In Conversation with Malavika Sarukkai

Credit: Courtesy of the Artist
Bharatanatyam diva, Malavika Sarukkai, shares her views on dance, art and life with Sanjeevini Dutta as they take a taxi ride in Chennai. Approaching her fourth decade as a performer, Sarukkai says, “I am done with decorations; I want to convey the essence..”. 

Malavika Sarukkai needs no introduction- for over three decades she has given audiences some of their most unforgettable dance experiences. Loved and respected in India as well as on the international dance circuit, she has achieved  a well-deserved eminence. Sarukkai's physical beauty, chaste technique, smouldering sensuality and spiritual steadfastness make her a stand-alone artist. 

I want to probe what makes Sarukkai's performances linger in one's memory long past the event. I saw the artist perform Kashi, based on the life of the ancient Hindu city, at a Conference in Chicago in 2001 (London's Alchemy Festival hosted it in 2010). It was a profound experience: from the vivid imagery of the ritual worship to the abstract principles of the cycle of life, it captured the soul of the eternal city. 
 
On that day I saw a new kind of bharatanatyam - one that put aside the margam (literally the path) which dictates the order of dance items. Instead Sarukkai chose to dance the entire evening as one long item studded with abhinaya episodes recalling birth, marriage and death linked with sequences of freer movement that referenced the overall theme of the river of life.  The jal-jal (water), chorus echoed as the dancer covered swathes of space with brushed footwook and the rippling movement of arms as articulate as Anna Pavlova's in the dying swan). Kashi had all the trademark characteristics that make Malavika's work so unique and personal: interplay between bharatanatyam technique and 'creative' movement, the careful orchestration where the expressive power of each instrument is deployed and the 'total' experience of movement, light and sound. Above that the intensity of her performance  carries the spectator like the torrent of a mountain stream.
 
Fast-forward a decade to December 2011, Sarukkai has on the previous day premièred Andaal, for the Mad and Divine Conference and I have asked to interview her for Pulse. In the midst of the Chennai December Season, the busiest time for performers, the best she can offer is to talk to me as we drive into the city to watch a performance.
 
I share with the artist my recollections of Kashi, my favourite of Sarukkai's creations.  She is pleased and she tells me ”My work is mostly about seeking the spiritual”. We talk some more of her latest creation Andaal based on the young Saint poet of the Bhakti movement. Sarukkai has never explored Andal before this project came her way, although her novelist sister Priya Sarukkai Chabbria is currently translating the thirty poems of Andaal.
 
Sarukkai confides, “It was very difficult to find a 'way in' to Andaal. She explains, “The sense of sringara bhakthi is different in her poems . It  shimmers beneath the stretched anguish of viraha, aching to be set free.  So it was that I had to allow this feeling to permeate me, fill my senses…. become me.”
 
By chance Sarukkai visited the Tirupathi temple during her period of choreography. In the early morning darshan to the flickering of oil lamps she narrates, “I saw the handsome dark beauty of Lord Vishnu. I drank in the moment and recognised Andaals beloved”. Fired by this experience she re-visited the poetry of Andaal, and created  Maname Brindavaname (In the Heart is the Enchanted Forest of Brindavan).
 
There is no doubt, that Hindu philosophy is the bedrock of Sarukkai's dance creations. It is the ground on which she is most secure. Now entering her fourth decade as a performer, her tastes and interests have grown with time. She tells me that she no longer has any desire to delve into the sringara (amorous) rasa. She finds the theme of jealous maidens who reject their beloved unattractive- “The words are so pedestrian- 'don’t touch me with the same hands that have touched another woman',”.“I ask myself , is this emotion I want to explore when further horizons have opened up for me. And the answer is a definite ‘no’.  I would rather create pieces on the environment, stories of lesser known voices using metaphor, poetry and natyadharmi (stylisation).” Malavika points out that the context of dance has changed as we no longer have rajahs and zamindars as patrons to please. 
 
In Indian dance you cannot separate the form from its spiritual roots after all it grew out of the ritual worship in temples. So all dancers will lay claim to the spiritual dimension no matter how large their egos or how thrusting their ambitions. So within the atmosphere of a fiercely competitive marketplace to maintain one's integrity is a rare achievement. In Sarukkai's work one finds a genuine and deeply felt spirituality. Performing Andaal the previous evening, she recalls loosing all sense of the specifics as she approached the ultimate section of the saint finding her Lord within herself. 
 
Strangely I think of Malavika in a similar way- as a dancing monk. The austerity of her practise and the single-pointedness of her endeavour is worthy of any sadhavi. Living with her mother Saroja Kamakshi, her long- standing companion in the journey of dance in a quiet corner of Chennai, Malavika has made the dance studio her home and hearth. ”My life has been my studio, my dance space, my sanctuary.” she states simply, ”Fortunately the city leaves you alone”.
 
The command Malavika has on her technique has come from the foundation she received from training with  legendary  gurus: Kalyanasundaram Pillai, S.K. Rajaratnam, Smt. Kalanidhi and Kelucharan Mahapatra . Together with this she brought a keen body intelligence and internalisation of her art.  With this she approach, she made the dance her own. “It is not just practise, but 'meditative practise' she muses”.
 
Sarukkai's disciplined practise also curiously frees her from the constraints of her style.  She uses more 'free style' when creating the pictures for instance of the evening aarati in Kashi: the ringing of the temple bells, striking of the drums, or the brahmin priest tucking their dhotis at the start of the ceremony.  The acuteness of her observation and the clarity of her movement and gestures give her the ability to make the invisible visible.
 
I tell her that when I see her dancing I think not of bharatanatyam but simply of 'dance'. She nods “In the case of most dancers, their dance has not been 'personalised', made their own”. We dwell on this point and Sarukkai's conviction of the role of the mind in dance. ”The body picks up what transpires in the mind”. Much of the success of Sarrukai's work has to do with the quality of thought that goes into making and shaping her dance items. She tells me how the process of creating a new piece is about 'layering'. Each element from the music, to lighting, set and costume has to be visualised in its entirety. 
 
The music plays a fundamental part in the creation. Sarukkai refers to the music being 'sculpted'. I was reminded of the extraordinary expressiveness of the previous evening, as the vocalist and dancer played off each other and how in Kashi the instruments were used individually, now just the voice chanting the chorus or just the melody from the violin keeping the pulse. Similarly the lighting plays to the strengths of the form; capturing in a concentrated shaft a stationary position, or the face being softly modelled by side lights. The detailed thinking through of the lighting design and the change of a small element of costume such as 'the fan' of the costume, serve to keep the audience's interest.
 
For four decades, Sarukkai has given great joy and pleasure to her audiences. Her relentless search into making dance meaningful has served her audiences well. There is no doubt that she will continue to think and dream dance that will be beautiful, wise and appropriate to our times.  I thank the artist as we arrive at our destination - the Bhavan in Mylapore - to catch the next performance.