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Malavika's yatra

Malavika has always sought to transcend barriers of culture and religion. In her latest work, Kashi Yatra, the well-known dancer brings to life the spiritual evolution of a courtesan.

Sarukkai: Intense interpretations

MALAVIKA SARUKKAI, one of the foremost dancers in the country, celebrated her 30 years of dedication to dance with Kasi Yatra, premiered in New Delhi earlier this year, and performed in Bangalore last week. It is her intensely personal interpretation of a journey, from the secular to the spiritual, linking classical Bharatanatya and universal issues with contemporary energy. Malavika's creativity has sought to build many bridges, forge many links. This work is the latest addition to a repertoire that has increasingly attempted to transcend the socio-religious parameters of classical Indian dance, while using its culture-specific form to embrace questions of contemporary, yet perennial, relevance.

It was quite by chance that Malavika heard of the eighth Century work, Kuttanimatham, by Damodhar Gupta, detailing courtesan Varastri's life in Kashi, that most holy of cities. Malavika found the account of that elaborate milieu fascinating, but was keen on emphasising that such women were also extremely cultivated (her Varasthri is an accomplished singer, poet, and musician) and the conveyor of cultural tradition. "How would we have known about our dance forms today, had not the Devadasis preserved them for us?"

Typically, Malavika looked beyond the worldly, delving into her fund of spiritual knowledge to illustrate how this woman, though so ensnared in the pleasures of maya, could progress to the higher ground of the soul.

"Kashi is a state of mind. Varanasi is the oldest living sacred city in the world, where the past is a continuing present ... according to legend, the city holds within it the entire cosmos."

Exploring spaces is part of Malavika's creative journey and this work considers the inner dimensions of a woman: first in carnal relation to men, and then as a pilgrim who relates to human beings in a more inclusive way. Kashi is the tirtha that bridges the two worlds, where a crossing over is possible. But usually a trigger is required to set the soul on its quest and, in Varasthri's case, it is the death of a little girl she has known and loved. This was suggested by a personal loss in Malavika's life. Though Malavika is not a strident feminist, the girl child has always been important to her, as are gender issues.

Kasi Yatra also signifies Varasthri's shift from a male-dominated sphere to a gender-free one: the soul's common search is a great leveller, while the body's pursuit remains trammelled with power equations.

Her mother, Saroja Kamakshi, is a strong influence; it was at her instance that Malavika started learning Bharatanatya.

Collaborating with her mother on Kasi Yatra's concept, script, and commentary, Malavika's eclectic sources included her sister's poem, Song of the Bird. Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a writer, and the poem, translated into Tamil and sung as a geetham to end the piece, brings the work into the modern, thereby linking the aspirations of a woman over a thousand years ago, to the personal present.

Varasthri's releasing of her caged parrot is mirrored in the poem's bird, symbol of the soaring spirit. Not only is Malavika very strong on ideas, her choreography, realised in technical brilliance, sums up the style of what she is trying to say. Her unique adaptation of classical Bharatanatya embodies her interpretations of idiomatic forms and ideas, which are imbued with contemporary emotions and awareness. She has also added to the vocabulary of movement, mudras, and abhinaya to evolve with the changing times, while remaining true to the spirit of the traditional form.

But the results are not aggressively modern, that discordant edge that comes through in some contemporary dancers. The gentleness and comeliness that are so evident in her person are also apparent on stage, where one feels that her training in Odissi dance has softened the Bharatanatya style, though she preserves the geometrical alignment and the precise articulation inherent in the form. "Not really. Bharatanatya has come to be associated with a stiff, almost jerky style, but so many of the movements have inherent grace with flowing forms."

Malavika also worked with composer C.V. Chandrasekhar, and her troupe of musicians in a very innovative way, so that the music reflected and enhanced the tone, mood and atmosphere of the various sections of the work. It is this attention to detail in all aspects that make her productions exceptional. Her depth, sincerity and sensitivity result in an inner lambency that permeates her chosen creative field, delighting audiences with the expressiveness, relevance, sheer beauty and grace of her performances.

Malavika Sarukkai's work has arrived at the tirtha of Kasi Yatra, though she will undoubtedly continue to cross into yet more uncharted territory, temporal and eternal.


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