7th century); Venisamhara of Bhatta Narayana (8th century); as also cites examples from Tapaas-vatsa-rajam of Ananga Harsa Amataraja  (8th century) and Krtyaravanam .

In addition, Abhinavagupta introduced many improvements and new thoughts into the system of Sanskrit literary criticism, which have been accepted by all the later writes and commentators, beginning with Mammata Bhatta in the eleventh century and ending with Jagannatha Pandita in the 17th century

The  Abhinavabharati thus serves as a bridge between the world of the ancient and forgotten wisdom and the scholarship of the succeeding generations. And, Abhinavagupta himself said that he wrote the commentary in order to save and perpetuate the ancient tradition.

Evam anyad api ūhyam iti an-upayogyāt samasta na likhitam āgama-bhrasa-rakanāya tu di nirupitā


The Abhinavabharati, though basically a commentary on and a companion volume to Bharata’s Natyashastra, is, for all purposes, an independent work in its own right. It, again, is a detailed exposition on various subjects such as: drama, dance, poetry, music, art, prosody and also aesthetics with reference to Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka (820-890). Abhinavagupta comments on a range of subjects, at different levels. He cites and discusses the views of many ancient authorities who wrote on drama, dance, music etc. He illustrates the principles and its application in Natya, through examples taken from well-known Dramatic works.

Abhinavagupta not only expands on Bharata, but also interprets him in the light of his own experience and knowledge; and, also with references to the then current practices. And, at many places, he differs from Bharata; and, introduces concepts and practices that were not present during Bharata’s time. For instance; the concept of minor dramas was absent in the Natyashastra. But, Abhinavagupta, in his commentary, speaks of minor categories of drama (Uparupakas); and calls them as Nrtta-kavya and Raga-kavya. These were the type of plays where the narration through Dance and Music is prominent.  

Similarly, Abhinavagupta provides the details of several dance forms that are mentioned but not described in the Natyashastra. For instance; he describes Bhadrasana, one of the group dances termed Pindibandha by Bharata but not described by him- piṇḍīnā vividhā yoniryantra bhadrāsana tathā NS.4. 290

Abhinavagupta, thus, comments, practically, on every aspect of Natyashastra. Further, he brings in the concepts of his School pratyabhijna, while interpreting Bharata’s text.

The works of the later writers (such as: Mammata, Hemachandra, Saradatanaya and others) clearly bear the influence of Abhinavagupta.

[Dr. Mandakranta Bose, who examined the text critically, observes: Even though his commentary is illuminating in general, there are places where his explanations are not enough to visualize the movements he describes. Since the edited text is often corrupt, the task of understanding is even harder. The movements are sometimes unclear and impossible to reproduce. However, as the single extant commentary on Bharata’s seminal text, Abhinavagupta’s work has exerted great influence on subsequent writers on dance, drama and on Alamkara as well.]


The importance of Abhinavagupta’s work can hardly be overstated. And, Abhinavabharati is the best guide to understand Bharata. The learned scholar Dr. K Krishnamoorthy in his Indian Literary Theories (1985) writes:

If Bharata is the father figure hallowed by the tradition, and revered by all the later writers; Abhinavagupta is the sole interpreter to us of not only Bharata’s thoughts, but also of the writers of those authors over several centuries ,  between the time of Bharata and Abhinavagupta, since he sums up all the traditions of various Schools and enlivens it by his own illuminating and original thinking.

His work is the only source for all the accumulated knowledge of on the subject in the golden age of Indian history. There is perhaps no other single work in the wide range of literary, technical and philosophical treatise that matches the Abhinavabharati. Such is the incandescent lustre of the far- flung genius of Abhinavagupta.

If Bharata is the Panini of the Indian theatrical lore, then Abhinavagupta is his Patanjali. His work is not a mere commentary; but, often an original dissertation.

Abinavagupta - Version 3

The Abhinava-bharati follows the Natyashastra, chapter by chapter, except for the Seventh, the Eighth, and the Thirty-third to Thirty-seventh.

Abhinavagupta’s text ends with Chapter Thirty-seven while most of the other versions of the text end with the Thirty-sixth. At the commencement of his commentary, Abhinavagupta mentions that the Natyashastra of Bharata consists Thirty-six Chapters. Thereafter, at the beginning of each successive Chapter of his commentary, he praises the deity representing the corresponding Tattva, beginning with Bhumi or Prithi, the principle of Earth. And, the last Chapter of his commentary, that is the Thirty-seventh, commences with salutations to Anuttara, the Supreme Reality beyond which there is nothing, therefore, free from all limitations – Na vidyate uttaram prana prati vacorupam yatra. And, Anuttara is Parama Shiva, the Absolute, the primal source of all existence.

[The 36 Tattvas as per Kashmir Shaiva philosophy are : Five Physical Elements or Mahabhuta (Prithvi, Jala, Agni, Vayu and Akasha); Five sensations or Tanmatras (Rupa, Sparsha , Rasa, Gandha, and Sabda); Five sense organs or Jnanedriyas (Upastha, Payu, Pada, Pani and Vac); Five Sense experiences (Grahana, Tvacha, Rasana, Chakshu, and Srotra); Three mental functions (Manas, Ahamkara and Buddhi); Prakrti; Purusha; Six limited individual experiences (Niyati, Kala, Raga, Vidya, Kala and Maya); Five Tattvas of Universal experience (Shudda vidya, Isvara, Sadashiva , Shakthi and Shiva)- please check here  and then go to page 25 of the Book (page 36  of PDF document).]

The reason for the extension of the number in Abhinava-bharati seems to be that the Shaiva Siddantha recognizes Thirty-six Tattvas (principles); and  when that is extended, the  Thirty-seventh  is said to represent the concept of Anuttara (the ultimate or nothing beyond) a doctrine of the Pratyabhijna System of philosophy propounded by Utpaladeva the Parama-guru (the teacher’s teacher) of Abhinavagupta

Of the thirty-seven Chapters in the Natyashastra; about twelve Chapters are related to Dance. They are the Chapter numbers: 4, 5, 8-13, 19, 21, 22, 25 and 31.

[Please click here for volumes of Natyashastra with commentary of Abhinavabharati: For Volume One by Dr. K .Krishnamoorthy; For Volume Two by Pandit M. Ramakrishna Kavi; and, Volume Three by Pandit M. Ramakrishna Kavi.]


As regards the Angikabhinaya, Abhinavagupta, generally, follows Bharata, rather closely.

In the Fourth Chapter of his commentary, Abhinavagupta deals with the definition and the division of 108 Karanas which constitute the fundamental dancing poses.

Abhinavagupta explains: Karana is indeed the harmonious combination (sam-militam) of Gati (movement of feet), Sthanaka (stance), Cari (foot position) and Nrtta-hastha (hand-gestures)

Gatau tu Caryah / purvakaye tu Gatau Nrttahastha drusta-yashcha / sthithau pathakadyaha tena Gati-Sthithi – sam-militam Karanam

As regards Gati (gait) , Abhinavagupta also mentions that in the Nrtta though the Gati could generally follow the Natyadharmi, one should also keep in view the context of the times, the situation (desham, kalam) and the prevalent practices

Cari, Mandala prasangasya chitta-vrttitvad Gati viniyoga meva pratijanite/ Gatisha prakrutim rasa-avastham desham kalam cha apekshya vakthavya prati purusha abhidanath

According to Abhinavagupta, Karaa is action (Kriyā Karaam); and, as the very life (jivitam) of Ntta, the pure dance movements. It is a Kriya, an act which starts from a given place and terminates after reaching the proper one. It involves both the static and dynamic aspects: pose (Sthiti) and movement (Gati).

And that is why, he says, Karaa is called as ‘Ntta Karaa’. Such throws (kepa) of the limbs must be guided by a sense of beauty and grace (vilasa-ksepasya). A Karana has to be intellectually and spiritually satisfying. The word nttasya in Bharata’s definition is meant to emphasize this aspect of dance.

Kriya karanam. Kasya kriya. nrttasya gatranam vilasakhepasya heyopadeya visaya kriya adibhyaf; vyatirikta ya tatkriya karanam itya artha.

According to him, the Sthanaka (posture), Cari (foot-position) and Nrtta-hastha (hand-movements) can be compared to subject (kartru-pada), object (Karma-pada) and verb (Kriya-pada) in a meaningful sentence; while the resultant Karana could be compared to a sentence.

As regards Recakas (circular movement of a limb), Abhinavagupta says: it is through the Recakas that the Karanas and the Angaharas derive their beauty and grace. He gives some guidelines to be observed while performing a Recaka of the foot (Pada-recaka) , neck (Griva-recaka) and the hands (Hastha-recaka) .

According to him; while performing the Recaka of the foot one should pay attention to the movements of the big toe; in the Recaka of the hands one should perform Hamsa-paksha Hastha in quick circular movements; and, in the Recaka of the neck one should execute it with slow graceful movements.

Padayoreva chalanam na cha parnir bhutayor antar bahisha sannatam namanonna manavyamsitam gamanam Angustasya cha /Hasthareva chalanam Hamsapakshayo paryayena dhruta bramanam/ Grivayastu Recitatvam vidhuta brantata//

After the discussion of Karanas, Abhinavagupta deals with the definition and division of Angaharas, which are made of Karanas – Nānā Karaa sayuktair Agahārair vibhūitam (NS.4.13). Abhinavagupta explains Agahāra as the process of ‘sending the limbs of the body from a given position to the other proper one (Angavikshepa). And, such Angavikshepa is said to be a dominant feature of the Nrtta. And, that term stands for graceful composition of limbs (gatram vilasena-kshepaha). Thus, the Angaharas, basicallyare Nrtta movements, the Angika-abhinaya, involving six Angas or segments of the body.


Abhinavagupta comments on seven divisions of Nrtta. The first three are to be used in independent Laukika dance, for the satisfaction of the deities. The last four are employed in the preliminaries.

Abhinavagupta classifies Nrtta into two broad Groups; the first group having three types; and, the second having four types.  Thus, the Nrtta, in all, is classified by Abhinavagupta into seven types.

The First Group belongs to the pure Nrtta type; whereas, the Second Group relates to of what came to be known as Nrtya, which involves Abhinaya. Abhinavagupta, in his explanations, did not, however, use the term Nrtya.

The First Group of Nrtta that Abhinavagupta formulated has the three types: (1) Shuddha-Nrtta; (2) Gitakad-abhinayao-nmukha-Nrtta; and, (3) Vadya –Talanusari Nrtta.

Here, Shuddha, that is, pure or abstract dance; the Gitakad-abhinay-onmukha is a dance that expresses the meaning of a song; and, the Vadya-talanusari is a dance that follows instrumental music and rhythm.

The Second Group of Nrtta has four types: (1) Uddhata Nrtta ;(2) Masrana-Nrtta; (3) Misra Uddhata Nrtta; and,(4)  Misar-Masarna Nrtta.

And, here, the Uddhata is a vigorous dance; the Masrana is a dance with delicate and graceful movements (Sukumara); the Misra Uddhata Nrtta is a vigorous dance mixed with delicate movements; and, the Misar-Masarna Nrtta is a delicate dance mixed with vigorous movements.

Since many of these dances in the Second group were expressive, they required Abhinaya or interpretative movements. Such dances, then, fall into the category that later became known as Nrtya. Abhinavagupta, however, does not use the term Nrtya, perhaps because Bharata spoke only of Nrtta; and, had not used the term Nrtya.


The commentary on the Fifth Chapter expands on Bharata’s description of the preliminaries of the performance of the play and remarks on theatrical terms like Purvaranga, Naandi, and Dhruva etc.

The subject of Dhruva, which is the song to be sung in the course of the play, is discussed in detail.  Natyashastra (NS: 32.32) explained the Dhruva Gana as the well composed songs that are steadfast (Dhruva) in  the principles of Pada  (words),  Varna  (syllables) and Chhandas (meter)

Natyashastra had devoted one entire and a lengthy chapter (Chapter 32) to discuss the Dhruva songs. That was because; the songs formed an essential ingredient of the play. And, Bharata said:  without songs, the Drama is incapable of providing joy (NS. 32. 482): Just as a well-built dwelling house (citraniveśana) does not become beautiful and provide a pleasant ambiance without any colour; so also a Drama without any songs does not provide much joy.

Abhinavagupta, accordingly, deals with the Dhruva songs, in fair detail. He explains that the Dhruva songs help to enhance the artistic sense of the important themes that occur in various situations in a play.

 While commenting on the term Dhruva, Abhinavagupta  explains that these types of songs were called Dhruva ( = standpoint; locus of reference)  because in it, the Vakya (sentence), Varna (syllables) , Alamkara (grace notes), Yatis (succession of rhythm patterns) , Panyah (use or non-use of drums) and Laya (beats) were  harmoniously fixed ( Dhruvam) in relation to each other – (anyonya sambandha) .

Vakya –Varna–Alamkara yatyaha -panayo-layah I   Dhruvam-anyonya sambandha yasmath smada Dhruva smrutah II

He further says, the composition (pada samuha) structured as per a rule (niyatah) and that which supports (adhara) singing could be called Dhruva (Dhruvah- Gitya-adhara niyatah pada –samuha).

At another place, Abhinavagupta explains Dhruva as the basis or the support (adhara) on which the song rests. Abhinavagupta says: just as the painting is supported by wall, the Dhruva song is supported by Pada (word). And, Pada in turn is supported by, the Chhandas (meter) – (Abhinavagupta: NS.32.8).

Thus, in the Dhruva Gana, the words of the song are regulated by Chhandas. And, the words are then set to appropriate tunes and Taala-s.


The Sixth Chapter is described as Rasadhyaya; because it mainly deals with concept and the theories of Rasa, the aesthetic pleasure, the essence of all Art experience. Though this Chapter is not directly related to Dance, we may take a brief look at it; because, this Chapter is considered as one of the very important Chapters in the Natyashastra ; and also because , Abhinavagupta discussed the various aspects of the Rasa-doctrine (Rasa-siddantha) in great detail.  And, in the process, he dealt with almost every important facet of Indian aesthetics. Abhinavagupta’s contribution to the revision of Indian aesthetics is truly outstanding.

In this Chapter, Abhinavagupta interprets, mainly, eleven elements of the Natya. They are: Rasa, Bhava, Abhinaya, Dharmi, Vrtti, Pravrtti, Siddhi, Svara, Atodya, Gana and Ranga. Among these, the Rasa is regarded as one of the most important theoretical aspects of the Natyashastra. According to Bharata, Rasa is the sum and substance of all Art- expressions; and, no sense proceeds without RasaNa hi rasādte kaścid artha pravartate (prose passage after verse 31, in Chapter Six).

The Natyashastra asserts that the goal of any Art form is to invoke Rasa, the aesthetic enjoyment in the mind and heart of the cultured spectator (sumanasa prekakā or Sahrudaya). And, such enjoyment is an emotional or an intellectual experienceāsvādayanti manasā tasman nāya- rasā sm (N.S.6.33).

The Chapters Six and Seven in the Natyashastra have been the mainstay of the Rasa concept in all traditional literature, dance and theatre arts in India. Bharata says that which can be relished – like the taste of food – is RasaRasyate anena iti rasaha (asvadayatva). Though the term Rasa is associated with palate, it is equally well applicable to the delight afforded by all forms of Art; and, the pleasure that people derive from their art experience. It is literally the activity of savouring an emotion in its full flavour. The term might also be taken to mean the essence of human feelings.

[The Rasa-doctrine is also relevant to classical dance, particularly since its performance is pervaded by emotion; and, its presentation, in varied graceful and meaningful forms (Abhinaya), attempts to express those emotions. Further, the Rasa-principle also provides a philosophical framework for explaining the fundamentals of an aesthetic experience; and, how it relates to the human psychological processes.]

The famous Rasa sutra or the basic formula to invoke Rasa, as stated in the Nātyashāstra, is: vibhāva anubhāva vyabbhicāri samyogāt rasa nispattih (prose passage after verse 31, in Chapter Six).

Here, the Vibhāva represents the causes, while Anubhāva is the manifestation or the performance of its effect communicated through the Abhinaya.  The more important Vibhāva and Anubhāva are those that invoke the Sthāyi-bhāva, or the principle emotion at the moment of the performance. The Sthayi-bhava combines and transforms all other Bhavas; and, integrates them with itself.

Thus, the Rasa-sutra states that the Vibhāva, Anubhāva, and Sanchari or the Vyabhicāri-bhāvas coming together (samyogād) with the Sthayi-bhava result in Rasa (rasa nispattih).

Abhinavagupta, in his commentary, initially takes a review of the explanations given by the previous authorities and scholars; then sums them up; and, later provides his own comments and explanations. He remarks that he is formulating his own theories on the foundation laid by others; and, his views are only an improvement on what has been said by the earlier interpreters.

Abhinavagupta begins by explaining his view of aesthetics and its nature. Then goes on to state how that aesthetic experience is created. During the process, he comments on Bharata’s concepts and categories of Rasa and Sthayi-bhava, the dominant emotive states, and of Sattvika, the involuntary bodily reflexesHe also examines Bharata’s other concepts of Vibhava, Anubhava and vyabhichari (Sanchari) bhavas and their subcategories Uddipana (stimulantand Aalambana (ancillaries).

Abhinavagupta comments on these concepts in the light of Shaiva Pratyabhijna philosophyand explains the process of One becoming many and returning to the state of repose (vishranthi)). He also brings in the elements of Abhivyakti (an expression that suggests release from ignorance, resulting in Camatkara); and Dhvani (aesthetic-suggestions) as expounded by Anandavardhana (820-890) in his Dhvanyaloka.

 [At places, Abhinavagupta uses the term Samvitti, in place of Rasa, as a synonym. He also uses the term Visranti to denote the state of aesthetic experience, which is a state of complete repose. These terms (Samvitti and vishranthi) are used in the Shaiva Pratyabhijna philosophy to represent Ananda, the absolute bliss. And, Abhivyakti is also a term of that branch of philosophy.]

For Abhinavagupta, soaked in sublime principles of Shaiva Siddantha, the aesthetic experience is Ananda, the unique bliss. He regards such aesthetic experience as different from any ordinary experience; and, as a subjective realization. It is Alukika (out of the ordinary world), he said, and is akin to mystic experience. That experience occurs in a flash as of a lightening; it is a Chamatkara, the state of blissful aesthetic experience. It is free from earthly limitations; and, is self luminous (svaprakasha). It is Ananda; a direct experience; a state of pure and undefiled joy. This Rasa-ananda, he says, is almost to be equivalent to the philosophic bliss (Brahma-ananda)

Abhinavagupta interpreted Rasa as a ‘stream of consciousness’ (Caitanya-Vahini) that is not restricted by time and place.

