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.”