Dance is the ultimate destination

First published by The Hindu, Bombay Showcase, Jan 9, 2016.

Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Malavika Sarukkai returns to her roots in a week-long series that celebrates her career

Image courtesy Malavika Sarukkai

Malavika Sarukkai is one of those artists who drives you to extremes: you can either love her or hate her. There is no middle ground.

This sentiment is an extension of the work she creates — intuitive, yet well-reasoned — emanating from a helpless love of Bharatanatyam, but held together by her deep engagement with philosophy. Mumbai has a special significance for the Chennai-based Sarukkai; it is where she danced her debut performance four decades ago.

This week, she is back in the city, kickstarting NCPA’s Tribute to Excellence, a new series that showcases the oeuvre of celebrated performing artists. Spread over 10 days and three venues, the series includes two performances, a lecture demonstration, a film screening and a workshop.

The opening of the series, Punar Drishyam, looks back at Sarukkai’s choreographic work. A solo performance, Punar Drishyam is thematically diverse. It ranges from Sarukkai’s interpretation of Swathi Thirunal’s Sumasayaka varnam to an extract from Iccha, which tells the story of Karnataka’s Saalumarada Thimmakka, a homegrown environmentalist who planted and raised 384 banyan trees. How does it feel to plot a graph of one’s artistic maturity in performance?

“The choreographies are representative of my journey. In the dancing, there is an energy I might not have had 20 years ago,” she said.

Sarukkai though is reluctant to call the series a retrospective; her life’s work is far from over. She is ecstatic, though, about the sustained attention it calls to classical dance, and specifically, the artistic practice of an individual dancer.

She said, “You spend a lifetime in search of excellence in dance. It keeps you alert to the possibilities of the form you are presenting. As artists, beyond grammar and technique, how do we make dance a state of being and reach a level of involvement?”

There is a marked difference between viewing dance as a repertoire or a language, a distinction that defines the engagement between the dancer and the dance. This understanding is at the core of Sarukkai’s work.

“We see the repertoire as a structure, and the structure then becomes sacrosanct, the authoritative way of doing the dance. I look at Bharatanatyam as a language, and my aesthetic engagement is with this language. Then one can explore different structures, which feels liberating.”

For Sarukkai, Bharatanatyam is serious stuff. She calls philosophy her “underground preserve” and earnestly speaks of approaching dance with intuition, foundation, passion and conviction. She is also deeply aware of her relationship with the audience, adding nuance to her pieces with the objective of being a clear communicator. One gets a glimpse of this engagement while watching Sarukkai’s life and the history of Bharatanatyam coalesce in the film The Unseen Sequence. Made by Sumantra Ghosal in 2013, it is an unobtrusive record of her creative process.

Sarukkai’s fascination with the creative process doesn’t end at living it. She dissects it with the obsessiveness of an aesthete; it is the subject of the Natya Darshan conferences she has curated for two years during Chennai’s annual Music Season.

“What is creativity and where does it come from? I am eager to know what other artists are thinking about and doing. As an artistic community, we must share our perceptions to keep the art alive and present. Dance must be lived in the moment; that is what makes it contemporary. How we are able to harness that quality through the dance is our journey.”

She is emphatic about the role classical dance plays in present-day society, seeing it as a deliberate stretching of time in an otherwise harried existence, where relevance is directly proportional to utility.

She said, “When we have something like tradition, how do we keep it alive? The arts are transient: once a concert is over, the dance ends. How do we learn to savour the art, rather than consume it?”

Sarukkai also premieres her first group choreography as part of her reworked production Vamatara — To the Light. As a solo artist, she is used to creating and executing pieces with her own body. Working with a group represented new challenges. She had to work with different minds and energies, realising that the choreography changed, taking on new dimensions when others danced it. There is also the task of weaving improvisation into set choreographic work. Speaking of Neeraja, a piece inspired by the pichwais of Nathdwara, she said,

“When I think of lotuses… they feature in so many pichwai paintings. If I have observed them somewhere they will come through in my dance. When one is completely at ease with the concept and subtext, one can improvise. But one’s foundation has to be strong to let these influences filter through.”

For Sarukkai, after four decades on stage, dance boils down to its essentials. Its inherent spirit of discovery keeps her going. She is eager to pass these principles on to her students.

She said, “I tell them, when you get on that stage, dance for dance. That is the process, and that is the destination.”

A Tribute To Excellence — The Artistry Of Malavika Sarukkai will be held from January 9 to 17 at the NCPA, Fine Arts Society and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. For details, visit

(The author is a dance critic and co-founder of Dance Dialogues)

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