Treatise on Mohiniyattam

H. Ramakrishnan

HAND GESTURES OF HASTHALAKSHANADEEPIKA IN MOHINIYATTAM:Nirmala Paniker; Natanakairali, Ammanoor Chakyar Madhom, Irinjalakuda-680121.

The uniqueness of Indian classical dance is that it can give a visual depiction of the mind. Its gestural language is so fully developed that it can demonstrate even the shades of mind’s nuances. Apart from the Navarasas, it can stunningly depict anxiety, desire, thought, recollection and nostalgia.

Hasthalakshanadeepika, the ancient Sanskrit classical text on the dances of Kerala, mentions 24 basic mudras or hand-gestures, which are in use in the classical dance dramas of Kerala. Mohiniyattam, in particular, uses them.


Nirmala Paniker’s book helps the lay person understand the language of this classical dance. Perhaps she wanted to seek out the relationship among the traditional forms of Mohiniyattam, Nangiar Koothu and Thiruvathirakali — all of which feature female artistes. She learnt Thiruvathirakali from Bhanu Asan of Thiruvananthapuram and the various aspects of abhinaya in Koodiyattam and Nangiar Koothu from Guru Padma Bhushan Ammanur Madhava Chakyar.

In this pioneering work, the author uses the notation patterns of mudras presented by Venu G, her partner in life as well as in art, to elucidate the intricate dance form. In effect, it is a competent and valuable compilation of the details of Mohiniyattam. Nirmala has succeeded in synchronising her own dance-related knowledge and skill with textual research. She has created a unique system of pictography to share a lifetime of perceptions and experiences. She has proved beyond doubt that a picture can convey more than what a thousand words could. The diagrams and photos make it easy even for a lay reader to understand the innumerable symbols and their combinations that depict various ideas and thoughts.

There are symbols to convey river, bathing, buffalo, ears of the cow, obligation, purity, minister, veena, heroine, tongue, messenger and varioud experiences of daily life. As a reputed scholar and teacher of some of Kerala’s most treasured, ancient women’s performing art forms, the author has discovered several missing links that existed among them.

Nirmala uses both the photograph of the dancer presenting the mudra and its graphic version in line drawing. The original text from Hasthalakshanadeepika in Sanskrit and its meaning given in Malayalam and English make it a multilingual treatise on Mohiniyattam.

This cogent and well-researched volume is a major contribution to the study and to a better appreciation of Mohiniyattam and its place in the rich art forms of Kerala. No doubt, this will be of constructive and practical use for the Mohiniyattam artistes as well as for the devoted enthusiasts who want to get a better insight into this rich and ancient dance form.

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