Malavika Sarukkai spoke to V Ramnarayan
Why are you still going on after 40 years of dancing?
It has been 41 years since my arangetram, and at least four years before that. Why does one dance still? There’s a certain sense of maturity, a sense of intensity one acquires in time. If you are engaging with your form, technique and all that, then you go on.
If I am still in dialogue with my medium, in conversation with my dance, as long as that is happening, I’ll dance. The moment I think I am not in dialogue, if it has dried out, then I’ll stop. That will be the time to say no more.
This is an awkward question. You lost your mother not long ago. I have seen people who were devoted to their partner, spouse, parent, blossom after the passing of that person they had been caring for. It is as if it were a release. Did that happen to you?
I really had to turn the page after my mother passed away. It was a transition point after I lost my partner. Ahead of me is a great deal of energy and excitement—to dance, to create, to choreograph. It’s coming back. After my mother’s illness, watching her go through it, I’m turning the corner. Dancing is therapeutic.
I was very fond of my mother; looking after her, spending time with her, meant a lot to me. But caregiving takes its toll; it is not easy. Even if you love your parents very much, want the best for them, it’s a physical, psychological strain. Dealing with the reality of ill health is tough. For many months I did not get over the shock of it. What I’m beginning to feel now is a lifestyle change, as if I can write a new chapter. Suddenly I have all the time to put whatever I want into this chapter. I can now completely devote myself to dance, to choreography, thinking, teaching, writing.
I miss her tremendously, miss having her sit by me while I am rehearsing. She was that somebody who’d comment, critique my work, talk to me about philosophy. There is a great absence. How I’m going to fill it, what I’m going to do is yet to be seen. I am finding myself.
At least physically, isn’t it difficult to go on at your age?
It is physically more demanding 41years after my debut, but I have kept myself fit by dancing. The longest break was after my mother passed away. I didn’t dance for four months. It’s now a time to rejuvenate.
There may come a time when you are not enjoying it any more?
I’m finding a new energy when I rehearse, when I’m practising. It’s astonishing. There’s the age factor. After all I’m 50. It’s also a question of temperament. It’s a question of technique, the kind of training you’ve done. It is how positive you are. I think as long as I have my conversations with dance, at a very personal level, there is the energy. I still feel a sense of wonder. Today, we had this long rehearsal in the morning of the ras, something I have done so many times. Yet there was so much of wonderment, not just enjoyment, but living in the moment.
How have you evolved as a dancer over the decades?
There are so many stages. As a student you’re learning movement, space, body work. Then there’s the dancer stage, when it comes much easier. And then there’s choreography--you’re opening out, other things affect you, the world around you, and there’s a certain maturity. Then there’s the artist stage of a much deeper, more vertical thinking—into your dance form, into the language you’re working with. That’s when you’re able to contribute something. It’s not merely performative contribution. There’s a certain maturity and involvement, you’re having a conversation with dance. You ask yourself: How much are you personally engaging it? What does it mean to you to dance, to keep alive that sense of wonderment, the seeking?
How often can you achieve that?
In any art there are moments, some days when you touch a high. But sadhana, the whole thing of practice is to be so in tune with yourself that you are prepared, waiting to touch a high. Sadhana is preparation for it. If you are not prepared, if the yoga of body-mind does not happen, then you don’t get to that high.
When I train dancers, I say, “Where is your mind when you are dancing? What is happening to the mind?” It’s a different way of looking at dance. Engaging with the younger generation I do believe that the kind of training I want to impart, or what comes easily to me, how I speak about dance, is to tap their resources, not to imitate me.
Was there a time you imitated?
Yes, as a young dancer, yes. I used to see Yamini Krishnamurti, Lakshmi Viswanathan, all those padams, the way she did stars in the night sky. Things which Balamma (Balasaraswati) did sometimes, things which leave an imprint on you. Whether you’re imitating or not, somewhere it stays with you. It is natural for all dancers. Then you move on with it. When you’re learning as a student, it is necessary to imitate, to get it right. Then you can be a little more open with it, and change perhaps.
How did you feel towards your guru? Is this complete guru bhakti a given or is there scope for thinking of your guru critically?
Perhaps the previous generation didn’t do it. Now dancers are certainly doing it. The whole guru-sishya situation is changing. The way I teach students is very different from the way I learnt from my guru. It is changing rapidly.
