Point of View

The Dynamic of the Abhinaya

Bharatanatyam exponent, Bragha Bessell reflects on all things Abhinaya, how she learnt it from her guru, and how Abhinaya is also a constant work-in-progress

Let me start with Abhinaya, the art of expression. Let me reflect upon how it was taught to me and how it is taught in the world today.

Most of the time, I try to follow the method in which Bharatanatyam exponent, Kalanidhi Narayanan – Maami, as we would call her – taught us. She’d first have us explore the lyrics and its meaning and then move to understanding the character and the choreography thereafter. Having said that, sometimes some small adjustments need to be made.

Maami always taught classes, one-to-one. When I was invited to teach at the Kalakshetra, I had to teach to a group of students, together. This meant that I had to re-envisage the methodology a little to be able to reach more students within a short span of time.

The style of teaching a private class, one-to-one, needless to say, is more intense, immersive and personal. For a group class, the approach needs to be quite different. Time is also a factor and the possibility to monitor progress and performance is also often not the same.

Having said that, I must add that we all must understand that the arts cannot be static. It cannot stand still. Society keeps changing all the time and the arts is a direct reflection of the society that we live in. So, change is the only constant. Over the years, there are many new innovative ideas that have come our way. We see so many collaborative works of art, and so many new dance styles, themed productions, research subjects, et al.

What has also changed is the time and the luxury of time. Back in the day, we’d take a month or more to learn an item. Through the year, we would have only two or three individual programmes and a few group performances for our gurus in a whole year. This allowed us time to soak in learning, understanding, practising and absorbing the pieces that we learnt before we took them to stage.

Today, youngsters have many more opportunities as far as performances are concerned and as a result, the process of learning has had to undergo a shift. They have had to speeded up the overall learning process which in many ways can hamper and reduce the time spent on learning and understanding items. There’s also little time for reflection and introspection, both of which are crucial.

What is also important is to repeat and keep returning to pieces that one has learnt; in fact, I’d say that only by the art of repetition does one comprehend and discover the depth of each and every piece. There are a few items that I have been performing over the last four decades or so and every time I perform them, I’d say my response to it is different. You refine it until you capture its essence; and once you have tasted that essence, you want to keep striving to capture it in all its glory.

Having said that, and having established that change is the only constant, I’d also like to say that the art of Abhinay is constantly a work-in-progress and one that reflects the times that we live in. For instance, a 40-year-old dancer should not dance the way a 20-year-old does or can. Her performance should be a reflection of what and who she is now; it should be a reflection of her experiences.

With the artiste evolving, so does the audience. Thanks to social media and its powerful presence and permeation into our lives, audiences have also evolved a great deal and are well-informed so it’s crucial for artistes also to constantly think of ways to be able to connect with them.

After all, the artiste and the audience go hand-in-hand. One hand cannot clap without the other. Similarly, an artist cannot perform without an audience. The main purpose of arts is Rasa.

Whatever changes we face in the world, it’s important they do not disturb the aesthetic beauty of the art form nor the values that our gurus nurtured in us.

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Devata: Guardians of Dance

BLK D Goodman Arts Centre

#01-24 90 Goodman Road Singapore 439053