Not everything is written in stone, especially not tradition. What many consider sacrosanct is fluid for dancer Alarmel Valli, thanks to her guru Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai. “He made me realise that innovation is built into tradition. So what could have been a straitjacket, because of his encouragement, gave me the freedom to be myself,” begins the Bharatnatyam dancer. And Bani—initially conceived as a performance in homage to her guru in 2013—has since become an arts festival that celebrates growth, change and legacy.
The third edition, co-curated by Akhila Krishnamurthy and the Aalaap Foundation, looks at the various articulations of bhakti (devotion) in music, verse and dance. “No matter how many times you focus on it, there is always a new dimension because each artiste’s journey is so personal,” says Valli, describing how the book, God on the Hill (a compilation of bhakti poems by saint Annamacharya) had set her on the path. “(Poet) Arundhathi Subramaniam had pointed me to it before I performed at her Stark Raving Mad festival in Mumbai in 2013. But what clinched it for me was another book, Eating God (translations of bhakti poetry) that I was immersed in last year,” she recalls.
Yin and yang
The three-day festival kicks off today with a conversation between Subramaniam and author Devdutt Pattanaik. “As Arundhathi was a muse, I was keen she speak of bhakti through poetry. And I wanted Devdutt as he addresses it through story,” shares Valli. And since music forms such a vital part of her performances, day two will have two concerts—Hindustani by Pandit Venkatesh Kumar and Carnatic by Ranjani-Gayatri. “Pandit Kumar is a remarkable talent, and both Akhila and I wanted him to be present,” says Valli, who also admits to being a big fan of the Carnatic singers’ music, especially their viruthams. “Bhakti is very intrinsic to our music, and the different ways it is expressed—niraval, viruthams and abhangs—make it powerful. For Bani, it will be palpable throughout,” adds Gayatri.
The finale, of course, will be dance. A Bharatnatyam performance by veteran Lakshmi Viswanathan—inspired by three bhakti poets—and a Mohiniyattam performance by Neena Prasad. “Lakshmi’s abhinaya is very intellectual and musical. She has a profound understanding of the layers of subtext, so I knew she would interpret it in her unique way,” explains Valli, adding she is an admirer of Thiruvananthapuram-based Prasad’s “lyrical approach”. In fact, Prasad will be premiering Sakhyam in Chennai. “It explores the friendship between Arjuna and Krishna, and it is a contemporary take on bhakti as it is more real, dealing with the practicality of the relationship,” concludes Prasad.
Conversation (today) at 6.30 pm at The Folly, Amethyst. Music (October 3) and Dance (October 4), from 5.30 pm, at Kalakshetra Foundation. Details: 45991633, 24520836
Surya Praphulla Kumar