On a clear night at the end of February, snow frozen in layers knee-deep, Shantala Shivalingappa danced at Williams College. She danced with her fingertips, with a lift of the chin, a flexed ankle, a ripple in the small of her back.
She moved sometimes with carefully controlled gliding and stillness — sometimes leaping, whirling, skipping in deft footwork across the stage. A woman who knows her body has power, a woman who can express playfulness, pride, anguish or joy in the tilt of her head, her shoulder, her bare feet.
She is beautiful.
That night, in ‘Akasha,” she danced Kuchipudi, a South Indian style. She danced in close-fitting supple cloth like golden silk, smooth across her back and pleated at the knees. For some pieces she wore bells at her ankles. She had painted the tips of her fingers a deep rose, so that stage lighting would bring out each quick movement.
Kikkeri Suryanarayana Jayaram accompanied her with live flute music, rising and falling in runs that reminded at times of the way French Canadian music can put in another turn and filip of notes every time you expect a lilt or a pause. Two percussionists, Ramakrishnan Neelamani and Haribabu Balan Puttamma, played with rapid pattering like a hard rain, their fingers and voices building steadily faster in a rolling beat — and what kind of drum carries that warm, low thrum like a stringed instrument in the background?
It was music to fill a room, and I leaned into it. When Krishna played in the mud like a child, and Shivalingappa danced in a light, swift spinning across the stage, the singing lifted into a warm tenor as frankly joyful as the folk songs I grew up on. I would find myself unconsciously leaning forward, smiling with my head and shoulders, and at another point quivering, almost in tears, as she embodied a woman with anger and grief in the set of her shoulders — lithe, strong, passionate and deeply aware of honesty.
She embodied a woman in one place, a man in another, a god playing like a child, a goddess in triumph, all in words more than 600 years old. Ramesh Jetty (J. Ramesh) sang poetry, and she danced poetry. The idea of making a poet’s words live in the body and bringing them on stage, moves me strongly.
In one work, she danced a scene from many points of view, moving from one to another with a whirl. It was a poem in a woman’s voice —the goddess Alamelu Manga turning with bitter sadness from her husband, the god Venkateshwara, who had deceived her.
It was not written by a woman. Wanting to know more about the writer, I looked up the name in the program: Tallapaka Annamacharya. In his long life, 1408 to 1503, he composed songs that have strongly influenced the musical traditions of Southern India — as many as 36,000 of them, though more than two thirds may have been lost.
He wrote in Telugu, a language close to Sanskrit. And he was well-known in his lifetime as a writer and composer — and then forgotten for more than 300 years. Some of his writings were re-discovered, etched into copper plates and hidden in a temple at Tirumala.
Think about that. Hundreds, thousands of songs and poems — and they were gone, so completely that no one knew they existed.
Who found them again? What brought someone into that room … and how did they feel when they knew what they had found? How did it feel to read those words for the first time, after all that time?
And now his words have such a range that I can hear them in a college theater on a winter night. Here in the single digits and sparking cold, Shivalingappa danced to a poem written 8,000 miles and 600 years away. Where Annamacharya was born, in Andhra Pradesh, right now people are expecting thunderstorms on a warm night. And on warm nights at this time of year he wrote prayers and arguments with his god and expressions of desire in women’s voices.
In 2005, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman translated some 100 or more of those poems into English. And I read one that said what I felt when I left the theater, walking across Greylock Quad in the sweet, cold air, and feeling my blood move, feeling awakened. Curiosity should never be quenched.
“You say you want to bathe
when the waves subside.
Is there an end
to the endless mind?”