The Tales of From the attic- Fascinated with the fingers that sing!

This  blog is inspired by another blog written by the renowned Danseuse and scholar Lakshmi Viswanathan ji as part of her column “seen and heard” in ( see below for the link to her blog). Her article is titled “hasta mudra”.

The concept of using finger signs for communication is age old. Man, from his most primitive times must have identified this as a very effective method to communicate with the world. I distinctly remember my teacher, S.Ramachandran sir teaching me on the first day of my chola tamil epigraphy class some of the symbols that were used by early man before he created the first Brahmi letter.

He was a trader and was importing/exporting cows and products of a cow. In Aramaic a cow is called Aalif. To denote a cow he created a symbol that had two “U” inverted towards each other. The upper U denoting the horns and the lower U denoting the body of a cow. I was so fascinated by this. It was from this symbol that the Brahmi “A” and later the Nagari “A” developed. The term Aalif lending it’s first phonetic Aa. It is this very same concept we hold even today in dance while showing a cow. The simhamukha mudra ( middle and ring finger showing the body, index and little finger the horns).

As a dancer, even as a child, I was taught to think of everything as gestures. All my thoughts had to be communicated without words, just as effectively. After a bit of training, this starts coming naturally to most dancers. We begin to use our hands and eyes to speak. In fact they speak sooner than our words, most often. Simple words like go, come, sit, me, you etc start getting complex layering through what I call as intonation or dhvani. Now, one may wonder what intonation can gestures have, after all intonation is associated with words. But, it does. What kind of a go, whom are
 you asking to come, when are you asking them to come, are you ordering that they sit, or
are you begging them to sit down a moment, are u addressing yourself arrogantly, pitiably, sweetly,
sensuously, is the person your addressing a man, woman, man who is your lover, secret lover,
husband, human husband, God-husband, friend, your mother so on and so forth lend this complexity
of intonation to the gestures. The more experience one gains, they will be able to differentiate and delineate these subtle changes through simple gestures. The brilliance of dance gestures are that, apart from the ones that are used for decorative purposes (Nritta or pure dance) gestures, we use mostly gestures that are drawn from everyday life for abhinaya. illangoadigal in silappadikaram calls them ezil (beautiful) Kai (gestures) and tozil (meaningful or used in depiction) Kai. It is the appropriateness of the gesture for the particular emotion combined with the artistic flourish with which a dancer uses them that makes it look exotic and dance-like. This beautification is also perhaps why we often hear commoners say that they can’t seem to understand the gestures and what we are communicating with it. I think, if the gestures are not merely done with flourish or simply reproduced as taught but are done with the appropriate intonation, it will surely communicate itself without
explanation to even a novice.

Having said that, I must write about what Lakshmi ji has raised and spoken about in her blog. The
importance of dancers holding the mudras clearly. Using proper, well held mudras is considered
almost unfashionable and un-senior like by many dancers off late. Infact, in the name of abhinaya exclusives several have dispensed with well held out gestures and resort to loosely held hands in positions of easy ( hardly any difference between a pataka saying come/go, to a say a Chatura which can mean little or konjam in tamil) or folded/cupped together near the navel. It is wonderful to read a lovely blog on the importance of hasta mudras in dance (BN), a need of the hour. I say so because, abhinaya is not merely mukhaja (facial) alone. Neither is it just Angika ( body) alone. Resorting to too much of eyes alone or just a lot of body language while simply not using hands or minimal usage of hands is a new trend.

I wish to recall a performance of this same senior dancer (Lakshmi Viswanathan ji) at The MusicAcademy well over a decade ago. I was there as a mere teenager in the audience. She presented a Kshetrayya padam. It was about the devotee being witness to the Goddess, walking
back to her apartments in the wee hours of the morning after a night long union with The Lord at His
bed chamber. She was tired, she was weak in the knees, she wore a crumpled saree, disheveled hair
and needed the help of her sakis to walk back. I remember all this, not from the descriptions that were announced but from the gestures of the dancer. She did use her body language, her facial expressions
and move languidly across the stage. But, it was the subtle gestures that captured the essence of this most erotic poem that lent it beauty and piety,  all at once. The rati mudras she used, the mudras for Union, for kissing, for making love, for heavy eyelids, the heavy breasts of the heroine that made her walk slowly, underscored the erotic so gracefully yet allowing no room for unwanted overdoing that could have easily led to vulgarity.

