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Understanding Sattvika abhinaya
- Dr. Gauri Ponkshe

July 5, 2016

(This is an extract of the author's article published in a Festschrift published by the Department of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai, in honor of Dr. Gauri Mahulikar.)

The ancient Indian idea of 'drama' varied from the present-day perception of the same. As per the ancient concept, drama did not consist of speech alone but also included mime, song and body movements including dance. And 'nāṭya', as it was termed, was, meant to evoke rasa - the divine aesthetic pleasure in the spectator. Rasa, being, the relish of human emotions happens only if the artiste's performance effectively engrosses the spectator's mind away from mundane things to a world of aesthetic beauty and bliss. According to Bharata in his Nāṭyasāstra, the 'birth of rasa' is said to be the ultimate aim of the nāṭya. This is to be achieved by the artiste by conveying intended emotions with the tool of abhinaya and other important constituents of drama. The Sanskrit word 'abhinaya' is made up of the prefix abhi 'towards' and the root ni 'to carry'. It can be understood as "disclosing the various aspects of the theme to the spectator by means of words, gestures, costumes etc." It is a suggestive imitation of the various psychological states of characters in the theme. Abhinaya is classified into four types by Bharata as follows:

Āṅgika (suggestion through hand gestures, facial expressions and body movements)
Vācika (suggestion through verbal expressions like dialogues etc.)
Āhārya (suggestion through dress, make-up etc.) and
Sāttvika (suggestion through psycho-somatic expressions).

At the onset of Abhinayadarpaṇa, the author Nandikesvara invokes Siva in a solemn verse. The verse not only states the four types of abhinaya but is also impregnated with many meanings. The significance of Sāttvika abhinaya can be gauged from the fact that while the first three types of abhinaya have been referred to as the manifestations of Siva, Sāttvika abhinaya has been, on the other hand, equated to the eternal cosmic dancer Himself.

Although each type of abhinaya is exclusive in its own way, owing to its uniqueness, Sāttvika abhinaya has been discussed here in detail. An attempt has been made to understand the concept in a better way. The word Sāttvika is derived from the Sanskrit root Sath (सत्), which means 'being',' truth' or 'existence'. The meaning of Sattva as an aspect of dramatics can be gathered from two different explanations that have been provided in the Nāṭyasāstra. In the section on Sāmānya abhinaya, Bharata says that Sattva is in essence human body. The emotional states (bhāva) which humans experience arises from Sattva, are due to the association of the body. They find a suitable expression 'through' the body. A simple and natural expression of an emotional state is called hāva; and when an expression acquires a charming quality by way of a flourish of movement or a gesture, it is called helā. Thus bhāva, hāva and helā are connected to one another and they are only different aspects of Sattva.

As such they too belong to the body and rest in the physical nature of man. The emotional state (bhāva) can be understood in this sense. Bhāva can be understood as a mental state, which when expressed through the body and with Sattva, makes the spectator aware of the poet's intent and emotion. This intrinsic relation between Sattva and bhāva forms the base for understanding the second meaning of the word Sattva as explained by Bharata. Sattva finds expression for an emotional state through the body. Sattva, by itself, is invisible in nature; but it forms the main basis for the bhāva or the emotion to be displayed. Bharata explains that Sattva originates from the mind. It is caused through concentration of pure mind. Only when the mind attains perfect concentration, Sattva is produced; this is so because the physical expression like tears, horripilation and the like of an emotional state cannot be simply acted out. It cannot be represented by one whose mind is distracted. Owing to the above two explanations which gives a dual aspect to Sattva (mental / emotional state and physical expression), Sāttvika abhinaya may be understood as a psycho-somatic representation.

Sāttvika bhāvas are mentioned to be eight in number, viz.
i. Staṁbha (motionlessness)
ii. Sveda (perspiration)
iii. Romān᷃ca (horripilation)
iv. Svarasāda (change in the tonal quality of voice)
v. Vepathu (trembling of the body)
vi. Vaivarṇya (change in colour of body)
vii. Aśru (tears)
viii. Pralaya (loss of sense or swooning)
Representation of these is Sāttvika abhinaya.

