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Stigmas & Sexuality – Valli Uses Poetry and Dance to Challenge Norms

Featured image credit: Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University and Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography


A winter storm in the Washington D.C. area does seem like a good time to reflect and think deeply. On that note…

Here are two separate excerpts from an academic essay written by Medha Swaminathan

(author info below) about a recent performance at Wesleyan University by famed Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Alarmel Valli, in the context of challenging existing norms in society:

 “Bharatanatyam, a traditional style of South Indian classical dance, has a particularly storied history regarding the mistreatment of women. Thus, the

immense success of Alarmel Valli as a female bharatanatyam soloist is not only impressive, but also inspiring. Valli, who trained in both bharatanatyam and classical music, consciously integrates ancient Indian poetry and music with bharatanatyam, thus creating a meaningful relationship between the art forms. During Valli’s October 11th performance at Wesleyan University, she presented a range of nuanced pieces containing both technical and expressive elements. Through her combination of poetry, music, and dance, Valli crafted strong female characters that appeared to reclaim femininity and sexuality.”

On Valli’s performance:

“…Most fascinating was how Valli’s portrayal of ancient Indian text through

photo of Alarmel Valli

Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University and Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography

bharatanatyam created self-directed and sensual female characters, a sharp contrast to the sexual degradation of women associated with bharatanatyam in the past. Poetry in India has a strong tie to eroticism: “[p]oets in India were required to be proficient in the knowledge of erotics… [t]he knowledge of kamashastra was proudly displayed by Sanskrit poets in their descriptions of love-making” (Amaresh 1202-1203). In the past, this eroticism, when linked with bharatanatyam, was used to force a shameful sexual association upon devadasis. When bharatanatyam contemporaries revived the art form, they placed emphasis on love, or sringaram, as maternal love and devotional love for god, to avoid the negative connotation of eroticism. Thus, Valli’s choice to include two significant pieces featuring an unapologetically amorous female heroine is a bold one, and Valli’s portrayal of these leading characters further promotes female empowerment.”

Intrigued?  Interested in reading the whole essay. Click here.  

More on the Author, Medha Swaminathan:

photo of Medha SwaminathanMedha Swaminathan, a freshman at Wesleyan University, has been studying bharatanatyam for over thirteen years with Natananjali School of Dance, under the guidance of her mother and teacher, Lakshmi Swaminathan. As a member of Natananjali, she has performed at prestigious venues including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, National Cathedral, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Notably, Medha danced at the White House’s annual Diwali Celebrations (2010) and was awarded the Commander’s Coin of Excellence for her performance at WRNMMC (2013). In 2014, Medha received the Award for Excellence in dance presented by the Washington DC Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. She was selected by NSAL to perform as a soloist at the Kennedy Center in May 2015. Medha was also a member of Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company and performed with the company at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall. She has frequently appeared on “The World of Bharatanatyam,” a monthly show aired by MHz Networks.

Beyond dance, Medha shares her passion for vegan cooking and baking through her recipes and posts on her blog, Whisk & Shout.

We are happy to be a platform of discussion if you have any thoughts, comments, etc.

Thanks for reading!

Alarmel ValliBharatanatyamDhirana Movement

dhirana5 • January 26, 2016


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