The Mirror of Gesture (abhinaya-darpana)

by Ananda Coomaraswamy | 1917 | 16,981 words | ISBN-13: 9788121500210

This is the English translation of the Abhinaya-darpana by Nandikeshvara: an encyclopedic manual of the art of gesticulation. It belongs to a wide range of literature known as Natya-shastra: the ancient Indian art of dramatic performance, theatrics, dance and music. The Abhinaya Darpana is an abridgement of the Bharatarnava, a much larger exposit...


Mr. Gordon Craig, who understands so well the noble artificiality of Indian dramatic technique, has frequently asked me for more detailed information than is yet available in this too long neglected field.

“If there are books of technical instruction,” writes Mr. Gordon Craig,

“tell them to me I pray you. The day may come when I could afford to have one or two translated for my own private study and assistance. I dread (seeing what it has already done in other arts here) the influence of the finished article of the East; but I crave the instruction of the instructors of the East. The disastrous effect the Chinese porcelain and the Japanese print has had on us in painting we must try to avoid in this theatre art.... You know how I reverence and love with all my best the miracles of your land, but I dread for my men lest they go blind suddenly attempting to see God’s face. You know well what I mean, I think. So I want to cautiously open this precious and dangerous (only to us queer folk) book of technical instruction before the men go crazy over the lovely dancers of the King of Cambodia, before the ‘quaintness’ tickles them, before they see a short cut to a sensation. If only you knew how unwilling these men of the theatre (most of all those dissatisfied with the old sloppy order) were to face the odds, and how they long to escape obligations (your phrase in ‘Sati’) you would almost make a yearly tour of England crying ‘Shun the East and the mysteries of the East’.”[1]

While we still lack a complete and adequate translation, and even a satisfactory edition, of the “Dramatic Science” (Nāṭya Śāstra) of Bharata, the present version of a shorter compendium known as the “Mirror of Gesture” (Abhinaya Darpaṇa) of Nandikeśvara may be of use as an introduction to Indian method.

The dramatic scriptures of India were framed by Brahmā at the request of the lesser gods, at the very beginning of the Treta Yuga, the last aeon before the present.

This event is described as follows in the first chapter of the “Nāṭya Sāstra” of Bharata:

When Brahmā was a Sage in the Kṛta Age, and when Vaiśvata Manu was preparing for the Treta Age, when popular morality is in the grasp of greed and of desire, and the world is deluded by envy, by resentment, and by weal and woe, when the Devas, Dānavas, Gandharvas, Yakṣas, Rākṣasas, Mahoragas, and the Lokapālas entered upon Jambu-dvīpa, then Indra and the other Devas said to Brahmā:

“We desire a pastime to be seen and heard. This matter of the Four Vedas should not be heard by Sūdras, pray therefore shape another and a fifth Veda for all the castes.”

Saying to them, “So let it be,” and turning away from Indra, he who knows the essence of every matter, seated in Yoga posture, called to his mind the Four Vedas, thinking,

“Let me make a Fifth Veda, to be called Nāṭya (Drama), combined with epic story, tending to virtue, wealth, (pleasure and spiritual freedom), yielding fame—a concise instruction setting forth all the events of the world about to be, containing the significance of every Scripture, and forwarding every art.”

Thus, recalling all the Vedas, the Blessed Brahmā framed the Nāṭya Veda from the several parts of the Four Vedas, as desired. From the Ṛg Veda he drew forth the words, from the Sāma Veda the singing, from the Yajur Veda gesture, and from the Atharva Veda the flavour.

This science was communicated by Brahmā to Bharata and to his hundred sons, and it was first used at the Flag Festival of Indra, to celebrate the victory of the Devas in battle against the Dānavas. When, however, the Dānavas found that the drama depicted their own defeat, they remonstrated with Brahmā, and this afforded occasion for an explanation of the true character and significance of dramatic art—not to flatter any party, but to represent the true and essential nature of the world.

