The Language of Kathakali: Notations of 874 Hand Gestures - A Rare Book

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Item Code: NAD056
Author: G. Venu
Publisher: Natana Kairali, Kerala
Edition: 2000
Pages: 341(16 Color & (Throughout In B/W Illustrations
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.7 Inch X 7.2 Inch
Weight 820 gm
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Sri Venu appears to have succeed at last in evolving a system of notation which can respond to the characteristic features of Indian dancing. The system is innovative logical and viable. It takes into account practically all the physical possibilities of the palm and the finger movements and combines an approach of using symbols along with simple pictographs. Directions facings and path of movement is all taken care of. It is then related to body posture and stance place and covering of space. It is easy to follow and once the rudimentary principles are learnt the notation system present little difficulty. The system although initially evolved with Kathakali in mind can be applied to other Indian dance systems with minor modifications and use of a few other signs.



No aspect of the complex and vast spectrum of Indian thought it’s philosophy literature, metaphysics, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, to name a few can be considered complete without at least a nodding acquaintance with the high art of classical dance.

What is this art? Why has Indian cosmology always pointed at the belief that dance is not only a sacred act an offering to the divinity within and without us but a deep revelation of life and a unique way of transcending its limitations. Most importantly dance holds up a mirror to the very energy whose rhythmic currents vibrations formed the universe.

Dance is all about how the bindu radiates from the nabhi the navel becomes the line and returns again to the bindu. How it straightens out swerves, swirls and finally goes into a spin. It is also about a people about how they pray and construct their own image of divinity. About how they pine for what is not and dream of what could be.

Kathakali the subject of G. Venu’s book literally means acting out a story. But in all of India and in fact the world over there are dance forms which act out a story. So what is so unique about Kathakali? Why does the word Kathakali itself evoke images of magic and mystery of dark nights and iridescently made up figures lit by the incandescent glow of the flame of the oil lamp of gods and demons that morph and mutute before our very eyes and become images of divinity and malignity that have peopled no known gallery but emerge out of that most wondrous and secret cavern the human imagination.

The language of Kathakali reveals this rare world to us the readers sitting far away and in distant climes. It tells us the background the context, the subtext, the very lexicon and the detailed vocabulary of Kathakali’s unique language. It is a great art a very fragile art. And for helping preserve promote and now bring it to rasika-s outside Kerala G. Venu deserves our heartfelt thanks. May this book bring to the reader like the journeyer in the Aittreya Brahmanam honey and sweet adumbra fruit such as awaits the one who wanders in the realm of the mind.


Author’s Note

I was born in a family which had a very special attitude to the study of art. My father Chittore Gopalan Nair grew up in the gurukula tradition for eighteen years where he studied painting. At the same time he also made detailed studies on subjects related to the art of painting. In a room filled with shelves in our ancestral house were kept my father’s notebooks and collection of books. A part from painting he was also a musician and well trained in physical exercise. I still treasure and cherish few of the Tamil and Malayalam books on Music collected by him. He had learnt these art forms not as a means for a Job as forming an inextricable form of life. He never strove to acquire any name and glory as an artist. At the same time he spent a good part of his hard earned money to spread the knowledge he had acquired to the new generation.

Our house was always a throbbing theatre. As part of his various activities in the field of art my father had also started a Kathakali Kalari the asan (teacher) was keerickattu Sankara Pillai. Sankara Pillai was the only son of Keerickattu Kochu vellu Pillai who was at one time a leading artiste on the Kathakali stage in South Kerala. Kochu Velu Pillai became very famous even at a young age with his natural endowment and enthralling present as a performer. It can be asserted that no other artiste in Central Travancore has had such popularity with the masses is the comment in Kathakali Vijnana Kosam. Though his son Sankara Pillai had rigorous training from his father he did not hold out much promise on the stage he was an excellent teacher.

I started my training in Kathakali when I was eleven. My training from the beginning itself was with a lot of enthusiasm and a feeling that I was in a wonderful world. Our Asan would wake us up early in the morning at three thirty. During the monsoons we had oil massage for thirty one days. Once we had learnt Todayam and Purappad singers and background musicians were brought in occasionally for our sake. This training lasted for only three years. Financial constraint forced my father to close down the Kalari.

