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The idea of abhinaya - in conversation with Leela Samson

Modern dance avoids it like the plague while the heaving bosom variant has been done to death

As dawn breaks, a woman sits waiting for her lover. He staggers in, looking rather bedraggled, she believes, after a night of revelry. So she asks — voice dripping with sarcasm — “Have you wandered into my lane by mistake? Because that flirty little thing you have fallen for certainly doesn’t live here.” And with that ultimate put-down, she shuts the door on his face.

You could play that scorned woman in Bharatanatyam as heavy drama, all fury, twitching lips and heaving bosom. But you could also play the classic Telugu padam, ‘Indendu Vachitivira’, as a subtle story, investing the woman with humour, irony, and a sense of self. Who was she, what were her misgivings, hopes and disappointments?

The art of abhinaya in Indian classical dance is a rare asset, possibly the most engaging way to showcase classical sahitya. But it is an asset that’s at a critical juncture. Contemporary dance avoids it like the plague. And the set compositions, taught from nearly a century ago and kept intact in the name of tradition, are beginning to pall.

Is there a new way to play the old abhinaya tropes? How far can experimentation go? Should classical dance bring in elements from Koodiyattam and Kathakali? Can the answer lie in theatre training?

Expression, not feeling

It was a chance discussion with Kathakali maestro Sadanam Balakrishnan that convinced Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas of the need to discuss critical aspects of abhinaya with young dancers. “He said that abhinaya is not about feeling, it is about expressing,” says Mangaldas. “And if that is the case, surely it can also be a matter of teaching and training. Why don’t we then have a pedagogy for abhinaya in our dances, just as we do for movement?” It was just this issue that seasoned Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson addressed at a lively three-day workshop held recently at her Delhi studio Drishtikon.

Samson brings to her dance multiple aesthetic influences and her abhinaya has always been internalised, drawing the viewer in with a newness that defies the most predictable roles. She is now encouraging young dancers to go beyond the obvious, to ask questions of our tried and tested nayikas. “Who is this character? Vulnerable, full of misgivings and hope? Because that is who we are — we are unfulfilled pretty much throughout the journey of our lives.”

The idea of abhinaya - in conversation with Leela Samson

A dancer’s acting chops once depended entirely on the teacher’s skills, in making the student understand the lyrics, the musical setting and gait, and the piece’s nuances and possibilities. “It was competent, but often rigid and one was not encouraged to think beyond the subscribed ‘hands’ or kai. The vaadyar who first taught the composition in the early decades of the previous century may have set those ‘hands’ for the early class, typically a bunch of teenagers. But 70-odd years down the line, I believe, some progressive change should have come about at least in what we call the sancharis.

“On the contrary, generations of teachers pride themselves on the ‘correct’ recall of the previous century’s hands. These can work for me, but not for my students. I have to innovate and update, if only to keep the exquisite compositions alive,” says Samson. Her philosophy works well for youngsters like Abhinaya Penneswaran, who has been trying to make peace with traditional role-playing.

An early encounter with the devout ‘Karpuram Narumo’ left her confused about finding a balance between her own sensibilities and the needs of the composition. “There is a certain openness to this approach that allows me to get into the skin of the character. I am nothing like the pleading heroine of ‘Yera Ra’, but I am now curious to find out what she is about,” she says.

Level by level

Acting training is usually the last priority in an average dance class, never taught as a skill, only creeping in when “items” have to be taught. Why not teach it by building on it, level by level, even as you are taught rhythm progression in thatadavu in Bharatanatyam or tatkar in Kathak is Samson’s argument.

Samson recalls her learning at Kalakshetra. “Theory classes were a must. It meant sitting straight-backed on the floor and reciting shlokas from the Abhinaya Darpana while simultaneously holding the hasta mudras and understanding their meaning, correct placement and movement around the body,” she says. “Now, there is poor understanding of this methodology, which results in the mudra falling short of saying what it is meant to.”

Samson also emphasises the need to borrow from allied arts and philosophies, which could help in influencing abhinaya: temple architecture and iconography, mythology, Vedic studies, the rasa theory, the Ashta Nayikas and the basic theory of music and tala.

The author writes on and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:34:20 PM |

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