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Home >Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > Alarmel Valli > Bharata Natyam - Classical Dance of the Ancient Tamils
One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century
"Acclaimed not only for the exquisite perfection of her dance, Alarmel Valli, the foremost exponent of the Pandanallur tradition in Bharatanatyam, is also hailed as a creative artist, who brings to every one of her items a depth, intensity and naturalness, which makes her not only a "paragon among dancers" but "the essence of Dance itself."
Trained by renowned gurus, Shri Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Shri Subbaraya Pillai, she has enriched and extended the frontiers of her dance tradition. Her style is unique and distinctly her own and has been described as - " An effortless synchronisation of apparent contradictions: linearity and lyricism, symmetry and sinuosity, precision and poetry".
Her study of Padams & Javalis under the eminent musician Smt. T. Muktha, of the renowned Dhanammal's School of music, has helped Valli explore the ideal of dance, as visual music- to express the subtle distinction between the literal translation of the lyric into body language and the mature, evolved transmutation of music into movement. A critic writes -
Valli has won her laurels several times over in the major festivals of India and in almost all the cultural capitals of the world, and has received standing ovations in leading theatres of North and South America, Europe, U.S.S.R., the Middle East, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Tasmania and Japan.
A few of the highlights of Valli's career on the international scene would include her performances at the famous Bolshoi Theatre - Moscow, at the Theatre De La Ville Festivals in Paris, in 1973, 1997 and 1998, The Cervantino Festival - Mexico, the Vienna International Dance Festival, the Harbourfront Festival -Toronto, the New York International Festival of Arts, the Avignon Festival, the Basel Dance Festival, the Helsinki Biennale, the Min-On Association Festival of Japan, the Festival at the Hague Palace for the birthday celebrations of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the Bergen International Festival of Norway in 1997, the Festival for The Silver Jubilee Celebrations of Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theatre in 1998 and the Cultural Festival at the Royal Albert Hall for the joint celebrations of the 50th year of Independence of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In 1999 Valli performed at the Solo Donna Festival of the Venice Biennale and at the San Antonio International Festival in the United States. Early in 2000, she toured the United States, Canada and Spain for performances. In August 2000, she represented India at the Niigata Asian Cultural Festival in Japan. During October and November 2000, she was invited to the millennium festivals in Berlin and Bologne, Reggio Emilia and Ferrara."
The Great Art Of Bharatanatyam:
Dance being a visual art, obviously aesthetics is a very important aspect. It is not an aural art where you are listening to somebody with a beautiful voice. You have to watch the dancer. This would therefore naturally preclude somebody who is – let me not bring beauty into this – somebody, let us say, who is unaesthetic, crude, vulgar, badly-dressed or disproportionate, getting onto the stage. I would like to think that the beauty referred to when speaking about abhinaya relates to aesthetics... and not to whether a person's nose is straight or whether the eyes are large and so on. Obviously large eyes are an asset since, in the case of a classical dancer more than others, the eyes become the windows of the soul. I would like to think that for a dancer it is her inner beauty that counts. Take the example of the late
T. Balasaraswati, one of India's greatest exponents of abhinaya. I have been transported, watching her perform at 60. She could make you see her exactly as she wanted you to see her. If you looked at her, you would see a beautiful, young, charming girl of 16. She was able to create this magic. Or take the example of Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, one of the great dance teachers of the century. He is about 75 now. He transforms everything around us, creating that magic, which is what true art is all about. At the same time you can have a very beautiful dancer who is technically excellent, but who leaves you cold and untouched. So, when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about.
Let me tell you something. Never take too seriously what dancers write! Even scholars are prone to make mistakes – not only factual mistakes but ones relating to interpretation as well. Today, I hear so much nonsense – forgive me for saying so, even if I do so in humour – spoken about dance by dancers, that not everything they say need be taken seriously. Some observations carry insight and others have no depth. So it is necessary to be discriminating.
No, I don't think it disappeared. In generations past, during the British times, the Victorian morality which they brought with them was outraged by the sensuality of the dance. Coupled with a puritanical society's shackles, it led to an ebb and isolation of the art, till it was revived once again in the early 20th century by pioneers like E.Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale. Dance – and more generally, the aesthetics of Indian art – partakes of both the sensual and the spiritual simultaneously. Through the body one reaches out to a higher level of consciousness. This is why classical dance and music are uplifting. They are not mere forms of entertainment. But we seem to be wandering into esoterics here.
There is something I wish to say to the Belgian audience for whom you are writing.
Let not your audience come to see my performance, or that of any other Indian dancer, believing it to be some sort of mystic exotica from the Orient. It is dance at a totally contemporary level, to be seen in the context of contemporary world dance. It grew in the ambience of the temple but has now made the transition from the temple to the theatre. In the temples, it was associated with worship. For me, it continues to be a prayer with one's being – but a joyous prayer, full of colours, flavours and fragrances. It is important that people abroad see it as dance per se. It may be in a strange language and set to a strange music, but I would like to tell your people to respond, not merely with their minds, but with their hearts as well.
