- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com
Photos courtesy: Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

November 19, 2011

Rasavikalpam, a ten-day workshop on dance, organized by Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in connection with Swathi Sangeetotsavam opened a vista of our classical arts.  Targeting young aspirants, mainly school and college going students, the lecture-demonstrations opened gateways to different classical dance forms, in three centers in Kerala: Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur and Kozhikode. True to its meaning, the workshops provided an analysis of the concept of rasa in Indian aesthetics and its application to different classical dance forms. The workshop had two sessions: lecture-demonstrations and programs by eminent artistes and gurus.

CP Unnikrishnan

Prof. CP Unnikrishnan opened the first session with an introduction to Rasa theory. A well known theoretician, Unnikrishnan’s foray into the perception of rasa based on Bharathamuni’s Natya Shastra was an invaluable occasion for students to understand the basics of Indian dance and theatre. A power-point presentation helped the youngsters grasp the essentials in an innovative manner.

Unnikrishnan elaborated on the 8 rasas stipulated by Bharatha and how all rasas ultimately lead to Santha rasa. The Natya Shastra has carefully described the bhavas used to create rasa.   He explained how bhavas are used to generate each rasa and their intricate play in abhinaya. He illustrated with a table, the nine moods (navarasa) and the corresponding bhavas. Every rasa is identified with a specific color and a deity for use in performing arts. He divided characters into three groups: uthama, madhyama and adhama. There are subtle variations in angika and bhavabhinaya when each group describes the same thing.  According to him, dance is the stylized representation of the reality observed. So most of the pictures used to delineate different aspects were pictures of animals, birds, babies and humans, other than artistes. His exposition of the building blocks of classical dance and theatre that created magical realism with a willing suspension of disbelief from the age of Bharthamuni, opened a window on Indian aesthetics with reference to the 6th and 7th chapters of Natya Shastra, for, the theory of rasa still forms the aesthetic underpinning of all Indian classical dance and theater.

Prof. CV Chandrasekhar, a recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan, is an inspiring teacher. A multifaceted talent in the field of Bharatnatyam, he is a renowned scholar, composer, choreographer and performer based now in Chennai. The audience sat enthralled as the iconic dancer in the post prime years of his life staged sringara in strict Bharatanatyam format. So at the morning lecture demonstration sessions, expectations were high.

Prof. CV Chandrasekhar

Chandrasekhar focused on abhinaya. The synergy created between the dancer and the onlooker is the rasanubhava, according to him. Choreography is one of the tools that the dancer uses to get the desired result. He compared nritta, the abstract in dance, to an abstract painting that can be interpreted as per the varied imagination of both the artiste and the onlooker. It also forms part of a dance recital to reinforce the appeal. Dance often focuses on the stylized translation of a lyric. And abhinaya is built on specified body language and expression of emotion, through shades of a raga that create both the mood and the meaning. The use of the eyes is pivotal (nethrabhinaya); facial expression (mukhabhinaya) bring in the navarasas; codified hand mudras (hasthabhinaya) is the vocabulary and grammar of a dance form. The stylized presentation includes the body postures as well. But the source of abhinaya is the heart, the wellspring of emotions that project bhava and rasa on the face.
The maestro demonstrated how music leads creating the mood and how different shades of meaning can be created by bringing different bhavas and different rasas within the parameters of a general context. Although recorded music is widely used now, performers, prefer live music because it gives an opportunity to improvise instinctively, especially with an understanding orchestral support.

 A great teacher, he expanded imagination to tint a single line "Sutha paithiya karan...” wherein the mother tells the daughter, “How could you fall for a madcap?” The line interpreted the anguish of a mother, the rebellion of a teenager; the mother-daughter relationship fraught with hopes and fears, separated by generation gap. The ways and means adopted to persuade, ranged from love, disgust, anger, optimism and despair. The same line was used to show how in ekaharya, the performer balances the different characters on right and left and how they are followed on stage as if they were moving in and around.

