Sumantra Ghosal’s documentary The Unseen Sequence explores Bharata Natyam through Malavika Sarukkai’s dance and creative journey

What’s seen in the art…sprightly movements, statuesque mudras and soaked-in-emotion abhinaya. Elements that make the dance form a visual verse. But there are many unseen layers, which are explored and experienced by artistes and rasikas, who travel inward into the art’s soul and their own.

Director Sumantra Ghosal in his film The Unseen Sequence captures Bharata Natyam from many angles to reach its core. And what better way to focus on the dance form than through its foremost practitioner Malavika Sarukkai’s philosophical, spiritual and creative journey.

Ghosal, who has produced and directed Zakir! — a documentary on the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and The Everlasting Light on Amitabh Bachchan, filmed The Unseen Sequence extensively over two years.

“Bharata Natyam was not the starting point. It was Malavika’s art. The dance became the focal point later. Its depth, its dynamism, excited me,” says Ghosal.

He continues, “I knew nothing of the dance form till one day I was taken to Malavika’s performance by friends. And when I left the auditorium I had decided to document her art for posterity. We met and had several discussions before the camera began to roll.” And it rolled in a very unobtrusive manner. “It was a small unit and an informal setting. You can feel the rasa on reel because Sumantra has captured the energy of stage performances — the art in its most natural setting. Since the shots were not planned it actually made it more difficult for him. He was part of the spaces my art occupied those 18 months…training, workshops, conversations, the creative process and concerts,” says Malavika.

Though she found it difficult many a time to find the leisure needed for the film, there was a thread of continuity. “That’s why the title The Unseen Sequence. I was going through a tough phase with my mother hospitalised. I was busy taking care of her. But the long gaps never came in the way of our understanding and respect for each other, so vital for such collaborations.”

Both were keen not to make it a biographical or an applause film. It is more an account of their personal journey — for Ghosal the joy of discovering the dance form and for Malavika the succour she seeks in its companionship. “Sumantra had his own images of the art and I didn’t want to interfere with them,” says Malavika.

The 98-minute film has been selected by the prestigious Dance on Camera festival and will be screened at the Lincoln Center in New York. According to Malavika, it shows how Indian art draws attention at the international level. “It also proves solo performances continue to create magic and that we all negotiate in our own way to imbibe the aesthetics and take the art forward,” says the celebrated dancer.

At a time when artistes like Malavika are making an effort to preserve living classical traditions, retain their essence in the face of rapid commercialisation and make them engaging rather than allowing them to be a mere spectacle, Ghosal thinks what The Unseen Sequence could do is excite the uninitiated, make the form accessible and demystify the art.

The film will be screened as part of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest on November 16 at The Music Academy at 11 a.m. Free passes (two per head) are available at the venue daily from 10 a.m.

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