The film The Unseen Sequence captures Malavika Sarukkai’s personal and creative exploration of Bharatanatyam

When sauntering up the stairs to the third floor of her guru’s home in Matunga in Bombay as a child, Malavika Sarukkai would get distracted by the aroma of rasam emanating from a house on the second floor. Her mother would call out from below and prod her daughter to run up and reach the dance class on time. This was the voice that guided Malavika through her life and has made her the performing artiste she is today.

These moments between the mother and daughter are not the only ones which come alive in The Unseen Sequence, a film by Sumantra Ghosal, which premiered in Mumbai recently. The film is as much a tribute to one of India’s most profound classical dance forms Bharatanatyam as it is to the person who has embodied, reinterpreted and invigorated it. For the filmmaker, who confesses having been an ignoramus on the subject, the film is about an artiste who has dedicated her life to her art.

The Unseen Sequence opens with a close-up shot of Malavika’s expressive face. It is March 2012 and she is readying herself to perform at the Chidambaram temple to celebrate 40 years of her dancing career. While performing in front of sanctum sanctorum nothing matters to her. Devotees walk in and out of the ancient temple. Some notice the interplay of the arts — there’s sculpture, poetry, music and dance. “That moment suggests the infinite, which is part of a longer sequence, the unseen sequence,” says Malavika.

It is this infinite, spiritual, intangible aspect of life that she strives to seek. “To reach there, one needs to have a sense of wonder. One needs to let go of one’s image and allow oneself to be vulnerable,” she says. At a time when the world around her is chaotic and she is desperate for peace, dance provides it to her, as it does freedom. She avers that she is most vulnerable when she takes the audience through that journey. “This is when I bare my soul open and lift myself away from the world to take flight into a place full of harmony and alignment.”

Director Ghosal says that Malavika is an artiste rooted in tradition but with a unique, contemporary sensibility. “The film is not about her: it deliberates upon the valuable connections and departures that the artiste makes from a hallowed, and often, unforgiving tradition.”

Today, Malavika combines her rigorous training in Bharatanatyam with a personal need for addressing issues that concern her deeply. She has taken up themes that were hitherto unexplored.

After her grandparents died, she decided to confront death through her art as that was the only way she could come to terms with it. What has ensued is a rendition that addresses her concern with ageing and what it means to be a person shedding all the things that adorn youth.

Dance for her is not entertainment. “It is a moment of transcendence that fills my soul.”