Sa ca rasana na pramanya vyaparo na kara kavya aparah svayam tu na apramanikah /

As regards poetic experience, according to Abhinavagupta, its Rasa is in understanding (rasana ca bodha-rupaiva) the essential inner meaning of Kavyatatkavyartho rasah. It is realized by the cultured reader with empathy (Sahrdaya) who has a clear perspective – Adhikari catra vimala pratibhana sahrdayah. He states that the poet’s experience is the seed of poetry; the poem he composes is the tree; and, the reader’s experience is the fruit of the tree

Tadevam mulam bijasthaniyat kavigatah rasah; Kavirhi samajikatulya eva tatah vrksa sthaniyam kavyam tatra puspadi-sthaniyo abhinayadinata-vyaparah; tatra phala-sthaniyah; samajika-rasa-asvadah tena rasa-maya-meva visvam.

According to Abhinavagupta, a real work of art, in addition to possessing emotive charge carries a strong sense of suggestion (Dhvani) and the potential to produce various meanings (Artha). It can communicate through suggestions and evoke layers of meanings and emotions.

A true aesthetic object, Abhinavagupta declares, not merely stimulates the senses but also ignites the imagination of the viewer. With that, the spectator is transported to a world of his own creation. That experience sets the individual free from the confines of place, time and ego (self); and elevates him to the level of universal experience.  It is liberating experience. Thus art is not mundane; it is Alaukika in its nature.

Abhinavagupta also talks about Sadharanikarana, the generalization. He points out that while enjoying the aesthetic experience, the mind of the spectator is liberated from the obstacles caused by the ego and other disturbances. Thus transported from the limited to the realm of the general and universal, we are capable of experiencing Nirvada, or blissfulness. In such aesthetic process, we are transported to a trans-personal level. This is a process of de-individual or universal – the Sadharanikarana.


 He then goes on to expand the scope and content of the Rasa spectrum by adding the ninth Rasa to the eight enumerated by Bharata: and, to establish the Shantha-rasa, the Rasa of tranquility and peace, as the most significant Rasa.

Abhinavagupta considered Shantha Rasa (peace, tranquillity) – where there is no duality of sorrow or happiness; or of hatred or envy; and, where there is equanimity towards all beings – as being not merely an additional Rasa; but, as the highest virtue of all Rasas. It is one attribute, he said, that permeates everything else; and, in to which everything moves back to reside (hridaya_vishranthi). 

na yatra dukha na sukha na dveo nāpi matsara sama sarveu bhūteu sa śānta prathito rasa

Following Abhinavagupta, the theory of Nine-Rasas, the Navarasa, became universally acceptable in all branches of Indian aesthetics. And, Shantha Rasa has come to be regarded as the Rasa of Rasas.


The Eighth Chapter discusses the detailed description of the fourfold Abhinaya (Angika, Satvika, Vachika and Aaharya). These relate to physical representations through the use of various gestures and postures. That is followed by the descriptions of the expressions the movements of the head, glances, action with pupils, the eye-lids, the eyebrows, the nose and Nostrils, cheeks, lower-lip, neck; and through the colours of the face.

It also deals with two types of Angika-abhinaya. The first one analyses the movement of the principal and subsidiary limbs (Anga, Pratyanga and Upanga); and, the second deals with the combination of these primary movements such as Caris and Mandala. The topics in Chapter Eight are directly connected with the general discussions in the first five Chapters and therefore, the eighth Chapter could be considered as the continuation of the first five Chapters


The commentaries on Chapter Nine to Twelve of the Natyashastra provide abundant details on the Angikabhinaya. But, Abhinavagupta does not offer any fresh or additional information on the subject; although his comments help us to visualize the required body movements.

In Chapter Nine, the Angikabhinaya, various expressions produced by the gestures and movements of the hands (Hastha) and the limbs are discussed. Here, he details 24 kinds of single-hand gestures (Asamyukta-hasta-bheda); 13 kinds of gestures devised by the combination of both the hands (Samyukta hasta bheda); and, 27 kinds of Nrtta-hasthas, gestures in pure Dance movements.

He explains the Abhinaya-hasthas (expressive gestures through hands) as the indicators of the inner thoughts and emotions. He says; while inner feelings, thoughts etc., are the causes (Vibhava), their manifestations through Abhinaya, the expressions through hand-gestures (Abhinaya-hasthas) is Anubhāva. The two together, in combination with the Sthayi-bhava (dominant mood or sentiment) produce Rasa.

As regards the movements of the arms (Bahu), Abhinavagupta says, with the numerous circular movements (vaichitrena bahu paryayayena) of the arms in different speeds, combined with various hand and wrist positions, can generate innumerable Hastha gestures:

Yetheshu karaneshu chatushra drutha Madhya vilambitadi vaichitrena bahu paryayayena cha samasthani yojina yada niyujyante tada patha vartanadi shatasaharenyvam ta brthani


The tenth Chapter of the commentary deals with the actions and movements of actions related with chest, sides, belly, waist, thighs, shanks and feet. In all these descriptions, Abhinavagupta, generally, follows Bharata.

Here, while dealing with Angika-abhinaya related to the actions of the feet (Cari-vidhana), Abhinavagupta enumerates and defines thirty-two kinds of Caris, of which sixteen are termed Bhaumi (ground) and the other sixteen are called Akasiki (aerial).The Caris are considered as the most important single unit of movement in the Nrtta technique.

Further, as many as forty Sthanas or standing postures are discussed under six category of static postures along with their applications. They are: Vaisnava, Samapada, Vaisakha, Mandala, Alidha and Pratyalidha, which are used variously.

There are also the descriptions of four types of Nyayas   (Bharata, Sattvata, Varsaganya and Kaisika). These are the ways of regulating (niyante)  how the various  weapons are to be handled while staging a fight on the stage; and, how the actors move about on the stage using various Caris and Angaharas (combinations of Caris and Karanas)


The Eleventh Chapter of Abhinavabharati interprets Mandala-vikalpanam, which are more complicated movements of the legs involving combinations of Caris. These Mandals are again classified into two categories:  Akasa-mandala (aerial, having ten varieties); and,   Bhu-mamandala (ground, having eight varieties).


The Chapter Twelve of the commentary describes different types of gaits (Gati) to be adopted by various types of characters in different contexts and in different states (Bhavas). It mentions the different gaits for men, women, the stout, the intoxicated, the Jester etc. It also enumerates the Gatis or gaits suitable for Kings and superior characters as also for middling characters. The walking styles for women of various classes are also described.

Abhinavagupta quotes the ancient authority Kohala while discussing the Gatis; and suggests specific Taalas and Layas (beats and tempo) that are suitable for each type of character depending upon the context.


Chapters Twenty-one and Twenty-two provide detailed descriptions of Aharya-bhinaya (use of costumes, stage properties and other external aids which are essential both to dance and drama); Samanyabhinaya and Chitrabhinaya (general and special histrionic expressions).

While dealing with Aharya-bhinaya, Abhinavagupta stresses the importance of Aharya among other Abhinayas. He details the different types of costumes of various characters of different classes; the various types of dresses which should be used in dramatic representation; the makeup of different characters ; and , the stage settings (Nepathya). He also mentions the details of the ornaments suitable for men and women; making up the face and other limbs with grease paints etc; the use of natural and subsidiary colours; appliance of false hair; wearing of masks etc. These details help us to understand the technicalities of stage presentation as practiced in the Eleventh century.


Then Abhinavagupta describes the physical, natural, involuntary graces in women, men; twelve forms of voice expression; eight varieties of heroines in love (Astavidha Nayikas); ten kinds of Kama-avasthas (states of being in love) ; the acting of various types of women in love ; and, the general exclusions on the stage


At the beginning of twenty-fifth chapter of Abhinavagupta’s commentary, there is the explanation of Citra-abhinaya.

While the Samanya-abhinaya is the harmonious use of four kinds of Abhinayas; the Citra-abhinaya applies only to the special representation of various objects and ideas. The latter is employed for indicating morning, sunset etc. Seasons, birds, animals, demons, celestials, expression in soliloquies, aside etc. In addition, Abhinavagupta mentions the representation of some other objects and ideas like God Skanda, Goddess Sarasvati etc. according to the view of Kohala and others.

Abhinavagupta remarks; whether it is Samanya-abhinaya or Chitra-abhinaya, what is more important is the ardent practice (Shikshitum abhyasitam) and the state of mind of the performer (Chitt-vrtti pradanam).

Shikshitum abhyasitam va prayoktam drustam va, chitta-vrtti pradanam chedam natyamiti tadeva vakyum nyayam


In Chapter Thirty-one, Abhinavagupta discusses Taala (time units); Laya (rhythm or tempo); the qualities of singer and instrumentalists; and delicate, graceful dance (Lasya)

According to him, Taala is the foundation of music and also of dance. He says the Taalas are of two types, Tryasra and Caturasra.  He explains three kinds of Laya (tempo) – Druta (slow), Madhya (medium) and Vilambita (fast).  He also explains Kala as the measure of time in the musical sphere. He interprets the Margas of rhythm which are of three kinds – Citra, Vrtti and Daksina.

Abhinavagupta interprets Lasya as a form of graceful dance. Lasya is the term that Abhinavagupta uses to indicate the Sukumara-prayoga of the Natyashastra. There, the Sukumara-prayoga meant a graceful dance with delicate movements (Angaharas). And, Sukumara-prayoga did not mean a feminine style of dancing, as was interpreted later. Such distinctions, as between masculine and feminine dances, were not made in the Natyashastra.

Abhinavagupta seemed to be following the contemporary usage of the term Lasya to mean a feminine style of dancing.

 He also used the term Masrana-Nrtta to indicate the softer type of dance (Lasya) aligned with Srngara, Karuna Rasas and so on. This, he described, as the feminine type of dance.


Abhinavagupta’s commentary ends with chapter Thirty-seven. There is a narration (Guhya-tattva-kathana) of the mythical account of how King Nahusha encouraged Bharata to promulgate Natyaveda on the earth.  

This final Chapter praises the Anuttara-marga (or Anupaya-marga) as the highest and the best method (upaya) to attain liberation – tato pi paramam jnanam upayadi-vivarjitam…Anuttaram.

Bharata also concluded his work with the Benediction:

What more should I say? Let there be  peace and plenty  on this Earth ; and let it be free from famine and diseases, for all times. Let there be peace and prosperity among all beings and humans; and, let the Ruler protect thus the entire earth.

ki cānyat samprapūrā bhavatu vasumatī, naṣṭa-durbhika-rogā śāntir go brāhmaānā bhavatu , narapati pātu pthvī samagrām NS.37.31

Nātyaśāstram sampūram



In the next part we shall move on to other texts dealing with Dance and its several aspects




Part Eleven

References and Sources

  1. Movement and Mimesis: The Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic Tradition by Dr Mandakranta Bose
  2. Abhinavabharati – Chapter Three
  3. The Natyashastra
  4. Natyashastra and Rasa
  5. Abhinavagupta’s philosophy of Rasa
  6. Abhinavagupta 
  7. Abhinavabharati




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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

Lakshana Granthas – continued

2. Tamil Traditions


The ancient Tamil classic Silappadikaram (dated around the second century) attributed to Prince Ilango Adigal; and, Manimekalai by the Poet Chithalai Chathanar (around the fifth century) have abundant references to Dance. The Silappadikaram also refers to another text on Dance: Jayantam, which prescribed the rules for the dance. These were said to be part of the Tamil Art traditions, the Muthamizh.

There are two existing commentaries on Silappadikaram; one of which is ancient – the Arumpadavuri; and the other is from the fifteenth century by Adiyarkunallar.

The Silappadikaram mentions many technical terms related to Dance. Some of those terms are similar to the ones that figure in the Natyashastra; such as: Natya, Ranga (Arangam, Aadukalam), Pindi, Karana and Mandala (Mandila) etc. There are also many Tamil technical terms; such as: elir kai, tolir kai, arangu, izzippu and such others.

And many concepts and techniques of the Natyashastra are adopted into the Tamil texts. For instance; Nilai, meaning stance, are the six Sthanas as in the Natyashastra; and, Padam the feet variations and the sixteen Angakriyas are also the same.

In its Third Chapter Arangetrakadai, the Silappadikaram mentions how a dancer should have mastery in ‘Pindiyum Pinayalum Ezhirkaiyum Tozhirkaiyum’. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam explains how these are related to the terms in Bharata’s Natyashastra: ‘Pindi’ denotes group dance; ‘Pinayal’ means chain-formation, i.e., the dance where dancers form links; ‘Ezhir kai’ meant Nrtta hastas; and, ‘Tozhir kai’ meant Abhinaya hasta.

The scholars regard Silappadikaram as a Lakshya- Grantha, a text for practice of dance, based on Natyashastra, a Lakshana Grantha, a text which provides theoretical principles.

Silappadikaram refers to the contemporary streams of classical and folk dances. The Dance was known as Aadal or Arangetru Kadai; but more popularly as Kuttu. The folk dances were known as Archiyar Kuravai-kuttu. And Music was: Kadaladu Kadai, Konalvari and Venir Kadai. The folk- Kuttu tradition flourished under the patronage of temples. And, even today the Teukuttu dance troupes perform mythological dance dramas during festivals.

The text also explains the classification of two distinct dance types, prevalent in that era, the Aham (Ahakuttu) and Puram (Purakuttu).

Under the Ahakuttu, twin concepts are explained; such as, Aryam and Tamil; and Lyalpu and Desi.

Further Santi Kuttu, representing classical form of dance was divided into four types, namely Chokkam; Mey kuttu; Avinaya kuttu and Natakam. Of these, the Chokkam or Suddha Nrttam (pure dance, Nrtta) was having the 108 Karanas.

The other was Vinoda Kuttu or Metu Kuttu (also called Ahamargam) for entertain­ment, depicting love themes. It was of three kinds, viz., Desi, Vadagu and Singalam.

It again had three divisions – Sama Kuttu, Vanmai Kuttu (Tandava) and Menmai Kuttu (Lasya).

Under the other category, Purakuttu, three modes of dances were mentioned as: Perunatai, Charyay, and Bhramari.


As regards the Dancers, apart from the Devadasis-the temple dancers – the Silappadikaram mentions other classes of female dancers. It appears during the time of the Silappadikaram a three-fold classification of female dancers existed as: ganikas, kuttis and adal siladi – corresponding to the later classification tahyilar, patiyilar and devaradiyal.

The text, in that connection, names these other classes of dancers as: kaval ganika (women guards); kalattiladum kutti (dancers in the military camp); adal kuttis (dancers who performed ahakkuttu or srngara dances like padams), and so on.

Women musicians and dancers were known in the Tamil country from the Sangam Age. The daughter of the Chola King, Karikal Chola, Adi Mandi was an acclaimed dancer. She danced with bells around her waist to the sweet sound of the golden symbols, a kind of musical instrument. The Sangam literature refers to Panar and Viraliyar, the musicians and dancers. Both formed into a troupe and travelled together to perform in front of patrons.  They played on the Yal (a kind of lute); Maddala, Kudamula (drums); and, on the Amantirikai i.e., Edakkai, all of which blended in unison beautifully.

In one of the verses in Ahananuru, the dance of the girl Virali is compared to the movement of the peacock with spread out plumes.


Madhavi, the most beautiful accomplished dancer by profession (Parathiyar), described as Vanavamakal (divine woman), is one of the three leading ladies in the Silappadikaram.

It is said; Madhavi’s training began when she was a young girl of just five years; and, it lasted rigorously for seven years

From the early age of five, for seven years, Madhavi had been put through a course of rigorous training. Every single day her teachers would arrive in Morning and evening; and, she sang scales and practiced dance movements. More masters came. She learnt to accompany herself on the Yal. She learnt the fine points of the flute and drum. Later still, came the composers, insisting that she should bring out all possible shades of meaning from every song she sang or danced to. And, till the day of her first performance she kept practicing, rehearsing strenuously and planning out every detail.


Madhavi was described in the ‘Ararigetru kaathai’ Chapter of Silappadikaram, as a woman (matantai), having broad shoulders (perun tol) and curly hair (puri kuzhal) adorned with pollen (taatu avizh) of flowers. Madhavi studied dancing (aatal), paatal (singing) and the art of enhancing beauty (azhaku). She was capable of singing without even one (onru) defect (kurai) in three (muunru) modes (kuur) ; and, was an authority (pataam) in her field. She studied these skills with great effort (iyatti) for seven years (eezh aantu). After twelve (eer aaru) years (antu), she wished to show (kaattal) her performance before the king (mannar) of Pukar, who has the surrounding (chuul) sea (katal) as the boundary of his kingdom.


And Madhavi’s Arangetram (Talai Arangerai) took place in the presence of the Chola King Karikala Peruvalathin, in his Royal court, located in the famous city of Kaveri poom-pattinam.

The Chapter Arangetrakadai, opens with a description of Madhavi and then her troupe, consisting of a very learned Natyacharya or Nattuvan (Adal Asiriyan), a Sangitacharya or musician (Isai Asiriyan), the player on the drum (Tannumai Asiriyan), and an accompanying orchestra of a flutist and a lute-player (Kuzhalon and Yal Asiriyan). 


After describing the qualities of these accompaniments, the poem describes the stage on which Madhavi gave her performance.

The debut of Madhavi is said to have commenced by rendering the innovatory songs called the ‘Vara’ or ‘Tevara padal’ collectively sung by a group of songsters including the old dancers.

Madhavi, of long, black-flower-like eyes, adorned with rich ornaments, performed Cittira Karanam (perhaps similar to the Purvaranga or invocation, as mentioned in Natyashastra).

She performed as many as eleven types of Kuttus or dances (Mandalas – combination of 8-10 Caris), in all the tempos, in accordance with the dancing conventions; and thus, completing Antarakottu. And, then she demonstrated all the four parts of the auspicious Palai song, displayed in the Desi dance. She began with the Mandalam having three beats; and ended with ‘Eka talam‘ having one beat. In the same manner, she danced the Vaduhu dance. Madhavi, in her performance, effortlessly followed the prescriptions of the Dance-scriptures.

Her performance revealed that she knew (purintu) all the divisions (vakut) of Nrtta and Nrtya (naattiya nannuul); and, the authentic text on dancing (Natyashastra).

It is believed; unlike the present day practice, where the dancer enacts different characters by wearing same costume (Ekaharya), Madhavi is said to have adorned different costumes suggestive of the character portrayed by her in all the eleven dances.

The fawn eyed Madhavi, strikingly beautiful with perfect features, lit with vivacity and laughter, in her quick movements dazzled like a golden creeper (pon iyal) throbbing with vitality, adorned with flowers (puun koti).

The king (ventan) awarded her with a garland of leaves and flowers (ilai puun kotai), in accordance with (vazham ait) the established custom (iyalp-p-inil).  He also rewarded her with one thousand and eight (aayirattu en) Kazhanchu (pieces of pure Gold) as per the tradition (viti murai). She was awarded the title of  Talaik-koli, in recognition of her skill and her achievement. She was also presented with the sacred-staff Talai-kol, a traditional gift given to first-time-performers (talai-arangu-eri).


