Our paths had crossed more than 35 years ago, in that “I know who she is but she has no idea who I am” sort of a way. Malavika Sarukkai, a Bharata Natyam dancer of extraordinary grace and intelligence who has walked hand-in-hand for over four decades with this ancient dance on mesmerizing and exhilarating journeys through tradition and innovation. And I.
We were on the cusp of young womanhood, at an age and stage in our lives when our hopes and dreams for our lives were taking shape. We were preparing ourselves for what the world had in store for us - and in her case, for what she had in store for the world. We were both dancers - of wildly varying ability, it was glaringly obvious even then - and we were both students of Kalanidhi Narayanan.
It is near-impossible to adequately describe Kalanidhi Maami. She was a delightful contradiction, both the archetypical Tamil Maami and utterly avant-garde, in her thinking, the path she created for herself post-widowhood, the lives she enriched, the art form she nourished and watched take root and flourish around the world.
I can see the bafflement glazing your eyes, dear readers, those of you who are not steeped in the world of Bharata Natyam and its cast of characters. I am sorry. Allow me to take you on a quick journey through the life of this remarkable trailblazer. Kalanidhi Maami was born into a traditional Tamil Brahmin household in 1928. Her parents must have been forward thinking because although it was still an era when it was frowned upon for girls from respectable Brahmin families to learn and perform dance, they had young Kalanidhi trained in music and dance, from some of the best and most knowledgeable teachers of the day. She learned padams and javalis, songs loaded with love and life, with immense expressive possibilities. Her early dance career - which, she admits was not exactly brimming with passion and enthusiasm - was cut short when she got married at the tender age of 16. As it turned out, it was not quite aborted but rather, suspended, that kernel that had been sowed remaining quietly alive somewhere deep within her while she devoted herself to her family.
Three decades passed. The country experienced tremendous upheaval as it underwent a tumultuous rebirth as a new political and geographical entity. Through this, I imagine that Maami’s life carried on steadily, calmly. I have no idea - ours is a culture that is intensely curious about other people but perhaps because of this, we keep the details about our own lives close to our hearts. The only way to satisfy that curiosity is through gossip, prying, eavesdropping. I like to believe that Maami, with her strength of character and her focus on excellence was above the petty world of idle prattle. One did not gossip about her.
Maami never talked (to me, at least) about those 30 years; how and why she decided to pick up the slender, time-worn threads of a long-past dancing life is a mystery to me. This was in the mid-1970s. She set herself apart from the dozens of Bharata Natyam gurus of Madras by specializing in teaching abhinaya (very broadly, the expressive aspect of the dance) for padams and javalis. The word must have got around that she was very good, her classes something special. And here is the other mystery. The dance gurus of the time were a possessive and territorial lot. They expected absolute loyalty from their students; even thinking about learning an item from another teacher was considered an act of betrayal. And yet all the top gurus of the time allowed - encouraged, even - their students to learn from Kalanidhi Maami and many dancers announced themselves to be the students of two gurus, Kalanidhi Maami and whoever their “main” teacher was. Dance programs included items taught by both gurus. Padams and Javalis, those items which seemed to be either about the butter-stealing antics of Krishna or the angst of jilted heroines, were largely the sleeper items in a program filled with more exciting offerings like the Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Varnam and Thillana. But now they became appealing, provocative, electrifying. All thanks to Kalanidhi Maami’s choreography and teaching.
I was one of Kalanidhi Maamis’ earliest students. I was a teenager, at an age when I was far too self-conscious and easily mortified to make the best of an extraordinary experience and education. Maami was like no other Maami I knew. She had a wicked sense of humor and she understood the myriad little nuances of human nature and behavior and was not coy about talking about and describing the most explicit, the most erotic of scenarios.
I was taken aback, the first time we went through a padam together. The padam sang of a heroine flushed and ecstatic after a night of pleasure with her lover. Maami, middle-aged, small-built, utterly non-descript looking, sang the song in a warbly croak and enacted it and then, as if an enchanting spell had been cast, I saw before me a dishevelled beauty with smudged kohl and swollen lips and tender skin marked with love bites. It was completely stunning; I was mesmerized, immobilized by amazement. Did I say that Maami was non-descript looking? Did I really say that? Nothing could be further from the truth because once you saw her eyes, huge, shining storytelling eyes that spoke of love and laughter, grief and anguish, the colorful theatrical landscapes of the Nava Rasas (nine emotions) of classical Indian dance you realized how shallow your notions of beauty had been all this time. She could pick one line of a song and imagine a dozen different scenarios for that line. With just the smallest tremble of her mouth or flutter of her eyelashes she transformed herself from the Khanditha Nayika, the heroine who is furious with her cheating lover, to a Swadheenapathika Nayika, the smug, arrogant one who has her lover wrapped around her little finger with her sensuousness and beauty. From the weepy insecure young woman to the confident older woman, from the exasperated mother to the sniveling daughter, Maami knew just how to bring them to life and how to ignite our imaginations and make us animate these heroines with their endlessly complicated love lives and tell their stories through abhinaya and the language of Bharata Natyam.
This was where Malavika Sarukkai and I “met”. Her lesson was usually just before, or right after, mine, and either she or I would be waiting for the other’s lesson to finish. Even at that young age she had an aura about her, a sparkle, something that made you sit up and take notice. It seemed clear then that she would go far with her dancing.
