Malavika Sarukkai: her disastrous lecture-demonstration that revealed a lot of what Bharatanatyam and classical dances of India are not to become.

Malavika Sarukkai

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Based on a report emailed to us by Latha Sundaravalli – and expanded with further research that proves Latha’s initial perceptions. If you want, you can compare the below report with the Narthaki.com and The Hindu versions

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Her DVD

I would like to share my observations on the first day (12th September) of the National Seminar in Classical Dances organized by Saila Sudha’s “Academy of Excellence in Bharathanatyam & Kuchipudi” (where only mediocre dance students are learning – from a mediocre teacher who has to advertise her dance classes on Kutcheribuzz classifieds). Kucheribuzz reporters don’t even consider Kuchipudi as a classical dance: “Sailaja began this series last year with the focus on Kuchipudi dance. This year, the focus was on classical dances.” Moreover, as you will read below, Leela Venkatraman was convincing us that Odissi is not a classical dance at all.

Not particularly interested in the speeches, I – like many others – arrived at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at 10.45 as the brochure marked this as the starting time for Malavika Sarukkai’s lecture-demonstration on “Tradition- Transition-Transformation“. As was to be expected, Sri M.A.Babu, a Minister for Education and Culture of Kerala, was speaking till 11.10, enormously taxing the audience’s patience who were drinking coffee outside and wondering if this was the “token of gratitude” which Sailaja had to pay for having her group dance at the dumb Babu’s Nishagandhi Dance and Music festival in Kerala earlier this year.

Having watched Malavika Sarukkai for the past two decades, I was hoping to see some kind of explanation of how classical dancers can so innocently drift into the waters of Kathak, folk dance, modern western dance and computer-animated “dance”. My expectation from a lecture-demonstration was a normal one: the points outlined in the lecture have to be demonstrated in the demonstration. As the topic of the Seminar suggested, I expected to hear some concrete points outlining the tradition, the transition, hoping to pinpoint the transformation. Malavika Sarukkai started by urging everyone to switch off their cell phones and refrain from taking videos of her. She then delivered some abstract cliches, and then proceeded to dancing a nritta piece that left me wondering. Wondering what was that “sheer geometry of lines and precise structural “beauty“”! I was wondering not so much if araimandi is indeed “optional” when danced by “professional dancers”,

but rather why some dancers like Malavika cannot do recakas, even though both Bharata Muni and Abhinavagupta said that there is no dance without recakas. So, why would dancers want to learn karate (is this what she learnt in Europe or America?) or the stiff dances like the one from this video. “Try telling her that her dance has problems, and you are dead”, was a remark of an old rasika who was vainly trying to perceive any traces of talukku and kulukku in her dance.

Is the minimalism of Kalakshetra the latest fad? Malavika is not alone in being “a minimalist; she likes to say as little as possible while using the Bharatanatyam vocabulary in a frugal mannerI don’t subscribe to the theory that the a geometrically regular black triangle on the white canvas can in some way be considered as a great piece of art. How would we have known about our dance forms today, had not the Devadasis preserved them for us?” , says Malavika blissfully unaware that the devadasis danced the margi, karana-based, dance because it is only this kind of dance – unlike jazz or folksy Bharatanatyam – that is entitled to be called “spiritual”. Malavika stressed the importance of imparting beauty to each movement. However hard I tried to see any traces of Lakshmi’s imprint, I could not. In my mind, there appeared images of some dancers, the young and the senior ones, such as Alarmel Valli.  I realised that a movement can be filled with beauty if the dancer is truly relaxed, enjoys herself, as if admiring her body, while delicately elaborating the finer nuances of every single movement, turning it into an elegant, effortless and sophisticated expression that is, most importantly, filled with love and joy of offering it to a deity. Essentially, it is a matter of attitude. The attitude that Malavika lost after doing too many performances for foreign audiences and ugly politicians.

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Some Hindu illiterate critics, like Malini White, display their ignorance of the Natya terms (e.g. what is sattva) when they write nonsense like this: the angle of elbow, stance of the foot, the slight inclination from the waist — that made concrete the satvic dimension Sarukkai so values in classical dance Malavika Sarukkai stressed the essential difference between performing mudras mechanically and performing them with a mental “intent” to lend them some “spiritual” power. Either this intent was not there or I did not notice it for some reason.

