Winning awards is a way of life for Alarmel Valli, one of the superstars in the classical dance firmament in the country. She has just been conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at the Bhavan’s Natya Utsav 2014. Early next year she will receive the MN Subramaniam Endowment Award from The Music Academy (outstanding exponent of classical dance). Ten years ago she was honoured with the Padma Bhushan by our government and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the government of France. There have been many more coming her way.
I persuade Valli to take a break from her busy schedule as she has four performances lined up during this season of music and dance in Chennai. We decide to meet for lunch at the L’amandier, a French bistro with great atmosphere which opened about a year ago. Its high roof and well placed comfortable seating with a wintry sunlight (we have about five days of winter) streaming in makes you almost forget you are in Chennai. We order carrot and green peas soup and settle down to discuss the world of dance.
What do the awards mean to her? “There is a sense of great satisfaction when you get recognised without lobbying for it. In some ways it is a validation of what you are doing. They don’t really make a difference to your life apart from giving you an inner glow. What really matters is what the audience feel. It is sustained recognition from the audience that you cherish.” She recalls a fan who saves money to buy tickets for some of her special performances because he sees something new every time she dances.
Valli has been dancing since she was 11. She comes from a family of landed gentry who turned professionals. Although dance was part of her everyday discipline, Valli had Oxbridge dreams in her school years. It was when she was 16 she realised that dance was the integral part of her life. She got an opportunity to perform in Theatre de la Ville in Paris. The theatre was putting together its first international festival. Valli was the chosen one among many senior artists. “It was a magnificent experience. There were four floors and everything was so professionally managed to the minute. I didn’t know that stage managers existed till then! We had four rehearsals for lights, timing and places. I was used to ramshackle auditoriums with cockroaches and bandicoots. Paris opened up a different world for me.”
Valli went on to do her BA in English literature, but dropped out half way through her Masters when she was invited to perform in Moscow, again with very senior artists. She has been dancing in India and all over the world ever since.
It is time to order the main course. We decide to try stuffed zucchini with herb couscous and pomodoro sauce. It turns out to be a good choice for vegetarians. Sylph-like Valli is not particularly fussy about food. “Nothing in excess,” she says. This year (2014) she danced in Europalia festival in Brussels, France and Germany. These are mainstream theatre performances where the audience are not from the diaspora. “They inform themselves, buy tickets and choose to come. I don’t make any concessions. Dance truly crosses linguistic cultural and even religious barriers. In Dhaka, I danced to an Islamic audience of 25,000 people. In Madrid, a women waited for an hour to meet me to tell me how moved she was with the performance.” Then she did a workshop for Milan, a festival organised by the diaspora in Liverpool and Utsav festival in Washington DC. She put together her festival in Chennai (Bani) to celebrate her guru T Muktha from whom she learnt music.
I ask Valli why is there more music than dance in the season. “Music provides a direct path to your heart and soul. In dance, the audience have many more layers to negotiate—music, story, costumes and so on. Although there are less dance festivals and less audience for dance, there is literally an explosion of dancers in the city. At last count, there were about 6,000 dancers. There are dance schools on every street in spite of a woeful shortage of proper teachers.”
Valli says today dance is an industry. There is overcrowding. It is a buyers’ market. Not all dancers are performing; many are in dance schools are hoping to become dance teachers, hoping to do corporate shows, hoping to work in movies. “Today packaging and marketing of dance has changed the scene. It is difficult to survive as a performer unless you run a dance school. Ours is a much more financially demanding profession than a musician’s. Many a times we end up subsidising our own performances.”
For dessert, I ask for eggless vanilla panna cotta and Valli settles for a cappuccino. I ask her about the entire industry which has sprung around dance in Chennai. “The people who provide the infrastructure are in great demand because of the overcrowding. Musicians, costumers and lighting people are laughing all the way to the bank,” she smiles. Hardly any archives exist for older dancers. Now every moment of a performance is captured and digitised. As a result, photographers and videographers are also in great demand.
It is the empowerment of the NRI which has brought the greatest change to the dance world. “There are now agents who supply for the arangetram (debut performance) circuit in the US. These arangetrams in the US are conducted like mini-weddings. I have heard of stories about parents double mortgaging their houses to conduct arangetrams. They have sometimes 17 arangetrams during summer. Young students use this to get their credits for college admission. My musicians are away touring the US and other countries for six months in a year. We cannot find people who play the mridangam for the entire summer. I dread a major event coming up between mid-May and September in India. We cannot match the money they make in the US.” Bharatanatyam is very popular among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the US, the UK, Europe and Australia. In Switzerland, they have a Bharatanatyam competition every March.
Valli says there is enormous talent among younger dancers who manage to multi-task. Having straddled both the pre-IT and the post-IT worlds, she does see the enormous possibilities technology provides. Today, people learn dance through DVDs, Skype and so on, through long distance.
“I am no longer judgemental about this new world. But dance is a language. How do you internalise this language. When you learn from a great guru you absorb by a process of osmosis. I feel there is really no alternative path.”