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Navarasa Sadhana: A system of acting methodology for actors and dancers
- G. Venu

May 19, 2018

The Navarasa-s or the Nine Rasa-s are the greatest contribution to the Indian theatre from our rich tradition. The reality that the accomplished enactment of various characters and dramatic moments on the stage can submerge the viewers in aesthetical experience has been meticulously studied and analysed by our ancient Indian aestheticians. And they realised that this experience of beauty or aesthetic experience is created only when witnessing or experiencing a creative work of art. This realisation had led them to conduct exhaustive and micro-level analyses into the vast area of this subject. Navarasa sadhana is the systematic and daily practice of the Nine Rasa-s by the actors, with the aim of strengthening their capacities for producing this aesthetical experience in the viewers.

Sage Bharata has included eight Rasa-s including Sringara (the erotic sentiment), Hasya (the comic sentiment), Karuna (the pathetic sentiment), Roudra (the furious sentiment), Vira (the heroic sentiment), Bhayanaka (the terrible sentiment), Bibhatsa (the odious sentiment) and Adbhuta (the marvelous sentiment), in his treatise Natyasastra. A ninth Rasa, Santa (tranquility) was added at a later stage and thus constituting the Navarasa-s. Tolkappiyam, the ancient grammar text of Centamil, refers to eight states of mind as Meippatu-s or expressions through the body. These are, Nakai (Hasya), Alukai (Dukha or Sadness), Ilivaral (Talma - Humility), Marulkai (Adbhuta - Surprise), Accam (Bhaya -Fear), Perumitam (Vira - Valour) and Uvakai (Kama - Lust). The references are contained in the 251th Cuttiram (Sutra) of Tolkappiyam. Among these, Ilivaral (Humility) is not found in any other treatise. Another interesting aspect of this list is the absence of Bibhatsa. The Sthayi bhava-s (the basic expressions) were included as part of the training of abhinaya for many centuries in Kerala, where Kuttu and Kutiyattam, the most ancient forms of Natya are being conserved till date. Detailed studies including observations and experimentations on how to enhance and strengthen the eight Rasa-s are also being conducted here since long. The techniques of abhinaya that were developed and documented could be found in the ancient palm-leaf manuscripts.

Around three generations of scholars belonging to the Kodungallur Kovilakam, from Vidwan Elaya Thampuran to Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran, have conducted singular researches and studies into the expressions of Navarasa-s. They often organised special kalari-s for teaching Navarasa abhinaya to the students of classical performing art forms like Kutiyattam and Kathakali. Kutiyattam artistes like Ammannur Madhava Chakyar used to avail of the specialised training from Kodungallur after completing their traditional education.

Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran

According to Natyasastra, the bhava-s are divided into three categories namely, the eight Sthayi bhava-s (permanent states), the 33 Vyabhichari bhava-s (transitory states) and the eight Satvika bhava-s (internal emotions manifested). The 33 including Nirvedmn (self-disparagement), Glani (debility), Sanka (apprehension) etc., are also considered as important as the Sthayi bhava-s. Likewise, the eight Satvika bhava-s including Stambham (paralysis), Swedam (sweating) and Romancam (horripilation). No one has been able to bring about or suggest any changes in these classifications that had been defined centuries ago through meticulous analysis and studies. Navarasa sadhana helped to enhance the acting methodology devised by me for the systematic and daily practice of the nine basic emotions by the actors, based on Kutiyatta Natyasastra and my study for decades into the practice of three generations of scholars belonging to the Kodungallur royal family.

The Sthayi bhava-s is a state of mind from which rasa is created, that communicated directly to the heart and spreads throughout the body of the performer in no time, like fire spreading through a pile of dry logs. This is how Bharata describes the essence of the bhava-s in the chapter titled Bhava Vyanjakam of Natyasastra. For assimilating the bhava-s into the body like fire to dried firewood, the actor has to create a field of imagination and then try to confine his / her mind within that. This is essentially the aim of the acting (abhinaya) practiced in the Indian traditions.

A few words about myself
My life in the arts which had started at the age of 11 is now completing sixty two years (1956 - 2018). Upon looking back from the present point, I realise that each stage of this period had been marked with a precise sense of direction. For more than one and a half decades, my major aim was to create a comprehensive dictionary for Natya Mudra-s through notation system. I was also able to publish as much Mudra-s as could be compiled.