In this connection, I recollected a story of a man and a brahmin priest. The man paid the brahmin to perform a puja for a newly purchased car. The next day the car got into a terrible traffic accident and the owner was killed on the spot. His wife filed an FIR against the brahmin for “fraud and deficiency in service” and demanded a compensation, which was of course much more pragmatic than Adi Sankara fighting against empty ritualism. Coming back to Malavika’s idea that as long as one imagines something it will surely happen, our personal imagination is, quite on the contrary, most often confined to the realm of our own mind and has no effect whatsoever outside it. Many people with strong imaginations end up – for some reasons – in mental asylums. I remember one person asking Malavika if performing a Jnana mudra would indeed give her any kind of knowledge she wants. You can imagine what embarrassment it caused. While the spiritual effects of the mudras are very clearly described by many scriptures, I am yet to see if any dancer at all can in fact produce any such effects.

Malavika Sarukkai spoke about the importance of placing the Art above the artiste. Yet the nritta fragment, that lacked both the slow and the fast speeds, was filled with tons of stiff ostentatious theatricality and tawdry showiness. Finally, the dancer struck a flashy pose obviously imported from the western dance. “Hello! I am here, look at ME and admire ME. Aren’t you impressed with ME?“, the pose and the expression could not shout louder. Following another dose of generic cliches, Malavika said that everything boils down to one thing: rasa. As a demonstration, a piece portraying Yudhisthira hunting the deers was presented. Remarkably, both Yudhisthira and the deer were moving in much the same manner. If Seetharama Sarma’s sollukattus alone were intended to bring out the Veera rasa, they failed to do it too.

Next, Malavika Sarukkai presented a demo, based on Swathi Thirunal’s composition, that was supposed to bring out the Sringara rasa (see our previous post) and Bhakti. While the singing of the Sanscrit slokas as a prelude did perhaps create some basic atmosphere of sanctity, the karate-like “movements of great beauty” in Malavika’s dance didn’t create any beauty there. If any rasika indeed tasted any Sringara rasa in her demo, I would like to know who it was, and how exactly it happened. Malavika showed her instinctive (or rather, post-traumatic) avoidance of the Sringara in this: “In terms of colour, my costume has changed — from the bright colours with contrasting borders to muted shades” , which is perfectly normal: our pranic body grows more and more dull as we are aging. This is not the first time a dancer, totally unaware of what Sringara is and how it should be expressed, tries to present it on the stage. Not everybody is fooled easily: “A young dancer was dismissive, “Malavika’s abhinaya has no heart.””

Malavika apologized for lack of time to do the demonstration of an item dedicated to… trees and Thimakka. Instead, she took her time to speak that since that woman was barren, she planted hundreds of trees and called them her own children. Even though she confessed, “I simply loved Hrithik in Jodhaa Akbar”, Malavika says she liked the Thimmakka tree item because it was not “man-centric” and did not require any Sringara. I was surprised that nayaki – at least in this ultra-feminist interpretation – did not require any nayaka, defeating the very purpose of the spiritual symbolism where nayaka was actually to signify the Paramatma. I had an odd impression as if she was speaking of her own personal life, godless, miserable, bitter and forlorn (you see in our next post how it made Swarnamukhi convert to Christianity and “settle down”).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”. Perhaps, this explains why her voice sounds as if she had been sobbing and weeping for weeks. “the courtesan finds release from a male dominated world when she reaches the ‘genderless’ space of spirituality. In the action however, what triggers the courtesan’s search for spiritual comfort is the grief of losing a child she loves dearly“.

I looked around and saw billions of materialistic Jivatmas, obsessed with their personal tragedies, dreaming of a happy, socially correct life without a masculist, oppressive and immoral Paramatma in the picture. How can a chronically depressed dancer, like Michael Jackson, transmit any joy and bliss to the rasikas? In the same way as a cripple can take part in the rescue operations in the flooded Andhra, or a schizophrenic politician governing India. Well, that’s Kali Yuga. Trees are not the only substitute objects for atheist Malavika whose defective materialistic brain doesn’t even understand that the Ganga which flows from the Nataraja’s head has nothing to do with the well-known big stream of dirty water in north India: Some of the crowning moments of the recital comprised Ganga’s lamentation “Punar pavitra karega kaun” at the impurities that weighed her waters, constricting her flow.” What hastha did she use for a lonely sanitary napkin agonisingly floating there? “her (Malavika’s) deep affinity with the river whose never-ending manifestations can rival the eternally unpredictable nayika of classical dance”, wrote the modernized Leela Venkatraman, reviewing the ‘Pakistani Pig” in the next paragraph. Well-tuitored piglets from The Hindu can say any nonsense to fill their purses.

