Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam… or Odissi? The forgotten heritage of Chokkalingam Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, the “functions” and the VIP’s.

(this post is based on the report by G.K.)

If you thought that Padams and Javalis are reserved for the elderly, out of shape grandma’s whose only body parts that can still somehow move is their face (well, even this is problematic if there is half a kilo of fat under your face’s skin!), you should watch Alarmel Valli.

The evening of 28th was officially dedicated to the memory of Subbaraya Pillai, and the Shivagami Petachi AUditorium was fully packed despite the fact that the only announcement of this event was a small note in last week’s Friday review. As Mrs. Parthasarathy declared, all the city’s elite gathered that evening to watch Alarmel dance, and no parking space left in the school’s compound. How elite were the VIP’s could be seen by how brutally some rasikas were forced out of their seats in the first row, followed by even more embarrassing evictions of the lesser VIP’s by the more “senior” VIP’s. The fight for the first row seats reminds me of Subbaraya Pillai, who refused to sit in the first rows and was resentful of all these cheri VIP’s. Doesn’t Alarmel Valli gets annoyed while communicating with them? She probably does. On the other hand, just like Subbaraya Pillai, Nandini Ramani was seated in some 20th row on the 28th August.

Alarmel was indeed dancing well, as usual her dance was marked by midukku with liberal use of ottam adavus, light jumps, incredible coverage of stage space, a kulukku in her walk, talukku, an alakshyam as she flicks her wrist in the ullaasa nadai. Every slightest move was fully controlled and chiseled, lending it the artistic, and sometimes artsy, finish. Why Alarmel keeps doing mostly the same padams and javalis every time she does a performance in Chennai is bewildering. Anyway, she has changed her vocalist this time, and Savita Narasimhan was indeed singing with a delicate and powerful voice. Valli can afford to hire the best musicians, that’s for sure.

Alarmel Valli’s “style”, if we can call it so, involves the elements that few other dancers can emulate. The soft and delicate movements are alternated with the sharp, accentuated moves that are probably aimed at not letting the rasikas fall asleep. Every hand movements are supported by the foot movements. And every step is done to the talam. (Something that I very rarely see!). Every “simple” movement is meticulously elaborated into a super-complex set. I noticed that the number of bhedas (and the range of their speeds and amplitudes) that she uses is considerable greater than any other dancer’s. Priyadarshini Govind or Urmila Sathyanarayanan are nobodies compared with Alarmel.

Alarmel’s background in Odissi could be seen in very rich and complex torso movements (some borrowed from Mohiniattam!) that “normal” Bharatanatyam dancers forgot about thanks to the founder of Kalakshetra’s efforts. (Is this why so many professional Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai take Odissi or Mohiniattam classes , I wonder?) Another thing they could learn is how to control their eye lashes. Alarmel has mastered these to a great extent. Usually, people are not even aware of how they open and close their eyes. But it does produce a very powerful effect.

Mrs. Parthasarathy rightly observed that Alarmel Valli’s expressions do not cross that border after which they would turn into grimaces. I wonder how most of our other “senior” bharatanatyam exponents manage to produce so many ugly faces!

In the Yugame padam Alarmel Valli was portraying a miserable woman who was left by her lover. It was an attempt to depict a devotee’s anguish at the separation from the Lord. It appeared that Valli has had no actual spiritual experience that alone would lend this padam more depth.

In another padam Valli was attempting to depicting a mother who was coaxing her child to come and eat something. The child was supposed to symbolize the devotee’s soul who is turned away from the lures of the world. For anybody who has had this spiritual experience (if you had it, you can very easily recognize the other people who had the same experiences), it was obvious that Alarmel Valli has never had this direct spiritual experience, which rendered her padam rather weak.

