In all forms of classical Indian dance, hastha mudras (hand gestures) are an important part of the visual vocabulary that helps communicate elaborate narratives. Kathakali, which originated in the southern state of Kerala, has a prescribed set of gestures for a single hand (asamyutha) as well as for both hands (samyutha) used individually and in combinations. Sanskrit names generally denote each gesture’s basic meaning, although a single gesture can have more than one meaning depending on its use and context within a narrative.

Hand positions used in the Kathakali dance performance in the theater at Ernakulam, Kochi/Cochin of Cochin Cultural Centre. By Wouter Hagens, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, the first gesture shown above, in which the palm is held open with the ring finger bent inwards, is called pathaka, or "flag." Depending on context, pathaka can be used to denote diverse things: the forehead, movement, a messenger, noise, the day, a sprout, tongue, and so on. When both hands holding this gesture are moved with variations, they can represent anyone of the following things: elephant, lion, crocodile, ox, a tall building, arch, flag, cloud, path, the Earth, evening, noon, a gate, tower, lord Indra's weapon, a rampart, a vehicle, and more.

When observed closely, a sequence of hand movements offers an idea of the eloquence of the Kathakali language of gesture. To give just one example:

  • Using both hands, with the palms facing each other near the chest, the dancer stretches all the fingers upwards, with contact only at the wrists. The fingers are gently shaken. This formation denotes a big lotus, blooming. The gesture is called anjali or “divine offering.”
  • At the same time, the dancer moves his eyebrows up and down and opens his eyes wide, with a gentle smile on his lips, denoting the beauty of the lotus.
  • Next, the anjali gesture is held only by the left hand facing upwards near the chest. With his right hand the Dancer forms another hastha mudra called brahmara, or “bee,” with the index finger bent inwards.
  • He then makes a circling movement by stretching his right arm, gently shaking his fingers as he makes more sweeping movements in the air, around the lotus. The hand flutters like a bee, and eventually settles on the lotus, denoting the bee sucking honey.

This whole combination of gestures is enhanced by the expressions on the face of the Dancer, with movements of the eyes, eyebrows, and cheeks. The eye movements indicate, first, the beautiful lotus with a look of love, then wonder, and then a quick fluttering of the eyelids imitates the fluttering bee, followed by a steady gaze, to denote the sweetness of the honey.


Kathakali Actor. By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, via Wikimedia Commons

The navarasa, or nine emotions or moods expressed in Kathakali plays are Love, Valor, Pity, Fear, Disgust, Wonder, Humor, Anger, and Peace. These basic moods are displayed with degrees of intensity depending on the situation, the narrative, and in keeping with each character’s well-defined role. The expressions are held for a long time with the gentle movements of the eyes, eyebrows, and lips, while the head is held in varying positions. The pauses in acting, which are coordinated with the breathing of the actor, increase the intensity of the mood, and the whole sequence is so focused that it draws the viewer into deep observation. All the while, the drummers play exciting rhythms to underscore and enhance the emotion. In perfect understanding of each other, the actors and drummers build up a sequence and pause at frequent intervals together with precision. Such a slow build-up of emotions by each character interspersed with quick changes in gestures that illustrate the text makes Kathakali an experience that is both exciting and thought provoking.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan is a dancer, choreographer, and writer who is a leading exponent of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance of South India