Original Article published in Priyalasya
A student recently asked me why I couldn’t add an extra movement to fill a certain space in a Tillana I was teaching. I ask every dancer and audience member the following questions. Is every moment begging to be filled? Is less busy dancing boring you? Is allowing certain moments and movements to breathe akin to giving up control? Does logic or intuition guide choreography?
We live in a world now where everything is fast and everyone is furiously moving towards an unknown destination. There are routines and schedules to be kept, work to be done in offices, emails, texts and social media to be updated, cleaning to be done, even social encounters (the face to face kind) have a certain urgency about them. Everyone is always ‘busy’ and if one doesn’t stay busy, one is bored or not in control or faced with the illogical. There is continuous movement with hardly any pause in a world that propels you on like people going through a revolving door are, or a hamster in a cage is. One doesn’t have a choice but to keep moving or get stuck.
Is this continuous movement reflected in the Bharatanatyam choreography we see today? Performances are not more than an hour and a quarter long, and that is if you are lucky. Audiences have no patience to stay and absorb but are instead looking for a tightly packaged, spoon-fed entertainment. If a movement is repeated the mind loses interest. If every moment is not filled with movement, the choreographer’s creativity is doubted. How high can we jump, how low can we sit, how fast can we do the adavus, how continuous can our movements be so we exhibit superhuman stamina; these dominate the check list. Works of art in a museum do not move and yet you see spectators staring at them for lengths of time trying to absorb every nuance. Now imagine if those works of art were in continuous motion! Granted, Bharatanatyam is not a still-life or portrait but imagine if Bharatanatyam dancers aspired for that quality of stillness in their art.
Enter the concept of kArvai. That beautiful concept in Indian classical music and dance which denotes a holding, a pause. The mere existence of the pause makes it pregnant because there is so much said before and so much to be said after. When I learnt jatis from my guru in the elegant Vazhuvoor style, their brilliance blinded me but it was when we reached a kArvai that I froze in awe. Everything that I had danced until then sank in during that beat or two before I plunged headlong into the next sequence of brilliance.
In its simplest sense when used in Bharatanatyam, kArvai is the gap of a beat or two or sometimes more in a jati or adavu sequence. It allows the beauty of the jati to be highlighted while the dancer and spectator take a breath. In effect it is stillness. Now let us extend the idea of kArvai gradationally.
When starting a composition, for example a Varnam, if I start the attami immediately, I am just me. But if I start in stillness, there is this gift of time I give myself when I am negotiating to get under the skin of the nayika/character. In that stillness I find the transformation where I blend into her, just like a diver in a motionless arm stand before the plunge. Can we perhaps translate this to life and take this pause before every action?
Take the idea of kArvai further. When choreographing a jati in which I have built up to a speed and continuity of movement, I take a beat or two without movement. That allows the previous movement to register before I move on and gives the much needed respite to the eyes and mind (dancer’s and spectator’s) overburdened by an assault of unbroken movement. We sometimes wonder why some performances leave us with elevated tension or a headache. It is because of a lack of pause, physical and mental. My goal when I dance is to achieve a sense of peace and meditativeness and I can do this only if there are built in recesses. Life could use these recesses as well.
Moving on with kArvai, when transitioning from one movement or line to the next there is a stillness in its quality. Mind you this is not a break but a flash of lull in movement as one thought is transitioned to the next. Here there is stillness in movement. In our day to day lives, can our transitions be conscious and meaningful rather than headlong gallops?
Finding another meaning for kArvai, let us say I am in a pose but is my mind in the present moment reveling in the pose or is it thinking of the next movement? It is supremely important to do the former, as mindfulness and a sense of the present in every second is paramount to this stillness. The what comes next has to be worked out during sadhana. If I as a dancer am not in the present moment every second, the audience will not be either. We all know that being in the present moment in life is just as important.
Taking the concept of karvai to abhinaya, it exists in the moments when I listen to what the other voice is telling me. If I am executing a padam or sanchari, I am in conversation as the character with the other character in the composition. In any conversation the listener is as important as the speaker. In the stillness when I listen to what the other character is saying lies the intensity of my response to him or her. Can we listen more and talk less in our daily conversations as well?
Delving even further into kArvai, in between compositions where is the body and mind? Is the mind still living in the previous piece, basking in its glory or disappointed in its mistakes as the case may be? Is the body intent on checking the make up and appeasing vanity? The time between pieces should be spent in stillness of mind while the body refurbishes itself in readiness for the next piece. When going from one activity to another in life, do we fill that space with another tiny activity or do we take a beat?
Expanding on the meaning of kArvai, what space do we allow between performances? Do we allow ourselves the luxury of letting the body rest and rejuvenate? Do we find periods of vacuum when we allow ourselves to be a blank slate so that it can be open and receiving for new ideas? Now this is a luxury in dance and in life.
Look at nature. Hills are counterbalanced by valleys with a steady rise and fall. Trees give gentle respite in their foliage or you wouldn’t be able to see the sun. A peacock spreads its plumage only to pause in breathtaking stillness to let you admire. The waves swell and come crashing only to retreat like a child playing peekaboo. A deer looks up during a busy plant chewing session and in that moment of stillness, takes it all in.
Every moment does not beg to be filled in dance and in life. Stop. Take a beat. Relish. Restore. Find those moments of peace in stillness.
“Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear.” - Lao Tzu
By Vidhya Subramanian