Another padam that Alarmel did was about a woman who had an intimate encounter with her lover the previous night. This man embarrasses her in public by behaving in a rather rude manner. The spiritual symbolism here is quite obvious for anybody whose social life has been deranged by the direct spiritual experiences (if you watched Jim Carrey’s “The Liar”, you would realize how much a “successful” bharatanatyam dancer has to lie to reach the “top”). In fact, tears filled in my eyes, as the theme of this padam brought out the memories of certain realizations. The tears came before Valli started dancing.

There were no tears while I was watching Valli dance. The impression I had was like… While visiting some friends, I saw some nice fruits on the table, thinking that these fruits are so nice. On coming closer, I realized that the attractive looks were misleading: the fruits were made of plastic. Alarmel Valli’s padams and javalis are sometimes like the perfectly-shaped and perfectly-colored apples, grapes and bananas which, nevertheless, are of little value since you cannot eat them. These will not provide the sustenance for your soul’s spiritual hunger…. The artsy Bharatanatyam items have no real flavour, no taste, and are hollow inside.

If Amarmel Valli was a bit more open-minded and less proud of her achievements, should take abhinaya lessons from some 9-year girls. After all, Lalitha Sahasra Namam describes Devi as “Dhurga who is a nine year old girl” (not an old grandma). At this age, our abhinaya is not yet disconnected from our soul.

I always wonder why the “functions” are held before the end – not after – the performance. Had it been after the performance, the VIP speakers would surely face a very embarrassing situation with 99% of the spectators leaving before the speeches start. Mrs. Parthasarathy was again trying to promote her PSBB, stressing that many PSBB students are learning at Alarmel Valli’s Dipasikha. She did not want to embarrass Alarmel Valli by asking why in the past 4 years there have been just one or two solo performances in Chennai by Dipasikha’s students. Alarmel Valli brought one to dance in Chennai from… the USA, where Alarmel spends a lot of her time. Does she follow Subbaraya Pillai’s tradition and teach very talented students there regardless of how much they pay? She teaches only one-to-one, right? Business skills are not the only thing that Alarmel Valli learnt in America: about 5% of her movements (aimed at impressing the average American cowboy) clearly appear to be borrowed from artsy ballet and modern dance. That’s the application of lokadharmi, isn’t it???

Another speaker who was boring the rasikas was Dr.R.Nagaswamy. In his senile imbecility he referred to Chokkalingam Pillai’s relation with the 108 karanas. (There is no way Alarmel can do the more difficult karanas – unlike this young dancer). Why neither Chokkalingam Pillai nor Alarmel Valli wanted to talk about karanas is very simple: neither of them has ever known how to perform these. And the aging Alarmel is a bit too lazy to spend much time on getting fitter. Another idiocy that Dr.R.Nagaswamy was dwelling on was his idea of making a memorial in Vazhuvoor. Why this village has long forgotten anything related to Bharatanatyam is up to Chokkalingam Pillai to answer. Indeed, why did most of these village dance teachers left their villages and settled in Indian cities? Or American cities?

In a Sruti magazine’s article of February 2002, we find many revelations.

To the question, “I read somewhere that, according to a treatise on abhinaya, one of the chief qualities of a dancer is that she be beautiful…”, Alarmel replies, “I would like to think that for a dancer it is her inner beauty that counts. Take the example of the late T. Balasaraswati, one of India’s greatest exponents of abhinaya. I have been transported, watching her perform at 60.She could make you see her exactly as she wanted you to see her. If you looked at her, you would see a beautiful, young, charming girl of 16″.

The inner beauty…. well, even the ugliest K.J.Sarasa are very beautiful inside if they are famous, rich or powerful. Alarmel is quick to dismiss the ancient scriptures as nonsense, and believes that both Bharata Muni and Nandikeshwara are idiots as they believed that natya in its material expression is to be the expression of the physical body too. But when Alarmel has to choose between a politically correct answer (“when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about”) and an honest answer.

Alarmel Valli still is quite sober: “Let me tell you something. Never take too seriously what dancers write! Even scholars are prone to make mistakes – not only factual mistakes but ones relating to interpretation as well.”

36 thoughts on “Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam… or Odissi? The forgotten heritage of Chokkalingam Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, the “functions” and the VIP’s.

