The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Part 7


[ See a video of Kathak performance ]

Jan 19, CANADA (SUN) — The Art of Kathak.

In the previous segment of Miracle Plays, we explored the different dynamic portions of a pure Kathak art performance, as it originated in Mathura. Today, we offer a line-by-line description of the dramatic gestures that comprise a Kathak performance.

The song below is one which Nand Kisor, the famed Kathak master, used during the Janmastami season in Mathura in the late 1950's. A felicitation of Krsna's foster parents, it praises Krsna by referring to his exploits and to some of His endearing qualities. It is sung in the mode known as Kanhra.

Nand Kisor gave a word-by-word interpretation of each line of the song and demonstrated each of the manual signs which he uses in gestural commentary on the text. The Kathak accepted the name mudra for these gestures, but he himself was accustomed to calling them cihn. He knew of no book or manual which served a authority for these cihn or for any other aspect of his Kathak art.

Now we shall explain how the Kathak rendered these poems in the gestural language of his cihn. Each line is given first in romanized Hindi, followed by the English versions. The gestures are then listed in alphabetical order, together with the Hindi words which they gloss, and are described in detail.

Birth Felicitation

1. Pragate Brij Nanda-lal sakal gun nidhaniyan

There was manifested in Braj the dear boy of Nand, a treasury of all good qualities,

    a. pragate - at the level of the shoulders, the hands are held out, palms down, and suddenly they are turned up, raised, and spread. The head is turned upward, and the eyes are opened wide in an expression of surprise and amazement.

    b. Brij - the right index finger, pointing upward, describes a small circle. The reference is to the circular pilgrimage-path of the Braj parikrama, by which Braj is bounded and defined.

    c. Nanda - the left hand strokes an imaginary beard; the right hand grasps the top of an imaginary staff. (These are the characteristic stage properties of Nand in raslila performances.)

    d. lal - the arms are cupped in cradle-fashion as if rocking a beloved child (lal).

2. Bank bhrikut capal nayan koti koti varun mayan

Having curved brows and agile eyes; a koti of kotis of Cupids would I sacrifice (for him).

    a. bank bhrikut - the right index finger traces the outline of the left eyebrow from right to left, then compares this brow metaphorically with a bow by tracing the full length of the left arm, which has been raised and slightly bent. The left hand now seems to grasp a bow, and the right hand pretends to draw arrows from a quiver and discharge them.

    b. capal nayan - the first and second fingers of the right hand touch the eyelids. They are then thrust forward in rapid vibration to suggest the dancing motion of Krsna's eyes.

    c. koti koti - the fingers of the upturned palms are held slightly apart, and the two hands are turned over several times. It is a reference to the repeated use of the fingers as tally keepers, and indicates that a very great number is meant.

    d. varun - the cupped hands, with palms turned outward, are brought together about a foot before the face. Each is brought backward to its own temple and held there for a moment. Then the two together are thrust outward a foot or so. The right hand continues further in a motion of giving. (This is a common gesture in making any offering of a religious nature.)

    e. mayan - Cupid (Kamadev) is suggested by a reference to his bow. The left arm is bent into a bow as in gesture 2a. The right hand moves along its length in undulant motion to indicate that the bow is wreathed in flowers. The right hand then pauses inside the curve of the bow in a cupped position, which is the sign for 'flower', and more specifically for 'lotus'.

3. Dekhat bhain dasin sab jagat man mohaniyan

Seeing him, the enchanters of the hearts of all the world became his slave-girls.

    a. Dekhat - the index and middle fingers of the right hand, slightly spread, are pointed forward.

    b. bhain dasin - the index fingers go through the motions of a woman's lifting and throwing back of the hood of her sari.

    c. sab jagat - the index finger describes a circle as in gesture 1b and then moves from right to left in front of the face with four pauses symbolic of the lines of division in the world of plurality. Meaning 'the Whole, and all things in it.'

    d. man mohaniyan - both hands are placed over the heart. The right arm is extended to its full length. It makes a grasping motion, and brings back a 'captured heart'.

4. Line hai mat god bal keli kari vinod

Mother has taken (him) in her lap, with the child she sports and frolics.

    a. Line hai - the outstretched hands, palms up, are brought inward to the waist.

    b. god - the arms, cradled at the waist as if supporting a baby, are lowered a little to the lap.

    c. bal - the left hand is placed on the head of an imaginary child.

    d. keli kari vinod - the Kathak grins, snaps his fingers, chucks the baby's chin, and holds both palms up before the baby in a gesture widely used while trying to placate or gratify another person.

