Alarmel Valli, who is performing today in connection with the Nishagandhi Festival, tells V. Kaladharan that dancers must stay in tune with the times
On stage, Alarmel Valli, the incomparable Bharatanatyam dancer from Chennai, is grace personified. Her movements and expressions turn into supreme poetic statements. Little surprise, Valli is one of the most sought-after dancers around the world.
Offstage, she is simplicity personified. Humility, unlike some of the other successful dancers of the day, is no pretension for Valli. Confidence and courtesy harmoniously coexist in her words and thoughts. In her rare moments of leisure, Valli enjoys revisiting her privileged but disciplined childhood.
“I was an only child in a joint family, amidst aunts, uncles and cousins (male and female) galore. Our residence – named Barbican – a huge mansion spread over 10 acres, was a beehive of activity. It buzzed with an endless stream of friends and relatives and was often mistaken for a club,” Valli recalls.
She began her training in dance under Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai, the doyen of Bharatanatyam, and later learnt under his son Subbaraya Pillai. “They had started their teaching careers initially at Kalakshetra but moved out to establish their own institution,” she adds. The intensive tutelage under these stalwarts made her realise the fact that it is not just the environment and ambience that throw up great art, but the undiluted commitment that both the teacher and the student bring to it.
Philosophy of life
“I learnt not only the art from them but also the core philosophy of life – to be true to my art and myself.”
Next to the two great gurus, the most influential person in Valli's life has been her mother, Uma Muthukumaraswamy. She can comfortably recollect the precious piece of advice from her mother. “She had repeatedly reminded me that an idle mind is the devil's workshop.”
In addition to dance and music, reading and travel are abiding passions for this dancer. “I used to walk around the lake at Kodaikanal every morning and evening, listening avidly to the stories that my uncle narrated. He would tell us stories from the Puranas, the epics and from many a mythological collection and when the veils of mist rose from the lake, plunging the world into a silvery white haze, the stories came to life in a way I could never forget. What a tremendous loss is it in modern life that the tribe of story-telling grandpas and grandmas, uncles and aunts have almost vanished or that we have so little time to listen to any of them!” rues Valli.
When she was hardly into her teens, Valli got an invitation to perform in an international festival at the prestigious Theatre De La Ville, Paris. This proved to be the turning point in her life. The artists in the group included doyens such as Birju Maharaj and Hariprasad Chaurasia.
“I was then a pre-university student in Stella Maris College, Chennai. As my exams were unexpectedly postponed, it clashed with the programme in Paris; I was forced to make a heart-rending choice – either losing a year of education or missing out on the Paris festival.
“I raised a hue and cry and wept a great deal but realised that while I could repeat my pre-university exam a dozen times over, I might never get the undreamt of opportunity of dancing for an international audiences in a city like Paris, so early in my life. On my return from Paris, I stayed away from college for a whole year. But that year, my priorities were crystallised and dance became the first love of my life. I believe it was an act of the Divine will and I have never looked back since then,” recalls Valli.
How does Valli, a recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, view the experimentations invading the form and content of Bharatanatyam?
Without mincing words, she says: “Today, dancers choreograph items mainly with an eye on what subject is in or on themes that are politically correct. It has very little to do with one's love for the subject, and because the subject so inspires you that you might develop an inner urge to express it in dance.
“On the contrary, a good deal of modern choreography is aimed solely at the market and therefore it becomes highly pretentious and degrades the aesthetics of our dance. But at the same time, dancers must be aware that since communication forms the warp and weft of dance, they have to keep our art in tune with times, by growing with their art. They cannot confine themselves to an ivory tower or be caught in a time warp.”
Valli is the quintessence of tradition. Yet she never turns her face away from the contemporary interpretations of traditional Indian performing arts. But as a dancer she basically relies on her conviction and gloriously gets going with her mission.