A chance encounter with an audience from a different culture and the story behind intricate abhinaya
Dance has the capacity to create a feeling of joy and exultation, a feeling that can resonate across cultures and successfully lead an audience using the powerful tools of performance and communication. I believe this was a reason for the success of my performances in Britain in the 1970s. Each performance led to requests for teaching from a few in the audience. The classes I had started in a small studio space in Shepherds Bush, London, soon grew and I was in the quest for a larger teaching space.
A divine intervention?
My search led me to the beautiful Saint James Church in Holland Park. The vicar was welcoming, and I moved some of my classes to the church hall. I did not realise what a boon this turned out to be. Highly cultured and genuinely interested in the arts, the vicar went out of his way to support and encourage my work.
As newly-weds, Rajkumar and I were looking for a place to move to from our apartment in Shepherds Bush. The vicar and his wife took us under their wing. They gave us on rent the quaint apartment on the top floor of an unused parish hall in nearby Wilsham Street and we began our stay in Holland Park, a highly desirable area of London.
Abhinaya : The expressions of a dancer
To my pleasant surprise, the vicar organised a lecture/demonstration for his parishioners and others. Holland Park residents were upper-crust, well-to-do members of society and many were ballet buffs and opera aficionados. It seemed an exceptional opportunity to reach out to a potential rasika audience.
In my presentation, I dared to include the Eka Lochanam, the famous sloka describing the grief and anger of a bird that has lost her mate to an arrow of the cruel hunter. Technically demanding, the dancer looks quite grotesque with one side of the face lifted in anger while the other side droops down in grief. The eyes reflect a squint as one eyeball comes a little closer to the nose than the other.
The audience included doctors and surgeons and a leading ophthalmologist as well. The response was amazing. The ophthalmologist was emphatic that what I did with my eyes was physiologically impossible! I explained the details of sadhaka training of the eye – where we use clarified butter and how I went through this process as part of my Kathakali abhinaya training. The discussion moved even to the pros and cons of including eye movements incorporating the usage of clarified butter as lubricant to improve eye coordination in medical cases.
Overall, the experience and the response it made me wonder about the category of audiences and here was an additional one, Rasaanubhuti across religions, cultures, creeds and professions! This experience served as an invaluable springboard for my several hundred presentations across Britain, Europe and Australasia in later years.
Following a guru’s footprints
My confidence to present this immensely complicated abhinaya item came from the opportunity I had earlier under the venerated guru Mani Madhava Chakyar . I performed to an august audience in Delhi in 1971 at the awardee presentation honouring two legendary Kathakali gurus, Chengannur Raman Pillai and Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair, prior to my move to London.
Wherever we go, we take with us our own heritage and strike roots in the new cultural environment. It has been said that the future is not a place we go to but one we create; through this process of creating an enriched future, both the maker and the destination are changed.