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The Great Art Of Bharatanatyam

The Great Art Of Bharatanatyam: Alarmel Valli Speaks Up In Interview
by Andre Fonteyne

Internationally renowned Bharatanatyam exponent Alarmel Valli was interviewed during her visit to Europe
Andre Fonteyne, arts correspondent of the Flemish newspaper De Morgen which commissioned the interview.

This interview was carried out in Brussels, Belgium, on 15 March 2001, a day before Valli performed in the
non-traditional environment of an old refinery, which was being transformed into an artistic centre. Such
transformation of an infrastructure that has outlived its utility into alternative forms of social usage is an
ongoing process in Europe. An audience of some 400 Europeans sat on the floor throughout the 90-minute
performance, enthralled by what Valli had to offer. M.S. CHANDRAMOULI, Vice-President, Bharat Darshan
European-Indian Association, helped with the transcription of the interview.


I read somewhere that, according to a treatise on abhinaya, one of the chief qualities of a dancer is that she be beautiful…

Dance being a visual art, obviously aesthetics is a very important aspect. It is not an aural art where you are listening to somebody with a beautiful voice. You have to watch the dancer. This would therefore naturally preclude somebody who is – let me not bring beauty into this – somebody, let us say, who is unaesthetic, crude, vulgar, badly-dressed or disproportionate, getting onto the stage. I would like to think that the beauty referred to when speaking about abhinaya relates to aesthetics… and not to whether a person’s nose is straight or whether the eyes are large and so on. Obviously large eyes are an asset since, in the case of a classical dancer more than others, the eyes become the windows of the soul. 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. She was able to create this magic. Or take the example of Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, one of the great dance teachers of the century. He is about 75 now. He transforms everything around us, creating that magic, which is what true art is all about. At the same time you can have a very beautiful dancer who is technically excellent, but who leaves you cold and untouched. So, when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about.

I understand that a dancer is not allowed to dance when her husband is absent. I read this in a book that was published by an Indian dancer in the nineteen fifties

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. Today, I hear so much nonsense – forgive me for saying so, even if I do so in humour – spoken about dance by dancers, that not everything they say need be taken seriously. Some observations carry insight and others have no depth. So it is necessary to be discriminating.

The same writer of the fifties had also mentioned that Bharatanatyam had almost disappeared during that period in India. Is this true?

No, I don’t think it disappeared. In generations past, during the British times, the Victorian morality which they brought with them was outraged by the sensuality of the dance. Coupled with a puritanical society’s shackles, it led to an ebb and isolation of the art, till it was revived once again in the early 20th century by pioneers like E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale. Dance – and more generally, the aesthetics of Indian art – partakes of both the sensual and the spiritual simultaneously. Through the body one reaches out to a higher level of consciousness. This is why classical dance and music are uplifting. They are not mere forms of entertainment. But we seem to be wandering into esoterics here. There is something I wish to say to the Belgian audience for whom you are writing. Let not your audience come to see my performance, or that of any other Indian dancer, believing it to be some sort of mystic exotica from the Orient. It is dance at a totally contemporary level, to be seen in the context of contemporary world dance. It grew in the ambience of the temple but has now made the transition from the temple to the theatre. In the temples, it was associated with worship. For me, it continues to be a prayer with one’s being – but a joyous prayer, full of colours, flavours and fragrances. It is important that people abroad see it as dance per se. It may be in a strange language and set to a strange music, but I would like to tell your people to respond, not merely with their minds, but with their hearts as well.

There are many changes occurring in India. In this context, where does Bharatanatyam stand?

True. Perceptions are changing with the cultural onslaught from the West. American pop culture, with its discos, its MTV and its soap operas has made strong inroads. These have contributed to the distancing of our young from our culture. And then, there is such mindless violence and disharmony everywhere. In such an atmosphere, I feel Bharatanatyam is vitally relevant – to put us back in touch with our roots, to harmonise, to heal and to reaffirm the existence of beauty and truth.