5. Jivahu tum pran mere Kansa ke dahaniyan

Live long, my Life's breath, Thou Destroyer of Kamsa.

    a. Jivahu tum - the right forearm is raised from the elbow at a 45-degree angle. The gesture is evidently vocative. Nand Kisor could say nothing in explanation except that he followed Binda Din's tradition in the gesture.

    b. pran mere - the hands are placed over the heart. In this gesture the symbols for 'pran' and for 'mere' happen to coincide.

    c. Kansa ke dahaniyan - the two hands, moved right and left above the forehead, mark out a horizontal line; the high platform on which Kansa sat in the arena. Each hand now touches the crown of the head on its respective side and moves outward and downward: Kansa wears long hair. The Kathak's right hand catches hold of imaginary locks, and the left grasps this hair near the scalp. His hands tug inward toward his body -- Kansa is being dragged down to the floor of the arena. Now the two hands become the contending wrestlers; the two palms, facing each other at a distance of about a foot, move up and down in feint and counterfeit. Finally, the right hand goes into complete ascendancy and the left is 'on its back' below. Both hands go downward with force: Krsna crushes Kansa.

6. Mukh cumat halaravat dularay pay piyavat

His face she kisses, she rocks him and fondling him, she suckles him.

    a. Mukh cumat - the Kathak lowers his head as if kissing a babe in arms.

    b. halaravat - the arms, held cradle-fashion, are rocked to right and left.

    c. dularay - the two arms press an imaginary baby to the left breast and shoulder.

    d. pay piyavat - the right index finger traces the perimeter of a left breast. The breast is lifted with the cupped palm of the right hand, and the right thump is thrust out as a nipple.

7. Boi bhuja pakari ali bal bal bali haniyan

Catching hold of those same arms, O friend, with a rope she ties the child securely.

    a. Boi - the right index finger is held vertically at shoulder height. The gesture leads one to interpret 'boi' as a demonstrative pronoun with the emphatic particle, 'those very arms (which crushed Kansa)'. The Kathak understands it as equivalent to doi, 'both'.

    b. pakari - the right hand snatches the left wrist from above.

    c. ali - in a vocative gesture, the head is turned sharply aside to the right and the flattened right hand is extended in that direction.

    d. bal bal bali haniyan - the two hands are rotated rapidly around each other as if tying something with many turns of cord; then the closed hands are pulled sharply apart as if tightening a knot.

8. Ghungharari alakain Madhu pank sohain kamalan pai

Curled are his locks, beautiful as the black bee upon the lotus.

    a. Ghungharari alakain - the right index finger traces a number of small circles at the side of the head: Krsna's curls.

    b. Madhu pank - a hovering bee is represented by the trembling fingers of the right hand, which descends from right to left. The cupped left hand represents the lotus.

    c. kamalan pai - as the hand representing the bee approaches the lotus, the right hand transforms itself into a symbol meaning 'in' or 'on': from a closed fist the index finger and thumb are extended together. The small end of the fist is turned down; the thumb rests on the palm side of the index finger at the first joint.

9. Lage bhal kone se mano Rahu si grasaniyan

(The curls) encroach upon the forehead from the temples like Rahu the Devourer.

    a. Lage bhal kone se - a sweep of the hand from left temple to right indicates where Krsna's locks meet the forehead.

    b. Rahu si grasaniyan - first, in introductory sign called candrama indicates that the moon is being referred to: the hands, palms in, are held before the face. They point upward toward each other at a 45-degree angle, the fingertips touching. Now the hands dip downard and outward in a crescent motion until they part, and the thumbs are raised up almost vertically.

    Second, the left hand alone now represents the moon. The knuckles flex. Until the crescent moon is unmistable. The right hand becomes the maw of the demon Rahu. The right thumb becomes the demon's lower jaw; the fingers become his upper jaw and snout. The devouring Rahu now moves left, approaching the moon.

10. Ghutuan Hari dhavain gahi pani pag calavain

Hari runs along on his knees. Catching his hands, she makes him go on his feet.

    a. Ghutuan - the upturned palms, placed before the chest one in front of the other, represent the creeping child's knees. The inner hand crosses the outer again and again to suggest baby Krsna's rapid movement.

    b. gahi pani - the right hand (Yasoda's) grasps the fingers of the left, which represent baby Krsna's hands.

    c. pag calavain - the two outstretched hands grasp the hands of an imaginary child. They guide the toddler inward, with pauses marking the child's hesitant steps.

