In an interview with CHITRA MAHESH, Alarmel Valli speaks about her beliefs, dance and what makes her the person she is.
ALARMEL VALLI: As dancers we tend to be totally focused on dance. But I believe we have to enrich ourselves with other interests as well. In my case I have had the opportunity to interlink dance and management.
CHITRA MAHESH: Dance and management?
"Yes,for me too it was something totally different beyond my ken. But when Professor S.L. Rao, the economist, asked me to give a talk at the All India Management Association seminar in Bangalore on this, for delegates comprising CEOs from different companies, I was petrified. I realised that this is not a lecture demonstration on dance. It was on creativity, exploring the creative self. I'm wary about the business world. Because I feel, which is partly justified, that they don't take dancers too seriously. So I was wondering how I was going to bridge this gap between our two worlds. For the first time, I started putting down on paper my creative process what goes into me, what is creativity... . And this amidst the season, when I was breaking my head over training my musicians, working on my new compositions!
How was the response?
Very positive! I felt on top of the world because I felt that I had achieved what I had wanted to. Many of them came up and said that they could relate to everything I said.
What did you speak about?
About creative processes. Where does creativity spring from? What motivates it? It exists in all of us. One may be more creative than the other, but the intensity and richness varies. We are creative in every aspect of life. And it is the measure of our creativity that decides how successful we are. Progress in any society depends on the level of creativity. Creativity has to come from a focused vision. It has to be rooted in the self. Though our goals might vary the processes by which we approach are similar. For instance, at the most basic level is mastery of the discipline mastery of the language, grammar, techniques of any particular discipline. And as you learn, you internalise. Then you can make the rules. That's when perfection comes, and that is also when you can try and experiment.
Are you sure about it?
Yes. I also gave the analogy of language. For me, dance is a language. If you take every step as a word or, you start composing phrases using grammar and technique, you have to master the vocabulary, grammar and technique. Then you build paragraphs, and move onto essays. So, how can anyone, after just two years of dancing, call themselves a dancer or choreographer? Even ten years, for that matter, is not enough. What have you really mastered of that language?
You are a dancer and choreographer. What is more appealing to you?
I think the two go hand in hand.
And what about a teacher?
The teacher, we'll leave aside for the moment. Dancing and choreography for me are two faces of the same coin. It's vitally important today to be able to choreograph. Vadhyar (Subbaraya Pillai) was a wonderful teacher and I owe everything to him. I only knew him because Chockalinga Pillai died about two years after my arangetram. But Chinna Vadhyar, as we used to call him, unlike many teachers of the old school particularly, who tend to keep the secrets of the art to themselves, was very generous. He used to sit me down and at 15, let me into it. In fact, that was my first venture into choreography. He gave me a Thillana, I think Sivananandam Sir's Thillana in Hamsanandi, and said, "Ippo neepannu paarkalaam." It's a tremendously exciting thing to be able to give, to realise your imaginative concepts and visions, because obviously as you grow as a person you also grow as an artist. In that sense, each of us is an individual and that is why I always thank my Vadhyar for having given me the freedom to be my own dancer. It was the same with Kalanidhi Mami from whom I learnt abhinaya. But our vazhi is different Pandanallur vazhi because we have certain ways of representing things.
In this forum, what inputs did they get from you? How would they have used it in their business?
There was a young gentleman who teaches at IIM Lucknow, he was working with the Tatas and gave up the job because he wanted to teach. He came up and said he found the analogy about poetry and language very vital. And many felt that what I said about creativity it getting better with practice is something they could relate to. One of them said "everything you've said is something that we can apply to our industry". Challenging your thinking is very important. One of the processes of creativity is to take a step back from your work and look at it. But there is no one formula. I would use the form as a core around which I develop other things. I also believe that tradition in the right hands never stagnates. Once you internalise that discipline, then you are free to grow in so many wonderful ways.
What does dance really mean to you? How would you describe yourself in terms of your art?
I am a sum total of all my experiences. And that is certainly going to find its statement in my dance. What classical dance does is to harmonise and to spark off something that's very beautiful within you.
There is meaning there!
More than meaning, it's also a sense of reassurance that finally there is also beauty in the world that we are not completely caught up in this rat race. Dance, to me, represents that core of sanity. It's like that centre in a maelstrom, you need to keep coming back. I think the problem today is that all of us tend to be very self-obsessed. Especially when it comes to directing our efforts towards a cause. It is all directed toward a cause, which is towards helping oneself.
Not just self-promotion, for instance when you go to a corporate house you end up asking for a grant of some kind. Again it is to either to put up a composition, which is very necessary without their help, today it's kind of difficult. But I think all of us have to go beyond just the personal need. This can happen if there is an infrastructure for it. Hopefully this lack of infrastructure can be rectified when people think in terms of Arts Management. In the West, you already have it. Today, dancers spend more time on PR. I'm bad at it because the organisation itself takes up much of my time. I find it most irksome. PR is essential, but it's a double-edged sword. You can end up cutting yourself pretty badly. Too much focus on that and you turn away from the Art at some point. It impoverishes you.
Does this also have to do with the fact that there are many dancers now? So to create that niche you end up doing all this?
