Interview with Alarmel Valli

Interview with Alarmel Valli

in Interview
Published on: 27 March 2017
After a screening of 'Lasya Kavya', a film on her art, Bharatanatyam artiste, Alarmel Valli, speaks about what dance means to her (India International Centre, November 2011)

Shrinkhala Sahai: Valliji, thank you so much for taking out time to meet us. After watching this very inspiring Lasya Kavya, the first thing I want to do is to take you down memory lane and into your childhood and the early days when you started training with your guruji. What were your impressions as a child and what was his method of teaching you?


Alarmel Valli: I consider myself blessed to have had the sort of gurus I did: Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai who was really a titan and his son, Shri Subbaraya Pillai. I think in our today’s commercialized environment, we could say whether you become a dancer or not depends on the kind of guru you get. And I was blessed with these masters because they were men who were totally committed. They were gurus with integrity and such vast knowledge. So when you learnt from them it was not just what they explained, I have said it in the film too that you learnt as much by the process of osmosis, by what they did not explain. So you just absorbed. They didn’t analyse, they didn’t tell you great things about theory but through little gestures, little suggestions they managed to convey far more than all the treatises could. So I am also very grateful for the fact that my master considered me as his child. So he used to come home every morning at 6.00 in the morning. Earlier, when the older master was alive, I used to go to this old Corporation school with pitted floors. They had railway tracks next to it, so it was not aesthetic, it was not air-conditioned certainly and it was not one of those fancy places but there he created I think a very sacred space for dance. And it was there where I started and later, Subbaraya Pillai, son of Chokkalingam Pillai, used to come home to teach me.


And as my mother said in the film, he used to lose himself in choreography and then I had to look at my mother and then she would say, ‘Please Sir, could she leave now? She has to go to school’. How many teachers today have that kind of generosity and commitment where they don’t consider money? You know, those masters had such pride and integrity. For them their religion, their God was the art. That is how it should be, because their ego was totally sublimated in the art. And it is thanks to them and their influence in my life that you could say that I have grown as an artist. He taught me about choreography, he gave so generously. He used to explain little things sometimes—very importantly, he used to talk about sarakku and minakku, that is, the glitter and the packaging, and the substance. He’d always say that when you compose something yourself, never forget that the substance should remain paramount. That should be the main part of the dance. But today packaging is so often greater than or rather overshadows content. These principles and values in art have stayed with me and have meant everything to me.



S.S.: Could you tell us some of the special characteristics of the Pandanallur style?


A.V.: No, one more thing I would like to say about the…you know, the days when I studied dance was the pre-Infotech era. So we had no tapes, no DVDs, no ways of recording. There was no question of even writing on a paper. So we absorbed and I think that kind of internalization, focus and the concentration that was called for was really great.  Today when I tell them, I will be pointing out, showing them a hand and saying this or I would say…you know, they will hold their hand like this. If I say this, they will do this. Then I will tell them, can’t you see where the elbow is. Look, absorb, the details. So I think today we are so used to television culture and to easy recording that we take many things for granted and the concentration level has come down. And I really believe that because you watch a DVD of a dancer dancing, there is always a danger of imitation. So we have moved on to a culture of imitation. We have the DVD guru and the global baani. There is a homogeneity, and those old styles, each one unique and original, the different flavours and colours, they have all merged into one colour.



S.S.: In this context when you are talking of imitation, where do you place the importance of the role of improvisation in the traditional maadhyam (idiom)?


A.V.: It is extremely important. I think if you internalize well enough and the madhyam gives you so much of space to create within it and it is a glastic framework. So when you internalize a piece, a varnam or whatever, when you dance particularly in abhinaya, there are moments where you are creating with the music. The music, they improvise and you improvise with them, so then they get moved by what you are doing, sahitya is good. So there has to be a close interplay between the music and the dance, and that comes from practice and practice and more practice. Because even in the nritta it is only when you completely made it your own to the point where it comes as natural as breathing, do the rhythms change. You know when you walk there is a different rhythm, when you talk there is a different rhythm of breathing. So if you internalise the dance, then the rhythms of dance within that... I am not talking of the rhythm of the music, I am talking of the gait of dance. There is a certain pacing, a certain feel, these things emerge when you internalise really well.



S.S.: You are known for the musicality of your dance vocabulary. How do you connect with the silence in music and also the silence in dance? In fact, I read somewhere that sometimes you also like to rehearse in silence.


