Have you seen someone lost in thought, perhaps a fellow passenger sitting across in a bus or a train, with their gaze absentmindedly glued to a random spot in space? Why and how does that purposeless gaze choose to fix so intently upon a random spot? Is that spot random, or does the exactitude of its angle and distance, and likewise, the focus, aperture, and texture of the glance perfectly match and perhaps even betray some subjective condition? Normatively, we have all learned to render such revealing modes of seeing opaque. It is not that we do not see, we do, but we don’t allow what we see to be transparently revealed through the glaze of the reflecting eye. It is the reflexivity of the eye that we police. Each culture conditions the eye to become unreflective in its way. However, within the subcontinent, we also have a poetic mode to counter this imposed condition of opacity and allow the reinstating of the reflective eye, and that is the art of abhinaya (the emotive art).
Abhinaya in Indian dance, particularly the solo variety like Kathak and Bharatanatyam, cannot be confused with the abhinaya as it is employed in theatre or even dance-drama. A padam or a thumri neither warrants acting nor communication; in fact, these amorous songs exist to give a voice to that what cannot be communicated or perhaps even be bridged. And they necessarily include the body in the voicing. A thumri or a padam expresses itself not only through the voice but equally the excesses of the body, the ada, or the haav-bhava that may accompany the singing. And these excesses can neither be termed as acting nor be called communication. In the amorous song, the body exceeds the word to reflectively divulge that the word is incapable of communicating. Thus, to burden the song with the correctness of word and meaning is to miss the plot.
Abhinaya of such songs does not fall into the action-reaction variety of drama that dominates real life. Rather, it seeks to leisurely halt and elasticize that middle space between cause and effect both temporally and spatially. In natya or drama for instance, if someone hits me, I would be required to react, hit back, sulk or cower, but in nrithya (or abhinaya in other words) I hold my impulse to react and instead become the moment. And then proceed to elasticize this in-between moment between action and reaction, where I open, explore, and elaborate the various shades of my subjective experience, be it pain, anger, shame, or any other emotion that I choose to invite and inhabit. And in doing so I am opening up to the possibility of something extraordinary, something deeply subjective which in its final analysis could be potentially sublime. And that to my mind is the promise of abhinaya. Not to tell a story or depict, portray a character or characters, but to just be, to elasticize the existence of being, feeling, subjecting, to “see”. And allowing that what I am seen seeing, in turn, to reflect and reveal me. Because I can become “seen” only indirectly. Thus, the eye in abhinaya becomes a seeing/reflecting eye. And not a showing/telling eye!
I have often wondered how abhinaya can be taught because the condition and the need for abhinaya are already there, it is a pre-existent condition. We as humans are self-reflexive, and it is precisely this self-reflexivity that forms the basis of abhinaya. Abhinaya allows me the opportunity to see-inwardly in a manner that is divested of any ambition, compunction, interest, or eagerness to show. In such abhinaya, like yoga, the component of vairagya or disinterest is operative. As a dancer, I feel my job is to strike an uninterrupted correspondence between the object that I attend upon and my subjectivity. However, it is also important to note that the eye can become reflective only if and when it sees unguardedly, i.e. with the autonomy to see and free-associate at will and also allow that what I see to transparently reflect and reveal my insides. Bhava gets revealed, rather reflected, not through what I attempt to show but what and how I am “caught” seeing. If at all, the pedagogy of abhinaya needs to become a practice in unguarded seeing.