Ashtanayika of Indian classical dance: On the khandita, a woman who stands up to her unfaithful lover

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 the last essay, part 8, a look at the khandita.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe August 10, 2021 16:18:02 IST
Ashtanayika of Indian classical dance: On the khandita, a woman who stands up to her unfaithful lover

Water colour on paper by Rini Alphosa 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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Infidelity strikes at the very foundation of love and trust upon which relationships are built. It is the bitterness that erodes the trust which ties two lovers together, often driving them so far apart that they may never reunite again. The unfaithfulness it involves lies in moments of transgression, and sometimes callousness, that later result in grief and heartbreak.

It is the exploration of this disloyalty that lies at the heart of the khandita | खंडिता, a nayika whose beloved has cheated on her and returned filled with trepidation and sorrow at the pain this act has inflicted upon her.

The nayika’s torment is evident in her anger; she rages against her beloved’s fickle love and sums up the courage to drag him by his hand to the door of her house and asks him to leave. It is only after the finality of separation that the khandita allows herself to break down completely, letting the tears and heartbreak take over, which were until then veiled beneath her rage and sharp dismissal.

It is only after this act of ‘khandan’ or more colloquially, the ‘break-up’, that a nayika truly transforms into a khandita — for in that instant, she chooses to move away from the person who has been unfaithful to their shared love.

Odissi exponent Swapnokalpa Dasgupta says that in the traditional repertoire, this tragic heroine can be portrayed in varied forms, according to the underlying nayika bheda or distinctions of age and experience in love that govern her impulses. In the lessons she acquired from her guru, the legendary dancer Kelucharan Mohapatra, the khandita he often conjured in the choreography of an ashtapadi (a poem with eight verses) would be the uttama nayika, or a mature, knowing woman whose inner composure allows her suffering to surface without fury.

There are interesting contradictions embedded in such a depiction of the khandita. Typically, an ashtapadi is a lyric drawing out the relationship between Radha and Krishna. In the Eastern Indian traditions, Radha is a parakiya, notes Dasgupta — a nayika who seeks union outside the bonds of marriage. She is an uttama too, and when these facets blend together, they produce a khandita who, instead of pushing her lord or Krishna away, untangles herself from his hold when he tries to pull her towards him. Here, Dasgupta says, Radha believes that Krishna “is too great for her to push away,” and refuses to give in to his pleas for forgiveness. On the contrary, the displacement of her physical body from his invokes within her the strength to let go and to ponder upon how much of herself she should surrender to the spiritual (read: Krishna) whilst still being bound to her earthly (read: marital) domesticity.

However, in many traditional performances, a khandita is often portrayed as a naïve, young heroine through abhinaya that sees her twitching with envy and fury. She unravels slowly and unwittingly as a protagonist caught unawares by the betrayal of her beloved.

Ashtanayika of Indian classical dance On the khandita a woman who stands up to her unfaithful lover

A khandita refuses to accept the apologies of her beloved. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Popular depictions involve the nayika waiting patiently for her lover to arrive, and while she does so, she dresses in bright colours with embellishments of jewellery and fresh flowers. She sets right her crooked pillows and crinkled mattresses, covers up a platter of delicious food to keep it warm, and arranges on a silver tray all the ingredients required to make a flavoursome paan for her lover.

As the sun disappears behind a purple sky and the shimmering moon glows in the dark night, she rests her head on a pillow, and oscillating between dreams and wakefulness, keeps an ear to the door for the slightest sound that would signal her beloved’s arrival.

When at last she hears his knock, unable to bear another moment of separation, she rushes to the door and flings it open. Her face reveals a shattering of love and of trust. Slowly, the nayika takes in the strained lines on her beloved’s forehead, his face swollen from lack of sleep and lips lightly tainted with the scarlet remains of paan. But the truth sinks in completely only after his refusal to meet her gaze.

In an age-old bandish from the traditional repository of Kathak, the nayika questions her beloved:

Kaahe ab tum aaye ho, mere dwaare

Sauten sang jaage, anurage, rasa paake baahein

(Why have you returned now to my doorstep? After having spent a night of love and passion in the arms of the ‘other’ woman?)

In the contemporary urban context, a person’s world can come crushing down with one text, an overheard snippet of conversation, or a random picture that pops up on social media. Here, technology is both as a blessing and a curse, that on the one hand lays bare the truth and on the other becomes a harbinger of immense pain. What follows is a series of confrontations and fights, which seldom end well.

Within a classical performance, on the other hand, this is the most satisfying process of the abhinaya – a truly cathartic conversation occurring between two lovers: one, asking for forgiveness, and the other, hurt beyond measure by the transgression. The interaction that ensues is just as defining as the knowledge of the betrayal.

As a young adult, Dasgupta notes, learning how to perform the khandita would mean portraying more anger than pain.

In the traditional choreography that this writer inherited, the lover appears as a figure filled with apology and remorse. And even as he tries to come up with platitudes, the nayika’s angst only heightens, until, in her rage, she flings the flowers, the beautiful paan tray onto the floor and berates this traitor for breaking her heart so. She refuses to let him touch her, moves away when he places his forehead at her feet to ask for forgiveness and, consumed by a rage so grand, orders him to leave and never return.

Jhooti jhooti batiyan karo na man rang tum, vahi jao jinke chatiyan so laage

Loosely translated, the nayika iterates: Don’t make up lies to placate me, go back to that ‘other’ woman whose embrace is so dear to you.

According to Dasgupta's study, for the experienced performer who understands the uttama nayika, this could be the woman contemplating her space in that relationship, as opposed to a sarcastic remark made in the moment. She may be earnestly urging her lover to go to the woman who he has chosen over her.

In another rendition of the khandita, Dasgupta recounts, the nayika tells Krishna that he should not come near her as he tries to pacify her, and rather enjoys the attentions of this capricious charmer.

In contemporary times, infidelity in a marriage opens up a debate on the broader questions around the cultural and social consequences of cheating on a partner. It points to inherent cracks in the nature of the commitment, and its implications for the two lovers.

In every story, whether it is Radha who courteously asks Krishna to return to the ‘other’ woman, or the innocent heroine whose anger leads her to throw her lover out of their home, a khandita brings into sharp focus the heartbreak and mistrust that infidelity sows in the victim's mind. For young dancers only just introduced to nayika bheda, while navigating romance and its tender ties in their own lives, the khandita is a lesson in the suffering and pain that could be the fallout of young love.

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