Substance over glitter

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 2 February 2018

In conversation with Alarmvel Valli, who will be performing in the city, this evening at the Nupurnaad Festival

When we chatted with Alarmvel Valli, ahead of her performance in the city at Nupurnaad Festival, the Bharatanatyam dancer referred to her mother, her gurus and students many times during the conversation.

The exponent of Pandanallur dance style, she was often told by her guru to choose sarathya over minnika. Sarathya means substance in Tamil and minnika means glitter. ‘My guru told me, ‘A little bit of glitter is fine, but don’t let it overshadow your content’. And this is what I keep harping to my students in these days of ‘packaging,” she explains. 

Here are more pearls of wisdom from the Padma Bhushan awardee...

Her show in Pune
Valliakka, as she is known amongst her students, has extensively researched on Sangam poetry (classical, pre-Aryan poetry). When asked if she will be presenting a few of the Sangam dance-poems in Pune, Valliakka says, “Thirty years ago, I began my journey, researching on Sangam poetry, thanks to my mother, who brought a poem to me and said, ‘This seems ideally suited to dance.’ When I read it, I agreed. At Nupurnaad festival, I will be presenting a sangam poetry which captures the first stirrings of romantic feelings in a teenaged girl — that feeling of transition, when you become aware of the opposite sex, which until then, were nuisance. That was the first Sangam poetry, I choreographed.” 

The dancer will be starting her performance with an invocation to different moods and colours of nature — from the sacred to romantic to terrifying and sustaining. “It’s called ‘scent of the earth’. I have taken that phrase from the verse of Atharvaveda, with which I will conclude the composition,” she adds.

Valliakka finds Sangam poetry richly metaphoric, subtle and also dramatic. “The more I went into it, the more richness and beauty I discovered,” says the Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer. 
Poetry and music

The Chennai-based dancer has studied music under T Muktha and thus music and poetry have defined her approach to dance. “I tell my students that there can be no dance without music. In my opinion, you cannot be a complete artist without immersion in music, because dance is visual music. That’s my approach to it. I also tell my students to read literature, poetry in particular. Learn to read the shifts and tones; learn to read to understand subtext,” she emphasises. 

Dance and divinity  
Quoting her mother, Valliakka says, “My mother used to tell me, ‘Dance is always greater than you. You are like a mustard seed before the dance. We have to keep reminding ourself that art is greater than us’. Dance is a form of bhakti. You know Basavanna’s poetry where he speaks about body as the temple? Dance for me is a prayer with my being. It’s deep-rooted hunger and yearning for the sacred. When you are dancing, you arrive at a point where you accept the divine within you. It is submission of your ego and dance, no matter how famous you become.” 

The dancer goes on to add, “Bhakti is not about narrow religiosity.  The base for the music is shruti. Without shruti, the music will be discordant. In the case of dance, bhakti is its base.” 

‘Practise, practise, practise’
Valliakka’s journey has been one of dedication, commitment and focus. She believes that there are no half-measures if you want to grow as a dancer, and excel at it. When asked, what are the qualities that a student of dance should have, she quotes her mother again. 

“In my dance class, there was a window at the back. My cousins would gather and tease me, make faces. I would get distracted and make a mistake. My mother would ask, ‘Valli, what caused you to do that?’ I replied, ‘Monkeys are out there, making faces at me.’ She told me, ‘I don’t care if there are hundreds of monkeys capering before you. You must get to a point that when you dance, everything else disappears.’ That kind of intense focus is called for,” says she.

She also lists other qualities that students should imbibe — open your eyes to what is around you...observe people. “I learnt about the importance of power of observation from my Odissi guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. He was narrating a story about a tall man in dhoti, who was attacked by a pomeranian. The whole scene came to life, in minute details, when guruji narrated and gestured. I learnt that observation can lead to moments of intense poetry. Observe what goes beyond the form...You can bring layers to the dance, only if you have layers,” she adds.

Tryst with Odissi
At a rather late age of 17, Valliakka began learning Odissi. She was in Paris, when she saw an Odissi performance. And, she told her mother that she wanted to learn Odissi. Her mother replied, ‘Why not?’

“Kelucharan Mohapatra had come to Chennai, with Madhavi Mudgal. He said, ‘I will come and see you dance’. After seeing my dance, he said, ‘I will teach you. But I will come here for the first three weeks, introduce you to the style. Then I will send my student, Ramani Ranjan Jena.’ So that’s how I learnt Odissi. I was then the first serious student of Odissi in Chennai,” she reminisces. 

Talking about the similarities and differences of the two dance forms, she says, “Both Bharatanatyam and Odissi have  roots in Natyashastra. They are like  Paneer Mutter and Sambar. They are Indian dishes, but have very different flavours or fragrance.”
Odissi enriched Valliakka’s life. But she stopped learning after a point, because, “The deeper you go in one form, the more mature and evolved you become. In one lifestyle, you can do full justice to only one dance form,” is her opinion.

ST Reader Service
Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmvel Valli will perform this evening at Nupurnaad Festival to be held at Ideal Colony, Kothrud, from 6 pm onwards. Entry is free

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