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The thinking man's muse

Alarmel Valli believes that a dance performance has to set the audience thinking. Success for her is not defined by the number of awards she wins, but more by the freedom she enjoys to be true to herself.



Alarmel Valli: The strength and grace of wind

ALARMEL VALLI looks as if a strong breeze could easily carry her off. Instead, the petite dancer herself takes off like the wind, sometimes as soft as a gentle breeze, sometimes as vigorously as a tornado, but always with a grace that leaves her audiences spellbound. "I'm blessed - on all counts," says Valli simply. "Excellent gurus, parents who discovered my inborn talent for the arts, comfortable background... and now, the most-understanding, least-chauvinistic husband!"

Talking to Valli is a pleasure. Her eyes speak, her hands speak, and her words come out calm and clear. As a special guest artiste on the concluding day of the Bharatanatya Mahotsava, Alarmel displayed her rare talent for synergising dance with music. "I had my arangetram 30 years back. But even now, every dance, every performance is different because I feel and think differently each time. Dance is not a mere show of angles and lines, a physical representation of a words set to music," said Valli before her performance, as she sat applying alta on her feet.

"My mother repeatedly told me all along that dance was greater than the dancer, art greater than the artist and that one needed `sacred commitment' to perfect any art form." And Valli is a perfectionist. No hastily patched up compositions, no quick rehearsals, no frantic race to achieve number one status for her. "I strongly believe that we are not true artistes if we are in a race. Once we realise that there is no winning post, there is no limit to what we can strive for. My gurus Pandanallur Chokkalinga Pillai and his son Subburaya Pillai moulded my talent even as they gave me the freedom to soar and fly," says the Virgo-born dancer. "My gurus made it possible for me to stay rooted to the ground like the Banyan tree and yet spread my art far and wide."

As a youngster, Valli spent sunny Madras days devouring Gerard Durell and other writers, or imbibing the essence of Sanskrit and Tamil literature from her grandparents. Her graduate studies in English literature influenced her thinking further. Valli's perception and experience of dance has also been enriched by her study of Odissi (the classical dance of Orissa), under the renowned Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his disciple Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena.

Her study of Padams and Javalis under the eminent musician T. Muktha, of the veena Dhanammal school of music, has helped her explore the ideal of dance as visual music. Serendipity was when she discovered the beauty of Sangam poems written over 2000 years ago. Valli's extensive research on Sangam poems remarkable for their richness and subtleity, has resulted, over a period of thirteen years, in a significant body of work which is a fusion of the poetry of words, music, and movement.

"A truly good dancer has to enrich her mind constantly. Being multi-faceted is a boon. I cannot adhere to a formula, a typical pattern often encouraged by Western modern aesthetics," says the 1991 Padmashri awardee.

"Europe has accepted Indian art as a mainstream art and is featured regularly in all the big theatres. In Vienna, I had an encore every night, proving that there is no cultural or linguistic barrier in art. But more and more young dancers are under great pressure to conform to what Westerners perceive as aesthetic, and that is sad," laments Valli. "Let us not be subdued into having an inferiority complex about our traditional dances!" I tell her that a friend's friend described her as a thinking man's courtesan. She laughs and her eyes open wide in mock-anger as she says: "How wicked! But I'll take that as a compliment. I am proud of my art. My performance must reflect the process of growth, exploration, and creativity that have become so much a part of me! After hours of practice and weeks of internalising the music and technical aspects of dance, there comes a time when dancing becomes as natural as breathing."

Married to bureaucrat Bhaskar Ghosh, Alarmel Valli fine tunes her busy schedule to go hiking in the remote corners of the globe. On a routine day, she dances at Dipashikha, her Centre for Performing Arts, wades through administrative work, and spends time at the Ramakrishna Math. "Vedanta thrills me. It keeps me rooted to reality and helps me to chart my own course without making any compromises. Because success to me is not just winning awards and getting recognised for my work, but is the freedom to be true to myself and to my art." Like the wind, Alarmel Valli, through her dance, leaves behind a lingering sense of freshness in the air.

For more information about the dancer, log on to www.alarmelvalli.com.

MALA KUMAR

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