The Misconstrued Abhinaya

The following Post was composed by respected scholar-danseuse Prakruti Prativadi.

In a worrying development, things have been vanishing in Bharatanāṭyaṃ performances for a while now. It started out as a missing piece here, and then another one there, and now its absence can be noticed by even a casual observer of Bharatanāṭyaṃ. The puzzling disappearance of Āhārya Abhinaya – the signature costumes, accessories, makeup, jewelry, and other props that form one significant branch of the Abhinaya in all classical Indian arts – is a symptom of an overall malaise that has taken hold of this sacred Hindu art. Once chosen with the utmost thought and care, nowadays Āhārya abhinaya has become more of postscript or a matter of convenience.

At first glance, Bharatanāṭyaṃ stands out for its unique, bright, distinctive, and festive costumes. Even the most un-initiated spectator will notice the sophisticated jewelry, tilakam, mehndi, and exuberant attire worn by the dancers. To many in the audience, these costumes and accessories may seem like they are mainly for the purpose of beauty and embellishment. This is only partially true; the dance is supposed to evoke beauty and grandeur. However, they serve a more important purpose. From the first step the dancer takes on the stage, these attributes and accessories herald to the audience that the performance is not mere pleasant entertainment, but a sacred experience in which they too will be transformed. The Nāṭyaśāstra provides the insight and details of not just the methods and items of Āhārya, but the aim of it as well.

Āhārya abhinaya does not just consist of the jewelry, makeup and costumes that the dancers wear, but also includes other props, scenery, and even machines (yantra-s) used in performances as mentioned in the Nāṭyaśāstra. All these elements are part of the overall Āhārya abhinaya. Bharatamuni, in his characteristic meticulous and philosophically profound manner, methodically classifies and lists a myriad array of these. Bharata has dedicated an entire chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra to Āhārya abhinaya and states that it should be wisely used and is not mere embellishment.

The purpose of this article is not to catalog all the various types of Āhārya abhinaya such as the jewelry and props. Rather, it is to encourage a rooted understanding of the pivotal role of Āhārya abhinaya in bringing out the Rasa experience in the onlooker. Unfortunately, many believe that the ornaments and accessories of Bharatanāṭyaṃ serve only a prosaic utilitarian and materialistic purpose. However, Āhārya abhinaya serves a deeper purpose, like every other aspect of Bharatanāṭyaṃ.

It’s important to note, Bharatanāṭyaṃ is not just a simple art. It is a dance with profound metaphysics requiring many years of full immersion with Śraddha and Bhakti to comprehend the foundational truths embedded in the dance. Studying Bharatanāṭyaṃ for 10 years is an inadequate amount of time to grasp the complete philosophy and meaning of all aspects of this dance. Many people have various opinions, mostly specious, on different characteristics of Indian arts; however, those who have practiced Bharatanāṭyaṃ as a Sādhana for many years, with Śraddha and Bhakti, can understand the purpose of the customs and traditions of the dance.

As discussed in a previous article, the purpose of Bharatanāṭyaṃ is to awaken the Rasa experience in the spectator. Rasa has no translation in English. Rasa can be described as a supreme aesthetic experience and bliss. Abhinaya is the embodiment of characters, stories, and situations with the purposes of generating Bhāva-s and Rasa. Abhinaya consists of four subdivisions: Vācika, Āṅgika, Āhārya and Sātvika.

It is somewhat perplexing to hear dancers say that they do not believe in using a lot of Āhārya abhinaya because they are ‘minimalists’ in this regard; perhaps they do not realize the full import of what minimalism means in the artistic realm. Minimalism is a technical term; it is a movement in art that originated in the 1960’s and had its heyday in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Minimalist art is not just ‘simplified’ art but art that is materially objective and does not refer to anything outside of itself. This means that minimalist art does not refer to any kind of symbolism, spirituality, or sacredness. In a prior article we saw that Bharatanāṭyaṃ is indeed a sacred Hindu art derived from the Vedas. Thus, Bharatanāṭyaṃ and minimalism are not compatible in their aims. Furthermore, far from being an avant-garde trend, the Minimalist movement in art is now quite outmoded. More significantly, claiming to want simplicity in the dance costume in order to focus only on the art conflates Āhārya abhinaya with mere materialistic embellishment, which it is not.

Āhārya Abhinaya affects the performance in two ways: The first is how it affects the onlooker, and the second is how it affects the dancer.

Āhārya Abhinaya and the Audience

As Bharata emphasizes in the Nāṭyaśāstra, Āhārya abhinaya must be carefully considered with respect to the Bhāva-s and Rasa-s the dancers or actors want to generate. The purpose of Bharatanāṭyaṃ and all Hindu arts is to pervade Bhāva-s during the dance performance and awaken the Rasa experience in the onlooker. According to Abhinavagupta, Rasānanda is akin to Brahmānanda, the experience of Rasa is similar to experiencing of Brahman. In order to do this, every single aspect of the dance is carefully chosen to add to the effect it has on the onlooker and the Rasa they experience. Bharata states that an actor or dancer should make intelligent use of jewelry, colors and costumes keeping in mind which Bhāva-s and Rasa that they support. Thus, it becomes obvious that Āhārya has a much deeper purpose and is not just materialistic, or to beautify, or to help the audience recognize the characters.

