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Malavika Sarukkai: Sharing the larger vision

January 9, 2017

(An edited version of this interview titled 'I do not want to create clones' appeared in The Hindu Friday Review, dated January 5, 2017)

In an exchange with Malavika Sarukkai in the space her dance studio opens out to, with the delightful bougainvillea at the side, its pink blossoms lending a fine touch of colour, I ask her about the latest 'acharya' award bestowed on her by the Music Academy, which comes at a time when she is on the verge of reaching the landmark of fifty years of dancing and 45 years of performing, on the 6th of March. She plans to be in Chidambaram before the Lord to offer her samarpanam.

How does the title of Acharya fit in?
I think it means in the sense of overall contribution to the art form - your legacy and what you have achieved in so many years in the field.

It is as a performing artist that you have attained so much fame. Teaching seems to be a more recent interest.
Not that kind of teaching. But for your information, I did teach youngsters from 'taiya thai' to Tillana, running a school here for ten to fifteen years. I even presided over two or three arangetrams - but with no speeches, no chief guest, no felicitations and no grand invitation cards. Arangetrams have become social events now, and what is really just the beginning of stepping on to the stage after seven years of learning, is being regarded as a concluding glory. But I began to think, "Do I really want to do this?" with students taking to different paths and that was that.

But you are now engaged in some form of teaching. How is it different?
I now work with committed and very intelligent dancers who already have learnt the technique from their gurus. I want them to be made aware of a greater vision of dance. They are willing to put in very hard work and eager to go further (obviously, a very small number). There are not too many dancers who are willing to train and work with the form that hard. Dancers are many, but not everyone will become an artist. Technique works at many levels - and the art to go further must create students who are willing to aspire for that vision of dance, which goes much beyond performances.

I have to find something more in my art than living from one performance to another. That will come. But to feel that magic, that joy of the moment, you have to constantly hear that calling. Ask yourself, "Why do I dance? What does it mean to me?" The next generation has some serious dancers and we have to nurture them. The dancers seeking just performative success would not be looking for this dimension of a deeper experience of oneself. I myself worked for years expanding my own technique and repertoire. It is important for me now to share that vision interacting with the best of dancers. Sometimes in a workshop one sees that spark in dancers for about ten days. But that excitement has to last.

The new word is 'Mentor.' It is gaining currency and even Kalakshetra now has a scheme offering mentoring. What does it mean?
I don't know, for I came to know the word only when a dancer like Mythili Prakash used it. She brings to me the productions that she has created. I work through them with her, offering advice, corrections, suggestions. It is looking at the work with a critical eye -- going through points like how to move, what kind of energy you find and how to invest energy at the core level of dance - every move, how to touch that core and move that energy. It is more than physical; it is a process of awareness and internalization - a mindfulness. Can I dance every moment with that ? Thinking through the art form, pushing dancers to question without fear. With Vadyar, one could not do that obviously. In my interactions with these youngsters we even discuss costuming and presentation details. I guess this holistic approach is what mentoring is - a different approach to training. When I ask them to question aspects, I do not supply them with the vocabulary answering shortcomings. That, they have to look for.

One knows you have exulted in the solo grandeur of having the entire performance space to yourself. Now you are working with groups. How does that come in?
I never do anything I am not convinced about. Mine was a well considered thought- through decision to work with the group form. It is very different. For me in Vamatara I had thought out what would work in the group form. My approach is Solo and Group - not Solo or Group.

How will tradition grow without questioning? Personalize tradition and then question it while keeping the core essence. Unfortunately today we produce dancers from one school who are all uniform - like clones - and even mistakes of a teacher are copied and we are happy congratulating a youngster for being a carbon copy of the teacher! I do not want to create clones. I tell whoever comes to me for guidance, "no copying or imitating me". Dancer should discover himself or herself. You may be influenced, yes, but the dancer has to find his or her own vocabulary, like a treasure hunt. One needs to work till one gets that life breath of that movement and moment. Decorating with too many movements and hastas will hide and make one miss what one is looking for. So we look at what each student has brought as his/her own work and I often say, "Thin it out. There is too much happening here - too much decoration - cut it out."

Speaking at the Natya Kala Conference, I heard you talk of a character like a Deer, and you referred to entering the consciousness of the deer. Is it like Manipuri dancers performing a work on an elephant Moirangsha danced in such a way that one got the feel of an elephant herd moving on stage - not human dancers.
Exactly. This is a very difficult process when self is displaced. That shift when you do the character of Hanuman for instance when you unconsciously put your hand to adjust the tail. So also while enacting a deer's role, I speak of 'deerness', 'treeness' etc. You as a person have been taken over by the other you represent. That abstraction cannot be described; it has to be sought through sheer effort by the performer.

