She started off wanting to be an Astrophysicist but ended up becoming one of the leading proponents of Bharatanatyam. Alarmel Valli, a name that reckons respect from almost everyone in the field of classical dance, after having completed 49 years of stage performances is all set to enter her golden jubilee year as a classical dancer.
“When I was in school and college, I didn’t think I would be a professional dancer. I had aspirations of becoming an Astrophysicist,” confesses 56-year-old Valli. “But then, dance too is an exploration of time and space,” she says over the telephone from Chennai; one can almost sense her breaking into a smile while drawing parallels between dance and astrophysics.
The turning point
“The turning point for me, I think, was when I was 16,” shares the dancer. “I was in college and was preparing for my pre-university exams, when I got a rare opportunity to perform at the prestigious Theatre de la Ville festival in Paris in the company of great titans like Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Birju Maharaj. It was a momentous occasion,” she reminisces adding, “Suddenly, from the basic auditoriums I was used to in India, I was vaulted into a high-tech world of professional European theatre at its most sophisticated and most demanding. It gave me an entirely new perspective of the professional world that dancers inhabit.”
When she returned home, to Chennai, she had to wait a year to complete her graduation. In the one-year gap, her priorities crystallised and she realised she wanted to pursue dance in full measure. “While doing my MA, I had the rare opportunity to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and when the two months leave I needed was denied, had no qualms about quitting college for dance,” recalls the dancer, who will be performing in the city on October 14 at the Nakshatra Dance Festival.
Devotion to gurus
When she was six, she learnt her first steps in dance from Chokkalingam Pillai, and later, from his son Subbaraya Pillai, one of most respected names in Bharatanatyam. “They represented a lofty dance tradition. Subbaraya Pillai’s words still ring in my ears.
He would always maintain while explaining principles of choreography, ‘Unfurl your arms, don’t fling them out. Don’t stomp, use light and shade in footwork. Never allow sarakku (substance) to be overshadowed by minukku (glitter)’...a far cry from the sensationalised, glitzy formula of Bharatanatyam that is increasingly the norm today,” shares Valli.
Her guru passed away nearly four years after she started training under him. “Just before retiring to Pandanallur village (Tamil Nadu) and shortly before he passed away, Chokkalingam Pillai sir asked to be brought home to see the Useni Swarajathi that I was learning. Barely able to walk, he placed his hand on my head and said, “You will rise high, but I will not be there to see it.” It was a most blessed moment for me.
In an era of rampant commercialisation in dance, these were men of uncompromising integrity and unswerving values in art. I must have done much good in some life to merit gurus like them,” she believes. Her mother, Uma Muthukumaraswamy, has been her unfailing support and unsparing critic, “You may be my only child, but when you dance, I don't see you as my daughter, she would tell me.”
The changing face of dance
But, she feels things have changed to a large extent today. “There is enormous talent amongst the youth. But sadly, in today’s overcrowded, virtually bursting-at-the-seams dance scenario, it is very difficult to make an entree without excellent PR skills and financial backing,” says Valli, adding, “Globalisation and the advent of info technology have hugely impacted the way young people receive and respond to dance.”
She feels that the time she grew up in was far different from what it is today. “In those early years, when I began learning dance, we had no televisions, cassette recorders, let alone computers or iPods.
Life was less manic and more mellow.” she says. With the information technology boom, things have changed to a large extent; she feels this is both a boon and a bane. “It’s sad that my students, for instance, will not experience the sublime art of great dancers like Smt Balasaraswati, because there are very few films of her dance. The flipside is that with such easy means of visually recording dance today, there is the very real risk of dance becoming imitative.” Even the guru-shishya parampara, she feels, has changed to a large extent. “With my guru, I would spend hours learning and I absorbed the most valuable lessons as much from what he did not say as from what he explained.
I learn much from the process of osmosis, as it were. But globalisation has ushered in many changes. Today, we even have classes being conducted on Skype.” Though she feels that the teaching methods have changed, she enjoys teaching herself. Along with dance, certain values that are associated with the dance have to be passed on from the guru to the shishya. “If you give of your art with integrity and commitment, the intrinsic, intimate bond between guru and shishya does not change,” she feels. “And the students imbibe values inherent in the art, like discipline, the pursuit of excellence, the ability to concentrate and humility.” states Valli. “No matter how great an artist you are, the art is always greater than you,” she adds.
Learn all the way
Reminiscing about her journey, she feels it has been a beautiful learning process. “I see dance as visual music and visual melody, so that ideally speaking, I feel the viewer should be able to see the music and hear the dance. In fact, when I dance, I am not just responding to the melody, but I also find myself tuning into the pauses between notes, the silences between words,” she avers.
When asked about whether she has mastered the art, she says, “It is an endless process. As you keep practicing, the presentation acquires new facets.”
While she also learnt Odissi under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and she feels though it was a deeply enriching process, she gave it up after a decade. “One lifetime is not enough to do justice to even one dance form,” she says. “There are infinite nuances and colours of an art form that one can assimilate and it is a continuous process of exploration, enrichment and growth,” she adds.