Monday, March 7, 2011

On Abhinaya

The year before I moved to Nrityagram, I appeared for the senior
scholarship selection organised by the Department of Human Resource
Development, Govt of India. I remember being interviewed by the late
Dhirendranath Pattnaik, an eminent research scholar of Odissi Dance. I
performed a little bit of Nritta (pure dance) and a stanza from an
Abhinaya (expressional dance).

“Which is it you enjoy, Nritta or Abhinaya?” he asked. I replied
without taking any time to think, “Abhinaya.” “Why?” he enquired and I
had no answer. For days after that I asked myself if it was the TRUE
answer and thought endlessly about what should have been an
appropriate one.

If anything, with all honesty I can declare that I used to be
petrified of Abhinaya. It was like trying very hard to look
comfortable in someone else’s clothes that were usually at least a
couple of sizes bigger than mine. Every moment I danced in them, I was
reminded that I didn’t own them and I could feel that the audience
could sense my discomfort too. It is only during the last half-decade
that I have begun to build a better rapport with expressional dance
and therefore, every now and then I try to look for that appropriate
answer that had escaped me then.

Without blaming anyone for my initial disability in Abhinaya, I would
like to say that if there was a systematic approach to learning
Abhinaya, as is the case with pure dance, I would have felt slightly
more comfortable than I did. It was an unknown territory that one was
sent alone to without enough preparation and aid. The only familiar
elements in that space were the Mudras (hand gestures) and a few Hasta
and Drshti viniyogas (application of hand gestures and eye movements).
I had begun to believe that some dancers are born with special skill
in expressional dance and that I was the unfortunate one.

In my experience even though the choreography was a given, it felt
awkward to tell a story using someone else’s words (in this case,
choreography). Besides, it was someone else’s perception of the story
too. Petrifying had to be the process when you are to enact an unreal
situation of anointing a lover’s chest with sandalwood paste when
summer became unbearable (why not just fan him instead!). And at age
of eighteen to experience and express Radha’s divine love for Krishna
through this erotic act of touching his bare chest! I knew all along
that I was alien to these stories and characters even though I had
known and heard of them since childhood. There was no belief or
conviction. It was a very apologetic and unconfident reproduction of a
borrowed idea. It was just a sham. It was scary, very scary to know
that you are cheating all along.

I wish there was a gradual and more realistic introduction of themes
suitable to the age and experience of a child learning dance/Abhinaya.
I wish there was a systematic process of preparation through Mukhaja
Upanga Bheda (movements of eyes, eyebrow, mouth, cheek, chin, etc). I
wish we learnt at first to tell a little story of our own with words
first and then just with facial expression and hand gestures. I wish
we learnt to mime many such stories before we had to enact a song. I
wish we could play games using Navarasa – the nine basic emotions.

Anyhow, now that I am past that phase of being intimidated by
Abhinaya, what is it I feel now when I practice or perform one?


I try very hard to get under the skin of my character, wear his/her
cloak with ease and try to just be…

Yet I am never sure if I am acting or being. Sometimes I use the cloak
to shield my vulnerability and sometimes I use it to release my
emotions as if they were the character’s own. There is a sense of
incomparable abandon when everything comes together either way. But
there are times when the wall between the self and the character is
just too stubborn to penetrate or smudge and the struggle to find an
opening to the emotional source seems like the hardest task. There is
a great sense of defeat in that. Especially when one has seen Abhinaya
Queen Kalanidhi Maami do it just right the moment music comes on, be
it any day, any time, any second. Then I am left to believe again
‘either you have it or you just don’t’.

I am a different person when I perform pure dance compared to who
I am when I perform Abhinaya. As if they are two distinct worlds. My
superlative confidence in pure dance is what I am asked to give up (by
Surupa) again and again in the act of expression because the outer
form tends to overpower the subtlety of the inner emotion. In pure
dance, my complete trust in the geometry of the movement assures me a
sure arrival at the driving source whereas while miming poetry, the
inertia must emerge from within and reflect outwardly through a
translucent texture of form, gesture, and facial expression in
appropriate proportion.

To have a pre-set choreography and yet start the execution as if it is
generated at the spur of the moment is very tough, especially when the
form of the dance becomes one’s own body language.

I must also admit that Abhinaya is a unique world of its own. It is
relative how each dancer gets better at it. Practice does make
perfect. But in case of Abhinaya the formula to practice may have to
differ from person to person depending on the make of their psyche.
How comfortable are people in being open about their emotional state?
How open are they saying it the way it is, how it hurts, and how it
enrages them or makes them jealous? How is it for one to bear one’s
heart out publicly? Things that are difficult to accept about oneself
as a person come in the way of Abhinaya with the same intensity.

On the other hand Abhinaya may become an avenue of release of pent up
emotion. For example, anger came naturally to me in Abhinaya
limitlessly whereas I was not known to be a person who got angry or
was seen expressing it. After years of getting angry in dance, I have
learnt to understand it is ok to let it out in normal life too and
know how not to feel uncomfortable or guilty if I get angry.

Abhinaya requires and becomes a path to self-analysis and self
healing. It has taught me that there is a whole platter of emotions,
positive and negative, and there is a portion of each in me. Because
jealousy is a negative emotion, I used to think that I never felt
jealous. By acting jealous, I have come to realise that I do get
jealous and what makes me feel that way. I recognise it, accept it,
experience it, ride it, and let it pass. I have learnt to deal with

However, even though this process and the journey back and forth
between life and acting seem like an exciting one, it is extremely
painful. Sometimes to the point when you want to give up dance all at
once. However, it happens only in places of intensive practice like
Nrityagram, where your only companion, release, and tormentor is your
dance. You have to break through the walls to find joy in dancing or
there is no other way. This is precisely the time I have seen many
talented students choose to leave, never accepting what it was really
about, like quitting therapy just before the last threshold, the most
difficult one. I must admit that even I came very close to it...

Another hopeful principle in the world of Abhinaya is that one gets
better with age. This is to say that with age one’s life experience
gets wider; there is a better range of reference points for emotional
expression. In my opinion this may be true only if the person in
question also grows more confident with every life experience and that
is not true in every case. I remember gaining a little more confidence
the day I learnt to float in the pool, the day I learnt to drive, the
day I rappelled down a mountain, and the day I jumped off a cliff into
the Ganga during a white water rafting trip. Basically these episodes
of learning took a little bit of fear away from within me. To know
that all will be okay at the end of it and I will be safe, really
helps to take a plunge into the unknown and be vulnerable…