Dripping with Rasa

Chennai-based senior dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan gave a lecture-demonstration to dancers and other rasikas about rasa, classical dance and the enjoyment of rasa through classical dance and beyond. This was part of the World Dance Day celebrations hosted by Geeta and Rajiv Chandran. The talk was as enlightening as the following dance demonstration was beautiful... evoking adbhuta in many in the audience! Here are the salient points from her talk.

The lecture

The use of poetry in dance
Metaphors from old poetry, like a Bindadin composition or the Tulsi Ramayana, have been thought about specifically and almost deliberately to create rasa. And these are the sources of inspiration not only for people who wrote the plays, like Kalidasa or Bhavabhuti or any of the old Sanskrit authors - we’ve had several saints who have taken the idea from nature, from bhakti, and composed poetry which today we can use in dance for creating rasa. And it’s not as if these things were meant to be actually performed. They were spontaneous outpourings of the author. It is up to me use my manodharma to see how I can interpret this beautiful piece of poetry and bring these transient emotions of bhakti and shringara and make you realise the beauty of that poetry.

The other rasas: Why only shringara?
Very often, I’m asked by people why all the dances that people do - Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi or Odissi – why is it always shringara or bhakti, why not the other rasas? And to that question I always say, we are talking of (Leela ji would agree with me ) the Renaissance of the 20th century which had these gurus, like my guru, who had kind of an idea of dance, what it should be. And because they were reinventing an ancient art, it is like the first time you wear a sari - you’re more careful; it has to be perfect. The first time the guru is not teaching a devadasi, he’s teaching other people in Madras and Calcutta and Bombay and Hyderabad, he has to be very careful in structuring the repertoire, not doing it untowardly, not make any mistakes, so they kept the classical repertoire, they didn’t want to experiment much. But today, experiments are innumerable, and even though I’m a conservative, I have myself indulged in selecting pieces specifically to portray other rasas.

And in my humble opinion, for any dancer, it’s like instant gratification to refer to the Ramayana. I often tell my students, do you remember Mario Puzo talking about Godfather, the thunderbolt? That’s what happened with the Ramayana. When Sita was playing with her maidens – the beauty of the description Kamban gives, I always get my ‘rasa fix’ by reading all these ancient Tamil texts. He describes not only Sita, but all the girls who are playing with her. And he says – I’m giving you this example of a kind of shringara which is beauty. And Kamban says the girls were all playing with Sita, and before describing Sita’s own beauty, he says the girls were all beautiful. Mithila itself is a beautiful place, and Rama and Lakshmana are astounded when they enter – the rasa for you is adbhuta. They are looking (and wondering) is this a city? Are real humans living here? Is this an enchanted place where only angels or celestial beings live, they are asking their guru? And who are these beautiful women? And Kamban says, some of the girls were so beautiful in this garden that the peacocks looked at these girls and said, we had better leave this place.

So I got the idea from this when I did the Sanskrit ardhanarishwara shloka recently, I found it in Swati Tirunal’s Shankara Sreegiri. Parvathi is looking, and the snake gets scared, and leaves the feet of Shiva, and looks back. I had this parallel from the peacocks looking at the beautiful girls in Mithila and saying we better not compete with these girls. So rasa is created with such fine detail, I compare it to a hand-woven Kanjeevaram or Banarasi sari, pure silk and pure zari – it is a craft, actually. How does an artiste reach that level of creating rasa? How does an artiste come to a level of communicating ideas which a poet or a musician has intended or not intended?

Rasa is about pleasure, not profundity
Above all, I (the artiste) want you to go away still remembering it. Now that is a big challenge, because how many of us see something beautiful and still remember it? Somebody asked me, is rasa meant only for Indian art? Of course not - it is a universal concept, and it’s not just for the performing arts, it’s for the plastic arts. Millions of people go again and again to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The rasa we have experienced the first time we saw it – the beauty, the delicate face, the karuna in the eyes of the Madonna, because she’s looking at the baby Christ, or the Pieta of Michaelangelo, which many of us saw first in 1964, or Man with Marble Sculpture, the sculpture of the crucified Christ. That sculpture is a dramatic work of karuna rasa. Revisiting what is pleasurable, that is the true test of rasa, because you should recall it with pleasure. It doesn’t have to be something profound.

With time, you know, some things get exaggerated. There is also the illusion of rasa, which is carried on as a fairytale, and that happens very often now in India – in fact, I see it as detrimental to the growth of our own art – because people like to talk about the past as if it is, sorry to say, a holy cow, and they don’t want any criticism of something that has gone before, because they don’t want to disturb their illusion of rasa. But I think the true rasika is one who responds very spontaneously to anything. You cannot say that rasa is exclusive to classical dance. It is in every dance form. It is in a wonderfully performed tango. It is in a fantastically performed flamenco by Antonio, the legendary flamenco dancer. Rasa is in the ordinary folk artistes who can make you cry with a small episode of a little market day.

Obviously, there are many people in this world who are capable of experiencing rasa, but they don’t know. Sometimes it happens to me also – the first time I was exposed to a philharmonic concert was when I met the famous conductor Zubin Mehta, who invited me to his concert in Los Angeles. And I was hesitant. I also didn’t know what to speak to him about afterwards. So I said, “I don’t know anything about music, but it was wonderful, I enjoyed it.” He said, “That’s all that matters; you will remember it for a long time.”