Are your education, where you are socially, your breeding and theoretical learning connected to your art, the factors determining this change? How is it different from the way your gurus taught you, saying this is the way, this is the sampradaya?
There was a certain fixed attitude the way Guru Kalyansundaram Pillai or Guru SK Rajaratnam taught me. And I valued it. It was fine that they taught us, taught me like that. I appreciated that. At that time I needed someone to say “This is the way you must do it”. I was not asking questions, even of Kalanidhi Mami, when I was learning from her in the late 1970s. She was on this real journey of discovery in dancing. We had the most unique kind of sessions, because she was herself growing and finding herself. It was so exciting. But yes, the teaching methods have changed; I can speak for myself. My mind is contemporary. My articulation is contemporary. The way I analyse my dance style is contemporary.
Also you have performed before varied audiences all over the world.
Again it goes back to cerebration. As a dancer I ask myself many questions, on technique, interpretation, movement. I ask myself, what is space today, what am I doing with the space, what do I want to do with the space? I guess it’s unique to each person: How do we create our style? What I am dancing is a very different style from what I learnt from Sri Rajaratnam or Kalanidhi Mami. I have shaped it differently.
How do you make sure that the changes you make or happen by themselves are still rooted in tradition?
It depends on how much you value tradition, the value, the abundance of tradition, how strong your foundation is. And also on how imaginative you are, and the risks you take. When you are very imaginative, you’re taking risks. You have to come up with the right vocabulary. It means tuning yourself to what is tradition, what is this bharatanatyam language. You need to be very alert, very critical of yourself, not believing everything you create is wonderful. You need a very critical mind, which says this works, this doesn’t. My mother played this very important role. She sat and looked at the rehearsal and said, this works, this works better, this doesn’t. But now I have to do it myself, so I need to be more alert to myself. It’s tougher. How does one learn to create something without crossing tradition or moving too far away and doing something else? It is just the love of tradition, passion, to say this is my tradition, I respect it for what it is.
You need to push boundaries with attention, a certain care and thoughtfulness. The tradition is very precious. And I don’t want to throw it around, but rather gently unfold it. When I choreograph, whatever it is I choreograph, does it resonate? I want my art to create some kind of resonance. I don’t want it to be just performative, certainly not at this stage of my career.
You have a number of male followers, men who attend your lectures and ask intelligent questions. I think it is an unusual thing for men who are generally less informed about dance than about music.
Maybe my work is more cerebral and that engages them. There’s thought behind what I do. Women by and large are more emotional. Perhaps men don’t go so easily towards emotion. Because my work is both emotional and cerebral, it engages people of different types.
People are hesitant, inhibited, when they watch classical art. When an artist is able to get past the so-called barrier, our technique and our language are very eloquent, communicative, reflective, then it doesn’t matter. They all find something to appreciate. It is the quality of the dance itself, the ability of the artist to find it, find the quality that is so communicative. When I am training dancers, I tell them, don’t concentrate so much on the hasta as if it were the end-all of it. It’s just a highlight. You have a movement and a hasta at the end of it. Sometimes there’s so much preoccupation with the hastas that it turns into dumb charades. You can’t blame the dance for it.
What I’m saying in a nutshell has come through years of internalization. It’s deep within. That somehow affects the dance. There are no easy, quick steps.
How does it work in a world where you have to earn a living, make a career of it, be financially stable?
You have to have undying faith, undying passion.
Have you never lost hope, never doubted…?
I had my lows like all artists. You go down, down. Against all those odds, through it all, one has to have faith, love dance itself, just dance, enjoy the moment, and dream.
Did you dream that you wanted to be the best dancer in the world?
To be rich and famous?
The rich part doesn’t come with dance. I’d certainly like money, like all the comforts. When I was in my 20s and 30s, we lived very frugally, my mother and I. We travelled 2nd class by train, lived on a very tight budget. All we wanted was to have the grace of art in our lives. Both of us thought alike. I wanted to be known as a good dancer rather than popular.
Doesn’t fame matter?
I was driven by excellence, constantly raising the bar for myself. That is what pushed me in a direction. Coupled with that, I had a mother who never ever told me to make dance janaranjaka. She spoke to me about philosophy. She was always talking about the deeper aspects, other aspects that affect dance. She never said, make it entertaining and get popular. I never went in that direction. What has been reaffirming when I look back is that I could produce the work I wanted. I want to be celebrated as an artist. You don’t have to be popular to become famous, if you do serious work and are committed to your values. To be celebrated on the international circuit, that was really something.
