Earlier this year, in September, Akhila Krishnamurthy, editor of the Kanakavalli Journal spoke with artiste par excellence, Padmabhushan Smt Alarmel Valli, a few days before her 60th birthday...as always, her responses are full of beauty and meaning. For those who don’t know or haven’t figured it out already, Kanakavalli, the name, is also inspired by her name.
In a few days, this September, you will turn 60! How does it feel?
If you had asked me this question even a year ago, I would have told you it made no difference – or given it any serious thought. After all, how is 59 any different from 60? But during the last one year, there seems to have been a significant shift in my perception of life and in my priorities. The year has also been a time of some major transitions.
On the one hand, it has meant trying to come to terms with loss - of dear family members and friends, people I grew up with and with whom I shared great memories. That has been difficult. On the other hand, I now also have a sense of fulfilment and quietude which stems from knowing I have had a life rich in meaning, colour and creative joy - and the freedom to carve my own path in life.
Honestly, I have never been obsessed with the desire to perform; as a child I was anything but stage-struck and in fact, after a performance would try and hide from people who came up to praise or congratulate me. For me, to be able to dance, is in itself the boon. Also, in a field where, often, even superb artists don't receive their due, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the recognition my work has consistently received, both in India and internationally. Today, there is no pressure to prove myself to the world, no urge to re-invent myself, merely to cater to the 'market'. There is a quiet contentment that comes from this conviction.
I realize too, almost every major turning point or shift in my life has happened as a gentle, seamless and organic process of change. I think this holds true of the way I am journeying into my 60th year as well.
How would you like to ring in the big day?
My birthdays have long been rather low-key affairs, although I do have heart-warming memories of colourful, festive birthday parties as a child... Throngs of happy, noisy children accompanied by their parents, long tables laden with all kinds of goodies, cakes in myriad shapes, festooned with a veritable garden of icing flowers and sugar roses, exciting games and my all-time favourite, a treasure hunt in the sprawling grounds of the old colonial house we lived in......But given the frenetic pace of my life and career over so many decades, there have often been occasions when I have woken up, oblivious to what day it was, until my mother or husband reminded me.
This year, my mother insisted that at least my 60th birthday should be celebrated "in a more fitting manner", ( to quote her) than with a mere chocolate cake and bouquet of flowers. I gather she first mulled over the notion of a surprise party before abandoning the idea, as she felt it wouldn't be easy, given my " hawk eyes", (to quote her again) to keep it secret from me. So, this year we are taking the opportunity to celebrate special bonds and relationships, to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of some those who have travelled with me on this eventful journey.
Most fortuitously, I learnt that the priest from our family temple, a beautiful Ramar Kovil in our ancestral village of Chunampet, was very keen that the kumbhabishekam should be performed on 14th September, as it was the ideal day for the consecration. So, by a wonderful coincidence, on my birthday I will be at the kumbhabishekam at our family temple, participating in that most auspicious of ceremonies. What better way to celebrate my 60th birthday-milestone? This is one of those instances I spoke of, when I said the best moments and the best transitions in my life have occurred spontaneously, without any conscious effort in my part.
You most certainly don’t look sixty; what is the big secret to your grace and beauty?
Secret to grace and beauty! (laughs)! I have never thought of myself as beautiful. But the secret, if at all there is one, is dance, dance, dance. Of course, I must thank my genes too. My mother is 86 and she is still looks much younger than her years. But it is to dance that I owe my well-being - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and I say this with much more conviction today, than I did a few years ago. If I still perform a full margam without any concessions or compromises, it's a result of the relentless practice and discipline of dance, over the long years.
When I don't practice for even a week or two, I can feel the rust setting into my body, so to speak and my limbs cease to respond with the seamless ease that the dance calls for. Certainly, there is tremendous wear-and-tear and like most dancers, I too have my generous share of aches and pains. But in dance, I have discovered time and again, that there's a strength that transcends the physical. Time and again, I have found myself drawing upon reserves of strength I didn't know I possessed.
Could you elaborate a little about how you find emotional well-being in/ through dance? We also know that you have a special love for books; tell us about it?
