Some committed gurus offer their thoughts on teaching abhinaya

Anecdotes about great dancers like Balasaraswati or Pandit Shambhu Maharaj — to name just two — whose abhinaya communicated instantly with non-Indian or non-initiated audiences have passed into legend. The potential to evoke an entire universe using the body and facial expression is a unique quality of the classical dance forms of India. Today, though, with the emphasis on impressive technique and a prevailing view that a dance performance is a spectacle meant to dazzle rather than a dramatic dialogue that reaches from heart to heart, it is only rarely that one comes across a young dancer whose abhinaya touches a chord. Here, five committed gurus —Bharatanatyam dancers Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan and Alarmel Valli, and Kathak exponents Shovana Narayan and Nisha Mahajan — who have dealt with several generations of dance students, discuss how they pass on this art, which some feel only life can teach. Excerpts:

How do you explain the terms bhava and abhinaya to your students?

Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan: Technically bhava is what one thinks in the heart, or feeling of certain emotions born in the heart. When that feeling is brought out on the face, mainly through the eyes — face is the index of the mind — what one thinks in the deep heart automatically reflects on the face.

Abhinaya is the process of getting that feeling to the onlooker through the face and with help of uttamaanga (major limbs such as eyes) and minor limbs (eyebrows, eyelids, lips, face muscles and nose). When certain contortions happen on the face, that brings forth certain expressions. This happens automatically with the feel of the heart.

That expression on the face is identified and understood by the rasika or onlooker as certain emotions.

Shovana Narayan: I start out by explaining how they would react to a situation. Giving a situation, I ask for their response. Thereafter from their responses I explain the difference between bhava, rasa and abhinaya. This practical approach of getting their responses to a situation has helped them to understand the difference between the terms.

At what age do you consider it appropriate to introduce them to your students?

Shanta and VPD: Facial expressions vary from child to child. Some are very expressive from childhood, some are not. Some children are good in imitating without understanding the meaning. Depending upon the capacity of each child we try their communicative skill using the abhinaya technique. There is no prescribed age to start abhinaya lessons or technique. But deliberately we avoid trying on a child the sensitive abhinaya of adult feelings of both sexes and the various shades of sensuality (Sringara).

Age 12 onward we try with simple story-oriented songs and slowly take them to such deep sensitive feelings of Nayaki-Nayaka Bhava, and as they mature in their human feelings they express better and better. This again varies from student to student. So there is no measuring method, except the reactions of the audience who enjoy or reject the abhinaya.

Shovana Narayan: In different ways I start talking about it to the students at different levels. With the juniors, one cannot be so specific but in a playful manner speak about it. But with the senior students, there is seriousness of approach, there is deliberation, there is discussion, etc.


Shanta and VPD: Bhava and Abhinaya are complex subject to explain in words. Superficially, we can explain these words, but to really understand the actual in-depth meaning, it takes a while for an actor to exercise and experience it physically, mentally and psychologically. Literature and music help to emote. There is an artificiality in acting or make-belief approach to expressions. Yet, if the actor does not feel the act, it may not touch the heart of the onlooker. This sort of actions and reactions between the actor and the rasika cannot be convincingly explained; this act can only be felt or experienced.

This subject has not been convincingly delineated or explained by writers, scholars or commentators. Verbal explanations by experienced practitioners of Natya could convince only to an extent; still, it remains a mystery of mind.

Shovana Narayan: I always try and impress upon them how they are utilising the three terms in daily life itself and the essence of the term “kathak”, i.e. “katha”.

Nisha Mahajan: I think it is important for students right from childhood to be aware of and work with different moods and emotions that form part of their day-to-day experience, whether these be associated with human beings, or just bountiful Nature! When they are familiar and comfortable with an easy flow of feeling through their beings, this is the first preparation for abhinaya in later years.

The student’s use of facial muscles and full body-language makes communication of an emotion so much more effective. When explaining bhava, it is important to underline that the feeling being portrayed is that of the character rather than one’s own personal emotion. For older students it is good to spell out that abhinaya is successful only when the audience is moved into total empathy.

Abhinaya should be a part of the training from the beginning, maybe in the rendition of an invocatory piece, or a lyric about clouds, birds and animals. More mature themes as the student grows up. Exposure to good literature and poetry should be a part of the student’s development.

I have very strong reservations about teaching processes where they teach only technique for several years and wait to teach abhinaya only when the student has a very strong command of technique.