  1. iam yet to c a performance and feel spirituality in it. its another story while iam performing, not all dances take to another world. right now i can think of only varnam manavi che kona raada. FYI, iam doing a performance soon in india.

  2. dear bharatanatyam,
    i really want to findout how do u determine whether or not a particular dancer had a spiritual experiance or not?
    whilst we are at it, i dance too. and whether or not it is believable, i had a many a spiritual i am sure that god is watching me closely, because when i am in distress and i ask him to give me a sign that he is nearby and with me, i do get such signs- u might find it quite funny, but is this all not a matter of faith. well, coming back, iam sure nobody can make this out when they watch my dance- let alone determining if at all i had a spiritual experiance. this is true to many people in general,non dancers, for eg , my spiritual guru.he works in a govt organization and looks as normal as anyone. yes when u c one u get vibes, i dont deny it, but how far it is true and valid to dance? regarding myself, y do u think that no one is able to find out? pls dont say that i am such a bad dancer, i am not claiming to be the world’s best, only aspiring to, but iam a pretty good dancer. so how can one know?

  3. how do u determine whether or not a particular dancer had a spiritual experiance or not?

    The people who have had the identical or very similar experiences will intuitively and instantly recognize each other. They will also recognize the fakes.

    As for those who believe that apsaras or devas cannot appear in one’s meditation, it is a clear indication that these people are only at the very beginning of their spiritual evolution. If only hamburgers or Porshe cars appear in their “meditations”, what can we say?

  4. Rukmini, thank you too. πŸ™‚
    How is the weather in Bangalore? πŸ™‚

    I wonder if asked to delete your entire previous (long) comment or just a part of it.

    Mallika, I have been quite a bit busy lately….. 😦

  5. dear bharatanatyam,
    can u pls tell me how to participate to perform in various festivals across india?

  6. Where?
    At whose expense? πŸ™‚
    And for how big an audience?

    The best is not to mention that you are an NRI. πŸ™‚ The NRI are usually expected to cover the costs, and are expected to pay 200%-300% of the “standard” “donations” at the sabha-organized festivals. Some sabhas (RASA, for example) will accept ANY application as long as “donation” is paid. RASA organizes those fests in the Varasidhi Vinayaka temple in Besant Nagar in Chennai. Even the worst performer gets at least 70-80 spectators. Music Connoiseurs Club (MSC) does it in Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore where you will get at least 300 spectators. Unlike RASA, MSC has some minimum standards. I think you will pass easily. πŸ™‚

    Outside Chennai, there are no standards at all. 😦 No problem in Mumbai or Delhi.

    Karthik Fine Arts or Natyarangam have quite high standards, and you may need recommendations, etc. Hardly.
    Don’t waste your time applying for the Krishna Gana Sabha’s or the Mahabalipuram (you will need some political connections in DMK or Tourism Dept) festivals. The same is for the Khajuraho. If it is a government fest, you know… You can pay a bribe or something equivalent.

    Alternatively, you’d better get in touch with some mid-range young professional dancers here and offer them a deal: you help me get opportunities there and there, and I will help you to get something in Australia. This is how it works. Go to Orkut, lots of dancers there have established a virtual “opportunities” Exchange. Contact, for example, Jyotsna Jaganathan.

    I would suggest you contact Padma Subrahmaniam to take part in the Natyanjali festival. She will not give you an evening slot on the 1st day in Chidambaram, but there are many “less important” slots. See Kutcheribuzz for info of the other temple’s Natyanjali’s organizers. I think Natyanjali’s would be the best for you.

