Ashtanayika of classical dance: On the abhisarika, a woman who embarks on adventures to meet her beloved

This series is an exploration of the ashtanayika of classical dance — the eight types of heroines which depict a woman's many thoughts and emotional states. In part 7, a look at the abhisarika.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe August 02, 2021 10:56:58 IST
Ashtanayika of classical dance: On the abhisarika, a woman who embarks on adventures to meet her beloved

Water colour on paper by Rini Alphonsa Joseph

A nayika delights, saddens, bewitches, angers. In many ways, she provides catharsis, because her unabashed narration of her story – her woes, apprehensions and joys – evokes those emotions of love and desire within ourselves, whose existence we perhaps knew not of.

In his Natyashastra, written circa 200 BC, Bharat Muni expounded his theories on the practice and performance of theatre and dance in 36 chapters. It was within these verses that he crafted the ashtanayika, or the eight heroines based on eight different episodes from a woman’s life. The ashtanayika give voice to the thoughts of a woman caught in myriad situations concerning her lover, and are considered to be among the most beautiful and enduring forms of abhinaya in the study of Indian classical dance.

For centuries, each one of these instances has signified much more than the depiction of a woman’s conundrums and perils: they have come to denote her liberty to express herself, and her love — physical and spiritual — for her beloved. This is perhaps one of the reasons the concept of the nayikas has been nurtured through time, evolving with the world around it, while staying rooted to its essence. For a nayika is one woman, she is every woman, at some point, in some place.

Read more from the series here.

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In the dead of night, a girl wraps a dark dupatta around her head, slowly walks to the door of her house, and stepping out, gently closes it behind her so as to not wake her slumbering family. Once outside, she turns her head this way and that to make sure no one is about on this dark evening. Finding herself all alone, she takes only a few rapid steps forward when suddenly, she stops dead in her tracks. With every step, her anklets have made a loud, tinkling sound that pierced through the silence of the night, and now she looks around frantically, hoping against hope that she won't get caught.

In another age, on a similar night, a young woman covers her face and head with a thick scarf, sneaks out of her apartment and walks down to the parking area, instead of taking the noisy elevator. With a helmet in one hand, keys in the other, she dodges the sleeping watchman, drags her scooter to the end of the lane before hopping on and pressing the ignition. The vehicle makes a terrifying racket in the quiet, but before anyone can raise their heads, off she goes, and without looking back, disappears into the night.

In every age and every century, the abhisarika | अभिसरिका manifests in varied forms, but each time, she retains that sense of adventure and dare that is central to her being. She is an enduring presence as much in art as in the real world, representing a heroine who embarks on an intrepid adventure, and overcoming all the obstacles in her path, finally reaches her beloved.

Within the traditional repertoire of Indian classical dance, a performer portrays the abhisarika through a secret journey that takes this heroine from her home to the bower in the forest, or a secluded spot on the riverbank. And therein lies the appeal of this nayika, who makes clandestine moves and risky, close calls to avoid suspicion and prevent herself from getting caught. For a performer, choreographer and storyteller, she is perhaps the most thrilling of all ashtanayika.

Distinctions of age or experience in love sport are of little consequence to this heroine's plight. Just as a young girl guards her secret romance, so too the older woman protects her delicious desires from the prying gaze of a critical society and the mischievous innuendos of her bosom friends.

The only differences that arise are those of the obstacles in her path. Historically, while a young girl would dodge the curious glances of her friends or the elderly in the house, for an older, mature woman, this journey towards her beloved would signify an escape from the trappings of domestic humdrum.

So, in the hands of a shrewd performer and choreographer, an abhisarika becomes a powerful presence on the stage, who lights up a recital with her spirit, and the audience watches on with rapt attention, to see who or what she may encounter next, en route.

Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, Head of Dance at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, and an Odissi and Manipuri exponent, explains that an abhisarika can be further divided into eight distinct variations of which the ratra abhisarika (one who steps out to meet her lover at night) and the diva abhisarika (one who sneaks out in broad daylight) appear prominently in traditional compositions.

