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The Arts

Interview: Alarmel Valli on the Emerging Ecology of Classical Dance

"Irrespective of the subject, it is when meaning in dance is suggestive and embodied rather than overtly explained that it has the greatest power to move, inspire and transform," the Bharatanatyam dancer says.

For the noted Bharatanatyam exponent, Alarmel Valli, life lived in social isolation in the time of COVID-19 has added one more dimension to her contemplation on the relationship between the older and the emerging ecology of classical dance.

In the course of an interview, the Padma Bhushan awardee reflected on various issues: the potential of repositioning traditional content and aesthetics in a new online space, choosing and interpreting traditional content to reflect contemporary realities, and seeing classical dance as an art with an inherent social component that enables self-growth and growth in the awareness of the larger community.

Excerpts from the interview:

As an artiste, you have consistently engaged with the idea of mastering space in order to craft and showcase dance. Can you elaborate on how you perceive space? 

Dance is constantly evolving and as my mother would often point out, “No matter how accomplished you may be, never forget you are as a mustard seed compared to the vastness of the art.” Every day is part of a ceaseless process of learning and growing.

Alarmel Valli: experiencing each space as her natural element. Photo: Udayakumar

Speaking of spaces in performance, a complete dancer sculpts not just the physical, but equally, the psychological and spiritual spaces, too. How meaningfully this is achieved depends on the depth and richness of the dancer’s art.

When I was 15, I saw the legendary T. Balasaraswati dancing at the Music Academy in Chennai. I vividly recall how she stood before a mike on one side of the vast stage and presented a prelude to every dance by singing and embroidering the opening line with hand gestures. Her myriad interpretations of a single Tamil word – vaari (combed) – from a poem and her depiction of the woman combing and dressing her long tresses were wonderfully mirrored by her song improvisations.

At one point I could not distinguish between music and dance, between the swaras and the text – between the dancer and the dance. And she achieved this while standing in a space some three feet square.

Not everyone can have Bala Amma’s genius. In my experience, I have found that the key to effectively sculpting space and not feeling either overpowered or restricted by it, is to experience each space as your natural element. Then, whether performing on intimidatingly vast stages or in handkerchief-sized studios, the body adapts and flows outwards or contracts, in movement cadences best suited to either expansive or constricted spaces.

With the rise of social media platforms, and more so in these challenging times of COVID-19, art has increasingly sought a place in virtual space. How do you respond to the idea of presenting dance in that virtual space?

In the Indian tradition, dance, poetry and song are inseparably linked. But, in our age of sensationalism and larger-than-life physicality in dance, where the pursuit of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ in the world of social media often dictates aesthetic choices, these subtle but vital connections tend to be marginalised. However, whenever this seamless link between music, dance and poetry is successfully evoked and reiterated, it can create powerful and beautiful moments in online presentations.

Alarmel Valli: from a performance of ‘The Forgotten Seed’, a Tamil poem from the Sangam era. Photo: Prasana Venkatesh R.

You have mentioned in earlier interviews that you grew up at a time when technology was not so advanced and that you actually considered this to be an advantage. In today’s technology-driven world, what is your attitude towards technology’s role in the transmission of performance for an online stage?

In my early years of training, we had no televisions, handy cams or digital recorders, let alone computers and internet. My gurus would not even permit us to take notes in class. Students had to rely entirely on memory and observation, on concentration and introspection. I feel this leisurely process of intense focus and introspection freed the imagination and enriched creative growth.

But technology is unquestionably a boon – so long as it doesn’t become a crutch. And it’s all the more valuable today in creating effective transitions between physical and digital spaces. Noted filmmaker Balu Mahendra, after seeing Pravahi, a documentary on me by director and writer Arun Khopkar, commented on how the superb camerawork gave  dance an intimacy that would not have been possible in a live performance, where minute, subtle nuances of expression would have been lost to anyone who was not seated in the first two rows.

The filmmaker was referring to an atmospheric Tamil Sangam poem, where Madhu Ambat’s inspired cinematography had not just followed but anticipated the slow progress of an outstretched arm, capturing moments of charged stillness with tight close-ups. The tears in my eyes were magnified a hundredfold on the large cinema screen.

While at the Maison de la Danse in Lyon for a performance, I once again saw how magic can be worked on film, in a dance documentary on modern dancer Carolyn Carlsson’s art. The dance was specially choreographed for the camera. In India, however, dance film – as a pas de deux for dance and camera where each medium enhances the other – needs to evolve more to give digital performances the same immediacy and warmth of live performances.

Also read: Why Classical Dance Must Move From Performance to Experience

While teaching  your students, how have you tackled their conditioning to create a new aesthetic for an online performance space?

As a child, my mother would reiterate time and again that to be a multi-faceted creative artist and not a mere virtuoso performer, I needed to enrich myself [by delving into] literature, poetry, the visual arts, history, psychology and philosophy. “If you do not observe life and nature keenly and learn from them, your art will be impoverished,” she would say. My gurus in music and dance, too, were repositories of great artistic lineages who epitomised the values of beauty and truth in art.

Alarmel Valli: from a performance of ‘Pushpa Vilapam’, a Telugu poem of the 1930s. Photo: NCPA

I do not train my students specifically in the creation of new aesthetics for online presentations. But I follow my mother’s and my gurus’ holistic approach when shaping my students, and I try to sensitise them to observe, recognise and respond to the beauty and mystery all around them.

Only then, like seeds planted in well-nurtured soil that germinate and grow into beautiful plants and trees, can they grow creatively. Then, when the need arises, they will discover innovative aesthetic solutions to new challenges, whether it is about dance in online spaces or something else. And hopefully they will do so with truth.

Through the example of a traditional literary abhinaya piece, can you illustrate the manner in which content can be approached for a performance where ruptures and existence of social reality are incorporated in a dance performance?

I have always maintained that rather than as mere social comment, the lasting human relevance of classical Indian dance lies in its potential to harmonise the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life. At its finest and truest it’s not just a vehicle for self-expression, but an instrument for ‘knowing’ and accessing the divine within.

Irrespective of the subject, it is when meaning in dance is suggestive and embodied rather than overtly explained that it has the greatest power to move, inspire and transform. Two poems come to mind. Though they are separated in time by some two millennia – one, an ancient Tamil Sangam poem, and the other, a modern Telugu poem written in the 1930s – both reaffirm the inseparable link between the human and natural worlds.

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The Forgotten Seed, from the Sangam era, centres around a laurel tree under which a young couple is engaged in love-play. A friend of the heroine subtly points out the indelicacy of their dalliance under a tree which they had nurtured tenderly from a seed, which is therefore their little sister and which, their mother has told them, is far greater than them.

In stark contrast to the teasing tone of the heroine’s friend in Tamil poem is the agony, bitterness and pathos of the flower protagonist of a Telugu poem, a performance I premiered in January last year. Here, a pious devotee is torn between his deep-rooted belief in the rite of pushpanjali (worship with flowers) and his new-found awareness of flowers as sentient beings. If violated Nature could speak, it would be like the flower’s lament in the performance of Pushpa Vilapam. There are no facile, topical, eco-messages here. Yet, both poems, with their embodied meaning and subtexts, are an urgent and powerful cry for the environment.

Navina Jafa is vice-president of Centre for New Perspectives, a think tank that works on intangible heritage, traditional knowledge through research and pilot programmes for sustainable development.