Last Saturday, I attended a dance performance after many years—”Only Until the Light Fades: Love in Dance and Poetry”, a bharatanatyam performance by noted danseuse Alarmel Valli at the Tata Theatre of the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) in Mumbai. This performance, which was part of the NCPA’s ongoing Nakshatra Dance Festival, was conceptualised in collaboration with the noted poet, Arundhati Subramaniam.
When I set out for the NCPA that evening, all I knew was that I was going for Alarmel Valli’s bharatanatyam performance at my favourite theatre in Mumbai and unaware that I was attending the premiere of a special production. I was also unaware of the fact that this was the first time that Alarmel Valli would be performing to an English poem, or even the fact that the theme of the dance performance was love and poetry!
“Only Until the Light Fades…” explored love through poetry in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and English from the Sangam Period to the medieval period to contemporary times and through the narration of a teenager, the feelings of a woman desolate in love, the actions of a jealous lover, and through the questioning thoughts of a contemporary Indian poet writing in English.
The dance programme was quite unusual in that there was no bhakti element at all. Alarmel Valli’s opening dance item was an invocation to love, instead of the conventional invocation to Ganesha or Saraswati. And yet it also followed the conventional pattern of a bharatanatyam performance by beginning with an invocation and ending with a tillana.
Shringara, an invocation to love, was followed by a dance set to Raga Shivaranjani. In this piece, love is desolate, bleak, and lonely. The nayika is tormented by (lost?) love and the cold, foggy winter nights and the distant tinkle of the bell around a buffalo’s neck makes her feel this loss even more keenly.
The next dance was a jaavali in Raga Saveri, about a woman who has discovered her lover’s dalliance with another woman. Angry and jealous, she rebuffs his advances taunting him that she will not accept embraces from arms that were “used” on another woman. A teenager’s tryst with love was the theme for the next dance item, wherein the nayika coyly narrates to her friend about how she pursued and persuaded a young handsome hunter to pay her attention. And how did she achieve this? By swooning in his arms, after plotting and getting him to push her on a swing!
A dance item, choreographed around an English poem by Arundhati Subramaniam was next. Titled “Vigil”, the poem’s narration was seamlessly juxtaposed with music composed by Rajkumar Bharathi and set to a Ragamalika of Charukeshi, Hamsanandi, Vijayanagara and Sucharita. One paragraph of “Vigil” was translated into and sung in Tamil to emphasise and reiterate “the unique, eternal and yet contemporary, timeless and topical” quality of love. Alarmel Valli ended her dance programme with a tillana in Raga Rasikapriya.
Alarmel Valli’s green and gold costume was perfect for the theme of love. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I felt that the green colour changed shades depending on the context: from a fresh leafy green for the teenaged nayika, to a dull green for the desolate nayika, and a dark green for the jealous nayika.
I was initially apprehensive about a bharatanatyam item being performed to an English poem as the idiomatic expressions for both are so different, a concern that was shared by Alarmel Valli herself in the introductory talk to this dance item. But I need not have worried because once she started performing, all that mattered was her expression and the music, which was beautiful. In fact, the music chosen for all the dance items were perfect, especially Raga Shivranjani to depict desolate love—every plainative note of the raga only emphasised the desolation of the nayika. It also did not matter that I do not know Telugu or colloquial Tamil, and have only a basic understanding of Sanskrit. Through Alarmel Valli’s dance, I could understand every nuance, every expression, the humour, the satire, the angst, in all the compositions. In fact for every dance item, I felt that “I” was that nayika.
Since I have very conventional tastes where classical music and dance are concerned, it was probably a good thing that I was unaware of the programme details; I might not have gone if I had known that one of the dance items was an English poem. I feel privileged to have been a member of the audience at the premiere of “Only until the light fades…”. This heady cocktail of love, poetry and bharatanatyam was a treat the senses.