I remember, in a French essay at the Alliance Francaise when I was in my teens, I wrote that it's imagination that allows you to wander in a realm of myriad hues. That without it, one exists in a sepia world. Very early in my life, my mother nurtured my love for reading. She was also a great story-teller. My maternal grandfather too, was a profound scholar and a lover of theatre. Every Sunday we would visit him and he would read from the Puranas or the Kamba Ramayanam, Shakespeare and Dickens....and these magic sessions gave me
As a child, I was a dreamer. Often, I’d start reading and completely lose track of time and place. One balmy summer holiday in Kodaikanal, after reading all day, I picked up a chombu of water and went off to brush my teeth, thinking I had just woken up. I was so disoriented! But it's this fascinating world of the imagination that also keeps me feeling young. Because it offers a perennial spring of inspiration that allows me to seek, to refresh, renew and rejuvenate myself. It keeps me feeling young. So also, with travel.
Thanks to dance I have been able to travel to the most remote corners of the world - to explore, to relish and learn from diverse cultures. This exposure and experience has stimulated and enriched me and helped me to grow creatively.
In the Kanakavalli ambit, we often discuss the idea of identity. We are keen to hear from you your idea of that word - as a dancer?
WB Yeats, in his famous lines asks," How do you know the Dancer from the Dance? It's true, that as a dancer, it would be difficult to separate the one from the other - the dance, from me. In fact, I have often spoken of the fact, that when I dance, I feel that the best in me is crystallised, that dance is a prayer with my very being. I also feel that when there is complete internalisation of the dance idiom, it becomes the language of your soul and is as natural as the rhythms of breathing. At such moments, I feel I am one with the dance - and that it is my element. There is no separation whatsoever.
But there is the risk of this complete identification being misinterpreted and distorted. I feel one has to be watchful as a dancer, not not confuse this sublimation of the self in the art, to obsession with oneself. Because, in dance, where our body is our medium of expression, the canvas on which we paint, so to speak, it is all too easy to forget that the art is always greater than the artist. In total identification with the dance, there is sublimation of the ego. In narcissism, there is only the ego and an obsession with oneself.
I spoke earlier of the quest for fulfilment and with my 60th birthday round the corner, I think this is a priority. To be content in who I am, to feel complete.
For our younger readers, can you share with us why you think the classics and all things classical have an integral role to the play in the overall development of a person?
Well, to put it simply - because all things classic and classical are outpourings of great minds and creative genius. These are works that have stood the test of time. They are expressions of the most iridescent creative minds and their understanding of life, humanity and the world. The classics therefore, offer us the the tremendous gift of being able to access the thoughts, experiences and ideas of the greatest and most lofty minds in history.
When you listen to the music of an like MS Amma or Muktha Amma, when you watch the dance of Balasaraswati Amma, you are exposed the highest values of beauty and truth in art. They transmit whole worlds of meaning. Their art uplifts and transforms us. When I walk away from a great performance, I feel I have wings in my feet and a glow in my soul. It is precisely because of these precious qualities that the classics and the arts are important to the holistic development of youth.
I’m a great believer in the transforming power of the humanities and the arts. When you are exposed to good art and literature, you imbibe the values inherent in them - a commitment to excellence, discipline, concentration, humility, patience, a sense of aesthetics. It is a world of timeless relevance. I believe firmly that every child needs to be sensitised - and in this, the classical forms can play a vital role. For they teach you, - when they are imbibed with commitment - to discern between good and bad, true and false. It's a quality that is so necessary for success in life. It's my view that that a child who is exposed to the arts and literature is rich indeed, just as one who isn't, is poorer for it.
On a lighter note, talking of culture, we are keen to know of your relationship with the sari; you must have, as a student of dance, begun wearing it as a teenager, right? Tell us some significant sari-based stories?
At a time when young people of my generation were discovering the joys of wearing jeans and bell bottoms, I was in love with the sari. I was just 14 then and my mother, would keep exhorting me to wear what she felt were more youthful clothes - pants or skirts. But I was stubborn in my enthusiasm for the sari. Finally, an indulgent older cousin wrapped a rather heavy nylon sari around me ( they were all the rage in those days) and I set off for a walk in Cubbon Park in Bangalore, where we holidaying at the time.