Writing modern shastras is important
When it comes to rasa and dance, there is a small handicap. We have to admit it - we are not in the costume of the character. At the same time, there is a subtlety in the suggestive quality of bhava and abhinaya, and my guru taught me how to do this in a suggestive way. In Indian dance, it is not only the body that talks through suggestive gestures, every movement talks. In Indian dance, there are facial expressions for every situation. In western dance, there are no facial expressions. In classical ballet, they are penalized for expressions of the face. We are so privileged that we have the concept of rasa in dance. We should be conscious that we have a codified body language. And we have the advantage and approval of each of the greatest texts in India like the Natya Shastra and other shastras in other languages right up to the 18th century. The 19th and 20th centuries are very disappointing. No shastras have been written during this period and I urge the young scholars present here to promote the growth of shastras. Whatever dance form it is, we owe it to the growth of the repertoire to expand the shastras. Whatever be the dance form, the scholars have recorded the changes that took place. Bharata did not sit under a banyan tree and have a vision to write the Natya Shastra. He saw these dances. They already existed. They had already been recorded, but all these have been lost. The stories were already there, but the books disappeared. But there a portal exists - the use of gestures and footwork. I would like to tell the young dancers that it is not only abhinaya that produces rasa; nritta can also have rasa. If a young dancer is dancing an nritta piece with the right tempo, stances, proportions and graceful movements, that will also produce rasa. More people experience rasa from pure dance – they are ordinary people.

The experience of rasa is the Golden Mesh
The theory of rasa need not remain a theory. It has to be understood and used. Today, we live in a world where the rasa experience is more vital than before. We have government organisations interested in tangible and intangible heritage etc. But more people should be aware of our own heritage of performing arts because this is the most ephemeral art form. A building can stand there for centuries, whereas dance is so individual. You can have a choreographed piece of work that can be carried on for generations, but depending on how the body changes, according to who’s performing, the rasa is different.

We have the advantage of working to create new horizons in our own art. And bringing more people into this, I call it the Golden Mesh, into which you bring more people to experience rasa.

The performance

Lakshmi was dressed in a red saree and she emphasized the importance of aharyam as she completed her jewellery with a nosepin. The first piece she performed was about the khandita nayika, who is angry with Krishna for not keeping the promise of getting her a nosepin. Lakshmi went on to point out that this is not raudra rasa (anger), because the nayika is not angry, but brimming with love for Krishna. She is simply complaining, evoking shringara. Lakshmi depicted Krishna pulling her cheeks and trying to appease her.

The next piece was a kshetrayya padam. She said that she did not learn this padam from her guru, but because of her intense love for these songs, her sister and she worked on these padams with great difficulty. When she performed these padams and javalis, she lost out on being a popular dancer, she added. This kshetrayya padam features love in vipralamba shringara (shringara in separation). Separation brings out shringara, which is a transient emotion, ripe with mood and bhava. It was her sensitivity to the lyrics which made her decide on the type of heroine to be portrayed. The heroine says that her beloved was attached to her, that he would rest his head on her saree, not leaving her for a moment, and now he has rejected her. At dusk, he would light the lamp so that he could watch her uninterrupted, and now, she has been rejected by him. It was a highly sensuous depiction.

About the third piece, Lakshmi said, “When I was a teenager, I danced it very differently. I had not studied the mystic underpinnings of this composition. The vasakasajja nayika sings to her confidante or sakhi, ‘Is Nataraja coming to the street where I live? Is he going to cast a glance at me with longing?’ Her own emotions are so intense that she says “time is standing still, I have no messenger of love to carry my messages of love to him.” Lakshmi said that she realized much later that there were mystic outpourings in the piece. Shiva walking towards her is not a processional deity, but Shiva’s all-pervading presence, in which she wants to be absorbed. She also wants her life’s breath to be one with Shiva’s cosmic breathing.

The following piece was part of Alvar poetry. The situation is an imagined one, where Devaki imagines she is rocking her son Krishna in her arms. Devaki was the most unfortunate mother, next to Kaushalya, since Kaushalya still had the fortune of bringing up her child for a few years. In this imagined sequence, Devaki is singing a lullaby that Yashoda has had the fortune of playing with Krishna, a beautiful baby with lotus eyes, curly hair, jumping around the house like a baby elephant. Devaki then goes on to say that she has been deprived whereas Yashoda is petting this beautiful child who plays the flute and has a moon-like face. She thinks that she must be the worst sinner on earth and that she is not even addressed as a mother. The emotions for this piece, the irony of the situation, was brought out very successfully by Lakshmi.

In the fifth piece, Sita is described as being alone in the Ashoka vana. Lakshmi said that she’s very particular about learning from another form. She studied Kathakali and Koodiyattam, and acquainted herself with their eye for detail. “I felt one could incorporate details into our abhinaya to create rasa,” she said. “Ravana expresses his love for Sita, whose response to it describes the state that Sita is in. Her eyes are fluttering, her body is trembling – she is scared. Ravana walks with pride in a procession towards her, when she shows disgust for him. She expresses her desire to immolate herself.” Bhibhatsa rasa was successfully brought out in this piece.

The final piece was an ashtapadi by Jayadeva. There can be no songs more sensual than Jayadeva’s ashtapadis, and they are sung as bhakti songs. “My sister Charumati composed the music,” she said. Krishna is the emperor of shringara. In the ashtapadi, Priye Charushile, Krishna tells Radha that she should not get angry with him. He praises her beauty and pleads with her to forgive him. Watching the entire sequence of the composition was really an enlightenment towards abhinaya. It was an extravaganza of rasa to be fed to the audience, and it stems from Lakshmi’s research and understanding of each piece. On the previous day, Leela Venkatraman had talked about a closer space for dance with more silences that speak, which was seen to be coming true in this performance.

Pics courtesy Rajiv Chandran