Mandala Of Indic Traditions
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
by 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
, Website: www.sruti.com