You also said while doing excerpts from the role of the courtesan, that seduction is an easy route.
I, me, courtesan - doing it with a physicality is the easiest thing. It is not like Deerness or Birdness when you want to feel you are flying in the air. Seduction is simple - showing the walk, the fragrance of ether, parading full breasted glory, pre- bath rituals, wet hair, paandaan- getting lost in one's own body. What is so difficult? After bhakti, this is nothing. Bhakti has no gender. It is neutral. You cannot touch it but you can create that energy round you. I want to live that vision I have and make the audience share it. I have to frame expectation, not just seeking janaranjakam. I am not seeking anything else from the art, but just to get there - I have to go in that direction and get my audience to see what I can see.

Every time I need to get there - very exhausting! (after a pause) Tell me, do people really want to see the larger vision or are they satisfied with superficial decorative work? Why are we forsaking great art and going for short cuts? I cannot dumb down my work just to suit people. I tell the youngsters, "Be prepared for the long route." If you are willing to put in that mind numbing effort, this art brings you that body/mind alignment like nothing else - you are in harmony - in perfect sruti. You have achieved that perfect space / time relationship. What is space? You are dancing not in space but with space. It has to interact with space. Having a ring side view of that other kind of art, I want to spread that kind of dance.

Art commentators often criticize the Bharatanatyam 'renaissance' as we like to call it saying that by creating the idea of the idealized body with notions of nationalism also pasted on it as pivotal Indian identity, the reform movement lost the body - having discarded the naturally erotic body of the devadasi.
If anybody says my body has lost its ability to revitalize itself and become dry, thanks to bhakti, I disagree. It is my art that gives my body that ability to enter the other spaces. I find it through my kind of dancing. Sure, eroticism is there. I have nothing against it. But there is more, much more, and unless one has felt it, one does not know. But I am distressed as to why we are still stuck there in time. Why do we not shift? Frankly for me, the Padams and Javalis where the woman accuses the lover, "That finger, that hand that has caressed that other woman, I do not want." I find this is not what I want.

But as a long time disciple of Kalanidhi Narayanan all these compositions were part of your training!
Sure and I enjoyed that period - thirty years ago - mind you, even then I questioned things asking Maami in compositions like "Indendu vaccitivira" what the "Mandaragiridarudaina Kasturi tilaka" meant and she truly believed that it was Krishna whose flirtations were accepted. For me, this was a difficult thing to accept. Tell me why is Krishna mentioned there?

Perhaps to create a feel of comfort which needs no explanation for any action.
Exactly! For me, I can take Krishna and Andal. That is the kind of energy more in line with my thinking. All these compositions "Padakintiki", "Ettanai sonaalum", "Dari Joochhi", "Unnai thoodanuppinen" after so many years are period pieces and if presented as such, they are fine.

By which I am not down playing sringaram. Sangam poetry is wonderful. Through many of its verses one can celebrate Sambhogam and sensuality. What Devadasis and Rajadasis performed living in a context, I do not have to.

What about the varnams? Even there, it is this same mix of bhakti and rakti.
True. The situation is not such a tight grid that you cannot look outside. In the varnam, the musical edifice is so grand that one wants to dance to it.

A senior dancer recently stated that New York finds solo Bharatanatyam boring and that our art form is out of step with the times.
That is the dancer and not the form. I recently performed in New York to rave reviews. It is not the style - but the dancer. Tell me, why does Nrityagram get invited every single year to perform in New York?

They have trained the body to such a level that it speaks to any audience.
Exactly, which is what I said about training the body in the beginning. Make the body speak at any level across cultures.

You have certain ideas which become symbols round which you weave a lot of work. It was the Himalayas, then the Ganga and now the Lotus. Everything you do moves round these.
There are some philosophical seeds which become signposts. Anybody who has confronted the mighty Himalayas knows what I am talking about. As for the Ganga, it is a perfect metaphor for life and today any number of productions on rivers are being created. Working with metaphors is wonderful. When I am passionate to create wonderful Bharatanatyam, I need to take flight - which does not mean escapism. It is just a larger universe in which we have relationships. Dance is relationship at every level and I want to make the audience see it. Which is why I loved my work done round the single line "Astam gatho Ravihi."

What we need today is (Anita Ratnam mentioned the point in Natya Kala Conference) to create an ecology of dance enthusiasts. We need philanthropy not sponsors to nurture dance and sustain excellence and we need people who are willing to give of themselves for this cause. Outside the performing circle, we need to gather people who feel this intangible heritage has to be nurtured. This art form is transient - it ignites with 'Rasatvam'. Let it live.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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