More than competition, there is a lot of mediocrity. This is because we don't have an infrastructure. Things are not wonderful in the West, but if you had agents with a reputation to maintain, you'd be sure of the quality. Plus you also need an administrator. I do everything myself. It's such a nuisance. Again here, instead of being creative, you also have to be thinking about things like stage, design people, lighting. It's not always easy to employ the professionals in the field. I wish someone would think big and set up an institution for Arts Management or make the Indian Institutes of Management take this up. Unless we begin somewhere, it's not going to work. Business must have an awareness of the needs of the artiste, and be aware of the importance of the arts and culture in fostering creativity.
This way you also build up an audience, isn't it?
That's a different story. I am talking of patronage and about infrastructure which will satisfy a very important need in the Arts.
How do you see the dance scene? In the last five years, there has been a lot of things happening. There has been experimentation in dance forms. The Classical is being juxtaposed with the Modern. How do you see all these trends?
There have been a great many trends, some of them good and some motivated by needs or forces other than truth. I think the motivation has to come from within and not whether something is marketable. All creativity should grow from that, all new forms, new experiments, innovations in dance. There is confusion today about what constitutes innovation, creativity! There is a tendency to confuse mere newness with innovation and creativity. The other thing is, can all these things communicate genuinely? I am not talking about audiences because they are conditioned into believing what is wonderful or not. And that way, thank God for our Madras audiences, who, more than discerning, are more honest. I'd much rather have that kind of honesty and approach. A student of mine told me about an incredibly creative work based on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in Bharatanatyam. Next thing, someone will be doing something on "Monsoon Wedding"! The point here is, why are you doing the particular work? Shock value, mileage, I can get somebody to sponsor me if I say this, make a noise.
So, when you do your work, how would you go about it?
I respond entirely to poems and music or to an idea that I am fired by. I am enthused by it. And that believe me, is difficult because there is pressure on all sides. People ask me, what are you doing that has social value? Doing a varnam and after watching it you come out feeling good. You don't want to attack people or cut their throats. In this atmosphere of violence you need something that harmonises. Uplifts, brings together. I have had people come up and cry after performances. Foreigners who say "thank you, you changed our lives."
But you would not like to move into the new territories?
I wouldn't! What are these new territories?Contemporary is that which can communicate, which is able to reach out and touch you, move you, make you think, change your life in some way. It is not a matter of content and form; at the same time, you cannot say Bharatanatyam is not contemporary. A varnam is as contemporary as a modern production by somebody else. So when you talk of new direction, all of it doesn't mean the obvious. It is the dancer who makes that distinction in the sense that it is the dancer who makes that dance contemporary or otherwise. You can have the same piece performed by two people, one in a totally dead, wooden way and the other in a totally contemporary, vibrant, dynamic, growing way. We lose sight of the major issue on hand, which is how good is that dance, how vital is it? How dynamic is it? What disturbs me about the dance world today is the complete lack of tolerance, which we are displaying in the name of liberalism. You want to break the form, go ahead. But then, what do you put in its place? Where do you deconstruct, what have you got in its place? And I don't think deconstruction is the only answer to modernity or contemporaneity.
But would you, as a person, take comfort in tradition?
Of course I take comfort in tradition. Tradition is dynamic. It represents the quintessence of the wisdom of the ages. It is the crystallised essence of all the wisdom in some extreme and which we are adding to because I will add to my tradition, the Pandanallur tradition. But I wish we'd be more open-minded. I go to London, I visit and watch all kinds of things over there. I don't think television alone has killed this or finished that. Globalisation would imply that we are taking in inputs from everywhere. Unfortunately it is more Americanisation or better still it's a kind of Westernisation of everything. Why don't we take more from Japan?
It is an acknowledged fact that parents, especially mothers, play a very important role in a dancer's life. Is that the case in your life as well?
My mother well, I have learnt a great deal from her. She is open-minded with no caste or community barriers and has always told me to do what is important to me. Those days there was a lot of pressure to get married early but my mother did not compel me. In fact there were a lot of brickbats for her because of that.
But of course eventually I did get married to Bhaskar (Ghosh historian, academician and TV personality). I am a blessed person. I had wonderful Gurus, wonderful upbringing, I have been very fortunate in this too. I never thought I'd get married. And that would have been in a sense, a lack of having someone to complete your life. Someone who's your friend and companion. It happened just like that and he is someone I respect enormously.
Does he encourage you when you dance?
We're both a bit too alike, very reclusive. He's friendly, but not very interested in going out. I'm not very sociable that way and he's the same very proud, sensitive. He'll not ask anybody for anything. All this actually, these days, is a disadvantage.
Is he interested in your dance?
He's very interested in my dance. But I don't think he married me for that. Bhaskar definitely is not my fan. I wouldn't like him to be.
You've inherited such a good tradition, in terms of dance and wouldn't t you want to continue on those terms?
Yes, which is why I had a wonderful relationship with my students and still do. It is like a big family. And it gave me a lot of joy and pleasure. And I can afford to build my institution on the lines I want without being driven by economic considerations.
From here, where do you go?
I don't know. I don't even feel I'm at the crossroads. This path has taken many curves and turns and at every point when there is a crossroad, something propels me in the right direction. So I'd like to think that I will keep progressing, But I'd like to get back to more philosophy because I think there's a stage in life when one definitely needs the stability, and the wisdom which comes from our philosophy. I can look back on all that I've done with great pleasure and satisfaction. God has been exceptionally kind to me.
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