    Are you interested in the classical Indian dance fests in Orissa? There are mini-festivals organized by dance schools, too. Care to go to Mysore to the Bhushan’s festival? πŸ™‚

    If you want to get something in the December season…. hmmmm, will be difficult for the first time. πŸ™‚

  7. thanks a lot bharatanatyam,
    iam a pretty good dancer, i know it. now iam in bangalore. and not going back to australia. one has to wait to know my next destination. howz the bhushans? i did send my application, waiting for the results. orissa?i spoke to the concerend person, sent the details. everything seems to take ages.i can wait. meanwhile i will try natyanjali. do u like the bhushans? honestly?
    one thing is for sure, i have nothing to offer except good dance in exchange for a chance to dance.

  8. The Bhushans are fine if you just want to visit Mysore and if the sightseeing alone would be a bit too boring…. πŸ™‚

    One thing is for sure: dancing there and getting their awards, etc., will not add any extra value to your Bharatanatyam resume ! πŸ™‚ If you don’t care about your resume, go and dance in the ashrams or the ISKON in Bangalore.

    You have to call the guys in Orissa and remind them about your existence. πŸ™‚

    As for Natyanjali, they used to provide a free orchestra in Chidambaram a few years ago, but now they don’t. Some temples allow good quality recorded music.

  9. dear bharatanatyam,
    i contacted the natyanjali. iam not sure the same one u toldme. could u give me their link, so as iam on the right track. i do care abt my resume.but thats not all. i would dance where it is respected and dance in a way tht it gains respect.iam sure u understand what i am trying to say. its definately an honor to dance in big venues, but i would liek to reach out where the commoners can be influenced by dance.

  10. The Brahan Natyanjali Foundation, Thanjavur. For details contact Phone 098424-55765, 04362 – 291569, E-mail :

    Natyanjali Trust, Kumbakonam can be contacted at Moopanar Bungalow, Dr. Besant Road, Kumbakonam 612 001. Phone – 0435 -2442396. E-mail-

    Natyanjali at Nataraja temple / Chidambaram
    For more info, contact the Natyanjali Trust, 04144-222732.

    Natyanjali at Kapaleeswarar temple / Chennai (very slippery floor, no raised stage, no dressing room)
    To participate in this festival, you can apply to KutcheriBuzz, Shop No. 22, 2nd Floor, No. 77, Corporation Shopping Complex, C.P. Ramaswamy Road, Alwarpet, Chennai – 600 018. E-mail:

    at Thirunallar?
    at Nagapattinam?
    at the Tyagaraja Swami temple in Thiruvarur?

    Next year….. Coimbatore: The four-day Natyanjali Dance Festival (1000 spectators!) commences around September 14 at the Perur Pateeswarar temple. Contact the Rotary Club of Coimbatore Metropolis.

    If you want to reach out where the commoners can be influenced by dance, there are plenty of big, medium and smaller temples (apart from the ashrams) where dancers are always welcome to give a performance with recorded music. Some temples pay the dancers, some charge a small donation of, say, Rs.500. πŸ™‚

    If you want a big venue, bear in mind that the Mylapore-T.Nagar-Adyar area in Chennai is oversaturated with Bharatanatyam. In any other smaller city/town outside Chennai you will get much larger crowds. Now the task is very simple: there are hundreds of temples in South India to contact and ask when and who organizes Bharatanatyam performances there.

    You can also contact various events companies if you want to earn something by dancing at corporate events or for tourists at hotels πŸ™‚

  11. thanks a lot bharatanatyam. today in dance jathare, bangalore and in vizag i did something similar. these are not big venues, not many people. but there were young kids. when i finished one girl took my autograph on a 100rs note in vizag asking me how i do what i do on stage. i said when she starts learning, she will be much better than me at my age. also today may a 5yr old came to me, she could not even speak proper sentance- said i did good. i told her to learn too. thats more satisfying than anything. but big venues are needed and so is money. for these 2 performances i spent 10,000rs and thats big money for me too.
    i will do wat u suggest. but if something comes to u r knowledge do let me know.


  12. Rukmini, you should tell us more details (names, names, times, the system) about this JATHARE controversy so that things like that would not be repeated.

    Mallika, what was that mess in jathare? πŸ™‚ Was it a competition, or what?