[As regards Talai-kol, it was a sort of staff wielded by the dance-master to regulate the dance. It was conceived as a symbol of Indra’s son.  It was crafted out of the handle (kaampu) of a white umbrella (ven kutai) that belonged to noble person (per icai) or a king (mannar) or a great sage (periyar).

Its middle (itai nilam) was decorated with the best Navalam; covered with plates of gold (polam} ; and, adorned with  nine kinds of gems (nava Mani), studded (ozhukki) in its joints (kan itai), forming a beautiful pattern. It had an emblem of Jayanta (cayantan}, the son (ciruvan) of Indra (Intira). The finished rod was offered worship (vantanai) in the palace (koyil) of the Chola king (mannavan), who sits under a white Umbrella (ven kutai).


On an auspicious day (nalam taru naal),  Madhavi washed (manni) the rod (kol) with holy waters of the Cauvery (punniya nan neer) in a golden pot (por kutam) and adorned (anintu) it with a garland (malai) . It was then publicly (paracinar) placed on the head (tatakkai) of the sixty year old royal-elephant (aracu-uvaa), along with a beautiful (puun) golden (polam) vessel (otai) containing sandal (Cantaam) and other auspicious things.]


Shri T. S Parthasarathy, in his article Bharathanatyam in History, writes: Arangetram was called Talai Arangeral. As soon as the dancer got on to the stage two songs were sung and they were called daiva-padal or prayer. After this, all the instruments on the stage were played together; and, this was called as Antarak-kottu. The dance started after this; and, the girl first danced desi-koothu. This would start with Matta-talam and end with Eka-talam. The next item was Margam for which a Prabandham was sung in the Pancha-talam.

The Chapter on dance, Arangetrakadai, elucidates, in great detail, the proficiency of the dance teacher and his skill as a choreographer and musician, and tie principles of stage management.

This chapter also gives a detailed account of the rules and principles pertaining to the dance music i.e. vocal as well as instrumental dance musical accompaniments. The importance of the proper instrumentation i.e., tuning and playing of different instruments such as Yal, flute and drum and the manner in which the combination of these instruments should exist and be executed which ultimately facilitate in heightening the aesthetic pleasure of the dance have been mentioned in elaborate measure.

In addition to this, Silappadikaram states the qualifications of a good dance teacher, known as ‘Adal asiriyan’, vocalist and other members of the orchestral troupe.

Regarding the dance teacher, it mentions that the adal asiriyan should be proficient not only in the eleven types of dances, but also should be well versed in its music ; and, must have thorough knowledge in the allied arts such as music, literature and should be capable of playing on different musical instruments too.


References and Sources


agni purana

3.Agni Purana

Agni Purana is one of the eighteen Puranas. It usually figures eighth in the list of eighteen. It is a medieval Purana that was, perhaps, compiled in stages during the Seventh and the Eleventh centuries. It is a voluminous work having as many as about 15, 000 or more verses , spread over 382 or 385 Chapters.

In its nature and content, the Agni Purana is a sort of an encyclopedia that covers ‘anything and everything’. It deals with wide-ranging subjects, such as: geography; cultural history; politics; education system; iconography; taxation theories; organization of army; theories on proper causes for war; diplomacy; local laws; building public projects; water distribution methods; trees and plants; medicine, Vastu Shastra (architecture); gemology; language; grammar; poetry; Alamkara, Chhandas; Rasa ; Riti; Yoga; food,; rituals and numerous other topics.

Just to gain a familiarity with the coverage of the Agni Purana, please click on HERE and on HERE.  

The initial Chapters of the Agni Purana describe about various incarnations of Lord, including Rama and Krishna. Other chapters describe about religious rituals especially those related to the worship of Lord Shiva. Many chapters have description about the earth, stars and constellations as well as the duties of the kings. The Agni Purana, generally,  is full of rituals

All this leads to the fact the Agni Purana was composed at a much later period , attempting to bring together , in a summary form, the stories, the rituals, and the details of various subjects that were described in the earlier Epics and the Puranas.

Therefore, none of the material in the Agni Purana is new or original. Its aim, perhaps, was to supplement the branches of traditional knowledge contained in the earlier texts; and, to collect and to preserve the core-topics of the important subjects, which were of current interest during the period of its compilation.

Thus, the Agni Purana, by its very nature is a summary. Therefore, its chapters are generally not long, they are very brief. And even when the stories, rituals and other information are given, they are in greatly summarized form.

Following that type of presentation, the Agni Purana, in its Chapters 340 and 34i , gives some information about Dance, particularly relating to Anga-karma Abhinaya (actions, gestures and movements) , largely taken from the ancient Nrttasutra and the Natyashastra.

[Please click HERE for the text of the Agni Purana; and, refer to the portion commencing with the title Ntyādāv-aga-karma-nirūpaa; and, here for  Abhinayādi-nirūpaa ]

In Chapter 340 (Aga-karma-nirūpaa) , the Agni Purana mentions the actions of the Angas and Pratyangas; thirteen actions of head (Shirobedha); which are the same as given In the Natyashastra.

Thirty-six movements of eyes (Dṛṣṭī-lakaam) are mentioned, among which, eight are the Rasa-drstis, related to the expressions of the various emotions and sentiments.

The Purana refers to nine actions of the eyeballs (Tara) (as compared to eight by the Natyashastra); but mentions by name only the twoBhramari and Calana.

Agni Purana mentions just four types of actions of the eyebrows (Bhru) – (Patana, Bhrukutimukha, Sthayi and Sanchari). However, the last two were not included among the seven types of eyebrow movements enumerated in the Natyashastra.

Agni Purana refers to six different actions of the nose (Nasika), without enumerating them by name. The Purana refers to nine actions of respiration (Nisvasa) . But, these were not mentioned In the Natyashastra.

The Purana refers to six actions of the lower lips (Adhara);  seven actions of the chin (Cibuca); six actions of the face (Mukha); and, nine actions of the neck (Griva) ; without , however ,  naming them .

The Agni Purana also refers to there are various actions of the hands (Hasthas) – single and combined (Asamykuta and Samyukta). It mentions the twenty-four Asamyukta-hasthas in the same order, with slight variation, as mentioned in the Natyashastra. As regards the Samyukta-hasthas, they are twelve in number (not thirteen as in Natyashastra). The Pushpaputa is omitted here.

[Similarly, the other Puranas, such as , the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata Purana and the Harivamsha  provide some general information of the Hastas.]

The Purana also refers to five actions of the chest (Urah) ;  five actions of the sides (Parsva) ; and, to  five actions of the thighs (Uru) . But, these are neither specifically named nor discussed.

Agni Purana names the three actions of the belly (Udara) as: Duratiksama, Khanda and Purna. The first one is mentioned in the Natyashastra, merely, as Ksama.

The movements of the feet (Pada-bedha) are mentioned as being various;  but without  mentioning  their specific numbers.


Thus, the Nrtyadi-ranga-karma, information about the bodily actions in Dance, is very brief. And, in certain cases, it slightly differs from the Natyashastra. Obviously, the Agni Purana obtained its information about Dance from another source also; perhaps from Nrtta-sutra, which is no longer extant.


The Agni Purana , in its Chapter 341, describes the importance of the four types of Abhinayas ; and , remarks that the four factors viz., Sattva, Vac, Anga and Aharya  play a dominant role in bringing out the best that exists in a dramatic composition and In the heart of  the dramatic personae.

Ābhimukhyan nayann arthān vijñeyo a’bhinayo budhai / caturdhā sambhava sattva vāg agā ahara rāśraya //AP_341.001//

stambhādi sāttviko vāgārambho vācika āgika / śarīrārambha āhāryo buddhyārambhapravttaya // AP_341.002//


References and Sources





  1. Vishnudharmottara

The Visnudharmottara Purana  (Ca. fifth or sixth century) is a   text that is Encyclopedic in its nature.  Apart from painting, image-making, Dancing and dramaturgy, it also deals with varied subjects such as astronomy, astrology, politics, war strategies, treatment of diseases etc.

The author asserts that the Vishnudharmottara  is but a compilation; and, is an attempt to preserve the knowledge that was hidden in older sources. Sadly, all those older texts are lost to us. Vishnudharmottara is thus the earliest exhaustive treatise available to us on the theory and practice of temple construction, painting,  Dancing and image making in ancient India.

The text, which is divided into three khandas (parts), has in all 570  Adhyayas  (chapters).  It deals with dance, in its third segment – chapters Twenty to Thirty-four.

The author follows the Natyashastra in describing the abstract dance form, Nrtta; and, in defining its function as one of beautifying a dramatic presentation. There are, however, slight variations in the enumeration of the Karanas, Angaharas and Hastas.

The focus of the text is on Nrtta, defining its vital elements such as Karanas, Cari etc., required in dancing. In addition, the author briefly touches upon the Pindibandhas or group dances mentioned by Bharata; and, goes on to describe VrttiPravrtti and Siddhi; that is – the style, the means of application and the nature of competence.


As regards its  structure and the contents of the Parts dealing with Dance:

:- In Chapter Twenty (the first chapter of the section), the author follows the Natyashastra in describing the abstract dance form, Nrtta; and, in defining its function as one of factors beautifying a dramatic presentation.

The Chapter Twenty deals with the appropriate places for the performance of Nrtta. It also discusses the aspects of the stage and the presentation of the preliminaries. The discussion includes the characteristics of actors; the four different types of Abhinayas, namely – Angika, VacikaSattvika and Aharya; and the names of all the complicated movements necessary for the composition of a dance sequence. In addition, the author briefly touches upon the Pindibandhas or group dances mentioned by Bharata; and goes on to describe  Vrtti,  Pravrtti and Siddhi, ; that is – the style, the means of application and the nature of competence.

:- The Twenty-first Chapter discusses Sthanas or postures while lying down (Shayana);,while the Twenty-second deals with the Sthanas to be assumed by persons of  different status , while sitting. The focus of these two chapters seems to be on dramatic presentation.

:- The twenty-third chapter is devoted to postures meant for both men and women.

:- The Twenty-fourth Chapter lists the movements of the major limbs, the Angas, along with the meaning attached to each of those movements. The major limbs, according to this text, are the head, the neck, the chest, the sides, the waist, the thighs, the shanks and the feet. In conclusion, the Chapter defines the Cari and the Karana, the two vital and complicated movements required in Dancing.

:- In the Twenty-fifth Chapter, the movements of the Upangas or minor limbs are discussed, including the glances of the eyes (Dristi bedha) that express the   Sthayi and Vyabhicari- bhavas; the movements of the pupils; the eyebrows; the nose (nostrils), chin and lips, as well as the application of these movements.

:- The Twenty-sixth chapter describes three types of hand-gestures (Hasthas), those made with one hand (Asamyukta), those made with both (Samyukta) – along with the meanings they can convey – and hand-gestures meant for dancing (Abhinaya), which convey no meaning (Nrtta-hastha).

:- The twenty-seventh chapter is devoted to the explanation of different kinds of Abhinaya and the costumes and decorations (Aharya) necessary for a performance.

:- The twenty-eighth chapter deals with Samanya-abhinaya, giving general directions for expressing different moods and responses to seeing, touching and smelling objects. Although the author designates this chapter as a discussion of Samanya-abhinaya, he includes Citra-abhinaya, that is, special presentations. In fact, this Chapter is a conflation of the contents of Chapters twenty-two and twenty-five of the Natyashastra; and, contains extensive quotations from it.

:- The Twenty-ninth chapter describes the Gatis, that is, gaits; while the Thirtieth discusses the nine Rasas; and the Thirty-first Chapter discusses  the Bhavas.

A new feature of the treatment of body movements that is added to the discussion of body movements appears in the Thirty-second Chapter, which deals with what is termed Rahasya-mudras, that is, hand-gestures meant for mystical and ritualistic purposes.

:- Continuing the discussion in the Thirty-third Chapter, the author lists more Mudras all meant for religious purposes, and calls them Mudra-hastas, and associates them with hymns to the gods and goddesses.

:- The Thirty-fourth and the final Chapter on dancing is devoted to the legend of the origin of dancing. Since the work is devoted to the worship of Vishnu, it is not surprising that its author should view Vishnu as the originator of the art of dancing.


The Vishnudharmottara is Vasihnava text, affiliated to the Pancharatra Agama, which is associated with the Vyuha doctrine. Here, Adi-Vishnu or Para–Vasudeva represents the Pancharatra ideology of the transcendental form (Para) of Vishnu the Supreme principle abiding in the highest realm Paramapada. Vishnu the Absolute, the Brahman, out of loving- compassion, voluntary assumed bodily forms so that the devotees may gain access to his subtle form.

According to Vishnudharmottara, it was Lord Vishnu who created the sublime Art of Dancing, which represents the three levels of existence in all the three worlds (Trai-lokasya-anukaranam).


The Nrtta created by Vishnu was composed of Angaharas and Karanas. The text considers Nrtta as the pure, absolute form of Dance; Natya as the depiction of the ways of the world (jagato-anukriya); and Nrtya as the factor that lends beauty to Natya- (VDP. 3.20.1)

The text declares that Dancing in the presence of the Lord is the true worship; it is the adoration of the divinity with one’s body, mind and soul. And, performing Dance as a spiritual discipline (Sadhana) is superior to offering flowers (pushpam, naivedyam) etc. It leads the way to liberation. Thus, the Art of Dancing, Nrtta, is regarded as Mangalya, auspicious and sacred devotional submission to Lord Vishnu.(VDP. 3.34 – 25,26,27 )

dancing in temple

The Vishnudharmottara emphasizes the inter relation, or rather the inter-dependence between the various art forms.  Sage Markandeya instructs : One who does not know the laws of painting (Chitra) can never understand the laws of image-making (Shilpa); and, it is difficult to understand the laws of painting (Chitra) without any knowledge of the technique of dancing (Nrtya); and, that, in turn, is difficult to understand without a thorough knowledge of the laws of instrumental music (vadya); But, the laws of instrumental music cannot be learnt without a deep knowledge of the art of vocal music (gana).

Whatever is prescribed for Nrtta is equally applicable to Chitra as both imitate the rhythm or Chhandas or the subtle aspect of the phenomenal world. Movements of eyes, lips and limbs, depiction of Bhava and Rasa (sentiments) and the various Mudra-s (postures), prescribed .for Dance are also followed in Chitra ; and, the same principles govern the practice of these two sets of Fine Arts, one performing and the other synthetic.

The main difference between the Dance and painting is that the former has Tala or Laya; because, it is related to Kaala (Time). And, the latter has Rupa (form) and Mana-Pramana (measures and proportions) ; because, it is related to Dik (Space) .

And between Dance and sculpture, , the human form is the instrument of expression; and, everything in the figure, the face, the hands, the posture of the limbs, the pose and turn of the body, each accessory has to be imbued with an inner meaning.  It manifests, on the  one hand, the basic idea;  and, on the other, suppresses anything which would mean an emphasis on the merely physical or sensuous.


The dance-posture gives each sculpture a rhythm which is its soul or spirit. Because of the fact that the rhythm arising out of dance-postures instils life into its form, the stone-mass seems to breathe and pulsate like a living organism. Dance (Nrtta) endows life to sculpture (Shilpa).  

Hence, the Sage Markandeya declared Nrtta and Chitra, to be art-forms par excellence  : ta eva chitre vijneya nrittam chitram param matam

Yatha nritte , tatha chitre  trailokya-anukritis smrita / drishtayas cha tatha bhava angopangani sarvasah / karas cha ye maya nritte purvokta nripasattama / ta eva chitre vijneya nrittam chitram param matam // 3.35.5-7//



As said earlier; the Vishnudharmottara generally follows the descriptions and technical details as given in the Natyashastra; but, with slight variations. For instance; it describes Tandava as a form of dance that is characterized by intense excitement and ferocious mood; and, it is to be performed by males. And, it describes Lasya as show of amorous expressions and graceful movements of limbs; and, it is performed by women. There also some other minor variations in the enumeration of movements of certain Angas, Pratyanga and Upangas.

It devotes more space to Nrtta and Angikabhinaya. It mentions that the ideal Nrtta is full of Rasa and Bhava. It follows Tala (rhythm), Kavya-rasa (meaning) and Gita (song and lyrics). It gives happiness; and increases the Dharma.

Rasena Bhavena samanvitan ca talanugam kavya rasanugam ca/ gitanugam Nrtta mukati dha Sukhapradam dharma vivardhanam (VDP. 3.20.1)

The Vishnudharmottara devotes three Chapters (24, 25 and 26) of its Third Khanda to discuss, in detail, the various aspects of the Angikabhinaya, which portrays actions; and, also reflects emotions through movement of the various parts of the body.

The Chapter Twenty four enumerates the movements of the major limbs, the Angas, along with the uses of each of those movements. The Chapter defines the Cari and the Karana, the two vital and complicated movements required in Dancing.

In the Twenty-fifth Chapter, the movements of the Upangas or minor limbs are discussed, including the glances of the eyes (Dristi bedha) that express the   Sthayi and Vyabhicari- bhavas; the movements of the pupils; the eyebrows; the nose (nostrils), chin and lips, as well as the application of these movements.

The Chapter Twenty-six  on the Hasthas (Hastha-adyaya) gives the descriptions of the three types of the arrangement of the Hasthas (Asamyukta, Samyukta and Nrtta-hastas)

As regards the Nrtta-hastas, The Vishnudharmottara emphasised that all the Nrtta hastas should be delicate, beautiful and charming. The main characteristic of Nrtya is Lalitya, delicately graceful.

The sage Markandeya remarks: The learned should make graceful movements of the Nrtta-hasthas; because, it is the grace and beauty that differentiates Nrtta from other movements (VDP. 3.26.95).

Karya lalita sancara nrttahasta para vidhau / lalityameva viterya pratibhodanam (3.26.95)



There is also a brief description of the Pindi or Pindibandha performed by groups of dancers; which is the technique of group formations, and, weaving patterns. Pindi is described in the Vishnudharmottara as having the shape of the symbol of a particular deity. In the Natyashastra, Bharata mentions several such Pindis; and, says that the Pindis of the presiding gods and goddesses will be marked with their own banners. Thus, the Īśvara piṇḍī  is for Īśvara; Sihavāhinī for Caṇḍikā; Śikhī piṇḍī for Kumar and so on.

dance costume


The whole of  27th Chapter is devoted to Aharyabhinaya, which deals with costume, ornaments, makeup , stage props etc. The Aharya has to be particularly suited to each type of character; and, has also to be relevant to the situation. The appropriate Aharya for each character is essential for bringing out the dramatic effect; and, often, the entire production depends on it.

The Aharyabhinaya is said to be of four kinds: Pusta; Alamkara; Angarachana; and, Sanjiva.

The Pusta refers to imitative forms made of clay, wood, cloth, leather or metal. These are the masks (Pratisirsani) of gods, demons, Yakshas, elephants, horses and birds, made by use of the Pusta techniques.

The Alamkara is adornment or decoration by means of costumes, garlands and ornaments etc.

The Angarachana (lit. Painting of limbs) is makeup by application of creams, colours, paints etc on the person of the actor.

