Discussing abhinaya

Leela Venkataraman

At the end of July, nearly two months ago, Kathak exponent Aditi Mangaldas organized an abhinaya workshop by Bharatnatyam guru Leela Samson in Delhi. On the third day of the workshop, for the last three hours, observers and writers like myself were permitted to sit in, and the end of the workshop was followed by a rare and brilliant abhinaya piece by Leelaji (see previous report). But after that, Leelaji, Leela Venkatraman, Aditi and journalist Malini Nair sat down for an impromptu discussion with the participating dancers on abhinaya and bhava in dance. Aditi started the discussion by recounting what she’d heard from a senior dancer once - that “abhinaya is not about feeling it but about expressing it. It is an important division.”

Leela Venkatraman: And I would like to know (to Leela Samson), do you become that or do you show that? And to what extent do you retain your integrity with objectivity? But not so much that you do not become what you are on stage.

Leela Samson: That’s a tough one (long pause). Suppose you have portrayed a nayika in your performance. Now what do you carry home? That you totally become the nayika, or is that just a portrayal? And this has to be independent of the critics’ and senior dancers’ review of your performance.

Leela V.: Singers, when they are very immersed in the raga, sometimes suddenly say an ‘aha’ of appreciation, so they are responsive even as they are creating. They are appreciating their own work.

Leela S.: They are the rasika as well as the rasa. Though they close their eyes and abandon themselves, they’re also listening and enjoying it. For a dancer, it is very difficult (to do that). They have to live a little bit outside the role.

Leela Samson (Pic: Anoop Arora)

The abandoning of the nayika for narrative

Leela V.: You had said that the narrative has taken the centrestage. Everyone does a long story about the deity which has nothing to do with the lyrics of the composition.

Leela S: Yes, sometimes there is just one word about the deity and an epic is woven around it. I am quite saddened by the fact that the sahitya of the nayika is slowly being abandoned in our times. In the western world, they came to the point of abstraction because they did not want to deal with the storytelling. If they had a situation in which they had to speak as a heroine or a nayika, they would speak as an actor. They did have mythological stories, but they have given it up for abstract ones where there were no stories or sahitya, and here, in our dance scene, we have given up our stories on nayika for a narrative.

Leela V.: I want to ask the Kathak dancers if they are told by their abhinaya gurus that this composition is by so-and-so, and here Krishna or the nayak did this or that. Are you asked to bring it out or not? Because in Bharatnatyam, it is there.

Gauri Diwakar: If we are taught a piece, like a bhajan or thumri, for an exam or a performance, then we were taught in that way. But if you talk of formal training, then we were not taught like that. We were simply told that this line would repeat three times or an antara would have five lines, but how much can be brought out extempore depends on each dancer. How much of it comes from within you is what you portray. And all bandishes don’t suit everybody. For example, sometimes I feel that some particular piece is not made for me and it is not my comfort zone.

Shivani: My guru Shovana Narayan has never told us to tie down the abhinaya. Good or bad, it’s not tied down. Didi tells us to do a few things sometimes, but we may or may not pay attention to that.

Aditi Mangaldas (Pic: Anoop Arora)

Holistic teaching of dance - or the lack of it

Leela V.: Music is also very important. It’s barely for two days that you get to rehearse the piece with your musicians, so you can’t have that kind of understanding with the musicians.

Leela S.: One of the biggest losses as dancers is that we cannot be experts in every field. Suppose my tala and laya is weak. I cannot improve it with my guru in class. I will have to find another person who specialises in that field, like a mridangist, who can tell me how to control my tala. Similarly, with our sahitya, since it is very important for us, we will need a scholar who can tell us how to think under the surface as well, across meaning, in every aspect – iconography, architectonics, etc. We don’t have people who can talk to us.

Aditi: When you’re dancing, you just build a skeletal system. But it (the training/teaching) needs to build on the muscular system as well. If it was taught in that way, it would make a difference. Abhinaya is taught to us in a dhrut laya or a paran as a bhajan or a bandish, when we can’t even do a thaat or an uthan. If it is a bhajan or a thumri in Sanskrit or Brajbhasha, your guru may be a great scholar, but have you got into the layers of it? The passage of going from a tatkar to a paran requires a lot of hard work.

Leela S.: I have been saying that we lay a lot of stress on the nritta from the start, and that is not given to abhinaya. If even 50% of that time is given to abhinaya, it would make a lot of difference. Nritta too needs bhava.

Malini: When would we bring in the training from other art forms like Kutiyattam and Kathakali? They start abhinaya as children. In no other dance do they start teaching abhinaya so young.

Aditi: The eye exercises Leelaji made us do today, I thought I would pass out.

Leela S.: During these exercises, they would apply a little bit of butter to the eyes and you start riyaaz at 3.30 in the morning, when your eyes are all scrunchy with sleep.


Do dancers need to educate their audiences today before a performance?

Leela V.: Fortunately, discerning audiences are few.

