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For the film actress, see Abhinaya (actress).

Abhinaya is a concept in Indian dance and drama derived from Bharata's Natya Shastra. Although now, the word has come to mean 'the art of expression', etymologically it derives from Sanskrit abhi- 'towards' + nii- 'leading/guide', so literally it means a 'leading towards' (leading the audience towards a sentiment, a rasa)

Aside from its clear impact on dramatic tradition, it is used as an integral part of all the Indian classical dance styles, which all feature some kind of mimetic aspect to certain compositions, for example in depictions of daily life or devotional pieces.

Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi Abhinaya[edit]

Dancer performing abhinaya

A principal division is that between natyadharmi abhinaya and lokadharmi abhinaya. The former is poetic and stylistic in nature, following a codified manner of presenting emotion and expression which pertains to the conventions of the stage, which appear to have greater 'artistry' by virtue of taking something from natural life and rendering it in a suitably stylised way. Lokadharmi abhinaya is the opposite: realistic and un-stylised, involving very natural expression and movement, as occurs in daily life. Often this is the more difficult as the possibilities for interpretation of an emotion or a line of poetry are endless. Abinaya originated from nature.

The Four Ingredients of Abhinaya[edit]

Abhinaya can further be divided into four categories, as set down by the Natya Shastra.[1]

Āṅgika Abhinaya[edit]

This relates to the movement of the body, and how the thing to be expressed is portrayed by movement of the anga or limbs, which include facial expressions. There are different schools of Abhinaya, with the expressions ranging from the grotesque to the understated, from the crude to the refined. Āngika abhinaya forms either Padartha abhinaya (when the artist delineates each word of the lyrics with gestures and expressions), or Vaakyartha abhinaya (where the dancer acts out an entire stanza or a sentence).

Vāchika Abhinaya[edit]

Guru Nātyācārya Māni Mādhava Chākyār performing Sāttvika Abhinaya (Sringāra Rasa)

This relates to how expression is carried out through speech. It is obviously therefore more overtly used in drama, but also in music: in how the singer expresses the emotion through his or her singing. Traces of Vāchika Abhinaya are preserved in Kuchipudi and Melattur style of Bharatanatyam where the dancers often mouth the words of the songs to support Padartha abhinaya. Kerala still has on stage art forms (Naatya) whicn have Vāchika Abhinaya as a dominant component - Koodiyattam, Nangyar Kooothu, Ottan, Seetangan & Parayan - the tree types of Thullal, Mudiyettu are the most popular ones.

Āhārya Abhinaya[edit]

Another means of representation of the play is indeed the costumes and physical decorations of the actors and the theatre. In dramas, and dance dramas, costume and making are distinguished by the sex, race, sect or class or the social position of the characters, giving the production of the presentation some semblance of reality. The decorations of the stage theatre including lights and accessories are related to the scene of the depiction in which enhances the rasa between the audience and artists also comes under this category.

Aharya Abhinaya is very prominent in kathakali where there are totally different dress and makeup for 4 different characters. For e.g.: The good characters have packha vesham (green makeup) while the demons are evil characters have kati vesham in which the nose is painted red. But in solo dance performances, aharya abhinaya is as a convention.

Sāttvika Abhinaya[edit]

Sāttvika Abhinaya is often confused with facial expressions, which belong to Āngika Abhinaya. Sāttvika Abhinaya is the mental message, emotion or image which is communicated with the audience through performing of the inner emotions. The dancer or actor has to use her own experience, something out of which will be authentic, to capture the audience and to elicit an empathetic response. Examples of Sāttvika Abhinaya are a motionlessness, a perspiration, gooseflesh, a change of the voice, a trembling, a change of the colour, tears and a fainting.


  1. ^ Tarla Mehta (1995). Sanskrit Play Production. Motilal Banarsidass. pp.131-186

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