Every small detail in a Bharatanāṭyaṃ dance integrally acts on the onlooker. The spectator may not even consciously be aware of the detail, so much the better. However, this does not mean that the dancer should neglect it. Āhārya is the finishing touch, the final sophisticated refinement that will aid in the embodiment of Bhāva-s.

Āhārya is a Sanskrit word that has several meanings. One of the meanings of Āhārya is ‘to bring toward’, thus, we see that these props and accessories brings the performance to the onlooker. This does not mean just the characters and stories, but the Bhāva-s and eventually Rasa-s. It has a subtle effect on the onlooker’s consciousness. Since the Nāṭyaśāstra is the oldest treatise on dramaturgy, dance, and music in the world, Bharatamuni is the first to recognize that one’s dress and accessories aid in producing Bhāva-s witnessed by the onlooker. Bharata is also the first to recognize that color influences the psychology and consciousness of a spectator, and color should be thoughtfully considered in Āhārya abhinaya. While one should never overdo the jewelry and dress, as Bharata himself sagely warns, Āhārya abhinaya is not a mere afterthought or whim of the dancer and this is evident if one sees a performance which has little or no Āhārya abhinaya. Such a performance seems bare; removed of the dignity and poise that is integral to Bharatanāṭyaṃ.

The Nāṭyaśāstra and Sangita Ratnākara state that the dancer should be dressed in brilliant, pure, happy attire, jewelry and accessories. The dancer should wear clothing that is made of the finest material including a beautiful jacket or bodice; every part of the body is exquisitely finished with the proper ornamentation. The purpose of all Abhinaya is the grand and glorified embodiment of characters and stories. Bharata goes on to list numerous types of head ornaments, some are similar to those worn even today. He catalogues a variety of jewelry for each limb of the body.

He states that the dancer should wear the sacred brass anklets that she herself has strung, such is her dedication. Her toes should be adorned with toe rings. He associates colors for each Rasa and additionally, for specific types of characters, including the color of the gems and jewelry they are to wear. For example, black attire and blue jewelry is that of Rākśasi-s. This may explain why black as a color for dancers’ costumes, until recently, was eschewed. Human beings like the Nayika-s should be dressed in radiant colors and beautiful delicate jewelry, wear Tilakam and mehndi, with sandal paste applied to their limbs and wearing all other customary ornaments. Colors and ornaments are specified for kings, queens, Deities, sages, even women living in ashrams, and for other characters. Thus, Āhārya abhinaya is a subject to be studied seriously itself.

The great music and dance treatise Sangita Ratnākara specifically mentions that the dancer should have an abundance of hair, a long plait of hair in the back that is decorated with a string of pearls and flowers, this is often seen even today in the Bharatanāṭyaṃ performances. The forehead is decorated with curls and the head ornaments are bands of pearls, or a pearl net, or a metallic band with a forehead ornament. Some of the these are similar to the head ornament, nethi chutti or baitale bottu, in today’s Bharatanāṭyaṃ dances.

Of special significance is the Tilakam or bottu or bindi. These are not merely a beauty mark as has unfortunately become the description. The Tilakam has a very deep Vedic significance and it is not an optional ‘decoration’ in Bharatanāṭyaṃ. It is quite contrary to the ethos of Bharatanāṭyaṃ for the dancer to appear without a Tilakam or bottu.  The Tilakam/bindi symbolizes the third eye awakening and the Bhakta-s relationship with the Paramātma. Furthermore, bindi and Tilakam are not a ‘marker’ that a woman is married; this is a deceitful misrepresentation about Hindu women and culture that is widespread. The Tilakam and bindi are worn by women and girls of all ages regardless of their marital status, especially in the southern Indian states. Women who never marry wear it; as do young girls. This has been the case for millennia and is not a new ‘fashion’ trend.

A detailed study of the sculptures in our temples, both inside and outside, is vital to gaining a further understanding of and to discover aspects of our culture that perhaps we previously were not aware. Many of the sculptures and mūrti-s in temples contain the rich history of Āhārya abhinaya throughout India through the ages.

Āhārya Abhinaya and the Dancer

The second consequence of Āhārya Abhinaya is how it modifies the dancer. Bharatanāṭyaṃ is a Sādhana for the dancer, and therefore, both the dancer’s mind and body reflect this. The dancer is applying the tilakam and sandal paste to their face and body as these are the same materials that are used in puja-s. As explained in the paper I presented for the Swadeshi Indology 3 conference, the Bharatanāṭyaṃ performance itself is a Yajña; thus, all the materials used in the performance are sacred. The dancer wears the appropriate sacred attributes that are associated with the art. This generates the decorum, grandness, and radiance that the dance itself commands from its practitioners. The jewelry and especially the salangai/gejje are sacred, a puja is even done to them prior to the performances. By wearing these items, the dancer transcends her own persona.

