Malavika Sarukkai converses the way she dances. Her kohl-rimmed eyes are focused, presence poised and passion unmarred. “It all looks so effortless. Doesn’t it?,” she says with a smile. It really isn’t. “There I am on stage, a dead space, alone, with a thousand eyes staring, who think this is a performance, and I have to meditate. I have to use my body as the instrument, transcend it and make those present see the dance and not the dancer. Because beyond that body is the silence, the experience a dancer lives for,” says Sarukkai, 58, who has been feted by the critics as flawless in her technique and abhinaya.
Draped in a pink silk and wearing temple jewellery in silver, she is perched on a big black chair in the lobby of Delhi’s India International Centre. When she makes an arc with her left arm to explain the difference between adavus (steps) and just bare movements, it’s a glimpse into the idea of sitting with her in the alcove of her sanctuary and letting her take us on her meditative journey. Today, at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium, through Thari – The Loom, Sarukkai will reflect on the design and play of the thread and how the journey of a sari becomes a metaphor for life itself. “I give a certain freedom to myself to work with the classical but also expand the range. This is not just through the movement vocabulary but also in concept. Thari is a natural outcome of that,” she says, about her
It was an article in a newspaper that inspired Thari, which was by a sociologist Arti Kalra who had written about the Kanjeevaram sari. “It was a factual description, but within that I saw a concept, shimmering beneath — to explore the design and play of thread. It was as simple as that. Inspiration is like an ambush,” says Sarukkai, who met weavers to understand how the loom functions, its rhythm and how she could work with it in terms of dance. “I have always been inspired to create choreography, but not necessarily from the repertoire I am comfortable with. I have stepped out, taken risks, tried to do things. But I just can’t take off. It has to stir me. I enjoy going outside the narrative of the classical repertoire — the figurative and the descriptive — which is so beautifully done in classical dance,” says Sarukkai. She remembers how a Fred Astaire film, in which people just walk and break into a dance, inspired her to choreograph Krishna. “Inspiration can be from anywhere; as long as it isn’t imitation,” she says.
But Sarukkai has always been drawn to abstraction. Even when she presented shringara, 30 years ago — the man-woman relationship — she didn’t want to do it through Alapadma hasta (fully bloomed lotus mudra). “I wondered if I could, through just movement, arrest the masculine and the feminine. I wondered if there was a way to present it through abstraction,” says Sarukkai.
Thari — The Loom, born out of Sarukkai’s passion for the avant-garde, is also one of her few group productions; Vamatara, being another which she presented last year. “I like the energy of dancing with the younger dancers. But do I like the solo? I love it,” says Sarukkai. She recalls how she had to make an entrance in the rehearsal. “I saw the space and I took it. And the dancers were like, but akka, we have to enter too. And then I realised that I can’t look at this production as a soloist. I need to be sensitive,” she says.
For Sarukkai, who was born and raised in Mumbai and began taking Bharatanatyam lessons when she was seven, dance became her sanctuary. “I was not very happy with the world, the problems and complications. I would come to dance and be free,” says Sarukkai, who trained under Kalyanasundaram Pillai of the Thanjavur school and Rajaratnam of the Vazhuvoor School. She later learnt abhinaya under Kalanidhi Narayanan and Odissi under Kelucharan Mohapatra.
What disappoints Sarukkai at this point in time, however, is that people in India cannot differentiate between mediocrity and excellence. She sees a lot of ‘horizontal’ and not a lot of ‘vertical’ presentations. “Why is an artist after excellence? No one has asked her to do so. As a society, we need to be able to discriminate. Recognise and validate those who are really going beyond the boundary of creative imagination, who have chosen the longer route,” says Sarukkai.