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'Abhinaya Darpanam' in a nutshell
- Dr. Maithili Nesargi-Naik

May 14, 2020

(Second prize winner in senior group of the Nrutya Shabda Essay Writing Competition, 2019-20 organized by Samvaad Blog of Swarada Dhekane and Loud Applause E-Magazine of Neha Muthiyan)

There exists a beautiful garland of 324 pearls strung together with the silken thread of nrutya shastra in the ancient Sanskrit literature -The Abhinaya Darpanam.

Abhinaya: To express / To take forward to

Darpanam: Mirror

Abhinaya Darpanam is a Sanskrit treatise on Indian classical dances having a detailed account of dance movements and expressions.

The entire text is composed in poetry (padya) form. 'Anushtupa chhand', 'Sragdhara' and 'Shardulvikridit' are the predominantly used meters for the composition of Abhinaya Darpanam. This padya format facilitates the 'memorizing and recitation' method of gaining knowledge. In the traditional Indian system of education, 'Patha-Anushthan-Avabodha' was the sequence one followed to gain knowledge. The author of the work is Nandikeshwara who is believed to hail from southern India.

The time period (antiquity) of the work can be fixed around 1000AD. [i] The association of Abhinaya Darpanam with Natyashastra of Bharata Muni and Sangeeta Ratnakara of Sharangadeva can be understood as follows. Regarding the time of composition, Abhinaya Darpanam came into existence after Natyashastra but before Sangeeta Ratnakara. [ii] Regarding the contents, Sharangadeva has quoted Nandikeshwara in his work Sangeeta Ratnakara a couple of times. And although Abhinaya Darpanam is considered to have been greatly influenced by Natyashastra, it bears a few differences.
1) In the Angika abhinaya aspect, there are critical explanations about movements of each limb as independent, separate movements.

2) Karana and Angahara as explained in Natyashastra do not find a place in Abhinaya Darpanam.
The entire treatise of Abhinaya Darpanam is devoid of divisions into chapters (adhyaya) and is instead a continuous chain of poetic verses.

The topics chronologically discussed are:

a) Consists of an invocatory verse
Prayer to Lord Nataraja with the simile of the 4 types of abhinaya (Angika, Vachika, Aharya, Sattvika) is beautifully woven together in the first shloka.

b) After Namaskriya comes the Natyopatti.

The 5th Veda (Natya Veda) regarded as an amalgamation of concepts of the 4 existing Vedas (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda) mention Lasya and Tandav - feminine and masculine - manifestations of Indian classical dances. There is a precise account of the evolution of dances from celestial art form to its descent on the earth accessible to all human beings.

c) Natyaprashansa - Explanation of the magnificence of dance is a form of expression for celebration and invocation to god.

d) Natanabheda - Explanation of types of dance is as follows:
Nrutta - Exclusive bodily movements devoid of emotions and facial expressions.
Natya - Expressions conveying traditional stories and mythology.
Nritya - Combination of the above two (Regarded worthy to be performed in the royal courts (etat nrutyam maharajasabhayam kalpayet sada!') These 3 Natanabheda are intricately related with the 4 types of abhinaya.

e) Natanaprayagakaal - The occasions where performing Nritya are recommended. These include religious festivities, coronations, marriages, auspicious occasions among others.

The audience (Sabha) comprising Sabhapati, Mantri and the audience in general.

The Sabha is compared to a wish granting tree where the Vedas are its branches, the Shastras are its adorable flowers and the learned people flocking towards it are buzzing honeybees.

The seating arrangement of the audience is described as Sabha rachana.

The stage is termed as Rang and the audience is seated facing it.

f) The performing troupe
* The arrangements of the performing troupe.

* The performing maiden (patra) in the middle with a good dancer (natottam) accompanying her. This gives an insight into the concept of a solo performance prevalent.

