The scent of the earth lends an abiding fragrance to Chennai-based Bharatanatyam exponent Alarmel Valli’s works. Nature recurs in her compositions as well as her pieces in Tamil Sangam poetry. Valli, 63, at this point one of the finest contemporary Bharatanatyam exponents, whose technique and lyricism find a unique balance almost every time she steps on the stage, was out of action for 18 months owing to breast cancer. Recently, she performed at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts during its golden jubilee celebrations. In an exclusive interview, Valli talks about her dance which allows her to go from quietude to whirling energy in a matter of seconds; her mother’s towering presence; and, for the first time, about dealing with breast cancer, and returning to dance a different person.
Nature has been a constant in many of your works, including some recent ones.
I have found nature to be a very profound source of inspiration. It has been a continuous thread running through my work because ecological causes are something I feel very passionate about. While my first piece — Scent of the Earth, a collaboration with Arundhathi Subramaniam this year — is a celebration of nature in its many moods, the second was written in the 1980s by Jandhyala Papayya Sastry. Three years ago, a friend, a Telugu scholar, mentioned that he largely writes about nature and flowers and that he could see me emoting them through my dance.
Where does this deep affection for presenting it as an art form come from?
When I was 13, my family would visit Kodaikanal. There, I’d park myself in a fusty old library and read. I discovered Italian-English writer Rafael Sabatini and zookeeper and naturalist Gerald Durrell there. As a child, I’d always be reading or dancing. I loved the hills. I still remember the scent of eucalyptus oil, pinewood, my books, and walking around the lake in the dark with the mist rising. Then, there was my mother, a great storyteller, instilling in me the love for nature and stories. She’d read to me. The richest years of my life were spent around trees and in jungles. Some of my best ideas and compositions come from there.
How has your process of creation and choreography evolved over the years?
Back then, masters didn’t use the word choreography. These days, the word is thrown around often. I prefer to use the word ‘compose’. Initially, I’d learn the songs. Later, in my 20s, I began with the teermaanams (the rhythmic, mathematical steps) and began to embroider around the basic structure of some old Pandanallur teermanams, which are beautiful, musical, crisp and compact. These days, dancers use mridangam players to create them. But that only gets repetitive and there is no organic growth. Each of these pieces is an exercise in physical prowess and complex mathematics. In doing this, sometimes you lose the wood for the trees and the sight of the fact that this solkattu (traditional way of learning rhythms through vocal syllables) is not just maths or rhythm, it’s also music. One has to be able to respond to these teermaanams as much with the head as with the heart.
How was learning under the legendary Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbaraya Pillai like?
I owe the understanding of nuances of the form to them. I learned these through the process of osmosis. The masters were repositories of a great tradition and one could imbibe a lot by just being with them. When I was 15, the master explained the concepts of sarakku (content) and minakku (packaging) and how one need not compose in a way where minakku takes precedence. These are the concepts that have held me in good stead till today. I have never been tempted to overstep. I was taught to internalise the song first. It needed to come from within as a personal response to each swara. I was to dance, whether it impressed anyone was another matter.
Over the years, the entire character of Bharatanatyam has changed. How and why has that happened?
It’s because of overcrowding. If you have to be heard above the crowd, you will resort to sensationalism and physical prowess. Some dancers are very good but they do not touch you. Vyjayanthimala Bali said recently, ‘They are trying too hard to impress’. When you do that, it loses spontaneity. People tell me that since I dance so often, it must come easily. No, it doesn’t. It all lies in the practice and sadhana. Every movement, of each body part, has to be honed. From practice is born spontaneity. If you are too studied, it’s one thing. But if you are spontaneous, it comes from complete internalisation.
You learned dance before technology began impacting it. What has changed?
I straddle two eras — the pre- and post-technology era. It has changed, not just the complexion, but the entire character of dance, exponentially. When I was learning, we were not allowed to take any kind of notes because we were meant to observe, reflect and internalise. Back then, masters never got up and danced, they demonstrated steps through the flick of a finger or a little glance of the eye. Even subtle, complex aspects like light and shade — the cadences and tonal variations in footwork would be shown with the movements of hands. Now, I teach the same thing. The powers of observation have come down. You have the means to record the dance and it can be played 20 times. I tell my students that not having technology is like making a path through the jungle, and, in the process, you will notice trees and birds, and you will get there slowly, but you will know that road like the back of your hand. I could evolve my own style within an existing style because there was no technology. It is unmistakably Pandanallur, but I have my stamp on it.
Is the element of discovery missing now from the subtext?
It was a lot about the subtext, the unspoken, the unwritten, the layers below the surface and no props. Technology is becoming a prop which it shouldn’t. If we had technology then, we’d know what Balamma’s (Balasarawati’s) dance was like and Yaminiji’s (Krishnamurthy) early dance looked like. I have seen them but it is transmuted in me, I can’t play it again. It saddens me today that dancers who are tech-savvy are the only ones visible. I tell my students to not watch my videos because they imbibe mannerisms also. That is the danger of being a performing artiste who teaches. There is no baani (personal musical style) really.
How did learning music from the Carnatic classical legend T Muktha, and, later, Odissi from the doyen Kelucharan Mohapatra, shape you as a dancer?
Whether it’s nature or artform, they add layers to your art. For me, Odissi was an enrichment. My masters taught me the essence of the art — its aesthetics, and the beauty and truth in it. And that’s what I learned from Kelu babu. These great masters go much beyond just the style. People ask if I went to him to learn lyricism, the hallmark of Odissi. But Pandanallur Pillai was trying to bring fluidity to a rich but rigid and forcefully staccato artform (Pandanallur Bharatanatyam). He wanted what I call the fluid line and nritta with a seamless quality. Muktha amma also taught me abhinaya. The Veena Dhanammal baani is such a majestic, and complex baani. Balamma would say that abhinaya cannot be taught. It has to flower on its own and I didn’t understand what she meant until I studied music. The cadences, the curves, the gamakas — it’s a very unpredictable style of music. So, just learning those padams and javalis changed my approach to abhinaya. It was instinctive and an almost intuitive response that happened with music. If you see the music, you must hear the dance. There is also the significance of poetry in movement — not just poetry in dance but the poetic in dance. It’s also about the pauses between the notes. That creates the difference between the artiste and a performer.
You have returned to dance after 18 months, having survived breast cancer. Did your art play any role in your healing?
For me, the greatest trauma in my life was not cancer, but losing my mother. She was my mentor, my most discerning and honest critic, a guide and companion on every step of my dance journey and a protective shield. When she passed away, I felt as if I had lost a significant part of myself. Within a year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, fortunately in the early stages. Like many healthy people, I thought I led a charmed life and cancer was not a spectre that concerned me unduly. The diagnosis, therefore, came as a shock, particularly as a routine screening just three months earlier had seemed clear. Hours spent daily in practice and rehearsals, became hours spent at the hospital. From choreography and composition to chemotherapy and radiation… life had changed drastically. Overnight. But I feel it changed me for the better. Seeing the young children in the chemo ward was heartrending, but also a salutary experience. I met many inspiring women who were positive and even cheerful, in the face of issues far worse than mine. And suddenly, for someone who was a chronic grumbler, ‘think positive’ became my new mantra. I have often said that in dance you find an inner strength that transcends the physical. Throughout chemo and radiation, I was able to practise, albeit lightly. Dance helped me heal. I begin my season’s performances this year, feeling infinitely blessed to have been given a new lease of life.
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