A profile of Malavika Sarukkai
By V Ramnarayan
She took the dance world by storm in the 1980s. Even novitiate rasikas of dance were ‘blown away’(to use a contemporary expression), by her dazzling footwork and the purity of her lines. She came as a breath of fresh air into a phase in the development of the Bharata Natyam performance space when aging divas were beginning to exploit their superior abhinaya strength to counter the challenge of slowing limbs.
Already a decade or more into her dancing career after her debut at the age of 12, Malavika Sarukkai was at the time perhaps the most brilliant pupil of her gurus Kalyanasundaram Pillai of the Tanjavur school and SK Rajaratnam Pillai of the Vazhuvoor school of Bharatanatyam, impressing the critic and the commoner alike. She had also been studying the nuances of abhinaya from Kalanidhi Narayanan for some years by then.
Yet even as she electrified audiences with the power and precision of her nritta, Malavika was not yet known for abhinaya excellence. She tended to wear a uniformly intense expression. Her years of hard work had made her a breathtaking performer of aesthetic excellence, but she had perhaps not begun to ask the questions whose answers or the new questions they led to would propel her art into an altogether more philosophical, more emotional new trajectory. It was a prolonged period of consistently high-voltage performances and enthusiastic audience approbation.
Like several of her peers or predecessors, however, Malavika eventually found herself at an inflection point in her life that demanded redefinition of the essential components of her stage performance. In her case, the moment of transformation perhaps arrived earlier than for most, as the rigour of her training and her intensity of purpose appeared to threaten to make her work one-dimensional. She was at that stage of a dancer’s career, when she begins to probe deep within, study her art with a scholar’s intent, foray into the realm of composition and choreography. While her learning stint with Kalanidhi Narayanan should have invested her work with the emotive-romantic content it had hitherto been said to lack, life’s challenges and traumas including the break-up of her parents’ marriage may have led to the kind of introspection that guided her towards the path she has since pursued with utmost commitment. Her quest for deeper meanings, for a mystical sense of purpose, a quest in which she was devoutly mentored by Saroja Kamakshi, her mother and ever-present ally, led to a succession of thematic presentations. These have well and truly established Malavika Sarukkai as a dancer whose aesthetics have transcended the banis she was initiated into and acquired along the way, to a style she can call her own. Her wide-ranging interest in literature and the arts embraced music, serious cinema, painting, sculpture and architecture, and her ability to internalize her learnings from these diverse fields have found expression in successive new productions and influenced her world view.
When we try to trace Malavika’s artistic journey, we can see a pattern of three phases in it. In the first decade or so, she lit up the stage with her beauty, talent and energy, a period when she gave brilliant expression to the lessons she learnt at the feet of her gurus. Then perhaps came a time of apparent self-doubt and inquiry into the validity and continued relevance of her art in a rapidly changing world where all manner of stereotypes were being toppled. Her early experiments with choreography and conceptualization seemed to reflect the conflicts within, partly caused by personal turmoil. Burnished in the fire of the emerging neo-classicism of the period, when explicitness rather than understatement became the watchword on the dance stage, Malavika’s art started undergoing the final transformation into the stark elegance and powerful metaphors we see in her work today. The tremendous support, guidance and critiquing she received from her mother, best friend and critic in this last phase of her career probably fashioned her into the urbane, confident guru ready to pass on her legacy to dancers willing to go the distance.
Over the decades, Malavika, the performer and team leader, has earned a reputation for being a perfectionist with a propensity for thorough and numerous rehearsals before every performance. Her professionalism extends to courteous, caring treatment of her artists, and a refusal to attempt any shortcuts in preparation of her productions. According to V Srilakshmi, every rehearsal is equivalent to a perfect stage performance. “Giving her artists the freedom to improvise during the performance,” she is generous with appreciation when they meet or exceed her expectations. Nandini Anand Sharma, a relative newcomer to Malavika’s troupe, says, “Singing for her is invigorating as she infuses her dance space with energy that automatically gets transferred to the accompanying artists.”
Nattuvanar and mridangam exponent MS Sukhi says, “The coordination between music and dance is extraordinary in her presentations. Mala Akka knows exactly what she wants in music and rhythmic sequences. She knows how to get the best out of each musician working with her.” Srilatha is equally vocal in her praise. She says, “I have learnt from her what hard work brings to performance – the essence of the fine arts and harmony. To quote her, ‘To make something look effortless is the hardest thing to do’.
In the words of Neela Sathya, “Malavika Akka is a master of presentation. Both she and her late mother had a great eye for detail, one of the main reasons for her flawlessly executed performances. Her devotion, humility and untiring efforts have made her what she is today.”
Great artists tend to be ‘lone rangers’, and some of the greatest of them have remained unattached all their lives or have had short-lived marriages. Malavika has been single but never alone, thanks to the unwavering rapport she shared with her mother, enjoying the best of two worlds, both her own space and the companionship of a partner.
She now begins yet another phase in her life. With her mother no longer around with wise counsel and candid criticism, she has to be her own critic and confidant, something she seems to be handling rather well.
And perhaps for the first time in her long and distinguished career, we see in her, flashes of humour and the ability to laugh at life and at herself. She is at that enviable crossroads, still physically fit enough to perform but also wise and mature enough to prepare the next generation of dancers for the journey ahead—in a world that is changing far more swiftly than Malavika’s was when she first came face to face with it. Their future would appear to be in good hands.