And, Sanjiva is the use of living creatures, animals and birds.

For the Angarachana, the Vishnudharmottara mentions the rules that should be followed for gods, other beings and humans.  These have to be in accordance with the types of masks (Pratikira) and head gears or crests (Makuta or Kirita), beards, moustaches etc., of those characters.  

Three kinds of costumes are mentioned:  White, Variegated and according to male or female characters, as per the common practice.

The actors should wear the masks of various animals, and, similarly the symbols of various gods carrying their weapons should be represented by masks.

Bharata says that such different modes of dress, makeup and ornamentation should help the actors and actresses to enact their roles in a more credible manner, to bring out the right sentiment of the scene.

As regards colors with which the actors or dancers are to be painted, the Vishnudharmottara mentions five basic colors: white, red, yellow, black and green (blue?). It then enumerates five kinds of white and twelve kinds of black colors. And, by mixing one, two or three colors, with imagination, innumerable skin colors could be derived (VDP.3.27.8-9). It says, when the beauty of the limbs is increased with these colors, the presentation becomes more effective.

That is followed by specifying which characters among the gods, demons, serpents and humans should be painted with which colors. And it says, when no particular color is mentioned for a god, then it should be given Gaura (white) color.

Similarly, the text then specifies the colors of the costumes of different types of characters. It also mentions the various types of head gears, crests, masks, wigs and mustaches etc.

In short, it says, various accessories should be used , with intelligence, in accordance with the customs prevailing in the society.



The Chapter Twenty-eight is named Samanya-abhinaya. The Samanya-abhinaya is the harmonious use of four kinds of Abhinayas; and, Citra-abhinaya applies only to the special representation of various objects and ideas.

At first, the instructions are given about the representation of five qualities of senses viz. sound (sabda), touch (sparsa), form (rupa), taste (rasa) and smell (gandha) , through gestures according to their experiences (Anubhavas) and natural expressions. Then come the representation of particular objects. The various gestures and expressions are prescribed for the representation of Bhavas including Sthayi-bhavas occurring in different Rasas. The Abhinaya to show sky, morning, night, evening, day, deep darkness, the moon-light, the smoke, the fire and different seasons follow.



Chapters Thirty and Thirty-one give a very detailed description about the Abhinaya of the various Rasas and Bhavas by appropriate gestures. Here, the text discusses nine Rasas, including the Shanta-rasa, as compared to eight Rasas mentioned in the Natyashastra.

It also discusses forty-nine kinds of Bhavas, beginning with Hasa, the mirth; and, they should be skilfully combined with the Rasas.

The forty-nine Bhavas or psychological states, include:  the eight Sthāyi-bhavās; thirty-three Vyabhicāri-bhāvās; and, eight Sātvika-bhāvas – (excluding Vibhava   and Anubhava).

References and sources

  1. Shri Vishnudharmottara by Dr. Priyabala Shah
  2. Arts in the PuranasChapter Two- Dance by Dr. Meena Devadatta Jeste

All images are from internet


In the next part we shall move on to other texts dealing with Dance and its several aspects



Part Ten

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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven


1.Natyashastra –continued


The Natyashastra developed a remarkable approach to the structure of the human body; and delineated the relation between its central point (Nabhi, the navel), the verticals and horizontals. It then coordinated them, first with the positions and movements of the principal joints of neck, pelvis, knees and ankles; and, then with the emotive states, the expressions. Based on these principles, Natya-shastra enumerated many standing and sitting positions.

Accordingly, the various dance-poses and postures (like Cari and Karanas) are based on a system of medians (sutras), measures (maanas), postures of symmetry (bhangas)   and asymmetry (abhanga, dvibhanga and tribhanga); and, on the sthanas (positions of standing, sitting, and reclining). The concept of perfect symmetry is present in Nrtta; and, that is indicated by the term Sama. These principles were followed in the Shilpa (sculpture) and also in the Chitra  (painting) .

[As regards the Sutras, the vertical axis or the medians passing through the human body:

The Shilpa-shastra adopts the Angula as an unit of Tala. Different texts work out the exact proportions for the human form in terms of the Angula and Tala. But, Tala could be taken to be the length of the palm (from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger).

 The human form is not only divided into Tala on the basis of actual surface proportions but is also measured along various axes on different planes: the measures along these different sections guided the Indian sculptor in the making of images.  Five principal vertical axis (Sutra) are enumerated by the Shilpa-shastra texts.


The Brahma-sutra is the vertical axis or the imaginary line passing through the centre of the image and represents the direction of the pull of gravity. The Madhya-sutra is the medial line drawn from the centre of the crown of the head, through the centre of the chest, the navel, the knees, down to the inner sides of the feet. The Parsva-sutra is the vertical drawn from the side of the forehead, the cheek, the side of the arm, the centre of the thighs, the centre of the knee, and the centre of the ankle-joint. The Kaksa-sutra is drawn from the arm-pit, by the side of the hip and the calf, and terminates on the fifth toe of the foot. The Bahu-sutra is the vertical drawn from the shoulder-joint to the ground

The three horizontal axes which are commonly used are the Hikka-sutra (the line passing through the base of the neck), the Bhadra-sutra (passing through the navel) and the Kati-sutra which passes through the hips and the pelvic girdle.  The sculptor is thus provided with rules both for surface dimensions and for measurements along different vertical and horizontal planes and sections for every type of image.


Based on this, Any  movement  whatsoever  can be  comprehended  into  the deflexions (bhanga) i.e., the Sama-bhanga, the Abhanga, the Tribhanga and the Atibhanga, within the complex structure of the Angula, the Tala and the Sutra measures.


It is said; indeed, the Nrtta technique can be better understood if one understands the concept of the Sutras and Mana of the Shilpa. .

In Indian dancing, all its movements can be analyzed in terms of the relation of the different parts of the human body to the vertical median (the Brahma-sutra) on the one hand ; and,  the measurements along the different planes denoted by the area which would be covered by the Mana, the Pramana and the Unmana corresponding to the dimensions of height, breadth and thickness and the measurements of the inter spaces (upamana) and the periphery along the circumference (the Parimana) on the other.

The leg extensions of Mandalas and Sthanas of Indian dancing can be measured along the Pramana; the movements of different parts of the body, specially the chest etc, can be measured along the Unmana; the movements of the Recita type and the Bhramaris take into consideration the Parimana measurements. 

Just as Shilpa conceives of the deflections and poses of the human body along these different planes and areas of space, so also Nrtta conceives of movement in space along the three planes. There is no attempt to spread out, or to extend the limbs to the furthest point from the center of the body. The point of perfect balance (Sama) can be maintained if there is the minimum possible deviation from the center of gravity.


From this moment of complete poise and perfect balance, the next step is when slight movement is suggested without covering space ; but by shift of weight: this is the Abhanga pose, the point of unrest and not of movement: here there is only a slight flexing of one knee. Although the plumb line passes from the crown of the head to a point midway between the heels, it passes through the right of the navel (Nabhi) and not through the navel as in the Sama-bhanga pose. There is thus a shift of weight, which results in either a change in the position of the hip (Kati) or the placing of the foot, or sometimes by the deviation of the torso to one side.

But the placing of the feet is by far the most important method of depicting the Abhanga pose in both dancing and sculpture: the Tryasra placing of one foot, without the knee bend or the controlled Udvahita movement of the hips results in this stance: the sides (Parsva) move but slightly. In dancing, this pose is mentioned in the context of Sthanas for women, the Ayata and Avahittha sthana are fine examples of the Abhanga pose. Both in Indian sculpture and dancing, the Abhanga pose is never shown by a Kunchita or an Anchita foot; it is always the Sama-pada frontal position of one foot and slight Tryasra placing of the other


The Tribhanga indicates a complete shift of weight from one leg to the other; for, here, one leg is in contact with the ground, the other can be lifted up and drawn away and in doing so the balance has invariably to be maintained by shifting the torso to the opposite direction. There are, therefore, three distinct deviations of the head, torso, and the legs from the vertical median. The central plumb line passes through the left or right pupil, the middle of the chest, the left or right of the navel down to the heels.

The human figure is divided along the three horizontal Sutras and each unit moves in an opposite direction to the first: thus if the head and hips deflect to the right the torso deviates to the left. This is one of the significant similarities of technique between Indian sculpture and Indian dancing. The conception of the Tribhanga indicates clearly the basic laws which are followed in the depiction of human movement: the human form is broken up into the units of the head, the torso (above the navel line) and the lower limbs below the Kati sutra (hip line) and these are then manipulated in different ways.

The most striking similarity between the two arts is seen in the manipulation of the hands, termed Hastabhinaya in dancing and Hasta or Mudra in Indian sculpture. As in Indian dancing, so also in sculpture, the hand positions and movements constitute an important aspect of technique. Much of the sculpture-like quality of the dance lies in the accurate depiction of the hand movements and the arm position along with the Tribhanga posture.

All dance poses   can be classified and analyzed in terms of the Sama-bhanga, Abhanga and Tribhanga; and, conversely all examples of Indian sculpture can be analyzed in terms of the Anga and the Upanga of dancing, especially in terms of the static positions and individual movements of the different parts of the human body as described in the Natyashastra.

I acknowledge with thanks the source: Celebration of Life: A study of sculptural and mural depictions of Dance and Music in Buddhist Art of India ]


These, demonstrate the principles of stasis, balance, repose and perfect symmetry; And, they are of fundamental importance in Indian arts; especially in, dance, painting and sculpture.

In the Bharatanatya, the principal stance of a dancer is one in which the body is segmented into a series of triangles. As, Dr. Kapila Vatsayana explains: 

The first triangle is formed with the line joining the shoulder points as the base; and, with the waist (navel, Nabhi) as the Apex. This inverted triangle is further highlighted by the outstretched arms, which make another triangle, in space, on either side of the vertical median.

Another triangle is formed with the waist as the apex; the line joining the knees, in their extended position,  as the base.

The third triangle is formed with the line joining the two knees (flexed and outstretched), as the base; and, with its apex at the heels (where the feet are outstretched).

It is said; while performing Bharatanatya, the artist visualizes her body as made up of triangles; and, conceives her movements in space as following either straight lines or triangles. The steps of the dance are based upon a balanced distribution of body weight and firm positions of the lower limbs, allowing the hands to cut into a line, to flow around the body, or to take positions that enhance the basic form.

There is an incredible relation between dance, geometry and numbers. The postures are characterized by linear formations and circular patterns. The straight line patterns, circular movements and the symmetry in formation of the postures, all these are vital aspects of dance.  Certain postures create a wonderful symmetry, as in geometry, adding neat elegance and beauty to the performance. A combination of good posture, balance, centering symmetry and the geometric correctness gives you Angasudhi.

As regards the numbers, almost every movement of a  Bharatanatya composition is related to  numbers, such as :  3 (Thishram); 4 (Chaturashram); 5 (Khandam), 7 (Misram) and 9 (Sankirnam) in various permutations and combinations .

The flexed position of the knees, known as Ardha-mandala (or, Araimandi), is an integral body posture and an essential aspect of the Bharatanatya; and, almost the entire dance is executed in this positions. (For instance; the basic dance movements the Adavus are performed in Araimandi.) It is the starting position of Bharatanatya

araimandi (1)

In the Araimandi, which basically means half sitting posture, the body is divided into two equal triangles with their apex meeting at the navel (Nabhi) inside a square (Mandala). 

This is based in the concept of Mandala, where the human body is said to symbolize the unity and harmony that exists in the universe. It other words; the human body is conceived as a schematic visual representation of the universe. And, it is characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes.

Mandala, in Dance, is basically a standing posture. The Abhinaya Darpana describes ten such standing postures (Mandla-bedha) – Sthanaka (simple standing), Ayata, Alidha, Pratyalidha, Penkhana, Prewritten, Svastika, Motita, Samasuci and Parsvasuci.

Of which, the second one, the Ardha-mandala or Ayata Mandala is defined as: “Standing in Chaturasra, bending the knees slightly and obliquely and keeping a distance of Vitasati between the two feet “(A.D 263).

Vitastrya antaritau paadau  krutva tu chatursrakau . Tiryak kunchita janubhyam sthithirayath mandalam //AD.263 //


The execution of this posture is related to two basic requirements: the Sausthava and Chaturasrya :  (1) Sausthava (keeping different limbs in their proper position) – about which Bharata says that the whole beauty of Nrtta rests on the Sausthava , so the performer never shines unless he pays attention to this – Shobha sarvaiva nityam hi Sausthavam; and, (2) Chaturasrya (square composition of the body, mainly in relation to the chest) – about which Abhinavagupta remarks that the very vital principle (jivitam)  of the body, in dance, is based on  its square position (Chaturasrya-mulam Nrttena  angasya jivitam), and adds that the very object of Sausthava is to attain a perfect Chaturasrya.

The Araimandi or Mandala Sthana closely resembles Ayata Mandala (placing heels together and the toes facing outside, with the knees bent at a distance of 24 inches). And, therefore, maintaining Sausthava, keeping the body erect without a hunch, is an important of Araimandi. And, the distance from the navel to the head should be equal to the distance from the navel to the ground.

In this posture, the performer must half-sit i.e. at a position which is 3/4th of her height. The height of the dancer determines the actual measures and distances in an Araimandi.

The body should maintain a very upright posture with a good Sausthava or a straight back without any hunching.  The spine should be erect with the hands either stretched out or lodged securely on the waist. The raised elbows should in line with the shoulders, which should neither be raised nor drooped. The hands should be always kept a span away from the chest. The knees must be bent laterally making an angle. There must be a gap between the ankles which is probably equivalent to three fingers of your hand. This will give a perfect symmetry of the body (Anga Shuddam); forming dual typical triangular shape for the body and stability to dance.  The eyes must look straight and of course with a beautiful smile!

In the Araimandi, the dancer taps the floor with foot in (half-squatting) position with the heels of both feet together, and toes of both foot pointed to the opposite direction, a diamond shape will be maintained between the thighs and legs.

The Araimandi closely resembles the demi-plié of western ballet, where there is greater emphasis on the knee turn out

demi pile




The most striking feature of classical Indian dances is the use of hands, the Hasthas, in the Angikabhinaya. It is of vital importance both in the enactment of Abhinaya and in Nrtta pure dance gestures. The hands , in Dance, are said to be like the voice for a singer. It is the medium for giving expression to a thought, emotion or for symbolizing an object.

[Though Natyashastra is the basic text, the practitioners of today are, mostly, guided by the Abhinaya Darpana and other texts.]

Bharata devotes Chapter Nine to Hasthas and their uses in the Natya (hastā-dīnā pravakyāmi karma Nātya-prayojakam NS.9.3)

Bharata elaborately discusses the use of hand-gestures under both the Abhinaya and the Nrtta. Then again, he classifies the Hasthas as those indicated by a single hand (Asamyukta-hastha) and those by the combination of both the hands (Samkukta-hastha).

Under the Asamyukta-hastha (single hand), twenty-four types of gestures are described. And, under the Samkukta-hastha (hands combined), thirteen types of gestures are described. Further, under the Nrtta (pure-dance movements), thirty types of Nrtta-hasthas (movements of wrist and fingers) are described.

Thus, in all, Bharata enumerates sixty-seven Hastha gestures under three broad categories. Each of these sixty-seven hand-gestures is assigned a name. And, in most cases, the object or idea denoted by that name constitutes the principle application (Viniyoga) of that Hastha.


Asamyuta-hastas: (Chapter 9-Verses 4 to 7) :

  • (1) Pataka (flag);
  • (2) Tripataka (flag denoted by three fingers);
  • (3) Kartarimukha (sissors-blades);
  • (4)  Ardhachandra  (crescent moon);
  • (5) Arala (bent);
  • (6) Shukatunda (parrot’s beak);
  • (7) Musti (fist);
  • (8) Shikhara (peak);
  • (9) Kapittha (elephant-apple);
  • (10) Katakamukha (crab-face);
  • (11)Sucyasya (Sucimukha-needle);
  • (12) Padmakosa (lotus-bud);
  • (13) Sarpasirsa (snake-head);
  • (14) Mrigasirsa (deer-head);
  • (15) Kangula (Langula-for denting fruits);
  • (16) Alapadma (Alapadya, Alapallava – full blown lotus);
  • (17) Chatura (four fingered);
  • (18) Bhramara (bees);
  • (19) Hamsasya (swan-beak);
  • (20) Hamsapaksa (swan-wings);
  • (21) Sandamsa (pincers) ;
  • (22) Mukula (flower-bud) ; (23) Uranabhana (spider); , and
  • (24) Tamracuda .

[For illustrations of the Asumyukta Hastas, please click here]


Samyuta-hastas: (Chapter 9-Verses 8 to 10) :

  • (1) Anjali ( putting together two Patakas ; joining the two palms together);
  • (2) Kapota (pigeon);
  • (3) Karkata (crab);
  • (4) Svastika ;
  • (5) Kataka-vardhamanaka (khataka – one kataka or half-closed hand is placed upon another);
  • (6) Utsanga ( two Arala-hands are contrarily placed);
  • (7) Nishadha (the Mukula -hand covers the Kapittah hand);
  • (8) Dola (two Pataka-hands hanging down);
  • (9) Pushpaputa (two Sarpa-sarira -hands with their fingers close to one another meeting on oneside closely);
  • (10) Makara (two Pataka-hands placed one over the other and facing downward);
  • (11) Gajadanta (elbows and shoulders in sarpasirsa-hands bent toward each other);
  • (12) Avahittha (two sukatunda-hands meet each other on the chest ; are bent; and , then slowly lowered); , and 
  • (13) Vardhamana ( two hamsapaksa -hands held in opposite direction) 

[For illustrations of the Samyukta-hastas, please click here.]


Nrrtta-hastas : (Chapter 9 -Verses 11-17) :

The Nrtta-hastas , though suggest movement of the fingers , are invariably related to movement of the arms. Here, the position and the direction of the movement of the palms are considered important.The movement of the wrist also determines the nature the Hastha. A different meaning is suggested if the movement of the wrist and the facing of the palm are changed. Thus, the Nrtta-hasthas are related to the direction and the movement of the wrists, arms and shoulders ; and, the manipulation of the fingers and palms.

  • (1) Chaturasra;
  • (2) Udvrttha;
  • (3) Talamukha;
  • (4) Svastika;
  • (5) Viprakirna;
  • (6) Arala Katakamukha;
  • (7) Aviddhavakra ;
  • (8) Suchimukha;
  • (9) Rechita;
  • (10) Ardharechita ;
  • (11) Uttanavanchita ;
  • (12) Pallava ;
  • (13) Nitamba;
  • (14) Kesabandha;
  • (15) Lata;
  • (16) Karihasta;
  • (17) Pakshavanchitaka ;
  • (18)Pakshapradyotaka;
  •  (19)Garudapaksha
  •  (20)Dandapaksha;
  •  (21) Urdhvomandali;
  •  (22) Parshvamandali ;
  •  (23) Uromandali; 
  • (24) Urahparsvardha-mandali;
  •  (25) Mushtikasvastika;
  • (26) Nalinipadmakosa ; 
  • (27) Alapallava;
  • (28) Ulbana
  •  (29) Lalita; and
  • (30) Valita.

