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…

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Am I religious?

I performed for a small private gathering in Jaipur in the beginning of this month. A lovely vibrant Iranian lady with a lovelier English accent (I told her so, and also that my most favorite accent was that
of Penelope Cruz) asked me after the performance, "How religious are you?” This was in the context of her experience when she saw me perform Sridevi that evening, a choreography masterpiece of Surupa Sen
that Mavin Khoo wanted to learn the instant he witnessed it.

Simple questions like this stump me at best of times. I made up an answer that was convincing to my ears, yet as a serious practitioner of Indian Classical Dance, which for the rest of the world is religious, I had never thought of the significance of my religious inclination in the context of my dance. My response was "In fact I am not religious at all. But I am given to my dance completely. Therefore, I love and BELIEVE everything it stands for and portrays. This dance is steeped in religion, it tells tales of Gods and Goddesses, and even flirtation, sensuality, and erotica in this dance is textured with divinity and spirituality."  In retrospect I find my answer to be completely true.

I AM NOT RELIGIOUS AT ALL. I do have an altar in my room at Nrityagram and one at home. The one at home is maintained by my maid who is supposedly untouchable (my mother has a grave problem with it). I love the way she arranges flowers of different colours in the altar around the Buddha and Ganesha sculptures. I have these two deities because they happened to be given to me as gifts. I have no time for them because I spend almost no time at home. I have a Kaali (I have it because it was a gift to Surupa who is frightened of its eyes), a Buddha and Saraswati (a great street vendor was successful in selling
them to me in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka) and a Ganesh (a gift from the original sponsors of Odissi Gurukul at Nrityagram - Raymonds) in my Nrityagram altar. I simply love the ritual of decoration with flowers
and the fragrance around it. I light an agarbatti whenever I feel the room could do with a little fragrance and the lady who cleans my room arranges three flowers everyday as instructed by me. I chant mantras
like "Sahanaa Vavatu...", "Purnamadah...", Om Bhur Bhuvah...", " Om Namah, Omkaara Rupaaya..." after I finish my daily routine of fitness exercises, and I try to concentrate on the meaning of these powerful
words while allowing my body to relax. I chant, "Angikam Bhuvnam...", " Saraswati Namastubhym..." before I begin my first class of Odissi and try to be true to the meaning. My focus becomes stronger and more concentrated when after the chanting I offer my salutation to the Mother Earth and the sacred space of my dance hall through the dance ritual called "Bhumipranam". Anyone who understands Sanskrit will know that these chants, though of Hindu belief, are more symbolic than religious.

However, when I start dancing to words from The Puranas or classic texts, there is no doubt in my mind about why so much devotion? Or am I a believer of Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti? Or whether I identify with
Radha's devotion for Krishna? Why Krishna, the biggest Casanova, who has just made Radha wait for him a whole night while having a good time with the other woman, must be treated with a different shade of
anger that is governed by yearning and longing of the "Atma"(soul) for "Paramatma" (Infinite). In fact my struggle is to immerse in the truth of it, believe it completely and own it as if it is mine. I work at it until I feel the sensation of that belief under my skin and sometimes while performing, my ownership of that belief becomes so strong that it makes my hair stand. It is a trance like state and it is true as death in that moment.

Dance is an awesome medium, which has opened channels of realisation for me about myself and the universe. I experience a lot that I am unable to express in words. Simply reading the same would have taken a long time for them to seep into my consciousness as they have through dance. Dance makes it possible for me to absorb through layers of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual simultaneously. And therefore, the experience stays with me forever.

While performing a composition like Sridevi, Shivaashakam, or Ardhanaariswara, the choreography (I have only Surupa Sen's brilliant choreography as reference) requires me to portray the deities in question as experienced by a devotee and at times as the deity Himself or Herself. Unimaginably everlasting and blissfully suspended is the experience of the magnificence of divinity however slight and momentary...

And yet at the end of the day I believe that I am not at all religious.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Guru Gangadhar Pradhan

There are few moments in my life that I feel blessed for,where I have been in the right place at the right time. In other words I have been chosen to be a part of the greater universal plan. One such moment was my initiation into Orissa Dance Academy in 1980, then headed by Ganga Sir. As I look at more and more dancers today, my belief gets only stronger that most of the better dancers today come from his lineage.
Even though I was never directly taught by Sir, I received his sense of a strong foundation in technique through all the amazing teachers he entrusted us with. I am ever so grateful to him for the clarity with which he lead his team of teachers.

I remember when I had to leave for Nrityagram to join the ensemble on their first tour to USA in 1993, he sat me down to give me pearls of advice that have become my self-discipline. I was to dance with the ensemble temporarily and return after the tour. He felt proud that one of his dancers was the one to be chosen by Gaurima, as well as the greater responsibility that I be a worthy representative of his philosophy. He said, "Maa, go to class well before time and completely prepared." He took it for granted that a dancer must come prepared with dance lessons already taught. He emphasized, "Always bring your water bottle to class and a few biscuits. You never know  when the class will finish. You must have the mental strength to go through till the end and not disturb the flow of rehearsal. Take a break only when given." There is not a single day till now that I have broken this ritual and I have only gained tremendously from this practice.

As a young student I saw him angry, very angry and frustrated all the time. He played the mardala for rehearsals and often broke into long speeches regarding self-motivation, hardwork, and loyality. I was scared to see him in our class and dreaded rehearsals with him. I do not remember him ever satisfied or happy. My chioce to move to Nrityagram hurt him deeply and I believe he held it close to his heart forever. His pain over it was so intense that he perhaps never saw the grains of his teaching in my dance. He never came to my performances till the international festival in Malaysia. However, I believe that our differences resolved when one day after my performance in Bhubaneswar he called to say, "Maa, even though I didn't see you dance, I feel proud with what the fifty eyes that saw you had to say. Carry on your work." I had been troubled that he had not forgiven me. May be I didn't recognise the largesse of his heart. That day I let it go.

I believe Odissi is young and still growing to fulfill and complete its identity. The work of Ganga Sir has certainly influenced the course of this evolution significantly and will continue to do so till his philosophy is passed on through the blessed ones that were there in the right place at the right time as I was.