Conference on “Abhinaya in classical dance”
- Sammitha Sreevathsa

January 24, 2015

Kalasindhu and Nrityanjali recently hosted a conference on ‘Abhinaya in classical dance.’ Representation of abhinaya in classical dance has evolved across time. Today when abhinaya has become a matter of dramatizing emotions, engagement with it is necessary to break it out of this mould of exaggeration. Poornima Gururaja and Poornima Ashok put their efforts to organize a platform that facilitated a critical dialogue on abhinaya. In this conference, not only was abhinaya discussed from rare perspectives but abhinaya became the intersecting point at which various historical and performative aspects of dance were brought together.

A researcher-practitioner: Saskia Kersenboom
Saskia Kersenboom drew on the theory of Indian aesthetics and her own experience as dance researcher and practitioner to give us an understanding of what makes a successful performance. A good performance is a transformative process where you leave the performance differently from how you entered it. This transformation occurs because you not only watch a performance but you live it. When dance was a court art and temple art, it was considered to be a yagna and there was a veda created to perform the yagna. Natyaveda was created to balance everything that is good and the lack of everything which is good - this principle is called shubhaashubhavikalpa. A successful natya performance was good for the king, for his subjects, for the crops and the life of the city itself. This was a generative and manifest power called mangalam. Very pragmatically, because of its generative power and the well-being of the state, artists were invested in making yagna, natya work. A performance that “worked” was understood as that performance which “moved” the audience. The natyayagna hence must be powerful and a dancer was bestowed with ritual power. The purvaranga or the stage was a space of force and power. Most often what we are looking for in abhinaya is Siddhi,  that is, manifestation of power bestowed upon the dancer. Siddhi also defines the success of the performance and there are two kinds of successes - one is achieved by pleasing the god and one is achieved by pleasing the king. A dancer’s performance in a city, would address a double register of power - the god and the king.

This power is not accomplished by imposing the performance on the audience. Aesthetic appreciation of a performance is a two way process. Siddhi is touching, moving and engaging the onlooker. It reaches out to the audience but the audience participates emotionally and bodily to experience the rasa in the abhinaya (and not just watch it). Hence abhinaya is not equivalent to exaggeration and overexpression; it is more about pulling in than pushing out.

These Sanskritic concepts are taught in the European traditions in a very decontextualized and dry manner. The universities often teach grammar and translations which seriously lacked in its cultural prayoga or application. To study Sanskrit in Europe is decontextualized learning because it is centred around the ‘word.’ The ‘word’ meaning the written word.  Thus Saskia chose to enter the culture through performing arts in India which contains these concepts in their application. The Sanskrit ‘word’ in India is danced, sung and evoked only in its prayoga (applied) form. This idea of looking at language performatively gives us the insight that language is more than mere words. Saskia draws her three-corner theory from this insight. Language for her is three cornered; it is made up of the word (gnyana  Shakti), sound (ichcha  Shakti) and image (kriya  Shakti).  Learning Sanskrit in Europe for Saskia was like gnyana, where mere vyakarana or grammar is treated as the soul of language. The gnyana is not useful unless it is driven by the ichcha Shakti, the drive and the passion. A dancer lives in her body which is connected to the world through the senses. A dancer is passionate, full of ichcha Shakti and drive, embodying the knowledge like how sound embodies a word. This ichcha  Shakti has to be generative or creative and hence has to get transformed into kriya Shakti (image).

To transform the embodied knowledge into an externalized image, the dancer represents, does work or rather dances. This sounding body (the inscripted body) and the showing body is not an individual body; it includes the body of the audience and always occurs in an environment. The sounding body is inscribed with the word which comes from the environment- the svaras, matrikas and adavus. Inscribing the body is storing the sounds, the touch, the feel, the smell from the environment into the memory. Therefore smarana, the act of training your memory is very important. Performing arts constantly recalls and browse the memory for the knowledge that is imbibed from the environment. But how does one recall that which one does not know? When one does not know, one can only imitate. Hence it is like a concentric circle -where one desires (ichcha) then stores (kriya) and recalls (gnyana). The struggle now by all performing artists - theatre, dance and music - is to reconnect this broken concentric circle, broken by the print, by isolating the word on the paper from the body.

This was the attempt of all speakers – to reconnect the broken circle. Having soaked knowledge from their environment, everyone spoke from the world they had inhabited and lived. Their talks embodied their lived experiences as dancers, dance critics and dance enthusiasts instead of being abstract theories.

Perspective of a critical insider-outsider: S.N. Chandrashekar
S.N. Chandrashekar had come with an eclectic repertoire of experience as someone who has appreciated dance both from the outside (as a critic) and from the inside (as practitioner). He emphasized abhinaya to be a central part of dance. Distinguishing abhinaya in dance and drama, he mentioned that while abhinaya is explicit in drama (natya), it is implicit in dance (nritya).  Abhinaya in dance often takes the form of indirect suggestion, unlike in drama where it is stated overtly and directly. Abhinaya externalizes sanchari bhavas. According to him, sanchari bhavas because of their expressive quality (abhinaya) often get misunderstood as only natya (drama). Through his talk, he tried to break the misperception of abhinaya as dramatizing which he insisted is very prevalent in present performances. Today, abhinaya has become restricted to Devaranamas (devotional songs) which were initially not a part of the repertoire of Bharatanatyam. With the overtaking of Devaranamas, the sexuality of the individual female dancers has become displaced. Narratives of love and eroticism were primary sites where a wide range of abhinaya was explored.

