Hands as Translators of Thoughts to The Universe – French Odissi Dancer Mahina Khanum

Hands as Translators of Thoughts to The Universe – French Odissi Dancer Mahina Khanum

The French Government has put in place ‘barrier gestures’ which include measures to curb the spread of the virus such as washing hands and avoiding greetings with contact. However, an Elabe study for BFMTV published on March 11, shows that that 61 per cent of the French people they surveyed that week had continued to shake hands with people they knew.

Some habits and traditions are difficult to kick, corona or not. The French have been noted for their expressions and gestures since the Renaissance period. It has been observed that while American gestures are synchronous with speech, the French gestures anticipate verbal expression, writes Gerard J. Brault in his article Kinesics and the Classroom: Some Typical French Gestures.

For French Odissi dancer Mahina Khanum confinement to the four walls of her house was a little more difficult as she is used to moving about constantly. She says: “As with most people here, the announcement of the lockdown left us shocked. We had been applying barrier gestures for some times in France, and since the beginning I was a little disturbed by the expression, ‘barrier gestures’. In dance, a gesture is meant to convey feelings (towards the audience), not to create distance. In fact, it is the very meaning of what we call in Indian classical dance – ‘abhinaya’, ‘gesture toward [the audience]’. So the parallel with dance was in my mind from the very beginning.”

She along with her husband Avishai Leger Tanger, a digital artist came up with the idea of a video on dance gestures which has gone viral.


“Being locked down, we had the urge to keep on dancing and conveying something positive. We adapted traditional hand gestures and used the tone of a traditional character, the Sakhi, the friend which is present in the Odissi repertoire based on Jayadeva's Gitagovinda.” The sakhi in Sanskrit poetry and drama occupies special significance in the rasa-sastra.

Just a few weeks earlier, she had composed a few music items in Mumbai along with “extremely talented musicians Vijay Tambe ji, the composer and flautist, Ramprasad Gannavarapu (mardala) and Aparna Deodhar (sitar). We decided to dedicate one of these items to this video.”

In her video Mahina has showcased Indian classical dance mudras. “Mudras are an endless means of expressions. They have been passed on to us from so long ago and they are still so relevant! Mudra means ‘seal’ in Sanskrit and they literally leave a long lasting print in the mind of a viewer. They are a real language, having different registers, more or less symbolic or literal, which can become universal. That's what we wanted to express in this video.”

Eminent dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai in her book Understanding Bharata Natyam writes that from the time of the Vedas, the mudra or symbol of the hand was utilised in sacred recitation. “Priests repeating mantras (incantations) used certain gestures with their hands and these movements called mudras became a sacred ritual. In dancing, each mudra is created with divine origin and early in India’s history ‘the language of the hands’ (akshara-mushtika) was an important study. The gesture of protection (abhaya hasta) is known throught out the great religions of the world where with a simple position of the hand, is projected the spirit of infinite solace.”

Sarabhai adds: “Indians constantly remind each other of the divinity in every man by the daily greeting with the hands in Anjali. Through the hands the dancer possess a power infinite in its capacity to portray the tragedy and exaltation of the human being. Somewhere in the recesses of the cosmic creativeness, the hands became the conscious translators of thought to the universe.”

The Abhinya Darpana talks about two kinds of Hasta MudrasAsamyuta (single) which are 28 in number and Samyukta (combined) which are 24 in number.

Mahina first trained in ballet from the age of three in the South of France. She started learning Odissi from the age of 13 after meeting Guru Shanka Behera of Mumbai when he toured Europe. She started her training with him and was later awarded an excellence scholarship from ICCR in India and the French Government to pursue her training with Madhavi Mudgal at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya (Delhi).

Originally trained in ballet, she says she dance as a means of expression in general! “Odissi will always remain my main love but I have had the opportunity to get in touch with many other dance forms, be it classical, folk or modern.”

Talking about Odissi classes in France, she says there were no classes when she started 12 years ago. “Now, slowly, we are creating one. I now have about 80 students training on a weekly basis, and I am getting demand for performances from big companies and luxury brands such as Guerlain. For now, Odissi dance remains a niche dance in France. People here don't have the cultural background to understand and appreciate it.”

As an Odissi dancer in France, Mahina often faces this challenge. “People there have never heard about Odissi dance, and when they get a chance to see it, they just don't understand it.”
Mahina strongly believes that “Odissi has so much to offer to the French (and world) audience! That is why we have started working on different ways to present it, using new technologies but keeping the traditional form. We're very happy that our recent projects have been catching a lot of interest and attention.”

Avishai and Mahina decided to capture the 2000-year old Odissi dance and to mix it with beautiful 18th century Indian painting, using 21st century technology. And the result was a short film revealing what unfolds inside an Odissi dancer's imagination!
They also paired computer animation with ancient Indian paintings giving the context for the millennia old stories: https://youtu.be/CrvIUDZ-WKA

Odissi dance has a deep connect with temples. Mahina say: “To reveal the spirituality that lies in every Odissi pose, we took Odissi back to the temples, and in the supernatural midnight ambience, we used different kinds of lights, moving them fast while the camera was shooting to create beautiful light trails (a techniques that is called ‘light painting’). Lights of Odisha is literally about shedding a new light on Odissi dance and Odisha heritage!” Avishai Léger-Tanger conceptualised this project with light painters Tushar Nayak, Sophia Simon and Gyaltsen Wangdi.


Being locked up in a small apartment in a dense city like Paris is challenging, especially for a dancer who is used to ‘jumping around’ in dance studios full of energy all day long!

However, “Odissi dance, being an artistic and spiritual practice, gives lots of resources to face the lockdown. Lacking space, we need to find ‘space’ within oneself. Odissi has a very specific conception of the body: deeply rooted and strong as well as elevated and subtle which definitely helps symbolically breaking those walls around us,” says Mahina.