The Śraddha required to perform the dance naturally extends to the mode of dress, which is not to be done in a slapdash manner. The purpose of the dance is to transcend the worldly, however this does not mean that one’s convenience is above the art. Therefore, appearing without the proper jewelry, tilakam, head dress, necklace, bangles, belt, mehndi, and gejje/salangai would be considered appearing in a state of undress. It is considered undignified, disrespectful to oneself and others.

Furthermore, in Bharatiya Samskṛti, one’s conduct and attire are for one’s own self-respect, not just for others. This is the ācāra followed by the dancers. It is uncouth and lacking in the right mindset to dance a Bharatanāṭyaṃ performance in jeans or salwar kameez or a kurti. The Devadāsi-s who danced in temples, were adorned in the proper ornaments, dresses, and accessories when they danced. This does not mean the dance is materialistic, this interpretation shows a lack of understanding and espouses an outsider perspective. The purpose of the dance is to transcend the mundane while at the same time providing a beautiful aesthetic and entertaining experience.

A painting of Devadāsi dancers circa 1800. Note the full attention to Āhārya Abhinaya in their dress and jewelry. Painting: “Devedassis or Bayaderes,” by Frederic Shoberl, from The World in Miniature: Hindoostan, London: R. Ackerman, 1820’s

 Indian art is a manifestation of the profound metaphysics of the Veda-s and sastra-s. A deep study of these is necessary to practice Bharatanāṭyaṃ authentically. Everything has an intrinsic meaning and it is the responsibility of the artist to understand and study what these are.  Āhārya Abhinaya is an art in itself, and a significant component in the Bharatanāṭyaṃ dance. Indian art was the first to recognize the connection between dress, color and props and the affect they have on the spectator’s consciousness, as shown in the Nāṭyaśāstra. The dancer who knows the connection with Āhārya and the Bhāva-s and Rasa is one who will intelligently make choices for makeup and costume that will awaken the Rasānanda in her audience and bring the greatest success in her performances.


About the Author: Prakruti Prativadi is a Bharatanatyam dancer/teacher, researcher and engineer. She is the author of ‘Rasas in Bharatanāṭyaṃ’, which is based on her research of the Nāṭyaśāstra and other treatises. Her upcoming book further explores these and other aspects of Indian aesthetic philosophy in Bharatanāṭyaṃ.

She recently received a best paper award at the Swadeshi Indology 3 Conference. You can follow her on Twitter. She also blogs at our Daughter Site, Tamizh Culture Portal.

  1. Kamath, Suryanath. 2006. Karnatakada Ithihasa: Halavu Mukhagalu [History of Karnataka: A Few Faces, in Kannada]. Bengaluru: Sumukha Prakashana.
  2. Ghosh, M.M. 2006. P. Kumar (Ed.) Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharatamuni. (Vols. 1-4). Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation.
  3. Prativadi, Prakruti. 2017. Rasas in Bharatanāṭyaṃ. South Charleston: Createspace.
  4. Sarangadeva, Sangītaratnākara. Adyar Library Series.
  5. Srinivas, P. N. 2000. Mathugalu [Talks on Kannada Literary Criticism, in Kannada]. Bangalore: Purogami Sahitya Sangha.
  6. Subrahmanyam, Padma. 1979. Bharata’s Art Then and Now. Bombay: Bhulabhai Memorial Institute. Madras: Nrithyodaya.
  7.  ‘Minimalism’ retrieved from Accessed January 18, 2018
Copyright: Prakruti Prativadi. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “The Misconstrued Abhinaya

  1. This was an excellent article for a rasika like me who has no technical initiation in Bharatnatyam but as a practicing Hindu brought up in a Hindu household has seen many Bharatanatyam performances. It is evident that the author has an authentic insider’s view, and she has thoroughly, succinctly and clearly made her case. The importance of Aharya is instinctively realized by rasikas to the tradition, however, it requires a practicing initiate like the author to articulate this with authority, and it stands as an irrefutable testimony against the many deceitful interpretations of our tradition that abound in the kaliyug that we are experiencing at present. Kudos. Hope to read more such articles. Am also eager to watch the author performing. Thank you.

    1. Thanks very much ma’am, for reading and for your insightful feedback! Your comments get to the heart of this article; especially your observation that the importance of Aharya abhinaya is naturally recognized by those steeped in this sacred tradition, whether dancer or rasika.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Am planning more articles and currently working on my second Bharatanatyam book; I’ll share more information about it here on ICP and TCP when it comes out.

  2. This article made me think about the dress and jewelry of Bharatanatyam from a different way altogether. I was always told it was to make the dancer look beautiful and that’s all. Thanks to the author for writing this and educating us in the deep philosophy that is behind the dance. I look forward to reading the author’s book.

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