Cerebral choreography
- A Seshan, Mumbai
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com

February 14, 2012

When I dance, I feel I sing - with my body. 
– Alarmel Valli

In a Bharatanatyam (BN) programme entitled “Only until the light fades” arranged under the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai on February 9, 2012, Alarmel Valli (AV) traced love and romance over the millennia from the Sangam Age of the Tamils to the modern times. It was avant garde in artistic conception and cerebral in choreography. Although love and romance remain the same irrespective of the period, there are subtle nuances that could be highlighted. In drawing on ancient, medieval and modern poetry, she could bring out the lyricism, irony and eroticism that have evolved over the years as depicted in the classics in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu; an English poem was a bonus added to the bouquet. AV has an approach that seeks new vistas all the time for giving expression to her ideas. (“See the Music, Hear the Dance – Alarmel Valli’s Synaesthetic Approach” (https://narthaki.com/info/rev09/rev791.html).  It appeals as much to the head as to the heart.

In her introduction to the programme, Arundhathi Subramaniam, an eminent poet of Mumbai, who collaborated with AV, gave a good account of the genesis of the concept behind the title. She was followed by AV who introduced each item in a clear manner to an audience that was cosmopolitan and not conversant with either Tamil or Sanskrit or Telugu.

One interesting aspect of AV’s choreography in general is that she incorporates all the essential elements of BN, even if it does not follow the traditional repertoire of Margam but is theme based (“Poetry in Motion”, https://narthaki.com/info/rev08/rev644.html).  This was evident again in the programme under review. Right in the very first item there was the depiction of navarasas. We saw the portrayal of virahotkanthita and khanditanayikas. From Bhoja to Kurunthogai and a javali it was smooth transition. The Tamil piece dealt with the nayika feeling the pangs of separation from the lover (viraha) aggravated by local gossip. From there to the khandita (angry) nayika of the javali it was a big jump managed effortlessly in terms of emotive expression. The nayika is boiling with rage over the infidelity of her dubious lover. She shows the door to the nayaka and tells him to go to the other woman for comfort. The sheer look of contempt on her face should have sent shivers down the spine of the nayaka who was a scoundrel and made him feel ashamed of his amorous adventures.  The Telugu javali in Bilahari was something special because it was the first of the genre that she had learnt from T Muktha, the celebrated member of the Dhanammal School of music. Then followed a piece from Kalitthokai set to music by Prema Ramanathan about a girl who schemes to fall in the hands of her shy lover while on a moving swing. Her sachi drishti spoke of her love more than what a thousand words would have described.  The depiction of the swing created the mood for the anticipated climax.
Before introducing the title piece “Only until the light fades” that was an extract from a  poem (‘Vigil’) by Arundhathi, AV gave an elaborate explanation as to how she hit upon the idea of dancing to English poetry after extensive discussions with the poet. In an authentic article on the Pandanallur bani, AV had recalled how her mentor Subbaraya Pillai always emphasized that music needed to be internalized before it could flow as a movement and he would sternly warn her against pre-composing adavu structures and grafting them on to the song  (Shanmukha, Oct-Dec 2010, Special Issue on ‘Banis of Bharatanatyam and Recent Trends’). Abhinaya was a challenge. She said that a song provided only the framework or outline  for dancing; the dancer had to fill it in with her own imagery. It was true of the English poem also. When she works with poetry, she not only tries to translate it through dance, but also weave her own dance poem around the word poem. I feel that if this is the approach in choreography then the language of the song is immaterial.

One verse of ‘Vigil’ was translated into and sung in Tamil to highlight the unique, eternal and yet contemporary, timeless and topical quality of love. The poem was about the heroine waiting for the lover to turn up only until the light fades. Presenting irony was a problem that AV tried to solve successfully. A novelty was the use of sanchari bhavas to depict the twilight scene that was convincing. Sanchari bhavas are generally used either for story telling or for emotional expression. AV provided  a third dimension by using them to depict nature’s varied hues, the rain drops, the closing of the lotus flower, etc., all of which provided the ambience to appreciate the movements. Thanks to Rajkumar Bharathi, the composer, the innovation was successful with imaginative music. AV danced as Arundhathi read her poem followed by swaras and a Tamil translation of one of the verses by Prasanna Ramaswamy presenting an ironic portrait of the nayikas of the past. The shifting of the raga from Kambhoji to Hamsanandi signaled the transformation of the day into twilight.

In general, the hip, neck and head movements, deep-seated positions, talukkus, kulukkus and the firm finger tips in hasta mudras while maintaining the fluidity of the movements of the arms – all capped by Natya Dharmi - were typical of the Pandanallur style of which she is the torch bearer. Occasional Odissi touches, thanks to her training under Kelubabu, meshed neatly with BN and enhanced the aesthetic appeal.  The only missing feature was utplavanas (jumps). But then I understand that Thanjavur and Pandanallur banis are earth bound! As mentioned in my review of AV’s synaesthetic approach, gamakas, trills, pauses and elongated notes in music found their corresponding expressions in dance. Anga suddha of adavus, perfect adherence to kalapramanam, etc., are all standard features of an accomplished dancer and they can be taken for granted in a performance of an artiste of the calibre of AV.

The ragas were chosen appropriate to the rasas inherent in the songs. I was particularly impressed by the alapana of Bageswari by the violinist. It touched the right emotive chords of the rasikas. It was heart rending and set the mood for the viraha of the nayika. The success of the programme owed in a great measure to good support from the wings: Nandini Anand Sharma (vocal), C K Vasudevan (nattuvangam), KC Nandini (violin) and Sakthivel (mridangam).  Certainly the live orchestra enhanced the quality of the whole show.

It was chilly in the open air theatre at the Cross Maidan with the city setting a record in recent years for the minimum temperature below 10° Celsius. But the large audience stayed glued to the seats as the programme was as unusual as the February weather.

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.