  13. Rukmini, if you want to keep your messages confidential, just email them to me: jashwini @

    By the way, rukmini @ is not a valid email address.

  14. i have contacted all the above u mentioned. not a single reply back.anyother way?i did remind the konark guys abt my existance, but as with all the prestegious ones, it seems they only recognise the existance of the popular dancers only, even for other small festivals that happen in orissa. sometimes i lose all hope,will,desire,drive,enthusiasm,faith,unfortunately now tears flow, not out of rasanubhava, but for these sad anubhavas…
    thanks for the help and guidance. when i muster strength, i will pursue them.

  15. Oh, all the prestegious ones…. prestegious…. prestegious…Ah……. ah…… ah….

    Didn’t I tell you to contact the dancers who have already participated in that particular festival?
    You’d better come and talk to the organizers in person: they may be charmed by your charisma, mesmerized by your hand, neck and eye movements, impressed by your intelligent talk πŸ™‚
    Don’t wear jeans when you visit them!!! πŸ™‚

    Come on, this is real life, the stage is just a rehearsal!! πŸ™‚

    After all, you are not applying for a bank clerk’s or an engineer’s job, are you?
    Do you remember what qualities (according to Abhinayadarpanam and NS) the dancer has to demonstrate? You cannot just send it by Indian Post!!!

    Bring in a lot of recent press reviews…. πŸ™‚
    Go to TV channels (Doordarshan, TTD, etc.) and dance there, to build up your recognition.
    Did you get a Doordarshan grade?
    Empaneled with the ICCR?
    Since you don’t even have a web site, do you at least have a good demo video?

    Don’t cry: call the temples.
    Some of them even have web sites πŸ™‚
    A few days ago my friend went to watch a totally unannounced festival at
    200-300 spectators, right in front of the temple’s main entrance.
    a cat hunting imaginary mice under the stage occasionally made surprise appearances from under the stage’s curtain πŸ™‚

  16. i did follow u r advice and a couple of good ones are in the offing. i will kee u posted when any gets finalised. i was waiting for u r next slaughtering article. i am myself in oblivion and concentrating on ly on dance till iam in india and before i hit the next destination country.
    well, while ur close friends are running online academies that u so much appreciate, both them and their effforts, why all of them have come to a sudden stop, no more regular updates? would u have some info on that?
    well, if u can, pls put this up along with my email id.
    till iam in india and whenever iam in india, i vow to teach all interested candidates, irrespecitve of their age and talent for free, in view of their monetory problems.
    this is a way of saying thanks to u. whether my efforts u guided me towards, materialize or not,i want to thank you for the moral support.

  17. for a next slaughtering article I need either to get some inspiration from someone, or some private reports of some programme or else go and watch some programme myself. takes time…. 😦 besides, I am kind of growing weary of criticising (slaughtering).

    I thought it is your close friends who are running online academies !!! πŸ™‚ I don’t have such. If Sangeetha and Anjali are not very active, maybe because they got so many new students 4 weeks ago that there’s no time for writing.

    Myself I felt the need to study in-depth certain things – before continuing to write. Some people unearthed many ancient compositions that were stored in the Thanjavur temple…. I want to reconstruct the real margi music (the desi is of no interest to me anymore) before doing the dance part. What do you think of this: ?

    by the way, you got me wrong about the free tuition.
    not “all interested candidates” (students) have monetory problems, moreover, very few out of “all interested candidates” have such a talent that warrants free tuition. why should you teach them for free????

    what I meant to say was if there is an obviously talented student who cannot afford the fee (such cases are RARE), then the guru should accept a token fee (the way Subbaraya Pillai did: he never mentioned any amount as tuition fee, nor he reminded his students about it).

