In popular imagination, that most classical of our dance forms, Bharatanatyam, is enshrined in iron-cast tradition. Yet, noted dancer Alarmel Valli compares it to a banyan tree, capable of setting down new roots after a span of time and producing a subtly varied fruit each time.

“My gurus gave me the soundest of foundations in dance grammar and technique, but also the freedom to be my own dancer”, says Valli who recently presented, perhaps, her most adventurous choreoghraphic production titled “Only until the light fades”, a selection of love poems through the ages, in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and English.

Conceptualised with poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, whose poem “Vigil” marked Valli's debut in choreographing an English poem, it was clear from its very first show at the NCPA, Mumbai, that this was going to be very different from the usual glib inter-genre crossover that one encounters on the urban trail. Valli's was a thoughtful, well-deliberated piece from an artiste who was mindful of the possible dangers of her venture and used her deep understanding of her form as well as her feel for the devices of literature to create a contemporary Bharatanatyam performance rich with the metaphors and tonal shifts of poetry.

“There was a time when I thought that interpreting an English poem in classical dance would be jarring.  But as we evolve as artists, as our experience of the art grows, we change, and the impossible suddenly seems possible. I would never create merely to pander to political correctness, to be novel, or marketable”, clarifies the dancer.

A strong foundation

Valli was fortunate to have been moulded as a six-year-old by Chokkalingam Pillai, the grand old man of the Pandanallur style, and also by his son, Subbaraya Pillai, who taught her for nearly 18 years.

The start of her training in the mid-1960s was a critical moment for her masters who were at the time making significant changes to the traditional Pandanallur style which had purity of line and a certain majesty, but could often appear to be too forceful.

“They were seeking a middle ground between the extremes of cloying grace and brittle staccato” says Valli. She remembers watching Indira Reddy, an older student of Chokkalingam Pillai, known for the chiselled perfection of her adavus (dance alphabets or steps). “She used to be somewhat bewildered at the contradictory moves Master expected of her. The finger tips had to be firm, but in between, the movements of the arms had to be fluid. The ‘fluid line' — a line that was perfect and powerful, yet supple and flowing — is extremely difficult,” she adds.  

Subbaraya Pillai instilled the ideal of an intensely musical dance style, giving her an invaluable introduction to the creative processes in dance when she was just 15. “He was most insistent about avoiding the easy method of lifting pre-composed structures of adavus on to the framework of music. ‘Make the music your own, then let it flow as dance', he would tell me”, she recalls.

Over the last four decades, Valli has made the codified language of Bharatanatyam her own.  Her grace, lightness of touch and unerring ability to move modern-day audiences, including those lacking in insider knowledge of this style of dance, are the result of specific aesthetic choices made by the artiste. Her dance points to an intelligent mix of joy, abandon and structure.

Learning, then and now

Chennai in the early 1960s was a quiet city; the notion of leisurely time on the part of teacher and student alike made for a singular focus in the learning of an art form like Bharatanatyam. “In the pre-IT era, teaching was a leisurely, intense, contemplative process. This lack of technology was a boon. Students had to rely entirely on observation, memory and concentration. This process of intense focus and reflection freed the imagination and enriched creative growth, so that a creative student could evolve a strongly etched individual style, within a style,” says Valli. Watching dancers like the legendary T. Balasaraswati and Yamini Krishnamurti helped deepen her appreciation and understanding of the poetry of the form.

Today, an excessively technophiliac education system, the neglect of the arts, helped along by the media boom of the last decade, presents pressures and inducements to the young which have a bearing on the very process of learning a classical art form.

As a 17-year-old, Valli studied padams and javalis under the legendary T. Mukta of the Veena Dhannamal bani that opened up a world of new possibilities in abhinaya. These music compositions are rich in feeling and complement the complex unfolding of expression in these sections of dance. 

After years of performing and teaching dance, Valli says she feels blessed to have had the guidance of such great gurus, as she recalls the wisdom of their teaching methods.

