`Classical dance heals'
Alarmel Valli, who was in the city last week, talks to K. PRADEEP about the grammar of dance and some of the controversies surrounding our classical dances.
ALARMEL VALLI walked to the hotel lobby and introduced herself. The girl at the reception counter, all set to receive the great dancer, bouquet and all, was stunned. Not surprising, for the lady who stood before did not carry any of the trappings of a dancer. And when she talks on dance she simply takes off. Then for hours she soars delightfully into a world that she holds close to her heart. Valli dances, inspired, with all her moral convictions, new compositions, for her dance is life itself.
Bharatanatyam and other Indian classical dances face a break-or-make situation. Valli has seen through a `conspiracy' and now stands up in defence.
A lot has been happening in Indian classical dance, at least backstage. It is an accepted fact that most of the dancers look to the West for patronage and survival. But of late there has been a movement aimed at subverting the process of growth of Indian classical dance, especially bharatanatyam. A movement that is bent on portraying this ancient dance form as `dead.' "I'm terribly disturbed. I have wonderful audiences outside India who love my dance. But there is today a nexus between so-called `experts' on India in the West and our people here. They together have created a kind of creative imperialism, which aims at making us feel inferior about our own art. They have succeeded to an extent in propagating that Indian classical dance has to turn contemporary," Valli gushed.
Strangely there is a lot of talk about contemporary dance these days. There is also a deliberate attempt to turn it into an exclusive preserve, distinct from the classical. Valli lashed out at this attempt: "My bharatanatyam is contemporary. I cannot subscribe to this word `contemporary' that is being bandied around. Maybe the better word to describe that different form of dance should be `modern.' Classical dance performed by a dynamic Indian dancer is also contemporary. My dance is traditional. This cannot stay alive if it does not grow. A dancer should infuse contemporary sensibilities into this traditional form."
Modern dancing is all about removing the familiar signposts, the well-known physical contours, `abhinaya', `mudras' and not even the sounds of the soil. "I'm not against modern dancing. I love watching some of those modern dancers. But I firmly believe that it should grow as a parallel stream. But here we are being forced to put mud into our own mouths. There also seems to be a deliberate attempt to impose modern Western aesthetics on to our classical dance. Some of the Indian dancers have been able to break away from this sinister web. But the young dancers are now being terrorised to condition themselves to suit what they want," said Valli.
The oft-repeated complaint that the votaries of modern dance have against Indian classical dance is that there is nothing happy or joyful in our dance. Valli counters this forcefully. "How can they ask us this when they do not know anything about our art, culture and mindset? The `experts' are to a certain extent responsible for this. I can turn around and ask them why is there no `ragas', or `mudras' in your dance. I may be inspired by the modern dance but I will not take elements from this into my dance.
"They cannot dictate terms. Why should I march to a Western tune or why should they march to an Indian tune. Our philosophy does not wallow in sorrow and angst, but teaches us to rise above all this. And if dancers feel a compulsion to adopt to this new trend it should come within themselves, not imposed from outside."
Indian culture has a distinct identity enlivened through temple traditions. The dance forms have also evolved and developed through these traditions. Bhakti is an integral part of these dance forms. But today there is a crude attempt to portray oneself as `secular' even in performing arts. "There are many who are ashamed to talk about bhakti. I'm not a narrow-minded religious person. I believe in a broad spirituality. For bharatanatyam is an integration of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. All the trouble in this world has not been brought about by religion, rather by its misuse. Bhakti can be sheer joy, which a dancer and the audience experiences through a performance. I think we must be liberal. There is no need to be ashamed of our art. My advice to the young dancers is not to be misled by all this propaganda. One should stand up and speak out against these tendencies. I know that I'll get a lot of flak for what I'm saying... ." Valli said with a smile.
A brilliant exponent of the Pandanallur tradition, Valli is not one to be strait-jacketed into remaining static. She has, through reading, observation and power to infuse all her experiences into her dance, prevented her dance from turning into sticks in the mud. "I still follow this tradition. If people do not agree the reply would be that had I simply copied what my great gurus taught me I would have turned simple into a parrot. The purists reduce dance to lines and angles. I agree that the grammar of dance is the base. But then that alone is not enough. You must be able to master and internalise the grammar, you have to be creative for dance to evolve," Valli explained.
Dance and beauty is supposed to go hand in hand. There are many who believe that a dancer must be beautiful. "In that case I would not have been here," Valli quickly retorted and added, "Form is definitely important. The physical features, essential for `abhinaya', are indispensable. There is also a need to use costumes, ornaments aesthetically."
For those who believe that classical dance is no longer relevant, Valli had this to say: "Classical dance heals. When we are tearing ourselves apart it helps to bring us together. It uplifts and heals the spirit."
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