Asian Music and Dance

The Queen Mother of Abhinaya – Kalanidhi Narayanan

On 21 February 2016, Indian classical dance lost one of its best-loved teachers, Padma Bhushan Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan ‒ ‘Queen Mother of Abhinaya’. She is remembered here by her student Annapurna Kuppuswamy.

Kalanidhi Narayanan was one of the finest exponents of abhinaya, the unique defining feature of Indian classical dances, and the first to teach it systematically.

Abhinaya literally means ‘to carry towards’ the audience the meaning of the dance. Therefore every technique employed by an artist to convey meaning is abhinaya.

“…every technique employed by an artist to convey meaning is abhinaya.

In the Natya Shastra, the ancient Indian text of arts and drama, abhinaya is classified into four types: angika abhinaya, in which the body is used to convey meaning, such as with hand gestures; vachika abhinaya, meaning conveyed by the spoken word; aharya abhinaya, embellishments and ornamentation such as props and jewellery; and satvika abhinaya, emotions that convey meaning. Angika and satvika abhinaya both play a major role in dance with satvika abhinaya being by far the most difficult to master and one that is unique to Indian dances. Mami (as Kalanidhi Narayanan was known to all her students the world over) was an expert in satvika abhinaya, and she made it possible to learn satvika abhinaya which, until then, was seen more as an innate talent rather than a skill to be acquired. 

“…she made it possible to learn satvika abhinaya which, until then, was seen more as an innate talent rather than a skill to be acquired.”

Mami was trained in bharatanatyam in Chennai, India, in the early twentieth century, breaking all social norms of the time. Dance was then only practised by devadasis (ladies who resided in temples, wedded to the gods), and it was unheard of for one born into a respectable Brahmin family to be trained in dancing. However, Mami’s mother, Sumitra Ganapathy, was captivated by the art and made sure her daughter received the best training available. Mami trained under the last devadasi, Mylapore Gauri Ammal, with nattuvanar (cymbal-player and arguably leader of a bharatanatyam orchestra) Kannappa Pillai and with Chinayya Naidu. She performed in the 1930s and 1940s for various charitable causes and her dancing, especially her abhinaya, captured the imagination of her audiences. However, her career came to an abrupt end when she married and gave up dancing entirely. 

Her abhinaya left an indelible mark on one particular art connoisseur, Mr Y.G. Doraiswamy, who, thirty years after having watched her dance, approached Mami to try to persuade her to return to dancing, this time to train dancers in abhinaya. In 1973, after having been an exile from dance for thirty years, Mami made her comeback as a teacher of abhinaya, with her first student the renowned bharatanatyam dancer, Alarmel Valli. Mami developed her own unique method of teaching, strongly grounded in analytical methods which at that time was groundbreaking and to this day is applauded as the standard in abhinaya teaching. 

“…after having been an exile from dance for thirty years, Mami made her comeback as a teacher of abhinaya…”

I had the privilege of training with Mami and observing her at close quarters for nearly three decades. Mami recognised that abhinaya is the soul of Indian classical dance and that it is fundamentally different from nritta (rhythm-based steps), therefore training in abhinaya must be fundamentally different from training in nritta. The sole purpose of Indian classical dance is to help both dancer and audience transcend and connect at a level not easily captured by the spoken word. To achieve personal transcendence is one thing, but to be able to take your audience on that journey is another thing entirely. Mami recognised satvika abhinaya as the best route to achieving this primary goal of classical Indian dance. Therefore all her teaching methods revolved around developing this mastery. 

Mami’s teaching was goal-driven and it was not necessary for every student to reproduce exactly what she taught, which is normally expected while learning nritta. She developed a method that at first seemed baffling, as she was fiercely opposed to ‘one-size-fits-all’ and insisted on individualising her teaching, but the method becomes clear when one understands that there is more than one way of achieving the same end. However, there were some basic principles that she recognised as being paramount. 

“…if one is able to draw the audience with one’s facial expressions, all else fades into insignificance.”

The face is the primary tool of satvika abhinaya: if one is able to draw the audience with one’s facial expressions, all else fades into insignificance. Mami mostly performed sitting down with minimal use of hands and yet the audiences were rapt. Mami also insisted that before we start to learn an expressive piece, it is not sufficient just to understand the literal meaning of the lyrics but to analyse and understand all shades of meanings implied by the poet. Mami also had an uncanny ability to pick poetry that provided immense scope for elaboration and imagination. Her classes generally involved long discussions of the poetry itself and sometimes no dancing at all. But such long discussions gave us a head start when we learned: by immersing oneself in the poetry, it only took a bit more effort to express the poetry using facial expressions. Another key feature of Mami’s technique was to drum into her students the importance of sthayi bhava or the foundation emotion. Most poetry requires the portrayal of several expressions; however, it is generally over and above an undercurrent expression. This was crucial to any piece as the undercurrent must be strong to emotionally ground an expressive piece. 

“…classes involved long discussions of the poetry itself and sometimes no dancing at all.”

