Malavika mesmerizes
- A Seshan, Mumbai

October 12, 2009 

Malavika Sarukkai, one of the Mumbai artistes who migrated to Chennai for further training and professional advancement, gave a Bharatanatyam recital at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, on October 7, 2009. The prestigious Tata Theatre was the venue and, despite ticketing, it was well occupied by eager rasikas who have not seen her in the city in recent times although they have heard and read about the remarkable progress she has made in the profession over the years. For this writer, it was of special interest. He had attended her arangetram in Mumbai years back on the invitation of her maternal grandfather, who was a good friend and with whom he used to exchange reel tapes of Carnatic music concerts.  She was then training under Guru K Kalyanasundaram of Sri Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir, a premier organisation in the world of classical dances. This writer cannot recall, at this point of time, the full details of her arangetram but does remember the reviews in the local press, which predicted a good future for her in the profession. Subsequently, he had an occasion to see her thematic presentation at a seminar on choreography at the 21st Natya Kala Conference of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, in 2001. She had chosen the true story of a childless woman, Thimakka, in Karnataka adopting trees and nurturing them to full growth. She had planted 247 banyan trees and created a whole avenue of 'children.'  The idea was novel and it clicked with the audience because of the artistry of the dancer. 

The title of the latest programme was 'Kasi Yatra: The Journey of a Courtesan.' She had successfully presented it in many places in the last few years.  The monthly programme journal 'On Stage' of the NCPA referred to the performance as "a celebration of life at many levels." (Quote)  "The courtesan, a woman of beauty, taste and refinement, comes to life from the pages of an 8th century poem the Kuttanimatham by Damodara Gupta. She moves from the spaces of the courtesan-gendered and male dominated - into the spaces of the pilgrim – gender-free, neutral and equalising. The worlds of the courtesan and the pilgrim are recreated onstage through rich visual poetry. As the courtesan finally joins the flow of the river of pilgrims, the audience finds itself drawn into this compelling journey of self-discovery. Set in Benaras, the story teems with vitality and colour. As the old saying goes: 'Benaras is not a place but a state of mind.'" (Unquote) It is noteworthy that the theme focuses on  a genderless world, not feminism. 

The programme lived up to the expectations of the rasikas. The audience was mesmerized as it closely followed the vigorous performance on the stage helped by the commentaries between episodes. The emoting over the death of a girl that brought about a sudden transformation in the life of the courtesan Varastri was portrayed aesthetically with the strains of Subhapantuvarali in the background. The release of the bird from the cage and its soaring into the skies effectively symbolized the freedom of the nayika from the bondage that had tied her to the mundane world.  She made full use of the stage in her movements. It was obvious that she completely identified herself with the nayika and it helped in conveying the stayibhava at various stages, be it rati or soka, to the spectators. Occasional   lisping of songs and dancing only to rhythm (suddha nritta) were other notable features. Siva’s cosmic dance was executed well. After moving to Chennai she trained under the maestro Swamimalai Rajaratnam of the Vazhuvur School and Kalanidhi Narayanan, the latter for abhinayam. She also had lessons from Kelucharan Mohapatra and Ramani Jena in Odissi. It should be said to her credit that she kept her dance in the pure Bharatanatyam format without bringing in any Odissi elements. Araimandis and muzhumandis, which are fast becoming endangered species in the world of Bharatanatyam, were in full flow. What was  interesting was that  she seemed to have evolved an eclectic style, consciously or unconsciously, that was an amalgam of  the statuesque poses of  Vazhuvur, the typical talukkus and kulukkus (the sinuous movements of the limbs) of Thanjavur and Pandanallur and the characteristic continuity of adavus (without pauses) of Kattumannarkoil.  So it was a delight for the cognoscenti. Appropriate to the Siva-related theme they saw the execution of a few karanas. The stage was bare, devoid of any decoration and aharya was simple but aesthetic. Both these factors contributed to the rasikas’ concentration on the dance rather than get distracted by the peripherals. The script and commentary by the artiste’s mother Saroja Kamakshi were tight. The recital lasted about 75 minutes helping the rasikas to reach home early to prepare for the next working day, an important ingredient of success in sustaining audience interest in a recital in a busy and big city like Mumbai.   

This reviewer would like to make a couple of points, not as a choreologist but as a rasika exposed to Indian classical dance for more than a half century. Bharatanatyam has its masculine (vigorous) and feminine (delicate) aspects – tandava and lasya, as they are called. Although there was definitely scope for tandava in view of the importance of Siva in Benaras, one tended to feel that it dominated the lasya element throughout. Since the courtesan was at the centre of the presentation, the lasya element should have had the lion's share in choreography. In particular, one also found that the pace or tempo of dancing was too fast. A slower movement would have made the programme even more enjoyable. In particular, the quick and fast side-to-side movements of the head looked a little jerky, not in tune with the delicacy that one would associate with a sophisticated courtesan.

The orchestra including Parthasarathi (vocal), Srilatha (nattuvangam),  Srilakshmi Venkatramani (violin) and  Sukhi (mridangam) was very supportive of the dancer. The vocalist rendered the songs with clarity in his melodious voice while the violinist brought out the essence of the ragas in her solo flashes. This writer appreciated the rendering of Kalyani, Khamas and Subhapantuvarali by the vocalist and the violinist in bringing out the bhavas of the ragas synchronising with those of the main artiste. The recitation of jatis by Srilatha was vigorous and vibrant, typical of the Vazhuvur school.  Sukhi was unobtrusive and displayed soft strokes at appropriate places. The sound amplification arrangement was satisfactory in terms of decibel level. On the downside, there appeared to be some lack of coordination between the dancer and the person in charge of lighting. Thus, on a few occasions, the dancer was in the dark area on the stage while the spotlight was on an empty space. There was singing or playing on the violin in the background when commentaries were being given explaining the content of the next item. This made it difficult to follow the latter. It would be better if there is no interruption by any other sound when the commentaries are given.

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.