[For illustrations of the Nrtta-hastas, please click here]

The Vishnudharmottara (3.26.95) observes that the essential aspect of the Nrtta-hasthas is the element of grace and beauty (Lalitya). the actions should be eloquent , smooth and graceful. The movement of the arms should go with those of the other limbs (Pratyanga and Upanga); and , contribute to enhance the Bhava and the Rasa of the performance



Among  all these Hasthas, there are some basic Hasthas such as: (1) the pataka-hastha , with the hand held upright, fingers fully extended  and the thumb bent so as to touch the base of the forefingers; (2) the Musti-hastha in which all the forefingers are folded, with the thumb resting on them ; or , (3) the padmakosa-hastha , which is made of hallow palms with fingers slightly apart and cupped. the remaining gestures seem to be variations of these basic Hasthas. 


(1) In other texts, the Hasthas are often referred to as ‘Mudra-s’)

(2) In some versions of the Natyashastra, the total number of these three types of Hasthas is given as Sixty four – Catuhsasthi. Dr. ManMohan Ghosh notes on page 171, foot note 3, states that Catuhsasthi in the text should be amended to read as Saptasasthi; for, the actual numbers amounts to 67 and not 64.  I have followed Dr. Ghosh’s version.

(3) The Abhinaya Darpana also carries enumerations and descriptions of the uses of the Hasthas: 28 Asamyukta-hastas (verses 88-92, and their uses in Verses 88-171); 23 Samyukta-hastas (Verses 172-175; and their uses in verses 176-203); and 13 Nrtta-hasthas (Verses 248-249).

Thus, the numbers in each type of the Hasthas varies from those given in the Natyashastra. And, the number of the three types of Hasthas together amount to 64 (as compared to 67 in the Natyashastra).

In many cases, the names of the Hasthas and their uses differ from those given in the Natyashastra.

Natyashastra describes the thirty Nrtta-hastas – pure dance hands. It also refers to their uses in verses 184-209 of Chapter 9. There is description of three basic movements of these hastas (Hasta-pracara) viz. palms kept upwards (Uttana); downwards or oblique (Adhomuka); finger pointing sideways (Parsvaga). These movements are found both while performing pure dance (Nrtta) and for the representation of Abhinaya.

Some of the hand gestures for pure dance (Nrtta) in Abhinaya Darpana are different from those mentioned in the Natyashastra. The Abhinaya Darpana has only thirteen number of Nrtta hastas.  These Nrtta hastas are all adopted from the Asamyukta and Samyukta hastas listed in its own text (Abhinaya Darpana). In the Natyashastra, the Nrtta-hastas are all different.]

All most all the Hasthas find use in the Nritya (the dance movements with Abhinaya). But, in the Nrtta (pure dance) the commonly used Nrtta-hasthas are only the: Pataka, Tripataka, Suchi, Katakamukha, Musti and Alapadma.

The Hand-gestures constitute a very important aspect of the Abhinaya rendering to indicate or to suggest ideas, emotions, actions and objects; and, to bring out the meaning of the words sung or of the story. They also express concepts like truth, beauty, or the passage of time. The same Hasta, used with different arm movements or in a different context, can have a different meaning. It is, therefore, essential that the Hasthas should be well coordinated with the expressions of the face, of the eyes and the eye-brows to depict the apt transitory states (Sanchari-bhavas) of the dominant emotional state (Sthayi-bhava) of the Dance-item.


Natyashastra also provides instructions regarding the appropriateness and the mode of use of the gestures, according to popular practice lokopacarena, so that they may be understood even by the common people. The text also allows considerable degree of freedom to the artist to choose the Hasthas, keeping in view the suitability of their form, movement, significance and class.

anye cāpyarthasayuktā laukikā ye karāstviha chandataste niyoktavyā rasa bhāva viceṣṭitai NS. 9.164

It is said; almost all objects and ideas can be indicated by the gestures. Besides, one can intuitively create gestures, when inspired by the sentiments and the states of the situation.  Natyashastra gives description of varied movements where such gestures are related with the different sentiments and states (Bhavas). These are enumerated as follows: drawing upwards, dragging, drawing out, accepting, killing, becoming, urging, bringing together, separating, protecting releasing, throwing, shaking, giving away, threatening, cutting, piercing, squeezing and beating.(NS.9.161-163)

The text also specifies to the use of the Hastas, according to the social status of the character that is portrayed.  It states; in case of the superior type of characters the hand gestures should be slight and gentle; in the middling type medium sort of movement; and, ordinary acting should have exaggerated movements of hand gestures.


The Natyashastra also provides instructions when not to use the hand gestures. It mentions that in the following instances the Dancer should not use hand gestures; but, should employ appropriate representations ; should adopt the temperament that is most apt; and, should also resort to change of voice that is suitable to different sates and sentiments (nānā –bhava-rasānvitaḥ):

na hastābhinaya kārya kārya sattvasya sagraha tathā kākuviśeaśca nānābhavarasānvita NS.9.180

when a person is to represent himself as sad, fainting terrified, overcome with disgust or sorrow, weak, asleep, hand-less, inactive, drowsy, inert, sick, attacked with fever, seized with panic, attacked with cold, intoxicated, bewildered, mad, thoughtful, practicing austerities, residing in a cold region, prison or under arrest, running very swiftly, speaking in dream, suddenly moving away and cutting nails (NS.9.177-179)


But, at the same time, the Natyashastra instructs that even when there is verbal acting (Vacicabhinaya) the eyes and the look (Dristi) should be directed to points at which the hand gestures are moving (tattad dṛṣṭi vilokanaiḥ), and there should be proper punctuation  so that the meaning may be clearly expressed. The intention is to enhance the appeal and total effect so that the language and the hand gestures support each other; and, become more eloquent.

yatra vyagrāvubhau hastau tattad dṛṣṭivilokanai vācakābhinaya kuryādvirāmairtha darśakai NS.9. 181

A similar rule appears in the Abhinaya Darpana: ‘Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow; where the eyes are, there the mind should follow; Where the mind is, there the expression should be brought out; Where there is expression, there the Rasa will manifest.’

Yato Hasta tato Drushti; Yato Drushti tato Manaha; Yato Manaha tato Bhavaha; Yato Bhava tato Rasaha AD.37

This famous dictum is followed in all the Schools of dancing, while enacting Abhinaya.


As regards the Karanas, four categories of the Karanas of the hand are mentioned: Avestita, Udvestita, Vyavartita and Parivartita.  The Hasthas (hand-gestures), in their various movements, when applied either in Dance or Drama, should be followed by Karanas having appropriate expression of the face, the eyebrows and the eyes.

The movements of the Hasthas can be in three ways: upwards, sideways and downwards. These movements have to be in tune with the suitable expressions in the eyes, the eye-brows and the face.

In regard to their application of the Hasthas, they can again be classified into three broad types: natural; interpretative; and, symbolic.

:- The Natural gestures generate from intentions calling for natural actions, which are simpler in communication; like come, go, stop, yes and no etc.

: – The Interpretative hand gestures are executed in imitative manner to represent objects; say, like birds, animals. The hand-gestures, in such cases, take their name after the objects they represent. They are also often used to translate a poetic image e.g. comparing the eyes of a Nayika with those of a deer (Mrganayani) or comparing them with lotus (Padmakshi) or the shape of a fish (Meenakshi). This category of hand-gestures may also be used to suggest actions like holding a sword and shield; or of movement of the wheels of a chariot, riding, movement of a horse etc.

: – The Symbolic hand-gestures are used mostly to express abstract notions; and, are best appreciated contextually. Concepts like truth and beauty are exquisitely expressed through hand gestures in the right context of  the unfolding of the plot of a story or description or narration.

This technique is to be utilized along with other aspects of Angikabhinaya, facial gestures, expressions reflected in the eyes and suggesting states and sentiments.  The overall effect of the suggestion should be augmented by the participation of the body as a whole.



The Sarira-abhinaya relates to the actions of the major limbs (Anga).

Under the classification of Sarira abhinaya, while describing the Anga (major limbs), Bharata refers to the movement of the arms (bahu).


Under this classification, Bharata refers to the movement of the arms (Bahu), in verses 212 to 213 of the Chapter 9. And, with that he concludes Chapter Nine.

Here he mentions ten types of Arm-movements, which evidently relate to training methods as also to the pure-dance technique Nrtta).They are also applied in Abhinaya portion (Nrtya) of the dance.

Tiryak, Urdhvagata, Adhomukha, Aviddha, Apaviddha, Mandala, Svastika, Aneita, Kuncita and Prsthaga

Tiryak tatho urdhvasasthohya adhomukhaś cā añcito’ apaviddhastu maṇḍala gatistathā svastikaś ca pṛṣṭhānu sāri ca 221

Abhinavagupta says, with the numerous circular movements (vaichitrena Bahu paryayayena) of the arms in different speeds, combined with various wrist positions, can generate innumerable Hastha gestures:

Yetheshu karaneshu chatushra drutha-madhya-vilambita-adi vaichitrena Bahu paryayayena cha samasthani yojina yada niyujyante tada patha vartanadi shatasaharenyvam ta brthani


Chest (Urah or Vakasthalam)

The Chapter Ten commences with the descriptions of five types of chest; and, their uses in Abhinaya: (But, in the longer version, this appears at verse 224 of Chapter Nine).

ābhugnamatha nirbhugna tathā caiva prakampitam udvāhita sama caiva ura pañcavidha smtam 224

Abhugna (slightly bent), Nirbhugna (unbent), Prakampita (shaking), Udvahita (raised) and Sama (natural).

As regards their applications (Viniyoga), which are well suited to Abhinaya in the Natyadharmi mode:

Abhugna is used to show in hurry, despair, fainting, sorrow, fear, sickness, broken heart, touching of cold objects, rains; and, being ashamed of some act.

Nirbhugna is used to show resentment, look of surprise, assertion of truth, referring to oneself haughtily and excess of pride

Prakampita occurs in laughing, weeping, weariness, panic , hiccough and misery

Udvahita is used to show deep breathing, viewing some huge object and yawning

Sama is when all the limbs are in the Chaturasa; and with Sausthava of the chest

(Abhinaya Darpana does not describe the movements of the chest)


Sides (Parsva)

Bharata says that the sides (Parsva) are of five kinds: Nata (bent) Sammunata (raised) Prasarita (extended) Vivartita (turned around); and, Apasrta (drawn away).

 nata samunnata caiva prasārita vivartito tathā apastameva tu pārśvayo karma pañcadhā NS.9.236

 As regards their uses in the Abhinaya:

Nata is where the waist is slightly bent on one side; and one shoulder is drawn away slightly. It is used for suggesting Abhinaya of approaching someone.

Samunnata is the counterpart of Nata. Here , the waist is raised on the other side ; and along with that the arms and shoulders are also raised, in going backwards.

Prasarita is stretching of the sides; as in joy and the like.

Vivartita is turning around.

 And, the Apasrta is drawing away; and, returning to the original position after Vivartita movement.


Stomach (Udara)

The use of the stomach (belly), the Udara, in the Abhinaya, is said to be three kinds: Ksama (thin); Khalva (depressed) and Purna (full)

Udara tridhā tanu kāma nata , khalva pūram, ādhmātam ucyate NS.9. 243

In the Abhinaya , these come into play on different occasions : Ksama  (thin belly) in laughter, weeping inhalation and yawning; Khalva (depressed) in sickness, penance, weariness and hunger; and, Purna (full) in emitting breath, fatness, disease, too much eating and the like.


Waist (Kati)

The waist in Dance, is said to be of five kinds: Chinna (turned aside, in turning the middle of the waist); Nivrtta (turned round, in turning to the front from the reverse position); Recita (moved about, in all directions); Prakampita (shaken, obliquely moving up and down); and, Udvahita (raised, in the raising of the waist slowly).

Chinā caiva nivttā ca recitā kampitā tathā udvāhitā caiva kaī nāye ntte ca pañcadhā NS.9.246

As regards the use of the waist in Dance : Chinna in exercising the limbs in showing hurry and looking around; Nivrtta in turning round; Recita in movements of general types; Prakampita in the walking of hunchbacks and persons of the inferior type; and, Udvahita to show the movements of corpulent persons and the amorous movements of  women.


Thighs (Uru)

The uses of the thighs (Uru) and their principal movements, followed by those of the shank (Jangha) ; and, their  inter related movements are described in detail and classified.

The movements of the thighs (Uru) are said to be of five kinds: Kampana (shaking, raising and lowering of the heels repeatedly); Valana (turning, drawing the knees inward); Stambhana (motionless); Udvartana (springing up, drawing the knees inward and moving it ); and, Vivartana (turning around, drawing the heels inward).

kampana valana caiva stambhano udvartane tathā nivartana ca pañca itāny ūru karmāi kārayet Ns.9.252

In case of thighs, the frightened movements of persons of inferior types are to be shown by Kampana (shaking); while Valana (turning) is used in the movement by women at ease; Stambhana (motionlessness) in states suggesting perturbation and despair; Udvartana (springing up) in movements of classical dance; and, Vivartana (turning round) in going round due to causes like hurry.


Shank (Jangha)

The position of the shank (Jangha) is said to be five kinds: Avartita (turned, left foot turning to the right and the right turning to the left); Nata (knees bent); Ksipta (knees thrown out); Udvahita (raising the shank up); and, Parivrtta (turning back of a shank)

āvartita nata kiptam udvāhitam athāpi ca parivtta tathā caiva jaghā-karmāi pañcadhā NS.9. 259

As regards their uses in Drama and Dance: Avartita in the jester’s walking; Nata for assuming standing position (sthana) and sitting postures (asana) ; Ksipta in classical dance; Udvahita in movements like quick walking; and, Parivrtta in classical dance and so on.


Feet (Pada)


The feet and its movements are, of course, the most important aspects of Dance – both in its Nrtta and the Abhinaya formats.

The positions of the feet are said to be of five kinds: Udghattita, Sama, Agratala-sancara, Ancita and Kuncita

udghaṭṭita samaścaiva tathā agratala sañcara añcita kuñcitaś caiva pāda pañcavidha smta NS. 9. 266

Udghattita (standing on the forepart of the feet and then touching the ground with the heels); which, is applied in the execution of the Udghattita Karanas, both in the slow (vilamba) and fast (Dhruta) tempos (Kala)

Sama (feet naturally placed on an even ground); where the feet are kept still in natural positions of the various Karanas. But, in the Recakas, the feet should be moved

Agratala-sancara (the heels thrown up, the big toe put forward and the other toes bent); which is used in urging, breaking and standing postures(Sthanaka), kicking, striking the ground, walking, throwing away something; and , in various Recaka movements and in walking on the forepart  of the foot , as when the heel is injured

Ancita (the heels on the ground, the fore part of the feet raised and all the toes spread); which is to be applied in representing a movement with wound in the forepart of the foot, turning around in all ways, and in various Bhramaris


 Kuncita (heels thrown up, toes all bent down and the middle of the feet too bent), which is to be used in elegant , proud (Uddata) gaits , turning around to right and left , and in the Atikranta Cari

It is mentioned; the persons practicing the Caris should take up simultaneously the movements of the feet, the shanks and the thighs; for, in the movement of feet are included all the movements of shanks and thighs. The thighs follow the way in which the feet are moved and these two limbs constitute together the cari of the feet.

These descriptions of the different actions of the feet (Pada-bheda) are particularly relevant to the various Nrtta postures and movements of the Anga and Pratyangas. It is also greatly used in the Abhinaya aspects of the Bharatanatya and Kuchipudi dance forms.

[The Abhinaya Darpana does not specifically discuss movements of the feet. It factors the whole leg, from thighs to toes, as a single Pada-bheda outlining the actions like standing, walking, roaming, and jumping. In its discussion of the jumps (utplavanas), spiral movements or turns (Bhramaris) and the different types of walking Caris and Padacari, it utilizes the various positions of the feet, as described in the Natyashastra. And, it also indicates, fairly clearly, whether the toe or the heel or both should touch the ground in any of the movements.]


Stanakas – Static Postures


After this description of the individual limbs, Bharata takes up the postures and movements of the entire body (Chapter Ten, verses 50-71). As many as forty Sthanas are discussed under the category of static postures. They are: Vaisnava, Samapada, Vaisakha, Mandala, Alidha and Pratyalidha, which used variously.

vaiṣṇava samapāda ca vaiśākha maṇḍala tathā pratyālīha tathālīha sthānānyetāni a nṛṇā NS.10.51

The descriptions of these Sthanas and their applications on the Nrtta and Abhinaya are provided in fair detail.

:- Vaishnava: the feet are kept two and a half Talas apart from each other. One of them should be on the ground in the natural posture, the other is lifted and turned sideways with the toes stretched and turned towards the shin. The body and arms are in the Saushthava position.

In the Vaishnava posture, persons of the superior and the middling types should carry on their ordinary conversation while performing their various duties. It should he used in throwing a disc, holding a how, in patient and stately movement of the limbs and in anger. On being reversed it is to be used in anger or love. And similarly in the administration of rebuke, and in love, distress, apprehension, envy, cruelty, assurance and recollection, it is to be assumed when the erotic, the marvelous, the odious and the heroic sentiments are prominently introduced. The presiding deity of this sthana is Vishnu.

:- Samapada: the feet are kept in their natural posture at one Tala‘s distance and the body keeps the natural Saushthava position.

The Samapada posture is to he assumed while accepting blessings from the elders. The bridegroom at the marriage ceremony, persons in the sky, chariot and aerial car, and persons practicing / vows are also to assume this Sthana. The presiding deity is Brahma.

:- Vaisakha: the feet are kept three and a half Talas apart from each other, the thighs remain steady and the feet are raised and moved apart.

The Vaisakha Sthana is to he assumed while riding horses and in exercise, exit, mimicking large birds, practice of bending the bow and in the Recakas of the feet. The presiding deity of this sthana is Kartikeya.

:- Mandala:  the feet are turned sideways and are kept at four Talas apart; thighs and knees also look sideways and the waist remains in its natural position.

The Mandala-sthana should he assumed in the use of weapons like the bow and the thunderbolt, riding of elephants and mimicking large birds. The presiding deity of this Sthana is Indra.

:- Alidha: if the right foot in the Mandala position is moved sideways at 5 Talas distance from the left foot, then it is called Alidha.

Alidha should be assumed in all acts relating to the heroic and the furious sentiments (Vira and Raudra Rasas), duel of wrestlers and in the representation of enemies, an attack on them and release of missiles. The presiding deity is Rudra.

:- Pratyalidha: the right foot is bent and is in the Kunchita position; and, the left foot is stretched opposite to the Alidha position.

Pratyalidha is used in relation to Alidha-sthana. The missies made ready for throwing from the Alidha sthana are to be actually thrown from the Pratyalidha –sthana.