Brahmā explains to the Dānavas:

“This play is not merely for your pleasure or the pleasure of the Devas, but exhibits mood (bhāva) for all the Three Worlds. I made this play as following the movement of the world (loka-ṛt’-amikaraṇam), whether in work or play, profit, peace, laughter, battle, lust, or slaughter; yielding the fruit of righteousness to those who follow the moral law, pleasure to those who follow lust, a restraint for the unruly, a discipline for the followers of a rule, creating vigour in the impotent, zeal in warriors, wisdom in the ignorant, learning in scholars, affording sport to kings, endurance to the sorrow-smitten, profit to those who seek advantage, courage to the broken-willed; replete with the divers moods (bhāvas), informed with the varying passions of the soul, linked to the deeds of all mankind, the best, the middling, and the low, affording excellent counsel, pastime, weal and all else.

This drama shall be the source of all counsel in matters of flavour (rasa), mood (bhāva), and every rite; it shall serve as a timely resting-place for those who are grieved, weary, unhappy, or engaged in an arduous discipline; bestowing righteousness, renown, long life, fortune, increase of reason; affording counsel to the world. That which is not to be found herein is not knowledge, nor craft, nor wisdom, nor any art, nor deeds, nor Union (yoga).

I made this drama according to the Seven Lands, and so you should not feel resentment towards the Immortals. The drama is to be understood as witnessing the deeds of Gods and Titans, kings of the spheres, and Brahmā-sages. Drama is that which accords with the order (sva-bhāva) of the world, with its weal and woe, and it consists in movements of the body and other arts of expression (abhinaya). The theatre is such as to afford a means of entertainment in the world, and a place of audience for the Vedas, for philosophy, for history, and other matters.”

He adds that no performance should be begun without fulfilling the Office of the Stage (ranga-pūjaḥ), and that those who neglect this ritual will be ruined.

In a following chapter Bharata explains, in connection with the building of the theatre, how it is that the behaviour of the artist must of necessity be studied, and not impulsive; for the human actor, who seeks to depict the drama of heaven, is not himself a god, and only attains to perfect art through conscious discipline:

“All the activities of the gods, whether in house or garden, spring from a natural disposition of the mind, but all the activities of men result from the conscious working of the will; therefore it is that the details of the actions to be done by men must be carefully prescribed.”

Indian acting or dancing—the same word, Nāṭya, covers both ideas—is thus a deliberate art. Nothing is left to chance; the actor no more yields to the impulse of the moment in gesture than in the spoken word. When the curtain rises, indeed, it is too late to begin the making of a new work of art.[2] Precisely as the text of the play remains the same whoever the actor may be, precisely as the score of a musical composition is not varied by whomsoever it may be performed, so there is no reason why an accepted gesture-language (aṅgikābhinaya) should be varied with a view to set off advantageously the actor’s personality. It is the action, not the actor, which is essential to dramatic art. Under these conditions, of course, there is no room for any amateur upon the stage; in fact, the amateur does not exist in Oriental art.

Granting, of course, a variety of natural capacity, there naturally appears to be less difference between the good and bad actor than we are accustomed to observe in modern Europe, because the actor who merely exhibits himself is eliminated altogether. The difference, however, exists, and the Indian connoisseur is as sensitive to every shade of it as the western critic to the wider range of variation on the European stage. The perfect actor has the same complete and calm command of gesture that the puppet showman has over the movements of his puppets; the exhibition of his art is altogether independent of his own emotional condition, and if he is moved by what he represents, he is moved as a spectator, and not as an actor.[3] Excellent acting wears the air of perfect spontaneity, but that is the art which conceals art. It is exactly the same with painting. The Ajaṇṭā frescoes seem to show unstudied gesture and spontaneous pose, but actually there is hardly a position of the hands or of the body which has not a recognized name and a precise significance. The more deeply we penetrate the technique of any typical Oriental art, the more we find that what appears to be individual, impulsive, and ‘natural’, is actually long-inherited, well-considered, and well-bred. Under these conditions life itself becomes a ritual. The Indian actor relies only to a very small extent on properties, and still less on scenery.

