Article originally published in Aalaap as part of Behind the Scenes: Mini - Stories on Productions
As a teenager I was offered roles in films as I am sure were many dancers, but didn’t
accept any of them. Years later when asked to act in a play about a Carnatic musician, I
thought well, Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are close sisters, it can’t be that much
of a deviation. My curiosity piqued, I decided to give it a shot but with apprehension.
Little did I know how much work I would have to put in, and that acting would develop
into another passion. I went on to be in a few more plays and even a couple of short
films. This past May, I played the lead role in a production called ‘Noor – Empress of the
Mughals’, produced by Enacte, and written and directed by Feisal Alkazi, theatre
director and son of Ebrahim Alkazi.
I had worked on a project produced by Enacte with Jean Claude Carriere. When asked to
attend auditions for their next production Noor, I was anxious since it was a subject I
was unfamiliar with, and I would be sharing space with some veteran actors in the bay
area. What am I, a Bharatanatyam dancer doing trying to perform the role of a Mughal
queen ahead of her times? Deciding to take a chance, I went to the reading/auditions,
got called back, and got the part. This process itself was interesting to me. For a dancer
every day is an audition with self isn’t it? If I conquer one day’s audition, I get called
back to the next one, and the process continues until it is performance time which itself
is like an audition.
We started with a theatre workshop that had nothing to do with the play, or so I
thought. Theatre actors are familiar with these workshops designed to decompress -
physical exercises, role-play exercises, eye contact exercises etc. There were some that
required me to take giant steps out of my comfort zone but were extremely effective in
shedding the ‘I’ in me. Indian classical dance on the contrary is essentially a solo art in
which the dancer revels in one’s own world of ideas, thoughts, choreography, practice,
and performance. We come together with musicians for rehearsal and performance, but
rarely do we workshop or perform exercises for the sole purpose of breaking down
barriers and developing a spirit of fellowship. Harmonizing into an integrated group
could happen over a period of time if one is fortunate enough to work with the same set
of musicians. Could the dance field perhaps benefit from workshop and exercise to
enable a higher level of cohesiveness in performance?
Next came the rehearsals. Feisal did not want us to memorize lines and come with
preset notions of how to perform the character. We met with other actors who would
be sharing scenes with us to examine Mughal history (fact and fiction), analyze our own
character as well as others’, and interpret relationships between characters. We read
the scenes each time with different renditions, digging deep into our psyche. What were
Noor’s motives in her choice of certain words in any given line? Who was Asaf Khan
referring to when he spoke a particular line? How many different ways could Jahangir
vocalize the same line? And so on. Feisal repeatedly asked the actor to unearth as many
ways as possible to present the character and then to decide on one that “worked”.
Additionally, we actors had to identify people in our own lives that resembled our own
character as well as others’. This helped me identify better with Noor, a woman far
removed from my world, yet not very different from me. In dance we have the process
of understanding the lyrics, music, the thought process behind an idea. I read and re-
read the lyrics until I’ve internalized them, although every time I practice or perform a
piece, it undergoes nuanced changes. I also find ways to identify with the character I’m
portraying in abhinaya, to make her more accessible to me in the context of my life.
Conviction of portrayal arises from this, and if I’m not convinced, the audience definitely
won’t be. During one of the rehearsals, while playing my climactic scene, I cried as the
character, with the character and for the character. I have experienced this in dance as
well when I feel as the character and simultaneously look at the character with the
empathetic outsider’s view.
Acting involves abhinaya. The natyadharmi style is already a subtle version of abhinaya.
While acting however, I was told to moderate facial expressions and gestures
considerably, something a dancer has a difficult time of. To wipe the slate clean of
gestures and expressions I am used to in dance, and add minimally to the role of Noor
was challenging. Dialog delivery is a whole new skill to be learnt - modulation, image
association with each line, diction, and memorization of pages and pages of dialog!
Voice projection became my biggest challenge since I have an inherently soft voice and
this was the first time I was acting without mikes. When dancing I have only my
emotion-triggered expressions and gestures to project to the last person in the last row.
Somehow I find this easier than throwing my voice to the last row. However, I am
learning to internalize this modulation and developing a depth of expression in
In theatre, I feed off the energy of the group, making for a palpable, electric spirit. In
dance, I tap into an internal energy that is more meditative and involved. Whether
before dancing or acting, I am possessed by the character from the moment I get my
costume and make up on. My body and mind go into a sort of trance, drawing a blank,
and ready to experience with a sense of alertness. All of these combine to result in a
sensation I never want to stop experiencing.
The contrast between my dance and acting is deliciously inspiring, and the nuances I
borrow from each to feed the other can be endless. I feel the lines blur. Am I dancing
Noor or acting a nayika? This is a cross-pollination that allows me to straddle the two
creatively challenging arts.
By Vidhya Subramanian