Having been an artist people look up to, I don’t want to compromise on what I believe. That has been my biggest success. To be able to say I’ve been able to go in my direction and be famous, celebrated, and all the rest. This is what I want to tell younger dancers.
Would you call it an obsession, your involvement with dance?
Maybe, yes, it can sometimes get obsessive, but it is more a passion.
You must be a difficult person to live with then…
No, that is not true. I lived with my mother for many years. It worked very well. We were a very unique kind of mother-daughter. It isn’t as if we didn’t have scraps, arguments. Every relationship has all that. But by and large, our train was the same. We were on track, stable.
How old were you at your arangetram?
I don’t suppose you’ve had the kind of friendships that other children have?
No. just recently I went to my first film festival, at last. I went to MAMI in Mumbai. It was so exciting. I was seeing another aspect of living. I watched films non-stop for five days. I went to Irani restaurants with my friends, and we had bun-maska and chai and all that. We walked around, went to the club to eat food. And it was lovely. I missed out so much on the normal things all those years because it was dance, dance, dance.
This question of dance being a spiritual quest and all that. How is it different from gymnastics or ballet? Is it because Bharata Natyam is based on our mythology, epics?
We call spirituality by different names. A ballerina may call it ecstasy. We use the word spirituality to describe the body-mind sync. The I, ahankara, is not predominant. When it gets displaced, when ahankara is not centrestage, you feel a moment of the spiritual. I’m training myself to be able to find these moments when I want to be displaced. And that is a moment of sacrifice, when you’re willing to say that the I will be displaced. That moment is a delight. It is prayerful. It’s deep consciousness, tissue memory, body memory that goes all the way down. For me it’s that moment of delight, of spirituality.
It doesn’t matter what rasa you’re playing, sringara or bhakti or whatever?
It could happen in pure dance. Today when I was rehearsing I found a new energy in my dance room. We had no power, no fan. I was sweating it out, my musicians were sweating it out, but we were all carried away. It was not the angasuddham. I am talking beyond angasuddham, of energy in the body. Can a dancer, an artist evoke sattvik energy rather than rajasic? What we see in most concerts is rajasic energy.
Does that include energy from the audiences?
They play a part.
The spiritual quest has been a constant in your several efforts.
I find that expression bandied about a lot. The self-forgetfulness you speak about doesn’t seem to happen a lot, at least in music, though on the day it does, it is fantastic. I suggest the reason that spirituality can be ascribed to art rather than say other activities like sport is perhaps that in art, in dance, at its best, you are not competing with anyone. There may be an occasion when a sportsperson is completely at one with his activity, but he is still trying to get someone out or defeat someone. The very nature of sport is competitive. Would you agree?
Yes, that seems a fair description, but so much depends on the temperament of the artist. It’s not as if music per se or dance per se is spiritual. Till you seek it, you wait for it, you are willing to prepare for it… if your objective in dance is something else, it doesn’t happen.
The popular interpretation of spirituality in dance is perhaps the textual content, in Rama and Krishna?
When I say spiritual, I’m not talking of gods and goddesses. I’m talking of moments. If I find it by doing the song of Krishna, fine, but I find it in pure dance. It’s just the harmony, the alignment of the body and mind coming together.
How do you define bhakti from the point of view of your art?
A few days ago, I was trying to edit my Andal production Maname Brindavaname. I was working with my musicians. Everytime I felt that this bhakti was so different from the bhakti of the nayanmar.
Speaking of Andal, how do you equate eroticism with bhakti?
That is such a big question. It takes years of sifting through what you feel, to be able to put sringara and bhakti together. It is very difficult. When we say sringarabhakti, there’s more surrender. It’s a question I have pondered a lot. When I read Andal, I see the bhakti in the lyrics in a way I can’t in a Kshetrayya padam.
Reading AK Ramanujan has affected me a lot. When I read When God is a customer, whose poetry ranges from Annamacharya, to Kshetrayya to Sarangapani, I realise that some poetry is filled with bhakti, while some poetry is pretending bhakti. As an artist you have to plumb deep.
Speaking of Andal, Rukmini Devi’s Andal would be so different from my portrayal or one by Mythili Prakash. We are talking of the essence of Andal, not Andal, the person. I sometimes wonder while doing a description of Krishna, I wonder if I know what he looks alike, and then realise that I don’t know. What we are actually getting to is the essence.