Oftentimes, this heroine is depicted as being covered in dark clothes, walking stealthily towards the dense forest or the river, encountering hurdles that nature would place before her. Tiptoeing barefoot in the woods, she might let out a sharp cry when a thorn pierces her foot, or panicky and afraid for her life, pray fervently when she comes face to face with a poisonous snake that blocks her path.

Ashtanayika of classical dance On the abhisarika a woman who embarks on adventures to meet her beloved

An abhisarika steps out into the forest in the dead of night. Image via Wikimedia Commons

But Dasgupta draws attention to two lesser-known abhisarika, found in the traditional repertoire of Vaishanava Padavali that celebrate the relationship between Radha and Krishna. Manipuri, she explains, borrows extensively from this repository of Bengali verses and it is in one such lyric that the kuaasha abhisarika (or a heroine who ventures into the forest in dense fog) comes to life.

The abhinaya of Manipuri is angik, Dasgupta explains, so a performer uses the physical being or the body heavily to evoke emotions of longing and desire. Such a movement vocabulary that explores bodily gestures becomes a potent medium to describe a heroine whose pursuits demand physical alertness and great reflexes. Inevitably, a kuaasha abhisarika blinded by the fog is depicted in Manipuri as a heroine who traverses through the thick forest towards her beloved using only her sense of touch.

As she stumbles along, a strong gush of wind perhaps clears the haze just for a moment, and she catches a glimpse of her lover standing next to her, but before she can express her delight, she is engulfed once again by the mist. She could be dancing with him without realising it, Dasgupta says, or sense his touch on her arm only to feel alone once again when the cold breeze that grazes her skin chills her to the bone.

The varsha abhisarika has her own distinct obstacles to overcome: braving the clapping of thunder, the flash of lightening and the heavy downpour, all to meet her lover. Dasgupta recites a rare verse composed by Bhanusimha (a nom de plume of Rabindranath Tagore), in which the nayika laments:

Badarbarakhana, niradagarajana, bijulichamakana ghora

Upekhai kaichhe ao tu kunje nitiniti madhava mor

Loosely translated, the heroine worries that caught in this rain, between thunder and lightning, how can she ever traverse the treacherous route towards her beloved Krishna?

But what happens when the hurdle that arrests the nayika’s movements, and keeps her away from her lover, is not a natural element but rather other human beings? In the contemporary context, haven't the young evaded questions from inquisitive adults countless times, muttering something about homework and extra credit, to go out and meet their crush? Or pretended to have received a text message from a 'friend' who just happens to need a tutor?

It is this human intervention delaying the union of the two lovers that Dasgupta explores in her production on the abhisarika, by infusing in her abhinaya the hasya rasa, or an element of humour. During such a recital, the nayika’s sakhi – a close friend – suspects where the heroine is headed, and simply to pull her leg, asks the nayika to do her hair.

The nayika, anxious and restless on being delayed, hurriedly ties a shabby bun and reassures her friend that she needs no mirror to 'validate her beauty.' But the sakhi persists and asks the heroine to lend her a necklace and some bangles. Exasperated, the nayika says at last, “take the necklace, take the bangles, take everything but just go!”

What is striking about the abhisarika is her unflinching faith that this journey, for which she innocently subverts all preconceived social constructs, will be worthwhile the moment she sets eyes on her beloved. And she exerts this quiet agency, perhaps by tricking a guard on night duty or by rushing past an acquaintance with an unassuming air, in an almost humorous, but more significantly, a courageous and determined manner. For her, this is the ultimate test of love.

Because at long last, after this arduous journey, when she reaches that decided spot and her eyes meet those of her beloved’s, he draws her close in a loving, silent embrace. All at once, the fatigue, the annoyance, the effort make complete meaning in this reunion: losing her way in the mist, getting drenched in the downpour, the tear in her scarf from when she passed through a thorny bush and every other obstacle that induced fear and anxiety are hurdles no more, they are stories from an escapade to be recounted and savoured in the sweet triumph of togetherness.

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