Alarmel Valli: ‘How the December Season has groomed me?’

From watching legendary artistes to evolving as a dancer, the December Music and Dance Festival defines my journey

November 29, 2023 07:00 pm | Updated December 01, 2023 04:42 pm IST

Alarmel Valli performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.

Alarmel Valli performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

When I was a child, the sight of massing rain clouds in October, the feel of a sudden cool breeze and the scent of newly wet earth would spark off a frisson of excitement and heady anticipation. For the monsoons heralded — the Margazhi Music and Dance Season. Attendance at the Season’s concerts was mandatory for most children in my extended family. We would all set out each afternoon to a sabha, bedecked in our Kancheevaram silks and finery, with jasmines in our hair. To this day, music and rain and the scent of mallipoo transport me back in time to those halcyon days. For me, it was a cherished luxury to attend three, or sometimes four consecutive performances every day. After a tiffin carrier dinner eaten in our car, we would often settle down to yet another music feast — the day’s concluding concert at 9.30 p.m.

Kumari Yamini Krishnamurthi’s dance performance.

Kumari Yamini Krishnamurthi’s dance performance. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

How blessed I was to have been born at a time when I could experience the transforming art of the greatest musicians and dancers. Though I was only a callow teenager when I first saw the peerless T. Balasaraswati dance at the Music Academy, it was an epiphanic experience that helped crystallise my later awareness of dance as visual poetry and visual music. As a wide-eyed 10-year-old, mesmerised by the fire and dynamism of Yamini Krishnamurthy’s dance, the joy and grace of Kamala Lakshman, and the sublime beauty of the concerts of legendary musicians, It was a feeling I could not articulate, let alone understand. But I believe that in experiencing their art, I also spontaneously absorbed aesthetic and artistic values and principles. This early exposure honed my ability to differentiate between the true and the superficial, the genuine and the pretentious, to look beyond mere packaging to the content within — to seek sarakku (substance) rather than minukku (glitter) as my Master, Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai would have exhorted.

The queen of abhinaya T. Balasaraswathi.

The queen of abhinaya T. Balasaraswathi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In the pre-Smartphone days, when live performances were experienced in the moment and distilled, to live on only in the heart and memory, December Seasons were doubly precious to me. I would sit eyes glued to the stage, afraid to miss even a single instant. We had not yet grown blasé, with surfeit. Today, the sheer profligacy of performance choices offered on YouTube alone can bewilder young artistes who have not yet found their own voices. When any artiste can be accessed instantly, at the touch of a screen and a dancer’s performance can be repeatedly played and fast-forwarded at whim, there is a danger of palates becoming jaded. Older rasikas will remember the days when in most sabhas, the Season lasted only a fortnight, or three weeks perhaps. Not many could have envisaged a time when the scope and scale of the Season would expand so exponentially, featuring as many as 5,000 or 6,000 performances, showcasing artistes from across the globe.

T. Balasaraswathi.

T. Balasaraswathi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

For performing artistes, the Season can be equally exhilarating and daunting, inspiring and frustrating, invigorating and exhausting.

For decades, I made it a point to limit myself to only three performances during the Season, as, to my mind, a single performance in December in Chennai is the equivalent of five elsewhere. I have joyous recollections of innumerable rehearsals with musicians. On occasion, Prema Ramamoorthy who composed the music for my Sangam work and many other poems would work with me for 10 hours at a stretch, taking just a few moments off to snatch a bite. Others too, despite their very busy schedules have never jibbed at committing to frequent and lengthy rehearsals.

This pivotal, symbiotic relationship between dancer and musicians made it possible for us to flow in the same stream of consciousness during the performance. But this nurtured synergy has become an all-too-rare luxury in more recent times, where good musicians for dance in December are so hugely sought-after, they find it increasingly impossible to accommodate the leisurely, immersive practice sessions that used to be the norm in the past.

Yamini Krishnamurthy.

Yamini Krishnamurthy. | Photo Credit: Avinash Pasricha

For me, the Season has been a crucial springboard in my career. I could not have succeeded without the consistent support and encouragement from some visionary sabha secretaries, very early in my life. How many would have the courage of conviction today, as Sri Yagnaraman did decades ago, to present an unknown 12-year-old dancer at his Krishna Gana Sabha December Festival — and thereafter, from my 15th year, to invite me to perform every December?

No matter where I may have danced around the world, the audiences I cherish the most are those who attend the December Season’s performances.

Irrespective of the season’s metamorphoses over the years, the Chennai Margazhi Vizha is still touched and lit with magic for anyone who loves music and dance. It is a beautiful bridge between our city and the rest of the world, forging lasting links between cultures and peoples.

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