Referring to this, Bābu Dinesh Chandra Sen remarks with justice of the Beṅgālī Yātrās, that these folk-plays

“without scenery, without the artistic display of costumes, could rouse emotions which nowadays we scarcely experience while witnessing semi-European performances given on the stages of the Calcutta theatres.”[4]

But it is not merely in connection with folk-plays that accessories are needless. Let us take a few episodes from the “Śakuntalā” of Kālidāsa and see how they are presented.

The “Watering of a Tree” is to be acted according to the following direction:

“First show Nalina-padmakośa hands palms downwards, then raise them to the shoulder, incline the head, somewhat bending the slender body, and pour out. Nalina-padmakośa hands are as follows: Śukatuṇḍa hands are crossed palms down, but not touching, turned a little backward, and made Padmakośa. To move the Nalina-padmakośa hands downwards is said to be ‘pouring out’.”

The action indicated is practically that of the extreme left-hand figure in Plate XII of the India Society’s “Ajanta Frescoes” (Oxford, 1915), but the actress, of course, only makes believe to lift and pour, she does not make use of an actual vessel.

“Showing Fear of a Bee” is to be acted as follows:

“Move the head quickly to and fro (Vidhutam), the lips quivering, while Patāka hands are held unsteadily against the face, palms inward.”

“Gathering Flowers” is to be acted as follows:

“Hold the left hand horizontally in Arāla, the right hand in Haṃsāsya, extended forward at the side.”

The left hand here represents a basket, and imaginary flowers are picked with the right hand and transferred to the left.

“Mounting a Car” is to be shown as follows:

“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.”[5]

It should be noted throughout that the words Nāṭya, etc., imply both acting and dancing; we have used the word ‘dance’ in our translation only for want of any English word combining the ideas of dancing and acting. The reader will go far astray if he understands by dancing anything but rhythmic shewing. Indian acting is a poetic art, an interpretation of life, while modern European acting, apart from any question of the words, is prose, or imitation.

It is needless to say that the appeal of the Indian actor’s art can only be felt by a cultivated audience; it is for this reason that it possesses so little interest for the ordinary European spectator, who remains from beginning to end of the performance—if he remains so long—an outsider. The Indian artist is a professional, and he works for an audience of unsparing critics. The fact that dancing or pantomime is a learned art appears in all the literature, and the accomplished actor must be accomplished in many things. In the “Mirror of Gesture”, for example, the various definitions are constantly supported by the remark, “This is the view of those who are learned in the Bharatāgama.”[6] It must not be imagined on this account that Indian Nāṭya served or serves only for the entertainment of an academic clique. This may have been the case with the old court dramas, but it was not so with Nāṭya in general, which corresponded to the common and collective need of the folk. Where such a need is felt, there arises a common and collective art, that is to say, an art which is not, indeed, practised by everyone, but is understood by everyone. The Indian actor, despite the apparent complexity of the gesture-language, makes no movement of which the meaning is incomprehensible to an Indian audience, while the subject-matter—religious, epic, or erotic—is common ground for all. But the knowledge of technique and theme is not alone sufficient, without imagination; and according to the Indian view, the power to experience aesthetic emotion is inborn, it cannot be acquired by mere study, being the reward of merit gained in a former life.[7] Whether or not this be true of the individual, it is certainly true of human communities, where no great art ever yet sprang into being out of nothing in a single generation. Art, and the general understanding of art, are always the result of a long, united, and consistently directed effort, and nothing can be done unless the artist and the spectator share a common inspiration. How far this is assumed to be the case in India may be gathered from the remarks of the dramatic critics such as Dhanaṃjaya, who pours scorn upon the spectator who seeks in drama the statement of fact rather than the experience of joy,[8] and says that this experience depends upon the spectator’s own capacities, and does not arise from the perfections of the hero, or because the work was deliberately designed to create a beautiful effect; it is their own effort by which the audience is delighted, just as in the case of children playing with clay elephants, whose imagination bestows upon their toys a varied and abundant life.[9] Those who lack imagination are said to be no better than furniture, walls, or stones.[10]

