Every year Mohiniattam dancer Gopika Varma puts on a festival at the Ananda Padmanabhaswamy temple in Adyar where she invites dancers to present programs of pieces composed by Swati Tirunal, the Travancore king-turned composer. The program is usually a mixed bag, with many younger dancers who struggle through the new Swati Tirunal pieces they learned to abide by the program’s rules.
But this year’s festival was enlivened by the inclusion of the luminous dancer Bragha Bessell, who performed for an hour and a half on Sunday evening. Bessell is a student of Adyar K. Lakshman, but is more well known for her abhinaya, which she learned from the renowned Kalanidhi Narayanan. Bessell is easily Narayanan’s best student, although far from her best known. This may be because Bessell does not have the characteristic look of a dancer; she is short, without the striking doe-eyes and endless limbs of Priyadarshini Govind or the lithe figure and effervescent energy of Alarmel Valli. But Bessell’s immense talent in abhinaya ensures that every performance of hers is a transporting experience. In each piece, she melts away to be replaced by any of the multiple characters that she takes on through the program. In Sunday’s program, she played a devotee transported with devotion on seeing the lord, a young coquettish girl telling Lord Padmanabha to wait until she is old enough before he flirts with her, a young maiden enticing Krishna to the jungle, and an older woman, consumed with pain, because her lover did not meet her as promised. Bessell’s dance speaks, and it speaks precisely and exquisitely.
Dancers often translate abhinaya as “miming” or “expression,” but it is actually much more than that. Abhinaya is the narrative thread of a dance piece, and a distinguishing feature of Indian classical dance forms. In many Western dance forms, dancers’ movements might convey a mood, but in Bharathanatyam, a dancer depicts and interprets the lyrics of the poems that she dances to, line by line. A Bharatanatyam dancer is both an actress and a dancer. But a dancer faces a real challenge today in connecting with her audience. The songs sing of love and of love spurned, a common topic in movies and music today, but the poetry of the songs is decades, sometimes centuries old. The tropes of lovelorn maidens that it describes seem archaic, and naïve of feminist self-respect.
Bessell’s skill is such that she overcomes this barrier. Like the best of movies, she draws you into the period drama that Bharatanatyam is today, a world where gentle lovelorn maidens are so overwhelmed with the sadness of separation from their lovers that they cannot bear the rays of the moon, and are consumed by jealousy by watching a pair of deers cavorting in the forest. It is absurd, but in Bessell’s hands, it is all absurdly beautiful.
In her most adventurous piece that evening, ‘Chaliye kunjanamo,’ she showed a young woman trying to convince Krishna to come and frolic in the beautiful woods, by describing all the delights there. Bessell is the only dancer that I have seen who can tell a joke on stage and get away with it. In the piece, she imagines that she approaches the river to pick up water in her pot, but decides the water is too deep and asks Krishna to go in instead. She watches him step in carefully and then – bam! – pushes him into the water. Her eyes and mischievous grin as she watches Krishna step into the water are exquisite – the power of her acting skills such that the audience sees not only the woman, but also the Krishna that she is watching, and the river spread before them both. And when her maiden steps out of the river after a swim with Krishna, she wrings her pallu and the bottom of her sari carefully, the kind of precisely observed detail which makes her women and their torments and delights come alive to the viewer.
Bessell performed on Sunday to an audience composed almost entirely of dance aficionados and her students, who flock eagerly to each of her all-too-infrequent performances. If the sabha system worked more effectively at nurturing talent, a dancer of her caliber would be the top billing for the December season. As it stands, I think she performs just once or twice during most seasons.