Naayakaabhinaya in Classical Dance - 1

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Naayakaabhinaya in Classical Dance

Art scholars say that the two seemingly different modes of dance known as ‘maarga’ and ‘deshi’ are essentially the same. ‘Maarga’ is the realization of dance and ‘deshi’ is its application in practice. A well defined art, with a set of rules governing it is ‘shaastriya’, i.e., subscribed to a shaastra. (‘Shaastriya’ can be roughly translated as ‘classical’). It belongs to the heritage that was founded by Bharata and his predecessors such as Shilaali and Krshaashva. Nrtta (pure dance) is primarily based on rhythm patterns. Nrtya has a creative elaboration of emotions and has a blend of melody, rhythm and lyrics (raga-taala-saahitya) to support it. Nrtya is essentially a solo presentation, with four kinds of abhinaya, viz, saattvika, aangika, vaachika and aaharya.  It uses stylization (Naatya-dharmi) within the classical framework and loka-dharmi (realistic expression), that is not vulgar. Kaishiki and Saattvati vrttis are predominant in a solo nrtya presentation. The pravrttis might slightly vary in different styles according to regional tastes. Thus, nrtya is a gentle, yet intense form of presentation. Softness and grace take prominence over powerful movements. Moreover, elaboration of transitory emotions (sanchaari-bhaava) helps in reinforcing the primary emotion (sthaayi-bhaava).

Today, the word ‘nrtya’, although a narrower term, is used synonymously with chaturvidhaabhinaya (4 kinds of abhinaya). Thus, ‘abhinaya’ is understood to be filled with emotive content and predominantly saattvikaabhinaya. However, ‘nrtya’ is what is filled with Naatya-dharmi, is graceful and evokes rasa. Abhinaya that is predominantly aangika and follows a rhythmic pattern is nrtta. In the current context, we will use the term ‘nrtya’ synonymous to abhinaya filled with emotions. The word ‘abhinaya’ means to bring closer, intensely attract or have an exalted demeanour.

The etymology of the word ‘naayaka’ can be traced to ‘नी-कर्तरि’ resulting in the form ‘नाय’, which means ‘a leader’ or ‘a guide’. The addition of the pratyaya (a kind of suffix) ‘ण्वुल्’, giving the form ‘नायक’, which means ‘someone who leads/ guides’.

Thus, the current title relates to the classical dance of the maarga and its means of execution for evoking rasa.

The primary rasas that dominate these kinds of dance forms are shrngaara and veera, and even among the two, shrngaara has its sway. Haasya and Karuna are used to bolster sambhoga and vipralambha shrngaara respectively (love in union and love in separation). Unlike shrngaara, the elaboration of other rasas requires a wider canvas. It is also easy to portray the mental and physical states related to shrngaara using naatya-dharmi and to include different kinds of saattvikaabhinaya. Kaishiki vrtti that is fundamental to nrtya is one of the reasons for this, as can be seen in Sadir, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam and Odissi. Nrtya, that is filled with grace and gentleness (laasya) is associated with female. Thus, in dance forms such as Sadir, Odissi, Mohiniattam that are mainly practiced by women, mainly depict female characters. Although Kuchipudi had mainly male dancers in the past, they would put on female costumes and enact feminine roles filled with shrngaara. This tradition of men taking on roles of women exists even today. The Gotipuva tradition of Odissi too has young male dancers dressing as women and presenting abhinaya filled with shrngaara and bandha-nrtyas (group formations). Yakshagaana, Bhagavatamela, Chau, Chindu, Terukkuttu and Kathakali too have men dressing up as women, but they are essentially theatrical productions (naatya) and not solo presentations (nrtya). Originally, Kuchipudi too was a theatre art (naatya).

In the temple and royal court dance, deva-daasis and raja-nartakis used to employ themes based on shrngaara and involving female characters. In a society that had male dominance, it was essential to have women as dancers to impress the kings and to entertain them. In addition to this, the bhakti tradition that had its sway in the past, propagated that the ultimate relation between the paramaatman and jeevaatman (divine and mortal) can be realized through the relationship between husband and wife. This implied that the husband was a manifestation of the divine and the mere mortals (jeeva) were the women. As the portrayal of this kind of philosophy took predominance, female characters who offer themselves completely to their lords were depicted more often and this made dance all the more feminine. This pre-eminence of female themes not only took over dance, but also engulfed music and literature.  Moreover, right from historical times, Indian poets have been more interested in the depiction of female characters, delineating the emotions of heroines and such. Although these poets were men, they seem to have been less keen in depicting masculine characters in their literary works. In summary, women have taken pre-eminence in dance, except in uddhata-nrtyas (energetic movements). Men, who taught dance never performed on stage due to their reluctance in presenting abhinaya filled with kaishiki vrtti. (However, this was not true of the male teachers of Gotipuva and Kuchipudi). Those male teachers restricted themselves to teaching dance to their female students, choreography of abhinaya and to perform the nattuvangam for dance recitals. It would not be wrong to say that other than the reasons narrated before, dancers of those times had a wrong notion. The notion that laasya (graceful dance) was meant for women and taandava (energetic, powerful dance) was meant for men, although superficially seems to be true, turns out to be wrong on closer examination. The concept of Ardhanaareshvara is enough to prove that the notion is unfounded. Bharata too in his treatise Naatyashaastra, identifies laasya and taandava as sukumaara and uddhata types of dance and were not gender specific. Kalidasa and other master poets knew the concept well. Taandava is not something that only men should perform, but it is meant for the depiction of manliness. Similarly, laasya is not something that only women should perform. It is only meant for the depiction of feminineness. One can argue that it is natural for men to perform manly abhinaya and for women to perform feminine abhinaya, but when saying so, the difference between naatya-dharmi and loka-dharmi is confused. Currently, we are examining classical dance that is rich with naatya-dharmi. Naatya-dharmi is always suggestive, subtle and ‘uber-natural’ (‘aloukika’). By ‘uber-natural’, we mean that, what is depicted through naatya-dharmi is not necessarily limited to the world (loka), but can be much beyond the world. Thus, it can be lokottara, or exalted imitation. In lokadharmi, imitation (‘anukarana’) is important. The success of a theatrical production can be measured using close imitation of the world as a yardstick. Naatya-dharmi, however, is ‘anukeertana’, i.e., exalted imitation, which is stylized. There, naatya-dharmi is time tested and is connected to the classical heritage. Mere imitation (anukarana) loses its charm very quickly. This is because it depends on the ever-changing world; moreover, it cannot keep up the pace of the world and loses its competition with the world. In addition to this, even a little over-doing or under-doing in imitation will make it pointless. This never happens to ‘anukeertana’. Therefore, although naatya-dharmi takes time to appeal and is limited to a cultural context, it is more powerful and long lasting than loka-dharmi (The audience needs to put in more effort to understand naatya-dharmi).  This is of special significance in classical arts. Exalted imitation in nrtya can be achieved through saattvika-vaachika-aangika and to a small extent through aaharya. It is true that differences exist between a male and female dancer in their physical and mental abilities, but one putting on the roles of other gender is possible too. This is also linked to the difference between naatya-dharmi and loka-dharmi. In summary, laasya and taandava are not the assets of female and male dancers, respectively; they only represent male and female characters.

Adapted from the original Kannada by Arjun Bharadwaj




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

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