"See the Music, Hear the Dance" 
Alarmel Valli's synaesthetic approach 
- A Seshan, Mumbai 
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com 

September 20, 2009 

There are five sensory media for us to experience the world, viz., visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory. Synaesthesia is one sensory experience described in terms of another. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, synaesthesia is "the production of a mental sense-impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense." It is often used by poets with effect. In "I heard a Fly Buzz when I Died" Emily Dickinson uses a colour to describe a sound, the buzz of a fly, when she refers to the "blue, uncertain stumbling buzz." The common man also uses the device in conversations. Thus one speaks of loud colours. Musicologists talk about the colour of the raga. The medical fraternity considers it as a neurological disorder in a different and abnormal context, when a person associates, say, numbers with colours. It may also be experienced by persons who are high on psychedelic drugs. The expression in literature and conversations is, however, a meaningful and evocative one for the normal human being.  

A unique experiment  
Alarmel Valli (AV) was back at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on September 16, 2009 after nearly a year. Her programme attracted rasikas both because of the artiste's stature and the novel synaesthetic theme ("See the Music, Hear the Dance") chosen for the evening. The auditorium in the Experimental Theatre with a capacity to seat 300 persons was full with great expectations about the performance of the doyenne of the Pandanallur School of Bharatanatyam. They had paid Rs 200 or Rs 300 each for admission. In the review of her earlier programme at NCPA in 2008, this writer described how she had interwoven the standard elements of Margam into a theme-based dance. ("Poetry in motion: Alarmel Valli in Mumbai"https://narthaki.com/info/rev08/rev644.html). At that time, in the course of her introductory remarks, she referred to a belief in the Balasaraswati School that for a dance programme to be successful, music should be seen and dance heard by the audience. Her latest persentation was a further attempt in that experimentation.  

Javalis and Padams  
The programme under review was devoted to an exposition of javalis and padams only. It was really bold on AV's part to attempt it as they belong to the endangered species in the Bharatanatyam world. Bhajans have replaced them probably because they are easy on both the singer and the dancer. While bhajans do have a place in Bharatanatyam, it is not a good idea to move on to tillana skipping javali and padam. Surprisingly many musicians, past and present, have included them in their concerts. One remembers Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's rendition of "Parulanna mata" (Kapi) and "Smara sundaranguni" (Pharas). Ironically, while they call for the highest skills in dance and hence considered 'heavy,' musicians treat them as light items to be disposed of towards the end of the concert as 'tukkadas' (titbits) in three minutes flat like in the old 78 rpm record.  

Javalis and padams are more like fraternal, not identical, twins. They are not clones of each other. They have common characteristics as also distinct differences. Both deal with nayakas and nayikas experiencing sringara rasa. In general, javalis deal with humans while padams are god-centric. As a consequence, the language in padams is more sophisticated and refined than in javalis. The latter provide scope for sarcasm and humour. One may say that padams are expressions of bhakti sringara while javalis delineate rati sringara. Of course, there are exceptions. The tempo also is different. Javalis are medium-fast and fast (madhyama and dhurita kalas) while padams are slow (vilamba kala). Javalis provide scope for sangatis musical elaborations of a line which work like an artistic trigger to the dancer to extemporise. Later, during a discussion, AV showed how a sangati in "Janero" in Khamas inspired her to do a turn-around unexpectedly. Elongation of lines and the use of gamakas in padams could be a challenge to both the singer and the dancer. Probably because they deal with humans, there is a certain amount of vulgarity in some of the javalis. One example is Sarangapani's "Citike vesite nivanti" in Kalyani with Krishna as the nayaka. The song's content is sensuous. There are four charanams of which some consider the second ("Sarige payita") with its erotic lines as pornography. Dancers generally skip this charanam. Padams could also belong to the same genre but not to the same extent. Some of Kshetragnar's compositions (eg. Innividhamula in Mukhari) refer to physical relations between the nayaka and the nayika. It is a difference in degree and not in kind. Hence it is important for the artiste to be selective in presentation and, wherever necessary, modify or mask the mudras lest it should become a source of embarassment not only to the artiste but to the knowledgeable rasikas also. AV was careful in her selection.  

