Bharatnatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai
Bharatnatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai

‘Dance gives a deeper sense of peace’: Bharatnatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai

Legendary Bharatnatyam dancer Padma Shri Malavika Sarukkai, in an exclusive conversation with CE, talks about the transformation classical art forms bring within an artiste and in society 

Dancing since the age of seven, Malavika Sarukkai has given more than 50 years of her life to Bharatnatyam and classical art forms. She was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2002 and with the Padma Shri in 2003. She has been featured in many documentaries including a nine-hour television documentary by BBC, titled Dancing. Her life, work and the deeper philosophies associated with classical dance were also covered in another documentary film named The Unseen Sequence – Exploring Bharatanatyam Through the Art of Malavika Sarukkai. Here is an excerpt from the conversation we had with her:

What, according to you, is classical dance? 
In classical dance, one has to become a Sadhaka, a person who takes art form as her Sadhana. It is not a practice of art form alone but it is an attempt to align your body and mind. It is not a mechanical or habituated practice. Dance is a ‘complete’ practice. Sadhana over the decades is about finding yourself as you go along. From the outside, I can train you, guide you and tell you how 
to make your moves perfect but only you can express what dance makes you feel from the inside. It is not just going through the motions. It is that and then plus, plus, plus and so on…

How has dance changed you as an artiste? 
I took up dance when I was very small because my mother was interested in it. Beginning from there, it is seemingly a simple kind of practice. You go to your class and your teacher asks you to do something and then you practice. But as you stay with it; if you stay with it–  and it does not happen always– it’s your inner swabhavam, your inner temperament that begins to change. That’s the power of art. At least for me, it started changing the way I looked at dance. For one, it made me aware of nature. You begin to observe life around you. It also made me empathetic. You need empathy to emote. If you’re on stage, you need to be comfortable with emotion and to emote, you need empathy. I understood relationships because it is also about the human condition.

Do you think classical dance leads to liberation and freedom of expression? 
We need to ask ourselves what we mean by freedom. Is freedom, being able to do whatever I want or is freedom a moment when I forget myself? I think for me, freedom is precisely that moment when I forget myself. When the ‘I’ is not centred. I’m burdened with everything I’ve got.  We are burdened with all this conditioning, all this knowledge, all this... everything that we have accumulated. So when I talk of freedom, freedom is the moment of ‘Aha!’ So what is ‘Aha’? It’s the moment when you’re free of yourself. Classical arts just make you more harmonious, at least when you dance. When you come outside, you can be whoever you are, but in the practice of dance, because it’s so scientific and so balanced. Classical dance is inner and outer. It’s trying to find harmony between inner and outer. If I do a movement like this (extends her arm at a perfect right angle to her body), it has to be….musical! This happens when there is no interruption of the I, Me and Myself– all that burden. So if one can give that kind of Sadhana, classical dance is revealing and transforming. 

When you go see a dance performance, can you see the dance and not the dancer? That is the whole Sadhana of the dancer, can you transform yourself enough so that the viewer sees the dance and not the dancer? This simple sentence takes another 50 years to understand.
Can classical dance bring social change? 
To get somewhere in dance, you need at least 15-20 years. It takes a long time because it’s difficult to get the whole body moving together and in alignment with everything around it. After that, it becomes a choice. Why do you want to stay? After a point of time, you stay because there’s a calling. That is what it has been for me, I cannot say about others. It has taken me in a particular direction. What I want to say with dance, what I want to feel when I’m dancing- it becomes somewhat of a personal experience. It is all about transformation in the end. About social change, I can say that at the most superficial, cosmetic level, dance is and can be entertainment. The divisiveness of the world is in our faces all the time. Dance, in the end, unites us all at a deeper level. It actually says we are all one. There is some other truth that the entire humanity shares. Except, for the most part, we don’t get there. We never go there because we are busy with other things. We are just busy and distracted with all the other emotions in life, whether it’s anger, jealousy, greed and violence and we are just conflicted.

So does it help with the resolution of conflicts? 
It is not a resolution of those conflicts but it shows that there is something else, something that we realise that we had in us. (Pauses briefly) You can say, it is a deeper sense of peace that we didn’t know we had within us.

Do you have something to say about the hierarchy that exists between the guru and the shishya? 
Hierarchy exists everywhere. Even when five people gather for a conversation, hierarchy appears immediately. When something is expected of an artiste, the surrendering is to the art form and not the person. The misuse of power is seen wherever power exists. The alternate is very rare. One also has to keep in mind that these days people expect nothing of dance. The commitment it requires is visible in the amount of time an artiste has given to the art by sacrificing other things in their lives. Breaking barriers, whether they are gender barriers or others can happen when there is a commitment to the art form.

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