Poetry in motion: Alarmel Valli in Mumbai  
- A Seshan, Mumbai 
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com 

October 10, 2008 
The cosmopolitan audience at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, (NCPA), Mumbai, was treated to a brilliant presentation of a theme-based Bharatanatyam recital within the classical framework by Alarmel Valli, the doyenne and torchbearer of the Pandanallur School. The occasion was the observance of the World Peace Day and the birthday of Gandhiji under the sponsorship of the Sarvodaya International Trust on October 2, 2008.  

The Tata Theatre with accommodation for about 1000 persons was filled well with only a few vacant seats. It was a surprising revelation to this writer to see such a large audience having been used to observing other auditoria at the NCPA with much smaller capacity near empty on such occasions. Apart from the reputation of the renowned artiste, the effort of the Trust to publicise the program also must have played an important role in ensuring the large attendance.  The first seven rows in the large auditorium were reserved for special invitees and they were all occupied. What was even more surprising was practically the entire audience was glued to the seats throughout with hardly anyone leaving the place during the performance, which lasted about 90 minutes. This was despite the fact that the natyam was based on classical Tamil poetry –  Kamba Ramayanam and Sangam literature like Pura Nanooru - which would have made the audience uncomfortable, in the normal course, as there were not many knowing the language among the viewers. But it was not so for two reasons. In the first place, Arundhati Subramaniam, who had co-scripted the show along with the dancer, gave a good general introduction to the theme of the evening followed by Alarmel Valli making meaningful explanatory remarks before each individual item in the repertoire. Secondly, the movements on the stage were absorbing and well supported by a competent live orchestra. 

The theme for the evening was "The Forgotten Seed." According to the information available on the reverse of the admission pass, it is easy to forget the seed that contains the potential to turn into a majestic tree, to forget the life-sustaining radiance of the sun, to forget the purifying benediction of water, to forget the deep sanity of peace in a world ravaged by aggression and to forget the daily encounter with the miraculous in life's daily profusion of the mundane. The Forgotten Seed is an attempt to re-member a dismembered harmony, a fractured unity – between the sensual and the sacred, the natural and the divine, the prosaic and the poetic. Drawing on sources like the Rig Veda, Kamba Ramayanam and the akam and puram traditions of Tamil Sangam poetry, the recital was a celebration in movement of the exuberant, inclusive, unbroken rhythms of nature, dance and life itself. At a time when the world, in general, and India in particular, are rocked by divisive forces and terrorist acts the theme of social unity and harmony was timely and soothing.  

The program started appropriately with a Tamil song in Tilang (without dance) devoted to peace. It was "Santhi nilava vendum" ("Let peace prevail") popularised by D K Pattammal.  The lyric was written by Madhava Rao after the Mahatma’s assassination. It was however announced wrongly that it was Rajaji's. Then the verse paying obeisance to sun god in all his glory was portrayed by Alarmel Valli. In this and the following sequences, she dexterously incorporated the elements of a standard margam format by proxy as it were. This reviewer could observe this interesting aspect of the program although she did not say so.  Right from the soushtava sthanaka at the beginning, it was Pandanallur at its best. The opening item had elements of Pushpanjali (obeisance to sun) and Jatiswaram (dancing to swaras and jatis). It ended with her face dramatically looking up to the lights with hands reaching up to touch the heavens, so to say.  

The fall of the seed on the ground and its being nurtured into a large tree were portrayed imaginatively. The cavorting of the lovers under the tree was tastefully done. The following  tragic story of the fallen soldier in the battlefield had pathos. The emoting over the dead body was restrained and in the natya dharmi mode. Here she introduced the flashback technique. After every instalment of  grieving over the body she reproduced scenes from his early life. It took the place of Varnam, the flashback episodes constituting sanchari bhavas. It provided opportunities for demonstrating diferent rasas. It was followed by a viruttam that was an extract from Kantimathi Amman Pillaittamil, which she had learnt from T Muktha. The stayibhava of both vatsalya and bhakti sringara was communicated well. It was like a Padam. The cajoling of the child reminded one of the other famous song, with a similar rasa, viz., "Krishna Nee Begane Baro." The evening ended with an item in Abhogi  that had the markings of a tillana with their charactristic head and eye movements. It was a swara-based composition with a charanam taken from a verse but without jatis.  

The performance had the stamp of the Pandanallur bani. This school is known for deep-seated positions. Araimandis were in abundance. The tempo was brisk.  She pranced around the large stage with joie de vivre  spreading cheer. The adavus were marked by interesting combinations characteristic of the school. The utplavanas  were simple without any flamboyance. The lines in holding the hand were clean and clear. However, some of the  movements of the torso reminded one of Odissi but they neatly meshed into the Bhartanatyam format. (She had undergone formal training in Odissi under Kelucharan Mohapatra.) The footwork was flawless and tala and kalapramana were adhered to strictly. The selection of ragas was appropriate. For example, the grieving scene was in Subhapantuvarali and the amorous one in Khamas. Aharya was simple and attractive. The colour of the sari looked green under the lights. It was in consonance with the theme being related to nature and Mother Earth.  

In the course of her remarks Valli referred to a belief in the Balasaraswati school that for a dance program to be successful, music should be seen and dance heard by the audience! That was what the audinece had experienced, as a speaker pointed out during the felicitation of the artiste later. This writer has seen many Bharatanatyam programs cast in a theme-based contemporary format. Sometimes they take liberties with the tenets of Natya Sastra. In fact, in one such case, where dancing was done to Western music, the dancer admitted that some of the movements had no tala structure! The beauty of Valli's presentation was that while dealing with a modern theme of peace and harmony, she strictly adhered to the principles of  Pandanallur. Therein lay her achievement. Besides learning about the technical aspects of dancing from her programs the younger generation in the field would do well to emulate her in preserving the body through a disciplined life. She seems to have defied time. She looked slim and trim and brimmed with energy as she did three decades ago! 

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.