Spontaneously innovative abhinaya, Balasaraswati’s forte, is a fading art today and something that is only superficially understood
When it comes to abhinaya, one can never forget T. Balasaraswati. While it is undeniable that she was a crucial link to the past by way of her illustrious lineage, representing seven generations of hereditary performers, she also had the extraordinary ability to floor audiences through her extempore abhinaya. One recalls American ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown’s words, “Balasaraswati performed the same piece 15 times during a concert tour, yet rendered each version anew by deploying a wide range of references and poetic tropes in improvised sections.”
Balamma, as she was affectionately called, emphasised improvisation in abhinaya because she believed that ‘composing’ dance for narrative sections was not in vogue among the dancers of her generation. This forms the foundation of the Bala Bani, which is being taken forward by Balamma’s grandson, Aniruddha Knight.
The vocalists who accompany Aniruddha sing ‘Thiruvotriyur Thyagarajan’, the Atana padam, which is a crown jewel in the Dhanammal family heirloom. There are no rehearsals with the co-artistes when it comes to these expressive pieces; even the kalapramanam or speed is not discussed beforehand. The musicians perceive the pace when Aniruddha begins singing the song and from the indicative stamping of the feet, accompanied by the clanking of the anklets. The dancer determines the speed and the overall flow of the composition through his intimate compatibility with the musicians. The musicians are not told how many times each line needs to be sung; Aniruddha subtly indicates, through his singing and head movements, when the orchestra may progress to the next line. This makes ‘choreography’ a moot word in the lexicon of the Bala Bani’s abhinaya aspect. It also leaves no room for dancing to recorded music, a live musical ensemble becoming core to this style, thus accomplishing a performative effect through parity and mutual respect between dancer and musicians.
Bala’s teaching methods
Although Balamma taught abhinaya, her students attest that the content of the lessons varied from student to student. She would come up with new ways to perform a song in each session. Abhinaya was a deeply personalised presentation, and Bala believed it was an important tool to exhibit the dancer’s creativity and command. However, across the ages, Bharatanatyam became increasingly institutionalised, leading to manodharma abhinaya largely becoming a fading aesthetic.
Veteran dancer-choreographer Sudharani Raghupathy recollects her long association with Balamma, which began in 1952. “Her manodharma in abhinaya was unequalled. Her prowess was the result of her experience and scholarship as well as mastery over the grammar of Bharatanatyam. I am intensely influenced by her approach to abhinaya. I had several discussions with Balamma on how I could tackle a particular padam or varnam.”
Aniruddha says, “Abhinaya is not something that can be entirely pre-decided or rehearsed. Since the conveying of emotions is the salient purpose of abhinaya, it definitely is not possible for me to put my emotions in a box. How my grandmother and mother [Lakshmi Knight] would perform a particular composition on a day depended on their mindset and orientation at that moment.”
True to their vision, even today Aniruddha does not perform a particular expressive number the same way in any two concerts. Although the style is bountiful when it comes to repertoire (with a rich supply of hundreds of musical treasures mostly handed down generation to generation), manodharma abhinaya lends perpetual relevance to the Bala Bani.
Is it possible for sancharis to emerge spontaneously on stage, in sync with the music and the rhythm? The dancer uses a basket of appropriate expressions and gestures to convey what is necessary for a song. It is similar perhaps to the stringing of words by a poet to create a poem — the words are known already but the poem is written afresh. As Aniruddha explains, it then becomes necessary for the dancers to educate themselves not just in the religious texts, but also to absorb and internalise the subtleties from diverse dance styles and artistes, various genres of music, and from painting, architecture and art. “After all,” he says, “exposure to the world determines one’s thinking. Intelligent abhinaya is a result of the ability to perceive and reproduce — it certainly should help someone step outside their comfort zone.”
Says dancer Anita Ratnam, “I once saw Bala perform abhinaya for the first line of Papanasam Sivan’s Varali kriti, ‘Kaa Vaa Vaa’, for 40 minutes in a lecture demonstration at The Music Academy.” Balasaraswati’s style, says Anita, is a challenging one that demands meditative surrender from the dancer.
Rasikas who have seen Bala perform live often speak of how the music was visual and the dance aural in her performances. In this style, the dancer either sings in parts or in full when performing compositions like padams. Needless to say, singing while dancing is another striking feature that has largely become extinct in Bharatanatyam performances. As Anita says, “Manodharma abhinaya performed by the Bala school shines because it brings out the dancer’s natural sense of musicality and rhythm. The emotion behind a piece triggers the impulse as opposed to the lyrics alone.”
Learning and executing abhinaya, says Aniruddha, is a lifelong process and can only come from absorption and assimilation. He learnt this from his guru and mother Lakshmi. The intent behind each nuance becomes more pronounced as one grows as a dancer. Knight had this transformative experience late in life — particular expressions that came to him as he performed a piece. He says he could not have realised some of these as a student. The art unfurls itself to the seeker gradually and in the most uncanny ways.
Sudharani says, “Guru K.P. Kittappa Pillai would challenge me by giving me one line from a varnam on Brihadeeshwara and asking me to dance what came to my mind. Over the years, I had to read up on the Shiva Purana and several other texts to come up with refreshing interpretations.”
Every tradition needs worthy torchbearers to be propelled into the future. A very demanding style like Balasaraswati’s requires patience, perseverance and introspection. Aniruddha is passing on the centuries-old legacy he has inherited to the next set of learners through the Balasaraswati Institute of Performing Arts, where students are not only taught dance but also the unique dance music that is intrinsic to this style.
A majority of Aniruddha’s students are from unconventional social backgrounds with limited access and exposure to the classical arts, but they inherit the rich artistic values of the Dhanammal lineage.
The writer is a rasika of classical music and dance and also plays the veena.