A chance encounter leads a poet to an epiphany. Arundhathi Subramaniam on how she rediscovered Bharatanatyam, a lost childhood love
My love of classical dance started early. As did, I confess, my impatience.
At first, poetry and dance seemed equally magical, sharing much in common. Prose (or at least my perception of grown-up speech) seemed to be rudimentary locomotive language—pedestrian and unsurprising. But poetry was language that danced. It was language with turbines. Kinetic language. It could leap, resist gravity. Like dance, it could fly.
I remember first watching Bharatanatyam as an enthralled four-year-old, dazzled by the beauty of its costume and ornamentation, its sensuous iconography. There was also an inarticulate excitement about the throbbing geometry of the form, its pulsating lines, its vigour, its exactitude.
It was in my adolescence that the discomfort began. That the dominant preoccupation was love didn’t bother me. Indeed, I relished the stylisation, the grandeur and heightened intensity of emotion. I could see that unreliable male lovers were not exactly a dated preoccupation. I even empathised. It was the servility of love that troubled me: the fact that so much poetry seemed to feature women whose lives were entirely predicated on the presence (and often, absence) of their lovers. And was this preening and pouting, this farcical spectacle of self-decoration and mock-rebuke a real resolution? Surely, as viewers, we deserved something more psychologically credible, less stereotypic, more true? Besides, if growing up meant becoming a puppet of a male consort’s whimsical behaviour, it seemed like adulthood was emphatically not a state to which to aspire.
Many years later, when the choreographer Chandralekha told me that she despised “the diabolical smiles” of Bharatanatyam dancers, it struck a chord. For a long time, I had felt that the classical dance around me trivialised something authentic and deeply vital. The fact is that by the time I was a young adult, I was secretly bored. The magnificent complexity of human love had turned—or so it seemed to me—into a parody of femininity on the dance stage.
The problem was compounded by many dancers’ genteel haste to turn sexual desire into ethereal devotion. In their introductions to their padams, several were eager to declare that they didn’t portray “mere” erotic love. What they presented was nothing less, they claimed, than the jivatma, the individual soul, yearning for union with the paramatma, the universal soul. Nothing horrific and hormonal here. It was all pure and ennobling—so spiritual, in fact, that it seemed to be pure vapour! Explosive desire was now no more than a vapid pantomime of coquettish moues and grimaces.
Interestingly, in the process, both sexual desire and spiritual desire—shringara and bhakti—dissolved into spineless surrender. Both seemed to entail a meltdown into a jellyfish state of abjectness and servitude. As a young female viewer, I knew I wanted none of either—not this caricature of love and certainly not this caricature of devotion.
It was decades later that the other discoveries happened—discoveries that gradually compelled me to re-examine some of my ideas about dance and love poetry.
First, I began to appreciate the difference between a good dancer and a mediocre one. With the latter, shringara turned into a cloying charade of simpering and mock peevishness—a kind of flirting in medieval fancy dress. With a good dancer, love was a much more complicated beast. Even the protagonist’s acceptance of the wayward lover, I sensed, was often a temporary truce—precarious, hard-won and fragile.
The next huge personal discovery was the literary heritage of Indian love poetry. It wasn’t merely the bards of courtly secular love—Amaru and Kalidasa—that I grew to relish. It was also the voices of sacred poetry—Vidyapati and Chandidas, Nammalvar and Akka Mahadevi—and their incredibly rich, unabashed articulations of erotic love. When I first encountered Annamacharya, the 15th-century mystic poet, in English translations by V Narayana Rao and David Shulman, I remember a sense of elation. After years of mentally dismissing the padam as a creaky, overwrought form with antiquated gender politics, I began to realise just what a complex entity it was—not just musically, but poetically.
Richly textured, tonally sophisticated, these poems were testament to the complexity of romantic love and spiritual longing. This wasn’t the pat jivatma-paramatma rhetoric spouted by the tired Bharatanatyam dancer looking for a nritya reprieve before her tillana. This was a dazzling combination of abandon and refinement, of shringara and bhakti, a desire for union and extinction, of desire for the other and for the end of otherness, all at once. This was poetry that understood the dangerous dance of the questor or bhakta—a dance in which the erotic is inseparable from the existential, the sensuous from the sublime, the material from the metaphysical.
