Researching mudras (hand gestures) and their use in various spheres has been an enriching experience. First, I would like to emphasise the importance of mudras in the classical dances of India. I have come to realise that mudras are used differently in each of the dances. In my research, I concentrate on four dance forms—Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Kathak, and Manipuri. According to experts, mudras are an indispensable part of any classical dancer’s repertoire. Each classical dance comprises three elements—nritta (the purely technical part of the dance), nritya (techniques with expression), and natya (acting with expression). Mudras are indispensable to all three elements.
Another crucial component of Indian classical dance is the embodiment of the navarasas, or nine moods and emotions. These emotions are: shringar (love-eros), hasya (comedy and laughter), karuna (pathos), veer (bravery), roudra (anger), bivatsa (disgust), bhayanak (fear), adbhut (wonder) and lastly, shanta (peace). These navarasas are embodied using mudras. It is obvious that this embodiment will not possible without facial expressions and eye movements.
Another point that deserves attention is the depiction of the five natural elements that together form our universe. These are air, fire, water, earth, and space; each of these is interwoven into our dances using mudras. There is also an essential narrative element in the classical dances, and the mudras are used to dramatise these stories.
Now, we will examine some specific dance forms to gauge the importance of mudras. For example, in Kathakali, mudras are considered a language, where each mudra is an alphabet. This shows that mudras are a fundamental part of the dance form. This is seen again in Kathak, which itself is a dance form that revolves around story-telling, and thus, mudras are indispensable on it. In Bharatnatyam, all the three aspects (nritta, nriyta, and natya) of dance depend on the extensive use of mudras. This is evident not only in the footwork and body movement and in the expressions of the eyes, neck, and the face—but also in the overall performance and execution.
Finally, the Manipuri dance, which has emerged over the years from the folk tradition of Lai Haraoba, has over 300 mudra However, only a selective few are used while presenting the classical dance of Manipuri. Notable books that have taught and instructed us on the use of mudras include the Natya Sashtra, Abhinay Darpan, Abhinay Chandrika, and Hastalakshana Deepika.
Mudras are also extensively used in rituals and worship. Based on the literature, it is possible to make the claim that mudras play an important role in both Tantric and Vedic rituals. In addition, it needs to be stated that the palms and fingertips of one’s hands are empowered to draw the essence of Shakti from the deity. This energy enters the body and mind of the sadhak (priest) and flows thereafter through the veins of the Sadhak. This results in an increase in concentration, which leads to a state of dhyana or fervent meditation. This process results in an intensification of the spiritualism inherent in every human being, and the strengthening of the connection between body and mind.
Mudra-based worship began in the Vedic age and slowly became a part of other disciplines like dance. But what needs to be emphasised in this context is that spiritual upliftment was experienced in both Tantric puja as well as in Vedic rituals. While the former primarily utilised jonimudra (the hand gesture depicting the female sex organ), Vedic rituals drew on other mudras such as the matsa-mudra.
Yoga, which has gained widespread popularity in contemporary times, also draws on mudras as a means to attain its ends. As in the case of classical dance, Yoga mudras deal with all parts of the corporeal frame, and they forge connections between this frame and one’s mental state, thereby deepening the body-mind symbiosis. Thus, it goes without saying that mudras play a crucial role in our overall well-being and mental fortitude.
In conclusion, we come to realise that our palms and fingers have been bestowed with enormous power and strength, capable of forming any number of mudras, to thus attain aesthetic consummation. Mudras can grant spiritual bliss and a deeper communion of the body and mind. The various forms of Indian classical dance, worship, rituals, and yoga offer splendid scope for mudras to flower in their full glory.