The master stressed on appropriateness, one example was that of smile. Even the shades of smile create different meanings. For, there are eight types of hasa: from smitha to attahasa. Different art forms and different characters make use of the appropriate variety according to the context. Knowledge of our classical literature was another aspect that Guru Chandrasekhar emphasized. Classical Indian arts are rooted in our mythology and history. Understanding the context is an essential aspect for projecting a piece. Since music and dance go hand in hand, the learning of music also is part of the syllabi for a serious student.

As the great teacher went on interpreting just one line in three sessions, wonder hung in the air. From the heels to the head, the body movements and postures created a drama in its infinite variety both for the male and female principles that reside in the human body. Truly the lecture demonstration and the performance was a Bharatanatyam elocution.

Dr. Alekhya Punjala

Dr. Alekhya Punjala is a top ranking proponent and scholar in both Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam styles of dance. She spoke on abhinaya and stated her preference for Kuchipudi. “It is only in the last few years that I have been partial to Kuchipudi for several reasons. One, I love its vibrancy and the freedom (manodharma) it gives the artiste to create within the given framework at any given point of time, even on stage while performing. Secondly, it was my passion for abhinaya which made me more inclined towards this form as I felt a little stifled in Bharatanatyam. Today the scenario is different, than it was years ago. I find many artistes exploring in different ways. And, I wanted to contribute in my own little way to the propagation of this beautiful form of Andhra, the state I belong to.”

Alekhya traced the history of the art form as it evolved from a dance-drama to solo performance; its purpose shifting from propagating a thought to dancing for the sheer joy; female dancers taking the dance from male dancers. She listed 4 kinds of abhinaya: angika, vachika, aharya and bhavabhinaya. Alekhya’s demonstration revolved on the concept of madhura-bhakti, where sringara and bhakti overlap one another.

She compared the format of Bharatanatyam to Kuchipudi pointing to the main difference. Bharatanatyam concentrates more on its grammar. But, in Kuchipudi, abhinaya is inclined to lokadharmi giving the artiste more freedom to innovate. The exposition of Krishna theme from cradle to Vrindavan revealed how much of mundane reality is the stuff with which creativity produces art that is divine. So the text of her lecture was to “observe life and transmute it to art by stylization.”

Guru Naripetta Narayanan Namboodiri

Guru Naripetta Narayanan Namboodiri is a renowned performer of Kathakali. The highlight of his introduction to Kathakali was his power point presentation. A vocal presentation came alive in visual format. He began by paying homage to his gurus, Kumaran asan who donned pacha vesham as a Kathakali performer and Vasudevan asan whose minuku was famous, thereby suggesting that the learning of Kathakali as a performing art is rooted in gurukula tradition. A student starts at an age from 10 to 15 and the learning process goes on for a minimum of 12 years to mould a professional artiste. The presentation showed how concentration is crucial to the challenge of learning. Real growth of an artiste takes place over the years as the aspirant becomes aware of his physical and mental potential for performing roles that suit him. And the artiste should aim at a feeling of fulfillment.

Kathakali is just 500 years old. Its roots lie deep in the many performing folk arts of Kerala like Theyyam, Padayani and Ottamthullal, the martial art like Kalaripayattu and dance dramas like  Koodiyattam, Krishnattam, Ramanattam etc. Patronized by chieftains and kings, Kathakali traversed the length and breadth of Kerala, slowly acquired classical proportions, attained an iconic status and international fame with the efforts of Kalamandalam, the premier institute of Kerala.

The very name of the art form defines Kathakali: the dramatization of a story. According to the master, the building blocks of the architectonics of Kathakali are body posture, abhinaya and mudras within the parameters of natyadharmi. The stories are already known as they come from mythologies. And theme gives prominence to one rasa and one vesham or form. For example, Raudhra Bheema is such a character that arises from a particular context  in a special costume which showcases anger  as the dominating rasa with appropriate bhavas in varying tempo. More than the story line, Kathakali is concerned with the elaborate presentation verging on exaggeration. Staging the theme with nuances of a bhava leads to rasanubhava.

