Abhinaya-darpana (English)

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

The English translation of the Abhinaya-darpana (“the mirror of gesture”) 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 m...

Chapter 3 - The Audience etc.

The Audience (sabhā).—The Audience shines like the Wishing-tree, when the Vedas are its branches, scriptures of art and science (śāstras) its flowers, and learned men the bees; where men of truth are found, shining with good qualities, famous for righteous conduct, honoured by kings, adorned by the Vedas; where the Vedānta is expounded; when distinguished by the sound of voice and lute (vīṇā); possessing heroes of renown, ornamented by resplendent princes, shining with royal splendour.

The Seven Limbs of the Audience are men of learning, poets, elders, singers, buffoons, and those who are familiar with history and mythology.

The Chief of the Audience (sabhā-nāyaka).—He who is Chief of the Audience should be wealthy, wise, discriminating, full of gifts, versed in musical lore, omniscient, renowned, of charming presence, knowing the moods (bhāvas) and their expression (hāva), void of jealousy and like faults, familiar with customary etiquette, sympathetic, a Dhīrodātta Nāyaka, expert in all the arts, clever in statecraft.

The Ministers (mantri).—Those who shine as royal ministers are men of their word, discerners of good qualities, wealthy, famed, learned in mood (bhāva), knowing good from evil, fain of the flavour of love, impartial, well-conducted, of good will, learned, devoted servants of the king, and men of culture.

The Stage (ranga).—The Chief of the Audience, as described, should sit at ease, facing the east, the poets, ministers, and courtiers at his side. The place before him, where dancing is to be done, is called the stage.

The danseuse (pātra) should stand in the middle of the stage, and the dancer (naṭa) near her; on the right the cymbalist (tāladhārī); on either side the drummers (mṛdaṅgikaḥ); the chorus (gītakāraḥ) between them; and the drone (śrūtikāra) a little behind. Each of these, and thus ordered, should be present on the stage.

The Danseuse, or Actress (pātra).—It is understood that the Danseuse (nartakī) should be very lovely, young, with full round breasts, self-confident, charming, agreeable, dexterous in handling the critical passages,[1] skilled in steps and rhythms, quite at home on the stage, expert in posing hands and body, graceful in gesture, with wide-open eyes, able to follow song and instruments and rhythm, adorned with costly jewels, with a charming lotus-face, neither very stout nor very thin, nor very tall nor very short.

Disqualifications of a Danseuse.—The Danseuse (veśya) should be rejected, whose eyes are (pale) like a flower, whose hair is scanty, whose lips are thick, or breasts pendant, who is very stout or very thin, or very tall or very short, who is humpbacked, or has not a good voice.

The Bells (kiṅkinī).—The Bells should be made of bronze or copper or silver; they should be sweet-toned, well-shaped, dainty, with the asterisms for their presiding deities, tied with an indigo string, with a knot between each pair of bells. At the time of dancing there should be a hundred or two hundred for each foot, or a hundred for the right foot and two hundred for the left.[2]

The Dancer or Actor (naṭa).—Wise men say the Dancer (or actor) should be handsome, of sweet speech, learned, capable, eloquent, of good birth, learned in the scriptures (śāstras) of art and science, of sweet voice, versed in song, instrumental music, and dancing, self-confident, and of ready wit.

Outer Life (bahih prāṇa) of the Danseuse.—The following accessories are called the Outer Life of the Danseuse: the drum, cymbals of a good tone, the flute, the chorus, the drone, the lute (vīṇā), the bells, and a male singer (gāyaka) of renown.

Inner Life (antaḥ prāṇa) of the Danseuse.—The ten factors of the Inner Life of the Danseuse are swiftness, composure, symmetry, versatility, glances, ease, intelligence, confidence, speech, and song.

Vulgar Dancing (nīca nāṭya).—Those who are versed in the Science of Dancing say that that dancing is vulgar in which the actress does not begin with prayer, etc.

The Fruit of Witnessing Vulgar Dances.—Those who look upon the dancing of such a vulgar actress will have no children, and will be reborn in animal wombs.

The Course of the Dance (nāṭya-krama).—What is said traditionally by our ancestors must therefore be kept in view. Having made the prayer, etc., the dancing may begin. The song should be sustained in the throat; its meaning must be shown by the hands; the mood (bhāva) must be shown by the glances; rhythm (tāla) is marked by the feet. For wherever the hand moves, there the glances follow; where the glances go, the mind follows; where the mind goes, the mood follows; where the mood goes, there is the flavour (rasa).



Bhāva is the first touch of emotion in a mind previously at rest; when the emotion becomes more intense, and finds expression in movements of the eyes, eyebrows, etc., it is called hāva. The ten hāvas or sṛṅgāra-ceīṭās are included among the twenty or twenty-eight ornaments (alaṅkāra) of a heroine, as follows:

  1. līlā, the imitation of the lover;
  2. vilāsa, a flutter of delight,
  3. vicchitti, rearrangement of dress or jewels to enhance loveliness;
  4. vibhrama, confusion or flurry;
  5. kilakiñcita, a combination of anger, tears, joy, fear, etc.;
  6. moṭṭayita, absorption in thoughts of the lover when his name is heard;
  7. kuṭṭamita, feigned anger;
  8. bibboka, feigned indifference;
  9. lalita, graceful swaying or lolling;
  10. vihṛta, silence imposed by modesty.

These are described in the “Sāhitya Darpaṇa” of Viśvanātha, “Dāśarūpa” of Dhanaṃjaya, “Bhāsa-bhuṣana” of Lāla-candrika, etc. The physical signs expressing the hāvas are detailed in subsequent verses of the “Mirror of Gesture,” (e.g. pp. 20, 25). Strictly speaking, bhāva is mood or feeling unexpressed, hāva is the emotion which finds expression, ceṣṭā the gesture that expresses it. Rasa or flavour and vyañjanā or suggestion (transcending the literal meaning) distinguish poetry from prose.

Footnotes and references:


Kuśala graha-mokṣayoh, lit. expert in grasping and releasing, emphasizing and relaxing the stress of emotion. The actress is not to be swayed by impulse, but perfectly self-possessed, mistress of a studied art, in accordance with the Telugu saying bommale-vale ādintsula, “ as if pulling the strings of a puppet”, a phrase also used in speaking of the relation of God to man and the universe.


No dancer ties the bells upon her ankles before dancing, without first touching her forehead and eyes with them, and repeating a brief prayer. Investiture with the bells makes the adoption of a professional life inevitable.

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