The language  of hand gestures - Hastas

Often, the audience in an Indian classical dance recital is struck by the use of myriad hand gestures. These hand gestures accompany both pure dance movements and the narrative aspects of the dance.

Here  I will try to answer some questions asked by students and the audience of  Indian classical dance

What do these hand gestures convey?
What are they called and what are the different types?
How are they taught or learnt and how are they used in dance compositions?

Hand gestures in pure dance movements have no meaning. They accentuate the beauty of the movement, either by going against the direction of the movement, or in most cases, by following the direction of the movement. In a visual analogy the silk tassels at the end of an embroidered scarf is the closest.  In the case of an abstract concept like Siva?s cosmic dance being expressed in dance the hand gestures accompanying the movements, indicate either the attributes of Siva or the  hand gestures seen in sculpture or hand gestures that enhance the feeling of joy, sorrow or destruction in Siva?s dance.

In narrative sequences the hastas can be used to indicate different characters in the story, the emotions and dialogues of the character, different episodes, objects used by the characters, the environment of the episode being enacted etc.

A hand gesture is called a hasta. Sometimes the anglicized version hastas is used to indicate ?the plural? in some books. Some books even call them mudras, but this has been acknowledged by scholars as a wrong usage. Mudra is a word borrowed  from yoga and sculptural traditions. Mudra by definition is the position assumed by a yogi or a divinity when in meditation or performing a ritual. It need not be the hand gesture alone. In dance hasta definitely means only the hand gesture.
Hasta  could be defined as the stylized position or movement of the fingers and arm with respect to the body as prescribed by textual and oral traditions. Hasta  attains different meanings by the arm movement and the different positions it takes with the rest of the body.

For example, a hasta  called tripataka  when kept above the head could mean a king and kept at shoulder level could indicate  a tree.  There are two main types of hastas : the single hand gesture or asamyuta hastas and the double hand gestures or samyuta hastas. In textual traditions there are slokas or sanskrit stanzas which give the details of how these gestures are to be held and their uses in dance.  But  in a classical dance recital today these textual traditions are combined with oral traditions of  hasta  usage.

Then there are other uses catalogued separately types like nritta hastas or pure dance hastas which are used only for pure dance movements.

Hastas are taught in dance classes as they occur in the dance compositions. Only teachers with some theoretical background teach the slokas that occur in sanskrit texts. This is because at some stage in dance history the practitioners of dance and the theoreticians of Indian dance differed in their treatment of hastas .  Lakshnam lakshya viruddha or the practise that goes against the theories is often the complaint as early as the medieval period. However both the oral and the textual traditions have their richness, and a good training in both provides a dancer with better skills at choreography.

Hastas (hand gestures)

Asamyuta or Single handed hasta mudras

Pataka  : This is the first of the single hand gestures mentioned in the sanskrit treatises. The word pataka means a flag. The gesture pataka is used in various ways. The sloka which gives the viniyoga or use of the pataka hasta, accompanied by a non-literal translation, is as follows:

Nattyaarambhe vaarivaahe vane vastunishadhane
to begin the dance, clouds, forest, to refuse something
kuchasthale nishanyaamcha nadhyaam amaramandale
the chest, night sky, river, the heavens
turange khandane vaayau shayane gamanodyame
horse, strike down, wind, sleeping, to go quietly
prataapecha prasaadecha chandrikaayam ghanaatape
to indicate greatness, to offer something, moonlight, bright sunlight
kavaattapaattane saptavibhaktyarthe tarangake
to open a cupboard or door, seven scriptures, wavelets
vithipraveshabhaavepi samatvecha angaraagake
to enter a street, to show equality, to anoint ones body
aatmaarthe shapathechaapi tushnimbhaavanidarshane
ones soul, to take an oath, to show disgust
taalapatrecha khettecha dravyaadisparshane tatha
palm leaf, shield, to touch things
aashirvaadakriyaayaamcha nripashreshtasya bhaavane
to bless, the  ideal king,
tatra tatreti vacane sindhaucha sukruti krame
to indicate such and such person, ocean, to indicate everything is alright
sambhodhane purogepi khadgarupasya dharane
to address a person, going forward, sword
maase samvatsare varshaadine samaarjane tatha
month, year, rainy season, to sweep
evamartheshuyujyante pataakahastabhavanah
these are the different uses of pataka hasta

Thus the pataka hasta  as you can see has different uses, in addition to these there are other uses taught in oral traditions.

I will give a few more of asamyuta hastas or single hand gestures examples:

Tripataka : The word means three parts of a flag. It is used to denote a king, a tree etc. and is also used       in pure dance movements.

Bhramara : Bhramara means a bumble bee. This hasta  is used to show a bee.

Samyuta or Two handed hasta mudras

Anjali : This is used to greet people. When placed above the head it is meant to show respect to the gods, at the forehead level it conveys respect to the guru or teacher and elders, at chest level to equals.

This hasta  is not mentioned in texts but is part of the oral tradition. Here tripataka and pataka hasta  are combined to symbolize a lamp with lighted wick..

Swastika : This hasta  is used in pure dance movements and perform the mandala swastika karana movement.

This hasta  which shows two tripataka hands in swastika position is used in the oral tradition to indicate a king.

Khatva : This hasta  is used to indicate a bed or couch or a seat. The four fingers pointing downwards indicate the four legs of the furniture.

This again is a combination of two single hand gestures, bhramara hasta  (refer to fig 3),  and alapadma hasta which indicates a flower. Here the bee hovers over the flower to suck the nectar. This is used often to indicate spring time in dance. This is a product of the oral tradition.

In a narrative dance composition how are these used?

Primarily hastas are used to convey the meaning of every word in the lyric. The dancer in most of the compositions performs the padartha abhinaya or the miming of the meaning of the words.

For e.g. In the case of sakhiye inda jalam
O friend why this delay or play with me
The dancer mimes all the words, "o friend" first , then the words "why," then the word "inda" or "this kind of" and "jalam" or play or tardiness or delay.

Then with this line being repeated the dancer shows different ways of showing a friend and asking the question why etc.

Next the dancer elaborates by pleading with her friend in different ways, cajoling her, convincing her etc. All these are enacted using different hastas.

Hastas thus convey the meaning of the song and embellish the pure dance movements, in addition they also add variety to the movements and the narrative sequences.

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