Lasya Kavya: A documentary film on Alarmel Valli
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

May 12, 2012

Alarmel Valli and Geeta Chandran
Sankalp Meshram and Alarmel Valli have contributed in a seamless manner to a very luminous, heartwarming film on Alarmel Valli. It was screened during the World Dance Day celebrations organized by Geeta Chandran under the aegis of her institution Natyavrikhsa, on 28th April 2012 at the Main Auditorium of India International Centre, New Delhi, and both the film director and dancer were present for after talk.

The screening has left such an indelible impression that when I was writing about it, some sections of the film ran over and over again in my mind, making me again relish the highlights, the rasa sthanas - the points of aesthetic delight. If you have known the dancer from her very young age and have followed her performances for more than three decades, and if you are an admirer of her dance, so many images, for someone like me, are repeated with more nuanced relish. The camera has captured Valli’s myriad moods with great felicity. Nothing looks contrived or for effect. From the very first shot of Valli's turning and the hands forming lotus descending in a graceful (lasya) mode sets the tone. Her face is lit up with a beatific smile. Slender like a creeper, she twirls, winds and unwinds in a manner which is like her signature. It sets her apart from other dancers. There is a girlie charm, joy in her walk and looking in alternate directions, smile playing on her lips, limbs moving delicately and yet making one feel that the movements are strong.

Sankalp explained in post screening discussion that he had chosen a black, neutral backdrop, creating depth with yards of black cloth at Filmistan Studio in Mumbai and to avoid areas of grey patches, he had doused the black cloth with water so there was uniformity in black colour, including the floor which was painted back. I had seen the use of black floor selected by Dashrath Patel for Chandralekha’s film ‘Lilavati’ for Doordarshan channel. That works wonders. And more than that, most of us generally watch dancers performing in an auditorium with black backdrop only. Therefore the impact was very conducive for our responses.

Today, the technical advances in film making are a great advantage. The lighting, and the way cameras frame Valli, look perfect. There are close ups which allow spectators to watch the micro and macro movements on the face - the mukhajabhinaya - which you enjoy more, even when you watch live performance in a theatre from front row. Valli’s visage is mobile and registers shades of feelings effortlessly. Quivering eyebrows, lips, downward gaze, smile and sudden turning her back to audience, covering the space in perfect sync with camera’s movements… reflecting on these, one becomes conscious of the cameras dancing with Valli. As explained, there were few retakes and some of us, critics and admirers who watch her recitals regularly, get an advantage of cherishing the abhinaya from a close quarter.

There are simple translations of the poetic lines of a varnam, a javali, a padam, Sanskrit shloka Madhurashtakam, shlokas from Bhoja’s Shringaraprakasha delineating nine emotions, Sangam poetry - indeed a sumptuous fare. The rasikas will enjoy watching it with close-ups which a film medium provides. Valli has not shied away from dancing to an English poem of Arundhati Subramaniam, a poet and also a Bharatanatyam dancer. That combination has worked because Valli loves poems and knows that dance is Drishya Kavya, visual poetry.

It adds to the onlooker’s joy of watching dance as captured by a team of camera artists. Of course, a lot of work is done on the editing table. If the music has such excellent sync, it is because Sankalp himself has deep knowledge of music. Therefore, while editing, the right music with a cut on dot in the frame has enhanced the total impact. The biographical details are woven in smoothly with exquisite visuals of her parents’ old colonial bungalow, her uncle’s bungalow, the casuarina groves, which Valli used to visit for a walk, absorbing the beauty of nature, the water, the cool breeze et al. They linger in memory. One gem of archival material is Valli’s videoed film of her arangetram (debut performance) that is used very interestingly. It shows the beginnings of Valli’s blooming. One sees seeds of the grace, the undulating movements, the playfulness which have blossomed forth in her dance as she has grown up.

She has been singularly fortunate in so many aspects of life. The only child in a wealthy Mudaliar family, with doting mother and great Bharatanatyam masters like Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbarayan Pillai, who let her grow enhancing her individuality; the solid traditional musical heritage from legendary Brinda and Muktha, the sisters who were the torch bearers of the best in Carnatic music, under whom she studied; the love for literature imbibed from a very young age that leads her to interpret the words of a poem she dances; a disciplined life and concentration on whatever she practices. Her interactions with the musicians, explorations of musical nuances and as she says, “the body sings” to the music rendered, the curvatures and the silences are all captivated in an effortless manner.

Without making it complicated , she deconstructs the technique: the footwork, the ‘arudis’, the ‘teermanams’, offering the aficionados, those who enjoy the technical finesse of complexities of the time cycles and rhythms of Bharatanatyam, entry points into her approach to movements and explorations. A highly complex dance form, which offers challenges to present day exponents, has been mastered by Valli over years of sadhana (relentless practice) and she succeeds in investing it with refreshing newness every time her admirers watch her. Lucid explanations before presenting expressional numbers allow the uninitiated to get glimpses of what she performs.
No wonder an authority on archeology, sculpture, dance and music traditions like Dr. Nagaswamy finds in Valli’s art a completeness; the music wizard and conductor Zubin Mehta is mesmerized watching her, marveling at her command over the medium; scientist Dr. MS Swaminathan finds in Valli’s dance not only perfection but also sound approach to what she selects to perform; film maker Arun Khopkar understands how Valli has established her own style in a classical dance form like Bharatanatyam; vocalist Bombay Jayshree with her own musicality relishes Valli’s command over the movement and music; Chitraveena Ravikiran feels what an exceptional dancer Valli is. These responses from a cross section of highly sensitive personalities are complimentary and woven in an unobtrusive manner.

Yes, at one point, I felt 77 minutes duration of the film is rather long. It may be because we see Valli’s performances at regular intervals. But I do realize that for those who have never seen her and those who cannot see her from close quarters, the film moves smoothly and does not seem long. On the contrary, for some there persists a feeling that it is all over so soon. Both Sankalp and Valli have managed ‘a hat trick’ working together with mutual respect for each other, generating confidence for the project and with agreement on many points which have worked wonders.

In post screening discussion, Sankalp explained why they did not take backdrops of temple and temple sculptures, avoided clichés, and chose black neutral backdrop. I am glad they did so. When Satyajit Ray made Bala perform the padam “Krishna nee begane baro” on a seashore with wind blowing Bala’s saree, the sequence was a disaster. Thank god, the dancer and the film director avoided such pitfalls. The dance form is so complete in itself that the trained eye ignores the negative space and focuses on the space in which a dancer moves. However, there is no reference to Valli’s studying Odissi with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. It seems devoting time to perform Bharatanatyam exclusively Valli has found it more soul satisfying.
One feels Sankalp Meshram has made this documentary at the right time and thereby given us an archival film on one of the brilliant exponents of Bharatanatyam. This awareness on part of the dancers and film makers is most welcome. Else, we in India have few records and a complete careless attitude to record our great artistes when they are in their prime. No wonder the film has won a well-deserved National Award in non-fiction category.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.

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