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Facial distractions

April 7, 2015

Our dances, particularly Bharatanatyam relies on Mukhaja Abhinaya.....facial expressions. Kathakali and Koodiyattam are disciplines which give proper and elaborate Shastra- based training to students on the use of eyebrows, eyes, facial muscles and so on. After all that training they cover their faces with thick elaborate make-up, so much so that if we are not close enough we cannot observe the range of this type of expression. Strangely, Bharatanatyam gurus of the old tradition did not impart training in facial expressions. They only used to say - maintain a pleasant expression during nrtta. And as for abhinaya , the gurus showed the correct hastha mudras , the linking moves with the arms, the glance (yatho hastha thatho drishti), the spatial body movement, the rhythm of the feet in synchrony with song and tala. All, practically seated, and rarely getting up! We understood the flow of the sequence, learnt the lyrics and assumed appropriate expressions with very few tips from the gurus. When I think of my gurus, I don't seem to recollect any special lessons for facial expressions. The intuitive grasping of the idea, mood, etc. was our test. We asked no questions like......Sir, why can't I do this gesture with my left hand? ....or ...must I move only diagonally to do this particular phrase? ... Or ... Sir, how do I show sadness with my face? We just did it. Letting you do your own was the secret of those gurus' success.

Gurus guided us and were very critical of diversions. It was a very subtle suggestive communication of ideas. As for someone like my mother who watched my progress when I was a school girl, she merely pointed out if there was something unsuitable or unflattering. I learnt to express with my face myself, with some thinking.....Minimal thinking during the formative years, and much, much more deep thinking with maturity.

When I went to Kuchipudi, my guru Vempati Chinna Satyam showed some expressions while he danced. It was subtle, nothing emphatic. The big departure for me was that he would insist on all the students mouthing the lyrics as we danced, continuously. I was not used to this lip sync while dancing so I did not follow that rule. I guess I was excused because my guru approved of my expressions to the song. He was always generous in his approval.

I see all around nowadays dancers doing their best to assume expressions which are either unaesthetic, exaggerated or simply ugly. I do see the point in putting on fierce looks and angry stares to convey specific instances like Ravana's treachery or Narasimha Avatar's violent attack. Well, such drama itself is new to traditional Bharatanatyam. On the flip side, I also see pathos as appropriate in portrayals of, say, a Nandanar barred from a temple. Some despondent moods as in Vipralamba Sringara are valid indeed. Distinct moods which form the idea of a song need the proper facial treatment. There is of course the rather overdone bhakti bit. I find even doing big namaskarams on the stage cloying. As for weeping and flopping on stage in ecstasy.... hmmmm ... not for my idea of aesthetics, especially if it is a prolonged sequence with frenetic singing to go with it.

Appropriate to the lyrics and context of the song, facial expressions in abhinaya have to be learnt and practiced. It is mostly, as I like to emphasise, suggestive and subtle. But as time goes by, new methods get evolved and since there is no rule book for practice, it is left to individuals to resolve the pattern of expressions. Who is to correct or guide dancers?

The biggest handicap for young dancers is imitating the teacher's expressions. I have seen some rather disturbing results. The student ends up copying something so unsuitable for her / his features that one can only feel sorry for them. It may be as small a detail as a devouring stare, or a screwed pair of lips. The stamp of the teacher is there, and it cannot be easily wiped out. Therein lies the problem.

The face is very crucial in all our classical dances. Kathak has minimal expressions. So does Odissi. But now I see Odissi dancers displaying rather curious bhava laden faces. Wonder who is teaching them! Kuchipudi being a dance drama tradition is more emphatic. But even in Kuchipudi the great masters were subtle. I cannot forget Vedantam Satyanarayana using his beguilingly large eyes ever so subtly as Satyabhama, even whilst Madana was accosting her with a rain of arrows.

And then....what happens when the dancer uses facial expressions in nrtta? I wonder why it is so difficult to do nrtta without strange unwarranted coquetry. Dear dancers, do beautiful movements with grace and don't distract viewers with funny faces while doing nrtta. This aberration will not make you famous even if you are following some famous dancers.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a prime disciple of Guru Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, is an exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. She is also a trained vocalist. She is the author of several acclaimed books: Bharatanatyam - the Tamil Heritage, Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale, Kapaleeswara Temple, Women of Pride -The Devadasi Heritage. Her film 'The Poetry of Dance' was commissioned by the Festival of India. The Mamallapuram Dance Festival started in 1991 was Lakshmi's brainchild. She has served on several arts committees. She has served as Vice President of Music Academy (Chennai) and is a member of South Zone Cultural Centre.


Very valid observations. I think we don't differentiate between representational expression and portrayal. The operetta sort of mime is surely different than the experiential translations that we are to handle in solo repertoires. So, even anthropomorphic depictions have to be kept under this experiential radar while they are a part of a solo repertoire like a varnam for example. And I will agree also about the coquettish faces during nrtta; they are disconcerting.
- Swarnamalya Ganesh (April 9, 2015)

For someone who enjoys Kathakali and Koodiyattam, I disagree with the statement that the makeup diminishes the effect of facial expressions....
(April 9, 2015)

Thank you for the insightful article!
- Mahesh Kedlaya (April 8, 2015)

Although I am not officially trained in Kathak and I have been simply teaching myself with videos online, I would disagree with your statement that Kathak has minimal expressions. If anything, Kathak expressions are more subtle yet sensual, to tell various stories and portray all kinds of emotions. Although Kathak moves show to have more flow, be ultimately graceful and not as forceful, the face is constantly working to bring across a certain story and moral. I also agree with Dreamcatcher's comment, as I feel the makeup/paint/accessories truly enhance their facial expressions, as well as body language during the performance, stage presence, and overall unique style of the dance itself, for both Kathakali and Koodiyattam. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and observations regarding various classical and traditional Indian dance forms and how facial expressions play roles for each of them!
- RiddhiSiddhi (Sept 15, 2017)

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