Cover photo – Malavika Sarukkai in the Huffington Post
The film as eulogy makes for a skewed portrait, because artists are never one-sided, even in performance. I remember being mesmerised as I watched Malavika Sarukkai dance some years ago, but I also remember her snapping out of her dance to dramatically point at someone who was recording her performance from the back of the auditorium, an unseen person whom she proceeded to loudly admonish. Yet, when I walked into the screening of Sumantra Ghosal’s film, The Unseen Sequence, I was mentally prepared to deal with an unrelenting, neatly photoshopped eulogy of the artist. Perhaps it was – there was no counterview to the filmmaker’s clear, unbridled admiration of Sarukkai’s work. (I am not sure, though, if the absence of a counterview bothered me – after all, it was a portrait of the artist through the eyes of the filmmaker.) What nailed it for me was that the admiration was not merely an assertion of the artist’s brilliance; instead it coursed through a very critical view of her process.
It’s important to note that the film is not a biopic of Sarukkai; Ghosal attempts to unfold the history of Bharatanatyam and his own journey towards understanding it through Sarukkai’s life and work.
The Unseen Sequence begins with some footage of Sarukkai performing at the Chidambaram temple. Here, she is just another worshipper, dancing in the temple courtyard. Around her, devotees and priests go about their business, only a few stopping to watch, and some cutting across her performance space. The voices of her musicians are drowned out by other ambient sounds, and at one point, the temple bells begin to clang. Here, Sarukkai slowly shifts from the rhythm and pace orchestrated by the mridangam to that of the temple bells.
The film takes us to her childhood. Sarukkai studied with guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai in Bombay and simply hated dance class. She goes over her past with her mother, who has always supported and managed her career. Sometimes, one is almost embarrassed – there is a scene where Sarukkai, in the manner of a little child, kneels down in front of her mother and has her plant a kiss on each cheek – such moments seem almost too intimate to be viewed publicly.
Kisses done, we follow Sarukkai from rehearsal to performance, tracing her choreographic techniques and her interpretation of dance poetry along the way. For instance, she elaborates on the multiple layers she sees in the javali Nee matale mayanura, where her portrayal of the courtesan, arrogant and assured in her dealings with lovers, is still trapped within the contexts she inhabits.
Watching Sarukkai mentor the Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash is one of the high points of the film for me. Prakash and Sarukkai are working on a description of Shiva, with snakes coiling around him. Prakash’s back is turned to the audience for most of the scene, and her challenge is to be expressive even though the audience cannot see her face (and sometimes, her hands). Sarukkai has a keen eye for detail, transforming the choreography by emphasising on certain movements, all the while speaking of the scene from the audience’s point of view – she is careful about ensuring that the connection between the viewer and the performer is not lost.
The film also beautifully captures the vulnerability of the dancer. In the Mahisasura Mardini stotra, Sarukkai lists the challenges of conveying the mythological proportions of Durga as a solo dancer. One particular problem was showing Durga’s ten arms. Sarukkai addresses this by using her arms to draw two frenzied arcs around her body, gradually slowing the arcs down to distinguish between the arms and depict the ten objects Durga holds in those arms. Finally, having established Durga’s magnificent being, Sarukkai suddenly stops moving. In that moment, Durga is her – fierce, majestic and unconquerable. But Durga is also Sarukkai – and when the camera zooms in – we see her in awe of what she has created, an awe manifested through the fleeting tremors in her body, the sweat pouring down her face.
To conclude, I want to bring in something I hear occasionally – that articulating process is a ‘contemporary’ indulgence, unnecessary and flippant in the world of classical dance. Articulation doesn’t always mean that one puts words to movement or gesture – there are many other ways. But if you want to know how the idea of process is relevant to classical dancers, the Unseen Sequence is a film you must watch.