G. Venu demonstrating roudra rasa (1964)

G. Venu as Ravana in Thoranayuddham Kutiyattam

The following three decades were dedicated mainly towards rejuvenating endangered art forms. I was able to create a new generation of artistes in the art forms including Kakkarissi Natakam, Kutiyattam, Mudiyettu, Padayani, Tholpavakkoothu and Pavakathakali. Along with this on a personal level, I was also able to train myself as an actor in Kutiyattam.

The period after this was dedicated exclusively for Kutiyattam, mainly as an actor. It was during my tours of Europe as a solo performer of Kutiyattam that I made contacts with the World Theatre Project. That resulted in many projects including the composing of Kalidasa's Abhijnana Sakuntalam (Sakuntala) in the format of Kutiyattam. 'Sakuntala' travelled to many international venues. The last time I had performed Kutiyattam was in 2010. I would be able to continue acting for some more time, but the decision to leave the stage had to be taken as age started to catch up with me and I realised that I will not be able to perform the movements as energetically as before. It was in this period that the teacher in me began to surface.

Kodungallur Kalari
My enquiries into the Kodungallur Kalari had started around three decades ago. The members of the royal family of Kodungallur, especially Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran, who was an authority on music and abhinaya, used to call their acting technique as 'Swaravayu'. By the term 'Swaravayu', they were referring to the voice of breath. It was in 1992 that Natanakairali started a permanent kalari (training centre) named 'Abhinaya Kalari' for researching and teaching the acting technique methodology of 'Swaravayu'. An article written by me titled 'Swaravayu - A rare technique in Abhinaya' was published in the Sunday Supplement of Mathrubhumi, one of Kerala's leading newspapers on March 22, 1992.

Evocative emotions: Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar

The 'Abhinaya Kalari' was inaugurated by unveiling the portrait of Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran, by the Natyasastra and Sanskrit scholar K.P.Narayana Pisharody. After the inauguration, my enquiries into this system continued silently and informally, on a practical level. In 2001, a workshop project of the Japan Foundation was approved through a Delhi-based cultural organisation, Sanskritik Pravah. It was led by the scholar Premalatha Puri and I was the director of the workshop. Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was the Natyacharya of this project. The reputed Kathak exponent Shovana Narayanan and art critic and scholar Shanta Serbjeet Singh were in the advisory board.

Netra and Hasta
For three years, I conducted enquiries and studies based on 'Netra and Hasta' (eye and hand). I contacted all the living masters of Kerala, visiting some of them in their residences. Some of the masters came to Natanakairali to participate in the workshop. Many classes by the masters were held throughout these three years. Sessions by the maestros of Kathakali, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, and Kavungal Chathunni Paniker were held. Kathakali artistes Sadanam Krishnankutty and V. P. Ramakrishnan Nair also held classes. Sessions in Kutiyattam led by Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, Kidangoor Rama Chakyar and Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar, by Lakshmana Peruvannan on the 'Kannezhuthu' (painting of the eye) of Theyyam were held. Classes were also held at Tantra Vidya Peethom led by Brahmasree K. P. C. Narayana Bhattathiri. Acharya Gireesh Kumar's introduction to Sreevidya, the month-long practical classes by Lakshmanan Gurukkal on the Dasa Mudra-s of Sreevidya, classes by Swami Hari Om Ananda on 'Netra and Mudra in Yoga Vidya' and the session on the protection of eyes in Ayurveda by Swami Radhakrishna Chaithanya were all part of this three-year-long quest.

The Asian Seminar held to mark the conclusion of the three-year-long project was attended by Jessy Fanko, the reputed dancer from Thailand, Kein Yoshimura, performer of the Japanese form Kamigata Mai and dancer Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. Performances of Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Mudiyettu, Mohiniyattam and Nangiarkoothu were also held along with the valedictory function.

