Author: - Priyshri Rao, Lecturer, Kalai Kaviri college, Bengaluru Chapter
What are the adjectives that straight away come to mind when one thinks of māmi – queen of abhinaya, an artist par excellence, a true artist, humble, simple, friendly, inspiring just to mention a few. I had the blessed opportunity to attend a few classes when I was the course co-ordinator at the University of Madras, Indian Music Department.
There are two instances that are forever etched on my memory. Māmi was teaching ‘Śive śṛṅgārādrā’, the Saundaryalahari navarasa śloka. When she performed abhinaya for ‘śṛṅgārādrā’, it was Pārvati who sighting Śiva for the first time is enthralled. Pārvati, never having experienced love is unfamiliar with the emotion, but is magnetically attracted to Śiva. Yet there is a hesitancy. She realizes that enjoys the feeling of love but is wary of taking a step forward. Māmi conveyed all these emotions using minimal movements.
The other instance was of māmi teaching the Kshetrayyar padam ‘ciṭike vesite’. Kṛshṇa calls a gopi and when the gopi continuously rebukes his advances, he says ‘oh you are not responding to my advances. If I just snap my fingers, there are so many who are willing.’ Māmi’s interpretation for ‘so many’ was really amazing – Kṛshṇa feels like he is being smothered as many gopi-s are literally falling all over him. For a moment or two, when she performed, it was like there were so many gopi-s trying to get as close as possible to Kṛshṇa. And Kṛshṇa felt like getting away from all of them.
Māmi’s approach to abhinaya was something that can be discussed and analysed in detail. The small changes she introduced for each interpretation was beautiful. It was the kīrtana ‘enneramum undan’, in praise of Śiva. For the caraṇa sāhitya ‘dicai eṅgaṇum pugaẕum’, she had set different interpretations. The first was of course a pada pada artha interpretation. The second was ‘a bhakta hearing other people talk about the glories of Śiva’. The next was ‘to hear and feel the sense of amazement – oh is that so’. She was not a votary of long sañcāri-s but felt different interpretations within the āvartana would be best. She also insisted that the interpretations should be when the particular word was sung.
Her method of teaching is something that must be mentioned. The lyrics had to be written down first with a line spacing. The meaning of the each word had to be then put down right below the word. After learning the interpretations for the pallavi or the first section of the composition, one had to write it down. She would insist that it was written down in the form of sentences rather than just hasta-s and their positions. She would say – the dialogue is very important in the process of showing abhinaya.
I distinctly remember her saying that too much attention to the hands mars the abhinaya. Having trained at Kalākshetra, it was quite difficult to put that into practice. She also said where one looks and how one looks is very important.
What is also amazing is that however erotic the padam or jāvali or some verses of Gītagovinda, there was a quite but unmistakable dignity in the way she handled the portions. It left one with the feeling of ‘good’.
Māmi had a vast repertoire ranging from padam-s, jāvali-s, ashṭpadi-s, śloka-s in various languages to bhajan-s and kīrtanam-s.
Some other traits that she possessed were punctuality, the effort she took in attending programs of the younger dancers and her memory. I did not have the chance to interact much with her but when I met her after a long time, she remembered and enquired about my present activities. She was old by the time she came over to teach at the Indian Music department but she respected the rules and conducted the assessments as required in a semester system.
Kalānidhi māmi is an apt example for the Kannaḍa saying ‘tumbida koḍa tuḷukalla’.