True. Perceptions are changing with the cultural onslaught from the West. American pop culture, with its discos, its MTV and its soap operas has made strong inroads. These have contributed to the distancing of our young from our culture. And then, there is such mindless violence and disharmony everywhere. In such an atmosphere, I feel Bharatanatyam is vitally relevant – to put us back in touch with our roots, to harmonise, to heal and to reaffirm the existence of beauty and truth.
There is something else that I find disturbing. Today we are seeing the emergence of an Indian mindset that takes all its cues from the West. It is an acknowledged fact that each culture has to grow in its own way, responding to its native idiom, its cultural consciousness and context and its history. As Indians, we cannot therefore graft on to our dance something that has been pulled out of the West, merely on the plea that it is more contemporary. In my experience, the Western lay audiences are wonderful and respond rapturously, whole-heartedly and unconditionally to our classical dance.
But there are small, albeit influential groups which perceive things differently and which are unable to understand and relate to some of the facets and dimensions of Indian classical dance. They would like to mould and shape the future of dance in India, as it were. In my view, the subtle imposition of a Western modern aesthetic, modified by a sprinkling of Indian 'ingredients' is not the answer to the development of modern Indian dance. And, we do not need anybody to tell us exactly how our dance should evolve. Our dance has been dynamically growing and evolving over many centuries and it will continue to grow and evolve, thank you. But this growth and change should be spontaneous, from within us, in the context of our own culture, and at our own pace.
Regrettably, in the dance scene in India today, there is an image-conscious elite that is led by what is politically correct and fashionable. You then have the 'modernists' and the 'traditionalists' – I am not for either of them. The traditionalists will put dance in a strait-jacket and will say that 'this is the scripture of dance and this is how it should be, with no changes, please!'... and this is not acceptable. The Natya Sastra itself gives you total freedom to be a poet. Can one dictate or curb poetic expression? On the other hand, there are the modernists who are as narrow-minded as the purists. The concept of revolution, they say, is integral to contemporary dance; it cannot remain content with being 'beautiful'. I find the idea silly – that to be contemporary, one has necessarily to break the form, or that one has to blank out all expression and banish beauty. Indian classical dance is imbued with joy, the sheer joy of movement; it is sensual; it is vibrant; it is vividly expressive.
I see a tremendous surge of interest in Indian dance in the West; but I also see the creation of a very strange atmosphere. No, I am not referring to fusion dance and music, which is a different ball-game altogether. I am talking about dancers being conditioned and brain-washed into thinking that 'this' is how they must progress... and 'this' includes running down anything that is considered beautiful or classical. Let me give you an example of a few questions posed by some Western 'modernists': Why is there so little floor movement in Indian dance? Why is Indian classical dance so 'happy' all the time? How can an ancient traditional form like Bharatanatyam be contemporary? These questions are as pointless as asking why is there not enough abhinaya in Modern Western dance or complex footwork or cross-rhythms? Just because there is little floor movement, does this mean that Bharatanatyam is incomplete? Certainly not! Bharatanatyam is complete in its own way, just as something that a Western dancer does may be complete in its own way. It can communicate intensely and profoundly, cutting across all cultural barriers. It is a form where technique is but the vocabulary and grammar of a language, using which the dancer is free to write her own dance poem. How can you say such a dance is not contemporary?! So, we don't need to redefine our dance according to terms that other people dictate.
Yes, indeed. Sampradaya, in Sanskrit, means tradition, which undergoes continuous change. It is a misinterpretation to think of tradition as static. To give you a beautiful analogy that I read somewhere, tradition may be thought of as the banks of a river that give direction to the flow of water. Without tradition, the river will be in flood, unregulated and uncontrolled. But the river keeps changing its course, it accepts tributaries and change is a constant factor. Tradition tends to become static when its practitioners make it so. Many of the criticisms that come up today against the classical dance-forms are the result of a loss of the vitality and dynamism of tradition. When numbers proliferate, then amongst the thousands of dancers who are thrown up, there are many who either dance badly, or dance without joy, or dance without proper training, just because they want to perform. So, when you have mediocrity or bad dancing, or when dancers merely imitate what they have been taught, without any inner feeling and without internalising the rules and grammar of the dance, dance becomes static. It is not the tradition or the dance that is to blame, but the person who is interpreting the tradition.
There was this lady in Spain, in Madrid if I remember correctly, who came and literally wept after my performance and said: "Thank you for what you have done for me this evening. I am an unhappy woman, but today I feel you have changed my life." I was deeply touched, since this is what classical dance is supposed to do. So when somebody asks, what is the validity of this art-form in today's world, I can only say that it has more validity than many other forms I can think of. At a time when so many people in the world are at each other's throats, this great art harmonises, heals, unites, uplifts, inspires. It thrills the mind, it fills the heart with visions of beauty and it lights a glow in your soul.