AV's presentation was an all-India premiere signifying that Mumbai and NCPA had 'arrived' in the Bharatanatyam world dominated so far by Chennai and its sabhas. She had her own misgivings as to how the Mumbai audience would receive the new format. But they were cleared soon after the commencement of the first item. The synaesthetic approach of the artiste can no better be expressed than what is contained in "On Stage," the monthly programme bulletin of the NCPA. The relative paras are reproduced below.  

"For Alarmel Valli, the connection with 'sung poetry' has been a deep and vital one. Her early training in music under the legendary musician, T Muktha, has helped shape her ideal of an intensely musical dance style. The Veena Dhanammal tradition of South Indian music was renowned for its interpretation of two specific genres of musical composition: the padam and javali. Valli describes the padam as 'musically the most sophisticated, challenging and complex of compositions, calling for great emotional depth and imagination, voice modulation and continuity, clarity and breath control.' She describes the javali as 'faster paced, with its music and characters drawn along simpler lines.' These forms of musical poetry offer dancers ample scope for individual interpretation, inspiring the dancer to 'read between the lines,' bringing in her own personal creative capacity by modulation and tonality.  

This evening is a tribute to this rich tradition of sung poetry. Here is Bharata Natyam at its subtlest and most inflected. It calls for the active imaginative engagement of artist as well as viewer. It is dance in which the artist does not merely depict or portray a narrative; instead, she honours a highly sophisticated heritage of musical poetry by allowing her body to 'listen' to it. This dynamic listening is the dance.  

In an age of speed and bravura technique, Alarmel Valli's performance chooses not to accelerate its pace or flaunt its virtuosity. Slow, meditative, emotionally complex and atmospheric, it chooses instead to explore the spaces between the words, the pauses between the notes. This is an evening that celebrates Bharata Natyam as visual poetry and visual music. An evening in which the viewer should ideally be able to in the words of Alarmel Valli 'see the music' and 'hear the dance.'"  

The programme  
In her introductory remarks, AV explained how javalis and padams call for special skills in voice modulation, breath control, etc., and how they are not light items, musically speaking. There were five songs in Charukesi, Begada, Pharas, Kambodhi and Khamas rounded off with a viruttam in Ragamalikai (Sindhubhairavi, Purvi Kalyani, Kapi, Subhapantuvarali and Madhyamavati). They included a few of the well-known compositions of great composers like Kshetragnya, the Thanjavur Quartet and Dharmapuri Subbarayar. An item-by-item review of the programme is not neessary in the case of an artiste of AV's calibre. She is known for her strict adherence to classicism and grammar. Whether it was angasuddha in adavus or kinesics or facial expressions in abhinaya she could communicate her ideas to the rasikas effortlessly. Still this writer would like to say that he considered her presentation of the Pharas javali of Dharmapuri Subbarayar ("Smara Sundaranguni') as the best in the programme. The vaggeyakara composed it as a tribute to Veena Dhanammal whose devoted fan he was. Pharas is generally accepted as a raga with suddha madhyamam, Mayamalavagaulai being the janya. But in the Dhanammal School, prati madhyamam replaces the suddha variety. When T Brinda taught the javali "Smara Sundaranguni" to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, she laid down the condition that if he ever sang that song in a concert he should use only prati madhyamam and not bring in suddha madhyamam on the ground that it was the correct swara of the raga! Semmangudi followed this instruction although musicologists had questioned its appropriateness (Sruti, June 2007). The change in madhyamam seemed to introduce a certain lilt in the dance steps an instance of seeing music and hearing dance! This javali portrays a Swadheenapatika, one of the ashta nayikas (eight types of heroine) in Indian classical dance. She typifies a woman who feels secure about the fidelity of her lover having him under her thumb and is also intensely proud of him. She is happy about her good luck in a world where nothing is permanent in human relationships. AV brought out the essence of the nayika by the spirit of joie de vivre that she displayed in her dance right from the time she entered the stage and till the end. The concluding viruttam was an extract from Kantimathi Amman Pillaittamil, which she had learnt from T Muktha, who had, in turn, taken the help of her brother T Viswanathan. It was treated like a padam. It had the stayibhava of both vatsalya and bhakti sringara communicated vividly by the artiste. It had been presented in the previous concert of AV at NCPA. This reviewer has nothing more to say than what he stated in the review of that programme. (See the link mentioned earlier.)  