As indeed she did. That early promise blossomed prodigiously, with both the firm roots of tradition and the spreading tendrils of innovation thriving, the one buttressing the other, everything she touched lustrous with beauty and grace. I have enjoyed her dancing through the years, watched the bright youthfulness ripen into mature sophistication, the struggles and wisdom, the joys and anguish, the skills and training of a lifetime translated and transformed into the stories she danced.
A few days back, I saw Malavika again. Not in person, not on the stage, but on a movie screen. She was the star of a movie, The Unseen Sequence, the story of her life and journey in Bharata Natyam entwined with the story of the life and journey of Bharata Natyam itself. How apt, because for Malavika, Bharata Natyam is an elemental and inseparable part of her being. She has lived this lovely, ancient dance form nearly her entire life and it has shaped and defined her just as she has shaped and defined it. They have each nourished the other, allowed each other to flourish and thrive in ways that only the one would have enabled the other to do. Together, they have grown and spread their wings and soared to great heights, explored exciting new territory. The movie captured all of this beautifully.
It began with Malavika dancing in the great temple at Chidambaram, her offering of gratitude to Lord Nataraja, Bharata Natyam’s omnipotent lord, for his precious gift that made and enriched her life. It was an intensely private undertaking in an extremely public setting and watching her bare her soul with near-manic fervor, I felt like a voyeur, a trespasser into an intimate communion. The unvarnished emotions and raw passions prickled like a burr on sensitive skin.
The movie then took us on an exploration of Bharata Natyam, its broader story as well as Malavika’s own journey. We saw how Bharata Natyam moved from the temples to the courts, its flame kept alive by the Devadasis, highly accomplished women who dedicated themselves to god, the temple and dance. This time-hallowed tradition was crushed into oblivion by the force of the moral censure of the British colonialists and Indian crusaders for reform like Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. We heard Dr. Reddy’s damning indictment of them as prostitutes, and in an impassioned plea to allow the tradition to remain alive, the words of Krishna Iyer, who argued - correctly and somewhat understatedly - that “it is easy to destroy a culture that is a legacy of the ages, but not so to build it up.”
Thanks to the efforts of Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi Arundale and others, Bharata Natyam survived the clash of ideologies, the march of history, and evolved afresh to a less overtly religious art form as it moved to a new platform, the sabha stage. Malavika is part of this moment, this phase in Bharata Natyam’s narrative. And she is profoundly aware that her moment, any moment, is but a brief point in Bharata Natyam’s chronology. To paraphrase her her words that gave this movie its title, “classical dance is about suggesting the infinite in a moment....it’s not just a beat with a beginning and ending, it’s part of a much longer sequence - the unseen sequence.”
Malavika’s dance brims with intelligence, passion and soul. She does not merely move her hands about to depict a tree; what she seeks to convey is something much deeper, much more meaningful. What she wants to characterize is treeness, the very essence and spirit of a tree. She becomes that tree, the life pulsing through it, the wind whispering through its branches, the leaves fluttering, the sharp pain of the chopping machine, whatever it is that she feels it must be like to be a tree. This is why her dance reaches so deep within you, stirring awake some primal sensation that makes the experience of watching her so special, and magical at times.
There is a scene in the movie where Malavika talks about choreographing the Mahishasura Mardini episode, in which the fearsome goddess Durga slays the terrible buffalo-headed demon Mahisha. She struggled with how to portray Durga’s strength, her multiple arms, how to depict Mahisha’s muscular power, the heft of his mace. Her dance had to push boundaries, stretch form, to do justice to the immensity of Durga’s energy, the bloodiness of the battle, the terrifying brawn of Mahisha. Nothing Malavika attempted satisfied her. Then, on a trip to Mamallapuram’s Mahishasura Mardini cave, something clicked into place as she gazed at the Mahisha sculpted onto the granite wall. There he was, wielding his mace; and Malavika saw that his shoulders were elevated just a fraction. That was all it took to show the weight of the weapon and the strength of Mahisha. There was no need for grand, exaggerated gestures, and Malavika knew she had found the right solution to her dilemma. This was exactly what Kalanidhi Maami taught us - that often, the tiniest shift in angles, the most infinitesimal twitch of the mouth, conveyed the message the most powerfully and evocatively.
Mahishasura Mardini cave, Mamallapuram, photo credit Geetesh Bajaj on Flickr
We saw parts of Malavika’s dancing of the Mahishasura Mardini story and I was shaken and stirred by it. I realized, when it was over, that I had been digging my nails into my arm while watching it and that tears were rolling down my eyes. It was that beautiful and that potent, a veritable tour de force.
There were conversations with Malavika’s mother, a formidable grande dame who was Malavika’s most unflinching critic and proudest cheerleader. No part of Malavika’s dance world escaped her scrutiny and engagement and when she scaled down her involvement due to advancing years, Malavika felt her absence keenly. The movie is dedicated to her, Saroja Kamakshi. She passed away last year and I can only imagine the immensity of the void this must have created in Malavika’s life.
And of course, the movie includes conversations with Kalanidhi Maami. What is remarkable is that Kalanidhi Maami said that there came a point when Malavika could no longer do the old nayaka-nayaki (hero-heroine) love padams; she felt removed from those situations, and depicting them felt like a farce. Instead of parting ways, Kalanidhi Maami and Malavika switched to a different gear, moved their relationship and their art forward on a path that was genuine, valid and faithful to her heart, intellect and vision.
The Unseen Sequence is a beautiful movie, deeply inspiring and moving. You might be a connoisseur of Bharata Natyam, or you might be reading about it for the first time, but I am certain you will love it. Do try and watch it.