Alarmel Valli on the emerging ecology of classical dance

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For famous representative of Bharatanatyam, Alarmel Valli, life lived in social isolation during the time of COVID-19 added an additional dimension to her reflection on the relationship between the ancient and the emerging ecology of classical dance. .

During an interview, laureate Padma Bhushan reflected on various questions: the potential to reposition traditional content and aesthetics in a new online space, the choice and interpretation of traditional content to reflect contemporary realities, and the vision of classical dance as an art with a social component that enables self-growth and the growth of awareness of the community as a whole.

Excerpts from the interview:

Inasmuch as artist, you have always been committed to the idea of ​​mastering space in order to create and enhance dance. Can you clarify how you perceive the space?

The dance is constantly evolving and, as my mother often remarked, “No matter how accomplished you are, never forget that you are like a mustard seed compared to the vastness of the art. Every day is part of an endless process of learning and growth.

Alarmel Valli: living each space as its natural element. Photo: Udayakumar

Speaking of spaces in performance, a complete dancer sculpts not only physical spaces, but psychological and spiritual spaces as well. The importance of this goal depends on the depth and richness of the dancer’s art.

When I was 15, I saw the legendary T. Balasaraswati dance at the Chennai Academy of Music. I remember very well how she stood in front of a microphone on one side of the vast stage and presented a prelude to each dance, singing and embroidering the first line with hand gestures. His countless interpretations of a single Tamil word – vaari (combed) – from a poem and his depiction of the woman painting and dressing her long tresses were wonderfully reflected in his song improvisations.

At one point, I couldn’t distinguish between music and dance, between swaras and text – between dancer and dance. And she did it by standing in a space of about three square feet.

Not everyone can have the genius of Bala Amma. From my experience, I have found that the key to effectively sculpting space, and not feeling dominated or limited by it, is to experience each space as your natural element. Then, whether on intimidating stages or in handkerchief-sized studios, the body adapts and flows outward or contracts, in cadences of motion best suited to large or small spaces. restricted.

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

In the Indian tradition, dance, poetry and song are inseparable. But, in our age of sensationalism and larger-than-life physicality in dance, where the search for ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ in the social media world often dictates aesthetic choices, these subtle but vital connections have. tend to be marginalized. However, whenever this seamless connection between music, dance and poetry is evoked and reiterated successfully, 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’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you grew up in a time when technology wasn’t as advanced and actually viewed that as an advantage. In today’s tech-driven world, what is your attitude towards the role of technology in conveying performance for an online stage?

In my early years of training, we didn’t have televisions, handy cameras, or digital recorders, let alone computers and the Internet. My gurus wouldn’t even allow us to take notes in class. Students were to rely entirely on memory and observation, concentration and introspection. I think this quiet process of intense focus and introspection has unleashed the imagination and enriched creative growth.

But technology is definitely a boon – as long as it doesn’t become a crutch. And it is all the more valuable today for creating effective transitions between physical and digital spaces. The famous filmmaker Balu Mahendra, after seeing Pravahi, a documentary about me by director and screenwriter Arun Khopkar, discussed how the superb camera work gave the dance an intimacy that would not have been possible in a live performance, where tiny and 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 poem Sangam, where Madhu Ambat’s inspired cinematography not only followed, but anticipated the slow progression of an outstretched arm, capturing moments of charged stillness with tight close-ups. The tears in my eyes have multiplied a hundredfold on the big movie screen.

While visiting the Maison de la Danse in Lyon for a performance, I once again saw how magic can be worked on in cinema, in a dance documentary on the art of modern dancer Carolyn Carlsson. 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 reinforces the other – must evolve further to give digital performances the same immediacy and warmth as live performances.

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

As a child, my mother kept saying over and over again that in order to be a multi-faceted creative artist and not just a virtuoso performer, I needed to enrich myself. [by delving into] literature, poetry, visual arts, history, psychology and philosophy. “If you don’t watch life and nature closely and learn from them, your art will be impoverished,” she said. My music and dance gurus were also the custodians of great artistic lineages that embodied the values ​​of beauty and truth in art.

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

I do not specifically train my students to create new aesthetics for online presentations. But I follow the holistic approach of my mother and my gurus when training my students, and I try to educate them to observe, recognize and respond to the beauty and mystery that surrounds them.

Only then, like seeds planted in well-nourished soil that germinate and grow into beautiful plants and trees, can they grow creatively. Then, when the need arises, they’ll discover innovative aesthetic solutions to new challenges, whether it’s dancing in line spaces or something else. And I hope they will do it with truth.

Using the example of a traditional abhinaya literary play, can you illustrate how the content can be approached for a performance where ruptures and existences of social reality are incorporated into a dance performance?

I have always maintained that rather than as a mere social commentary, the enduring human relevance of Indian classical dance lies in its potential to harmonize the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life. At its best and truest, it is not just a vehicle for self-expression, but an instrument for “knowing” and accessing the divine within.

Whatever the subject, it is when the meaning of dance is suggestive and embodied rather than openly explained that it has the greatest power to move, inspire and transform. Two poems come to mind. Although 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 connection between the human and natural worlds. .

The forgotten seed, from the Sangam era, revolves around a laurel tree under which a young couple indulges in love games. A friend of the heroine subtly recalls the indelicacy of their banter under a tree that they had tenderly nourished with a seed, which is therefore their little sister and which, their mother told them, is much taller than them. .

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

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


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