CHATLINE: Her dance is about perfect lines and angles. CHITRA SWAMINATHAN on how Alarmel Valli has enriched the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam with her distinctive style

I am deeply impressed by the musicality of dance. See the music and hear the dance I am deeply impressed by the musicality of dance. See the music and hear the dance Alarmel Valli's expansive house is suggestive of her art. Dance is prayer - there are beautifully sculpted idols of Shiva and Parvati ensconced in small temple-like structures in the garden. Dance is deep study - her bookshelf is well-stacked with modern literature and mythology. Dance is exploring spaces - there's a spacious dance school and a mini open auditorium. Dance is poetry - there are trees and plants all around and you can hear the birds chirp. Dance is peace - there's quietude here. And this is where creativity thrives.

The slender and graceful dancer took a two-month sabbatical from performances to work on her new prakriti-inspired pieces that celebrate different aspects of Nature with traditional and contemporary verses. She will premiere them during the December festival. But it's hard to restrain this restless pair of feet; so, in the first week of October, Valli will leave for an extensive concert tour of the U.S.

The world her stage

She was 16 when she performed at the International Dance Festival of Theatre Sarah Bernhardt (Theatre de la Ville), in Paris. Since then, for the last three decades, the world has been her stage - performing at global cultural festivals, swish auditoriums, hoary castles, divine chapels, and historic amphitheatres. "I have got used to dancing in all kinds of spaces. I had to dance on warming cushions during a recital in Vienna because it was very cold. Once, I had to continue dancing while a cockroach was running around the stage; this, when I am terrified of them," she laughs.

In May this year, her dream to perform in Jerusalem came true when she was invited for the Israel Festival. "We have been reading only about the clashes there, but it's a city steeped in music and dance," says Valli.

Chennai is where her heart and art is. But she's enamoured by the West's professionalism and discipline. "They insist on rehearsals to get the timing right. You learn to present your art on your terms; to take pride in your heritage and preserve it."

Practical utlook

Though committed to the core values of her art, she is not one to turn her face away from the compulsions of the changing times. "Artistes have to realise that the arts have become a part of the market scenario and have to be packaged accordingly. We cannot take refuge in narrow-minded definitions of what is good or bad art. Each one has to find his / her passion and conviction to reach out and touch hearts."

A student of The Sacred Heart, Church Park and Stella Maris College, Valli never aspired to be a performing artiste. She was interested in archaeology, civilisations and astrophysics. "That was the time of feminism, of iconic figures such as The Beatles, of idealism. I remember my classmates talking about striking out and living life the way they wanted to," recalls the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awardee.

Her house then stood on a massive 10-acre property, complete with a cricket pitch and a tennis court. She lived in a large joint family and had a gang of cousins for company. But, unlike them she could never take to playing cricket or climbing trees. "I was the archetypal bookworm. My mother would give me 10 Rupees every month to buy books; a paperback then cost Rs. 2. So I would buy five books every month."

Valli trained in Bharatanatyam under the revered Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbaraya Pillai. "Amazing masters they were. They gave me the freedom to think and evolve my style. Otherwise, my dance would have become straitjacketed." Valli learnt music from the legendary T. Muktha, who made her aware of the melody behind movements and mudras. "I am deeply impressed by the musicality of dance. See the music and hear the dance," she says. In an age of speed and bravura technique, it is this mantra that seems to make her art meditative and multi-layered.

Her mother stood rock solid behind her while the daughter happily pursued her various interests. "Though I had the financial cushioning, there were many obstacles. It wasn't easy for a girl to go against the norm. Our society is full of contradictions. Despite all the progress, a single woman's status is still not a happy one," says Valli, who is married to Bhaskar Ghosh, former Director-General of Doordarshan.

"I married late but I am happy to have found someone who is least chauvinistic, non-interfering and gives me my space. Ours is a two-city marriage. He is based in Delhi and we meet once a month. As I have made dance my life, everything has to adjust and adapt to it. But, Bhaskar and I try not to miss out on our annual holiday; every year, it's a different destination. I like to explore places," smiles Valli.

Ask her what the future holds for Bharatanatyam and the soft-spoken dancer expresses her anxiety. "The younger generation needs more access to our profound classical arts. The TV and the computer are drowning out the nurturing influences. With so much information available, most often, we end up absorbing the superficialities without reflecting on them. Yet, we cannot put our hands up and allow the young to live a detached life."

It is in this light that she thinks that Svanubhava, the festival of music and dance launched by T.M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashri, is a wonderful effort. "It's admirable that they have taken time out to interact with and inspire the young. In this world of stardom-seekers and sensationalism, it is necessary to remind youngsters of higher human values and give them a sense of direction," she says.

"Talent first, passion next and the discipline of sadhana - if you have the three there's just no stopping you it's a whole new world under your feet," signs off Valli.