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A consummate experience in abhinaya with Guru Bragha Bessell
- Maya Krishnamurty

May 28, 2023

Abhinaya is not just about experiencing feelings, but expressing them aesthetically, as a dancer, within the frame of one's art form and character. It is about how we use the interconnectedness of the body, mind, and character to interpret and carry the story through to the audience.

A first-timer at one of Guru Bragha Bessell's much awaited abhinaya workshops, organised by NADAM in Bangalore from May 13 -16, I was awe-struck by how much could be illustrated about a character, merely with a shrug, a pursing of the lips, the slightest change in demeanour, as every line of Bessell's body and face shone bright and effulgent, living the character and making us, the prekshakas, feel the depth and complexity. I use the word prekshaka here because I often forgot that I was there to learn two abhinaya pieces in four days, and would just look on, enraptured by Bessell, whose involvement would pull us deeper and inextricably into a story that we became very much a part of.

Guru Bragha Bessell's abhinaya workshop

And just like that, we would get carried away by our feelings and the strength of the character enacted by Bessell. A tradition in annual workshops that was started in 2009 by NADAM - Narthan Academy of Dance and Music - Bangalore founded by Nandini K Mehta and Murali Mohan, Bragha Bessell's abhinaya workshops are a much anticipated event among the classical dance fraternity of Bangalore. As we stride into a post-pandemic arts era, we all remain cognizant of the effect that the Covid-19 lockdowns had on our arts and how we are slowly embracing normalcy again. This was the second in a series of two in-studio workshops this year organized by NADAM, after a break of three long years. The first workshop was also held in Bangalore, across three sessions at Ananya, Malleswaram, from April 21-24 with over 100 registrations.

In line with this format, this workshop also spanned three sessions, i.e., with one junior and two senior sessions over four days, this time at NADAM in South Bangalore. In total, there were over 75 participants across the day, with dancers from Chicago, Bangalore, Mysore, Kolhapur, Belgaum, Karnataka and Chennai, all coming to partake of this cherished learning experience. In the first session, Bessell taught the participants an abhinaya based on a shloka from the Sri Krishnakarnamrutam composed by 13th century Sanskrit poet Bilvamangala - Ramo nama babhuva, the endearing story of mother Yashoda putting a reluctant and tiresome baby Krishna to sleep by narrating to him, the epic Ramayana, set to Ragamalika. The second session was a Tamizh padam, Unnai thoodhu anuppinen, a composition of Ganam Krishna Iyer, set to ragam Saveri and adi talam, an arresting portrayal of a Vipralabdha Nayika affronted by the betrayal of her confidante (Sakhi droham) and her Nayaka. In the evening, the participants learnt the beautiful ashtapadi Sakhi he keshi mathanamudaram from 12th century saint poet Jayadeva's Geeta Govinda, set to ragam Shudha Sarang and mishra chapu talam.

In Ramo nama babhuva, as the dance weaved in and out of snippets of the main events of the Ramayana - the greatness of Prince Rama; the majesty of Princess Sita; the joy of their marriage; the heart-break of their exile into the dense and threatening Panchavati forest at the words of King Dasharatha and wishes of Queen Kaikeyi - nowhere did the dancer-narrator-mother Yashoda lose thread of the fact that she was narrating this tale to her mischievous little baby Krishna, who refused to go to sleep. The climax of this beautiful abhinaya incidentally occurs just after the dancer conveys to the audience and Krishna that despite all their hardships, Rama and Sita built a beautiful world for themselves in the forest. But one day, as fate would have it, Sita was abducted by Ravana. This was the turning point of the abhinaya. The moment Ravana lifted the land from under Sita and carried her away, it seemed baby Krishna transcended into a different world, jumping out of his cradle frantically, reliving his previous birth, "roaring" to Lakshmana, "Saumitre, Kva Dhanu... Dhanu... Dhanu...?", "Oh son of Sumitra, where is my bow?" He must save his Sita - and mother Yashoda's reaction to this!

Dear Guru Bragha, we, your students at the workshop, feel so blessed to have witnessed your portrayal of mother Yashoda as she reassures Krishna, calming him down, "You are not Rama, dearest. You are my baby Krishna." If we could relive that moment, we would do so a million times over, for an experience that touched our lives forever.

Guru Bragha Bessell's abhinaya workshop

The deep and complex undercurrent of emotions that the dancers explored through Unnai thoodhu anuppinen and Sakhi he require years of nuanced training and mastery, and we got glimpses of the nuance and understanding required of us, as Bragha Bessell illustrated to us the varied colours of creative expression, using our body as a medium to express an ocean of emotions underlying beautifully complex, delicate, yet strong female characters. In what I jokingly called a "reverse Yahi Madhava," the Nayika in Unnai thoodhu anuppinen gradually confronts her emotions, from eagerly waiting for her beloved Subrahmanya to come and respond to her heartfelt message of love, to being thoroughly perplexed at the arrival of a dishevelled (and disloyal) friend and messenger who was supposed to bring him to her. From displaying her genuine anxiety at the thought of a calamitous event at the haggard appearance of her friend to the steady realisation of betrayal in love and in trust - The despair, angst, anger, torment, all in one, the dancer in me wondered how I could feel and express all these at once within the aesthetics of dance. So also was the case with Sakhi he where the recollection of the first union with her Nayaka brings out within the Nayika feelings of love, maturity, coyness, eagerness, as one deeply devoted in love may feel, yet, with poise and dignity.

On the final day, Guru Sheela Chandrashekhar came and gave the participants her encouragement and blessings, and the workshop drew to a close, with interactions with Guru Bragha and host and organizer Nandini K. Mehta. Four days flew by as Guru Bragha Bessell wove her magic on us. Her classes in abhinaya, interpretation, and expressing emotions were a transformative experience for the senior dancers, teachers, and students who attended the workshop. We were an eclectic group of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and Odissi dancers, all working in tandem towards learning the beautiful teachings that Guru Bragha was passing on to us. Art and abhinaya hath no barriers, and workshops and experiences like this with teachers like Bragha Bessell are the pillars that guide us on our long and beautiful journey in Art.

Maya Krishnamurty
Maya Krishnamurty is a trained Odissi dancer and a freelance verbal trainer and language editor based in Bangalore. Maya holds a post-graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication from Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai and has been learning Odissi for over a decade.

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