As a film on her does a round of limited screenings, Malavika Sarukkai reflects on where her dance is taking her.
For live practitioners of any form to confine themselves to the technology ridden medium of film or television is not easy. What does the trick though, is mutual trust, or so Malavika Sarukkai found during the making of “The Unseen Sequence”, a film by Sumantra Ghosal. Not only was there trust and respect between the dancer and the filmmaker, says Malavika, who was in New Delhi for the screening, this week, but “his whole approach was that he wanted it in the context of dancing. He never wanted to shoot a film. So every shot was live. He wanted the warmth of the dancer, the spontaneity of the audience.”
Had it been a case where the scene was set and then she had to dance, it might have become tedious, says Malavika. Shooting for the camera is different, she points out. “Everything is pre-determined.” Here, “Sumantra wanted the texture of dance. I never felt watched. It was very unobtrusive filming.”
She had no idea how he was going to put the film together, “But we shot in good faith. You can get into deep trouble if you don’t trust your collaborators,” she adds. Also, it was shot over a relatively long period of 18 months.
Accommodating the demands of the stage rather than film, the dancer notes that Ghosal used technology to bridge the gap between stage lighting and film lighting. Interestingly, the filmmaker was not a dance connoisseur but the two artists were brought together by mutual friends, and having seen her concert he was inspired to make a film. “He also interviewed my gurus,” she says, naming Gurus Kalanidhi Narayanan and Kalyanasundaram Pillai. “I’m so grateful that he got them to speak.”
Since the film was completed over a year and a half, it also marks a significant chapter in her personal journey, during which she lost her mother, who had been her companion and artistic mentor. When her mother was ill, Malavika would “disappear” to look after her and she credits Ghosal for keeping up the momentum of the work. “It was a very traumatic year of my life. This film marks that year in a way, a very crucial year.” Malavika’s mother, whom she calls not merely a supporter but a partner, also appears in the film.
Recognised as a serious voice in the vast array of Bharatanatyam exponents, what does Malavika feel she can offer to younger dancers who are inspired by her example? With her busy performing career it is hard to imagine her getting much time to teach. “I am teaching senior students who want to do serious dance, who want to go beyond the performative — dancers who have the stamina to come along with me,” says Malavika, who has in the past, she says, taught students from the basics up to arangetram level. “Actually I enjoy teaching,” she admits. But they did not pursue dance. “So be it,” she adds. For years, she stopped teaching altogether, until Mythili Prakash came to her.
Now she finds more young dancers, in whom, like Mythili, she senses “a great thirst”. They are “looking for more depth, more of the verticals,” feels Malavika. “I think this in itself needs to be encouraged. I’ve done some 40-plus years of dancing and I have to share, to reach out. Finally one has to do it for dance. In our own way we have to give back.”
In her attractive way of finding metaphors for poignant situations, Malavika says when she lights the lamp in her puja room, “there’s a small well oiled wick, and sometimes it catches so perfectly, the flame is like a pearl. And often I’ve thought, that is transference: to be able to light — ignite is too strong a word. When you take the matchstick away the flame burns on its own.” Similarly, the young dancers so mentored would be on their own.
“Then it’s their responsibility to imprint in their generation, something,” she smiles.
In her own work, Malavika says, she has moved consistently form the “performative” to the “experiential”. And in her own pursuit of verticals, she can see that works she created some two decades ago she has now outgrown, as in her approach to shringara. Today, she says, it is Andal’s love for Krishna that she would like to perform. She has performed “Maname Vrindavanam” based on the saint poet’s “Nachiar Thirumozhi” and hopes to bring it to Delhi some time. “Andal’s bhakti is so different. It’s like a clear lake. And when you internalise something so much, it changes you.”
Today she says she dances “to touch moments of transcendence”. With the Chennai season coming up, as lots of dancers prepare to premiere new productions, Malavika is not planning anything of the sort. “I want to continue to make my art experiential.”