There are a few people who tout the idea that Bharatanatyam, or any classical dance for that matter, no longer has any relevance; that it is dead, it is a fossil, it is a museum piece, it is too decorative, it is too ‘beautiful’. There is endless talk about liberalism. I see myself as a liberal too, a modern woman. But in the name of liberalism, there seems to be a new form of – yes, I would use as strong a word as – fascism, beginning to emerge. This is nothing but narrow-mindedness in the garb of liberalism. A true liberal is one who can move across all forms of cultural space with equal impartiality. He does not go around saying: “This is not fashionable, so I will not go to it;” or “It is not contemporary, so I will not watch it;” and so on. Classical dance in India is contemporary. It is contemporary because we make it so. We dancers are contemporary women. Speaking for myself, I do not live in a cultural ivory tower. My dance expresses my true and innermost self and my experience of the world. The idiom may be different, but the spirit lighting up my dance is contemporary.

There is something else that I find disturbing. Today we are seeing the emergence of an Indian mindset that takes all its cues from the West. It is an acknowledged fact that each culture has to grow in its own way, responding to its native idiom, its cultural consciousness and context and its history. As Indians, we cannot therefore graft on to our dance something that has been pulled out of the West, merely on the plea that it is more contemporary. In my experience, the Western lay audiences are wonderful and respond rapturously, whole-heartedly and unconditionally to our classical dance. But there are small, albeit influential groups which perceive things differently and which are unable to understand and relate to some of the facets and dimensions of Indian classical dance. They would like to mould and shape the future of dance in India, as it were. In my view, the subtle imposition of a Western modern aesthetic, modified by a sprinkling of Indian ‘ingredients’ is not the answer to the development of modern Indian dance. And, we do not need anybody to tell us exactly how our dance should evolve. Our dance has been dynamically growing and evolving over many centuries and it will continue to grow and evolve, thank you. But this growth and change should be spontaneous, from within us, in the context of our own culture, and at our own pace.

A successful Western formula need not necessarily become the rule for Indian dance as well. In any case, I don’t believe in any formula being blindly followed. Deconstruction and revolution may have been terms that were, at some point, vital and meaningful in the Western context. They do not always have importance or validity in the Indian context. Unfortunately many Indian dancers – even good ones and particularly the young – are carried away by this new rhetoric and by current jargon, and feel obliged to find their answers elsewhere and to redefine their dance in Western terms. They translate their dance in accordance with terms which are dictated to them, not from within, but from outside. In the process, they turn anti-this or anti-that, leading to the formation of all sorts of cliques. You have the divide between the so-called purists and the so-called modernists. I have experience of both camps.

Although I am a classical dancer, I enjoy good Modern dance enormously and am inspired by it. The ultimate test is whether the dance touches you, moves you, makes you think. For those who respond with the heart, as well as the mind and whose tastes are not dictated by fashionable trends, or by political correctness, there can only be good dancing and bad dancing. And that should be the end of the story. Regrettably, in the dance scene in India today, there is an image-conscious elite that is led by what is politically correct and fashionable. You then have the ‘modernists’ and the ‘traditionalists’ – I am not for either of them. The traditionalists will put dance in a strait-jacket and will say that ‘this is the scripture of dance and this is how it should be, with no changes, please!’… and this is not acceptable. The Natya Sastra itself gives you total freedom to be a poet. Can one dictate or curb poetic expression? On the other hand, there are the modernists who are as narrow-minded as the purists. The concept of revolution, they say, is integral to contemporary dance; it cannot remain content with being ‘beautiful’. I find the idea silly – that to be contemporary, one has necessarily to break the form, or that one has to blank out all expression and banish beauty. Indian classical dance is imbued with joy, the sheer joy of movement; it is sensual; it is vibrant; it is vividly expressive.

Music, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture and psychology form the warp and weft of our classical dance. And central to the experience of Indian classical dance, both from the point of view of the dancer and the audience, is the transforming, transcendental experience of the spiritual. Why would one be ashamed of beauty, if it is inner beauty and not beauty for beauty’s sake? Why has spirituality become so ‘unfashionable’ and why is it confused with narrow religiosity? If you are a true modernist, and are secure in yourself and your art, you should be able to traverse the complete gamut of aesthetic experience, whatever its nature and variety, without the baggage of pre-conceived notions. I am saying all this from my experience of what I see happening in India and in the West. I see a tremendous surge of interest in Indian dance in the West; but I also see the creation of a very strange atmosphere. No, I am not referring to fusion dance and music, which is a different ball-game altogether. I am talking about dancers being conditioned and brain-washed into thinking that ‘this’ is how they must progress… and ‘this’ includes running down anything that is considered beautiful or classical. Let me give you an example of a few questions posed by some Western ‘modernists’: Why is there so little floor movement in Indian dance? Why is Indian classical dance so ‘happy’ all the time? How can an ancient traditional form like Bharatanatyam be contemporary? These questions are as pointless as asking why is there not enough abhinaya in Modern Western dance or complex footwork or cross-rhythms? Just because there is little floor movement, does this mean that Bharatanatyam is incomplete? Certainly not! Bharatanatyam is complete in its own way, just as something that a Western dancer does may be complete in its own way. It can communicate intensely and profoundly, cutting across all cultural barriers. It is a form where technique is but the vocabulary and grammar of a language, using which the dancer is free to write her own dance poem. How can you say such a dance is not contemporary?! So, we don’t need to redefine our dance according to terms that other people dictate.

