An enigmatic figure in the world of dance, Malavika Sarukkai manages to silence her critics and once again awe her fans every time she takes to the stage. Her ability to create new acts out of the box and her uncanny ability to repeatedly convey even a sublime concept through her art ensure her place at the top in the world of Bharatanatyam. Often termed cold and distant, paradoxically, Malavika is a most effective communicator, extremely lucid and cerebral, apart from having an easily perceivable highly evolved sensitivity. At a recent performance, she was visably agitated at being disturbed and spoken to in the wings, in the middle of her act; her degree of concentration and introspection at a higher level than most artists, resulting in a “taaseer” that is impossible to miss.
Chatting with her was a real eye-opener; many preconceptions vanishing in a whiff with her frank and articulate replies. She spoke of what dance means to her, how in the last few months she has changed as a dancer, her productions and her goals now after dancing for 50 years. Some excerpts:
Have you ever in your life NOT danced?
Yes. My mother was a very, very important influence on me; when she passed away many thought I would never dance again. For the first time in my life I did not dance for four months, just did not take a step. Then some friends wanted me to dance in Delhi as the artists they had invited from Pakistan could not come, and they were stuck. I was distraught; I felt I could not face an audience. Anyway, I went finally and did dance.
My mother was my spiritual guide, my friend, my manager. She was unwell for a year and I saw her fade before my eyes. She said dance was for self-expression, for creativity, it was “sacred”. I was never told it’s for “jana ranjana”. She always wanted me to dance; she loved dance! My sister never took to dance, but I think with me it was apparent I could take to dance. I was seven when I started.
My mother was a very free-spirited person. She used to take me to performances; Sanyukta Panigrahi, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Padma Subramaniam; it was always more dance than music. We lived in Mumbai then, later moved to Chennai. Despite being a single working mother she would attend each of my dance classes and make me rehearse. I have had three main gurus, Guru Kalyanasundaram, Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, (“mami” as I called her was more into “abhinaya”); I trained with her for 10 years, then in Chennai I trained for 10 years under Guru Rajaratnam Pillai.
I started learning Odissi, too, from a disciple of Kelucharanji, Guru Ramani Ranjan Jela. Since I was dancing full time I had the time. The movements, mental and emotional approach are all different, but it suited me fine. I danced for five years, in the early 1980s, did several concerts, both Bharatanatyam and Odissi. Then I gave up Odissi; Bharatanatyam was more me; the music and language was more me.
You are perceived as being arrogant. Talking to you, I see that’s not so. So how did the label come about?
I was always a quiet person, but from about 16 onwards I gave up everything to dance. I went to college for one year and one day; and the next day I came back and told my mother, all I want to do is dance. My mother, being my mother, is the only one who said, if you love it, you must. Even my Guru thought it was a mistake; what did I have to fall back on. There were financial implications; financially we were very modest shall I say. I wanted to dance but at 16 what do you know. I know I wanted to dance but could I dance. It was a risk; I had nothing to fall back on.
So, those years I was not leading a regular life; I was spending the whole day with Kalanidhi mami, at her house, dancing. I had no regular friends, no one to talk to, no usual college type things.
Also, I find social media very invasive; I actually am a very private person and I also really don’t have the time. Dance takes a lot out of one; I work slowly, so each project I work on takes about two years.
Tell me what classical dance means to you.
Watching classical dance can be intimidating; one doesn’t understand the story, the lyrics, what each gesture means. But I believe great Art communicates, it should be able to touch one here (gestures to her heart); it should not require understanding. Something mediocre leaves you untouched, it just leaves you with the realisation that yes, we have a great classical tradition. When an audience is truly receptive; one can feel a wave submerge one. You can sense they are engaged; the energy does get transmitted. But to get to that level, to be able to present great art, the body and being of the dancer have to become the “paatra”, and then great art can be created. Then it’s not me the dancer, it’s my being that is used to convey, and that is what touches the viewer. It’s not egocentric. If I don’t feel it, you as the audience won’t feel it. The power of Art sometimes astonishes me, it could be in any city anywhere in the world, sometimes you can just command that energy into your being, and then you go somewh
ere else. You go to a place even you haven’t been before!!
Nowadays I don’t like calling it a dance performance, it’s an experience. In the last few months, something has shifted in me; I can’t think it’s anything I’ve done. But what I feel deeply, I am able to convey better.