The on going debate as to whether erotic padams/javalis etc are approtriate for concert stage, respectable audiences, can they be taught to young girls etc can be effectively addressed with proper understanding of the significance of hastas in the delineation of such compositions. Many modern Dancers do away with much of the traditionally used mudras and adopt body movements to express the erotic sentiments for example: some twirls instead of say an alapadma that can be rounded above the head to show the same intoxication in love.They also use strategic lighting to heighten the effect. They add more intimate details (not thought through gestures) in the name of sancharis with long drawn pre-story and after story which go often beyond the purview of the actual poem at hand, addt to this the word for word English explanation- we have successfully effected a culture shock in some, distaste in some others of the audience. They are are all torn between judmental gander, appreciation for the portrayal and  admission to mild tickling of the senses.

Using strong mudras Was the technique that the devadasis used in their  abhinayam.  a very strong set of mudras, hasta that represented all poetry, including the most erotic of sentiments. They never did away with it. Even while they sang, they have held their mudras perfectly. what makes for good abhinayam is not these mudras alone. It is the aforesaid intonation that the dancer lends to each hasta that will allow the fingers to speak a language that everyone can understand. Her eyes, body etc are only aiding this process. A very good textual example of what am saying can be seen in the documentation of the hastas for padams done by some devadasis in a work titled abhinaya navaneetam. This documentstion is a mere capture of what can be apparently noted but in performance these mudras, along with music would transform into real emotions at the deft hands of each of the dasi, each time !

The contrary of lack of clear mudras is also a dangerous trend. Over rigidity in the name of
perfection, cleansing of the system without any space for the the body and mind to speak is an over simplificatio of this very complex, intelligent system of communication. Some institutions and schools do tend to do that as they are learning by the book and hence are devoted to the system.

When K.P.Kittapa Pillai restructed the navasandhi kautuvams, he has used simple Adavus (movements) and hasta to denote esoteric dances like the kamala nrittam, urdhva nrittam. Simple as they are, deviating from the treatises and sculptures that elaborate on the various karanas (
units of dance ) involving the entire use of the limbs, these Adavus and the kamala mudra (lotus)
hand gestures etc do effectively communicate the dance form of that particular deity symbolically, albeit as a eulogy.

Recently in one of my lectures, someone asked me about the performance of Ajapa Natanam. It is
such an esoteric dance concept that is cosmic in nature and so sukshma that a sthula representation of
it, using music, movement etc would be an enthusiastic attempt but never in its entirety. I have several times enjoyed portraying this Ajapa Natanam in my Varnam (mohamana en meedil) as my imagination of Tygaraja dancing on the chest of Narayana upon his Pranan of inhalation and exhalation. But after a few minutes of this portrayal, I would come back to the gesticulation of dancing as it would render a completion to my thought process.
I also distinctly remember what Nandhini Ramani ji said about the padams of Balamma. She said, while Balamma improvised every time, she did have clear mudras for each line that she performed and taught. It was again the intonation that perhaps gave it it’s depth every time and that’s what made each performance of the same composition unique.

Dancers are taught to speak through our hands. Lakshmi ji ‘ s understanding of the importance of hastas has made her talk to us about it. It is imperative to assimilate the importance of hasta abhinaya
 and hasta dhvani (my coinage) before we loose a little more of it to trends and fads. I second her.

The Italians are known to be by nature highly articulate with their gestures. They are loud in their hand movements and therefore theatrical. We dancers, are better Italians! we sing poems with our fingers! If we speak it with clarity, conviction and commitment, all of us can hear it and enjoy it!

thanks to Lakshmi ji for mooting this inspiration to share my thoughts about hastas through her writings.

Dr.Swarnamalya Ganesh
Fascinated with the fingers that sing!

This the link to Lakshmi Viswanathan ji’s blog

2 thoughts on “The Tales of From the attic- Fascinated with the fingers that sing!

  1. You really make it appear really easy along with your presentation however I to find
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    and extremely vast for me. I’m looking forward for your next submit, I’ll try
    to get the hang of it!

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