As my own spiritual journey grew personally important, I grew aware of just how cavalier some of my previous judgments had been. Above all, I realised how insidiously I had fallen into the trap of conceptually fragmenting the sacred and the secular. I had assumed—naively—that the existential quest could be pursued with one autonomous crevice of the human mind or heart. However, if there is one piece of furniture that is impossible for the seeker to make her peace with, it is the closet. The existential journey, by definition, implicates the human being in entirety—body, mind, heart, gut, everything between and beyond. The mystic poets knew this a long time ago. They knew that their journey was one from the piecemeal to the whole. On that journey, many truths have to be acknowledged that are inconvenient to ideologues on both sides of the sacred-secular divide. Amongst them is the fundamental fact that the this-worldly and other-worldly, the profane and sacred, are inseparable.
For years, as a woman poet, I had been wary of acknowledging the “spiritual” because I believed it entailed an amputation of physicality. Given how recently women all over the world had acquired the right to have bodies, I was in no hurry to turn into an anaemic, bloodless sprite. But then, I realised that no desire is or has ever been monochromatic. Which is why the finest sacred poetry of this subcontinent is such a deep acknowledgement—even a celebration—of the mysteries of the human body.
My love of poetry had already helped me see just how effortlessly spiritual the sensuous can be. I now began to realise just how sensuous the spiritual can be—how deeply carnal human devotion, in fact, is. Examples abounded. There was the fierce mutuality of desire between Krishna and Radha in the “Gita Govinda”, Jayadeva’s 12th-century opus. Here the divine pines desperately for the human, reminding us, as only poetry can, of the spurious dichotomy between spirit and flesh. There was Soyarabai, the 14th-century Marathi Dalit woman saint, who proudly celebrated menstrual blood in sacred verse, interrogating notions of impurity in caste, gender and conventional religion in a single poem. There was 12th-century Kannada mystic Basavanna’s legendary proclamation that “the moving temples are the ones that last”, reminding us that the body is the supreme sanctum of ultimate truth. And there was 10th-century Tamil poet Nammalvar’s arresting metaphor of “eating God” to suggest the ravenous nature of the spiritual appetite.
What these poets point to is not some pat sublimation, as I had so breezily concluded. They point instead to alchemy—the alchemy of a crazy, tearing, all-encompassing desire called bhakti. Here is a profound acknowledgement that there is nothing sanitised and insipid about human desire. Lust, whether it is an appetite for the human or the divine, is a deeply complex business.
And so, it was with a more considered and less arrogantly judgmental understanding of desire, art and the existential quest that I began to approach my old love, Bharatanatyam, all over again. The unease remained. But I now knew it couldn’t be resolved simply by pat gender role reversals or with some jingoistic notion of “relevant” content.
Some years ago, I entered into an unexpectedly long telephonic conversation with dancer and friend, Alarmel Valli.
I have long known Valli as an artist of exceptional subtlety and refinement. I was aware of how her early training under the legendary musician, T Muktha, had helped shape her ideal of an intensely musical dance style—one that empowered her to navigate the connections between text and music, seeing them as being as deeply linked “as the word and its meaning”. Above all, I knew Valli as a dancer of integrity—one who has never flaunted her considerable prowess to suit an age of speed and bravura technique.
On this occasion, our conversation turned to our mutual fascination with love poetry. As a poet, I was acutely aware of the challenges of this genre. With language hardening into cliché at every moment through misuse and overuse, with the deadening avalanche of greeting card verse around us, can anything new be said about love at all? It doesn’t stop poets from adding to the chorus, of course, and never has! But the challenge is perennial: to produce utterances that are capable of evoking familiarity and surprise at the same time.
Valli pointed out that the dancer’s challenge was even more complex, given the deep connection of Indian classical dance to a heritage of centuries-old love poetry. The challenge was to turn classic metaphors into a green living language—to keep turning the “then and there” into the “here and now”; to renew the archetype of love without falling prey to the stereotypes of love.