A brief questions-and-answer session followed, when Malavika Sarukkai was answering a few simple questions. I didn’t want to embarrass her by asking to demonstrate, for example, the difference between the Satvika and the Angika abhinaya in the context of “Tradition-Transition-Transformation”. One student asked her how she managed to “steer clear of the celluloid“. (Perhaps she referred to the fact that no film maker was inspired to create a wonderful movie with Malavika in a dancing role!) Malavika replied that the flashiness of the movies – with their stress on seductiveness – desensitize our perceptions. While there was some truth in what she said, I tried to imagine how Malavika would portray apsara Menaka seducing Vishvamitra, and I couldn’t. It was as beyond my imagination as imagining the current Queen of England seducing 1000000 eunuchs in India.

The panel discussion was started by Leela Venkataraman, who wrote, “guru objected to her ‘Revealed by Fire’ being a personal trauma put on stage. Watching shows evolved out of personal experiences, some comment that it amounts to self indulgence and they did not come to see a highlighting of someone’s personal tragedy.While some identify many elements from a work as reflected in their own lives, others feel the artiste is trying to project herself as a tragedy queen.

Leela Venkataraman delivered no abstract cliches. Seeing a notorious scandalist V A K Ranga Rao towering in the first row and rubbing his fists readying to start a fight, she did not wish to create any controversies among the mostly Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi aficionados present in the auditorium. In Ranga Rao’s own first lec-dem about Dance in Cinema” he “demolishes the shibboleths erected by educated charlatans and doctored ignoramuses with logic irrefutable“. Seeing formidable blockhead VIPs, Leela wisely chose Odissi as the subject, saying that she could not define what Bharatanatyam is or was, rolling her eyes, staring into the ceiling and blinking much more frequently than she usually does. Strange, as most rasikas would not find it so problematic.

Within about 15 minutes, she pinpointed with amazing deftness the concrete historic facts and elements that created the contemporary Odissi half a century ago. Leela stressed that the nucleus of the Odissi is something inherent to Orissa itself, the local spirit and the local idiom, something intangible and not definable. Strange, as I thought that Odissi’s essence was the Kaisiki vritti as stated in the Natya Shastra.

Leela masterfully outlined the initial routes the development of the contemporary Odissi took, described how particular elements (from Kathak, folk dance, the Gotipuyas’, and what not) were added at what stage and under what circumstances. She reminded us that it is only when Odissi started appearing in the context of the theatre that it acquired the social acceptance, recognition and eventually, popularity. Has something like that happened to Bharatanatyam, or has Bharatanatyam already missed the train? Leela approved the efforts of Nrityagram to incorporate Chhau leg movements into their “Odissi”. She concluded by trying to persuade us that, despite the initial rejection, Ramli Ibrahim’s creations eventually managed to be “accepted” by the Odissi dancers in Orissa.

Aruna Bikshu tried to make a point that “With change in content (like social issues), body kinetics have changed and so have the aesthetics” of Kuchipudi. What she meant to say is that since the dancers no longer were dealing with mythological personalities called “gods” (we know, all the Vedas and everything else are just myths, and Krishna is a figment of imagination of some crazy medieval writers), the moment they started portraying tractors or condoms or plastic bottles they began moving like Malavika Sarukkai does. And when Vempatti Chinna Sathyam removed the Vachika abhinaya from Kuchipudi, he did not realize that automatically he was removing the most powerful medium for the dancers to learn Satvika abhinaya. Now the dancers’ overall abhinaya is as convincing as some 5-year-old’s political speech in defence of Taliban. Another Odissi “innovation” was pinpointed by Madhavi Mudgal: “The dancer also had to be in chowka position throughout, but that’s not in vogue anymore because it’s difficult“.It seems that simplifying everything has been the slogan of the past 50 years: now everyone in a wheelchair can consider herself a classical dancer: it’s no difficult anymore!

It is amusing that a few individuals, who prefer to be called senior dancers and senior critics, imagine that their “elite” opinions alone somehow determine how Bharatanatyam or Odissi is “accepted”, while their names are either unknown or vaguely recollected by 95% of the contemporary Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancers who don’t ever read the Friday Reviews or attend “National” seminars (with 50 local attendees) or ever get mentioned by the press or featured on TV. While the top of an iceberg may imagine it determines its course, in reality it is the bulk of the iceberg, hidden under the water, that is driven by the ocean currents – regardless of what does Malavika Sarukkai .


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