Alarmel and Arundhathi on the sacred and the sensual

Alarmel Valli at a performance

Alarmel Valli at a performance   | Photo Credit: K.V. Srinivasan

Alarmel Valli and Arundhathi Subramaniam on the connect between the sacred and the sensual

The yearning, appeasement, intimacy, gratification — a dancer’s body engages beautifully with the many shades of love. She makes the feeling her own, before sharing it with the audience. Love being the basic emotion around which the world revolves, one that soothes the soul and calms the mind, the dancer does not even need music and words to convey its colourful layers. There cannot be creativity without passion and it defines an artiste’s personal bonding with the art.

A dancer’s eyes, lips, torso, limbs and feet embody the emotion as well as the verses on love, penned from yore, do. And when Alarmel Valli shows you how, you just decide to sit back and soak in the experience. So it was at Atimoham, the session conducted by the senior Bharatanatyam dancer and her poetess-friend and creative partner Arundhathi Subramaniam.

The presentation was part of ‘Sringaram,’ the theme of Natya Kala Conference - 2017, at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. Valli’s lec-dem on the subject made it clear that a dancer has to give it all to not make the emotion appear an illusion, even if she is perfoming a role or portraying a character.

The animating spirit cannot be faked, it has to come from within. But it is not easy to give a physical form to emotional dynamics. Despite the training and rehearsals, the feeling has to appear free and uncontrived.

What is even more difficult for many ‘modern, urban’ dancers such as Valli is to play the nayikas, who stand at the doortstep, all decked up, waiting for the beloved. “Don’t you feel it’s demeaning? Regressive? Patriarchal?” Valli recalls how a woman in the audience asked after watching her perform the varnam, about a pining nayika.

“Being the ‘modern’ woman that I am, whatever it means, it did set me thinking,” laughs Valli, who then discussed this dichotomy with her mother and confidante. And this is what her mother had to say: “It is about seeking poornatvam, an impassioned longing.” Easier said indeed! Valli returned to the Kapi Varnam to look at it in that light. “Obviously it had changed beyond recognition,” she says.

“In each line of the pallavi and anupallavi, I thought I should give expression to the two voices — the sacred and the sensual; of the woman longing for her beloved and of the devotee yearning for the Lord. The anguish and pain experienced by the nayika when rejected by Lord Siva reflected in the devotee’s anguish for not being able to reach the Lord.

“When the heroine says, ‘I long for the bliss of our union’ it flows and merges into the devotion of the devotee, who seeks the Lord’s grace for the bliss of moksha. Finally, you realise the two are faces of the same coin and the dichotomy vanishes,” explained Valli, presenting an excerpt from the varnam to back her views. “Somehow the reservations remain,” pointed out Arundhathi. “It is important how this trope is understood and negotiated by an artiste. As I began to uncover the incredible heritage of literature that we call bhakti poetry, I was compelled to reassess the breezy judgments I had made earlier.”

Defining bhakti

She went on to succinctly define ‘bhakti.’ “It is not spineless surrender or passive worship. According to bhakti poets, it’s that wild, sensual desire that has no name.”

A lover of poetry, she listed five reasons why this genre speaks to her.

“Because it asserts a fiercely one-on-one relationship with god. You are actually evesdropping on an intimate dialogue that is being conducted in the innermost recess of the heart that you are being allowed access to.”

“Because the only prerequiste to be a bhakta is to be a human and yearn.

“Because these poets have made god endearing, who is waiting to be invited by the seeker.

“Because you are free in these poems to speak to the divine in any way you choose. You can doubt this god, you can make love to him, you can personalise him, you can infantilise him, you can throw a tantrum and call it a prayer, you can hurl cuss words at him, nothing is transgressive, nothing is tabboo. Because the underlining premise here is that the bhakta and god, the lover and beloved cannot be kept apart for long.

“Lastly, because, these poems define the body as the sanctum where the sacred resides. The flesh and spirit are not treated as oppositional categories. Like Basavanna, the 12th Century Kannada poet, who said, ‘The moving temples are the ones that last, not the one in brick and mortar.’ Or Janabai, the domestic servant, in the house of Namdev, who addresses Vittala with absolute impunity. When she is tired, she asks Him to wash her hair and do her vessels.

Arundhati closed the session with an Annamacharya poem, that works perfectly as both a romantic and sacred verse. “It reminds us that God is not our boss, he is our birthright,” she concluded.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 7:42:23 PM |

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