Hasta-s & Their Usages

Prof. T. Donappa, whose books, talk and behaviour give a good name to erudition, pedantry and position—he is an eminent scholar, author and the former Vice-Chancellor of Telugu University, Hyderabad—gave three lectures for the Department of Telugu of the University of Madras (Prof. G. Appa Rao's Endowment Lectures). One of them, specified in the invitation as Non-Verbal Communication in Human World, caught my attention and I managed to attend that.

Within the space of 70-80 minutes, he spoke an encyclopaedia of gesture, touching upon the origin, need and use of language, various methods of nonverbal communication and the way this was recorded by language (a typical example from Telugu : 'Kallerra chesadu' : He made his eyes red : He became angry). This give-and-take nature between non-verbal gesture, and its verbal description, he made graphically clear. He spoke, of course, about the use of gesture in dance, and of several invented gestural languages. Realisation of these links will infinitely deepen the understanding of abhinaya, by a dancer.

It is up to the dance institutions and convenors of dance conferences to make use of his enormous learning. A dancer, any dancer, cannot but be benefitted by listening to him. T. Donappa resides at Hyderabad.

Summing up Prof. Donappa's talk, Dr. V. Ramachandra M.A., Ph.D., talked for 10 minutes; his remarks did not add an iota to the subject at hand or to the understanding of the listeners. That's not very unusual. But very curious was his observation that he (Dr. Ramachandra) heard the song Meerajalagalada in a performance of Bhama Kalapam. How is this possible? Bhama Kalapam has been current at least for more than a century, whereas Meerajalagalada was composed by Sthanam Narasimha Rao in the thirties, as clearly spelled out by Sthanam himself in his autobiography in Telugu, for his own depiction of Satyabhama in the celebrated stage-play Sri Krishna Tulabharam.

None amongst the degreed attending the lecture dared question him about this. The students who knew better must have thought that discretion is the better part of valour. I was too dumb-founded and puzzled to raise this point before the gathering dispersed. It strikes me now : could someone have presented a Bhama Kalapam interpolating this popular stage song ?

Incidentally Meerajalagalada, for which I have the lyrics and music (on disc, recorded by Sthanam himself more than 50 years ago; it is consequently out of copyright protection) can be utilised for an exquisite depiction of Satyabhama through Bharatanatyam. Kalanidhi Narayanan, do you read me?

This brings me to the hasta-s and their usage as codified in the Abhinaya Darpana. For the time being, I will take only two uses of pataka hasta and one of tripataka.

The thumb bent to touch the base of the forefinger, with the palm and four fingers extended is the pataka hasta. This hand has the maximum number of uses out of which those designated ghanaatapey and veedhipravesabhave are two. Ghanaatapey is defined as strong sunlight. The Sanskrit phrase admits of another meaning also, clouded sunlight. Before you ask the question, how can there be clouded sunlight, realise that in Tamil and Telugu there are similar expressions, namely 'oomai veyil', 'mooga enda' respectively; both of these can be literally translated as 'dumb' sunlight. The idea in question is the humid heat an overcast sky sometimes generates. This should be shown for ghanaatapey.

Why can't it be strong sunlight, as mentioned by Manmohan Ghosh and Ananda Coomaraswamy-Gopala Krishnayya Duggirala? Well, as admitted earlier, the phrase can be taken to mean that. But in Sanskrit usage, ghanaa is more usually associated with 'thick', 'dense' than with 'strong' or 'bright', which is the adjective to .be used if it is to qualify the word sunlight.

Another meaning of the word ghanaa is cloud. The previous reference in the sloka is to chandrikayam, moonlight; it also poetically precludes the interpretation of ghanaatapey as bright sunlight, I feel. Visually, moonlight has some tenuous link with the sun in an overcast sky. There is none between moonlight and strong sunlight.

How is strong sunlight shown with hands and expression? As demonstrated for me by Shanta Dhananjayan (the Kalakshetra teaching), a slow, slightly waving hand is moved across the chest from left to right, with a distressed look on the face. In this, there is concrete depiction of neither 'strong' nor sunlight. I have also noted another variety. The two palms are held aloft facing the sky, and the squinting-grimacing, glance is towards them. Again, nothing concrete but the effect of trying to look at the bright sun.

I am not a learned dancer. So I leave it to dancers, expert and experienced, to decide whether ghanaatapey is indeed clouded sunlight, and how to go about depicting it.

By some, veedhipravesabhave is shown thus: palms upturned, held slightly below chest level and moved gently from left to right, with the movement of the eyes following suit, to show the street and then palms facing each other held at the sides to denote entering.

 To start with, veedhipravesabhave is one phrase. The sloka says: (this hand is for showing) entering-a-street, not streets comma entering. It should be shown for entering a street...

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...you are actually crossing the lintel. It cannot be shown when entering one street from another. Nor can it be shown when you are entering a street which extends straight in front of you (exiting from a temple gopuram on to the road). By implication (traditional vastusastra requires this), the entry should be perpendicular to the street, not congruent; which also means that you should look from left to right before entry.

If the ring finger is bent at the second knuckle (for a pataka hasta), it is the tripataka. The phrase should be 'kapolepatralekhayam' but is variously taken as kapothe, patralekhayam, or kapole, patralekhayam.

The first means drawing of various coloured designs on the high cheek. This is found in traditional adornment of the face, in some institutions, it is taught as pigeon, writing a letter. In others, cheek, making coloured designs on the face or breast, depending upon the reading.

The pigeon and letter-writing interpretation, I find most odd. Kapothe is pigeon but this means that only the left hand is a tripataka, the right being an alapadma held close and upright. Which is more denotive of a fan-tail pigeon, a later (14th century?) import to India and hence could not have been known to the author of Abhinaya Darpana. How were letters written in those days? By a gantam, steel stylus (which can only be held by a mushti hasta) or by a feather perhaps (hamsayam). Neither of these images is conveyed by holding the tripataka. Again, traditionally, it is the ring-finger which is used for making the vermillion mark on the forehead, the black mark made on the face to negate the evil-eye, to apply collyrium, etc. By this reasoning. dividing the phrase into kapole and patralekhayam. cheek and making designs on face or breast also, is not apt. What is the visual simile between the cheek and the tripataka? Is mine the final word? By no means. Till dance is done, till the end of time, the words and ideas from the sastra-s will continue to be reinterpreted in light of current knowledge and norms. But I beseech dancers to stop and think and act upon their individual prompting. What is art if it isn't constantly held to the fire of integrity and applied intellect and purged of the dross it collects with time?

That's the way to make dance truly many-splendoured.

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