Abhinaya: to mime or not to mime
by Lada G Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: ladasinghg@yahoo.com

June 14, 2004
Abhinaya is long dead in Bharatanatyam,” declared Chandralekha when this writer saw her directing her group at rehearsal. “There is nothing like abhinaya. Balasaraswati had abhinaya. Kalanidhi has been attempting at it. Rest is all farce.” In keeping with her statement, her dancers performed precisely, but without expression!

A hundred years ago, dance performed in dimly lit mandapams required hyperbolic mime to get the emotions across. Dancing in courts before the King and a discerning audience brought in subtle nuances to abhinaya.

Abhinaya, in the last seven decades, has been governed by the changing sensibilities of the period. Sensual items like‘Edo oru vahaiyil varugudu' was taught as a literal ‘Something is happening to me.' But this and other items like ‘Teruvil vaarano' were rendered by the best devadasi performers with deep emotion.

In this context, dancer/choreographer Anita Ratnam recalls how her mother refused to let her perform these same items. Her mother deemed it unfit for a teenager to emote to such lyrics and it would affect Anita's standing in the marriage market. This prompted Anita's guru Madurai N Krishnan to create a whole new range of compositions for her. “All her (dancer's) various moods worked within the larger system of male dominated society of kings, gods and patrons. Male dominance is the general cultural pattern,” says Anita.

Changing aesthetics brought a change in abhinaya as well. In olden days, the dancers in the temples used to perform the sancharis four times for one line of the song. When dance moved to courts, this came down to three, reduced further to two today, thanks to the proscenium set-up.

Dancing for a larger audience on big proscenium stages changed the dynamics of the dancer-audience relationship, as subtle gestures were less visible to audiences at the back. S Kalidas, former art critic with India Today said, “When Devadasis were edged out of their traditional arenas by girls from urban middle class families, the art of abhinaya suffered. Middle class mores demanded that exciting sringara be replaced by boring bhakti.”

“The middle class housewife could never be successful in abhinaya because, she was too comfortable and satisfied in her domestic security. The Devadasi on the other hand had to constantly rely on her wit and talent to keep her lover(s) coming back to her. Only a woman who gets up in a morning to find her lover gone knows what viraha is,” 1 maintained Balasaraswati insisting that all poetry and art arise out of this pain of separation rather than from staid fulfillment. Now one of the foremost authorities on abhinaya today is housewife Kalanidhi Narayan. While the general belief is that a dancer's training is incomplete without learning abhinaya from Kalanidhi, a senior dancer, on condition of anonymity, expressed her disapproval in the way abhinaya is now being defined as how Kalanidhi Narayan sees it.

In 1957-58, the Sangeet Natak Akademi organised a seminar, which essentially revolved around Rukmini Devi's and Balasaraswati's thoughts on abhinaya. Talking about her guru, dancer/writer Nandini Ramani says, “Balasaraswati's abhinaya and her dance were spiritual because she was personally very warm-hearted. As a loyal student and someone who looked upon Bala as a role model, I think, she was the one who truly imbibed the spirit of abhinaya. Today's crop of dancers may not have the depth and the width of abhinaya but they are also unique in the sense that they maintain their individuality. Youngsters have talent too”.

Abhinaya in Bharatanatyam also suffered because the nattuvanars as a teaching community have almost become extinct. Nattuvanars never danced, they just sat and taught. There was no visual presentation to clone, no mannerisms to copy. Each pupil had to do what came naturally to her within the framework of technique. This exercised her imagination, induced self criticism, and made her creative as she matured in her art.

Chitra Visweswaran was eleven when she had her dance debut in 1962. Her Devadasi guru, T A Lakshmi, never told her the meanings of the items as they were sringara based. Chitra feels that today everyone is doing abhinaya and nritta in same style. While admitting that she herself was a clone of Kamala before developing her own distinct style, she warns her students from becoming imitations of herself.

Technically sound but wanting in imagination, the dance field churns out a number of trained Bharatanatyam clones every year. Critic Gowri Ramnarayan best describes the situation, “Each physical movement, gait and glance is a perfect copy of the teacher's style. Padma Subrahmanyam's disciples are reprints of the original edition, down to the flutter of the lashes. Alarmel Valli's students reproduce her light-on-toes leaps. Sudharani Raghupathy's pupils strike sculpturesque poses, and Chitra Visweswaran's sishyas are able to replicate even the attamis of their instructor.”2

In most cases, the dancer only goes though the motions, but there's no sparkle to her performance. “For a lot of students, arangetram is the beginning of an end. Most of them start kitchen classes, resulting in too many mediocre teachers and dancers around. Over popularising Bharatanatyam has resulted in this,” feels Malaysia based guru Ramli Ibrahim. 3

Art critic Sadananad Menon feels that abhinaya is a branch of discipline that needs to be understood and learnt. In a television interview, Padma Subrahmanyam once demonstrated, how she could bring tears to her eyes, by using certain eye muscles even as she did not feel emotionally moved by the song. Such memorable instances that linger on in the mind of a viewer are a thing of the past, feel some senior dancers. Speed, showmanship and glamour are the order of the day.

Contemporary/Bharatanatyam dancer Navtej Johar thinks the time is just right for return to abhinaya for how long can one be satisfied by footwork and gymnastics alone. For Geeta Chandran, communication is incomplete without abhinaya. Over simplification of the lyrics of a song poses a problem, causing abhinaya to be at its weakest today, says critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh. The notes and extensive explanation that accompany a dance recital today are a sad proof of this situation.

With growing awareness of fitness and physical appearance, the 80s and 90s have ushered in an era of body worship. Additional training in pilates, yoga, tai-chi or kalari disciplines has given rise to an entirely new kind of movement pattern, termed loosely as contemporary Bharatanatyam. In the words of Leela Samson, “We have no time to feel anymore. From here I see dance move towards group work. The solo dancer will slowly disappear. This emancipated society of ours will welcome back the sensuous and the profane.”

1 - “On the Wings of a Metaphor,” S Kalidas, India Today, May 8, 2000
2 - Where are the master Gurus?” Gowri Ramnarayan, Folio on Dance, The Hindu, Dec.1998
3 - www.narthaki.com, Interview Dec 2001

Lada Singh is a Bharatanatyam dancer, poet, TV Journalist and a regular contributor to narthaki.com. He completed his post- graduate diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai in 2003. The above article is the fourth excerpt in narthaki, from his dissertation on “Bharatanatyam: In step with time” for which he interviewed gurus, dancers, editors, critics, presenters, art impresarios and dance historians in person, on telephone and email.