Leela S.: In my opinion, the audience has never been perfect. Even your grandmother would not have had a great sense of bhava. The lucky few like me had a grandmother who was a rasika and I was blessed. One day, I was sitting with Shraddha Kapoor, whom we know as a hep actress, and she was singing something. I was so surprised that I asked her, where did this (singing) come from? Then she told me that her mother and aunts are from the Mangeshkar family and that parampara is still going on. Ghar mein toh gaana hota hi hai.

Aditi: (Once) I was sitting with bright young kids with metropolitan backgrounds. They knew about politics, sports, music, Pavarotti... In classical music, they knew about Zakir bhai, Bhimsenji, but when I talked to them about dance, they knew nothing. It was awful. These were all intelligent kids from good institutions. One of them, a young lawyer, said that the only memory he had of dance was watching an arangetram to which he was dragged by his mother. ‘This woman was dancing and making funny faces,’ he said. I told him to attend a particular performance, and write a review about it. Viewing this performance totally changed his perspective.

Leela V.: In Chennai too, any kutcheri for music you go to, you will find a full hall. But it’s not the same for dance. There’s always a smaller audience, and dancers should not dislike that. It is much more demanding to watch a dance performance.

Leela S.: It has something to do with the body as a medium. And the complexity of it is putting them off. The rigour of the dance demands more. In villages, dancers have a greater audience. If you go to Vrindavan or Varanasi, you will have a larger audience. Maybe because it is the story that they can relate to. But drama has no place in a solo.

Leela V.: I remember, you (Leela S.) did a particular varnam, and you said that if the audience sits through it, fine, otherwise I’ll do it for myself. The hall was full and the entire audience sat through it. We see some Kuchipudi performances (in Delhi) which are done totally to Hindustani music. One or two songs (in Hindi) are okay, but if you do an entire performance to suit the sensibilities of the audience, then you feel that something is missing. If you say this Hindi-speaking audience will not understand, then don’t try to make them understand. You have to try to make them understand the original thing, the traditional thing. Each dance form has a music which is so typical to it, and if you try and change that, the entire character of it changes. This music is actually suited for the traditional dance. You should have that belief, that I can do my repertoire.

Leela S.: Self-belief and belief in the form are very important. Why is Kapila Venu (Kutiyattam dancer) being hailed so much if it is not appealing? I think it is the sincerity in the purpose of the performance and the actor. It is this sincerity and belief which should be the purpose.

Leela V.: I went to a Spic Macay performance once and at the end of the entire night, a girl was performing Kutiyattam, and I thought nobody will stay for it. And it is amazing how many of the youngsters were up and watching, though it is a very slow form and it doesn’t make any concession for the contemporary sensibilities of the audience.

Leela S.: The audience is very fickle. Today they want something, tomorrow something else, so self-belief is very important.

Interpretation and subjectivity in abhinaya

Question from the gathering: I would like to know your take on abhinaya, doing a performance which is thematic and in which the word doesn’t simply symbolise its meaning but the layers are dug up and the connotations are different.

Aditi: You have to feel completely comfortable on stage to do the abhinaya and what I try to do, when I’m doing an abhinaya piece, is that I look at the structure of the word, look at my body in it, look at the music in that word and all other associations of that word. I try to see what it tries to say through my movement, through my body, and the various things that arise within me which I can show on the stage through my footwork, through my face – keeping in mind the story and the geography of that word, but not being bogged down by it. Because that is transforming the word rather than literally showing it.

Leela V.: But you have to live with the piece for a while - it is like an achaar (pickle). It has to marinate within you. Then the layers will build and your mind will be able to think in expansive terms about how you are showing it. It cannot be an instantaneous thing, a piece on which you’re working today, and if you are serious about your art form, after 4-5 years, when you perform it again, it should have evolved and should have a quality which is different.

Aditi: That piece should be to able to breathe with you and age with you.

Nritya vs nritta and abhinaya

Question from a young Kathak dancer: When we perform khula naach (Kathak nritta or technical dance), do you think that the footwork and chakkars speak? For me, if I am dancing, I personally enjoy the footwork. Does that speak to you?

Leela S.: If you’re enjoying it, then it definitely speaks. Your enjoyment, whether it is in footwork or chakkars, is what is transferred, and you take the audience on a journey.

Dancer: Is it nritya or nritta, then?

Leela S.: Nritta is a part of nritya. When we were doing this workshop, I told Aditi and I want to make it clear to all the younger people here – abhinaya is not a separate thing (from technical dance). It has to enter the spirit of whatever you are doing. it is not ‘the other’, it is not ‘another thing’. Whatever you are doing, it should enter your thattadavu first. Incorporate it into your first tatkar. And do that tatkar with more feeling – whatever that feeling is, and identify that feeling. Acknowledge it, that’s all – you can do it like that for one hour, two hours, and bore the teacher to death. I’ve seen that in class, I can feel a student drag everybody down with her/his mood, and then some others just pick up the class with their enthusiasm. It’s fine, but you must, as an artist, acknowledge it, so that you work with that energy when you need it. You could use it and say, I can do that blank, indifferent, I-don’t-care bhava in the actual dance as well. These are all energies, they are all bhavas.