I do not think we are getting anywhere by each faction professing ‘I am like this and why are you not the same?’ Beauty lies in diversity. I love Modern dance and I have seen many of the best Modern dancers from around the world. My experience of their dance is transmuted within me and finds appropriate expression in my own idiom, which is Bharatanatyam. But ultimately, for me, the acid test is that my dance should give me joy and be true to my convictions. Other dance-forms have their influence on me, but not in a literal sense. For instance, I am a great admirer of Pina Bausch. But I don’t go to watch her group, and evaluate my own dance by the framework and standards of her dance. She comes often to India, watches classical Indian dance and loves it. So somewhere there will be transmuted reflections of Indian dance in her art. So also with me. I am inspired by her and as such, somewhere in my inner consciousness I am influenced and this comes out in my dance – but not as imitation, or as a mere literal expression. And this is what I wish to convey – to your people and our youth in India. Don’t get hooked onto something merely because it is fashionable. Environment. Feminism. Ecology. These are all catch-words. Do they have artistic relevance to whatever it is that you are performing or watching or listening? This is the question you have to ask yourself.

In talking to you, it has come as a surprise to me to learn that tradition is change.

Yes, indeed. Sampradaya, in Sanskrit, means tradition, which undergoes continuous change. It is a misinterpretation to think of tradition as static. To give you a beautiful analogy that I read somewhere, tradition may be thought of as the banks of a river that give direction to the flow of water. Without tradition, the river will be in flood, unregulated and uncontrolled. But the river keeps changing its course, it accepts tributaries and change is a constant factor. Tradition tends to become static when its practitioners make it so. Many of the criticisms that come up today against the classical dance-forms are the result of a loss of the vitality and dynamism of tradition. When numbers proliferate, then amongst the thousands of dancers who are thrown up, there are many who either dance badly, or dance without joy, or dance without proper training, just because they want to perform. So, when you have mediocrity or bad dancing, or when dancers merely imitate what they have been taught, without any inner feeling and without internalising the rules and grammar of the dance, dance becomes static. It is not the tradition or the dance that is to blame, but the person who is interpreting the tradition.

Dancers have sometimes encountered certain questions in the West (thankfully, not addressed to me, but to others I know): Why is Bharatanatyam continuing to be performed rather than certain modern versions of dance which have acquired popularity? Why do you harp on religion or devotion?… and so on. But what is reflected in our dance is not religiosity but spirituality, which has a much wider and universal connotation. It has much to do with harmony and the idea of bringing peace to troubled minds and souls. I have known people who have been deeply moved by this art-form and this is why I talk with so much conviction about it. There was this lady in Spain, in Madrid if I remember correctly, who came and literally wept after my performance and said: “Thank you for what you have done for me this evening. I am an unhappy woman, but today I feel you have changed my life.” I was deeply touched, since this is what classical dance is supposed to do. So when somebody asks, what is the validity of this art-form in today’s world, I can only say that it has more validity than many other forms I can think of. At a time when so many people in the world are at each other’s throats, this great art harmonises, heals, unites, uplifts, inspires. It thrills the mind, it fills the heart with visions of beauty and it lights a glow in your soul.

Let me conclude on that note.

This article is reproduced from Sruti, India’s premier music and dance magazine, Issue 209, February 2002. For further information contact Dr. N. Pattabhi Raman, Editor-in-Chief, ‘Alapana’, 260 J. J. Road, Chennai 600 018, India. Telephone +91 44 499 3822, E-mail: sruti@eth.net , Website: www.sruti.com