Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
The concept of abhinaya
Dancers today have to look at themselves in a mirror and re-define their roles as communicators ... of ideas, stories, emotions ... using their feet, hands, faces, eyes. "Esoteric" is the word often used to keep the shroud of ignorance intact, veiling classical dances from the viewer's eyes. Classical dance can communicate as powerfully, as simply, as dramatically as any other theoretical form, be it drama, folk theatre or street theatre. Perhaps spaces of performance create an ironic psychological distance, preventing a sharing of dance experience. Perhaps sociological and political divides obstruct the viewer from crossing over a bridge to meet the nuances of classical dances to receive them with open minds. To re-create an awareness, an interest in the subtle art of abinaya as it has come to us from a long line of artists, gurus, poets and musicians is a challenge worth taking. Virtuosity, speed, showmanship and glamour have stunned the admiring eyes of dance-lovers. Is it not now time for them to go with the dancer to a deeper realm of sensitivity. Is not the dancer capable of lingering in the mind of a viewer as the dance, as love, or any other pure feeling so strong that it is unforgettable?
Bharata says that abhinaya is the art of "exhibiting the meaning of what one depicts." The dancer has an enormous resource bank to communicate a story, an idea, an emotion. She uses her body... her limbs, hands, face, eyes to reach out to her viewers. But the reaching out does not stop with her presenting a visual. A journey of psychological partnership begins, for like any actor, the dancer must draw the viewer into her own world which has been inhabited by the poet and the musician. The shores reached by both the viewer and the dancer are described as the experience of 'Rasa', which is compared to spiritual experience.
In the West, classical dancers push the limits of the physical to the gymnastic covering of space. The face of the dancer is mask-like, neutral. In the East, 500 years ago they danced like puppets, wore masks. Today many have removed the masks but the faces retain their neutrality. It is we alone who can dance with our eyes, our faces!
Our ancestors codified the use of every part of the body to be used in dance. "Angika" is a term which covered everything from top to toe, even the eyelids! Is there any other culture in the world which can take pride in the fact that the hand, used in a gesture can symbolise or denote the spirit of infinite solace as seen in the "abhaya" mudra of a Siva icon? A simple gesture can portray the exaltation or tragedy of a human being and translate thought to the world. If a viewer in Boston responds to my "hasta mudra" (hand gesture) I marvel at my heritage of eloquent movement. I also reflect ... why should I not make atleast a million people who share my roots respond to my gesture? For, do they not already share my stories, my heroes, my feelings?
Twenty eight gestures for a single hand, 24 for two hands together, gestures for gods, demons, animals, relatives, kings, lovers, stars, planets, weapons, places, rivers, mountains, colours, flowers ... A student dressed in an earth-coloured handloom saree memorises them all and learns to use them. The vocabulary becomes language. The dancer becomes artist, making use of the language to sing poetry. The gestures move with the limbs, with the body to mingle with the verses. The dancer leaps into a flight of fancy. In a trice she becomes a peacock, using a gait, tilting her head, moving her neck. Quickly again, dark clouds gather in an imagined sky, and before the first raindrops mingle with the earth, the peacock has danced and glided away into a green glade, leaving the viewer with an image of blue-hued beauty.
Stories unfold in rapid succession, for this is not actual time. It is that suspension where a moment is arrested to convey a millennium. The dancer, with one outstretched arm creates the full moon, and with the other its reflection in water. She creates the vast distance between the two merely with her gaze. She moves as the wind, as water. She creates the space of the cosmos and peoples it with stars. Such is the body language of "abhinaya".
We took "abhinaya" from Sanskrit theatre, made it our own essay into the realm of expressional dance. Our gurus told us to suggest the characters implied in our poetry. We did not have to play each role separately. Today I can raise my hand to my head, holding my palm in a curve representing the crescent moon and stand in a particular stance ... and you know I am Siva. I create this picture only to dissolve it instantly with the movement of melody in the poetry which I represent. With another note, another phrase, I shift the weight of my body to my other foot, hold a lotus gesture to my chin, and become Parvathi, glancing steadily at Siva. Gods and goddesses are part of my psyche, my ethos. My vanity in everyday life may aspire to make me a goddess. In my dance, I must make you, the viewer, believe that I am a goddess. So I must lose my ego, and become your goddess! Yes, I am a dancer, and I can do it! My feminity speaks to you and you must forget me, for what am I, but the dance.
If you the viewer have to spend an evening at a dance, must not the dancer involve you in more ways than one? If the senses are to be kindled, is the visual alone enough. It is said man's aural powers are more cultivated than his visual. In abhinaya of the classique mold poetry is transformed into visual music. In a land of a thousand ragas, every poetic idea can be accompanied by a suitable melodic tune. The poets and saints knew this. With passion fit for the gods they poured their heart into a honey pot of melody. Kshetrayya, Annamayya, and others who followed have given us, the dancers, the words we need to build castles of fantasy. The dancer's concern is to create beauty. She may, if she wishes to intellectualise her attitude, find the explicit eroticism directed to the gods by the poet, subversive. She, may, on the other hand come to terms with the purely physical metaphors as part of the life-giving force which consumes the body with passion only to direct its energy to the sublime. It is the active mind of the dancer, meeting the mind of the poet on equal terms. Genders do not intrude in this dialogue, for the dancer, a woman facing the lights to speak of poetry, knows that the poet is impersonating her in his quest for an experience with the god who is male. In her abhinaya, a dancer can mould the text to create visual beauty just as a sculptor can make rough stones sing.
Pandits for centuries have insisted on the realisation of "Sattva" or purity, truth, in expressional art. It is the finest points reached in communicating an emotion. Perception, deep understanding ... are phrases used to poorly describe the emotional bondage created between what the dancer expresses in her abhinaya and the viewer experiences as feelings. It is a baring of the soul by the dancer, which is at once spontaneous and unconditional. The most powerful tool used by the dancer for this phenomena is her face. Her expressiveness transcends time and space. A mere look, is enough to establish a single strong emotion. The poet, the musician, create the ambience for the dancer. Her body, her gestures, her attire make the framework for a concentrated effulgence of felt emotions. Joy, fear, despair, anger, sympathy, sorrow, elation ... a plethora of life's fleeting states of emotion flow through the dancer's being, her face and eyes. She communicates to the viewer, makes him forget himself, and allows him to partake in the feast of "Rasa" - aesthetic rapture. Is it any wonder then that Pandits recognised the relish of Rasa as a spiritual experience.
Do I, as a dancer have to relinquish my heritage which has taught me to speak with my body, mind and soul? Should you the viewer not come forward to meet my art, and share its pleasures?
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