To watch Alarmel Valli dance is to see classical grammar turn into a uniquely personal poetry of movement—ancient and alive, subtle and sensuous, all at once. Trained in the Pandanallur tradition, her signature style has earned her a place as one of Bharatanatyam’s leading interpreters, with both the Padma Bhushan and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres to her name. The Forgotten Seed, her new work, conceived for the Sarvodaya Trust’s observance of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, draws on varied poetic traditions to explore “the exuberant, inclusive, unbroken rhythms—of nature, of dance, of life". On the eve of its premiere, this low-profile Chennai-based artiste reflects on the contemporary dance scene. Edited excerpts:

Poise:Valli has been performing for four decades.

I’ve seen two eras—the end of the last and the beginning of the new. I grew up in the pre-information technology era. Life was blissfully free of distraction, a huge advantage to the creative process. My dance masters never spoon-fed us students; we were expected to delve into our internal resources and find our own creative answers. But today, dance students tend to watch DVDs and unconsciously mimic other dancers’ mannerisms.

Dancers may not have been technically perfect in the past, but each had a distinct, unique identity. Today, you find tremendous talent, wonderful technique and energy but an increasingly homogenous style. The new global Bharatanatyam is all about geometry—lines, stretches and leaps. What’s lost are the subtler dimensions— the flick of a wrist, the slant of the body, the minutest inflections in the gaze.

You’ve often talked of the dangers of cultural imperialism.

Yes, that’s another disturbing recent trend. I call it the “what’s new" phenomenon. There’s a great pressure on dancers from the dance establishment here and abroad to prove they’re innovative and cutting-edge. What’s disturbing and arrogant is the assumption that there’s only one way to be innovative. Consequently, Indian classical dancers feel increasingly compelled to turn out trite theme-based productions to prove their “experimental" credentials. I strongly feel we need to withstand this trend. Of course, change must happen but not according to preconceived, simplistic paradigms.

In August in Chennai, you did a performance of padams and javalis—a concert of purely expressive dance. Was that a challenge?

It was my homage to two stalwarts—my gurus Subbaraya Pillai and T. Mukta, both shining examples of unostentatious creative integrity. Subbaraya Pillai, my dance guru, gave me the foundation and freedom to be my own dancer. Mukta-amma, my music guru, taught me that dance was about singing with the body. It was a performance of subtle, undiluted classicism; of visual poetry. No fireworks at all. But though organizers keep clamouring for “novel, theme-based" work, I found even lay viewers were deeply moved by this uncompromisingly classical work.

But isn’t your new production, ‘The Forgotten Seed,’ theme-based?

I’m not against themes per se. I’m only against themes used as easy catchwords. This performance explores “harmony" as a metaphor, through the language of poetry, not cliché. The title actually derives from a lovely Sangam poem, which expresses a deep concern for the environment.

Have there been any fallow spells in your creative life?

Certainly there’ve been painful times. I’ve never been particularly ambitious. But as I grew older, I understood that the dance world is mainly about PR, cut-throat competition, the rat race. I did wonder then if I’d made the right choice. But then, a decade ago, Vedanta and the Ramakrishna Mission entered my life. I realized that when you put your art above your personality and allow yourself to become its vehicle, you are actually illuminated by its light. I feel blessed to be able to pray with my body.

The Forgotten Seed premieres at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, on 2 October. The writer collaborated with Valli on the script and conception.

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