These postures are important from the point of Abhinaya, particularly in the Dance-dramas depicting battle scenes. In such cases, the shooting of an arrow and releasing missies and other actions are enacted in Alidha and Pratyalidha postures

The interesting description is found about the four Nyayas in using weapons in the fights: Bharata, Sattvata, Varsaganya and Kaisika.  These are called as Nyayas, because the fights on the stage are regulated (niyante) by the type of the Angaharas. In these Nyayas arising out of the various Caris, the actors should walk about on the stage at the time of using weapons.

bhārata sātvataścaiva vāragayo’tha kaiśika bhārate tu kaīcchedya pādacchedya tu sātvate NS.10.73

These are the ways of handling the weapons: in the Bharata, the weapon should strike at the waist; in the Sattvata at the foot; in the Varsaganya at the chest; and, in the Kaisika at the head.


Gaits (Gati)

The various Gatis, the gates, are described in Chapter 13 in one version; and, in Chapter 12 of another version of the Natyashastra.  The descriptions (gatipracāra) of the gaits ,  here, are given with reference to their uses by different types of characters in a Drama, broadly divided into three categories: superior, middling and inferior.

But, these can also be adopted into the Abhinaya in Dance.

Natyashastra mentions that the gaits are to be executed in – slow, medium and quick – tempos (Kaalas), according to the nature of 45 different characters.

Bharta then explains the types of gaits in various Rasas (such as Srngara, Vira, Hasya, Vira etc). For instance; in love-scene, the gait of the lover should, generally, be graceful; but, when the lover meets his love secretly, his gaits should be slow, careful and silently watching around with anxiety.

Bharata also describes the walking styles (Gati) and postures (Sthana) of women, as : Ayata, Avahittha and Asvakranta

strīā sthānāni kāryāi gativābharaeu ca āyata cāvahittha ca aśvakrāntamathāpi ca NS.12.160

He mentions: Ayata-sthana of women (right foot in Sama and the other placed obliquely) is to be used in invocation, dismissal, observing carefully, and thinking; and, in concealment. As the dancer enters the stage, holding flowers in her hands (Pushpanjali); and, later scatters those flowers on the stage, she is said to assume Ayata-sthana.

The Avahittha posture (left foot in Sama and the right foot placed obliquely)  is when the dancer keeps her left foot in Sama; and the other at the side Tryasra and the left waist rose. It is said to be a natural posture for women when engaged in conversation; and, when in playfulness, amorous diligence or looking towards the way, expecting someone.

The Asvakranta-sthana (one foot in Sama and the other bent on the forepart ) is to be assumed while taking hold of the branch of a tree; plucking a cluster of flowers; or while taking rest or in repose. The Dancer maintains this Sthana till any movement (Cari) begins. Bharata adds that this is the rule of the Sthana  is common for women and men

However, Bharata says that it should be remembered that these rules regarding the Sthanas need not be strictly followed; and, different gaits and postures can  be adopted following the practice of people; and, the dancer’s imagination.

Abhinavagupta also mentions that in the Nrtta though the Gati could generally follow the Natyadharmi, one should also keep in view the context  (prasanga) of the times, the situation (desham, kalam) and the prevalent practices (vaktavya)

Cari, Mandala prasangasya chitta-vrttitvad Gati viniyoga meva pratijanite/ Gatisha prakrutim rasa-avastham desham kalam cha apekshya vakthavya prati purusha abhidanath


Sitting postures (Asana)

The Chapter 12 of the Natyashastra gives detailed description and uses of the various sitting postures. These are stylized postures, according to the nature of the characters. Bharata also refers to the postures in bed.

Nānā bhāva samāyuktas tathā ca śayanā aśraya vikambhitā añcitau pādau trika kiñcit sam-unnatam NS.12.203

There are variety of postures to be assumed as per the occasion and context like sitting at ease, in a thinking mood, in sorrow, in fainting and intoxication, in shame and sleep, on ceremonial occasions ; pacifying a beloved woman, in worshipping a deity. These activities are covered by the plot of the Rupaka and Uparupakas. Therefore, they are found in vogue in varying degree with variations as per the context, the place and the practice.

There are rules regarding offering seats to persons of different social stations and the offices held by them. These rules are of seats  are distinguished according the context and the location in which seats are offered ; say , in royal courts, in the inner apartments , in public places etc.  But, while in one’s own house, one can take any seat according to one likes.

Lying-down postures (Shayana)

Six lying-down postures are mentioned by Bharata. They are Akuncita, Sama, Prasarita, Vivartita, Udvahita and Nata.

ākuñcita sama caiva prasāritavivartane udvāhita nata caiva śayane karma kīrtyate NS.12.228

Akuncita: limbs should be narrowed down and knees stuck to the bed; and, it is used in representing persons attacked with cold;

Sama: face should be turned up and hands dropping down freely; it is used in deep sleep;

Prasarita: one arm is used as pillow and the knees stretched; it is for representing one enjoying sleep of happiness;

Vivartita: lying down with face downward; it is used to suggest wound from any weapon, death, vomiting, intoxication and lunacy;

Udvahita: head should be resting on the hand or the shoulder and elbow pressing the ground; it  is used in sports and on entrance of the master; and,

Nata: shanks should be slightly stretched and both hands loose; it is to be used in laziness, fatigue and distress.


In this limited space, I have tried to cover a fairly large area of Angikahhinaya and Natyadharmi mode as per the tradition of the Natyashastra. I am aware of my inadequacies.  But, I trust the articles in this series will ignite the desire to earnestly go further and to study the texts in their own contexts; and, also to devise methods and techniques to apply their principles to suit the present-day Dance scenario. That would, hopefully, help to keep alive our dance traditions, albeit with slight requisite modifications, in the context of our time.


In the next part we shall move on to other texts dealing with Dance and its several aspects



Part Nine


References and Sources

The illustrations of Samabhanga, Abhanga and Atibhanga are from the Brahmiya Chitra karma Shastra by Dr. G.Gnananada

The Sutra illustration is by Shilpa Siddanthi Sri Siddalingaswamy of Mysore



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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part One


Natya Sastra (1)

Lakshana-granthas – texts concerning the performing arts of India

Some time back – as a part of the series on the Music of India  – I had posted brief profiles of some of the well known texts on Samgita-shastra (Musicology), which established a sound theoretical basis (Lakshana) for the structural framework of the classical Music traditions; and, their practice (Lakshya). Those texts, produced over a long period of time, described, in precise terms, the concepts of   Music; its concerns; how it should be taught, learnt and performed; and, how it should be experienced and enjoyed.  It was an evolutionary process cascading towards greater sophistication.

Those Lakshana-granthas projected their vision of how the Music should develop and prosper in future, at the same time retaining the pristine purity of the time-honoured tradition. In the process, those texts, produced over the centuries, defined and protected the principles; as also, guided and regulated the performance of the chaste Music of India.

Some friends and readers inquired whether I could write, on similar lines, about the texts concerning the evolution of the principles and techniques of the performing arts of India; and, particularly , about Dance , which  is the most enchanting form of them all; rich in elegance and beauty ; comprehensive; and highly challenging.

Various thinkers and writers of the Lakshana granthas, over a long period, have put forward several theories based on their concept of the essential core, the heart or the soul of the art of Dance (Natyasya Atma).

In the series of articles that are to follow, I have attempted to trace the unfolding of the principles and practice of the performing arts of India, as discussed in various texts spread over several centuries.

In the present installment of the series, let’s take an overview of the texts of the Indian Dancing traditions. In the subsequent parts, we may discuss each of the selected texts, in fair detail.

This may also be treated as a sort of General Introduction to the theories of Indian Dancing.


The Natyashastra

It is customary to commence with Natyashastra, when it comes to any discussion related to the art-forms of India. To start with, we shall, briefly, talk about the text of the Natyashastra, in general; and, then move on to Natyashastra in the context of Dance.

The Natyashastra of Bharata is regarded as the seminal and the earliest text extant text, represents the first stage of Indian arts where the diverse elements of arts, literature, music, dance, stage management and cosmetics etc., combined harmoniously in order to produce an enjoyable play. It is the source book for all art forms of India. The yaśāstra, surely, is a work of great antiquity. Yet; the scholars opine that looking at the way the text has been compiled and structured; it appears to be based on earlier works.

It is said that the text which we know as Natya-Shastra was based on an earlier text that was much larger. That seems very likely; because, the Natyasastra, as we know, which has about 6,000  karikas (verses), is also known as Sat-sahasri. The later authors and commentators (Dhanika, Abhinavagupta and Sarada-tanaya) refer to the text as Sat-sahari; and, its author as Sat-sahasri-kara. But, the text having 6,000 verses is said to be a condensed version of an earlier and larger text having about 12,000 verses (dwadasha-sahasri). It is said; the larger version was known as Natya- agama and the shorter as Natya-shastra.


And, again, According to Prof. KM Varma, there were three types of works which preceded the Natyashastra that we know: (1) Sutra – a work on Natya; (2) Bhashya – a commentary on it; and (3) Anuvamsya – a collection of verses , from which Bharata often quotes.

He also points out that Bharata mentions in the Samgraha (the table of contents to Natyashastra) that the subjects to be discussed in the text have reference to what is stated in the Sutra and the Bhashya. That leads to the conclusion that a comprehensive theory of Natya existed much before the time of Bharata; and that he incorporated some of that into his work – the Natyashastra.


Further, Panini also suggests there were texts on Natya even much prior to Natyashastra.

Panini (Ca.500 BCE) the great Grammarian, in his Astadhyayi (4.3.110-11), mentions two ancient Schools  –  of  Krsava and Silalin – that were in existence during  his time –Parasarya Silalibhyam bhikshu nata-sutreyoh  (4.3.110); karmanda krushas shvadinihi  (4.3.111)It appears that Parasara, Silalin, karmanda and Krsava were the authors of Bhikshu Sutras and Nata Sutras. Of these, Silalin and Krsava were said to have prepared the Sutras (codes) for the Nata (actors or dancers). At times, Natyashastra refers to the performers (Nata) as Sailalaka -s. The assumption is that the Silalin-school, at one time, might have been a prominent theatrical tradition. Some scholars opine that the Nata-sutras of Silalin (coming under the Amnaya tradition) might have influenced the preliminary part (Purvanga) of the Natyashastra, with its elements of worship (Puja).

However, in the preface to his great work Natya-shastra of Bharatamuni (Volume I, Second Edition, 1956) Pundit M. Ramakrishna Kavi mentions that in the Natyavarga of Amara-kosha (2.8.1419-20) there is reference to three schools of Nata-sutra-kara: Silalin; Krasava; and, Bharata.

Śailālinas tu śailūā jāyājīvā kśāśvina bharatā   ityapi naāś cāraās tu kuśīlavā

It appears that in the later times,  the former two Schools (Silali and Krasava) , which flourished earlier to Bharata , went out of existence or merged with the School of Bharata; and, nothing much has come down to us  about these older Schools. And, it is also said, the Bharata himself was preceded by Adi-Bharata, the originator and Vriddha (senior) Bharata. And, all the actors, of whatever earlier Schools, later came to be known as Bharata-s.

All these suggest that there were texts on Natya even before the time of Bharata; and, by his time Natya was already a well established Art.


The Natyasastra, that we know, is dated around about the second century BCE . The scholars surmise that the text was in circulation for a very long period of time, in its oral form; and, it was reduced to writing several centuries after it was articulated. Until then, the text was preserved and transmitted in oral form.

The written text facilitated its reach to different parts of the country; and, to the neighboring states as well. In the process, each region, where the text became popular, produced its own version of Natyasastra; in its own script. For instance, Natyasastra spread to Nepal, Almora to Ujjain, Darbhanga and also to the Southern states. The earliest known manuscripts which come from Nepal were in Newari script. The text also became available in many other scripts – Devanagari, Grantha, and several regional languages. It became rather difficult for the later-day scholars, to evolve criteria for determining the authenticity and purity of the text, particularly with grammatical mistakes and scribes errors that crept in during the protracted process of transliterations. Therefore, written texts as they have come down to us through manuscripts , merely represent the residual record or an approximation to the original; but, not the exact communication of the oral tradition that originated from Bharata.

It is the general contention that the text of the Natyashastra, as it is available today, was not written at one point of time. Its form, as it has come down to us, includes several additions and alterations. It is also said; many views presented in Natya-Shastra might possibly have been adopted from the works of other scholars. That seems quite likely; because, there are frequent references to other writers and other views; there are repetitions; there are contradictory passages; there are technical terms, which are not supported by the tradition.

And, in regard to Dance, in particular, the Chapter Four (Tandava-lakshanam) is the most important portion, as it details the dance-techniques. The editor of  ya Śāstra, Sri. Ramaswami Sastri, however remarks  that ‘this section of ya Śāstra dealing with Karaas, being of a highly technical nature, was less understood and was rendered more difficult by numerous errors committed by the scribes as well as by the omissions of large portions in the manuscripts’.

Though such additions, deletions and alterations have not been pinpointed precisely, some scholars, particularly Prof. KM Varma, surmise that the verses of a long portion of the Fourth Chapter beginning from Sloka number 274 and ending with the chapter seem to be interpolated.  These verses do not also fit into the context. Abhinavagupta also admits the possibility of their insertions.

Further, Prof. KM Varma also mentions that the portion from the Samanya-abhinaya chapter (Chapter 22) to the beginning of the chapter on Siddhi; as also the portions beginning after the chapter on Avanaddha to the end of the present text, are the later additions.

And, by about the tenth century, two recessions of the yaśāstra were in circulation. One was the longer version; and, the other the shorter. There have been long drawn out debates arguing which of the two is the authentic version. Abhinavagupta in his commentary of the yaśāstra used the shorter recession as the basis of his work; while some authors of the medieval period like Raja Bhoja used the longer version. However, Pandit Ramakrishna Kavi, who examined as many as about forty Manuscripts of the text, opined that the longer recession seemed to be ancient, although it contains some interpolation. But, in any case, now, both the versions are treated as ‘authentic’; and, are used depending upon the choice of the commentator.


Natyashastra in the context of Dance

Natyashastra was mainly concerned with successful play-production. And, the role of Music and Dance, in conjunction with other components, was primarily to beautify and to heighten the dramatic effects of the acts and scenes in the play. These were treated as enchanting artistic devices that articulate the moods of various theatrical situations in the Drama. The Dance, at that stage, was an ancillary part (Anga) or one of the ingredients that lent elegance and grace to theatrical performance. That is to say; though Music and Dance were very essential to Drama, neither of the two, at that stage, was considered as an independent Art-form.

Further, for a considerable length of time, say up to the middle period, both music and dance were covered by a single term Samgita.  The term Samgita in the early Indian context meant a composite art-form comprising Gita (vocal singing), Vadya (instrumental accompaniments) and Nrtta the limb movement or dance (Gitam, Vadyam, Nrttam Samgita-mucchyate).  The third component of Samgita, viz., Nrtta, involved the use of other two components (Gita and Vadya).

Thus, the term Samgita combined in itself all the different phases of music, including dance. For Dance (Nrtta), just as in the case of vocal (Gita) and instrumental (Vadya) music, the rhythm (Laya) is very vital. The Dance too was regarded as a kind of music. This is analogous to human body where its different limbs function in harmony with the body’s rhythm.

It was said; all the three elements should, ideally, coordinate and perform harmoniously – supporting and strengthening each other with great relish. And, the three Kutapa-s, in combination should suggest a seamless movement like a circle of fire (Alaata chakra); and, should brighten (Ujjvalayati) the stage.

Thus, till about the middle periods, Dance was regarded as a supporting decorative factor; but, not an independent Art form.

Shiva dancing Halebidu

Coming back to Natyashastra, the Dance that it deals in fair detail is, indeed, Nrtta, the pure dance movements – with its Tandava and Sukumara variations – that carry no particular meaning.  The Nrtta was described as pure dancing or limb movements (agavikepa), not associated with any particular emotion, Bhava. And, it was performed during the preliminaries (Purvaranga), before the commencement of the play proper. The Nrtta was meant as a praise offering (Deva-stuti) to the gods.

And, later Bharata did try to combine the pure dance movements of Nrtta (involving poses, gestures, foot-work etc.) with Abhinaya (lit., to bring near, to present before the eyes), to create an expressive dance-form that was adorned with elegant, evocative and graceful body-movements, performed in unison with attractive rhythm and enthralling music, in order to effectively interpret and illustrate the lyrics of a song; and, also to depict the emotional content of a dramatic sequence.

But, for some reason, Bharata did not see the need to assign a name or a title to this newly created amalgam of Nrtta and Abhinaya. (This art-form in the later period came to be celebrated as Nrtya).

Even at this stage, Dance was not an independent art-form; and, it continued to be treated as one of the beautifying factors of the Drama.

Bharata had not discussed, in detail, about Dance; nor had he put forward any theories to explain his concepts about Dance. The reason for that might be, as the scholars explain, Bharata had left that task to his disciple Kohala; asking him to come up with a treatise on dancing, explaining whatever details he could not mention in the Natyashastra. In fact, Bharata, towards the end of his work says: ‘the rest will be done by Kohala through a supplementary treatise’ – śeam-uttara-tantrea kohalastu kariyati (NS.37.18.)

But, unfortunately, that work of Kohala did not survive for long. And, by the time of Abhinavagupta (10-11th century), it was totally lost.


Texts concerning dance

When it comes to the texts concerning dance there are certain issues or limiting factors.

There is reason to believe that many works on dancing were written during the period following that of Bharata. But most of those works were lost.

For instance; the ancient writers such as Dattila or Dantila (perhaps belonging to the period just after that of Bharata) and Matanga or Matanga Muni (sixth or the seventh century) who wrote authoritatively on Music, it appears, had also commented on Dance. But again, the verses pertaining to Dance in their works, have not come down to us entirely. Some of those verses have survived as fragments quoted by the commentators of the later periods; say , for example, the references pertaining to Taala and Dance from the Brihaddeshi  of Matanga .

Similarly, between the time of Natyashastra (Ca. 200 BCE) and the Abhinavabharati of Abhinavagupta (10-11th century), several commentaries were said to have been produced on the subject of Drama, Music, Dance and related subjects. Some of such ancient authorities mentioned by Abhinavagupta are: Kohala, Nandi, Rahula, Dattila, Narada, Matanga, Shandilya, Kirtidhara, Matrigupta, Udbhata, Sri Sanuka, Lottata, Bhattanayaka and his Guru Bhatta Tauta and others. But, sadly the works of those Masters are lost to us; and, they survive in fragments as cited by the later authors.

Abhinavagupta, states that much of the older traditions had faded out of practice. And he says that one of the reasons, which prompted him to write his work, was to save the tradition from further erosion.


Texts on Music etc., which also dealt with Dance

There are not many ancient texts that are particularly devoted to discussions on Dance, its theories and techniques.