A.V.: I do but it is an external silence. There is always music in my head. It is interesting you should use the word silence. I have often said that today life is so frenetic that there is no time to listen to silence and that is very important in a physical sense, in a metaphorical sense. It is important, again, in music, in a literal sense. The pauses between notes are as important as the notes themselves. It is what you do during moments of transition from one point to the other, the way you negotiate the space between two points which I think finally shows what sort of artist you are. I have seen Balamma (Balasaraswati) dancing. I have had the great fortune to watch her. I am glad that I could watch her dance. My students can’t, they will never know because there were no proper DVDs and recording. Films on her which don’t justice to her. You spoke of musicality. For me my dance is visual music. It is not just visual music, I feel that when I dance I am singing with my body. I have always said that when you dance you should be able to see the music in which every gamaka, every briga is translated.


I explain in the film how I work with these things and it is thanks to Muktamma, my guru in music. I was fortunate to have great gurus in music just as I had in dance. Smt. T.Mukta, Brinda…the two sisters, Brinda and Mukta, Veena Dhanammal gharana as it is called, Baani, and they were first cousins of Balasaraswathi amma. And Balamma once said, you can’t teach abhinaya. And I didn’t understand. I was very young then. She told my mother that. She said it has to come on its own. But I know what she meant after studying with her when my body started responding to music and to the pauses in music and to the silences. And dance is born of an inner quiet. I will not call it silence but quiet ... there has to be that sense of santhi, of tranquillity and a certain sense of fulfilment in completion within in the dance. And when that comes, then.... I know people talk a lot about silence but it is not a literal thing, you can’t translate it literally.



S.S.: It is a sense of quietude.


A.V.: Quietude, yes, it is a sense of quietude. And from that quietude it can be very joyous, when inside there has to be that balance and harmony.



S.S.: Could you talk about your choreographic process? You have also worked with people like Madhavi Mudgalji.


A.V.: With Madhavi it was very different, I will talk about that later. When I choreograph I begin with either the music or the poetry. I talked about in the film. I said that I begin with the music or the poetry. So if it is a poem I respond to, then I set it to music and that is a long process. There is so much creativity that goes into it. And the music sometimes, you listen to it… I was travelling by car once and I heard a wonderful piece of kavadi chinthu being played. Aruna Sairam was singing it, kannan varugindrai nairam. And I could dance… I was dancing within (my mind) to that. So I came back and then I said I wanted to do this. And then the ideas flowed. Or in poetry too, when I heard this, read this poem, Moone, the first poem that I did, Sangam poem, ideas flashed into my mind, images were running like a film in my mind, I could see scenes which I then tried to evoke through music and dance. So, for me in my choreography there has to be a simultaneous evoking or expression of the poetry of the word, which is poetry of melody and poetry of movement. Because I think poetry finally is at the core of all great art, it is the crystallisation of thought, of experience, of theory.


Also, sometimes I get an idea which then I try out and see how it can be given expression, melodically and visually.


As to the second part of your question, Madhavi Mudgal and I are good friends and we share a common aesthetic vision in some ways. We share many values of art. So when somebody asked me to compose a piece with another dancer, she was the only one I could think of, I could work with. So when we started working, we decided we would do it in the way many jugalbandis are done where you dance and I dance to the same music but then you don’t know whom to watch. The aesthetic experience has to be a merging, a blending, a meshing…So that is what happened with Madhavi and me. It has been a wonderful experience. It is a work which has grown over two decades—Samanvaya.



S.S.: If I am not mistaken, your relationship with Odissi goes deeper because you were also guided by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. 


A.V.: I was not guided, I studied under him. I studied for at least 10 years. I studied Odissi. I saw Aloka Panikker dancing at Theatre de la ville when I was 16 and I loved the style, I fell in love with the style and I wanted so much to dance that. And when Kelucharanji came with Sanjukta Panigrahi, somebody went and asked him, would he teach me Odissi, and he said let me see her dance first. He came to my house. He had heard of me but had not seen me dance. So he saw me dancing, my master was there, I remember, and then he agreed to teach me. And then he sent Ramani Ranjan Jena, his student. Keluda started to teach me. He stayed in our house for three weeks and taught me. Then he sent Ramani Ranjan-ji over and he stayed. There was an outhouse in our house, where he stayed and taught me for a year and a half. And for my arangetram (debut), Guruji came again for another three weeks to polish everything up. I was so blessed and though I don’t dance, perform Odissi today, the enrichment that comes from studying under a great guru like...with a giant like Kelu-da is something which I am eternally grateful for… to have these great experiences, to study with great masters…



S.S.: If you look at it formalistically, the geometry of Bharatanatyam is more about the triangles and crispness that you are talking about in the film, while Odissi has a different kind of lyricism with tribhangis…


A.V.: Frankly, I think it is a very superficial understanding of Bharatanatyam and Odissi. If you look at it on the surface, yes, this is linear geometric and that is curvaceous. But curves have strength. I have heard Guruji say that it should be like the waves of the ocean, power is generated in the wave but there is a curve. And the same thing applies to dance too. My master used to speak about the toy whistle with a feather furled at the end. You blew on the toy, and the whistle and the feather would unfurl. And he would say your hand should unfurl, it should not be flung out. So they were trying to evolve the Pandanallur style. As I mentioned in the film there is something called the fluid line. So there is a lot of grace. When I was young, people would ask me, ‘Are you so graceful because you learnt Odissi?’ I would reply, no, you are either graceful or you are not. There is grace and power in both the forms. Okay, on the surface this is linear, that is curvaceous but both share elements. That is why it is easier for me to work with Mudgal.