Happily I strolled down the paths in my new-found finery, until suddenly, to my consternation, I found the fabric pooled around my ankles and myself, virtually disrobed, so to speak, in plain view of the milling crowds in the park. My pleats had completely unraveled from the petticoat! It took me a long time to recover from the extreme mortification of that experience. But even that did not deter me from my determination to wear saris.
Looking back, I must admit my tastes were vastly different from what they are now. French chiffons and georgettes were considered the height of fashion and my wardrobe in those days, was a far cry from what it is now - full of pastel, floral, floating fabrics. Fortunately for me, by the time I turned 16, thanks to the dance, ( most college students of my age were singularly disinterested in the classical arts) I had a circle of friends who were much older, with far more evolved tastes and aesthetics than me. They played an important role in shaping my tastes in clothes.
I remember a friend in Delhi, Mrs Swatantrata Prakash, an expert on hand looms who had worked with Kamala Devi Chattooadhyaya herself, saying in her direct, rather disconcerting way, “Valli, you are such a sensitive artist, so responsive to delicate nuances of form and colour in the arts. But your clothes don't express that at all. Why these vapid synthetics?! Don't you think what you wear should should also reflect your persona and aesthetics as an Indian classical dancer?" She then gifted me a very beautiful Oriya cotton. And I was well and truly hooked - and never once looked back at another synthetic sari since then. Textures, weaves, colours, patterns began to fascinate me and my wardrobe underwent a dramatic transformation. Out went the pastel nylons and the chiffons, replaced by vibrant Kanchi, Oriya, Chettinad cottons and silks. I still wear some of the saris that I bought at 16. They have stood the test of time and are as richly beautiful as when I bought them.
You didn’t mention the Kanjivaram?
Oh, how can I forget! My love for the Kanjivaram goes far back in time, to the days when we would attend the December seasons performances at Tamil Isai Sangam and the Music Academy. That's when I grew to love these wonderful, luxurious silks, that sadly, are passed over today for the ubiquitous 'designer' saris that are today synonymous with style and glamour. But what could be more glamorous and elegant than a tastfully woven, classical Kanjivaram silk?
In those distant days, Sri Veerappan, a master weaver from Kanchipuram, who had worked with Rukmini Devi Arundale would design saris for a good many ladies in my family. Often, an aunt would ask him to replicate an old design from an heirloom sari. Whenever there was a wedding in the family, a couple of dozen saris of exactly the same design and colour would be ordered, as gifts for family members, and we would all take pride in the collective family identify that it conferred on us. I particularly remember a magnificent creation that was copied from an old sari of my grandmother's, that she had worn when she was a teenager. Old ivory, gold brocade stripes in a delicate pattern, a royal purple border crowned with perfectly proportioned mango motifs - the rich sheen of the silk, the intricate detail of the zari work, the vibrancy and subtlety of colour....It was a masterpiece and I loved it.
Dance, Music and Kanjivaram silks are inseparably linked in my mind. From a very young age, I was sensitised to the beauty and complexity of Kanjivaram silks. As children, savouring the sublime beauty of MS Subhalakshmi Amma's, or ML Vasanthakumari Amma's music, we were equally entranced by the lustrous beauty of the saris they wore. When I was 17, I began studying Padams and Javalis from the legendary T Muktha (Muktha Amma). Every weekend, when I walked into her house in Gandhi Nagar for classes, she would be gracious and mellow, in a well-worn Kanjivaram silk. These silks were not just meant to be worn on special occasions, but every day of the year. There was a Kanjivaram sari suitable for every occasion, from the grandest, to the most ordinary. The more these saris were washed, the more they grew in beauty, the softer the silk became, the more lustrous the sheen.
The Kanjivaram has been a source of inspiration since my childhood. Its complex weaves, attention to details, its balance and harmony and the delicacy and beauty of colours, contrasts and motifs, fill me with joy.
In stories, asking wishes of genies always proves dangerous - a two edged sword. And since I've just been talking at length about seeking fulfilment and learning to be content in myself, I would do well to send any genies who come my way, packing. But jokes apart, if I could have three wishes, I think they would be - health for my mother, equanimity and a serene mind for myself. And, increased global environmental sensitivity and responsibility!
- Alarmel Valli in conversation with Akhila Krishnamurthy