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Abhinaya - A Dying Art Form?

Ranjani Saigal

Watching Mythili Prakash on Superstars of Dance, I was a little disappointed that she chose to focus solely on Nritta.  This seems to becoming a trend in modern times as artists often feel that Abhinaya or story-telling is something that no one in the audience, especially in the American audience gets and hence focus should be on pure dance pieces.  

For anyone who recently witnessed the Dhananjayans perform under the auspices of Manitha Neeyam in the Boston area where the audience was simply held spellbound by the Abhinaya part of the presentation it was clear that Abhinaya when done well is at the core of Indian classical dance and has the ability to really touch the audience .  While Nritta is important it is Abhinaya that serves as the differentiator from the western dance forms.  The legendary Balasaraswathi made a name for herself and Bharatanatyam in the west because she was able to bring out and shine a bright light on that aspect of dance.

So why is Abhinaya getting a step motherly treatment by modern day artists? I suspect it is because when Abhinaya is done poorly it is indeed extremely boring, while Nritta, even the poorly executed ones, can be entertaining to some extent. 

To do Abhinaya well, the  artist requires to gain an in-depth understanding of Indian classical literature.  Such knowledge unfortunately cannot be got by reading web translations of the lyrics of a song or by reading Amar Chitra Katha stories alone.  It requires reading of multiple pieces of literature referencing the same tale  and an understanding of the core issues addressed in those works.

In the ancient time scholarly Story-Tellers were very popular and were able to effectively convey the intent of many a tales. Opportunities  to interact with Pandits are not as easily available today as they were in the past. For those who have had the honor of listening to story-tellers like Kripananda Variyar, we know what value such masters bring to the tale.   Shri Dhananjayan tells about the long hours he spends with different experts to understand the various hues of each tale that help him bring out the correct shade of meaning and has the ability to draw the audience into his performance.

The question on the mind of many artists- is it worth putting the time to really understand the stories, risk doing Abhinaya pieces that may not be appreciated by the audience? I think it is not only worth it but essential for the classical dance without Abhinaya is like Shiva without Shakti – a dance without its soul.

I hope as many talented young men and women in America are taking to the arts and making fine presentations they will also be encouraged to look at music and dance not as a bunch of notes and beats but are able to understand the thoughts that are presented in these pieces.As a side effect of learning the stories in depth the artists will find that they get elevated to another level in their personal life and after all isn’t that the true purpose of art?

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