11. Brahmadi Siv sarahain Yasudha ke bhag dhaniyan

Siva, Brahma and others applaud Yasoda's rich fortune.

    a. Brahmadi - to suggest the four faces of Brahma, the hands are placed at their respective temples. Each hand moves out laterally in a double movement, broken by a stop.

    b. Siv - the right hand indicates Siva's crescent by making a dipping motion across the forehead from left to right. Now the left hand, by sweeping downward and outward from the scalp until the arm is fully extended, suggests the descent of the Ganges from Siva's hair.

    c. Yasudha ke bhag - the right hand taps the forehead several times (because one's fortune is written there before one's birth).

    d. dhaniyan - the outstretched arms are raised upward; the eyes are raised and opened wide in surprise (at such a vast good fortune).

12. Sur viman chaye, barsat suman suhaye

The celestial ears of the gods overcast (the earth). Beautiful flowers rain down.

    a. Sur viman - the right hand, outspread above the head with palm turned down, moves from right to left - an aerial chariot. The left hand then makes a like motion, suggesting a plurality of chariots.

    b. barsat suman suhaye - the right hand grasps at an imaginary flower and tosses it down. The celestial beings are picking and throwing down the flowers of the heavens. The fluttering fall of the blossoms is now represented with the index fingers, held high, brought down in parallel wavering courses.

13. Sanakadi Ved Sesh adi aye sab saraniyan

Sanaka and others, the Veda, Sesha and other, all took refuge with their Protector.

    a. Sanakadi - the Kathak's hand rests upon the head of an imaginary child of short stature. (Sanaka is one of a group of mind-born sons of Brahma, the Kumaras, who remain five years old forever.)

    b. Ved - the palms joined together a foot before the face, are opened like the leaves of a book. The head makes the horizontal motions of scanning the lines.

    c. Sesh adi - the left hand and forearm now become a serpent. The forearm is raised to 45-degrees, the fingers seem to form a serpent's hood, and the thumbnail represents its eye. However, the Kathak says the digits represent the thousand heads of Adisesha, the serpent on which Vishnu reclines.

    d. aye sab saraniyan - the Kathak bows his head, crosses his forearms, and stoops slightly as if to touch some revered person's feet.

14. Yah jagat kau udharau tehi het rup dharau

This world save Thou; for that purpose didst Thou assume material form.

    a. Yah jagat - the right index finger describes a circular motion as in gesture 3c.

    b. udharau - the upturned palms, starting from the chest, make a lifting motion upward and outward.

    c. rup dharau - the right hand moves downward vertically in front of the body with the index and thumb pressed together and the other fingers fluttering loosely. The fluttering fingers, the Kathak says, represent all the angas or members of the body.

15. Giridhar Gupal Binda ke pap ke haraniyan

O Mountain-supporter, O Cow-keeper, O Remover of Binda's sins!

    a. Giridhar - Mount Govardhan is indicated by beginning at a point before the face and tracing, with a downward and outward motion of the two hands, the outline of the slopes of the mountain. Next we see the raising of that hill as the Kathak puts the level right palm under it and raises it high. Next the left hand moves up to the imagined level of the base of the mountain and takes its weight upon the point of the extended little finger. Last, the right-hand, relieved of the weight, is held upward with outward-facing palm in the position which, as a mudra, is called abhayahasta. The Kathak was not familiar with the Sanskrit term, but said the gesture meant 'Fear not!'

    b. Gupal - the right hand plucks an imaginary blade of grass and takes it to the mouth. The two hands for a moment rest as if atop a herdsman's staff, and then adjust a blanket about the head and shoulders as herdsmen do.

    c. pap ke haraniyan - the left hand holds up three fingers. They symbolize, says the Kathak, the three categories of sin: daihik, manasik, and daivik - corporeal sin, mental sin, and sin allotted because of the evil karma of previous births. The right hand makes a motion of reaching, grasping, and taking these away.

Adapted from the book "The Miracle Plays of Mathura" by Norvin Hein.


| The Sun | News | Editorials | Features | Sun Blogs | Classifieds | Events | Recipes | PodCasts |

| About | Submit an Article | Contact Us | Advertise | |

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved.