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Darshan and Abhinaya: An Alternative to the Male Gaze

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 July 2014


In the following study, methods developed within feminist film theory of deconstructing the gaze are applied to “read” abhinaya (the narrational component in Indian classical dancing)(1) and the performer-audience relationship. The study has yielded an alternative model to Kaplan's model of an inevitable male gaze and a performance mechanism for generating transcendence. It also shows that decontextualised readings of dance can yield very different meanings from the readings that consider the religio-aesthetic environment of Indian dance. European-American perceptions informed by Freud and Lacan recognize the power of seeing and its relationship to knowing, so also do yogic theories of perception and the cosmological view of existence that informs the Indian dance. Examining one way of looking through another way of looking may yield fascinating connections and insights, but it also has limitations. The two perspectives cannot be equated. Each view has value-laden socio-cultural orientations which must be considered.

According to Indian theories of aesthetics and perception, looking (drishti) as evident in Indian Classical Dance, is integrally linked with cognizing form (rupa) and naming (nāma). Mastery of abhinaya necessarily involves the ability to direct the audience's sensibilities towards a particular perception through the use of eye movements. The eyes are used not just for “looking” at, or responding to another imaginary character. The focused gaze directs attention to an action, a place or a part of the body. This cues observers to “see” what they are supposed to see. Thus the spaces between the sounds of tatkar (rhythmic footwork) of the Kathak performer are emphasized and translated into a visual dimension, by swift directional changes of the performer's head and gaze. Occasionally the hands too will “draw” the pattern of the rhythms (2).

Copyright © Congress on Research in Dance 1966

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1. The Nātyaśāstra defined abhinaya as that which carries the performance towards its fulfillment when the observer is bathed in the resonances of the narrative or “tastes” its emotions. Abhinaya carries the action forward through prescribed conventions of movement, costume, decor, instrumental or vocal accompaniment and inner attitude (Nātyasāśtra VIII, 6-9).

2. Birju Maharaj, now recognized as India's foremost exponent of Kathak dance and repository of the Lucknow lineage, has often reiterated that rhythms are most clearly understood when they are visualized as patterns that are drawn on paper and that performance of the dances should explicate this perception. Such statements are recorded on an audiotape of a press interview in New York, May 28, 1991 and in a videotape of a lecture demonstration at an International Conference on Time and Space in Dance, in New Delhi, December 12, 1990. See Coorlawala, Uttara Asha, “Classical and Contemporary Indian Dance: Overview, Criteria and a Choreographic Analysis” (Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1994), 101 Google Scholar.

3. Freud, Sigmund, trans, and ed. Strachey, James. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1962), 2333 Google Scholar. For Freud's construction of a love-object, see 88-96.

4. For Lacan, seeing involves the act of naming, interpreting or translating the seen object. What is “seen” is constructed out of the encounter between the seeing subject's worldview and psychological baggage and the physical and essential qualities of the seen. However, the seeing subject cannot see his or herself and by simply existing has entered the scopic field. Each seeing subject in turn is named and informed by how s/he is seen by the Other. The gaze thus remains elusive and beyond the control of even the one who is looking. See Grosz, Elizabeth, Jacques Lacan, A Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990), 7779 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. She cites Lacan's, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: The Hogarth Press, 1977), 182–83Google Scholar. For how a multiplicity of forces interact in the formulation of hegemonies, see The Deployment of Sexuality” in Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books 1990), 7580 Google Scholar.

5. Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 1719 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. An analysis of the implications of how the film is edited and visualized or of the dance by itself would increase the descriptive material without affecting the point of this paper.

8. Odissi. A Prakash Jha Production featuring Kelucharan Mahapatra, Guru Mangani Dass, Kokil Prabha and Hari Priya, Guru Pankaj Charan Dass, Guru Debu Prasad Dass, Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi. Videotape of Television Broadcast sponsored by Doordarshan, New Delhi.

9. Translations from Sanskrit of the two verses of the twenty-fourth song of the Geeta Govinda that Mahapatra performs in this film are:

Yādava hero,

your hand is cooler than sandalbalm on my breast.

Decorate my breasts with leaf designs of musk;

Paint a leaf design with deer musk

here on Love's ritual vessel!

She told the Joyful Yadu Hero,

playing to delight her heart, [verse 12]

Fix flowers in shining hair loosened in loveplay, Krishna!

Make a flywhisk outshining peacock plumage to be the banner of Love.

She told the Joyful Yadu Hero,

playing to delight her heart, [verse 17]

Miller, Barbara Stoler, ed. and trans. Jayadeva's Gila Govinda. Love Song of the Dark Lord (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1977), 124–25Google Scholar.

10. Hasta are the stylized and sometimes natural hand gestures utilized in Indian classical dance forms. Individual hasta vary from form to form and are listed in various texts. The best known texts are Nātyasāśtra (c.200 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) and Abhinaya Darpanam (c. 1000-1300 C.E.)

11. The mark of sindoor indicates that a woman is married. It consists of red turmeric powder (auspiciousness) which is usually applied to the center part of the woman's hair starting from the hairline on the forehead and extending a few inches towards the crown of the head. In this context it indicates the status of Radha. Though she loves Krishna, she is another's wife (parakiya).

12. This is not a given of Indian solo narrative dances. If an experienced female choreographer-dancer, as say Kalanidhi Narayanan, were to interpret the same poem, the gender and person constructions could differ.

13. Jayadeva's Gita Govinda. Love Song of the Dark Lord, 124-25

14. Bennett, Peter, “In Nanda Baba's House. The Devotional Experience in Pushti Marg Temples” in Divine Passions. The Social Construction of Emotion in India, ed. Lynch, Owen M. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 189–96Google Scholar.

15. Mulvey (18-26) uses the term “scopophilic pleasure” to identify the using of another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. See also, Grosz, 77-79.

16. Frederique Marglin cites a nineteenth century palm leaf manuscript written by a devadasi. See “Refining the Body” in Divine Passions. The Social Construction of Emotion in India, 234.

17. Perhaps there may be some correspondence between this prescribed post-performance phenomenon in Indian aesthetic theory and the state of pre-verbal completeness referred to as pre-Oedipal by psychoanalytic feminists. However, the topic would constitute a separate though related investigation.

18. Singh, Jaideva, Vijnanabhairava (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981)Google Scholar.

19. Masson, J. L. and Patwardhan, M.V., Santarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics (Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Reseach Institute, 1969), 161 Google Scholar.

20. Trimillos, Ricardo D., “More Than Art: The Politics of Performance in International Cultural Exchange.” Proceedings of a Conference of the Dance Critics Association, California State University, Los Angeles, 2 Sept. 1990, 4 Google Scholar.

21. See Phelan, Peggy, “Feminist Theory, Poststructuralism and Performance” in The Drama Review Vol. 23 no. 1 (Spring 1988): 107–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.