Ashtanayika of classical dance: On the kalahantarita, who battles rage and guilt upon calling her beloved unfaithful

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 6, a look at the kalahantarita.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe July 26, 2021 19:12:04 IST
Ashtanayika of classical dance: On the kalahantarita, who battles rage and guilt upon calling her beloved unfaithful

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.

In this Firstpost series, we explore the ashtanayika, their representation in Indian classical dance and the place they find in contemporary times and practice.

Read more from the series here.

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Utterly and unflinchingly certain that her lover has been unfaithful to her, the nayika berates him, insults him, and blinded with rage, shoves him out of her house.

When the full weight of her rash decision sinks in, after the anger that clouded her sense of reasoning has subsided, her mind clears. The first traces of doubt creep in, followed by immeasurable guilt: Was she wrong, after all? Was he a loyal, dutiful man who stayed away from her because he had indeed been away for work?

Thus the kalahantarita | कलाहन्तरिता takes shape: the jealousy that consumed her before is now at odds with remorse about her impulsiveness. Her predicament betrays her envy and pushes her into contradicting emotions of doubt and repentance that arise not from a situation she is caught in, but from the complex web of suspicion that she has woven around herself.

In the traditional repertoire, the first segment of a kalahantarita’s narrative depicts a vehement, quite unreasonable girl who refuses to entertain the possibility of her beloved’s innocence, while the second half transforms her into a woman overwrought with despair, remorse and grief.

Kathak artiste and performer Mithila Bhide notes, “She is the only nayika who angers us [as performers and viewers], the only one who is in the wrong. Her situation has nothing to do with her predicament. The remorse she experiences is her own doing.”

The kalahantarita is perhaps the only heroine whose angst and restless accusations thrown callously at her beloved arouse not pity or understanding, but annoyance and irritation. A heroine separated from her lover, pining for his return, induces sorrow in the viewer – there is something striking and romantic about her longing. Another, who burns with desire for her beloved and dresses up to receive him, is seductive and alluring, and becomes more appealing as her anticipation heightens. But a kalahantarita is seldom perceived to be beautiful; instead, her refusal to listen to reason causes the viewer to be wary of this nayika.

Within contemporary popular culture, a heroine who levels a barrage of accusations against her lover is perceived as possessing weaker emotional sensibilities, and her lack of reason is exploited and criticised often through comical, even derisive narratives. Many times, a layer of humour is added to the story by making the protagonist a possessive wife or girlfriend. But what is significant to the kalahantarita’s trajectory – that is left out of most narratives – is the moment when she realises the hollowness of her accusations, and the feelings of repentance and anguish that overcome her being. She is then compelled to come face to face with the insecurities buried deep within her that burst forth in this tantrum, and it is this phenomenon of uncertainty that lies at the core of this heroine.

The reasons behind the nayika's lack of faith in her beloved form her backstory. “Perhaps she has been betrayed in love before,” Bhide suggests  a bruise from the past that makes her restless and stubborn. To portray this heroine effectively is to understand these underlying fears that govern her anger, and the guilt that inevitably follows.

Bhide emphasises that in the contemporary urban context too, when trust and trustworthy people are both hard to come by, it is natural for a person to be entangled in a similar complicationIt could be something as genuine as sitting in a movie theatre and spotting someone who looks exceedingly like their partner with arms around another person, that drives one to uncontrollable suspicion and rage.

In a world of ‘last seen’ and ‘blue ticks’ notifications, where technology assumes a villainous role and goes against its purpose of connecting people, it instead creates a wedge between two lovers: One might ask, ‘Those blue ticks meant you read my text, why haven’t you replied to me?' Or, ‘When you said you were going out and won’t be able to check your messages, who were you meeting?’ And even, ‘You found time to post a story on your social media, but you couldn’t return my video calls? What were you up to?’

Ashtanayika of classical dance On the kalahantarita who battles rage and guilt upon calling her beloved unfaithful

A kalahantarita rejects the advances of her beloved. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In a traditional Kathak performance that borrows heavily from situations in everyday life, such a nayika would be portrayed simply as a woman walking in the village marketplace where she spots a man who looks exceedingly like her lover and sees him speak to another woman; this fills the heroine with unspeakable rage. After confronting her beloved, refusing his advances and then repenting her decision, she would wonder, ‘the turban that man was wearing is quite common and every other man uses the same bag that was slung across his shoulders. So, was it really him, in the market?’

Theoretically, the sequence of events which describe the kalahantarita nayika’s predicament are fascinating, because her argument is one that can be interpreted as resting on shaky ground. Contrary to other heroines, for instance the khandita who finds proof of her husband’s infidelity and subsequently asks him to leave, a kalahantarita’s conundrum arises from the suspicion created by her own mind.

The gullibility of this heroine could also suggest a youthful innocence, meaning that hers is a newly blossoming affair, but she can also be a woman experienced in love who spurns her beloved’s advances so harshly that it no longer remains teasing love sport, but rather a grave hurt that leaves him feeling disheartened, and her, filled with regret.

But an artist should be unperturbed by the nayika's decision-making even if it is contradictory to her own mind, Bhide says, for “We should first be convinced about a character’s actions to make our abhinaya convincing.”

Her guru, the noted Kathak exponent and Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, Pandita Maneesha Sathe, commissioned the writing of a poem that was woven into a raga to depict the kalahantarita thus:

Jao ji jao tum ae sitamgar,

Bewafaa ho, ho jafaju

Jhoothe vaade karate ho kyun,

Phir kyun aaye mere ghar tum

Loosely translated, the nayika proclaims in these verses: Leave, oh heart-breaker, who has been unfaithful to me! You have made false promises, so why have you now returned to my home, having broken them all?

She accuses her beloved of cheating on her, even as he tries to explain himself. In the choreography Bhide has inherited from her guru, it is here that the artist assumes the role of the bewildered lover, who attempts with all his might to reason with her, explain that he was away on a voyage, show her the gifts he bought her and give proof of his whereabouts.

The kalahantarita refuses to accept these platitudes, and unable to convince her, the lover leaves in despair. Later, her eyes slowly take in the grains and gifts and jewellery that he showed her, now scattered across her room, and reckons with her mistake.

To show this shift and the contradictions in her mind, the bandish or verse swerves into a different raga, the musical notes rendering a remorseful tune:

Toda nata humdum se maine ye kya kiya

Dil bechain shab ae tanahayee

Kaise sahun mein teri judai

Bewajahi behem kiya,

Maine ye kya kiya

Filled with guilt, the kalahantarita laments: I broke off all ties with my lover, what have I done! My heart is restless, my nights lonely, how do I face this separation? Overcome by my unreasonable belief, oh what have I done!

Oddly, the kalahantarita better expresses the autonomy of a nayika than most other heroines because she bears the burden of her decision and is solely accountable for her situation. She is not bound to the shackles of being ‘victim’ to an event that occurs outside of her, instead claiming responsibility for her folly. And she becomes free of the notions of restraint even as her complete surrender to her feelings and insecurities plunges her into terrible tantrums and guilt.

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