S.S.: And within the idiom of the Pandanallur style ...Guruji visualised it or envisioned it, but how has your individualistic style evolved?


A.V.: Again, I would give credit to my gurus, particularly Subbaraya Pillai, for giving me the freedom to be. He gave me a very strong foundation and that is something that rarely happen. He introduced me to the concept of choreography. He would give me a thillana, he gave me Veenai Sivanandam Sir’s, Hamsanandi Thillana and he asked me to choreograph it. And then he would guide me. So from the start I have had that freedom but I think to be creative, you need to enrich yourself in other dimensions of life. My mother introduced me to reading. I am exceptionally fortunate. From the time I was a little child she inculcated in me the love for books. So, reading, nature and music was very much a part of our lives, so I really think I am exceptionally fortunate to have had all that. All that finds expression in my work.



S.S.: Can you mention the artists or works of literature or any other art form that have deeply influenced your work?


A.V.: As I said, music, poetry, literature, nature, the mountains, they all influenced me, If you asked me about specific influences, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Because it is all fused in me, there is a metamorphosis and then that finds expression in your art. So it is not a different thing. I have seen Pina Bausch. I knew her well and she has watched me dance, I have danced for the 25th anniversary of her Wuppertal dance theatre. So Pina is someone who moves me. Merce Cunningham, other western dancers. I have seen films, I have read their works. I have seen our great dancers, I have seen Birju Maharajji, I have seen Balamma, I have seen Yamini Krishnamurthy, I have seen Kumari Kamala and all the other dancers, from the next generation of dancers, I have seen Madhavi, Leela (Samson), all of them. Now there are many moments which move and touch you whether it is a contemporary dancer or a modern dancer. It could be anybody. It could be some young dancer. There is always something which I think all of us can absorb. And so if there is a moment of beauty, if there is a moment of meaning that touches you, everything becomes who I am. And who I am is whom I dance as; the best in me is what my dance is. That is what finds expression in my dance.



S.S.: You say that dance is everywhere, but one thing I have noticed is your amazing sense of rhythm. How much rhythm is there in Lasya Kavya?


A.V.: There is rhythm because you have to have a natural sense of the rhythm of movement. It is not literally just tala-oriented rhythm. There is a rhythm in everything. If there is no rhythm in your gait in life, you will falter. So everybody has, some have better rhythm than others. So in dance also, in the most graceful movement there is a timing where one hand flows. The hand is moving in a curve but in that curve there are moments. So in that perfect movement whether it is dola or flow of the arm, there has to be a perfect rhythm. You have to find the perfect rhythm and it is not something that is consciously done because it is not something you can calculate on the computer but when everything falls into place, it clicks, it comes together, and that is the moment of perfect laya, of perfect tala in the metaphorical sense. It has to be there even in the most fluid of movements. It is not something planned. The sense of rhythm is something you are born with. It has to be in your bones, it is something which you absorb through centuries of collective consciousness. Some people have a better sense of rhythm, I am not talking of literal rhythm but of that sense of (demonstrates a movement)—at that moment, it clicks.


Adhiyuka yugamu, the greatness of these Kshetrayya padams particularly rendered in the Veena Dhannamal bani. You know almost no word will start on the beat. Everything is off the beat, it is on what we call Usi. It is so difficult to learn because every word flows into the next: you are going like this (marking a beat with her hands) and you are starting in half beat, quarter beat...when I learned that piece being an amateur I had to mark 4½ , 3½ for each word because every word was flowing in a different way. Now to achieve that asymmetry in symmetry is a far more complex and beautiful thing than to say I am, Vittu, onnuthanda randu (meaning 'cut and break into two'). And that is the greatness of the poetry. I say the poetry of dance, you internalise the grammar and go beyond the grammar, so also the geometry of dance.


People today, they get obsessed with line, stretch, leap, with sensationalism and physicality. Dance goes beyond the poetry, to the sub-texts. And in Lasya Kavya, the music was about sub-texts. The bani. So in Adhiyuka yugamu there are moments when everything clicks together, and if the drummer is also good and gives you that little emphasis at that point, you tap with your leg at that point, those are moments when everyone comes together. Then you are all flowing in your own spaces but you are all together. It is an amazing thing, our music, the gamaka and the karvai ​(holding a note for a long period).