The Taladhari, vocalist (Geetakari), and Shrutikara flanked by two mridanga players should be seated on the right side of the Patra on the Ranga.

g) The characteristics of the performer are explained further in the form of
1) Patra Lakshan (virtues of the performing damsel)

2) Varjaneeya patra (characteristics to be avoided in the performing damsel)

3) Patraprana (10 cardinal qualities of the performing maiden)

Kinkinilakshanam - The ankle bells of the performer get the attention. They should be made of Kansya and tiny melodic bells 100 - 200 held together with a blue thread at a distance of 1 anguli.

a) Invocation: To Vighnesh, Murajadhipati Gaganand Mahi, with musical notes after which the performer acquires permission from guru to get ready for the performance.

b) Rang devata stuti - Prayer to the Rangadhidevata

c) Pushpanjali
Vighananam Nashanam Kartum Bhutanam Rakshanaya Cha
Devanam Tushtaye Chapi Prekshakanam Vibhutaye
Shreyase Nayakasyatra Patrasamrakshanaya Cha
Acharya Shikshasidhyartnam Pushpanjalim Atharabhet [iii]

d) Natyrakrama

To be performed by
Song (Geetam)
Orally by the performer herself (Asyena)
Conveying meaning (Artha pradarshan)

Hands (Hastena)
Expressing emotions (Bhava pradarshan)

Eyes (Chakshurbhyam)
Beat of time (Talam)

Feet (Padabhyam)

A very important dictum for effective presentation of dance is explained here.
Wherever the hands go, the eyes should follow, the mind follows the eyes and the expressions thoughts of the mind. One can say that this sutra gives a hallmark of performing classical dance in a gist.


Having explained all this in detail, the author proceeds to give an account of the 4 types of Abhinaya.

* Angika
* Vachika - words, kavya etc
* Aharya - Hara keyuradibhi
* Sattvika

Angika Abhinaya sadhanan
Details of parts of the body facilitating the expression of Angika abhinaya (Angika abhinaya sadhakani)

Description of the major 6 angas including Head (Sheera), Arms (Hastau), Chest (Vaksha), Hips (Katitatau), Flanks (Parshav), Feet (Padau).

This division of body parts bears resemblance to the Shadanga shareer explained in Sushrut Samhita of Ayurveda.
Hereafter comes the explanation of pratyangas and upangas.

Opinion of others (which the author may not want to either refute or accept) regarding the inclusion of neck in the Angas is also included. Later comes the explanation of bodily movements under following heads:
* Method of performing the movement
* Application (viniyoga)

Type of Movement
Shirobheda (head movements) - 9
Greevabheda (neck movements) - 4
Drishtibheda (glances of the eyes) - 8

* Asamyuta hasta (single hand gestures) - 28 in number
* Samyuta hasta (combined gestures) - 23 in number

Description of Nritta hasta, Devata hasta, Dashavtar hasta and Bandhav hasta is present.

A) Mandala bheda (forms of standing) -10 types
This first mandala bheda is further classified as follows:

A1) Sthanaka bheda - Further divided into 6 types - samapada, ekapada, nagapada, aindra, garuda, brahma
A2) Ayata
A3) Alidha
A4) Prenkhana
A5) Prerita
A6) Pratyalidha
A7) Swastika
A8) Motita
A9) Samasuchi
A10) Parshvasuchi

B) Utplavana bheda (Types of leaps) - 5 types
Alaga, Kartari, Ashva, Motita, Krupoalaga

C) Bhramari bheda (Types of spiral movements) - 7 types
Utpluta, Chakra, Garuda, Ekapada, Kuncita, Akasha, Anga

D) Chari bheda (Types of strides) - 8 types
Chalan, Chankramana, Sarana, Vegini, Kuttana, Luthita, Lolita, Vishama

E) Gati bheda (Types of gait) -10 types
Hansa, Mayuri, Mruga, Gaja, Turangini, Sinhi, Bhujamgi, Manduki, Veera, Manavi

With detailed account of movements, explanation of numerous varieties and their intricate association with each other, these must be learnt from direct observations of traditions and the benevolent grace of the righteous people (Satam Anugrahanena) [iv]

i Nandikeshwara's Abhinaya Darpanam edited and translated by Dr Manmohan Ghosh - Introduction

ii Nandikeshwara's Abhinaya Darpanam edited and translated by Dr Manmohan Ghosh-Introduction

iii Abhinaya Darpanam, verse 1

iv Dance Gestures 'Mirror of Expressions' Abhinaya Darpanam, Sanskrit with English translation by P Ramachandrashekhar, Page 161, verse 324

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