Poetry, music and movement blend in the crucible of devotion

Annamacharya is a dancer’s delight, his songs lending themselves to abhinaya and choreography. But this is only one aspect of the divine poet’s repertoire, vouches Bharatanatyam expert Alarmel Valli, who is soaking in the lyrical beauty of the Telugu compositions.

“This production, 'Is there some way I can reach you?' was first premiered at NCPA (National Centre for The Performing Arts) at the 'Stark Raving Mad festival on Bhakthi poetry, that poet Arundhathi Subramaniam curated. The idea, initially, was to include Kshetragna too but it was a divine hand that deftly directed me in the direction of Annamacharya,” explains Valli, who is presenting the programme for the Chennai audience on September 20 at The Music Academy, for Cancare. It is promoted by Shriram Properties.

“Annamacharya’s songs are regular in my programme but they are the well-known ones. What I plunged into was a treasure trove,” observes Valli, who adds that David Shulman’s translation opened her eyes. She read his book, God on the Hill, co-authored by V Narayana Rao. The catalyst was poet Arundathi Subramanyam. The idea, initially, was to present both Annamayya and Kshetragna. Eventually, Valli decided to make it exclusively on Annamacharya.

According to Valli, Alarmelmanga, consort of Venkatesa and the heroine of Annamayya’s poems, has so much in common with the contemporary woman. “Beneath the seemingly romantic, even erotic, syntax, lie layers to be explored. With a dancer’s perception, V.A.K. Ranga Rao explained the poems,” says Valli. Ranga Rao, who initially had reservations about the selection came back with the comment, “Each is a jewel.”

Valli has indeed chosen five gems for the presentation, beginning with ‘Sriman Narayana...’ “It is a familiar song and will strike a chord in the viewer. More important, it is a padayatra, journey to Tirumala; at a much higher plane, to Venkatesa’s lotus feet. “The Bowli song is special for me. My mind always goes back to the moment I heard the song at Tirumala. That was the time MS’s cassette of Annamacharya’s songs was released. Waiting for Suprabhata Seva under a champaka tree, I was transported to a different world by the mist and fragrance that blended with the song wafting from a distance. It was a moment of epiphany. I have woven in a depiction of the Pada Yatra to Tirupati.

Valli marvels at the metaphors that enrich ‘Kopamutheerina,’ the second song. “It is the couple’s bedchamber and an angry Alarmelmanga rebuffs the advances of Venkateswara, who knows not how to mollify her. The subtlety, sarcasm and imagery make the song highly poetic. Her anger melts away and she surrenders but not before conveying her feelings with a stamp that would do today’s Woman proud.”

‘Aralarukuriyaga’ is a vivacious number that brings out the celestial dancer in Alarmelmanga. Set in the raga Charukesi, ‘Yedu upayamu’ expresses the agony of a devotee, who wants to reach the Lord. That also is the title of the presentation.

The Behag piece finds Alarmelmanga at her provocative best. Tongue in cheek, she describes the greatness of her consort only to state that she has wrapped him round her little finger.

“It was nothing but Annamayya during the months I prepared. Internalisation was indispensable for communication and choreography,” says Valli, who thanks Prema Ramamurthi, tunesmith. “She has captured the mood of each song in the appropriate raga and always took the dancer’s viewpoint into account.”

With Arundathi reading the English version of the poems, the presentation will be a meeting ground of poetry, music and dance. “Verse is the finest form of art and when set to music and offered in the form of natya, that dance becomes poetry in movement. With bhakti running as a silver thread, ‘Is there some way I can reach you?’ is also my personal offering to the Lord of Seven Hills,” concludes Valli.

Poet's take

“Compiling an anthology of bhakti poetry, I read David shulman’s book, God on the Hill. So moved I was by his translation that I shared it with many people including Valli,” recalls Arundathi Subramaniam on her involvement with the production.

“Valli was so fascinated by the book, she wanted to exclusively feature Annamayya for the programme I was curating for NCPA. I happily agreed,” says Arundathi, who feels English as the common medium played a big role in uniting the audience. “Annamayya’s poetry has complex layers, which Shulman’s translation unfolds. Valli’s presentation in Mumbai was marked by exuberance, born out of her understanding,” says Arundathi.

“Music, dance or reciting, whatever the idiom chosen, it is a celebration of the poet, Annamayya, whose poems are unabashedly erotic, underlining the fact that spirituality is not prudery,” laughs the poet, who will be reading the poems at the Music Academy.