By Kamakshi Mallikarjun
Google directions in hand, I was making my way carefully through the pedestrian crossing lanes in Dupont Circle in Washington DC. The fact that the roundabout had inner and outer lanes of cars, multiple stop lights in the quadrants, and impatient city drivers added a level of unexpected complexity to the short walk from my hotel.
My goal was to find the Women’s National Democratic Club (WNDC), situated on New Hampshire Avenue, the venue for the screening of Alarmel Valli’s Lasya Kavya the next day. Google did not let me down and I found myself shortly in front of an ornate red brick mansion on a tree-lined road with the embassies of the Republic of Botswana and Mozambique on the opposite side.
“The Women’s National Democratic club was founded in 1922, two years after the Nineteenth amendment granted voting rights to women” in the US. And the event was scheduled for Nov 5th, the day before the US Election.
It was a cool venue indeed, chosen by Dakshina, Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company (http://www.dakshina.org/), which was welcoming Valli back to DC with a performance and this screening of Lasya Kavya. Dakshina will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next year and has a wonderful mission of making ‘dance universally accessible’ and ‘engaging in dance not only as a means for aesthetic and artistic growth, but also as a vehicle for social change and community development’.
Before the screening, there was a small reception to meet Valli and members of the WNDC and Dakshina.
The diverse audience ranged from folks who were knowledgeable about Bharatanatyam and fans of Valli for a long time to those who were watching Bharatanatyam for the first time.
Lasya Kavya is indeed that rare documentary about an artist that aligns impeccably with the artist’s core values and emphasis on excellence. As Bombay Jayashri described most aptly, Valli’s signature of ‘seeing the music and hearing the dance’ comes together so perfectly – the abhyasa, drive for creativity, the dance, the music, the intricate rhythms …
I am happy to share some of the Q & A that occurred after the screening - very interesting questions and articulate, expressive, and thought provoking answers by Valli. At the end of the Q & A, Valli said it was particularly meaningful for her to have been able to share her thoughts at the WNDC.
It began as purely an archival project and grew to “an in-depth film on my dance which would also explore the ideas that shape my creative work”.
She was fortunate working with a perceptive director like Sankalp Meshram who “sensitively and intuitively decided on techniques to using abstraction to highlight the dance and add depth. Magnificent temple architecture, or lush nature settings, he felt would be counterproductive, for which decision, I am very grateful”.
Valli regaled us with a story about a prior documentary, many years ago, by a famous director, far more interested in the dramatic location, who wanted her to dance on a scorching day on top of a large boulder! And as the sequence was about to be filmed, a large billygoat intruded on the scene and had to be chased away!
Excerpts from the Q&A session (with the names or description of those asking the questions and their questions below them)
Daniel Phoenix Singh
The difference between choreography for solo vs. group dance
While Valli enjoys choreographing group compositions for her students and “sculpting space differently”, she is primarily a solo performer; it offers her far more freedom. When performing with others, you have to have to “be constantly aware of the group dynamics”, which can sometimes curb your spontaneity.
A WNDC member new to the world of Indian classical dance
The formal process to learn Indian classical dance
Valli explained that there indeed is and that her mother who loved South Indian classical music and dance was the catalyst who made her start dance lessons when she was very young; she was very fortunate to learn from Chockalingam Pillai and Subbaraya Pillai who were such extraordinary gurus and teachers. They were instrumental in developing her into the artist that she is today; that they not only “gave her a strong foundation in technique and grammar and a rich dance vocabulary”, of Bharatanatyam in the Pandanallur style, but Subbaraya Pillai also gave her the freedom to greatly broaden her horizons, choreograph on her own and to evolve creatively.
She added that her gurus were also innovators and they were keen “to evolve the Pandanallur style, to combine power, clarity and purity of line with grace and fluidity. They wanted to give the dance a seamless quality, without leaning either towards brittleness and rigidity, or cloying grace.”
Valli demonstrated what she meant with a few examples – perfectly defined natyarambha position, the piquant grace of the tattumettu adavus.
A young student of Modern Dance
How to better understand Valli’s dance
Emphasizing “her ideal and perception of dance as visual poetry and visual melody”, Valli said that just like starting with alphabets, words, and then phrases when learning to read, dance also has its classical ‘alphabet’, words and phrases. As she continued to develop and grow as a performer, she started innovating within this elastic framework where she stays true to the principles of the idiom but at the same time explores new dimensions.
Valli gave an example of how her guru taught her to show beauty; and then the additional embellishments in the way she shows it now, depending on how the music flows.
Another key point was that as the dance unfolds, the singer is improvising the lines of the song, the violinist is also adding his or her own touches, so is the percussionist. The pivotal need when dancing is to internalize and respond to the music so that each seamlessly flows from one to the other.
A dance scholar and dance critic
Has the much-travelled Valli ever felt the need to incorporate any extraneous paradigms/techniques into her work?
Valli gave a succinct and eloquent response to this question. She appreciates great art of all genres and she has interacted closely with great dancers like Pina Bausch, and a number of other artists. But she feels “experiments in fusion merely for novelty's sake, usually fail”. She feels Bharatanatyam has its own rich and flexible structural form and foundation, and is replete with its own textures and colors. She finds “the greatest fulfillment in its undiluted, rich idiom”.
Valli added that she had learnt Odissi from the great Kelucharan Mohapatra but gave it up because she felt that it was important to focus on one dance form and give it her full attention, that just one lifetime is not enough for that.
However, her art and creativity do indeed draw from her life experiences and from that perspective, she indeed has been deeply touched by Western Art, Dance, Music, and Architecture. These experiences “are reflected in her dance - though not as literal statements”.
For instance, Valli said that she recently chose to choreograph an English poem by Arundhathi Subramaniam, but again worked on seamlessly integrating it into the idiom of Bharatanatyam.
A student of Bharatanatyam
The influence of teaching others
Valli’s response contrasted how she learnt from her gurus with the teaching of dance today.
Her guru “did not favour the analytical approach to teaching. He could suggest a world of meaning with just a simple hand movement.” She says she often learnt almost by osmosis. Since “he never actually stood up to demonstrate the dance, and there were no means of visually recording his lessons, she had to focus, reflect, and internalize his lessons”. It enabled her to develop her own individual style. Her guru also gave her the freedom to explore and evolve.
In contrast, today’s dance students including her own, learn from someone who is also performing and so they tend to imitate more, sometimes even individual mannerisms. And though technology is good, sometimes it prevents her students from internalizing what they are leaning and tends to become an easy crutch.
She greatly enjoys discussions with her students but sometimes does wonder if “she is spoon feeding them” too much when explaining and analyzing Abhinaya and movement.
A young student
Does Valli believe that government has a role to play in fostering the arts?
Valli’s passionate and emphatic reply was “Absolutely, yes! Government has a critical responsibility to and must robustly foster the arts. Even as “Economy, Ecology and Social Development are pillars on which society rests today, arts and culture must be made a foundational pillar as well. Otherwise, youth become impoverished. Kitsch will always be there and its attraction is often potent”. But it is very important for children to learn and appreciate the fine arts, so that “they also imbibe the values inherent in these forms”.
And to resounding applause, Valli added that given that the US election was going to be held the next day, she hoped that that the winner would be the person who promotes the arts.
The author is a classical music and dance enthusiast who owes her appreciation of dance to her late aunt Anandhi Ramachandran, a member of the faculty of Kalakshetra.