Articles and Interviews

Abhinaya: Body/Mind Expression

I moved to Chennai and joined the Kalakshetra to study Bharatanatyam and the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram to study yoga within a week of each other back in the summer of 1980. Even though the two seem complimentary as they are both physical disciplines, for a rather long time I experienced considerable conflict between the two as one was “extroverted” and the other “introverted.” I often felt as though I was living within two extremes in my body. My yoga practice became very deep and absorbing almost from the very beginning but it took me over a decade to feel that sense of visceral absorption in dance. While in training, literally every day, the repose and quiet that I built within me through yoga practice would be destroyed by the relentless physicality of dance training in pursuit of perfect technique. It was actually much later when I started to make my own work that I discovered that like breath works as an absorbing agent in yoga, the absorbing factor in dance was music. It is only from then on that I began to experience a degree of absorption in dance as I did in yoga.  

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali categorically places pranayama not second to but as a primary substitute to Isvara Pranidhana (or surrender to Iswara, deity, God, Higher Power) in order to effectively achieve the goal of yoga. Thus pranayama ranks very high in the order of things concerning yoga.  Sutra 2.50 lists the salient features of pranayama as “bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah,” this essentially delineates that pranayama is a practice of making the breath fine, elastic, still, a mindful medium of self-awareness, and it also allocates its awareness to a precise point in the body, thereby attributing something as subtle as the breath some tangibility. It is this precise location of the breath, or the desa (literally country) of the breath in the body that I will be focusing on in this paper and co-relating it to the practice of abhinaya. I propose that both yoga and dance require an awareness of a cardinal point or desa of reference within the body in order to sustain precision, direction, consistency, continuity, tenacity and clarity of expression. This is not unlike a singer who must locate and maintain a correct swarasthana and stay constantly faithful to the precise location in the throat to maintain sruti or the perfect pitch, likewise the dancer too must express from a tenaciously held point within the body in order to retain the sthai bhava.

Music, i.e. vocalisation, would be a natural medium to bring about this connection between breath and emotive expression, but perhaps it may be a special kind of singing the definition of which lies beyond the purview of this paper: a vocalization in which the main thrust is to somehow tenaciously wed the singing-breath to the body even if it defies the tenets of conventional singing. I am here reminded of the style of padam singing of the Tanjore bani; I am no expert in music to make any informed comments but I keep remembering what my teacher and mentor Anandi Ramachandran once told me as she recalled the dance of Balasaraswati, she said that Bala’s felicity in abhinaya lay in their distinct if not idiosyncratic style of singing, all she needed to do was sing and the abhinaya would simply flow as though it was a natural extension of their music. Thus, they had devised a system of singing that naturally lent itself to embodiment in dance. But considering that today most dancers are not singers, some may even be singers but few would have tapped into their capacities to embody it, we need to devise our own method of locating a reference point or a desa in our bodies that would help embody what we imagine, feel and express in abhinaya. Through my practice and experiments with yoga and dance, I discover that a mindful-practice of asana practice with throat breathing, namely ujjayi pranayama, offers one very effective method. The very act of a dynamic asana practice with a one pointed focus on the desa of the breath in the throat makes the practice mindful, aware and most importantly embodied with the energy and vibration of the practice.   

Technically, the poetic dialogue of abhinaya is specific and transpires between two very specific points, the dancer-subject and the vibhava-object, vibhava being the evocative mental-image that the dancer conjures and establishes as an imagined reciprocating entity which elicits abhinaya or expression out of the dancer. Say if the theme was sringara, i.e. the amorous sentiment, then a Krishna or more precisely a “Krishnaness” could become the vibhava that elicits sringara or love out of the subject/dancer. Vibhava thus is an embodiment of the emotion at play! But considering that the vibhava is none other than a mental image that is projected out of the dancer, it is then required that it remains connected to the dancer while at the same time maintains a separate entity for the sake of effective abhinaya. Thus the dancer-subject gives birth to the vibhava through the mind’s eye and infuses life into it with his/her own breath-energy or prana and with the same energy must keep it at bay, in the place of an objective other.  And this dual act requires considerable tenacity of energy, which is essentially breath energy. For abhinaya to transpire effectively it is important that a) the vibhava remains constant and not fickle in its definition and b) the flow of the tenacious connecting/separating energy remain strong, continuous and elastic. The elasticity of this energy is very important so that it can both fluidly counter as well as ride the flux of these two opposing forces.