Leela V.: I used to watch (renowned Kathak exponent) Durga Lal dance very often, and right from the Shri Ganesh (beginning), he never used to do a separate abhinaya piece, but somehow, everything came out in his rhythm. And somehow, in the end, I never felt what is this, this man is not doing any abhinaya. I felt very satisfied watching him. And I always tried to ask myself, why is it like that? He used to sing extraordinarily well. And he would just mesmerize you with his singing – how much emotion in his padhant! Real music.

Leela S.: The thing is that he really, like Devi Lalji, was soaked in the tradition of the sahitya and the music. Taal, sahitya aur gayan unki nas mein hota tha (taal, sahitya and singing ran in his veins). Dance is the last outcome, the happy outcome of all this. He carried that with him. If you are blessed with a sense of laya, that understanding of sahitya, then you get blessed with that kind of dancing. He and his brother were amazing.

Leela V.: The first time I saw him, I wrote this – ‘Adonis of dance’. He was absolutely spellbinding. This was almost 40 years back. The first time I saw Yamini, and the first time I saw him – it was the same, something inside them, some very special quality. I felt exhilarated watching it.

Leela S.: We’ve talked about self-belief – Yamini akka, there was a time when she was not very good at managing her musicians. Her father and sister used to handle it. And there came a time when her father passed away and her sister left. And she was very bereft. But she had a show in Kamani auditorium (in Delhi). There was no singer – and she was famous for not putting any melodic instrument. No veena, no violin. Just the nattuvanar and the mridangist – they did the full programme. Kaisi kiya pata nahin (how they did it, I don’t know). She had such a determination – main toh karoongi (I will do it). Nobody said anything, nobody left. She did the programme, (as if to say) ‘I defy myself to do it’.

Leela V.: Subbudu, one of the great critics who’s no more, he used to write some very impolite things. He was very fond of Yamini’s dance, and she had a tremendous sense of rhythm. Once, he wrote, ‘Yamini is a time bomb’, ‘You don’t even need an orchestra for this dancer, she’s got such rhythm in her’ etc. And after some time, she came with a very poor orchestra, terrible singer, everything was so substandard that Subbudu wrote, ‘Last time, I wrote that she didn’t need any music, but I think she took me literally, because the music she had was certainly not music!’

Guarding against artificiality in abhinaya

Malini: Like Gauri said, have you ever felt there was a character so different from you that you couldn’t do it, that you are militating against that character?

Gauri Diwakar: Yeh sirf character ki baat nahin hai (it’s not just about the character). My new production, Hari Ho Gati Meri, which Aditi didi has choreographed – it’s very often that she’s choreographed something and I have felt ‘(I must do it) justice’. In the middle of the dance I have felt, didi has choreographed this, I need to prove myself. And then, when I recite the spoken parts, she asks me, don’t you think it’s sounding fake? Sometimes it’s not even a character, but the words I’m speaking sound false. And not just to the performer, but also to the audience. This is something we young dancers need to realise.

Aditi: I was dancing once in Belgium, it was a full one-hour classical piece on Krishna as life, as breath. I thought it’s a Belgian audience, so I put in ‘pegs’ in a few places – I do that often, and since I only speak English it has to be in English, because I feel it’s something which they can take off from (to find meaning). And I don’t like to announce, so there is no announcement. I was sitting with a contemporary dancer that evening (before the performance) at dinner and he said, what are you going to speak. And I said I’ll practice it right here. And (after listening to it) he said come on, Aditi, that’s so fake. And it was! The next day I thought, hang it, I’ll just do it without speaking at all in the middle. I don’t know if it worked or not, I have a lot of questions about whether it makes… because dance eventually is about what the dance has to say, not the words. But I keep on feeling, who in the West is (going to understand)? Reference points remain a major concern. So how do you use the historic and geographic connotations? I am from a tradition and a great history and geography – the mandir and the courts. But how do I project that without hitting somebody on the head with it? I have not come to any conclusion, but I’m just saying that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s interesting.

Leela V.: Is it the inadequacy of the body and its expression to convey certain things?

Leela Samson: No, I think art is an attempt, it’s not a…

Aditi: I strongly feel that it’s about imagination and not about the truth of that particular story. And so I’d like to dance so that the person goes back with a comma to add their own story, rather than a full stop. But it’s an experience – whether it happens or not, I have no idea.

With two great dancers, a great critic and a senior journalist getting together to discuss abhinaya and more, it was natural for everyone involved - dancers and dance enthusiasts alike - to go back from this session enriched with perspective and insight. I definitely did, and will wait eagerly for Drishtikon’s next such initiative.