These young Balinese dancers have learned how to use anjali hasta in a stylized manner. (Bali)

How is the hasta mudra actually used to create this image in the mind of the observer? Let me explain the technical foundation for the usage of mudras in dance.

Bharata indicates two styles of expressing meaning in dance and drama. They are natya dharmi and loka dharmi. Natya dharmi refers to a stylized, exaggerated, and formal means of using the hasta mudras, body language and facial expression Loka dharmi is a more casual, natural, and realistic way of expressing.

An example of anjali hasta utilized in Bharata Natyam dance. (USA)
Suchi hasta being used to point naturally, loka dharmi. (India)

Generally speaking, most eastern dramatic arts and dance follow the natya dharmi method of acting in which subtle meanings are encapsulated within elaborate form. On the other hand, much of western theatre has followed a more realistic and natural approach to acting in which actors try to closely imitate real life.

Daily life expression - the root of western theatrical performance is based on natural, realistic expressions. (USA)

Certain styles of Indian dance adhere to these two methods of expression to varying degrees. To which extent they actually do adhere, depends mainly on the parampara or tradition that has been passed down from guru to disciple. The style of Bharata Natyam which I studied, namely Tanjavur (hailing from the southern city of that name), and my teacher's parampara in particular, follows a method which incorporates a large degree of loka dharmi within it. Therefore, depth of feeling, emotions, motive, and other subtleties are taught with great effort along with the outward form of hasta mudras and body language.

The Natya Sastra as well as the Abhinaya Darpana, as mentioned earlier, proceeds in verse form. The general format that Bharata and Nandikesvara follow is to present verses consisting of a comprehensive list (of hand symbols, foot position, movements of wrist, etc.). This is followed by verses that describe in detail the first item on the list. This would include which specific parts of the body should be used and exactly how to move or place them in relation to the rest of the parts. Finally the authors proceed to explain in which contexts this particular position, movement, or symbol could be used. It is important to note that many of the verses, after listing the possible contexts, end with the word etc., indicating that these are suggestions and guidelines but not exclusive uses.

The prayer hand, anjali hasta, is a universal hand symbol that is used in daily life. (India)
Children using anjali hasta in a natural way. (Bali)

This threefold explanation gives the reader an enormous amount of depth into each element of the dance technique and its practice. An accomplished practitioner of dance would make the use of these mudras and the accompanying facial expressions and body movements appear unstudied. What appears on the surface to be spontaneous and natural in performance is, in fact, well thought out, well bred, and long practiced. For this reason, being well versed in these texts is essential to improvisation and choreography within the traditional context. For example, a dancer could use any number of mudras to show a particular meaning but can judiciously choose one over the other with the understanding of subtle distinctions in their meaning.

Anjali hasta depicted in sculpture - Balinese statues of man and woman praying. (Bali)

Each hasta mudra has a name that is used to indicate the form as it is explained in the written texts. This name is usually indicative of the shape that the fingers create and/or the object represented by the shape. For example, suchi means needle. Suchi hasta is the hand symbol in which the index finger points straight out and the others are curled into the palm with the thumb over them.

The shape of suchi is "pointed" like a needle. Although suchi hasta may be used to show a needle, in the context of dance, and even real life for that matter, we generally use suchi hasta to indicate or point to something. Suchi hasta may be used to represent or interpret several other situations as prescribed in the Abhinaya Darpana. Some examples of these are sun, city, world, threatening, astonishment, beating the drum, or drawing attention to something higher, as seen in many statues of deities.

In some of these instances, although the hands are kept in suchi hasta as a form, the movements that the hands make, the body language, and the facial expressions, as well as the overall context of the performance provide clues to indicate its meaning. In the example of "threatening" or "scolding", one's overbearing stance and aggressive expression will accompany the wagging action of suchi hasta at someone. This entire visual package will indicate the meaning of suchi hasta along with the context of the story or narrative being told. In this instance, the name of the hasta mudra, namely suchi or needle, plays little part in its final meaning.

Suchi hasta being utilized in an animated and natural manner. (India)
Bharata Natyam dance with left hand depicting Krishna's flute using mrigashirsha hasta and right hand in scolding action utilizing suchi hasta. (USA)

In conclusion, I should say that in my experience and practice of Bharata Natyam for the past 28 years, hasta mudras are but tools, albeit effective ones, that can be used to convey something to the audience. It is my overall goal as a performer to lift one's own spirit as well as the audience to a higher level of spiritual consciousness. This is achieved through total absorption of oneself into the art, a place that ultimately, knows no form. All forms, tools, and technique are necessary aids in reaching that level, but are eventually to be forgotten because in the ultimate aesthetic experience, or rasa, there is absence of any form.

A traditional statue of Buddha in prayer. (Singapore)
Anjali hasta used in stone scupture at the Thanjavur Brihadesvara Temple. (India)

Dedication of the sculptors of Chidambaram Temple. (India)

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