To take the example of a popular padam (musical composition) by the poet and composer Kshetrayya, yetuvanti vade vadu, we see that the first line is relatively straightforward: it literally translates as ‘what sort of a person is he?’ Examining this line on its own, it is almost impossible to determine what the sthayi bhava is – it could have been uttered in anger, curiosity, jealousy or several other moods. The rest of the song provides clues: here the nayika (heroine) is a young girl who is already infatuated with Krishna, the protagonist of the piece, and full well knows he is an amazing guy. Now, with this in mind, when one reads the first line, we are immediately able to discern the sthayi bhava, which is shringara (love). Often, sthayi bhava is a mixture of two or more emotions and here the heroine is extremely joyous at the prospect of meeting Krishna and is in love. Understanding the poetry in its entirety also provides several ideas for sancharis (elaborations). I have seen Mami express this particular line in more than fifteen different ways! For lines such as these that are framed in terms of questions, a rule Mami followed was to try to answer the question, yet maintain the question in the line which will then allow for elaborations: 

Yetuvanti vade vadu? ‒ What sort of a person is he? 

Is he a very brave person? I heard he defeated the ten-headed serpent, kalingan!

Is he a rich person? He wears fine clothes I heard. 

I heard he is a charmer, all the ladies make a beeline for him! 

Mami had several such ideas about how one could elaborate a line. When one hears Mami speak about these, it appears straightforward; however, taking the above example, there are several ways in which the expression can go completely wrong. When expressing bravery, the common mistake is to portray bravery to the fullest extent; but here one must bear in mind that this is a second-person portrayal of bravery and that the state of mind of the portrayer is that of a young girl in love. Likewise, the portrayals of rich person and charmer can be sarcastic and disapproving, yet here the mood is that of love and approval. Sthayi bhava is everything, as Mami used to say. 

“…drum into her students the importance of sthayi bhava or the foundation emotion.”

Her ability as a teacher attracted several top dancers and students to her and now she has almost become a brand. Her talents also attracted a long list of titles, awards and fellowships, including the Padma Bhushan in 1985 (the third-highest civilian award given by the Indian government), Kalaimamani in 1990 (the highest award for artists given by the Tamil Nadu government) and the Sangeet Natak academy award in 1991. Mami was untouched by fame; she led a simple life and she derived most pleasure from teaching and seeing her students flourish. She was not only a great teacher but she was also acutely aware of non-artistic issues that affected dancers. She strongly believed that financial constraints must not get in the way of access to good art. This was reflected in her practices: she offered lessons at an extremely subsidised cost at her dance school, and provided opportunities for her students to perform at unconventional venues so all could have access to good art. She was also acutely aware of the multiple roles a dancer dons while putting together a live performance and the not inexpensive business of using live music for performances. She was a staunch advocate of using recorded music for performances at a time when it was not the norm. 

Mami’s legacy lives on in her students the world over. Such students are spread far and wide from America to Australia, several of them senior dancers themselves. As Mami’s style and technique is adaptable and non-prescriptive, it continues to thrive in cultures and frameworks far from India. Here in England, we boast of a progressive, highly innovative dance sector and Mami’s students are in the forefront of both the South Asian classical and classical-contemporary scene: Usha Raghavan, Deepa Ganesh and Chamundeeswari Kuppuswamy to name but a few. Their work ranges from full-length dance dramas to cutting-edge explorative, experimental work delving deep into the philosophy and theory of Indian classical dance to produce some evocative work, all carrying the unmistakable imprint of Mami’s abhinaya.

‘More, not less, is the capacity of the heart. More, not less, is the capacity of art’  

Jeanette Winterson

Many thoughts come to mind when I recollect the time I spent learning with Kalanidhi Mami. She was my guru and friend. I was fortunate to learn from her in the impressionable years of my dance training from 1975‒86. During these years I had the privilege of following in the path of my guru as she rediscovered the world of dance for herself. Kalanidhi Mami’s unquenchable thirst for padams (intricately-crafted lyrical songs) and javalis (usually livelier and less serious than padams) expanded her repertoire.

Abhinaya classes were conducted seated on the ground on cool red oxide floors. Her books would lie alluringly before her with each lyric meticulously written down by her. As a student I waited excitedly as she turned the pages and paused. Then the discovery began. Gestures of beauty, grace and eloquence came to life. Multiple poetic ideas proliferated. Sahitya (poetry) was transformed to drishya kavya (visual poetry). Sringara (love) padams with their torrent of emotions came to life.

Learning from Mami led me into another world. Classes were spent in observation, dialogue and wonderment. A sanctuary of poetry, subtlety and creative ideas opened up for me. Her technique was subtle and yet demanding. It required a precision in thinking and execution, alertness, sensitivity, expressive ability and quick absorption. Her mind was like quicksilver with a saturation of ideas. This aspect of her teaching was astonishing. There was no end to the possibilities in dance. I would leave her class elated and inspired as I became aware of the vast potential in bharatanatyam.

Over the last thirty years I have done my own choreography. As I internalised and repossessed my dance, my repertoire shifted, as did the challenges. But deep within me the seed of abhinaya had been sown, and it is this seed that I have nurtured over the years to grow free and experience the vastness and beauty of spirit. 

Recollections by Malavika Sarukkai



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