Rooting for traditional style

Rooting for traditional style

For Alarmel Valli, learning Bharatnatyam was a fine balance of adopting the roots of the dance style and expressing them through her unique personality, writes aruna Chandaraju.

“For any student, it’s a great fortune to have a master whom he/she can not only learn the subject from, but also revere and remember with gratitude,” Bharatanatyam diva Alarmel Valli is telling us. She herself was tremendously fortunate. Her Bharatanatyam teachers were stalwarts of the famed Pandanallur school –– Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbaraya Pillai. She learnt Carnatic music from the redoubtable T Mukta. Odissi was learnt from its icon Kelucharan Mahapatra.

Add to this rigorous training, a highly creative mind, exposure to literature and poetry from diverse sources, a wide variety of influences from around the world (given her frequent international travel), and untiring sadhana, and you have a truly great dancer.

Alarmel Valli grew up in Chennai as the only child of her parents. Dance, music, literature; poetry in Tamil, Sanskrit and English; and a French-language course were part of her growing-up years. “I was a frail child –– a bookworm and a dreamer. I thought I would become an astrophysicist. Dance as a profession was not an option.”
However, destiny not only made her a dancer, but an internationally celebrated one too. She has been acclaimed worldwide as a consummate artiste. Critics hold that Alarmel Valli’s mastery of the art form is complete. Her dance is poetry in motion. She has received the Padmashree and Padmabhushan, and also the Chevalier of Arts and Letters from the French Government.

She talks gratefully of the contribution of her gurus and mother. “My Bharatanatyam teachers –– Periya Vadiyar and Chinna Vadiyar — were great repositories of the collective wisdom of centuries with a lofty lineage going back to the Tanjore Quartet. The discipline was rigorous, and the approach to teaching, holistic. I absorbed much almost through a process of osmosis. They did not believe in narrow, rigid formulae. Art cannot be taught through formulae.”

Lessons in art

They taught by suggestion and by gently stimulating the student’s imagination. It was not a direct, cut-and-dry approach in a fixed-duration class. “For example, they taught the adavus by indicating the movements including footwork with their hands, while seated. Sometimes, shrungara would be expressed by a single subtle glance or a raised eyebrow. A class would sometimes go on for hours, as they became immersed in teaching. They were perfectionists and uncompromising when it came to the art. They would brook no indiscipline and were never intimidated by the wealth or power of the student’s family.”

She contrasts this with the rampant consumerism in the art today with ‘package deals’ on offer. “You can’t produce instant dancers as you can instant noodles.”

Again, in contrast to today’s tendency towards static abhinaya, her gurus stressed the beauty of the lyrical approach and the importance of kuluku nadai (lilting gait).

Framing steps

She was around 10 and learning Huseni Swarajathi from Chokkalingam Pillai when he suffered a stroke. Just before leaving for Pandanallur, where he later passed away, he came to her home asking her to dance the piece. “After I finished, he reached out and blessing me, said, with tear-filled eyes: ‘I won’t be there to see it, but you will rise to great heights’.”

Her first experience in choreography came when she was 16. Subbaraya Pillai asked her to choreograph Veenai Shivanandam Pillai’s Hamasanandi thillana. She shares some of the guidelines he gave her. “Master would say ‘footwork should be a play between light and shade, vallinam (forceful footwork) and mellinam (softer, delicate steps). Listen to a song and then wait for whatever inspiration flows naturally. Don’t do kanukku (mathematics) and then lift that onto the structure of a song. Sarakku (substance) is more important than minuku (sparkle, flash), though each has its place’.”

This has been one of the guiding principles in her life, and of particular value at a time when minuku is overshadowing sarakku, with marketing and packaging having become increasingly important.

Her mother played a vital role in shaping her dance values. She would reiterate: “Dance is a sacred commitment. In dance there are no half measures.”

A major turning point in Alarmel Valli’s life was when, at 16, she went to perform at the prestigious Theatre de La Ville in France, at a festival which also featured Indian stalwarts like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Birju Maharaj. This was her first exposure to the world of high professionalism in performing arts. “They had four rehearsals for stage presentation alone!”

She also trained in Odissi under Kelucharan Mahapatra and his student Ramani Ranjan Jena. From age 21, Alarmel Valli was choreographing her own items and drawing on her innate creativity and the diverse influences in her life. She has a significant body of work of millennia-old Sangam poems in dance. She has also danced to contemporary poet Arundhati Subramaniam’s poem Vigil. “When I dance, I also sing –– with my body. Music too can dance in the mind’s eye and evoke a strong visual response. Poetry flows through them all. Dance, for me, is a coming together of the poetry of movement, melody and word.”

New dimensions

She says her gurus gave her a strong foundation in grammar and technique “and yet, the freedom to be my own dancer.” Along with that, regular international travel for performances and wide exposure to art forms and cultures outside India enriched her artistically.

Music and poetry are central to her understanding and interpretation of dance. Alarmel Valli speaks fondly of music classes under Muktamma, which opened up an entirely new dimension of abhinaya, where every pause and bhriga (musical phrase) found expression through movements of the body, not just expression of the face. Alarmel Valli, who is richly praised for her musicality of movement, says it results from what she calls ‘dynamic listening’ through the body, which to her is dance.

She is currently busy in her latest dance-production Is There Some Way I Can Reach You, a celebration of the rich and sublime poetry of 15th century Telugu composer Tallapaka Annamacharya to different platforms across India, even as she continues to teach students at Dipasikha, her academy in Chennai.

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