This elasticity of energy actually closely mirrors the elasticity of a well practiced breath, in fact it is the same thing. The well practiced pranayama-breath has an inbuilt elasticity and can contract and extend almost naturally but at will. This elasticity supports abhinaya as well where the breath may rise high in the chest and become suspended as the imagined Krishna-vibhava draws near making the dancer’s body taut with heightened anticipation, or when the breath falls deep into the pit of the stomach and becomes a long and weary sigh when that same Krishna-vibhava has gone too far away leaving the dancers body heavy, listless and limp. One does not need to press home the point that abhinaya and breath are intertwined. But what needs to be highlighted is that a) abhinaya can very well be understood as a sheer articulation and frequency of breath alone, and b) like the breath the projection of expression in abhinaya also comes from a precise and constant point in the body of the dancer. The object and subject entities may seem to be fluid, i.e. Krishna may seem like a general sense of Krishnaness and the condition of the dancer may be an amorphous conglomerate of his/her subjectivity, but within these seemingly ill-defined dialectically opposed entities lie very precise cardinal points which respectively hold their tension from the inside and at the same time maintain the tenacious, elastic connection between the two.  The cardinal point or the desa within the dancer’s body determines the self-withholding desa in the corresponding, imagined vibhava.  

Asana and pranayama can serve as a good practice for bringing awareness to the cardinal point(s) within the body of the dancer. There are many methods of pranayama, but the ujjayi pranayama that is most commonly practiced in the Krishnamacharya tradition, locates the primary desa of awareness in the throat. The technique requires a constriction in the throat which causes a friction in the larynx as the breath moves in and out. The friction creates an awareness of a very precise point in the throat; it also produces a sound and a vibration in the larynx. The added technique of jalandhara banda or a throat-lock can further push this vibrating larynx against the cervical spine very much like the vibrating string of a veena or a string instrument is pressed against a fret. And this vibrating fret can in turn transfer the vibration up and down the spine which has already been well aligned and articulated through asana practice. This technique is not only unique to yoga but shared by all types of liturgical chanting traditions across cultures, be in Vedic, Buddhist, Islamic or Gregorian. The underlying idea is to first make the well stacked spine into a good conductor of breath/sound vibration and thereby make the body of the chanter or pranayama practitioner the primary recipient of the vibrations being produced. The body thus not only produces sound, vibration, articulation, expression, it also becomes a receiving body, a listening body, an embodied body!

To conclude I would like to say that abhinaya is not to be confused with the act of showing-and-telling; it is not an art of histrionics alone, it is an art of complete absorption or embodiment. In times when we do not have the luxury of specialized music to absorb us into our dance, the practice of asana and pranayama could offer us a method of realizing and rehearsing embodiment which we could then transfer to our dancing. Of course, this would also require a fertile imagination that can envision, establish and entertain a well rounded and self-willed vibhava. In sutra 1.20, Patanjali mentions three very key aspects or rather commitments essential for absorption in a desired object of attention, he mentions sraddha, virya and smriti. Sraddha is faith or a devoted commitment to the object of our intention and attention, virya is a commitment to maintaining alertness, vitality and tenacity, and smriti is a commitment to remembering, revising, revisioning this object. Abhinaya thus requires a ready and resonant body along with a vibhava that has been brought to life with the dancer’s faith, tenacity and awareness, making abhinaya a fulsome play of both body and mind!  
(Published in the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan’s Magazine, 2011: “Swar Bharti")