‘The art is infinitely greater than you’

Alarmel Valli. Photo: V. Ganesan  

his Bharatanatyam artist came onto the scene as a young pre-teen and impressed rasikas with her dexterous footwork, grace, smooth flow of adavus and histrionic ability. At 15, critic K.M. Rangaswamy said, “... brilliant dance programme... confirmed once again that she is a great artist in the anvil… The extraordinary feature… evolving a distinct style of her own even at this young age.” She opened the Madras Music Academy festival in 1973 ; the legendary critic of The Hindu, N.M. Narayanan said, “.. lyrical grace and coy sweetness.. she gave a splendid start to the festival.”

The young sensation was none other than Alarmel Valli. The petite, effervescent dancer went on to develop a unique style that combined the Pandanallur bani with her own flowing grace, the pert kullukku nadai, the joie-de-vivre, so making every performance a charming celebration of music and dance.

Ask her about the genesis of the style and pat comes the reply, “So much depends on your gurus and the foundation they lay. In this respect, I was doubly blessed to be trained by Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai. They gave me a strong foundation and a rich vocabulary. But what was remarkable was that Subbaraya Pillai also gave me freedom be my own dancer. Thanks to his encouragement and generosity, my personal style, while it is firmly rooted in the Pandanallur bani, is also my own.”

Another lasting influence was the legendary T. Balasaraswathy. “One performance is still vivid in my memory. After receiving the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1973, Balamma gave a performance at The Music Academy in which she sang and danced. Watching the sangatis she used for the word ‘vaari’ in the charanam of the Saveri padam, ‘Unnai Thoodu Anuppinen’ that goes ‘Vaari Mudinda Koondal…,’ and the way she portrayed it, I felt I was hearing the dance and seeing the music. When I went to Muktamma to study music, the same concept of hearing the dance struck me. My personal style since reflects my approach to dance as visual music and poetry.”

As Valli has crossed the 50-year milestone in dance, we try to catch the rainbow in a sense, as we follow the trajectory of her skyrocketing career over tea and badam halwa in her home.

She wants to start at the beginning. “I started learning Bharatanatyam when I was about six and a half. I have been fortunate in my gurus. They taught in subtle ways, gently channelising your mind through their teaching. They did not create clones, each dancer was unique.”

‘When I joined, Guru Chokkalingam was evolving the Pandanallur style that had been criticised for a tendency to lack grace. He was trying to achieve the difficult idea of a fluid line. When he said, ‘Loosen up’ and the arm sagged, he would get upset. But one day, he explained it through a wonderful metaphor - of the toy whistle, with the feather tightly furled at the tip. When blown into, the feather would gracefully unfurl into a perfect straight line. “So also, your arms should unfurl” he would say. ‘Kaiyyai yeriyyadey! Viriyavidu!’ Suddenly, the aesthetics of the ‘fluid line’ which he sought became clear. Subbaraya Pillai sir too would often say, ‘Vittu pidi’ (Don't hold back). It taught me to savour the joy and sensuousness of movement.”

Valli’s mother, Uma Muthukumaraswamy, had a big part to play in shaping her as a dancer. “My mother would tell me, ‘Dance is a sacred commitment, there are no half measures.’ In dance, in my experience, there’s no alternative to practice, practice and more practice - with devotion. You need to practise, until the rhythm of the dance and its aesthetics becomes as instinctive and natural as the rhythm of breathing.”

“I grew up with stern discipline and high values in the art. There is a quote from Hamlet that has been my creed: This above all: to thine own self be true…’ It matters in a career where the pressure is to present new for novelty’s sake. A true artist who brings truth to the art will make it fresh. Mere novelty is not creativity. You must do what moves you, touches you. Don’t look for the marketable formulae. It comes back to the truth. Then you will use a poem and be true to the poet. Art loses its truth in a commercial environment. Art should be able to transform, this permeates everything we do.’

Valli’s journey was really a straight line upwards, without bends or curves on the way. With the Nrithya Choodamani award at 27, Padma Sri at 35, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award at 45, Padma Bhushan and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French Government at 48, among others, she gained recognition very early. Having become a celebrity so young, did she feel a sense of ‘What else’? She shrugs off the notion, “Recognition is always rewarding. But this notion of being a ‘celebrity’ has never figured in my awareness of myself. And I hope it never will. Because, the moment you start thinking of yourself in such terms, that air of smug, self-consequence is bound to be reflected in your art. The art is always infinitely greater than you.”

“Every performance is a challenge. You have your own bench mark; you will know how you fared. Well, I also have my mum who is an unsparing critic! Though I am what I am thanks to the Madras audience, the critics, and Sabha secretaries such as Yagnaraman (on being requested by fellow student K.R. Geetha’s mother, he gave me a chance at 12!) and many others who encouraged me and helped me grow as an artist. The December Season is always a public exam for me.”

Steering Valli to the fact that she won as much acclaim outside India as in India, she admits that she was one of the first to perform at mainstream theatres and festivals in Europe.

Her first experience of it was at the Theatre de la Ville, Paris, when she was 16. She was the baby of the group that consisted of greats such as Pt. Birju Maharaj, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Gurus Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan and others.

“It was -a2 degree Celsius in Paris. Not many Indians travelled there then. There was no Indian food available. There was a Pondicherry stall close by that served lurid yellow turmeric rice and we used to eat it with relish! It was also my first experience of professional theatre; in the fourth floor when I did my make-up, I could hear what was happening on stage through the intercom. The stage manager would say, ‘You go on at 8.33 p.m. Yesterday you took half a minute extra, please avoid it’.” I missed my P.U. exams that year and I minded it because I wanted to be an astrophysicist. But when I came back, I had time off only for dance; there was no looking back after that.”

“Subsequently, I danced at leading festivals and mainstream theatres in Europe. I remember tours in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Holland, with as many as 17 performances in one month. I have wonderful memories of unique festivals, like one at Avignon - performing against the magical backdrop of the ancient arches of the Celestine Cloister. I remember how thrilled I was that Pina Bausch attended two performances in a row and later, invited me to dance for the 25th anniversary of her Wuppertal Tanz Theater!”

Valli is just back from a debut performance at the Salzburg Festival. Indian performing artists had been invited for the first time to be part of the Ouverture spirituelle, a prologue of the Salzburg Festival that traditionally presented only Christian sacred music until a few years ago. This year, Hinduism was also showcased.

Valli says, “Of my memorable performances, this one would be in the top five. The audience in Austria is most sophisticated. There was a hushed silence in the packed Collegium Church as I performed Margam. Receiving a standing ovation there was an overwhelming and deeply satisfying experience for me.”

There is so much to talk about but time is running out. As we wind up, I asked her one final question about how she remains evergreen, retaining high energy levels and a trim figure? She smiles and says, “I’ve already given you my secret - practice, practice, practice!”

Bani 2015 Articulations in Bhakthi' is on from October 2, 3 and 4.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 9:11:36 AM |

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