Arpith Siromoney đź’¬

Alarmel Valli and Keechaka

It was early in the morning, too early to see much yet, and already there were men on their commute over the bridge, riding their bikes through the quiet of the dawn. It was breaking over the mist, slowly lighting the lake and the sky around the ghostly clouds and lotus leaves in their darkness. And the tree in the middle was silhouetted black, its leaves clinging to the beautiful sky a little more dearly than its roots below on the island seemingly afloat in the surreal water.

Valli has really beautiful feet, the grace with which she quietly declares her point bestows a sense of honour, pride, on her anklets, a joyful performance in service. And the voice with which she danced was as wonderful as the dance itself: the story of the young Krishna as he yearns for the moon was recited with credible child-like wonder. Even the rapport she enjoys with her accompanists inspires, the sense of a classical aesthetic included her entrance, the tinkle of her anklets in step with her percussionist. They sat on the left end of the stage, facing her, on a little platform of a counterpoint to the statue of Nataraj on the right. And she danced in the middle, sometimes darting this way, sometimes that, never too close to the accompanists, never more than a third of the stage trod on; her presence is tremendous, one couldn’t help feeling that she only just barely fit in the room, so much of the stage was needed to hold her. I wondered what it would be like on a mountain under the sky, with only the horizon a distant boundary for her.

This restraint carried through her voice as she gently lead us through a description before each dance. For a performance so physical, her diction displayed remarkable control in her introduction to the next piece even as she declined to comment on the message, her reaction breaking through only when she mentioned she wasn’t suggesting elopement as a solution. This was before the tale she had chosen from the Kalithokai, the wise men recommending an anxious mother learn to let go of her daughter, recently eloped. As she performed it, Valli’s rendition of the sandalwood tree that must sacrifice for the sake of fragrance betrayed no commentary on her part. On the other hand, Keechaka of the Kathakali performance that ended the evening had no such inhibitions. He was glorious in his villainous abandon of all propriety, lewdly harassing Draupadhi, crass in his invitation to us to feel like him.

This was from the Mahabharat, and Draupadhi was splendidly sulky throughout the performance, ignoring the audience in her panic-stricken pout. I was fascinated by the way the maddalam player adjusted his veshti mid-performance ignoring the glares of the other musicians as he–once or twice–ignored the beat they seemed to insist on. In what should perhaps be a reminder of the dangerous consequences of repression of any kind, Draupadhi fled Keechaka to Bhima who, in a somewhat long drawn out conclusion, eroticised death. Did Bhima really need to go such lengths to kill a man?

Anyway, it’s late now, perhaps it’s time to empty my mind and–like Valli’s wise men–visit the Palai Nilam of nothingness which Shiva, of course, said must be pilfered from Buddhism. That’s funny, isn’t it, the obvious retort is nothing can be pilfered from Buddhism.

I wish Valli let go.