S.S.: You were talking of centuries of consciousness. How do you connect it with the history of the dance form? You have seen great dancers like Balasaraswati and then the whole devadasi tradition. You hear all about the enigmatic character of devdasis.


A.V.: Why enigmatic character? Many of them were highly accomplished, colourful, very independent women, many of them, so why enigmatic? Why do you think they are enigmatic?



S.S.: In the sense that the tradition belonged to an era that is very different from ours.


A.V.: It is unfortunate that we do not have any films of those great dancers but the young generation will not be able to understand their poetry. Today we are so influenced by sensationalism, by physicality. So the mystery lies in the fact that they were not overt. They were an art. Like the flowing of music, it is the cascading of the notes, it is the off-beat, off the beat, it is sub-texts, it is the curve, a glance, a flick of a wrist. In that flick of a wrist there is far more drama than there is in a leap or a stretch. So the enigma or the mystery lay in the fact that they didn’t make everything into porridge and pour it down your throat. Nor did they try to use any deliberate means to thrill you or excite you.


It was this suggestion, an allure of suggestion and they knew their music so well. They were women who knew their poetry so well. And there was an entire culture that we have lost today, and it is one of the saddest things as far as I am concerned. We are getting more and more obsessed with a very western aesthetics and a very physicality-driven aesthetic which completely erases sub-texts and subtler colours of the palette.



S.S.: Interestingly, when you talk of western aesthetics and the notion of physicality becoming more prominent, and if we look at the margam, you start with the physicality of the alarippu and then move into the varnam and then more into the (A.V.: padams and mellowing down) suggestive. How has that journey been for you as a learning process? You had your arangetram when you were nine years old and then began the journey of going deeper into the abhinaya, into the drama of those small moments rather than the technique.


A.V.: The technique is always there. Without technique you can’t be a dancer. So as I said, you have to internalise it. Then you realise that it is a world which extends beyond just grammar and syntax and things like that. So I can only say that I was given a very strong foundation. Then I was exposed to a great deal. My life was enriched. And because my masters, my gurus, whether it was Muktamma in music or Chokkalingam Pillai Sir and Subbaraya Pillai Sir in Bharatanatyam or Kelu babu in Odissi, they were titans and they could convey far more, they were able to give you a sense of this world, mysterious magical world which extends beyond our perception of the tangible, real, grammatical world. And so, there is that space and it is that world for which they gave me the key. And after that it was left for me to open and explore that world. I hope I have been doing that and will continue to do that.



S. Gopalakrishnan: Your gurus and you had the benefit of having low exposure to western influences and physicality and all. Today, you, as a guru, face bigger challenge than your gurus did because your shishyas are more exposed to western aesthetics.


A.V.: It is definitely more difficult today. More difficult because earlier, we didn’t have television, we didn’t have all these distractions. I was exposed to the west but only the best things in the west. Today, it is a world of information with internet which is mindboggling. So in order to sift, you need a good guru, because with this vast, limitless ocean of knowledge—not knowledge, it is information, and it becomes knowledge only when you know what to take in and internalise. That is why young people need a good guru and also, it is much more difficult today to open their eyes to or to even point out the right direction to them. You might give them a key and take them and say, open this door and you will find a magic world, but they see flashes from here, flashes from there, so many distractions that the tendency is to drop the key and wander away in some other direction.


So we have to find a new way of communicating which is not easy. It is a very difficult field. It is difficult for the youngsters, it is difficult for the teachers. But I would like to think that even today if you give truthfully and if you transmit what you have with generosity and with love, then they will recognise it. Young people can recognise. I think there is enormous talent out there and there is an enormous desire to learn. So they need to be drawn into that world.


Okay, there are more distractions and it is more difficult. Exams and the education system is such a draconian system and it teaches them nothing of value. So I really think that we need to keep acting, the arts are really important to act as counters. They are very important to give a sense of value where values are being totally destroyed. Because while you absorb the arts, you absorb their inherent values, I believe. If it is taught properly and you give it to the student in a good way, then you absorb those values at least up to a point—of discipline, search for excellence.


I think through the arts you can do a lot and that is why humanities and arts are so important to a world which has gone science-mad. That is all we have. Science is important but you can’t just live through science alone. Your life is not complete, you are not complete and our education system completely marginalises the arts. So I think it is a very difficult situation. We have to do the best we can.



S.S.: Thank you so much for giving us your very precious time and for showing us those moments of life, not just through dance.


A.V.: Well, the reason we made Lasya Kavya is because I wanted to share with a larger audience. When Sankalp Meshram (the director of Lasya Kavya), asked me to do the film, one of the reasons why I agreed is that I felt I had to share something. You know you can always share with your students and with people who want to dance, but the film gives you a wider reach, which is why we have made the DVD and I hope more people will get to see it.