HT Brunch Cover Story: One of India’s greatest dancers, Malvika Sarukkai, is facing her biggest challenge
Twenty minutes before the world premiere of her latest production, The Battle Within, Malavika Sarukkai, ‘India’s greatest living dancer’ according to pre-eminent art critic B N Goswamy, stands alone in her green room, warming up.
It’s November 2, 2019, and Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru, which seats 1,100, is overflowing with fans and admirers. Two Dutch dancers say they timed their India trip to take in the performance. A kathak troupe has flown in from Ahmedabad to see exactly how “Malavika-ji will make the ephemeral personal.” Local dance students in matching saris flit around like excited butterflies, wondering how Malavika will contemporise the gestures and movements of a dance form that goes back to the Natya Shastra, a second century CE treatise.
Malavika, 60, seems unconcerned by the weight of the expectations surrounding her. Alone in her green room, she stretches and sways meditatively, her face serene. She bends and touches her toes, and does dozens of squats. What she is doing, she explains later, is emptying herself so “a higher force” can enter her body. “You have to tell yourself that you are not important,” she says. “You have to displace that ego so that you feel bliss, so that you can convey bliss.”
As the second bell rings, nudging the audience inside, Malavika approaches the makeshift altar on the dressing table. There are photos of her late mother, Saroja Kamakshi, along with a few Hindu gods. She picks up the heavy dance anklets placed in front of the gods, touches them to her eyes prayerfully and dons them. She then walks to the wings and stands still, as she must have done countless times on stages as diverse as Jacob’s Pillow, Sadler’s Wells, The Kennedy and Lincoln Centers, Southbank Centre and the Théâtre de la Ville.
This solo production of hers is based on the Bhagavad Gita or the Lord’s Song, Hinduism’s most influential and beloved scripture. Part of the Mahabharata, an epic story that describes two warring clans and ends in bloodshed and woe, the Gita plays out as a conversation between Arjuna, the despondent warrior, and Krishna, his charioteer and teacher. The late great Indologist J A B van Buitenen described the Gita as a way to “bring to a climax and solution the dharmic dilemma of war.” Deeply philosophical, the Gita is daily reading for countless Indians who seek its edicts for clarity of thought. Malavika’s late mother, who passed away six years ago, was one of them. “In the last years of her life, she read the Gita constantly,” says Malavika.
Dance of thoughts
Acknowledging its influence on Indian philosophical thought is one thing, but how would Malavika convert an ancient scripture into the physicality of dance? The cornerstone of the Gita is what Hindus call the Viswarupa: when Lord Krishna reveals himself in all his glory to Arjuna, when he says, “Behold: I contain the universe within me.” How would Malavika showcase this climax featuring an omniscient Krishna?
“An easy approach is to show the Vishwarupa with a lot of sound and light effects,” says Praveen Kumar, a well-known dancer-teacher in Bengaluru. “Malavika chose the hardest route in that she used the physicality of dance to depict the story and the feelings.”
Physicality, intent and perfectionism are terms that come up constantly in conversations about Malavika. Beginning at the age of seven, Malavika learned Bharatanatyam from stalwarts belonging to two schools: the traditional Thanjavur school with its firm geometric footwork and the softer Vazhuvoor style. She also learned bhava or facial expressions from Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan. After performing for 20 years, Malavika went through a purge in 1986 when she questioned everything she had learned. “Bharatanatyam’s inherited repertoire (margam) is very man-centric,” she says. “The woman is pining and waiting. I felt uncomfortable about this. It felt inauthentic.”
Malavika soon moved away from the crowd-pleasing god-stories that were the staples of traditional Bharatanatyam performances and took on larger issues that dealt with trees, ecology, rivers, Shakti – the female power, and handloom weaving. “What I learned from my gurus was a style. But as I worked on my dance and internalised its patterns, it became a language for me,” she says. “A language that I can interpret in my own way while staying rooted in the classicism that I love.”
This upending of tradition happens in subtle but significant ways. “It was very important to me to have a female voice sing the part of Arjuna the warrior,” says Malavika. “To show a combination of strength and vulnerability.” An easier approach, given that both the players are men, would be to feature two male voices. Living with the Gita for seven years allowed Malavika to see its spirit, not just the story. “Krishna and Arjuna can represent our little self and the more evolved self,” she says.
Malavika’s greatest strength is her ability to contemporise Bharatanatyam in a way that even classicists can admire. She never dumbs down the dance to suit her global audience. While the Gita verses are translated into English and displayed on the screen, the emotions and stories are conveyed through the dance, sans background storytelling or spoon-feeding.
“This is a very ambitious production – perhaps an ode to herself before her physical prowess wanes,” said Asha Rai, a journalist. “Certain sections of the production, like the dasha-avatar, could have benefited from another dancer to portray Bali, Ravana – the villain, if you will.”
To be fair, solo performance was the norm in Bharatanatyam. All the yesteryear dancers Malavika admires, such as T Balasaraswati, Sanjukta Panigrahi and Yamini Krishnamurthy, were solo artists with occasional forays into ensemble productions. While Malavika does ensemble productions – the last one, Thari: the Loom, was an ensemble cast of five dancers – and collaborates with scholars and artists from different disciplines, her primary calling is that of a solo artist. “With an ensemble production, the challenge is to design the space and interact with other dancers. But my life’s breath is presenting in solo,” she says.
This is not to say that Malavika does not collaborate. She has had a long-term collaboration with Dr B N Goswamy for the NCPA in Mumbai, where he talks about art and she dances as illustrations.
She also draws inspiration from filmmaker, Sumatra Ghoshal who made an award-winning film, The Unseen Sequence, on Malavika and her dance. “Malavika is an outstanding dancer and an outstanding mind. She has the ability to articulate ideas on process (which isn’t necessarily common among artists),” says Ghoshal.
Soul of the universe
Author Ravi Ravindra’s book on the Gita was hugely influential, Malavika says, in drawing her deeper into the Gita. Malavika went on a five-day Gita retreat with Ravindra, and then sat with the book for months, choosing verses that she felt would work as a dance narrative. Out of the 700 verses, she ended up choosing just 15. What grabbed her though was the crisis that the warrior, Arjuna, goes through.
“The Bhagavad Gita took me to universes inside myself, universes that I have not seen. I have been dancing, feeling, inhabiting emotions, being inhabited by emotions. But not like this. I would hit a suspended terror of going into these emotions but somehow because of divine intervention, I would get pulled out. It was like a resurrection actually,” she says.
Sai Shravanam, who won accolades for his work on films like The Life of Pi, did the sound design. “What differentiates Malavika akka (elder sister) is her openness and trust in the process,” he says. Most Indian Bharatanatyam performances, even ones that tour abroad, have about a dozen layers of sounds, says Shravanam. For The Battle Within, they created 40 layers of sounds with 77 tracks.
“What I try with every production and rehearsal is to bring shruti [the tonal background that forms the foundation of Indian classical music] into my body,” Malavika says. “Where I align myself so that the dancer is forgotten but the lustre of dance shines through.”
(Author bio: Shoba Narayan is an HT Brunch columnist and a Bengaluru-based author, who has won several awards for her works. She writes about art, food, fashion and travel. Do read her column This Indian Life in this edition.)
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From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020
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