Natalie Savelyeva

Abhinaya as Art of Acting explained by Smt. Bragha Bessell

The first item we learnt in class of Bragha Akka, was padam Mogudoci of unknown composer, set in ragam Sahana and Misra Capu thalam (see Padam Mogudoci by Bragha Bessell for details). .

The next item was Javali Telise in ragam Bilahari and Adi thalam (see Javali Telise vaga lella by Bragha Bessell for details).

The last item was famous Devaranama of Purandaradasa, Jagado Dharana in ragam Hindustani Kapi and Adi thalam (see Jagado Dharana by Bragha Bessell for details).

I will illustrate a few very essential points, which I leant in the class of Bragha Akka on example of those three items.

Abhinaya as Dialog

Bragha Akka teaches that the story enacted in Abhinaya, should be set in form of the dialog. Abhinaya is communication. The lyrics of songs are suggestive, and admit a lot of interpretations. Every hand should be presented as the set of several sentences, well-connected and knitted into canvas of the story developed on the stage. This story could be set as chain of dialogs decorated with descriptions (in Sancari, for instance, or while presenting lines of Anupallavi, where the heroine often describes good qualities of her hero, or relating some story or legend as in Jagado Dharana).

The dancer can take different parts and present different characters on the stage. For instance, she could enact multiple characters as in Jagado Dharana - the saint poet, Yeshoda, Krishna, or Putana, Varaha, Narasimha, etc.

Otherwise, she could enact two characters like in Javali Telise, where the scene of quarrel between two lovers is depicted. In this Javali, the heroine and the hero are both given parts in dialog. Thus, the dancer switches between two characters by taking place of the one and then turning or taking place of the other.

In Padam Mogudoci, for contrast, the dancer represents only the heroine. Here, the hero keeps silent, i.e. he gives no answer to the words of the heroine (she gives no reference to such reactions in lyrics). The only possible reaction is the movement of the hero across the stage, from one side to another. The heroine turns from right to left, following his figure. This change of place is like silent protest of the hero against the situation itself – he is trying to find new place, but he cannot find rest and balance.

Placement of Characters on Stage

According to Bragha Akka, this movement of imaginary partner adds dynamics to the scene and allows the audience to see abhinaya better from different angles. Besides of that, the movement of the hero is meaningful by itself. In case of Mogudoci, this movement is the only answer, the only reaction he admits listening to the words of the heroine addressed to him.

More than that, the movement of the hero makes his invisible presence on the stage more convincing. The hero or another partner is very often invisible, i.e. he is supposed to be present on the stage, but the dancer is more associated with the heroine so she needs some means to indicate the presence of the partner. We cannot see the person, but we feel him following the eyes and turns of the heroine.

Focusing on Object

Bragha Akka also draws attention to focus, i.e. the heroine should focus her eyes on the partner she speaks to or on the objects she describes – so the audience could feel presence of such person of object, even though they cannot see it. For instance, if she is watching the hero from apart – spectators should feel the distance between them. If the heroine is taking things located near by – the spectators should feel and see that object as well. They follow the eyes of the heroine and recreate the whole scene in their minds as well, as the dancer is doing while performing those actions. Thus, the harmony of the scene imagined by the dancer and the scene portrayed in Abhinaya should be kept by placing imaginary objects and persons properly and keeping eye contact accordingly.

Spatial Coverage

Bragha Akka also pointed out many times importance of proper spatial planning of an item. The first point her is placement of the dancer on the stage. She recommended to use proscenium more and to avoid of dancing too deep inside the stage, as the art of Abhinaya needs the natural contact with audience. The spectators should see and feel the moods of the dancer. If dancer goes too far inside the stage, fine features of Abhinaya such as eye movements and sattvika bhavas could be lost.

Scale and Spacing

Also, she demonstrated how important it is to give proper scale to the actions portrayed. The best example is Jagado Dharana. The idea of this item is to show how miraculous it is that the Lord of the Universe, who creates and supports this whole world, is born as tiny baby whom Yeshoda puts in a small cradle, or whom she dresses in tiny baby dhotis. When Krishna is depicted as Narayana, creator and preserver, the dancer should become huge, give impression of immense space, endless milk ocean, and huge serpent and so on. When Krishna is depicted as tiny son of Yeshoda, the scale is different – small cradle, tiny dhoti, and first small toy. This change of scale creates this effect of miracle, wonder mixed up with sympathy to baby and gratitude towards his mother.

Inner Speech

Bragha Akka emphasizes that Abhinaya is communication, so the heroine should speak, pronounce her part of dialog inside while gestures and all other outer expressions should follow this inner speech, as beads follow the curves of the string they are knitted to.