“Every good artiste comes to rely on an inner voice which can tell them where they are going wrong…my masters guided us, but never went into a detailed analysis of our mistakes. Today when I teach, I tend to analyse every minute mistake the students make for them and sometimes feel there's too much spoon-feeding. But many students today seem to expect it,” says Valli.

Bharatanatyam performances have changed in recent years. Yet, while much has been written about the loss of an essential sensuousness that characterised the form in its earlier avatar of sadir, once it was reinvented in the mid 1930s, many intangible aesthetic practices key to this form have continued to fade away in recent years too. While the fundamental emphasis on the geometry of the body, with which the form is identified, is being faithfully executed; the concept of flow within that geometry, or the more complex aesthetic principle, is slipping into disuse, to the regret of dance lovers everywhere.

Valli says, “The freedom that every creative guru and dancer has, to extend the dance vocabulary, to renew and enrich the repertoire, contributes to making this art dynamic, and, in my view, contemporary. But equally, the current potent lure of sensationalism tends to undermine the poetry of the form. In this context, I remember Subbaraya Pillai sir speaking of sarakku (substance) and minukku (glitter) adavus, stressing that the latter should never be allowed to overshadow the former.”

Many younger dancers today learn by watching dance DVDs and often imbibe stylistic mannerisms of senior dancers, leading to the rise of what Valli refers to as “a global bani”. Earlier, since the old gurus did not believe in demonstrating every detail, a dancer was better placed to develop an individual style so that there were subtle differences even within one bani.

In addition, the very ideal of female beauty as photoshopped perfection — an overplay of the concept of aharya — now holds sway everywhere. All this, in very fundamental ways, points to the loss of competing ideas and aesthetics which underlie our prized notions of plurality. The effects can be seen in the increasing sameness of the Bharatnatyam performance on the urban trail.

Last year, Valli brought an exclusive performance of viruttams, padams, javalis, titled “See the music, Hear the dance: The word in Melody and Movement”, to Mumbai's NCPA, where she explored the inseparable link between poetry, music and movement, in a deeply personal interpretation. Despite their lack of familiarity with Carnatic music, the performance drew the appreciation of the audience, which responded spontaneously to a performance where the focus was not on overt virtuosity, but rather on savouring subtlety and emotional richness.

Growth in the arts?

Bharatanatyam has long been a potent symbol of the restitution of an indigenous classical tradition in the arts. But today, given the wide-ranging changes that have had an impact on the learning, teaching and performance of this complex but immensely rewarding art form, it may be time to question how spectators today can hope to find meaning in it.

There are many who debunk the dance for being ornamental, and overly absorbed with “outdated” notions of beauty. They ask if there is growth possible in the classical arts at all. “I am told that as a modern woman I ought to find all that ‘yearning' demeaning. Can modernity really be reduced to these formulae?” asks Valli.

Social scientist and writer Ashish Nandy disagrees too.  “Of course there is growth in the classical arts. We read the classics again and interpret them afresh to find new meaning each time don't we?” Speaking on the place of the classical arts, poet, playwright and painter Gieve Patel, whose own tastes have leaned toward the classical, says, “A classical tradition in any of the arts is the bedrock from which everything emerges. If you lose that you've lost your moorings and you become a modern dilettante”.

 Yet, the classical and traditional are presented to us today quite frequently by a set of dancers as little more than Indic spiritual mumbo jumbo. This ironically, is well-liked by the increasingly de-cultured urban audiences of today to whom the dance is an inaccessible but useful cultural marker in a rapidly shrinking global neighbourhood. Meanwhile, a large section of scholars and critics would have us all believe that the dance cannot possibly be appreciated by non-specialists.

 “It is dangerous to place barriers between the heart and the intellect — and all too easy to become a fence sitter, when one's responses are dictated by external pressures. For those who respond with the heart as well as the mind and whose tastes are not dictated by fashionable trends, or by political correctness, there can only be good dance and bad dance,” says Valli.

 If we are able to make that distinction with honesty and some rigour, we may come closer to answering the larger question of how this classical dance, and perhaps all our classical forms, can continue to speak to us today.

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