I will remember this event as the first and the last time I had a chance to listen to veteran critic S.N. Chandrashekar. He passed away recently.

Coming from the world of courts, temples and palaces: Lalitha Srinivasan
Guru Lalitha Srinivasan, disciple of Dr. Venkatalakshamma gave a performative perspective of abhinaya. In her and her students’ performances, Bharatanatyam was articulated with an imagination that evoked the world of temples and courts and not proscenium stage or auditoriums. She along with her students Ranjitha, Anusha Gangadhar and Usha explored abhinaya in their graceful rendition of javalis. Depicting different moods of love through different nayikas (such as mugdha nayika, khandita nayika and dheer prakalpa nayika) Lalitha Srinivasan drew attention to how this dynamism in a woman is not explored in most of the classical performances of the day. These performances only represent young love of young women while the matured love of older women is rarely explored. Interspersing her performances with brief explanations, she contextualized them to the theme of the conference. Abhinaya is never isolated expression. It is a whole which includes larger kinaesthetic movements (in this case Jaaradavus) along with facial expressions. Jaaradavus are steps in Bharatanatyam, which involve making sliding patterns on the floor while moving forward and backward.There are conflicting views of whether beauty in music and dance is matter of form or a matter of expressing emotion. Lalitha’s dance pieces embodied the understanding that where form ends and expression begins is not definable. While movements constitute emotion, emotion constitutes movement. Patterns of Jaaradavus differ with change in the mood of the composition and its emotion. Abhinaya is hence both form and emotion expressed.

Singing and dancing the world of a disciple: Nandini Ramani
Guru Nandini Ramani offered a deep perspective on dance and abhinaya which came from living a life in the shadow of a legend - T. Balasaraswati. Sharing her experience as a student, she spoke of the process of learning to create abhinaya in dance. Learning to emote was a very slow process in the pedagogical method of Bala. “It took years for hands to get attached to our torsos,” said Nandini and to learn to express abhinaya was a luxury which they savoured only after having perfected their posture. The concepts of right and left, symmetry (and asymmetry) were central to expressing abhinaya for Balasaraswati echoing the importance of form in abhinaya as it was brought up in Lalitha Srinivasan’s demonstrations. Abhinaya, Nandini Ramani explains, must never be excessive. She emoted very minimally as opposed to the current day classical performances where over dramatizing through heavy music with posing have become a standard way of portraying abhinaya.

Dancing and singing Nagareekamana tirunagaril vaasare, Nandini engrossed the audience in the narrative of the city in which the deity resides. The song was about the deity which was portrayed through the life that surrounds the temple. Apart from speaking about form as fundamental to abhinaya, this piece of performance brought out two more aspects of abhinaya- music and use of space. As her dance demonstrated, sound intuits and prompts movement, hence a dancer not only must dance but must sing and dance. Nandini Ramani used the space very wholly, often going very close to the audience to emphasize and embolden the abhinaya to the spectators.

Classical dance in popular culture: V.A.K. Ranga Rao
V.A.K. Ranga Rao who calls himself a dance enthusiast explored his personal journey with classical dance through the medium of popular culture. His childhood was spent interacting with not only devadasis who performed in the temples but with dancers who danced on the streets with people surrounding them called Sanivaru. The idea of dancing on the street was to connect and communicate with public. The idea that performance is about communicating to people is ingrained in him biographically. Cinema too, resonate this purpose of communication. Looking at communication with large audience as the core purpose of art, he defended cinema of the various accusations it faces as a popular medium by the classicists.

The first one of it is that dance in cinema, does not follow the tenets of Natya Shastra. The primary medium here is not dance but cinema. Hence, dance has to be adapted to the requirements of the cinematic medium. The adavus performed for a movie involves minimal turning around of the dancer, because such twisting of the waist to look at the back does not suit the frontal view of the camera. He demonstrated how dance has to be made cinematic for a movie by showing dance clippings of movies such as Navrang. The second aspect of dance in cinema is that it is not about documenting art. Sagara Sangamam and Shankarabharanam are movies that do not seek to document Bharatanatyam or music. They are movies that communicate to the larger audience the life of a dancer and musician. Hence, one cannot make accusation on cinema based on the “inaccurateness” of the compositions and choreography. Such criticisms merely reflect a kind of classical fundamentalism. Academics, dance critics and connoisseurs must be open to beauty from everywhere and must not make distinctions between high and low art. Thyagaraja never performed for any audience, but for himself. Finally, his point was to “be alive to beauty, rejoice in it irrespective of where it is coming from. What does it matter if it is coming from a beggar on the street or from a classical musician on the stage? If it is beautiful it is beautiful.”

The event brought together different experiences on one plane - of a dance critic, a court-temple dancer, a student, a theoretician-practitioner and a dance enthusiast. These experiences were universes in themselves separated not by time or distance but in how they were experienced. The speakers were Saskia’s “sounding bodies”, articulating, representing and performing that which is inscripted in them. The event gave a context to initiate a dialogue, a relationship between these people and between their universes.

Sammitha is a research affiliate at Antara Artists’ Collective Trust, Bangalore and spends time at Antara space to explore body as a site of knowledge and memory. She has recently finished her MA in Philosophy from MCPH (Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities).