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My mother is my Rock of Gibraltar
- Alarmel Valli

April 27, 2016

In the old corporation school hall in Egmore, where Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbaraya Pillai conducted classes during the early years of my training, there were two windows, which we students faced as we danced. Once, a particularly mischievous child from a neighbouring house kept peeping through the bars and making funny faces at me. Momentarily distracted by her antics, I forgot the adavu sequence I was dancing and faltered. I remember as if it were yesterday, my mother's admonition after class, when I tried explaining that my error was only a small one, for which the naughty girl next door was to blame...."Dance is tapas; it's a sacred commitment. When you go on the floor, every atom of your being should be tuned into the dance - and on nothing but the dance. Even a hundred monkeys capering around the windows should not make you lose focus." It was a cardinal principle that shaped my approach to practice.

Without my mother's courage, wisdom and support, without the relentless discipline, focus and sense of values that she imparted, I very much doubt I would have succeeded as a dancer. As a child, I was painfully thin and small and it was not uncommon for well-meaning friends and relatives to try and dissuade my mother from continuing my dance classes. They would say, "Odinji vizharaa maadiri irukkaa!" (She is pencil thin, too frail for such a rigorous discipline). And my mother would retort, "She is stronger than she looks and it's the dance that makes her so."

Over the years, thanks to my mother's refusal to let me see myself as a weakling, I came to realise that in dance, there is an inner strength that transcends the physical. And, I became a dancer, despite many odds and obstacles. In my mother, I have a Rock of Gibraltar where support is concerned, but also a crystal clear mirror and an unsparing critic.

To her mind, there can be no short cuts to the things that matter in life - no ‘dhideer' dance, like dhideer idli or sambhar. Time and again she would tell me, "Set the bar high; try to explore and realise your fullest potential. Praise is of no consequence, if you are not true to yourself and the dance." Today, when dancers are under constant pressure to create for novelty's sake, my mother's maxims stand me in good stead.

My mother's role in my career has been vital, its value, immeasurable. She enriched my life by nurturing my love for dance and music, reading, poetry, cinema, history, travel... Yet, despite her many extraordinary gifts and accomplishments, she has always insisted on remaining in the background, with quiet dignity and grace. For those who attend my performances regularly, amma is a familiar figure, watching the performance keenly from the wings. In fact, in November 2015, for the very first time in her life, she finally agreed to go on stage to accept an award.

A Western dancer, Melissa Hayden said. "Learning to walk sets you free - learning to dance gives you the greatest freedom of all: to express with your whole self the person you are." My mother gave me that supreme gift.

Alarmel Valli is a Bharatanatyam dancer who has trained under legendary gurus Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Subbaraya Pillai. She has evolved a distinctive style of dance that has been described as, "classical and yet contemporary, precise and poetic... both a stylised idiom and an idiolect, blurring the boundaries between tradition and the individual talent, inheritance and invention." She has been awarded the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, the Chevalier of Arts and Lettres from the Government of France, Kalaimamani from Tamilnadu State Government, the Grande Medaille de la Ville de Paris from the city of Paris and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, amongst others.

Beautifully expressed. Thanks, Valli.
- Anita Ratnam (May 1, 2016)

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