Abhinaya: a practice of unguarded seeing
By Navtej Johar

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.

However, abhinaya has come to be understood and taught as an art-of-projection and been converted into a highly guarded and culturally policed high-art. The practice of abhinaya today seems ignorant of introspection. It is vacant. Its pedagogy neither facilitates unselfconscious seeing, it seems too afraid of it, nor offers any license to dare the conditioning of opacity. Only when I (un)learn, allow, and gain the license to let my eye become transparent, does abhinaya becomes a possibility. Abhinaya does not entail doing; rather, it entails allowing and making it possible. I want to emphatically reiterate that abhinaya is not done, it is made to happen. It is only a means to traverse the fragile realm of possibilities. I cannot “do” possibilities, I can only hope, trust, and allow them. I can only approach the realm of possibilities with tenacious-tentatively as there are no sureties in this realm, and yet the promise and lure of possibilities are both so rife and beaconing.

According to Patanjali, “I become what I see”; Nandikeshwara too implies the same in his yato hasto tato drishti sloka.  Conversely, whatever catches my eye, or the random spot in thin air where my eye chooses to absent-mindedly hang already bears a correspondence in my being. What I “see” is neither random nor accidental because it offers a perfect match to my subjective condition. And this leads to a quandary: do I become what I see or am I already that what I have chosen to randomly see? And for me, abhinaya seamlessly rides, nay glides, between the realms of interiority and exteriority, to recognize this mobius continuity between my inside and the outside. And there is such immense repose and resolve in that.

Just like pranayama is called mindful breathing, or in other words, breath laden with attention, abhinaya could be called mindful-seeing/reflecting. In conventional training in Kathakali and Kuttiattam, a lot of emphases are placed on breathing through the eyes. The art requires a kind of breath-dexterity with which the eye can tenaciously glide in space, from one “loaded” spot to another within a constellation of points in thin-air which perfect map the shifts of my inner conditions. It requires a continuous calibration within the inside and the outside without even the slightest bit of eagerness to show, tell, or communicate. To call abhinaya communication is to grossly reduce it, to miss it. Because abhinaya is not a meaning-making device, just as haiku is not about communication or making meaning. It is first and foremost an extension of subjectivity. It is self-invested. And it is simple; however, that simplicity has to be learned by shedding not only many an inhibition but equally, ideas about abhinaya.

Lastly, the delight and power of abhinaya does not lie only in what I see and let-be-seen, but also in how my gaze glides from one point to the other, much like how a musician glides from one note to the other, still dragging the former note, tenaciously pulling, stretching and tempering it to bridge the elastic gap between the former and the latter notes. In abhinaya too, the gaze moves exactly in the same gluey manner from one imagined object or point to the other, transparently revealing not only what it sees, but also the choices and turns-of-heart in the subject vis-à-vis imagined objects. And it is this growing delight and absorption in the gluey-play between seeing and reflecting that eventually makes me unmindful of conditions of normativity that make me guarded and opt for opacity over transparency. Abhinaya pedagogy thus must offer delight in tenacious and more importantly, unselfconscious gliding from one random point or fictitious object to the other, striking an absorptive correspondence between my inside and outside through the practice of twined gaze, breath, and attention. And it is distinctively cognitive of the beauty and power of subjectivity and the infinite comfort and spaciousness of interiority.

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