The old Indian dramatic art is no longer to be seen in India in a complete state.[11] The art of the modern Parsee theatres, chiefly exhibited in large towns such as Bombay and Calcutta, is only nominally Indian. The scenery and costume are elaborate, incongruous, and tawdry; the music and the ballet hybrid; and the acting, though generally clever, is ill-informed and unsensitive.[12] Authentic Indian acting, however, survives in the ‘Nautch’, a form of dance which sets forth a given theme by means of song and gesture combined. Performances of this kind do not correspond very closely to modern European conceptions of the dance, which belong rather to what is called in India mere Nṛtta, rhythmic movement without a theme and therefore without “flavour.” The Indian Nācnī (Nautch-girl, bayadere) generally exhibits an alternation of Nṛtta and Nṛtya. The latter, together with the sister art of music, must be regarded as representing the most perfect form of old Indian practical aesthetic culture now surviving, and one of the most beautiful and moving arts that maintain a precarious existence in a world that is “thinking of something else.” There are still innumerable Indian temples where the ritual dancing of Devadāsīs before the image is a part of the regular daily office; while in orthodox circles the Nautch is still an indispensable element in all festivities such as weddings and coronations. The Nautch is a direct survival of the old Indian Nāṭya. But the material of the classic drama is rarely if ever presented at the present day, the theme of the modern Nautch being most often Vaiṣṇava. The development of Nāṭya is thus analogous to that which has taken place in painting and poetry.

It may be remarked here that it is very usual for Indian singers, other than dancers, to accompany their singing with gesticulation. This is of two kinds, of which the first, quite distinct from what is spoken of in the present treatise, is a hand movement reflecting the musical form; this expression of empathy (sādhāraṇī) is sometimes very impressive or graceful, but not less often grotesque. The second, known as bhāv batānā or ‘shewing moods’ is of the type here described as abhinaya, or ‘gesture’ and differs from Nāṭya only in the greater relative importance of the music and the words.

Certain of the dance poses possess not merely a general linguistic, but also a special hieratic significance. These poses, chiefly of the hands, are spoken of as mudrās (seals), and are more or less familiar to students of Hindū iconography. It is, however, scarcely realised how closely connected are the dancing and the sculpture. Many of the gods are themselves dancers, and, in particular, the everlasting operation of creation, continuance, and destruction—the Eternal Becoming, informed by All-pervading Energy—is marvellously represented in the dance of Siva.[13] He also exhibits dances of triumph and of destruction. Kālī, likewise, dances in the burning ground, which we understand to signify the heart of the devotee made empty by renunciation. Srī Krishna dances a dance of triumph following the victory over Kāliya, and another General Dance, with the milkmaids of Brin-dāban, who are the souls of men.

Most of the dances just mentioned, however, except the Rāsa Maṇḍala or General Dance last spoken of, are Tāṇḍava dances and represent a direct cosmic activity. Those of the Nṛtya class, which set forth in narrative fashion the activities of Gods and Titans, or exhibit the relationships of hero and heroine “so as to reveal an esoteric meaning”, are for the most part Lāsya dances performed by the Apsarās of Indra’s paradise, and by the Devadāsīs and Nācnls upon earth. It will be seen that in all cases the dance is felt to fulfil a higher end than that of mere entertainment: it is ethically justified upon the ground that it subserves the Four Ends of life, and this view of Näṭya is plainly stated in Tiruvenkaṭācāri’s preface translated below. The arts are not for our instruction, but for our delight, and this delight is something more than pleasure, it is the godlike ecstasy of liberation from the restless activity of the mind and the senses, which are the veils of all reality, transparent only when we are at peace with ourselves. From the love of many things we are led to the experience of Union: and for this reason Tiruven-kaṭācāri does not hesitate to compare the actor’s or dancer’s art with the practice of Yoga. The secret of all art is self-forgetfulness.

