Alarmel Valli tells Anjana Rajan Delhi has always been a second home

Think of Alarmel Valli and think of exuberance. The exuberance of a teenager who can't imagine life in any other mode than joyful. That's how she was when Delhi audiences first set eyes on her at Kamani auditorium many decades ago, and that's how, uncannily, she still is when she takes the stage. The face of India may have changed in the meantime, but Valli has not aged. It was back in the 1970s when she was a Madras youngster that she came to the Capital for the first time to perform at the Akashaya festival, she recalls. Today she is a ‘bahu' of Delhi, married to former bureaucrat and retired Doordarshan Director General Bhaskar Ghose and shuttling between the two capital cities.

Valli laughs at the mention. “My relationship with Delhi began long before I married Bhaskar,” she concedes. “It was my second home. We actually had a small flat in Hauz Khas. Delhi took me to heart when I was barely 17.”

Coming to Delhi to perform Bharatanatyam she got such a warm reception, says Valli, “the friends I made then have stayed with me.”

It was a different era. India did not have a liberalised economy, was not considered an emerging superpower, and Indian achars and iddli mixes had not taken over grocery stores from Silicon Valley to New York. It was sheer interest that drew foreign diplomats in New Delhi to attend cultural programmes. “India was not a power to reckon with,” she points out. There was a keen interest in the arts. It was much more the cultural face of India that was recognised and lauded.”

It was also the era when people passionate about the Indian arts were becoming active, and the young dancer with an interest in literature made friends across generations, people now in their 70s and 80s, who were then laying the foundations for iconic cultural institutions in the Capital. Valli doesn't want to name them all simply because she wouldn't want to miss out any one name. “But I forged very strong bonds in Delhi and some of my best friends live there,” she says.

She adds perhaps that's why she got married in Delhi and giggles, like…well, a teenager! But it is not silliness, it is the joy of an artiste who has internalised the good experiences life brought her, distilled its sorrows and created an artistic expression over the years that is uniquely her own. Whether chatting about her life, or dancing on stage, Valli speaks the same language: tempered with literary references, mellowed by thought and peppered with a contagious delight.

“Delhi contributed in many ways to my growth as an artiste,” she muses. “I know people say Madras (Chennai) is a kinder city.” Chennai, she admits is “home”, where her education and training and inspiration originated. “But Delhi in a different way enriched me.”

As a youngster she often stayed with her uncle, senior journalist S. Kumar Dev. “I'll never forget D-II 89 Pandara Road. It was like a second home,” she recounts. “Khan Market was around the corner. It was not an upmarket place then.”

She enjoyed snacks and tea from the small outlets there, but the biggest draw was Moti Mahal. She remembers writing an essay in French, the topic of which was ‘Your favourite restaurant'. Recalls Valli, “I wrote, the glow that starts in your stomach spreads to your soul!”

But this was not a gourmande merely describing the food at her favourite restaurant. It was about the ambience and décor, the lights and sounds of a culture that appealed to an aesthete. Her uncle too, she describes as a “bon vivant” who introduced her to Old Delhi.

“It's so important,” remarks Valli, “to have people to stimulate you, to have people that make you think differently.”

Delhi also meant the carefree wonder of student days. “I was still learning Odissi those days,” says Valli. “There would be intense workshops at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, where you spent 10-12 hours a day with Kelu Babu (Kelucharan Mohapatra). Your world became Odissi.”

No sooner does she recall the “titan” of an Odissi guru than she remembers another indelible star on the dance firmament, Yamini Krishnamurti. “The stage would be illumined in a way that you were totally gripped by her.”

Artists and professionals of various categories often see Delhi as a compulsory sojourn on the journey to success. If you don't perform in Delhi, the feeling goes, you will not be nationally known. It is known as the place to draw the attention of the disbursers of grants and awards too. “But it's never been that for me,” explains the dancer. “Much more than what it does for you in terms of success, it's the friendships you forge that gave me the support and encouragement.”

She felt this was “a validation” of her work.

Not that she has lacked for awards and titles. It was Delhi's power corridors that gave her honours like the Padma Shree and the Padma Bhushan, and it was in Delhi too that she received the French Government honour, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts and des Lettres, besides the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

So when will Delhi draw her over next? Valli sighs for her “poor husband” who lives here and looks forward to her visits.

“This year I've decided I'm going to spend quality time with myself and those I care about,” she declares.

Don't worry, Rest of Delhi. She won't forget the heartless city that managed to take her to heart.