Over three days during the last week of August at the Adishakti theatre in Auroville, a group of 10 dancers, will reflect on the many aspects of dance as part of an immersion programme curated by Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarukkai. In its fifth edition, this three-day residency is an “endeavour to create a space where renowned artistes share their vision, passion and practice of dance, and dancers with serious intent can imbibe, observe, question and reflect on dance”.
“It’s about process, not product,” says Sarukkai, 62, recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Padmashri, referring to the programme that will run from 26 to 28 August. “No creativity is possible without process. Why are we, as a community, not addressing this critical issue in everything we do in the world of dance. My intent with this immersion is to take dancers on an adventure, to expand our idea of the world of dance and explore what is it that keeps our passion and madness for dance, alive and constant.”
Sarukkai should know. She has, after all, spent half a century soaked and centred in dance. How does this milestone feel? “Well, let me just say that 50 feels inherently different from 49. I think at 50, a certain calm descends. I feel graced, humbled—and I know that is such a big word, often a cliché—by the intelligence of the dancing body that continues to translate the thoughts of the mind. The body has an acute intelligence of its own and as an artiste, my pursuit has been to constantly fine-tune it. Fine-tuning is all about energy and to touch moments of energy, all through life, is precious.”
For Sarukkai, who was initiated into dance by her mother, Saroja Kamakshi, at age seven, under the watchful eyes of Guru K. Kalyanasundaram in Mumbai, and then moving to Chennai to be mentored by Guru Rajarathnam Pillai and Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, dance has been a constant companion. “When I look back at the years gone by, the 45 years I have spent in Chennai, and the 50 years I have literally immersed myself in the world of dance, it is not the incidents of dance that stand out but the overall experience of it,” she says. “The only way I can feel the passage of time is not by performances but by the depth of intensity that has increased in my dance through the years.”
As a thinking artiste, a solitary reaper who brings passion, courage, conviction and commitment, she has an unabashed attitude to never settle with her dance. “For me, Bharatanatyam is really a language; what I’ve done is I’ve questioned repertoire, explored the language and created my own vocabulary. I believe in looking around and creating work that is relevant to the world that we live in. In that sense, my dance is contemporary, it is in the now.”
Raised by a single parent, Sarukkai has remained singularly committed to the world of dance since she began performing at age 12. “It wasn’t easy negotiating my way through the politics and landscape of dance. Today, dance and my life are much more closely linked; they speak more to each other. But mind you, in my 30s, there were conflicts and friction aplenty; a sense of restlessness and turmoil; arguments with the self and my mother because she was my co-traveller in dance and life…”
In March 2020, soon after the country went into lockdown to prevent the spread of covid-19, Sarukkai recalls a feeling of anguish. As she sat in her living room and gazed at the many trees in her front yard, she began questioning a whole host of things. Identity, for starters. “Before the pandemic, I felt a strong sense of identity,” Sarukkai says. “A classical dancer from Tamil Nadu, with all the constructs of geography and boundaries that define us… and then suddenly, the pandemic shatters these constructs. Irrespective of our identities, we were all feeling the same sense of trepidation and anxiety. That affected me deeply. I’m hoping that that has made me more open to people.”
Flooded with imagery of the chaos and trauma around the world, Sarukkai felt a sense of regret for not having done enough for the planet. As she danced in her studio full of mirrors, with not a single human to witness the dance and offer “response and feedback”, she admits she became once again, a “student and experienced the dance like never before.”
What came from this reflection was a new production, Anubandh – Connectedness. “Anubandh traverses an arc like never before, in terms of music, voices and body language,” says Sarukkai of this full-length creation that begins with the chanting of the Aditya Hridayam and ends with a Dhrupad. “Very simply, Anubandh is an ode to friendship, to humanity and to hope.” This March, exactly two years after the first lockdown, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, Sarukkai premiered Anubandh to a full-house and a standing ovation.
She steps into her garden and we talk about the Champa tree under which her mother loved to sit. “I met a psychiatrist after a performance a few years ago in Mumbai and she told me that she asks those dealing with trauma to stand barefoot and hold a tree to find a moment of calm. Today, I think dance has become that tree, helping me hold my ground and find the stability I need. Dance is that tree for me, always reminding me that I’m meant to co-exist with the people and the planet, and that I am not the centre of this universe.”
Akhila Krishnamurthy is a freelance journalist based in Chennai.