Just the namaskaram to the panchabhootas illustrates its signature style with all its subtleties. Its body language is rooted in Kalaripayattu. Stylized hand gestures that escort exaggerated facial expressions highlight an emotion. Use of eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, lips, and neck are pivotal to create the mukhabhinaya. And of course Kathakali makes use of Shudha nritta for appreciation and enjoyment. Narayanan Namboodiri explained the terminology and different segments of a performance.

Purappad introduces the character with kalasams.  Here, body language becomes prominent in both quick and slow tempo. Kalasams is rasabhinayam with stylized gestures ranging from thandava to lasya nritta. The lasya nrittam is comparable to Mohiniattam style which speaks of a symbiotic relationship of male oriented and female oriented dance forms that grew in the same geographical region. The hand gestures used in Kerala art forms is based on “Hasthalakshana Deepika” for its grammar and vocabulary.

A Padam consists of translating a verse into visual form to the accompaniment of rhythmic beats in slow, medium and quick tempo. As Kathakali traversed decades, experiments were made. Maddalam and chenda for percussion and edakka for female characters came to be the accepted norm now. Chenda and edakka are unique to Kerala, and Kathakali has become musical now. Costume is integral to Kathakali demanding natya dharmi. Pacha vesham depicts heroic dimensions; Kathi portrays anti-hero; minuku women and sages; kari, the evil. Individuality is established by abhinaya from the generalized costume.

The second half of the program showcased a parading of navarasas and live presentation of body movements and mudras, the students getting a sample by participating with the master. Mostly female dancers, they stood the harsh litmus test of a masculine dance drama.

Sooraj Nambiar

Sooraj Nambiar initiated into Koodiyattam by none other than the legendary Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar is a promising artiste whose devotion to the oldest dance drama of India is non parallel. He addressed the uninitiated and went to the elementary aspects to open a gateway to an ancient performing art form. There was a time when Sanskrit drama prevailed throughout the subcontinent. While enacting the classical texts, dramaturgy was shaped and molded by local traditions and influences. In those days, Koodiyattam originated in Kerala, with its own unique features.

As contexts for enacting come from well known mythologies, the performance concentrates on abhinaya. The performer celebrates his imagination in presenting a character. Basically, in Koodiyattam, the body posture of the performer determines the dimensions of a character. A posture close to aramandalam with feet apart in specific measure is the first of its alphabets.

The eye is exploited by a performer to give heroic, larger than life aspects of a personality.

The student learns 10 types of exercises for the eye alone. The inner vision concentrates on the unseen objet. For a distant object, the eye travels to the unseen distant horizon; to look up, the sky is the limit; to look down, the eye reaches the depth of a well. Facial expression is an important aspect for training. Movements of eyebrows, projecting the eye, holding lips and cheeks and moving them in a trained manner, expanding or contracting the face to highlight a rasa or bhava are crucial in Koodiyattam.
Sooraj Nambiar demonstrated a celebrated piece in Koodiyattam. The context is Bheema going in search of the enchanting flower, Kalyanasougandhikam. On his way, he is struck by the majesty of an elephant in the deep forest. Gigantic in proportion, its profile is perfect: magnificent head, great tusks, large ears, superlative trunk… Bheema enjoys the glory of a wild creature as much as the elephant enjoys its food, the luxuriant palmyra leaves. The performer continues with the description of how the perfect elephant enjoys water. And then as the elephant slumbers, a python attacks, trying to swallow its hind leg. Emotions range from doubt to fear; the drama of struggle caught in the jaws of death echoes in the valley. Worse comes to worst as a lion spies the scene from the top of the hill and attacks the kingly beast by clawing at its superb head. Caught between two powers, the drama in the jungle is a tragedy foretold. Unable to stand and see the sight, Bheema leaves the place. Without costume, without make up, the demo was simply fabulous for the inexperienced aspirants.

The workshop was a revelation of the treasure this ancient civilization has bequeathed to performing arts.  What marvels we have in our inheritance, ancient in origin, classical in dimension, inspirational to artists all over the world!

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com