Music, Hear the Dance"
September 20, 2009
There are five sensory media for us to experience the world, viz., visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory. Synaesthesia is one sensory experience described in terms of another. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, synaesthesia is "the production of a mental sense-impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense." It is often used by poets with effect. In "I heard a Fly Buzz when I Died" Emily Dickinson uses a colour to describe a sound, the buzz of a fly, when she refers to the "blue, uncertain stumbling buzz." The common man also uses the device in conversations. Thus one speaks of loud colours. Musicologists talk about the colour of the raga. The medical fraternity considers it as a neurological disorder in a different and abnormal context, when a person associates, say, numbers with colours. It may also be experienced by persons who are high on psychedelic drugs. The expression in literature and conversations is, however, a meaningful and evocative one for the normal human being.
Javalis and padams are more like fraternal, not identical, twins. They are not clones of each other. They have common characteristics as also distinct differences. Both deal with nayakas and nayikas experiencing sringara rasa. In general, javalis deal with humans while padams are god-centric. As a consequence, the language in padams is more sophisticated and refined than in javalis. The latter provide scope for sarcasm and humour. One may say that padams are expressions of bhakti sringara while javalis delineate rati sringara. Of course, there are exceptions. The tempo also is different. Javalis are medium-fast and fast (madhyama and dhurita kalas) while padams are slow (vilamba kala). Javalis provide scope for sangatis – musical elaborations of a line – which work like an artistic trigger to the dancer to extemporise. Later, during a discussion, AV showed how a sangati in "Janero" in Khamas inspired her to do a turn-around unexpectedly. Elongation of lines and the use of gamakas in padams could be a challenge to both the singer and the dancer. Probably because they deal with humans, there is a certain amount of vulgarity in some of the javalis. One example is Sarangapani's "Citike vesite nivanti" in Kalyani with Krishna as the nayaka. The song's content is sensuous. There are four charanams of which some consider the second ("Sarige payita") with its erotic lines as pornography. Dancers generally skip this charanam. Padams could also belong to the same genre but not to the same extent. Some of Kshetragnar's compositions (eg. Innividhamula in Mukhari) refer to physical relations between the nayaka and the nayika. It is a difference in degree and not in kind. Hence it is important for the artiste to be selective in presentation and, wherever necessary, modify or mask the mudras lest it should become a source of embarassment not only to the artiste but to the knowledgeable rasikas also. AV was careful in her selection.
AV's presentation was an all-India premiere signifying that Mumbai and NCPA had 'arrived' in the Bharatanatyam world dominated so far by Chennai and its sabhas. She had her own misgivings as to how the Mumbai audience would receive the new format. But they were cleared soon after the commencement of the first item. The synaesthetic approach of the artiste can no better be expressed than what is contained in "On Stage," the monthly programme bulletin of the NCPA. The relative paras are reproduced below.
"For Alarmel Valli, the connection with 'sung poetry' has been a deep and vital one. Her early training in music under the legendary musician, T Muktha, has helped shape her ideal of an intensely musical dance style. The Veena Dhanammal tradition of South Indian music was renowned for its interpretation of two specific genres of musical composition: the padam and javali. Valli describes the padam as 'musically the most sophisticated, challenging and complex of compositions, calling for great emotional depth and imagination, voice modulation and continuity, clarity and breath control.' She describes the javali as 'faster paced, with its music and characters drawn along simpler lines.' These forms of musical poetry offer dancers ample scope for individual interpretation, inspiring the dancer to 'read between the lines,' bringing in her own personal creative capacity by modulation and tonality.
This evening is a tribute to this rich tradition of sung poetry. Here is Bharata Natyam at its subtlest and most inflected. It calls for the active imaginative engagement of artist as well as viewer. It is dance in which the artist does not merely depict or portray a narrative; instead, she honours a highly sophisticated heritage of musical poetry by allowing her body to 'listen' to it. This dynamic listening is the dance.
In an age of speed and bravura technique, Alarmel Valli's performance chooses not to accelerate its pace or flaunt its virtuosity. Slow, meditative, emotionally complex and atmospheric, it chooses instead to explore the spaces between the words, the pauses between the notes. This is an evening that celebrates Bharata Natyam as visual poetry and visual music. An evening in which the viewer should ideally be able to – in the words of Alarmel Valli – 'see the music' and 'hear the dance.'"
AV is particular on this score and has an uncanny ability to choose the right singer for every one of her performances. At the last year's concert at NCPA, she had Lata Ramchand at the mike. The support from the illustrious accompanying artistes in the latest concert - Nandini (violin), Ganesh (mridangam) and Vasudevan (cymbals) – was equally important to ensure the success of the programme. Nandini started well with her alapana in Charukesi setting the mood for the evening. Ganesh was soft in playing on the mridangam making sure that the attention of the audience was not diverted from the artiste. His staccato and brief strokes for the viruttam, which does not have rhythm, were appropriate. It is a moot point as to how many in the audience saw the music or heard the dance. It calls for highly evolved rasikas. But there is no gainsaying the fact that they all enjoyed the evening as they were glued to their seats.
After the main programme there was an interactive Chauraha discussion. AV answered the queries with demonstrations, assisted by Savita. One point that she made related to the importance of foot movements in abhinaya in javalis and padams. Generally rasikas look at the face and the body language of the artiste during this phase of Bharatanatyam as it is rasa - and bhava - oriented. There are artistes who give lecture-demonstrations while sitting on the floor. AV said that the use of the feet helps in keeping track of the rhythm. This writer pointed out that although she was presenting Bharatanatyam in a non-conventional way it was still within the classical parameters and concentrated on a couple of items in the standard repertoire. He recalled her last performance at the Tata Theatre, referred to earlier, and how he could discern the strands of Margam from Pushpanjali to Tillana in a thematic presentation. She nodded her head indicating that she agreed with the observation thus reassuring this slumdog reviewer that he was right in his understanding. But then he raised the point that although new experiments attempted in the contemporary dance format by established dancers were welcome by way of variety, they tend to take them away from their classical roots. So the question arose about the future of Margam.
the beginning AV was reluctant to deal with the question when contemporary
dance was mentioned as she obviously did not want to get into any controversy
with her fellow artistes, she opened up on this writer's insistence. She
said (not exactly in her words) art comes from within and, if an artiste
could do it in contemporary dancing, it was good. She also observed that
in this day and age the rasikas have neither the time nor the patience
to sit through a long evening devoted to Margam. There are also
not many competent nattuvanars as in the past. She exemplified her
point by finishing her concert in a short span of 90 minutes followed by
another 45 minutes of discussion. Many who were anxious to return home
to be in readiness for the next working day left the auditorium before
the discussion started. But those who remained - quite a number - enjoyed
the session as much as they did the main one.