Side by side with this view, however, there has always existed in India a puritanical disparagement of the theatre, based upon a hedonistic conception of the nature of aesthetic emotion; and this party being now in full cry, and the Nautch, on the other hand, being threatened by that hybridization which affects all the arts of India that are touched by western influence, the old Indian Nāṭya is not likely to survive for very much longer. Probably the art of the theatre will now first be revived in Europe, rather than in India.

All that is said in the present volume will serve only as an introduction to Indian dramatic technique and to Oriental acting in general. But we are encouraged to think that even so brief an introduction to an extensive science may prove of practical value to the many dramatists who are interested in the future of the European theatre; and though we have done all in our power to serve the ends of scholarship, our main purpose in publishing the “Mirror of Gesture” is to interest and assist the living actor—not that we suppose that it might be profitable for him to adopt the actual gesture-language of the East, but that it may inspire him with the enthusiasm and the patience needful for the re-creation of the drama in his own environment.

It remains to be said that our translation is based upon a Nāgarī transcript of the second Telugu edition of the “Abhinaya Darpaṇa” of Nandikeśvara, published under the editorship of the late Tiruvenkaṭācāri of Nidāmangalam. The translation is intended to be literal, but in the latter part, and occasionally elsewhere, is somewhat compressed by the omission of words that are not absolutely essential, or phrases that are constantly repeated, such as ‘in the dance’, ‘this hand is called’, or ‘it is stated in the laws of dancing’.

My thanks are due to M. Victor Goloubew for the photographs reproduced on Plates I and III, while the illustrations on Plates IV and V (above) are from photographs by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Ananda Coomakaswamy

Footnotes and references:


Extract from a letter written in 1915.


This general principle holds good even where an author acts his own play.


“Sāhitya Darpaṇa”, 50.


“History of Bengali Language and Literature”, 1911, p. 733.


Śukatuṇḍa, Padmakośa, Arāla and Haṃsāsya hands, and the Vidhuta head are explained in the text of the “Mirror of Gesture” translated below. The above stage directions are from Rāghavabhatta’s “Arthadyotanikā”, a commentary on Śakuntala, printed in the “Abhijñāna Śakuntalā” edited by Godabole and Paraba, Bombay, 1886. The immediate source is Sylvain Levi’s well known and valuable work, “Le Théâtre Indien”, which is, however, mainly concerned with the literature, rather than the technique of the Indian drama.


Phrases of this nature, which are constantly repeated, are generally omitted in our translation.


“Knowledge of Ideal Beauty,’' says Blake, “is not to be acquired. It is born with us.”


The essential characteristic of aesthetic emotion (rasāsvādana) is a timeless delight (ānanda) akin to that of the experience of union with the Brahman (Brahmāsvādana).—“Sāhitya Darpaṇa”, 33, 54.


“Daśarūpa”, i, 6, and iv, 47-50 and go. For the general question of aesthetic emotion, see also the “Sāhitya Darpaṇa” of Viśvanātha Kavirāja, (Calcutta, 1875); Regnaud, “La Rhétorique Sanskrite”, Paris, 1884; and my “Hindu View of Art”, in “The Quest”, 1915, and “That Beauty is a State”, Burlington Magazine, 1915.


Dharmadatta, quoted “Sāhitya Darpaṇa”, 39.


It survives, perhaps, in Cambodia. Cf. A. Leclère, “Le Théâtre Cambodgien”, Revue d’Ethnographie et de Sociologie, 1910, Nos. 11-12, pp. 257-282—a valuable paper, and well illustrated.


It may be remarked that the few attempts that have so far been made to exhibit Indian drama on the English stage have merited similar criticism.


“In this drama of the world He is both the Chief Actor and the Chief of Actresses. This drama commenced in the beginning with the union of Actor and Actress, and will conclude, according to His unfailing will, at that night which is the end of time” (“Tantra Tattva”, trans. Avalon, p. 28).

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