It was a time when Kathakali was not an attractive profession. Most of the Kathakali performers whom I had known then were not on safe grounds financially. The training itself was difficult and then to top it was the difficulty experienced in surviving as an artiste. Moreover, the earnings were very meager. In spite of all this, Kathakali had seduced me and I wanted to continue with my training. So in 1963 when Guru Gopinath started Viswa Kala Kendra in Vattiyoorkavu, I joined this Southern Style Kathakali Kalari as the first student. Guru Gopinath had extensive training for a long time in Kathakali and had assimilated the technical nuances in the art form to direct new dance dramas, and became a famous choreographer. He was rigorously trained by Champakulam Paramu Pillai, Mathoor Kunju Pillai Paniker, Guru Kunju Kurup, Chengannur Raman Pilai for twelve years and then for higher studies joined with the first batch of students in the newly formed Kerala Kalamandalam. His work, following this was that of a creative dancer. He started a Kathakali kalari in ‘ Viswa Kala Kendra’ in the evening of his life with the desire to resuscitate and revive the ‘Southern Style’, especially the Kaplingadan mode in its purity. Keerickattu Sankara Pillai was his assistant there.

It was when I was training in Viswa Kala Kendra that my attention was drawn to the hand gestures in Kathakali. Like spoken language, Kathakali gestures are a complete mode of communication. it is very often possible to express our emotions and thoughts through this more forcefully than through words. I thought that a proper alphabet is needed to document this sign language. That is how I evolved a system of alphabets for the basic gestures and a system of notation for the variation of the hasta mudra-s. I used to write down everyday the mudra-s that I learnt and understood in my training period. After two years of training, I got a scholarship from the Department of Culture, Government of India to pursue higher studies in Kathakali. As part of my specialized training in Kathakali I got the services of Kottarakkara Raman Pillai, the artiste famed for his delineation of women and the disciple of Mathur Kunju Pillai Paniker, and Thakazhi Madhava Kurup the famous singer. Thakazhi Madhava Kurup was a gifted Kathakali singer and writer of attakatha-s. He has written the attakatha-s Bheeshma vija yam, Valliparinayam, Sapthaha sambhavam. Apart from all this, he was a scholar and authority on all the aspects of Kathakali. Through advice I got from these masters my collection of mudra-s became rich.

I gave importance to studies and research on Kathakali mudra-s and other related areas rather than to become a Kathakali actor with my comparatively good training. In those days it was usual for me to sit with a pencil and notebook in different Kathakah venues. If any actor gestured a mudra that I did not know, I would take it down in my shorthand. 1ff did not understand it, or had any doubts, I would ask them to explain. It was during the annual performances at Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple that I got acquainted to the grand old patriarch of Kathakali, Guru Chengannur Rarnan Pillai. In life as well as on the stage he was a unique and noble person a guru with whom no once can be compared in stature to install in my heart. He was a total phenomenon in the field. There has been no other artiste in the history of Kathakali to have performed in such a scintillating fashion from the young age of 19 years for sixty five years there on and enthrall the audience. He was outstanding in all his performances but his Katti character was the favorite for his spectators. Ravana, Jarasandha, Duryodhana, Keechaka, Narakasura and Bana were portrayed by him in an unmatched manner. His style was of the pure Kaplingadan mode. He was very truthful to and paid allegiance to this style and was very particular about it. I met him in 1965 then he was 81 I had shown him the notations I had shown him the notations I had marked on many occasions and then made the required alterations. The notations seen in the first part of this book were completed in 1968 I Stayed for few weeks in Guru Chengannur’s house and had him go through the notations for correction.

The notations collected in many notebooks were then compiled later in another book to become a big collection of Mudra-s. even though I had ventured upon this as a private study this became a topic to be discussed in Kathakali circles. Many well wishers told me that I should publish this an it might prove useful for many others. But I felt that I needed expert opinion on my notations system especially about the abstract symbols I had used to describe the mudra-s.




Forewords v
Authors Note 1
The Origin of Kathakali 7
Abhinaya in Kathakali 16
Hastamudra in Kathakali 33
Hastalakshanadipika 42
System of Notation 51
Notations of the Hastamudra-s (Part One) 61
1. Pataka 63
2. Mudrakhya 75
3. Kataka 85
4. Mushti 92
5. Kartarimukha 104
6. Sukatunda 113
7. Kapitha 115
8. Hamsapaksha 119
9. Sikhara 136
10. Hamsasya 138
11. Anjali 142
12. Ardhachandra 147
13. Mukura 151
14. Bhramara 156
15. Suchimukha 160
16. Pallava 168
17. Tripataka 171
18. Mrigasirsha 173
19. Sarpasiras 175
20. Vardhamanaka 177
21. Arala 180
22. Urnanabha 183
23. Mukula 186
24. Katakamukha 188
Additional Mudra-s 190
Misra Mudra-s 193
The Mudra-s Representing the Ten Numerals 220
Notations of the Hastamudra-s (Part Two) 222
1. Ramanattam 293
2. The Major Attakatha-s 296
3. Ilakiyattam 298
4. Swaravayu: A Unique Method of Breath Control 303
5. Dance Notation 307
6. Excerpts from the forewords written for other editions of notated mura-s of Kathakali 309
Glossary 311
Index 316
Select Bibliography 323
The Author 325


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