World of many meanings

World of many meanings

new direction

World of many meanings

The grace and tenderness of the dance form bharatanatyam keeps the acclaimed classical dancer Malavika Sarukkai on her toes, and with every season, she opens a new chapter in her artistic journey. She is known for her creative dance choreography in her spectacular  productions.

She was in Bengaluru recently to present a dance production called Vamatara:  To the Light. The concept of the production rests on the enduring image of the lotus rising from the sludge to the light as a symbol of hope — a validation of the dynamics within classical dance that has allowed for creative freedom.

During this interview with the dancer, what comes across is that Malavika’s passion for bharatanatyam spurs her on to exciting adventures. “We started a new chapter of group work with this production,” she says, “Vamatara was inspired by the many references to the lotus that we have in Indian poetry, sculpture and art. The lotus is a symbol of purity, awakening and beauty. The performance premiered in Mumbai in January, after which we brought it to Bengaluru.”

Malavika explains that inspiration for a piece like Vamatara can take a lot of time to germinate and develop into a dance concept. “It has to take root and the artiste has to live with it for a long time. It then has to shape into various shades of visualisation.”

Ask Malavika if anyone can dance with the skill and expertise of a veteran dancer and she replies, “Dance requires a certain body intelligence and a certain aptitude. For instance, Usain Bolt is Bolt because he has the body intelligence to run. You need aptitude to do something well. There is so much more involved in dance — the co-ordination of limbs and the ability to be expressive, empathetic and sensitive. They have to come together beautifully, and only then can you become a good dancer.”

According to Malavika, the process of mastering a dance form is akin to learning a new language. “As a dancer, you’ll find that for the first five years, you are only learning the alphabets. Then, over the next two years, you might be able to write a composition, but it’s only after 10-15 years of learning dance that you can write a novella. Nowadays, students learn to dance within a few years, but the level of excellence that we are talking about cannot happen instantaneously. It requires hard work, perseverance, and the desire to raise the bar.”

Mother’s touch

Malavika’s journey in dance started with her mother Saroja Kamakshi’s interest in classical dance. “My mother was passionate about dance and I began learning the craft at the age of seven,” she remembers. “I was 12 years old when I went up on stage for the first time. I discovered, over the years, that it takes time to learn the art,  and train the body and mind.”

Keeping her fervour and love for dance alive for several decades has not been easy, but Malavika, who is the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2002 and the Padma Shri in 2003, believes that “life has its ups and downs, but what you do with conviction and passion is what’s important. The life of a dancer involves being a student for a long time. It brings the dancer great delight. Dance can touch the core of your being.”

Malavika has participated in several major dance festivals in India and across the world, and she will receive the prestigious Natya Kala Acharya Award from the Music Academy, Chennai, in January 2017. “Classical dance in India stems from a rich culture. But we may need to re-position our dances without losing our heritage. If we modernise any classical dance, we could lose its soul. It’s so important to have festivals of excellence and curation, and more philanthropists should come forward to support classical dances.”

How difficult is the life of a dancer? “Dance can be very physically demanding,” she replies. “In our days as young dancers, we were not as aware of our bodies as the dancers are now. Today, my dancers make sure they follow other physical fitness programmes besides their dance routines. I do stretches, yoga and strength training. The body is like an instrument. You need to constantly tune it, or it will not play in harmony. Also, you need to watch what you eat, avoid oil and spicy food, and learn to eat light.”

Despite being physically fit, a dancer can face a number of physical problems, she adds. “The body is made to age with time. The overuse of some parts of the body can lead to physical ailments. Some dancers have lower-back, knee and heel problems. You can only maintain your body and accept that it will change with time.”

When not dancing...

Malavika believes that classical dance should be an important part of life as it brings the splendid heritage of the country to the fore. “Everything cannot be about Bollywood,” she says. “If we allow Bollywood to overtake everything else, we stand in danger of losing so much of our culture. Bollywood can titillate, but classical dance can make you reflect on   life.”

When she is not working, Malavika loves to watch good cinema and go on holidays. “I love the mountains, and walking.” Her tips to young dancers are simple: “You need to enjoy it. After some years, you also need to decide if you want to take it up as a profession. A dancer’s life is one of sacrifice, constant striving for excellence, and finding motivation from within.”

As to what dance means to her personally, Malavika says, “Dance is bliss. It makes me reflective. It harmonises my body and mind. It takes me out of the everyday world to the world of the extraordinary. Dance takes me to that centre of positive energy deep within my soul.”

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