Kapila Venu expressing Simha Stobham in Narasimhavataram

The project culminated in the production of 'Narasimhavataram' Nangiarkoothu performed by Kapila Venu. In the Kodungallur tradition, Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran's enactment of Narasimhavatara was part of involving in the rasa of Roudra. He used to enact the 'Simha Stobha' (the basic stance as lion) while portraying Narasimha. He used to reach the 'Simha Stobha' after extended meditation focussing on Narasimha for a long time. When the 'stobha' reached its pinnacle, a roar would emanate from the closed room in which he was sitting upon hearing which his disciples would open the door. He would come out of the room in 'Simha Stobha', assuming the character of Narasimha, acting in similar manner. According to some eye witnesses, not only his eyes but his whole body would turn red, completing the transformation into the character of the lion. Afterwards, he would fall down unconscious and the disciples would nurse him back to consciousness.

However, we could only witness the enactment of Simha Stobha by Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, the disciple of Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran. Once during the visit of a twenty member Swedish cultural delegation that came to Natanakairali, the Kutiyattam demonstrations for them were conducted at the Kalari of Ammannur Gurukulam. As we did not want to disturb the daily routine of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, we had not informed him of this visit. But Chakyar who was coming out after completing his evening's ablutions, prayers and dinner heard the sound of mizhavu (drum) in his Kalari and stepped in to see what was happening there. On seeing his charismatic personality bearing the sacred ashes after bath at the door, the visitors did not need any introduction. All of them stood up, paying their obeisance before him. They requested if it would be possible to witness at least a small portion of his acting. When I conveyed this request to Chakyar, he did not refuse. He just gave instructions to the mizhavu performers, paid obeisance to the Peetha (the carved wooden stool used in Kutiyattam), sat down and meditated for a few minutes. Suddenly he transformed completely, from head to toe. His face turned red, the eyes bulged out turning bloody. He held the Simha Mudra (gesture depicting lion), and the tongue was stuck out. The roar of the lion which materialised from deep within could be heard. The audience members, especially the members of that Swedish delegation were excited at having been able to witness the acting prowess of the Master. They described the occasion as the most unforgettable moment in their Indian tour. And they sang and danced till midnight to express their joy.

Navarasa Sadhana
This long term workshop on Eye and Hand (Netra and Hasta) and my research into the Kodungallur Kalari had played a significant role in the development of the Actors Training Methodology of Navarasa Sadhana. Navarasa Sadhana is not a system of actors' training that had existed at the Kodungallur Kalari. It is also not part of Kutiyattam, as many people have misunderstood it. However, it makes independent use of some techniques of Kutiyattam. It is not possible to practice Navarasa Sadhana while strictly adhering to the tenets of Kutiyattam.

Adil Hussain in the Navarasa Sadhana workshop at Natanakairali (2017)
(Photo Courtesy: Thulasi Kakkat)

The present system of the Sadhana had been codified in a way so that performers from various genres will be able to incorporate the practicing of the nine rasa-s into their routine practice. Nobody so far has raised any discussion whether practicing Navarasa Sadhana would pose any problem for performers from different genres to preserve the uniqueness of their individual forms. Performers from genres including Kutiyattam, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Theatre and Cinema have been part of the Navarasa Sadhana training so far.

It was in 2005 that Sasitharan Thirunalan, Director of TTRP (Theatre Training and Research Programme) institute, had asked me to create a mode of actors' training according to the Indian tradition by incorporating elements from Natyasastra and Kutiyattam. I worked out a programme after much deliberations. As part of this programme, the students were taught detailed enactment of the sloka beginning, 'Jithvathrailokyamajou,' from Thoranayuddham Kutiyattam, which is the 3rd Act of Bhasa's Abhisheka Natakam. This particular sloka was chosen because it incorporates the famed portion of 'Parvati Viraham', when the actor performs as both male and female. I was led by the realisation that the highest form of training could be attained when an actor or an actress is able to perform both the masculine and feminine elements. Not only that, no other acting style exists in the world where a single actor performs both as male and female without the touch of satirical imitation. Scholars have widely accepted the form of 'Kottichetam', which is a performance incorporating both male and female aspects of Ardhanareeshwara found in the Tamil poem Chilappathikaram, written 2000 years ago, as the primordial form of Kutiyattam. The reference mentions this form of acting in which a single actor performs both as Siva and his consort Uma was presented by 'Chakkayan' (Chakyar). The present portion of Parvati Viraham in Kutiyattam could be seen as a continuation of this form.