Obviously I have huge technique, if you don’t have that you can’t convey at all! I have internalised my dance for decades. And I don’t mean I only internalise when I am dancing; I go to my studio and “internalise”; it’s something that is happening involuntarily all the time, it’s a way of life.
So I guess most artistes after having been around for a certain number of years would be able to tap in, so to speak, internally?
I don’t know if every artist even chooses that path of internalisation; some may choose to dance as a means of entertainment; and internalise in a different way. Someone may dance for four decades, but not use their dance as a means of search. If you are seeking something, you may seek through dance, as that’s your deepest self, I believe. Ultimately, your art reflects what you are as a person. If you are seeking something, it takes you in that direction.
It’s not like, because you analyse, you find technique; no. If you have the body intelligence to find the technique, it comes. When I started working on my choreographies it helped me analyse. It’s been decades of work, discussion, honing ones skill; when you are no longer with your gurus.
Finally it’s about what you want your dance to say. Even when I was much younger, I wanted always to be an instrument; I didn’t want my dance to speak of me. I wanted my dance to speak of dance. That was my “sadhana”. When you want to be an instrument, then it’s a question of how you refine yourself. Making yourself more sensitive, making yourself more aligned. One needs alignment of body and mind to dance; my physical body is all I have to convey, but I need it to be able to transcend that material of which it’s made. You need see the dance not the dancer. That’s a “tapasya”, it’s not easy. Someone called me a “dancing monk” once — I loved it!
After 20 years of training when I started questioning my dance form, I felt there was a lot more I wanted to say. I could not be confined to the “margam” format when I started doing my own work. I felt I opened up my choreographies; and people accepted it.
When you are a student of dance, there is this grid, within which you dance. If you are patient and pursue it, and love it, slowly the grid opens up for you and you find the freedom to express what you want, within the grid. I am not saying it always happens; it happened with me.
But I do feel it’s when I started creating my own pieces that I evolved my own technique.
Tell me about your memorable dance creations.
I did a solo some years ago; it was a piece on the ghats of Varanasi, where I explored Mahakaal (Time) with commissioned music, lyrics in Tamil. That was a big milestone, I was confronting Death which I had never done, plus it was on the ghats of Varanasi, part of a festival by Madhavi Mudgalji. The Ganga was the witness, the “saakshi”. That was a very big step for me. There was another on “Thari” — the Loom, about 75 minutes which was important. I think my first creation was around 1990, called “Fireflies” when I did something projecting miniature paintings on a screen.
Now my new work is on the Bhagavad Gita; it’s about 75 minutes; it premiered in Bangalore in November, then I performed in Mumbai, and the next show is on March 6 in Delhi.
Even when I dance in schools and colleges I don’t reduce my level of dance; I feel even so called not easy pieces can be appreciated if you know how to put your point across. Recently, I put together verses from different places, all written by Bilvamangala, the 13th century Sanskrit poet, who wrote on Lord Krishna, and created a narrative. Another time, I got inspired by a freize I saw in a temple in Mahabalipuram, so I decided to enact what it depicted, and added a Tyagaraja kriti whose lyrics I thought were appropriate, and thus put together a piece that made the freize came alive.
What’s your destination now, at this stage?
I am travelling, I don’t know what my destination is!!
At the moment, I am mentoring three dancers who are committed and hard working, who are thinking more deeply about their dance, who realize they need technique if they really want to express themselves.
Any parting comments on the classical dance scene as
it is today?
Overall, I think dance has become very attractive, but it’s mostly physical, not much soul, doesn’t really touch you. The audience perspective of dance is more passive, they are satisfied with very little. Whatever is happening is all right, expectations are low; over the last 20 years this has increased. Of course I am generalising here. Physicality is applauded, cloning people is applauded; I actually think it’s a disadvantage. Learning dance is very difficult actually, so maybe it’s easier to just copy. No one is soul searching; though the dancers are all looking good, they have great attitude, these are all nice things.
But, the purpose of dance is something more than that, it needn’t be only entertainment. It’s supposed to go beyond the form, to touch. You have to evolve yourself, but it shouldn’t be, because that’s hard you give up. You polish and polish and get this lovely shine, but it’s not lustre.
Classical dance should reflect lustre not shine.
Shailaja Khanna writes on music, musicians and matters of music