The orchestra  
Besides the shimmering colours of aharya, the orchestra contributed largely to the success of the programme. Savita Narasimhan, one of the leading Carnatic musicians in the concert circuit, was the singer. She was mellifluous, soft and easy on the ears in her singing. She was particularly suited to sing padams and javalis because of the training she had had from the chitraveena exponent Ravikiran, who had learnt the compositions from T Brinda, a widely-respected authority on these forms of music and from whom leading contemporary artistes like MS and Semmangudi had taken lessons. Her articulation of words and voice modulation were such as to provide a source of inspiration to the dancer, as the latter herself said. It is a matter of satisfaction to note a recent healthy trend of leading musicians singing for dancers unlike in the past when it was considered to be infra dig. Of course, we had MS and MLV sing in dance concerts but then they did it only for their children. At Samyuktam organised in New Delhi early this year, top-ranked musicians sang for leading dancers accompanied by illustrious violinists and mridangists.  

AV is particular on this score and has an uncanny ability to choose the right singer for every one of her performances. At the last year's concert at NCPA, she had Lata Ramchand at the mike. The support from the illustrious accompanying artistes in the latest concert - Nandini (violin), Ganesh (mridangam) and Vasudevan (cymbals) was equally important to ensure the success of the programme. Nandini started well with her alapana in Charukesi setting the mood for the evening. Ganesh was soft in playing on the mridangam making sure that the attention of the audience was not diverted from the artiste. His staccato and brief strokes for the viruttam, which does not have rhythm, were appropriate. It is a moot point as to how many in the audience saw the music or heard the dance. It calls for highly evolved rasikas. But there is no gainsaying the fact that they all enjoyed the evening as they were glued to their seats.  

Chauraha discussion  
Chauraha, launched at the NCPA in January 1995, was the sponsor for the evening. It is an informal interactive art forum that is held regularly at the NCPA. The focus is on exploring a creative process rather than presenting a finished product. The forum is open to everyone and encourages discussion and exchange of creative ideas. It may include readings of drama, poetry or fiction, film screenings, presentations of work-in-progress in dance or music. The objective is to encourage the rasikas to enjoy the journey rather than reach a destination.  

After the main programme there was an interactive Chauraha discussion. AV answered the queries with demonstrations, assisted by Savita. One point that she made related to the importance of foot movements in abhinaya in javalis and padams. Generally rasikas look at the face and the body language of the artiste during this phase of Bharatanatyam as it is rasa - and bhava - oriented. There are artistes who give lecture-demonstrations while sitting on the floor. AV said that the use of the feet helps in keeping track of the rhythm. This writer pointed out that although she was presenting Bharatanatyam in a non-conventional way it was still within the classical parameters and concentrated on a couple of items in the standard repertoire. He recalled her last performance at the Tata Theatre, referred to earlier, and how he could discern the strands of Margam from Pushpanjali to Tillana in a thematic presentation. She nodded her head indicating that she agreed with the observation thus reassuring this slumdog reviewer that he was right in his understanding. But then he raised the point that although new experiments attempted in the contemporary dance format by established dancers were welcome by way of variety, they tend to take them away from their classical roots. So the question arose about the future of Margam 

Although at the beginning AV was reluctant to deal with the question when contemporary dance was mentioned as she obviously did not want to get into any controversy with her fellow artistes, she opened up on this writer's insistence. She said (not exactly in her words) art comes from within and, if an artiste could do it in contemporary dancing, it was good. She also observed that in this day and age the rasikas have neither the time nor the patience to sit through a long evening devoted to Margam. There are also not many competent nattuvanars as in the past. She exemplified her point by finishing her concert in a short span of 90 minutes followed by another 45 minutes of discussion. Many who were anxious to return home to be in readiness for the next working day left the auditorium before the discussion started. But those who remained - quite a number - enjoyed the session as much as they did the main one.  
The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.