As part of the training, the Attaprakaram of that particular sloka in Malayalam was given to each student which was translated into their own mother tongues. Each actor performed the portion in the style of acting that was familiar to them. Along with that, they were also meticulously taught the traditional mode of acting with Mudra-s. Each acting technique was described by connecting with both Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi. They were also given training for the main 'kriya-s', facial acting as well as the traditional enactment of Navarasa-s. They were given the training in the portion of Kailasoddharanam (the lifting of Mount Kailasa) in a meticulous manner exploring the experiences.

There were five students in the first batch of TTRP, one of them being Sankar Venkateswaran who hails from Kerala. Sankar had participated in an earlier workshop which was conducted by Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi led by me. Besides him there were four students of Chinese origin hailing from Singapore, Malaysia and China. On returning to Kerala after completing his course, the first production that Sankar did was a theatre performance based on a Malayalam poem, 'Sahyante Makan' (Son of the Western Ghats), written by Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon. The production made me extremely happy. The way the performance had imbibed the essence of the Kutiyattam performance style without being reduced to an imitation was remarkable. The TTRP of Singapore was later changed to Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) and I am still continuing as a visiting faculty there. It was from 2012 that 'Navarasa Sadhana' was incorporated into their training. Now, 'Navarasa Sadhana' is given to both the first year and second year students together, every two years. Students from the WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) Theatre School of Australia arriving in Singapore exclusively to participate in this workshop could be seen as a rare accolade for this programme.

Among those who have received theatre training from ITI are Sreejith Ramanan, assistant professor at the School of Drama, Thrissur, Giorgia Ciampi, who works in Paris, Shakeel Ahmed, who is a well known actor in Karnataka, Grace Kalaiselvi, Albeto Ruiz Lopez (who is now member of the Teaching Faculty in ITI) and Remith who is among the 22 students from the present (2018) batch who have completed training in Kutiyattam from Kerala Kalamandalam. Chen Jingjing, Ted Tac-An Fernandez, Hope Tinambacan (Philippines), Jalal Albaroudi (Syria), Anildo Boyes Netto (Brazil) are also among the present batch. Among the ITI students, Regina Toon had completed Navarasa Sadhana at Irinjalakuda before joining ITI, while Wein Tan and Sonia Kwek had done the course again at Natanakairali after ITI. Kapila and Pothiyil Renjith Chakyar had assisted me while conducting the workshop at the ITI. Kalamandalam Rajeev provided the mizhavu accompaniment for the training.

The training of Kutiyattam at the National School of Drama in New Delhi had started in 2007 when Dr. Anuradha Kapoor was the Director and Abhilash Pillai who hails from Kerala was the Dean. In each batch, there used to be around 25 students and they represent almost all the States of the country. The training in Kutiyattam at the NSD is still continuing, following the demand from the students in each batch and the encouraging attitude of Prof. Waman Kendre (the present director) and Dr. Santanu Bose (Dean). It was in 2011 that Navarasa Sadhana had become part of their training. One day, as I was returning to my residence in Delhi, it dawned upon me that for the students to gain complete access to the traditional acting methodology of India, the Navarasa-s along with breath, needed to be incorporated into their training. From the next day, I started the training following that path. Merely one week was enough to make the result palpable. Anuradha Kapoor and other experts pointed out that the acting of the students of that batch had a lot of depth.