  18. Hi there,

    I dance, I’ve been dancing for a loooong time now and in my humble opinion I’m quite good at it. This post is for Mallika, there is an organisation called Hamsadhwani in chennai. They specifically cater to promoting NRI dancers and musicians during the Dec Music Festival in Madras. I have danced there twice in the last 2 years and will be dancing again this year ( on the 21st of Dec 2008) It is a good place to begin with I guess. Ofcourse during that time of the year whether you are good or bad the rasikas and the crowds like to go to only the “big shot” dancers’ shows but there is a fair number of them who do come down to watch us NRI’s perform. You coudl try contacting them. Theres a life member fee of IRS 10,000 or something. Try getting in touch with them they are very helpful and encouraging! Best of Luck!

  19. @ mallika

    If a critic sees your performance and thinks you have not had a spiritual experience, it means your abhinaya is dead and u evoke no bhava in the audience. So that note means do not make the audience think u are faking an expression. It does not matter how many spiritual “vibes” have u had in this life or otherwise. What matters is whether u can transcend them on stage and not let the critic wonder if u have a spiritual quotient. If you are a good enough dancer, you would have enough shradhdha which will reflect in your performance

  20. @above,
    but is not one who is truely spiritual, has a “chidwilasam”., the first reaction of his is that of a compassionate smile. and all of it that is within him reflects in his eyes? so now i understand ashwini’s previous blog, even when u r abhinaya is perfect, u r eyes are not not saying it. i have seen many such performances where the abhinaya is perfect techinically, what needs to be said is said and understood, but eyes are so empty of the dancer, and the whole thing just doesnt touch the soul….i hope u got wat i said.

  21. Yes – to the extent of your shradhdha – you can come very close to actually having a spiritual experience.
    Approaching something and experiencing something are, nevertheless, two very different things.

  22. Yes, Rukmini. Eyes are very important. For practice, you can take a cat and try to transmit a command with your look. “Come here” or “go out”, to start with. πŸ™‚
    I know some people whose dogs know – without a spoken or gesticulated command – what the master wants them do. Dogs are quite sensitive (much more than normal men! πŸ™‚ . Go to a zoo and practise with snakes, chimps or tigers.

    Facial expressions are just angika abhinaya. When Padma Subrahmaniam wanted to demonstrate what is Satvika abhinaya, she failed because all she could squeeze out of herself was some grotesque angika abhinaya.

  23. I was just wondering when I read this text what is the point to dedicate a time in your life to write about the bad qualities of a dancer. This is so negative!
    And the person who wrote it seems to be very inteligent and knows a lot about bharathanatyam. So why don’t you right something to increase our knowledge about this incredible art that I had the pleasure to watch in India instead of publishing bad things about someone else.
    For me it seems that you are very jealous of Alarmel Valli…

  24. vidyaa dadaati vinayaM
    vinayaadyaati paatrataam
    dhanaaddharmaM tataH sukhaM

    “Knowledge generates humility, by humility one becomes worthy, being worthy one earns wealth, with wealth one gains spirituality, and by spirituality one becomes happy”

    I just find the author of this article very arrogant. There is a way you must present criticism. This is pure arrogance and pride. I agree that the author is very knowledgeable about Bharathanatyam. But, a little more respect to the artists would be better.

  25. This is a great article! I’m afraid I have not seen Alarmel Valli dance in person … but I have seen some of her disciples perform (those in Minnesota under a school called “Ragamala”) ~ and I’ve been very disappointed at how poor the dancers’ abhinaya & drama (or natya) are. It’s really too bad. They say they are a professional dance company; but I sincerely feel something significant (spiritual, soulful, etc.) is completely lost when watching this troupe! While they do seem to have dancers adept in many aspects of “nritta,” I would argue that they all (the principal dancers all the way down to the newcomers…) lack strong, sophisticated expressional abilities. They mix up their facial expressions, too ~ smiling at odd times & not using the repertoire of expressions in dances that obviously require this. I’ve seen high school classical dance students in the U.S./Chicago who actually perform abhinaya a good deal better than Ragamala company dancers. Thank you!

  26. I read your articles and was wondering what actual bharatanatyam dance would look like?? probably you can show us that? not being sarcastic ofcourse.. just curious.. any links to your performances would help

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