In the earlier texts on Dance, the techniques of Dancing are seldom discussed in isolation. It invariably is discussed with music and literature (Kavya).  Similarly, the treatise on sculpture (Shilpa) , Drama(Natya), music (Gitam) and painting (Chitra) , do devote a portion , either to Dance itself or to discuss certain technical elements of these art forms in terms of the technique of Dance (Nrtya or Nrtta). For instance; the  treatises on painting discuss the Rasa-drsti in terms of the glances (Drsti) of the Natyashastra; and, the  treatises on sculpture enumerate in great detail the Nrtta-murti (dancing aspects) of the various gods and goddesses(prathima-lakshanam) , and discuss the symbolism of the hasta -mudra in terms of the hasta-abhinaya of the Natyashastra.

The Vishnudharmottara emphasizes the inter relation between the various art forms.  Sage Markandeya instructs : One who does not know the laws of painting (Chitra) can never understand the laws of image-making (Shilpa); and, it is difficult to understand the laws of painting (Chitra) without any knowledge of the technique of dancing (Nrtya); and, that, in turn, is difficult to understand without a thorough knowledge of the laws of instrumental music (vadya); But, the laws of instrumental music cannot be learnt without a deep knowledge of the art of vocal music (gana).


Therefore, most of the texts and treatise which dealt with Music, primarily, also talked about dance, in comparatively briefly manner, towards the end. For instance:

[Here, in this portion, I have followed Dr. Mandakranta Bose, as in her very well researched paper ( The Evolution of Classical Indian Dance Literature: A Study of the Sanskritic Tradition )  . I gratefully acknowledge her help and guidance.]

(1) Visnudharmottara Purana (Ca. fifth or sixth century) a   text encyclopedic in nature.  Apart from painting, image-making, Dancing and dramaturgy, it also deals with varied subjects such as astronomy, astrology, politics, war strategies, treatment of diseases etc. The text, which is divided into three khandas (parts), has in all 570 Adhyayas (chapters). It deals with dance, in its third segment – chapters twenty to thirty-four.

The author follows the Natyasastra in describing the abstract dance form, Nrtta; and, in defining its function as one of beautifying a dramatic presentation. The focus of the text is on Nrtta, defining its vital elements such as Karanas, Cari etc., required in dancing. In addition, the author briefly touches upon the Pindibandhas or group dances mentioned by Bharata; and, goes on to describe VrttiPravrtti and Siddhi; that is – the style, the means of application and the nature of competence.

(2) The Abhinavabharati of   Abhinavagupta (11th century) though famed as a commentary on Bharata’s Natyasastra, is, for all purposes, an independent treatise on aesthetics in Indian dance, music, poetry, poetics (alakāra-śhāstra), art , Tantra, Pratyabhijnana School of Shaiva Siddanta etc.   Abhinavabharati is considered a landmark work; and is regarded important for the study of Natyasastra.

Abhinavabharati is the oldest commentary available on Natyasastra. All the other previous commentaries are now totally lost. The fact such commentaries once existed came to light only because Abhinavagupta referred to them in his work; and, discussed their views. Further, Abhinavagupta also brought to light and breathed life into ancient and forgotten scholarship of fine rhetoricians Bhamaha, Dandin and Rajashekhara.

Abhinavagupta also drew upon the later authors to explain the application of the rules and principles of Dance. As Prof. Mandakranta Bose observes : One of the most illuminating features of Abhinavagupta’s work is his practice of citing  and drawing upon the older authorities critically , presenting their views to elucidate Bharata’s views ; and , often rejecting their views , putting forth  his own observations to  provide evidence to the contrary.

Abhinavagupta, thus, not only expands on Bharata’s cryptic statements and concepts; but also interprets them in the light of his own experience and knowledge, in the context of the contemporary practices. And, therefore, the importance of Abhinavagupta’s work can hardly be overstated.

He also discusses, in detail, the Rasa-sutra of Bharata in the light of theories Dhvani (aesthetic suggestion) and Abhivyakti (expression). And, Dance is one of the subjects that Abhinavabharati deals with. As regards Dance, Abhinavabharati is particularly known for the explanations it offers on Angikabhinaya and Karanas. The later authors and commentators followed the lead given by Abhinavagupta.

(3) The Dasarupaka of Dhananjaya (10-11th century), is a work on dramaturgy; and, basically is a summary or compilation of rules concerning Drama (Rupaka), extracted from the Natyashastra of Bharata. As regards Dance, Dhananjaya, in Book One of his work, which provides lists of definitions, mentions the broad categories of Dance-forms as: the Marga (the pure or pristine); and, the Desi (the regional or improvised). And, under each class, he makes a two-fold division: Lasya, the graceful, gentle and fluid pleasing dance; and, Tandava, the vigorous, energetic and brisk invigorating movements (lasya-tandava-rupena natakad-dyupakarakam.). The rest of his work is devoted to discussion on ten forms of Drama (Dasarupaka)

(4) The Srngaraprakasa of Raja Bhoja (10-11th century) is again a work; spread over thirty-six chapters, which deal principally with poetics (Alamkara shastra) and dramaturgy. In so far as Dance is concerned, it is relevant for the discussion carried out in its Eleventh Chapter on minor types of plays (Uparupakas) or musical Dance-dramas.

(5) The Natya-darpana of Ramacandra and Gunacandra (twelfth century) is also a treatise, having four chapters, devoted mainly to dramaturgy; discussing characteristics of Drama. The text is useful to Dance, because in its third chapter while discussing Anigikabhinaya, it lists the names of the movements of the different parts of the body, as well as extended sequences and compositions.

(6) Another text of great interest from the twelfth century is the  Manasollasa (also called Abhjilashitarta Chintamani) ascribed to the Kalyana Chalukya King Someshwara III (1127-1139 AD). It  is an encyclopedic work, divided into one hundred chapters, clustered under  five sections, covering a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the means of acquiring a kingdom, methods of establishing it, to medicine, magic, veterinary science, valuation of precious stones, fortifications, painting , art, games ,  amusements , culinary art and so on . 

As regards Dance, the Manasollasa deals with the subject in the sixteenth chapter, having in 457 verses, titled Nrtya-vinoda, coming under the Fourth Section of the text – the Vinoda vimsathi- dealing with types of amusements.

Manasollasa is also the earliest extant work having a thorough and sustained discussion on dancing. It is also the earliest work, which laid emphasis on the Desi aspect for which later writers on this subject are indebted. Another important contribution of Nrtya Vinoda is that it serves as a source material for reconstruction of the dance styles that were prevalent in medieval India. For these and other reasons, the Nrtya Vinoda of Manasollasa, occupies a significant place in the body of dance literature. 

Someshwara introduces the subject of dancing by saying that dances should be performed at every festive occasion, to celebrate conquests, success in competitions and examinations as well as occasions of joy, passion, pleasure and renouncement. He names six varieties of dancing and six types of Nartakas. The term Nartaka, here, stands for performers in general; and, includes Nartaki (danseuse), Nata (actor), Nartaka (dancer), Vaitalika (bard), Carana (wandering performer) and kollatika (acrobat).

Manasollasa is also significant to the theory of Dance, because it classified the whole of dancing into two major classes:  the Marga (that which adheres to codified rules) and Desi (types of unregulated dance forms with their regional variations).  Manasollasa also introduced four-fold categories of dance forms: Nrtya, Lasya, Marga and Desi.

At another place, Someshwara uses the term Nartana to denote Dancing, in general, covering six types: Natya (dance), Lasya (delicate), Tandava (vigorous), Visama (acrobatic), Vikata (comical) and Laghu (light and graceful).

 The other authors, such as Sarangadeva, Pundarika Vittala and others followed the classifications given Manasollasa.

In regard to Dance-movements, Someshwara classifies them into  six Angas, eight Upangas and six Pratyangas. The last mentioned sub-division viz. Pratyanga is an introduction made by Someshwara into Natya terminology; the Natyashastra had not mentioned this minor sub-category.

The other important contribution of Someshwara is the introduction of eighteen Desi karanas, (dance poses) that were not mentioned in other texts.

 (7) A work from this period, but not dated with certainty, which deal with drama is the Nataka-laksana-ratna-kosa of Sagaranandin. The text, as the name suggests, discusses, in detail, the nature and characteristics of Nataka as well as other varieties of drama. This work is of interest to Dance insofar as it lists and describes ten types of Lasyanga that are used in the Lasya variety of dance.

(8) The Bhavaprakasana of Saradatanaya (1175 -1250 A.D.) containing ten Adhikaras or chapters, is a compendium of poetics and dramaturgy based on the critical works written right from the period of Natyashastra. Its relevance to dance is in its discussions on glances that express Bhavas, as given at the end of the fifth chapter. And, the tenth and final chapter explains the distinction between Nrtta and Nrtya; and, between Marga and Desi.

He contradicts Dhananjaya; and, asserts that   Nrtta, the pure dance, is rooted in Rasa (Nrttam rasa-ahrayam). Saradatanaya’s definition meant that Nrtta not only beautifies a presentation, but is also capable of generating Rasa. This, during his time, was, indeed, a novel view.

(9) The Sangita Samayasara of Parsvadeva (a Jain Acharya of 12th or early 13thcentury) is an important work, which is devoted to musicology. It is its seventh chapter that is of interest to Dance.  It is not until the Sangita Samayasara that we find any description of a complete dance.

The Sangita Samayasara, though it deals, mainly, with Music, is of great relevance to Dance. The Seventh Chapter is devoted entirely to Desi dance (referred to as Nrtta); its definition; and, the Angas or body movements (Angika), the features of Desi dances (Desiya-Angani).

This text not only describes specific Nrtta dance pieces (such as: Perana, Pekkhana, Gundali and Dandarasa), but also adds a number of new movements of the Cari, the Sthanas and the Karanas of the Desi variety, all of which involving complicated leaping movements. Here, Parsvadeva describes the utplatti-karanas, needed for the Desi dances; eleven Desi karanas with different Desi-sthanas; and, five Bhramaris.

Towards the end of the Seventh Chapter, Parsvadeva describes the requirements of a good dancer; her physical appearance; and, the way she should be dressed etc.

(10) By about the 13th century, dance had its own existence; and was no longer an ancillary to drama, as it was during the time of Natyashastra. The concept of Nrtta was still present; Nritya as a delightful art form was fully established; and, the two forms retained their individual identity. And, both were discussed along with Natya.  This is reflected in the appearance of numerous works on the art of Music, Dance and Drama, the most significant of which was the Samgita Ratnakara of Sarangadeva 

The Sarangadeva’s Sangita-ratnakara (first half of 13th century) is one of the most influential works on music and dance. The Sangita-ratnakara is a great compilation, not an original work, which ably brings together various strands of the past music traditions found in earlier works like Nāţyashastra, Dattilam, Bŗhaddēśī, and Sarasvatī-hŗdayālańkāra-hāra. It is greatly influenced by Abhinavagupta’s    Abhinavabharati. But for Samgita-ratnakara, it might have been more difficult to understand Natyasastra, Brhaddesi and other ancient texts. But, while dealing with Desi class of Dance, Sarangadeva follows Manasollasa of Someshwara.

The text of Sangita-ratnakara has 1678 verses spread over seven chapters (Saptaadhyayi) covering the aspects of GitaVadya and NrttaSvaragat-adhyaya; Ragavivek-adhyaya; Prakirnaka-adhyayaPrabandh-adhyayaTaala-adhyaya; Vadya-adhyaya and   Nartana-adhyaya. The first six chapters deal with various facets of music and music-instruments; and, the last chapter deals with Dance. Sangita-ratnakara’s contribution to dance is very significant.

Chapter Seven– Nartana: The seventh and the last chapter, is in two parts; the first one deals with Nartana.  Sarangadeva, following Someshwara, uses a common term Nartana to denote the arts of Nŗtta, Nŗtya and Nāţya.  In describing the Marga tradition of Dance, Sarangadeva follows Natyashastra. As regards the Desi class of Dance he improves upon the explanations offered in Manasollasa of King Someshwara and Sangita Samayasara of Parsvadeva.

According to Sarangadeva, the Nrtya covers rhythmic limb movements (Nrtta) as also eloquent gestures expressing emotions through Abhinaya. It is a harmonious combination of facial expressions, various glances, poses and meaningful movements of the hands, fingers and feet. Nrtyam, the dance, delightfully brings together and presents in a very highly expressive, attractive visual and auditory form, the import of the lyrics (sahitya), the nuances of its emotional content to the accompaniment of soulful music and rhythmic patterns (tala-laya).

Although he follows Bharata in describing the movements of the body, he differs from Bharata in dividing the limbs into three categories, Anga, Upanga and Pratyanga.

He also differs from Natyashastra which identifies Tandava as Shiva’s dance and Sukumara (Lasya) as Parvati’s. According to Sarangadeva, Tandava requires Uddhata (forceful) and Lasya requires Lalita (delicate) movements.

Sarangadeva’s description of Cari, Sthana, Karana and Angaharas of the Marga type are the same as in the Natyashastra. But the Desi Caris, Sthanas and Utputikaranas are according to Manasollasa of Someshwara.

Sarangadeva explains the importance of aesthetic beauty; and also lays down the rules of exercise. He also describes the qualities and faults of a performer (including a description of her make-up and costume); and, those of the teacher and the group of supporting performers. Then he describes the sequential process of a performance, including the musical accompaniment, in the pure mode or suddha-paddhati.

(11) The Sangita Upanishad Saroddhara  is a treatise on music and dance written in the fourteenth century (1350 A.D.) by the Jaina writer Sudhakalasa. The work is in six chapters, the first four of which are on Gita (vocal music), Vadya (musical instruments) and on Taala (rhythm). The fifth and the sixth chapters are related to dancing.

The term he uses for dance is Nrtya. His understanding of the terms Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya varied from that of his predecessors. According to him, Nrtta is danced by men, Nrtya by women, while Natya is Nataka, performed by both men and women. And, his treatment of the movements of the feet (pada-karmas) and the postures (Sthanas and Sthanakas) differs from that of other texts. According to him, Sthanas are postures meant for women; while, Sthanakas are postures meant for men. Karanas, according to Sudhakalasa, are components of Lasyangas and Nrtya. Obviously, he was recording the contemporary practice, without specific reference to the earlier texts and traditions.

(12) The Sangitacandra is a work containing 2168 verses by Suklapandita, also known as Vipradasa (Ca. fourteenth century). He explains the procedures of the Purvaranga; and classifies its dance Nrtta into three categories:  Visama (heavy), Vikata (deviated) and Laghu (light). Such classification of Nrtta and such terms to describe Nrtta had not been used earlier by any author.

He then, initially, divides Nrtya, the dance, into two classes: Marga-nrtya which expresses Rasa; and, Natya-nrtya, which expresses Bhava. And, then, brings in the third variety of Nrtya, the Desiya Nrtya, the regional types. Thereafter, he divides each of the three varieties of Nrtya into Tandava and Lasya.

Again, Vipradasa‘s understanding of the terms and concepts of Dance and their treatment; and, emphasis on the Desi dances, reflect the contemporary practices of the medieval period.

(13) A major work of the medieval period is the Sangita-damodara by Subhankara (ca. Fifteenth century).  Although the Sangita-damodara is principally a work on music and dance, it includes substantial discussions on drama as well. Of its Five Chapters, the Fourth one relates to Dance. Here, dancing is discussed under two broad heads:  Angahara (Angaviksepa, movements of the body) and Nrtya (the dance proper).

Under Angahara, the author includes Angikabhinaya, as related to Drama, because it means acting by using the movements of the limbs. As regards Nrtya, he treats it, mostly, as Desi Nrtya, the regional dances. Nrtya is divided into two types: Tandava, the Purusha-nrtya, danced by men; and, Lasya, the Stri-nrtya, danced by women.

Under Natya, Subhankara includes twenty-seven major type of Dramas (Rupaka) and minor types of Drama (Uparupaka). He classifies them under the heading Nrtye naksatramala, the garland of stars in Nrtya.

Thus, the concept of dance in its male and female forms had crept in. And, the Dance-drama, based in music, was treated as a form of Nrtya. The Nrtya was generally understood as Desi Nrtya.

(14) Another important work from this period is the Nrtyadhyaya of Asokamalla (Ca. fourteenth century). The Nrtyadhyaya consisting of 1611 verses follows the Desi tradition of dance, as in Sangita-ratnakara and the Nrtta-ratna-vali.

The text describes, in detail, the hand gestures followed by the movements of the major and minor limbs, that is, Anga, Upanga and Pratyanga.

It also describes Vicitra-abhinaya (various ways of acting), dividing it into elements of Bhava-abhinaya (expressions displaying emotions); and, Indriya-abhinaya (gestures through use of limbs), resembling the Samanya-abhinaya and Citra-abhinaya, as in Natyashastra. The author also describes one hundred and eight Karanas of Bharata. The text ends with descriptions of Kalasas, generally understood as dance movements with which a performance concludes.

(15) The Rasakaumudi of Srlkantha (a contemporary and student of Pundarika Vitthala – 16th-17th century) is again a work of general nature that deals with vocal music (Gana), instrumental music (Vadya), Dance (Natya) , Drama (Rupaka) and aesthetics (Rasa) etc. The text is of interest to Dance, mainly because of the contemporary scene of dancing it portrays.  It mentions ten divisions of Natya as: Natya, Nrtya, Nrtta, Tandava, Lasya, Visama, Vikata, Laghu, Perani and Gaundali. But, he calls only the first variety Natya as being authentic.

But, the main contribution of Rasakaumudi is the introduction of the concept of ‘Prana’ or the essential elements of the performance; the summation of what a dancer should aim at, while performing. The ten Pranas listed are : the line (Rekha); the steadiness (Sthirata); the swiftness (Vega); the pirouettes (Bhramari), the glance (Dristi); the desirous smile (Smita); the pleasing appearance (Priti); the intellect (Medha); the speech (Vachya); and , the song (Gitam) – RK. 5. 162.

(16) The Sangltadarpana of Chatura Damodara (a poet at Jahangir’s court, which places him in the seventeenth century) is, again, a work on music and dance. Its seventh, the final chapter, is related to dancing; and, it generally follows Nartananirnaya of Pundarika Vittala. It also adopts Nartana as the general name for dancing; and, mentions Nrtta, Nrtya, Natya, Tandava and Lasya as the types of Nartana. It then divides Nrtya into five sub-divisions: Visama, Vikata, Laghu, Perani and Gaundali, all of which are Desi forms.

There is greater emphasis on Desi forms, in its discussions. And, the authors of this period followed and adopted the views of the Nartananirnaya; and, there was a steady drift taking the discussions away from the concepts and terminologies of the Natyashastra.