I have charted out the comprehensive syllabus of Navarasa Sadhana as a yearlong training process. The techniques for Eye Training incorporates those linking the eye and the breath also. The training that focusses on the control of lip exercises was available from the Kodungallur Tradition through Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. The bhava-s are according to Bharata's formula of 'Vibhavanubhavavyabhi charisamyogadrasanishpathih' [The sentiments is produced (rasa nishapthih) from a combination (samyoga) of determinants (vibhava), consequents (anubhava) and complementary psychological states (vyabhichari bhava)]. When the actor is expressing a particular bhava, he/she should conceive the clear idea behind that rasa in his/her mind. They should understand the natural flow of breath associated with each bhava. There are exercises that help to identify these bhava-s from our routine life. Here, vyabhichari bhava-s have a lot of relevance. I have suggested 33 vyabhichari bhava-s and the experiences within each of these vyabhichari bhava-s are also delineated in the Natyasastra. For example, the experiences for 'Nirveda', the first one of the Vyabhichari Bhava-s, are poverty, disease, shame, insult, shout, torture, loss of dear and near ones and philosophy of life. All these are experiences, not acting. And these are to be experienced not on the stage, but in the outside environment. The explorations of the Vyabhichari Bhava-s making use of the sprawling campus of Natanakairali turned out to be touching experiences. Sandhya Mridul, while exploring poverty, jumped the five feet tall compound wall of Natanakairali, and climbed it back with a bundle of food stolen from the next door to give it to her child crying in hunger. It was a sight that touched the hearts of all onlookers. It was unbelievable to watch Sandra Pisharody, a Mohiniyattam dancer, hailing from a very orthodox family, ravenously dig into the food waste from the garbage bag in the kitchen. In order to experience 'torture,' Hazrat Nataraj from New Delhi clambered up a tree with a rope in hand, tied his own legs together and hung himself upside down. Hearing his cries for help and panic, Mallika, the cook realised something was wrong. She came with a ladder and rescued him. Actually he was in real panic, as it was for the first time that he was hanging upside down! The attempts made by the theatre students from Singapore, the Syrian Jalal and Vighnesh, a Singapore Indian to explore 'madam' (intoxication) due to liquor standing on top of the terrace and stripping off their clothing had shocked a woman living next door and she started to call the police when the other students, fortunately, settled things. They had strictly followed Bharata's instructions that the actors should never be drunk while enacting 'madam'. However, the enactment of drinking appeared to be more intoxicating than actual alcohol. Usually the students would be given instructions to avoid such incidents. However, as they would be maintaining the secrecy of the nature of the improvisations, it could not be predicted early on. Still, when each of these vyabhichari bhava-s could be experienced in this manner, its reflection also could be experienced in the Navarasa-s.

Sandhya Mridul experiencing the poverty of the Vyabhichari bhava 'Nirveda' at Navarasa Sadhana workshop at Natanakairali (2017). Photo Courtesy: Thulasi Kakkat

Kathak dancer Sanjukta Wagh in the Navarasa Sadana workshop (2017)

In reality, once the students receive training in all the 33 vyabhichari bhava-s, they would never need to get training in the eight Satwika bhava-s. Around 100 students from the National School of Drama including Abheesh Sasidharan, Moon Moon Singh, Kalyani Mulay, Vivek Kumar, Lap Dieong and Sonia Bharadwaj had participated in the Navarasa Sadhana. All these performers are still actively involved in theatre. Following the requests from many quarters a series of workshops were held at Natanakairali. I consider it as my greatest fortune and the blessing of the Guru-s to have obtained a long list of illustrious disciples like Adil Hussain, the national award winning Hindi film and theatre actor, actor Sandhya Mridul, Kathak dancer Sanjuktha Wagh, Odissi dancer Raka Moitra, cotemporary dancer Diniz Sanchez, Kuchipudi dancers Dr. Katyayani Gandhi, Payal Ramchandani and Sreelakshmy Govardhan, Bharatanatyam dancers Renjith Babu, Shakeel Muhammed, Meera Sreenarayanan and the dancer/ actor Sherin Saif (Dubai), Sweta Sreenivas and Swati Prasad (Karnataka).

Sreelakshmy Govardhan (Kuchipudi dancer) and Renjith Babu (Bharatanatyam dancer)
at the Navarasa Sadhana workshop at Natanakairali (2016)

Raka Moitra (Odissi dancer) in the Navarasa Sadhana workshop at Natanakairali (2017)

Most probably, every day, I will be teaching someone or the other. Navarasa Sadhana is the most precious treasure gifted to me from my research process and my close involvement with the other art forms. Navarasa Sadhana is at present getting popular recognition as a recognised actor training programme. For many actors, both male and female hailing from within the country and abroad, this has become part of the daily sadhana. It is quite surprising that developing a mere small portion of Bharata Muni's Natyasastra in a contemporary context could unveil so much of possibilities. The need of the hour is to have an independent interpretation of Natyasastra by the ordinary actors.

G. Venu is a performer, teacher and scholar of Kutiyattam and a senior disciple of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. He has devised 'Navarasa Sadhana' module as a transformative process for artistes seeking a deeper insight to the depths and diversity of human emotions. He is Chairman, Natanakairali, Ammannur Chakyar Madhom in Irinjalakuda.

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