Social media-driven narcissism can distract dance students: Alarmel Valli

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Eagerness to constantly put self-portraits on Instagram and FB isn’t a healthy trend, the Bharatanatyam exponent tells MBIFL 2023

Young generation’s constant engagements with social media generate narcissistic tendencies that reflect badly on their attitude to performing arts, renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli said .

“True, Instagram and Facebook can keep you updated about various things far and near, but these can been too much of distractions for students of classical forms,” the celebrated exponent of the Pandanallur style of the south Indian dance told the audience at the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL 2023).

“I’ve seen my own students often work on shooting for still poses and video to upload them on to social media platforms. The fundamental idea is to impress the viewers. This can spread on to stage as well, wanting you to impress the audience all the time when the prime mission should be to totally immerse in your art,” the Padma Bhushan awardee said.

Studies were much more focused during her teenage in the late 1960s, Chennai-raised Valli recalled during her one-on-one ‘Ananda Nrithashala’ with scholar-writer V. Kaladharan on the penultimate day of the February 2-5 MBFIL being held at Kanakakunnu Palace grounds.

“All that deflected our attention was the sound from the railway tracks alongside our classroom. We would be taught steps in the four-beat chaturashram when a train would rhythmically chug by with tishram (of three beats),” she said, inviting amusement from the audience at the Nishagandhi open-air auditorium.

On an equally curious note, Valli recollected an incident when a bunch of boys suddenly appeared at the window and made faces while venerated Chokkalingam Pillai was teaching her. “The mischief unsettled me; I made a mistake. The guru was okay, but my mother was furious. After the class, she cautioned me: ‘Even a hundred monkeys making faces should not distract you’,” trailed off the danseuse, who debuted on stage at the age of ten.

“Glamorous postures own more of minukku (cosmetic) value, while the sarakku (core content) of Bharatanatyamis its adavu-s (steps),” the danseuse said, highlighting a whole stock of linear movements as the chief determinant of the Pandanallur style that evolved towards the turn of the 20th century in Kumbakonam along the Cauvery belt of present-day Tamil Nadu. “Our stream is rich in abhinaya (emoting). We employ it in poems, not dramas.”

To a question on whether Bharatanatyam can become a fossil, Valli said it depends on the practitioner. “It can’t happen if you are creative. Each time you dance the same item, it is ideally like cutting the diamond yet another time. The lustre only increases.”

Contextually, she welcomed a recent surge in new compositions in Bharatanatyam, but found “too many words” in the lyrics off-setting the beauty of certain varnam-s. “If the artiste is honest, then Bharatanatyam won’t pay a price for its increasing popularity.”

On whether Bharatanatyam employs facial emotions on the lines of Kerala’s Kathakali, Valli said the Tami Nadu dance is comparatively less stylised while employing thenavarasa-s. “One can perhaps learn a lot from Kathakali,” she replied to a questioner from the gathering.

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