A larmel Valli is a woman of many delightful lines, in dance and speech. She sees her dance as being eternally relevant, striving for, as poet Arundhathi Subramaniam puts it, an alchemy of the classical arts that turns the ‘then and there' into the ‘here and now.' Music and poetry are at the core of her being; she is endearingly passionate as she talks about her dance gurus, Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and his son, Subbaraya Pillai, and her music guru, the legendary T. Muktha, almost lapsing into song as she describes the mellow pauses and the undulating gamakas that she hopes to mirror in dance. Recently, she presented two works in Mumbai — old and new: ‘Samanvaya,' a collaborative work with Madhavi Mudgal that has evolved over two decades, and ‘Only Until the Light Fades,' which she terms a “subjective and eclectic journey through the theme of love.” Excerpts from an interview…
On ‘Samanvaya' and the codes of artistic exchange
I am essentially a soloist. It is the form in which I come into my own, where I am mistress of my dancing space. I can sculpt it as I choose, create my own designs, paint with my own colours. While neither Madhavi Mudgal nor I view ‘Samanvaya' as our core body of work, it is a concept which stands by itself – a production that has grown and evolved over the years, just as we have grown creatively. The uniqueness of this presentation does not lie in the novelty of two different dance styles coming together, though its unusual nature is one of its elements. We conceived it as a cohesive artistic experience – the graceful, flowing movements of Odissi, juxtaposed against and acting as a foil to the linear dynamism and geometry of Bharatanatyam.
Working with Madhavi was both enriching and artistically challenging. ‘Samanvaya' is not about one-upmanship. When two dancers from different dance styles come together, you have perforce to adapt to one another and, to an extent, curb your individuality. What emerges from this process cannot be viewed in the context of our solo work; we do not claim that it represents the height of artistic expression in Bharatanatyam or Odissi. It exists as a third dimension, situated within its own frame of reference. It is a fresh artistic experience that must be received with an open mind.
Every minute detail in ‘Samanvaya' was carefully planned and worked out – such as a turn of the head, or the raising of a foot. The concluding piece took us 10 days merely to conceptualise, and nearly six months before we felt it was ready to be presented. We wanted our work to be an aesthetic experience, where the strands of Odissi and Bharatanatyam were interwoven into a harmonious design – rather than one composed of disparate elements, like oil and water.
Musicality and lyricism are intrinsic to my style of dance. I remember Balasaraswati once saying that abhinaya could not be taught. At that time, I wondered what she meant. But studying music with Mukthamma was a revelation and helped me evolve a style where gamakas, trills and pauses in the music found expression in corresponding movements of the body. My ideal of dance is one where you can see the music and hear the dance. When I dance, I feel I sing – with my body.
On the challenges of working with English poetry
A journalist once asked me about choreographing English poetry in dance. At that time, I said it was unlikely that I would ever work on an English poem, as I did not feel it was suitable for interpretation in Bharatanatyam. Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet I immensely admire, one with whom I share many common artistic and aesthetic ideals. The concept for ‘Only Until the Light Fades' grew out of a discussion on love poetry between Arundhathi and me. Her English poem, ‘Vigil,' was written with Indian dance in mind and has a timeless quality to it that made it easier to render. Choreographing it has been deeply fulfilling, but also enormously challenging. When I work with a poem, I not only try to translate it through dance, but also weave my own dance poem around the word poem. Arundhathi's poetry is rich in metaphor, cadenced, with arresting tonal shifts. The challenge was to interpret its complexities and many layers while capturing its gentle irony and its contemplative, yet sensual tone, and evoking the richness of its metaphors.
Composing the right kind of music for the poem was a daunting task. I was remarkably fortunate to have the inputs of noted composer Rajkumar Bharathi, who gave ‘Vigil' an underlying fabric of melody, a melodic palimpsest. The ragas were chosen to mirror the tonal shifts in the poem. One of the verses has been translated into Tamil by Prasanna Ramaswamy; it paints an ironic portrait of the heroines of yesteryear – “The women in those poems I've ritually deplored.” This gives the poem a sung dimension and suggests the shift in time and mood.
My choice of ‘Vigil' for interpretation in Bharatanatyam was not dictated by any desire to present something novel or ‘fashionably correct.' It was a poem that struck a chord deep within me, to which I wanted to give a visual and melodic dimension, just as I would to a Sangam poem that moved me.
Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar
When I dance, I feel I sing — with my body