Process over product

Process over product

For Malavika Sarukkai, 2014 was a year of introspection. Dance is her life, and its infinite possibilities have excited and inspired her for over three decades.

In choreography and performance, the creative process constitutes the core of her journey as an artiste. In December, however, she donned a new avatar, as the curator of the 14th Natya Darshan Conference in Chennai.

This edition of the conference, called Lotuses Blossom: The Creative Process, located the artistic process within the metaphor of a blossoming lotus, exploring how the artiste’s imagination comes to life in performance. The conference has been co-curated by Hari Krishnan, a Bharatanatyam dancer and academic based at Wesleyan University in the US.

Even in a telephone conversation, Sarukkai’s fascination with the creative process is palpable. “It is an extension of the way I think about art. In creative process, I found a theme that has both vertical depth, giving it profound meaning in art, and horizontal scope, allowing for the interpretation of ideas which are pan-Indian,” she says.

Blossoming with ideas

As a semantic device, the lotus is strewn liberally across classical dance narratives. But Sarukkai found her theme in the Sanskrit phrase ullasita vikasat sarasijam, which translates into ‘the lotus blossoms’. Its evocativeness struck her, and she invited several fellow artistes to respond to the phrase through performances and sharings of their work. In keeping with the interdisciplinary influences on her own work, the conference programme featured talks on painting and sculpture. For instance, the keynote speaker, art historian B N Goswamy, has collaborated with Sarukkai in the past, drawing connections between Indian miniature painting and classical dance.

Lotuses Blossom is set against the backdrop of Chennai’s frenetic margazhi season, a month-long extravaganza of classical music and dance — heavily skewed towards Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. With each cultural space hosting back-to-back performances all day, a conference makes a conscious statement.

Sarukkai sought to find a space for the artiste’s voice. In making the audience aware that there is serious deliberation before an artiste arrives at the final choreography, she finds it necessary to underscore the existence of a creative process. She explains, “Dance has a long history, one that has contributed to the culture of this country. Yet, there is not enough serious attention being paid to why and how dancers create. We have to dispel the notion that dance is just about putting things together. Just as a writer goes through many drafts to write a novel, a dancer also creates many drafts of her work.”

While people come up to dancers and tell them what they felt about a performance, not enough people might actually be listening to thinking, intelligent dancers. Lotuses Blossom dedicates space to the artiste’s voice — and its plurality. “It doesn’t have to agree with everyone, because each artiste is going to interpret this theme differently. And we’re saying that everything is meaningful and that it has a place,” says Sarukkai.

Creative touch

Creativity is spontaneous, but also deliberate. There is a lot of assessing what you do, remarks Sarukkai. For instance, one of the sessions at the conference was a lecture demonstration by Bharata-natyam doyen C V Chandrasekhar, highlighting his solo and group work. Chandrasekhar, who spent a big chunk of his career as a professor of performing arts, first at the Banaras Hindu University and then at the MS University in Vadodara, brings his varied geographic influences to his work. At the conference, he focused on Panchamahabhuta, his choreography on the five elements that make up the universe. At the conference, his session broke down the process of using abstract dance to regard philosophical ideas about the nature of the universe.

Earlier this year, Sarukkai was the protagonist of the The Unseen Sequence,
a film on Bharatanatyam that traced the history of the form through the parallel narrative of Sarukkai’s journey in dance. In the film, there is a sequence in which she mentors the dancer Mythili Prakash. They are working on a description of Shiva, and though Prakash’s back is turned to the audience, Sarukkai encourages her to be expressive.

She emphasises on the connection between the viewer and the performer, constantly reminding Prakash about the audience’s point of view. In capturing this interaction, the film draws one’s attention to how Sarukkai visualises dance as a proscenium performance — and consequently, how she builds a relationship with her audience.

Secrets of a flower

This is the consciousness Sarukkai brings to the conference, where she also premiered Vamatara — To the Light, a performance germinating from the idea of the lotus pushing upwards to seek new, infinite things. The production partially emerges from her association with Goswamy and her fascination with the imagery in miniature painting.

She says, “The lotus stood for many things. The first section is a celebration of the idea; in the second, the lotus represents a deep, silent awakening. The third part is a contemporary, personal statement, which is metaphorical in some ways. Making this has been exciting because it has pushed boundaries for me, and with multimedia, the performance takes on another dimension altogether.”

Sarukkai was invigorated by the challenge of devising a performance that was unlike the usual Bharatanatyam margam, or repertoire. And to her delight, her music collaborators — composers Sitarama Sarma, C V Chandrasekhar and Vanathi Raghuraman — shared her enthusiasm. “Classical dance can be a fairly lonely journey; when you find like-minded people to work with, it’s a great asset. The musicians wholeheartedly threw themselves into the process. It was about finding a new movement vocabulary for dance and then creating a music design that matched that. They had to think hard, but they were responsive,” she remarks.

How does a space for reflection leave its mark in the minds of overstimulated Music Season audiences? Sarukkai is almost poetic about its outcome; being in Chennai during the season is like walking through a thick forest — and the conference is the clearing in the forest, she ventures. In her own life, this moment of contemplation mirrors the reflective phase she is currently in, looking back at what she has created while thinking about what to do next.

And Sarukkai is full of ideas for the future. She is keen on promoting excellence in the arts by mentoring serious dancers who have the potential to dance on international stages. She is also giving thought to making a group performance. Her main agenda, however, is to celebrate excellence. She says, “That is what lifts my spirit. Dance making is a continuous process of creating lustre — and each choreography should be possessed of that lustre.”

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