Inner dialog or speech of the heroine has some interesting attributes. Depending on her age, situation and mood, the heroine “speaks” with particular tone, amplitude (loudness), inflections, and tempo. All those qualities of normal (audible) stage speech can be applied to Abhinaya, i.e. communication via silent expressive means as well.

Sound or Voice

One such attribute is “sound” of the speech, as Bragha Akka calls it. This “sound” can be understood in two ways. The first is loudness or amplitude. How Bragha Akka explained, what is “very loud” should become “widely seen”, i.e. when the heroine addresses the last raw of the audience. Quiet and slight “voice” or “sound” should be expressed using less spacious gestures.

The second one is close to the concept of intonation. For instance, in Mogudoci the heroine is quite young girl. She is naturally shy. She cannot be brick and persistent, so the sound of her speech is soft, not very loud. Her way of approach is suggestive and tender. She hesitates- how to explain, how to find proper words.

In Javali Telise, when the heroine addresses the hero, she does it in very strong and decisive manner, as she is sincerely indignant with his infidelity. When she mocks him and mimes his misbehavior, she makes it with pretended sweetness, which gives very nice contrast with her own reactions to such coward behavior which follow and crown her presentation. When she speaks of how she watched him going to that woman, i.e. she portrays herself, left alone and sad, she talks in low voice, as that time she is alone and there is no need to shout or speak louder.


In dance this attribute is of crucial importance. Tempo of musical composition and thalam (rhythm) is the basic framework of dance. Feelings described while doing Abhinaya require certain space and time to be brought out and to be “felt” and understood by the audience. The mood (rasa) evoked by dance depends a lot on right selection of tempo. Naturally, such bhavas as Karuna, for instance, require slow tempo, and such bhavas as fury, for instance, require fast tempo of action. Based on these natural laws of expression, the artist sets the tempo of the whole composition.

For example, Mogudoci is performed in slow tempo, as the situation takes place at night, inside forest, the heroine has to relate sad news. She is trying to make departure less painful for herself and her beloved, to save love and depart with some hope that this love will not disappear.

In Javali Telise, the heroine reproaches her beloved and expresses her anger and disappointment with his infidelity. This scene is more dynamic, actions and words are quite harsh. Tempo is increased by increasing intensity of passion and feelings.

Pauses and Inflections

In normal speech, the pauses are set to mark the end of each sentence or meaningful segment of sentence. In dance the pauses are meaningful by themselves. Pause could be an only answer of the hero (as in Mogudoci), or pause could necessary to increase intensity of emotion expressed. Also pauses are necessary notify the inflection of the speech – is it either statement, or question or plea, or order?

Pauses are also necessary to switch between the characters or even between the different scenes. For instance, after Pallavi long pause is taken, when dance goes back and prepares for Anupallavi. The thing is, the first line of Anupallavi usually contains praises or description of good qualities of the hero. It could be even the part of the same scene, but often looks like intermission or may be deviation from the main subject.

Choreography of Item

Presentation of any item on the stage is like relating the story. Bragha Akka pointed out that first of all we should answer three questions:

  • Read lyrics and understand words by words meaning, understand direct meaning and indirect content hidden in between the lines.
  • Analyze the context or the situation, where the scene takes place, what are the characters and which circumstances caused the current situation.
  • Understand the characters, who are they, what is their age, what kind of relationship is between them, what attitudes they have to each other.

After setting those three major points, we should think how to present the story in general:

  • Should we start from Pallavi or from Anupallavi (as it is sometimes done in padams),
  • How to set interlude, how to introduce the situation (usually it is done to the first lines of Pallavi),
  • How to develop the line of the story in Anupallavi,
  • How many charanams to include and how to connect them (very often not all the charanams are presented on the stage, as the dancer does not need to describe all the story in detail, but to highlight the most essential points),
  • What point of the story should be elaborated more using Sancari,
  • Which scene is the most important in this item? Where should we put grand finale, the coda of this composition?
  • How to conclude the item, how to connect the whole enactment with life of the character?

By answering those questions we understand how to progress forward from one part of an item to another one.

After that Bragha Akka noted one more important thing regarding elaboration of each line of sahityam. She said that at first the line is presented using pada artha abhinaya, or word by word. But that does not mean that the words should be presented as separated from each other. Even here the words of lyrics are connected into sentences. We just give direct meaning if them. Further on, the meaning is elaborated using more and more interpretations, metaphors and descriptions. By each repetition of the line, we move deeper inside and bring out the indirect meaning of the line hidden inside the words. So the bhava of the particular scene should be increased by each repetition, reach its local extreme and slowly give way to the next scene or the next line of lyrics.

That is how we progress forwards inside each line.


  1. Padam Mogudoci by Bragha Bessell
  2. Javali Telise vaga lella by Bragha Bessell
  3. Jagado Dharana by Bragha Bessell