(17) Sangitanarayana by Purusottama Misra, a poet at the court of Gajapati Narayanadeva of Orissa (seventeenth century), in its four chapters deals with music and dance. For a greater part, it reproduces the concepts and terms of dancing as in the other texts, particularly Nartananirnaya.  The new information it provides relates to the enumeration of the names of twelve varieties of Desi-Nrttas; five varieties of Prakara-Natya of the Desi type; eleven varieties of Marga Natyas and sixteen varieties of Desi Natyas – dramatic presentations ; and, names of thirty-two Kalasa-karanas

(18) The Sangita-makaranda of Vedasuri (early seventeenth century) follows Nartananirnaya of Pundarika Vitthala. The new information it provides is with regard to the Gatis. He treats each Gati like a dance sequence; and, describes each Gati with all its components of movements. For instance; while describing the Marga-gati, the author gives all the movements necessary for its presentation, such as the appropriate Karana, Sthanas, Cari, the hand-gestures, the head movements and glances.

He seems to have been interested mainly in the structure of dance compositions as combinations of smaller movements. He describes these movements step by step; and, includes with each movement the appropriate rhythm and tempo that it should go with.


Texts dealing mainly with the theory and practice of Dance

There were also texts and treatise, which were wholly devoted to the discussions on the theory, practice and techniques of Dance. The numbers of such texts are not many; but, are relevant to the contemporary Dance training and learning. The following are the more significant ones, among them:

 (1) The date of the Abhimaya Darpana of Nandikeshvara is rather uncertain. The scholars tend to place it in or close to the medieval period; because, it divides dance into three branches: Natya, Nrtta and Nrtya. But, such distinctions did not come about until the time of Sangita-ratnakara (13th century). Also, the Abhinaya Darpana views Tandava and Lasya as forms of masculine and feminine dancing, which again was an approach adopted during the medieval times.

Abhinaya Darpana deals predominantly with the Angikabhinaya (body movements) of the Nrtta class; and, is a text that is used extensively by the Bharatanatya dancers. It describes Angikabhinaya, composed by the combination of the movements of Angas (major limbs- the head, neck, torso and the waist), Upangas (minor limbs – the eyes, the eyebrows, the nose, the lower lip, the cheeks and the chin), Pratayangas (neck, stomach, thighs, knees back and shoulders, etc) and the expressions on the countenance. When the Anga moves, Pratyanga and Upanga also move accordingly. The text also specifies how such movements and expressions should be put to use in a dance sequence.

According to the text, the perfect posture that is, Anga-sausthava, which helps in balancing the inter relationship between the body and the mind, is the central component for dance; and, is most important for ease in the execution and carriage. For instance; the Anga-sausthava awareness demands that the performer hold her head steady; look straight ahead with a level gaze; with shoulders pushed back (not raised artificially); and, to open out the chest so that back is erect. The arms are spread out parallel to the ground; and, the stomach with the pelvic bone is pushed in.

The techniques of dance, body movements, postures etc. described in this text, is a part of the curriculum of the present-day performing arts.

The emphasis on Angikabhinaya in Nrtta requires the dancer to be in a fit physical condition, in order to be able to execute all the dance movements with grace and agility, especially during the sparkling Nrtta items according to the Laya (tempo) and Taala (beat).

(2) Closely following upon the Sangita-ratnakara, the Nrtta-ratnavali by Jaya Senapati was written in the thirteenth century A.D. This is the only work of that period, which deals exclusively with dance, in such detail. Nrtta-ratnavali devotes all its eight chapters to dance; and, discusses vocal or instrumental music only in the context of dance.

The first four chapters of the text discuss the Marga tradition, following the Natyashastra; and, the other four discuss the Desi.

The Marga, according to Jaya Senapati, is that which is faithful to the tradition of Bharata; and, is precise and systematic. While dealing with the Marga, although he broadly follows the Bharata, Jaya Senapati provides specific details of the execution of the Karanas and Caris.  He also quotes the views of earlier writers, in order to trace the evolution of Dance and its forms.

The First Chapter describes the four modes of Abhinaya, i.e., Angika, Vachika, Aharya and Sattvika; as also the six forms of dancing – Nrtta, Nrtya, Marga, Desi, Tandava and Lasya.  The Chapter Two deals with Abhinaya, describing in detail the movements of the major and minor limbs: six Angas, six Pratyangas and six Upangas. The Third Chapter is on Caris (movements of one leg); Sthanas (postures); Nyaya (rules of performance); Vyayama (exercise); Sausthava (grace); more Sthanas and Mandalas (combinations of Caris). The Fourth Chapter describes Karanas (dance-units) and Angaharas (sequences of dance-units); and, ends with Recakas (extending movements of the neck, the hands, the waist and the feet) mainly following their descriptions as given in the Natyasastra.

The second half of the text is devoted to the Desi tradition.  The more significant contribution of Nrttaratnavali is in its detailed descriptions of the Desi Karanas, Angaharas and Desi Caris. And, of particular interest is its enumeration and description of Desi dance pieces.

The Fifth Chapter defines the term Desi; and, goes on to describe the Desi sthanas, Utpati-karanas (Desi karanas) and Bhramaris (spin and turns). The sixth chapter deals with movements of the feet, Desi Caris. Jaya Senapati then describes forty-six varieties of Desi Lasyangas, which include the Desi Angas, following the Sangita-samaya-sara. The Gatis or gaits are described next. The Seventh Chapter mainly deals with individual Desi dance pieces, Desi-nrtta. These include Perani, Pekkhana, Suda, Rasaka, Carcari, Natyarasaka, Sivapriya, Cintu, Kanduka, Bhandika, Ghatisani, Carana, Bahurupa, Kollata and Gaundali. The Eighth and Final Chapter , provides information regarding presentation in general, the recital, the appropriate time for its presentation, the arrival of the chief guest and the welcome accorded the king, other members of the audience, the qualities required in a dancer, her costume, the orchestra, the sitting arrangements, the entrance of a dancer,  the use of three curtains on the stage and their removal. The Chapter ends with advice on honoring the dancer, the musicians and the poet.

(3) The Nrtya-ratna-kosa of Maharana Kumbha (a scholar king of the fifteenth century), is part of a larger work, the Sangita-raja, which closely follows the Sangita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva. It is the Fourth Chapter of Sangita-raja; and, deals with Nrtya. The Nrtya-ratna-kosa is divided into four ullasas or parts; each consisting of four pariksanas or sections. It is mostly a compilation of the concepts, definitions, theories and practices concerning Dance – both Marga and Desi– culled out from earlier texts, particularly from Sangita-ratnakara. While describing various types of dance-movements, the emphasis is more on the Desi types.

The first section of the first part describes the origin of the theories of Natya (shastra); the rules of building the performance-hall; the qualifications of the person presiding; and, of the audience. It also offers definitions of certain fundamental terms.

Raja Kumbha defines the terms Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya. According to him, Nrtta is made up of combination of Karanas and Angaharas (Karanam angaharani caiva Nrttam); Nrtya is Rasa (Nrtya sabdena ca Rasam punaha); and, Natya is Abhinaya (Natyena abhinayam).

The Nrtya is classified as Marga; and, Nrtta as Desi. The Pindibandhas or group dances, performed by sixteen female dancers as part of the preliminaries are included under Nrtta.

The rest of the verses are devoted to Angikabhinaya or the movements of the body. The text discusses, in detail, about limb movements like Pratyangas, Upangas etc.; and, also about Aharya-bhinaya or costume, make-up and stage properties.

There are also descriptions of Marga and Desi Caris, Shanakas or postures, meant for men and women, for sitting and reclining. Similarly, the Karanas are classified as Shuddha karanas (pure) of the Marga class; and, as Desi Karanas.

That is followed description of four Vrttis or styles and six kalasas (dance movements with which a performance concludes), with its twenty-two sub-varieties.

Towards the end, it enumerates the qualities and faults of a performer.  It discusses make-up; different schools of performing artists; their qualities and faults; the Shuddha-paddhati or the pure way of presentation; and, states the ways of imparting instructions to performers.

(4) The Nartana-nirnaya of Pundarika Vitthala (16th-17th centuries) is a very significant work in the history of Indian Dancing. Till about the time of Raja Kumbha, the Dance was discussed mainly in terms of Marga and Desi. Pundarika Vitthala introduces a novel feature (hitherto not tried by anyone else), which is the principles of Bhaddha (structured) and Anibhaddha (neither bound nor structured) for stratifying the dance forms into two separate classes. Even though the later texts on dancing generally followed the Sangita-ratnakara, they did take into consideration Nartana-nirnaya’s classification of Bhaddha and Anibaddha, as a part of their conceptual framework. His classification of Dance forms into Baddha and Anibaddha was a significant theoretical development.

The Nartana-nirnaya was written in the sixteenth century, while Pundarika Vitthala  (or Pandari Vitthala) was in the service of the Mughal Court. It comes  about five hundred years after Sangitaratnakara. This period between these two texts was marked by several interesting and rather radical changes and transformations that were taking place in India , in the field of Arts.

The Nartananirnaya was composed in an altogether different ambiance.  The courts of Raja Man Singh, Raja Madhav Singh and Akbar provided the forum for interaction between the North and South Indian traditions on one hand; and between Indian and Persian practices on the other. This was an interesting period when diverse streams of Art came together.

Pundarika Vittala mentions that he wrote the Nartananirnaya, concerning music and dance, at the suggestion of Akbar, to cater to his taste – Akbara-nrupa rucyartham

The subject matter central to Nartana-nirnaya is dancing. The technical details of dance as detailed in the Nartananirnaya are an important source for reconstructing the history of Indian music and dance during the middle period. This was also the time when the old practices were fading out and new concepts were stepping in. For instance, by the time of Pundarika Vittala, the 108 Karanas were reduced to sixteen. At the same time , dance formats such as Jakkini, Raasa nrtya were finding place among traditional type of Dances.

In his work, Pundarika Vitthala does not confine only to the traditional dances of India and Persia; but, he also describes the various dance traditions of the different regions of India that were practiced during his time. The information he provides on regional dance forms is quite specific, in the sense that he points to the part/s of India from where the particular style originated, the language of the accompanying songs and the modes its presentation. The Nartana-nirnaya is, therefore, an invaluable treasure house on the state of regional dance forms as they existed in the sixteenth century IndiaThus, Nartana-nirnaya serves as a bridge between the older and present-day traditions of classical Indian dancing.

The chapter titled Nartana-prakarana, dealing with Nrtta and Nartana, is relevant to Dancing. The Nrtta deals with the abstract aesthetic movements and configuration of various body parts. And, Nartana is about the representational art of dancing, giving expression to emotions through Abhinaya. The Nartana employs the Nrtta as a communicative instrument to give a form to its expressions.

Another chapter, Nrttadhikarana is virtually about the Grammar of Dance. It describes the Nrtta element of Dancing with reference to the special configuration of the static and moving elements of the Dance, such as: Sthanaka, Karana, Angahara, Cari, Hasta, Angri, Recaka, Vartana etc.

Then the text goes on to enumerate the items of the dance recital: entry of the dancer (Mukhacali, including Pushpanjali); Nanadi Slokas invoking the blessings of the gods; the kinds of Urupa, Dhavada, Kvada, Laga and Bhramari. It also mentions the dance forms originating from various regions: Sabda, Svarabhinaya, Svaramantha, Gita, Cindu, Dharu, Dhruvapada, Jakkadi and Raasa.

Some of these are classified under Bandhanrtta, the group dances with complex configurations and formations. These are also of the Anibaddha type, the graceful, simple dances, not restricted by the regimen of the rules etc.

The Nartana-nirnaya is indeed a major work that throws light on the origins of some of the dance forms – particularly Kathak and Odissi – that are prevalent today

[We shall discuss many of the texts enumerated above, in fair detail, later in the series.]



All the texts enumerated above deal with the subject of dance in some detail; exclusively or along with music, drama and poetics.

When you take an over view, you will notice that three texts stand out as landmarks, defining the nature and treatment of dance in the corresponding period. These three are: Natyashastra of Bharata (Ca. 200 BCE); Abhinavabharati of Abhinavagupta (10-11th century) and Sangita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva (13th century).

Natyashastra is, of course, the seminal text that not only enunciated the principles of Dancing, but also brought them into practice. Though the emphasis of Natyashastra was on the production and presentation of the play, it successfully brought together the arts of poetry, music, dance and other decorative elements, all of which contributed to the elegance of the theater.

The Dance that Bharata specifically refers to is Nrtta, pure dance, which was primarily performed before the commencement of the play proper (Purvaranga) as a prayer offered to gods. The elements of the Nrtta were also brought into Drama by fusing it with Abhinnaya. Though the resultant art-form was not assigned a name by Bharata, its essence was very much a part of the theatrical performance. And, this delightful art form came to be celebrated as Nrtya, during the later periods. And, in its early stages, Dance was not considered as an independent Art-form.

Several commentaries on the Natyashastra that were produced between the period of Bharata and Abhinavagupta are lost. And, the Abhinavabhatarati is the earliest available commentary on the Natyashastra; and, is, therefore, highly valuable. Abhinavagupta followed Bharata, in general; and, adhered to his terminologies. For instance, while discussing on Dance, Abhinava consistently uses the term Nrtta; and, avoids the term Nrtya (perhaps because it does not appear in Natyashastra). During his time, dance, music and dramatics were continued to be treated as integral to each other, as in the times of Natyashastra.

Yet; Abhinavagupta, brought in fresh perspective to the Natyashastra; and, interpreted it in the light of his own experience and knowledge. His commentary, therefore, presents the dynamic and evolving state of the art of his time, rather than a description of Dancing   as was frozen in Bharata’s time.  As it has often been said; Abhinavabharati is a bridge between the world of the ancient and forgotten wisdom and the scholarship of the succeeding generations.

Abhinavagupta’s influence has been profound and pervasive. Succeeding generations of writers on Natya were guided by his concepts and theories of Rasa, Bhava, aesthetics and dramaturgy. No writer or commentator of a later period could afford to ignore Abhinavagupta.

The commentaries written during the period following that of Abhinavagupta continued to employ the terminologies of the Natyashastra. But, the treatment of its basic terms such as, Nrtta, Natya, Tandava and Lasya was highly inconsistent. These terms were interpreted variously, in any number of ways, depending upon the understanding and disposition of the author; as also according to contemporary usage of those terms and the application of their concepts. Standardisation was conspicuous by its absence.

A significant development during this period was assigning greater importance to the regional types of Dances. Though based on the Natyashastra, these texts recognized and paid greater attention to the dance forms that were popular among the people of different geographic regions and of different cultural groups. In the process, the concepts of Marga, which signified the chaste, traditional form of Dance as per the rules of Natyashastra, came to be distinguished from the regional, popular, free flowing types of Dance, termed as Desi.

By about the 13th century, dance came into its own; and, was no longer an ancillary to drama, as was the case during the time of Natyashastra. Yet; the Dance, in this period, continued to be discussed along with the main subjects such as Music and Drama.

The concept of Nrtta continued to exist and Nritya was established; each with its own individual identity. The term Natya which signified the combination of Nrtta (pure dance) and Abhinaya (meaningful expressions) had come into wide use.

The Sangita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva marks the beginning of the period when Dance began to be discussed in its own right, rather than as an adjunct to Drama. It was during this period, the Desi types of Dance along with its individual forms were discussed in detail.  And, the other significant development was the fusing of the special techniques of Angikabhinayas of both the Nrtta and the Desi types into the graceful Natya form. And, new trends in Dance were recognized.

Though the ancient terms Nrtta, Tandava, Lasya and Natya continued to be interpreted in various ways, the term Nartana came to be accepted as the general class name of Dance, comprising its three sub-divisions: NatyaNrtya and Nrtta.

In the period beginning with the sixteenth century, Pundarika Vittala introduced the new concept of classifying dance forms into two separate classes, as the Bhaddha (structured) and Anibhaddha (neither bound nor structured). The later texts, while discussing Dance, apart from following Marga and Desi classification, also took into consideration Nartana-nirnaya’s classification of Bhaddha and Anibaddha, as a part of their conceptual framework.

It was during this period, the Persian influence, through the Mughal Court , entered into Indian dancing, giving rise to a new style of  Dance form, the Kathak.  This period was also marked by the emergence of the Dance forms that were not specifically mentioned in the Natyashastra – the Uparupakas. This genre of musical dance dramas not only came to be admitted into the mainstream of dancing, but eventually became the dominant type of performing art, giving rise dance forms such as Odissi, Kuchipudi etc.

The emphasis of the later texts shifted away from the Marga of the Natyashastra; but, leaned towards the newer forms of Desi Dances with their improvised techniques and structural principles. Apart from increase in the varieties of regional dance forms, a number of manuals in regional languages began to appear. These regional texts provide a glimpse of the state of Dance as was practiced in different regions.

Dr. Mandakranta Bose observes:

Bharata’s account represented only a small part of the total body of dance styles of the time. When new styles became prominent in the medieval period they had to be included in the descriptions of dancing. Such a widening of frontiers meant a great increment of technical description in the texts.

The distinction between the Natyashastra and the later texts is not merely one of detail. Of greater significance is the fact that unlike the Natyashastra, the later texts recognize different styles. These are distinct from the one described by Bharata, the main path or Marga tradition of dancing. The later texts concern themselves more and more with other styles, known, generically, as Desi, whose technique and structural principles are sufficiently different from the style described by Bharata..


Further, the principle of Anibaddha allowed the dancer a considerable degree of freedom, encouraging her to search far and to create, through her ingenuity, novel aesthetic expressions. This was a major departure from the regimen that required the dancer to rigorously follow the prescriptions of the texts. The opportunities to come up with artistic innovations, within the framework of the tradition, helped to infuse enterprise and vitality into dance performances. The dance became more alive.

At the same time, the Natyashastra continues to be the authoritative source book, which lays down the basic principles of the performing arts; and, identifies the range of body movements that constitute dancing.

The Bharatanatya of today represents such a dynamic phase of the traditional Indian Dancing.  It does not, specifically, have a text of its own; its roots are in the principles, practices and techniques that are detailed in Natyashastra, Abhinava Darpana and such other ancient texts. Though it is basically ingrained in the principles of Natyashastra, it delightfully combines in itself the Angikabhinaya of the Nrtta; the four Abhinayas of the Natya (Angika, Vachika, Aharya and Sattvika); the interpretative musical narrative element of the Uparupakas, for enacting a theme; and the improved techniques of the later times.

Besides, the Bharatanatya developed its own Grammar through Dance idioms such as: Adavus (combination of postures – Sthana, foot movement – Chari, and hand gestures-Hasta); Jati (feet movement in tune with the Sollakattu syllables); Tirmanam (brilliant bursts of complicated dance rhythms towards the ‘end’ section of the dance). Besides, the Bharatanatya, in the context of its time, enriched its repertoire of the Nrtta by items such as Alaripu, Jatiswara and Tillana.

Thus, the evolution of Indian Dance system is a dynamic process that absorbed new elements and techniques without compromising its basic tenets. It, thus, demonstrates the time-honored Indian principle of growth: continuity along with change.


Before we discuss Dance and its forms, let’s take a look at the Art and Art-forms, in general.




Part Two

References and sources

1.Movements and Mimesis: The Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic Tradition  by Dr.Mandakranta Bose

2 . Literature used in Dance/ Dance Sahitva

3. Natyashastra


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Posted by on September 23, 2018 in Art, Natya


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