The following points can be noted about 'Sāttvikas':

1. The importance of Sattva for drama cannot be underestimated. This is considered to be an important aspect of abhinaya. Bharata states that nāṭya is the imitation of life. But various human emotions have to be dramatically glorified so as the spectator is able to savour the portrayed pleasure and pain as nāṭya-rasa. It is said that even when celestial characters figure in the play, they have to appear, act and feel like human beings. If drama is to imitate human life and character, then the emotional states and their physical manifestations can't just be ignored. Our own emotional states and their physical expression is a real and valid experience for us. Hence a great responsibility is placed on the artiste at the time of portraying a dramatic role. The show of emotions in abhinaya can be a joint effort of training, practice of skill and theatrical aids. However, a heart-rending performance demands a full concentration of mind on the part of the artiste. This is Sattva and the abhinaya where it exists is the Sāttvika abhinaya.

2. It is easy to experience Sāttvika bhāvas like tears; horripilation etc. in real life but to produce them in the make-believe world of nāṭya requires tremendous concentration, knowledge of human mind and technical skill.

3. Although the states like perspiration or tears are physical in nature, they are not termed āṅgika abhinaya, since these are not a result of physical representations. On the other hand, these are completely involuntary arising at the height of an emotional experience. Sāttvikas are indeed bodily reactions; yet this is where Sāttvika bhāva differs from mere āṅgika. The difference between mere āṅgika, and āṅgika instigated by Sāttvika, can be clearly felt by an experienced spectator. Similarly, the Sāttvika states like Svarabheda are different from verbal gesticulation as this does not form any speech.

4. It should also be noted that these Sāttvika bhāvas do not pertain to a particular emotion; for instance, tears start rolling not only with extreme sorrow but also with extreme joy. The hair on body will stand not only with fear but also with any so called 'touching' experience. So, it can be seen that the same Sāttvika bhāva can occur in absolutely contrasting emotions.

5. To understand the full connotation of abhinaya, one must remember that the four classes of abhinaya do not exist in isolation but are interdependent. While Sāttvika is the apex of an emotion, it is dependent on āṅgika and vācika aided by āhārya to heighten its effect. It is probably, with this idea that it is also described in connection with the Sāmānya abhinaya.

6. Bharata refers to Sattva as the basis of drama. According to Bharata, 'That abhinaya where there is exuberance of Sattva is superior and that where there Sattva is non-existent is inferior'.

7. There are also the nāṭyadharmī and lokadharmī modes of representation which are important constituents of drama. Sāttvika abhinaya acts as leverage between the two modes. In nāṭyadharmī, a particular emotion is dramatically portrayed whereas, in lokadharmī mode, there is a more casual (i.e. real life kind) approach in the presentation. Indian classical dances are more nāṭyadharmī in their approach because of their developed technique. These two elements of dharmī exist in every Indian classical dance. However, when there is more Sāttvika bhāva in the representation, more the Sāttvika abhinaya becomes pronounced thereby taking it towards lokadharmī mode of representation. When there is an aesthetic portrayal of an emotion, it inclines towards nāṭyadharmī representation. The Sāttvika abhinaya will make the performance more realistic; yet the dramatic presentation gives scope to imagination and beautifies the presentation making it more appealing to the spectator at the same time. In the words of scholar M. Ghosh, "Even if Sattva brings realisation, the highest aesthetic enjoyment is not possible without giving the greatest possible scope to imagination."

Thus Sāttvika abhinaya is a physical representation stirred by acute emotions, the process which requires the absolute involvement of the actor with the character. This intense state of concentration can only be compared to meditation. Such a superior performance enables the birth of a divine aesthetic experience. Summing up with the verse from the Bhagvad Gītā, where Arjuna sees his kinsmen ready for the battle and says: "My limbs quiver, my mouth is parched, my whole body is trembling, my hair stands on ends in horror, my bow slips from my hand and my skin burns all over. I am unable to stand any longer; my mind is reeling." This gives an excellent description of the physical condition which arises from the quality of Sattva and the Sāttvika bhāva becoming a natural expression of the emotions, in this case, of desolation and distress."

Dr. Gauri Ponkshe is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher from Mumbai. She has performed extensively in India and abroad. Academically, a qualified Company Secretary and a Masters in Sanskrit, she has also been awarded a PhD by University of Mumbai for her research on the 'Concept of Space and Time in Indian Classical Dances with special reference to Bharatanatyam.' She runs the Kalopasana School of Bharatanatyam in Mumbai for more than 15 years.

Thank you for your response. Am glad it has helped you.
- Dr.Gauri Ponkshe (Jan 4, 2023)

Thank you so much for this beautiful explanation. I was elated to see you are also a qualified c.s, as I am. I am pursuing Kathak 3rd year and your write-up helped a lot.
- Supriya (March 30, 2020)

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