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Abhinaya - the four fold acting technique!

"आंगीकम भुवनम यश् वाचिकम सर्व वांमय आहारीयम चंद्र

तारादी तम नुम्ह सात्विकम शिवम"

-Abhinaya Darpana

Abhinaya – its introduction & various classifications

In this blog, I wish to invite your attention to one of the fundamental concepts of Indian classical dance. i.e., the 'Abhinaya' & its various classifications. I hope it will help art connoisseurs understand the concept & expand their learning curve. From an etymology standpoint, the 'Abhinaya.' originates from the following Sanskrit words- 'abhi' means 'towards' and 'ni' (naya) means 'guide' or 'lead'. Thus, we can interpret the word 'Abhinaya' as an act of guiding the spectator towards the theme.

While different art forms use various methods to communicate a theme, the Indian classical dance uses the four stratified elements — body movements, music, costumes, and inner emotions — to express the same. This quadrupled stratification of Abhinaya is collectively known as 'Chathurvidha Abhinaya'. Individually, they are known as Angika, Vachika, Aharya and Sattvika, respectively.Let's have a brief understanding of each one of them

Angika Abhinya – The Vital parts of Natya!

Angika Abhinaya is the art of expression through body movements. It is represented through various postures and gestures. Natyashastra- the earliest text extant on dramaturgy- divides the body movements as 'Sharira', 'Mukhaja', and 'Cheshtakrta'. While 'Sharira' is about the movement of major limbs- the 'angas', 'Mukhaja' is connected with the movements of minor limbs on the face- the 'upangas'. And finally, 'Chestakrta' is associated with the movement of the body in general. The later medieval treatises such as Abhinaya Darpana and Sangeetha Ratnakara has added one more classification, and that is movements of 'Prathyangas'- other body parts connected to major limbs. In short, the aesthetic, stylised movements of the anga, upanga, prathyanga, called Ankiga Abhinya forms the vital parts of Natya.

Vachika Abhinaya – the better half of Natya!

Vachika abhinaya is the art of expression through verbal communication to the audience. It makes use of verbal speech or music to communicate the theme to the spectator. While the speech is used in theatrical representation, dance uses music & lyrics. In the traditional theatre art forms such as Koodiyattam and Thullal, the actor himself recite slokas in Sanskrit or vernacular languages. In the case of classical dance, the dancer generally does not directly participate in Vachika Abhinaya except in certain Kuchipudi styles. For classical dance, the Vachika Abhinaya is carried out by the musical accompaniment. Thence, in classical dance realm, the Vachika abhinaya plays an equally important role by graduating itself to the role of a better half.

Aharya Abhinaya – The grandeur associated!

Aharya Abinaya is the representation of the character through costume, ornaments and makeup. Also, it includes stage decorations and arrangements. It must be noted that all classical dance forms are considered to be 'Ekaharya' wherein a single dancer takes up different roles and enacts the story without a change in costume or makeup. In the case of theatrical representation, the Aharya can be based on the theme, and the character played. For example, Kathakali uses different makeup such as Pacha, Kathi, Kari, Thadi, Minukku to suit the characters. These makeups bring richness to the otherwise well-established art form of Kathakali, making it one of the highly circulated art forms in visual media. Thus Aharya helps establish the grandeur of any art form, thus giving a visual treat for the spectator.

Sattvika Abhinaya – The soul of Natya!

Sattvika Abhinaya is an involuntary physical response to an emotion. It originates from the deepest mind of the dancer. When the mind reaches a certain level of concentration, emotions get manifested. Examples of above are shedding of tears, horripilation, sweating out, facial colour change (robust for anger perception), and et al. These get ensued during various stages of the enactment. Therefore, Sattvika Abhinaya is a psycho-somatic representation, emerging from the actor's mind, and thus forms the soul of the Natya.

Chathurvidha Abhinaya – Its praxis.

It must be noted that the application of the Chathurvidha Abhinya varies for different art forms and carries heavy regional influences. Case in point, the Tribhanga poses of Oddisi is inspired by the sculptures found in temples of Orissa. Likewise, the graceful sway of the torso in Mohiniyattam resembles the undulating movements of paddy fields & wafting of coconut fronts in the evening breeze, commonly found in the countrysides of Kerala. In general, Chathurvidha Abhinaya is influenced by socio-economic, political, cultural and geographical aspects of the regions from where they originate.

Abhinaya – In conclusion

All in all, Abhinaya plays a vital role in Indian classical dance. Also, when the stratified elements of Chathurvidha Abhinaya – Angika, Vachika, Aharya, Sattvika Abhinaya – work in perfect harmony, the theme gets communicated well to the audience. Thus, Abhinaya lays the solid foundation for any classical dance forms, as it leads the audience to the blissful feeling of Rasa.



  • Natya Shastra – Translated by N.P Unni.

  • Natya Shastra, by Board of Scholars

  • Abhinaya Darpana – Translated by Manmohan Ghosh

  • Sangita Ratnakara of Saranga Deva - Translated by Dr K. Kunjunnu Raja and Radha Burnier, Published by Adayar Library

  • Mohiniyattam the lyrical dance – By Kanak Rele

  • Classical Indian Dance in Litterateur and arts – Kapila Vatsyayana

Author: Anju Peter, Nrityankanam.

Courtesy: Reva University & all my Gurus who inculcated art in me.

Picture Courtesy: Internet.


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