We discussed the dodgy question of contemporaneity—how easily the topical can be mistaken for the relevant. How often the politically bludgeoning statement masquerades as cutting-edge, despite its frequent aesthetic tepidity. We moved on to the very questions that had plagued me long ago, as a young dance viewer. How relevant is the dancer’s repertoire of love lyrics? Does it still speak to us? Does it still offer metaphors that resonate with own life experience? Or has the yearning classical heroine turned into an overused motif?
The problem that assailed classical dance, Valli insisted, was not its repertoire, but mystification. “We’re guilty of mystifying not just Bharatanatyam but also modern dance. The tragedy is that we’re buying into interpretations by a small clique of opinion-makers who pose questions of rank ignorance: Why doesn’t Indian dance have floor movements? Why do Indian dancers look happy when they dance? Why the obsession with beauty? Why the same old margam? Why not something ‘contemporary’?”
The result, she asserted, was the slew of politically correct innovations we saw around us, so many of which are more rhetoric than substance. “I am not a conservative, but I am against the ‘What’s New Syndrome’—experimentation without soul or substance. And I’m against gatekeepers whose apparent liberalism is reverse dogmatism.”
As Valli and I reflected on some of these pet preoccupations, we began discussing a spectrum of love poems that still spoke to us. As we tried to understand the source of their aliveness, we talked of poems in various modes—erotic and elegiac, ironic and jubilant, lyrical and witty, passionate and enraged. We travelled varied chronological terrain—poems of the ancient Tamil Sangam anthologies, Sanskrit verses by Kalidasa, as well as Telugu padams by Annamacharya. Suddenly, the outlines of an entire production based on love poetry, began to emerge.
Since our conversation implicated modern love poetry, we discussed contemporary verse as well. I sent Valli various poems as possible catalysts. She eventually chose a poem of mine entitled “Vigil”—an interesting choice because it had been written with classical dance in mind. A reflection of my own ambivalence towards the archetypal woman in love, the poem reflected my impatience with her willingness to wait for her paramour—a man congenitally incapable of monogamy or punctuality! But it also reflected my fascination with medieval Indian love poetry and its sumptuous lyricism. And while it oscillated between irony and lyricism, resistance and passion, it also mirrored my growing hunch that waiting isn’t just a matter of passivity; that it could also mean a dynamic responsiveness, a radical receptivity.
Both Valli and I knew there would be additional challenges. On the one hand, with its self-aware female protagonist, the poem seemed an appropriate finale to the performance. But would an English poem work in the context of Bharatanatyam? Could the spoken poetic line coexist with classical music? Could classical dance invoke this typically modern ambivalence of tone that combined tenderness and irony, a yearning for dissolution and autonomy, union and independence?
The questions were many. However, once I entrusted the poem to Valli, I gratefully handed over creative responsibility as well. And the faith I reposed in her was not misplaced. Much later, watching her perform the poem in cities as diverse as Mumbai, London, Kolkata and Chennai, I realised that she had, in fact, made the poem her own. I also realised that the finest dancers never visually paraphrase a poem; they allow their bodies to listen to it. That dynamic listening is the dance. For me, watching Alarmel Valli perform “Vigil” is a reminder of just what that listening means.
Revisiting this production for shows this year in Bengaluru has been a chance for Valli and me to reflect on what this journey represents to each of us. For Valli, I believe, this production has been about exploring the seamlessness between the classical and the contemporary. She approaches the modern love poem as she approaches the medieval one. The logic is the rationale of Bharatanatyam in which she has never lost faith. She locates the sthayi bhava, the central emotion, and embroiders various sancharis, auxiliary psychological states, around it.
For me, this production is also about acknowledging a connection between “the barrenly rational and hermetically sacred”. It is about not resting content with the impoverishing polarities presented to us by a fragmented world—a world that encourages us to forget that our essential nourishment lies in the mainsprings of wonder, joy and the wild, transformative creative desire that some call shringara and others bhakti. The nomenclature, I realise, doesn’t matter. It never has. We don’t need to choose. We don’t need to divide. We need both. We need them urgently. They are our birthright.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.