‘Is There Some Way I Can Reach You?’ was a revelation at many levels.
Veteran Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli premiered her latest work, ‘Is There Some Way I Can Reach You’ in Chennai in aid of CanCare Foundation, an organisation that provides palliative care at home to Cancer patients.
Though the title, taken from one of the devotional poems (‘Yedu Upaayamu’, Charukesi) in the repertoire, presupposed an inner journey or a spiritual quest, the production was really a celebration of the 15th century Telugu saint-poet Annamacharya. He is believed to have composed about 36,000 sankeertanas, all of them on Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati. Of these, only 12,000 are available today. Of them, Valli had chosen five songs, some well-known and some rare, presenting both genres - the songs addressing Venkateswara as a devotee on a spiritual plane as well as the compositions describing the very ‘human’ romance between Venkateswara and his consort Alamelumanga.
Her low-key approach with no frills, kept the poetry in the spotlight. ‘Is There…’ was meticulously planned and executed. There was music, dance and poetry in the mix as the English translations of the poems by David Shulman and V. Narayana Rao (‘God On The Hills’) read out by poet, biographer and culture commentator, Arundhathi Subramaniam, alternated with a visual representation through music and dance. This multi-pronged approach worked, especially for the rare, unheard gems that had been retrieved and dusted, and also because the artists went by a taut script.
But the going was not always smooth. The opening piece, the hauntingly beautiful ‘Sriman Narayana’ (Bowli) suffered at the hands of an uninspiring musical rendition by vocalist Murali Parthasarathy, but Valli braved this with dignity as a devotee on a padayatra to the Seven Hills. She went on to give a moving description of Venkateswara’s form, as the devotee catches a glimpse of the idol with wide-eyed wonder. Valli was at her winsome best as an angry Alamelumanga in ‘Kopamu Dhirina Meeda Koode Gaani’ (Atana). The heroine tells her husband that she will come to him only when she is done being angry with him, and that if he smiled, she would smile back because he was a big shot, cautioning him that she would still be simmering inside!
Music and dance rose to new heights, as Murali’s warmed-up voice carried the strength of an angry woman. The opening notes of the accompanists (J.B. Sruthi Sagar on the flute and K. P. Nandini on the violin) were arresting on their own, besides providing a backdrop for the heroine rejecting her husband’s advances. Valli had added a charming dialogue of swaras between them wherein Venkateswara refers to her as a flowering creeper, and she retorts that she is no clinging vine. The warmth of this portrayal was simply mesmerising. Valli’s clutter-free style of communication and her unhurried treatment, that was neither too short nor too long, made her portrayals effective.
The evocative musical score (Prema Ramamurthy, Valli) enhanced the visualisation, whether it was the tuning in mood ragas or in the introduction of melodious swara passages within other kritis. In ‘Alarulu kuriyaga’ (Sankarabharanam, Adi) that described Alamelumanga as a fleet-footed dancer charming Venkateswara with coy glances from behind a translucent curtain, short swara segments were introduced comparing the dancer to a deer (chatusra), a peacock (tisra) and lightning (khanda), cleverly using a change of scale and nadais to sound exotic. Besides the agony of the seeker brought out beautifully in Charukesi, Valli presented another rare piece, ‘Yelinavadu Thanu’ (ragamalika), depicting a heroine talking in circles, alternating between making him sound too big for her and confidently revealing that he is besotted with her. She finally discloses herself as Alamelumanga and her husband as Venkateswara. One did get the confidence of the nayika and the nayaka’s devotion to her, but one hoped the subtle tonal changes in her statements had been explained better. Valli concluded with a brisk Nrittalahari (Hamsanadam, Adi, Prema Ramamurthy). 'Is There...' was a revelation in many respects.
Keeping pace with Valli's fast-paced footwork and her penchant for frequent switches in the nadais or beats , C. K. Vasudevan (nattuvangam) and Shakthivel Muruganandam (mridangam) proved quiet but strong allies.