It is Thursday evening and I am at the NCPA Mumbai’s Tata Theatre to attend an evening of Sufi music. The above words by Inayat Khan leap out of the beautifully produced and informative programme brochure on “Sama’a The Mystic Ecstasy: Festival of Sufi Music” as I read it to familiarise myself with the programme. Though I have listened to some Sufi music over the years, I have never attended a live performance. I also do not know anything about the history of Sufism or Sufi music, for that matter, except for the fact that music is central to the core experience of Sufism. The programme brochure states that
… music is regarded as a means for the believer to get closer to the Divine. Sufi music therefore is music of the ‘soul’ by the ‘soul’ and for the ‘soul’.
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.