What does the metaphor of Krishna mean to you?
Sometimes it is just a moment, the essence of Krishna. I think sringara bhakti as an emotion takes a long time to intermingle sringara and bhakti. To do it separately is much easier. As a dancer matures and starts asking questions, she is more comfortable with sringara. Because you have done so many padams, you have a vocabulary, and you can do bhakti separately. But when the two have to intermingle, it is a very fine nuance. It took me years to be able to locate it, and be comfortable with it. When I became comfortable with it, I started asking questions. At which point does sringara bhakti actually manifest itself? There are many points of supposedly sringara bhakti, and I asked, "Where is this sringara bhakti?" because I had certain associations with sringara bhakti. It took me years to feel comfortable with that emotion, that state of mind. What you are suggesting in say a Radha is a state of mind. I have taken my time understanding the emotion of sringara bhakti.
When do you think the understanding came about in dance that this is sringara bhakti, not just sringara? When did people start interpreting the higher purpose?
I think it really represents the temperament of the artist. It’s also the artist’s own evolution what the artist is thinking. You could ask, "Why is it a person like Balamma could touch it so easily?" Another person of her background or age group might not have found it. I think it is an individual finding it in each case.
And it doesn’t have to be found by all artists. Some artists may actually be more comfortable with sringara. I think it depends on your style, your temperament.
What did Rukmini Devi do that people found so objectionable as the sanitizing, brahminising of sringara?
I know there’s been such a discourse, and cross-talk about it. I think she did what she felt she had to do at that point of time. Did it have relevance at that time, did it make a statement, did it have a lasting power? It did, whereas when I trained with Kalanidhi Mami, it was so different.
What you are doing now in dance is different from what you learnt from Kalanidhi Narayanan, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s very different. Mami was a contemporary of Rukmini Devi, but was into this whole world of padams and all that she had learnt from her gurus. I think Rukmini Devi's temperament made her take it in her way. She was a pathbreaker in many ways. She was defining the dance form. When you read the tempestuous conversations between E Krishna Iyer and Muthulakshmi Reddy, there was a great confrontation. It’s all history for us. We don’t know the actual tension of it, which this film Unseen Sequence on me does touch upon.
Have you personally felt awkward portraying eroticism?
I think eroticism is really such a state of mind. Your state of mind dictates the moment. It moulds the moment differently. In my own example, I’ve done a lot of sringara, where I am taking my dance to sensuality, not eroticism. There’s a great amount of sensuality to the body that we can bring out. Why not celebrate the body? Celebrate it, but sensually. If I am thinking erotic and I want to seduce the person in the first row, then I am going to look very different.
When the lyric is explicit, how do you deal with it?
There’s a question of choice, deliberate choice. Many many years ago I was in this world of sringara and love and emotions, and I said I want to do something different in sringara. Most of the pieces we do are all about viraha, about wanting but never being there. I said, I want to do the moment of sringara. So what do I do? I said, pure dance. I stylize it, take it through the pathway of pure dance, suggesting coming together, suggesting passion, masculine-feminine, ecstasy, even burning desire. Do I want to take sahitya that says this, this and that? I said, no. I don’t want sahitya at all. I’m going to explore with movement, I said. I use the body’s design of sringara as a unit, and rhythm. You can do a lot of things with rhythm for sringara. The first time I did it, people went, wow how did you think of it? I said I’m just exploring what I have and I am using my alphabet differently. I could suggest passion, sensuality, and ecstasy all through pure dance, which gives the audience the sense of sambhoga without making it erotic. Because it is the way I think. It is there to discover, to find. What do you want to do with it? When I did Khajuraho in Sacred and
Secular, there was obviously so much sensuality. But when one is doing sensuality one has to be very alert to oneself. And make sure that one is on that fine line of the sensuous, not succumbing to easier, more popular notions of sringara. You need the discipline of the body and mind to say I’m here and I’m not going to move.
We have to keep at it. After years I find that the mind has to have a very fine rigour, whether it’s in interpretation, in editing something that one has done, or technique. We stay on course, so that we actually do something meaningful.
Is it the purpose of art to uplift?
Classical art at the very core gives you and the audience those moments of flight which are so precious and are so honourable. You have to be alert and waiting for it.